Christmas 2005 Edition

Aisle Seat Holiday Wrap-Up Part 2

From 24 to BACKSTAIRS AT THE WHITE HOUSE, Andy's Full Coverage of the Newest DVDs!

The countdown is on: just a few days left until Christmas, and more than a few DVDs left to review! Though this will be my last “official” column for the year (I have a special interview that will run beginning next week), don’t forget to check in with our Aisle Seat Message Boards over Christmas and New Years to discuss the latest movies, DVD sales and more. I wish you all a very merry Christmas, New Years, and a safe and happy 2006 -- and before we go, here are the final reviews for what’s been a most productive, and satisfying, year that’s about to come to a close...

New TV on DVD

BACKSTAIRS AT THE WHITE HOUSE (1979). 444 mins., Acorn Media. DVD FEATURES: Companion Guide with Producer Comments and Historical Timeline; Photo Gallery; Full-Screen, Dolby Digital mono.

Back when TV mini-series were blockbuster events crafted by top-flight talent, producer Ed Friendly brought this marvelous, four-part dramatic series to NBC.

Based on the memoirs of White House maid Lillian Rogers Parks, “Backstairs” tells the story of an African-American mother, Maggie Rogers (Olivia Cole), and daughter Lillian (Leslie Uggams) who work at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue from the turn of the century through the early 1960s and the beginning of the Kennedy administration.

Through it all, the Rogers serve a succession of administrations, from William Howard Taft (Victor Buono) and Woodrow Wilson (Robert Vaughn) to Warren G. Harding (George Kennedy) and Calvin Coolidge (Ed Flanders), Herbert Hoover (Larry Gates), F.D.R. (John Anderson), Harry Truman (Harry Morgan) and finally Dwight D. Eisenhower (Andrew Duggan) -- not to mention their respective First Ladies (played by Julie Harris, Kim Hunter, Celeste Holm, Lee Grant, Jan Sterling, Eileen Heckart, Estelle Parsons and Barbara Barrie, respectively). Employed with them are a collection of stalwart workers who pay attention to each and every detail, including Lou Gossett, Jr., Cloris Leachman, Leslie Nielsen ad Louise Latham.

Although there are a small amount of soap opera elements in “Backstairs at the White House,” this is -- as Friendly points out in his booklet notes -- the “quintessence of ‘docudrama’” that shows the dramatic changes in the American landscape through the eyes of everyday working women at the White House. Gwen Bagni and Paul Dubov superbly brought Lillian Rogers’ memories to the screen, while director Michael O’Herilhy received ample support from his cast. The performances of Cole and Uggams are nothing short of wonderful, and though some of the “Guest Star” performances are a bit over the top (Harry Morgan shows up and basically plays himself, for example), the entire production is first-class, informative entertainment -- the sort that truly no longer graces the airwaves today. In addition to the superb lead performances, special mention should be made of the moving score by Morton Stevens, one which is ripe for rediscovery and worthy of its own release.

Acorn Media’s four-disc box-set contains the entire mini-series in satisfying full-screen transfers and Dolby Digital mono soundtracks. Extras include photo galleries and short cast bios, as well as a booklet featuring a heartfelt remembrance of the show by Ed Friendly, an essay by White House Historical Association President Neil W. Horstman, photographs, and a historical timeline. Highly recommended!

24: SEASON 4 (2005, 1052 mins.). 24 Episodes, Fox. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: 16:9 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound; Season 5 Prequel Bridging Seasons 4 & 5; Cast/Crew Commentaries; Deleted Scenes; 4 Featurettes; Music Video.

It doesn’t get much more exciting on network television than watching Kiefer Sutherland take on terrorists each week on “24.” While fans wait patiently for the fifth season to begin in just a few weeks, viewers can catch up with the latest exploits of CTU agent Jack Bauer in Fox’s seven-disc box-set of 24's fourth season.

Having been a big fan of the series since its first episode, Season 4 represents some of 24's strongest hours: this time, Jack is out to once again track down a nefarious terrorist plot that threatens us all, but it’s one that especially twists and turns throughout the 24 episodes of the fourth season. New to the show in season four are William Devane as the Secretary of Defense Heller and Kim Raver as his daughter (and Jack’s new love interest); an Arab-American family with a role to play in the plot masterminded by Habib Marwan (played by “Mummy” star Arnold Vosloo); and the rousing, applause-worthy return of hero Tony Almeida (Carlos Bernard) several episodes in.

“24" has plot holes to spare and its share of cliches, but in terms of sheer suspense, no show on the air right now grabs you and keeps you spellbound the way this series does on a weekly basis. Sutherland’s taut performance anchors the series, and the supporting cast in Season Four is the finest yet: Vosloo projects a chilly, icy terror, while Oscar winner Shohreh Aghdashloo essays one of the creepiest tough-love mothers you’ll ever encounter (too bad her role in the show abruptly ends about midway through the season). Sutherland’s chemistry with Bernard and Reiko Aylesworth (as Tony’s ex-wife Michelle Dessler) is also back in full form, and former President David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert) also works his way back into the fold eventually as well.

Though the show runs out of steam somewhat towards the finish line (a common complaint among 24's four seasons), this is perhaps the most satisfying season of all for 24, and viewers will likewise savor each and every episode on DVD. Fox’s seven-disc set offers the requisite selected commentaries and deleted scenes (39 of them, in fact!), plus four behind-the-scenes featurettes, a music video, and -- best of all -- a Season 5 “prequel” that will bridge the events between the end of Season 4 and the new year starting up in January. Like the show’s rabid fans, I can’t wait!

STAR WARS: THE CLONE WARS, Volume 2 (2005), 64 minutes, Fox: Single-disc release houses the second batch of Cartoon Network “Clone Wars” cartoons, finishing off the small-screen adventures of Anakin Slywalker and company. As with the previous DVD release, these five-minute (or under) segments have been edited together to form a dizzying, at-times jumpy assortment of cliffhangers that should still delight Star Wars aficionados. (And it’s not the end, either, as Lucasfilm recently greenlit a whole season’s worth of longer “Clone Wars” animated episodes). Fox’s DVD includes a gorgeous 1.78 widescreen transfer, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, and a bevy of supplements, including a Making Of featurette; commentaries with director Genndy Tartakovsky and others; concept Art Galleries; and as many video game demos as one could imagine.

New From Sony

THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE (***, 2005). 122 mins., PG-13, Sony. DVD FEATURES: Commentary; Deleted Scene; Three Featurettes; Extended Version of the Film; 16:9 (2.40) Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital.

One of 2005's surprise box-office hits is an absorbing, fascinating hybrid of courtroom thriller and supernatural shocker.

Jennifer Carpenter plays a college student possessed by an entity that tortures her and torments her religious family; Tom Wilkinson is the understanding priest who frees her soul in an exorcism, only to later face criminal charges in connection with her death. Rising attorney Laura Linney takes Wilkinson’s case, despite doubting the priest’s claims that there are forces beyond this world on both sides of the spiritual coin.

Based loosely on a reported true story that happened in Germany several decades ago, “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” is a superbly-acted picture that’s anything but a re-run of William Peter Blatty’s genre benchmark. Director Scott Derrickson and his co-writer, Paul Harris Boardman, have fashioned a disturbing character drama that’s particularly fascinating in its portrayal of possession, as well as the nature of evil and faith. It's shocking to see a movie in this day and age actually provoke an intelligent discussion of these subjects, and yet “Emily Rose” does just that. Linney, Wilkinson, Carpenter, and particularly Campbell Scott (as the prosecutor) are uniformly excellent -- and in regards to the latter, the movie does offer an alternative explanation to Emily's plight that seems completely plausible, despite the supernatural elements in the picture being played up.

Vividly shot by Tom Stern and creepily scored by Christopher Young, “Emily Rose” is also somewhat disjointed. The beginning of the movie seems a bit rushed, as if large chunks of it had been cut (there should have been more of Emily's background and Laura Linney's first few meetings with Tom Wilkinson). Thus, you never really feel an emotional connection with Emily -- nor do you really feel for Linney and her questioning of faith as much as you might have. Sony’s DVD does restore three minutes of footage related to the case, and while it improves on the theatrical version, I still felt even more material could have been added, enhancing the drama.

Despite its shortcomings, “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” is unquestionably one of the finest genre films that has been released in some time. Highly recommended.

Sony’s DVD, available this week, offers commentary from Derrickson that discusses the “real” Emily Rose case, three Making Of featurettes, and one additional deleted scene. The 2.40 Widescreen transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound are both superb.

GODZILLA: FINAL WARS (***, 2004). 133 mins., PG-13, Sony. DVD FEATURES: Featurette; 16:9 Widescreen (2.35), 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Ryuhei Kitamura’s direction fuels this unabashedly over-the-top monster fest: an over-stuffed “Kaiju” with Godzilla rushing to save the Earth one more time after a group of seemingly benevolent aliens turn out to be frauds ripped right out of the “V” playbook and seeking to conquer the planet.

This 50th Anniversary Godzilla film met with polarized reaction from fans: some thought the movie was a mess, but others embraced the craziness, outlandish characters and reliance on special effects. Make no mistake, you need to be a Godzilla fan to enjoy “Final Wars,” but I have to admit that I was captivated by the monster battles (and there are plenty of them; everyone from Rodan to Mothra and even the American Godzilla show up!) and found the usually tedious human sequences to be more fun than not, thanks to Kitamura’s stylized direction. The movie moves along fairly well considering its bloated length, and while the effects are far from Peter Jackson territory, there’s just something refreshing about the “anything for entertainment” style that Kitamura employs in this movie. G-fans, likewise, will appreciate the musical motifs from a bevy of Toho classics, not to mention the reappearance of Minya, “Son of Godzilla”!

More accessible for casual Godzilla aficionados than some of the more somber ‘90s productions, “Godzilla: Final Wars” even offers a fairly cheesy, ‘80s-styled synth score from Keith Emerson, plus a rowdy, fan-pleasing finale. Monster addicts shouldn’t miss it!

Sony’s DVD offers a terrific 16:9 transfer that’s the best-looking of all of Toho’s imports to reach the digital realm on this side of the Atlantic. The 5.1 Dolby Digital sound is offered in both Japanese (with optional subtitles) and an amusing English dubbing, while some 18 minutes of behind-the-scenes footage rounds out a disc that’s wild, wooly, and great fun for those who can get into its spirit.

Just In Time For Christmas: A Mark Wahlberg Double Feature...

FOUR BROTHERS (***, 2005). 108 mins., R, Paramount. DVD FEATURES: Commentary by John Singleton; Four Featurettes; 9 Deleted Scenes; Trailer; 16:9 Widescreen (2.35), 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

THE YARDS (**½, 2000). 115 mins., R, Miramax/Buena Vista. DVD FEATURES: Director’s Cut; Commentary by James Gray and Steven Soderbergh; Three Featurettes; Concept Art; Original Director’s Commentary; 16:9 Widescreen (2.35), 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

John Singleton’s “Four Brothers” was promoted as a tough-guy urban revenge picture, which to some degree it is, but that marketing was ultimately misleading: Singleton’s film is a well-balanced mixture of action-suspense and introspective character drama, with a good amount of humor peppered into the mix.

Mark Wahlberg, Tyrese Gibson, Andre Benjamin (best known as “Andre 3000" from Outkast) and Garrett Hedlund play four “siblings” who return home to their foster mother’s funeral after she (Fionnula Flanagan) is gunned down in a convenience store hold-up. Flanagan, a former hippie, had spent her life placing troubled youths, only failing in finding homes for four youngsters whom she ultimately raised as her own (and guess which ones they happen to be!).

Now back in Detroit, Wahlberg, Gibson and Hedlund try and work the streets to figure out what happened to their beloved mom, while Benjamin -- now married with kids and a future in real estate -- struggles with the violence he knows is about to follow.

Exciting, well-performed and with lots of energy to spare, “Four Brothers” compliments its pseudo-western premise by being an ensemble piece marked by strong characters you really care about by the film’s end. This seemingly disparate “family” functions as well as the real thing, with the colorful banter between Wahlberg, Gibson, Benjamin and Hedlund feeling as real as possible given the film’s genre conventions. As usual, Singleton excels at the movie’s pacing and action scenes, while David Arnold’s dynamic score works with a flavorful (but not overwhelming) assortment of ‘70s soul tracks to perfectly convey the mood. Definitely recommended!

Paramount’s DVD offers commentary from Singleton, nine deleted scenes culled off the workprint, and four Making Of featurettes. The 16:9 enhanced transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound are both superb (film music fans will note that Edward Shearmur receives a notice for “additional music” in the end credits).

Also out this week from Miramax is a new Unrated Director’s Cut of “The Yards,” director James Gray’s 2000 “Godfather-on-the-rails” drama, also starring Mark Wahlberg as a recently-released ex-con who returns home to work with Uncle James Caan and his control over a corrupt contracting business.

Joaquin Phoenix (as Wahlberg’s buddy), Charlize Theron (Wahlberg’s cousin) and Faye Dunaway (his mother) co-star in this atmospheric, moody but unrelentingly grim film, well-scored by Howard Shore and shot by Harris Savides.

Miramax’s new single-disc DVD includes an Unrated Director’s Cut that boasts the same running time as its theatrical version, plus a fresh commentary with Gray and Steven Soderbergh, deleted scenes, a Making Of featurette (“Visualizing The Yards”), and a “roundtable discussion” with the stars and director. The original DVD supplements have also been reprised, including Gray’s solo commentary, promo featurette, and theatrical trailer. The 16:9 enhanced transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack are both just fine.

...and a Jessica Alba Double Bill as well!

FANTASTIC FOUR (**½, 2005). 106 mins., PG-13, Fox. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Cast commentary; Video Diary; Deleted Scenes; Making Of featurette; Music Videos; Trailers; 16:9 Widescreen (2.35), 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital sound.

Colorful, somewhat contrived adaptation of the Marvel Comics franchise suffers from some questionable casting and uninspired direction.

Ioan Gruffudd is Reed Richards, the brilliant scientist who convinces rival Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon) to fund a journey into outer-space so Richards and his team can study a passing meteor storm. As anyone who might have flipped through the pages of the Stan Lee-Jack Kirby-created comic knows, the storm turns Richards into Mr. Fantastic, his future love Sue Storm (Jessica Alba) into The Invisible Girl, her brother Johnny into a veritable Human Torch, and tough guy Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis) into the ever-lovin’ giant The Thing. Together, they form a family-oriented team that takes on “Doctor Doom”’s nefarious plans in order to save the city of New York.

The “Fantastic Four” had a well-documented, troubled journey to the silver screen: Bernd Eichinger’s Constantin Film initially worked with Roger Corman to produce an ultra-cheapie, unreleased version in the early ‘90s. With that monstrosity out of the way, the rights ultimately reverted back to Marvel, who teamed up with Fox and Chris Columbus’1492 Pictures to produce this serviceable, lightly entertaining adventure.

Under the guidance of director Tim Story (“Barbershop”!), “Fantastic Four” is good fun for the kids, and a decent time-killer for everyone else. The movie takes its time getting going, and the Mark Frost-Michael France script isn’t particularly appealing, but the movie still manages to work just the same. Gruffudd, Chiklis and Chris Evans (as Johnny Storm) all perfectly embody their Marvel counterparts, but Jessica Alba is less than convincing as Sue Storm (too bad they bypassed Rachel McAdams, who reportedly tested for the part, and would have provided a far more interesting presence). McMahon’s Dr. Doom, meanwhile, is also a disappointment, looking like he’d be better off serving up villainy on “The O.C.” or McMahon’s own “Nip/Tuck” than a genre film like this.

Fox’s DVD is a single-disc Special Edition with plenty of content: commentary from the cast, a Video Dairy, deleted scenes, Fox Movie Channel segments, and a “Making Of” featurette make for a competent array of special features. The 2.35 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital/DTS sound are both as robust as one would anticipate, while John Ottman tries to contribute a more upbeat super-hero score than the norm (and succeeds with a decent, though not especially memorable main theme).

INTO THE BLUE (**½, 2005). 110 mins., PG-13, Sony. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Commentary; Screen Tests; Deleted Scenes; Making Of; 16:9 Widescreen (2.35), 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Okay, so Jessica Alba as a scientist/super-hero was less than convincing. But Jessica Alba as a bikini-clad scuba diver? Now that’s more like it!

Director John Stockwell’s uncredited remake of “The Deep” (though Peter Guber is listed as an executive producer) serves up colorful locales and Alba and Paul Walker as the treasure-seeking couple who stumble upon a fortune in cocaine while diving along the bottom of the sea. Scott Caan is Stockwell’s brother and Ashley Scott portrays his main squeeze, while James Frain appears as the drug czar in search of his lost cargo.

One of MGM’s last productions and a box-office disappointment, “Into The Blue” nevertheless offers an entertaining slice of escapism. Alba and Walker look the part, and the Matt Johnson script fortunately doesn’t really require either to do much in the way of acting. The Shane Hurlbut cinematography is just right and Stockwell edits a few effective action sequences along the way. A real guilty pleasure, “Into The Blue” is just the right tonic on a cold winter’s night, with attractive leads and enough action to get by.

Sony’s DVD, out on December 26th, includes commentary from John Stockwell, no less than 10 deleted scenes with optional commentary, screen tests and a Making Of featurette. The 2.35 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound are both excellent.

Roger Corman Strikes Back

A few months ago, Roger Corman inked a new deal with Buena Vista to handle his library of B-movie favorites on DVD. Buena Vista’s first batch of Corman discs were released last week, offering solid Special Edition packages of several New World cult classics.

Top of the list are two staples of ‘70s cult moviedom: the silly 1975 actioner DEATH RACE 2000 (**½, 78 mins., R) and the teen favorite ROCK ‘N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL from 1979 (***, 84 mins., PG).

“Death Race 2000" is best known as the movie in which David Carradine races Sylvester Stallone in a manic cross-country event set...of the year 2000! (Cue the Conan O’Brien music here). Paul Bartel’s campy, deliberately off-kilter film was violent for its day, but today it’s pretty tame and unintentionally amusing whenever it’s not trying to be intentionally humorous. The Buena Vista DVD offers a retrospective featurette highlighted by interviews with Corman, actors Martin Kove and Mary Woronov, and writer Charles Griffith. Woronov and Corman also provide an audio commentary, while the movie debuts in 16:9 widescreen for the first time (and make no mistake: the film still looks cheap...just as clear as it possibly can!).

Allan Arkush’s manic “Rock ‘N’ Roll High School” stars “Halloween” vet P.J. Soles in the liberating tale of a group of cooky kids who rebel against the tyrannical rule of a new principal. Sole and her pals (Vincent Van Patten, Clint Howard among them) recruit The Ramones to strut their stuff in this highly entertaining pic, one of Corman’s most satisfying productions, co-produced and written by Joe Dante and Michael Finnell. BV’s Special Edition offers numerous extras culled from previous laser/DVD editions, including commentary with Arkush, Finnell, and writer Richard Whitley; audio outtakes, radio ads, the original trailer; and adds a new commentary with Roger Corman and co-star Dey Young, along with a retrospective look back on the production. The 1.85 widescreen transfer looks better than I recall the film looking before, and the 2.0 Dolby Digital mono sound holds up fine (note that this DVD is NOT enhanced for 16:9 TVs, though the packaging states otherwise).

Also part of the Corman “Early Films” roster is a special edition of BIG BAD MAMA (**½, 84 mins., 1972, R), the Angie Dickinson-William Shatner exploitation epic that reprises the previous New Concorde DVD release (retrospective featurette, commentary and trailer; full-screen, 2.0 mono sound); and DINOCROC (2004, 85 mins., R), a more recent Corman production about a prehistoric bad guy who takes on former would-be heartthrob Costas Mandylor in a bland, direct-to-vid creature feature with B-movie vets Charles Napier and Joanna Pacula, but sadly has little to recommend it. The 16:9 transfer is okay, as is the Dolby Surround 2.0 stereo, and no special features are included.

Also New From Buena Vista

CHICAGO: The Razzle Dazzle Edition (***½, 2003). 113 mins., PG-13, Miramax/Buena Vista. DVD FEATURES: Previous DVD extras (commentary, deleted scene) plus new “From Stage To Screen” documentary; numerous new musical performances; VH1 special; 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital sound; 16:9 (1.85) Widescreen.

The long wait for the John Kander-Fred Ebb Broadway musical to reach the screen was worth it: 2003's Best Picture Oscar winner is a breezy blast of musical entertainment with a memorable score and zesty song sequences.

This faithful adaptation of its source has Renee Zellweger as a nightclub-wannabe who's imprisoned for murdering her lover. Catherine Zeta-Jones plays the torch singer Zellweger emulates who's also on murderer's row in '30s Chicago, while Richard Gere essays the high-priced attorney who ultimately represents both.

Director Rob Marshall and screenwriter Bill Condon employ the device of having most of the musical numbers originate from the minds of the various characters -- a decision that results in some bare-bones production numbers that are nevertheless faithfully reproduced from the stage version. You may also get tired of the cross-cutting between the movie's "reality" and fantasy sequences, but Marshall's direction is sure-handed most of the way and the choreography (based on Bob Fosse's original staging) is vibrant.

The song adaptations, meanwhile, are excellent and the performances right on the money: Zeta Jones (a Supporting Actress Oscar winner) is sensational while Zellweger proved to be a pleasant surprise as the anti-heroine. John C. Reilly and Christine Baranski shine in supporting roles. Only Gere seemed a little out of his element, with a singing voice that at times resembles Buddy Hackett (!), but he does, to his credit, manage to pull off a few deft dancing moves.

Despite the "dark" subject matter, "Chicago" is great entertainment. Anyone who enjoys a good musical -- the kind they just don't make anymore -- is urged to check it out, particularly now that Buena Vista has released a new 2-disc “Razzle-Dazzle” DVD Special Edition.

In addition to reprising many extras from the previous DVD edition (commentary, the cut song “Class”), Miramax/Buena Vista have included an interesting new featurette, “From Stage To Screen: The History of ‘Chicago’,” which profiles the Broadway show; a slew of extended musical performances, which incorporate filming footage and behind-the-scenes rehearsals of nearly all the songs; a segment on Chita Rivera, who starred in the original show, and an amusing anecdote about Liza Minnelli’s Roxie Hart performance (which occurred when stage star Gwen Verdon was ill); segments on production designer John Myhre and costume designer Colleen Atwood, plus a VH1 “Behind The Movie” special. The 16:9 enhanced transfer and 5.1 DTS/Dolby Digital soundtracks seem to be right on par with the previous release.

SIN CITY: Recut, Extended, Unrated (**, 2005). 147 mins. (Recut), 124 mins. (Theatrical Version), Unrated and R. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Both Versions of the Film; New Commentary Tracks on the Theatrical Version with Robert Rodriguez, Frank Miller, and Quentin Tarantino; Making Of materials; 16:9 (1.85) Widescreen, 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital sound; also contains a copy of Frank Miller’s original graphic novel.

The deluxe edition fans clamored for didn’t take long to reach DVD, as the Frank Miller-Robert Rodriguez collaboration “Sin City” is already back on DVD in an elaborate edition that ought to please aficionados of the film.

As for “Sin City” itself, I was less than impressed. Snazzy visuals and a great cast almost make this two-hour plus journey worthwhile...until you realize that visuals are all Robert Rodriguez’s cinematic adaptation of Miller’s graphic novels has going for it.

In this city of sin, Bruce Willis plays a hardened cop with a heart condition out to stop a psycho from preying on young girls; Mickey Rourke is a tough, Frankenstein-like monster of a man framed for a hooker’s murder actually committed by Elijah Wood, a psycho who literally devours the souls of his victims; Brittany Murphy is a waitress with a sicko ex-boyfriend (Benicio Del Toro) and a new love (Clive Owen) who takes him down, only to find out he’s actually a cop; and Jessica Alba is the grown version of the girl Willis saves in the a good-girl stripper who gets wrapped up with a bad guy who’s a cross between a “Dick Tracy” thug and something you’d ordinarily see in one of David Lynch’s films.

This repellent exercise in pulp “graphic novel noir” nonsense is apparently a faithful-to-an-extreme cinematic representation of Miller’s graphic novels. Rodriguez, fresh off his “Spy Kids” films, recruited Miller to “co-direct” and give his creative stamp to the movie version, and, admittedly, there are times when “Sin City” truly feels as if you’re watching a veritable comic book. The endlessly pretentious narration and dialogue were ripped right out of Miller’s books, as were the highly-stylized camera angles and editing rhythms -- all coordinated by Rodriguez to accurately bring each frame of “Sin City” to the screen.

As a consequence to its faithfulness, however, there’s no dramatic tension or anything to grasp onto in “Sin City” the movie. Here’s a film packed to the gills with outrageous violence and action (toned down somewhat by having most of the blood colored white), but nothing of interest from a character or dramatic angle. The movie is all posturing -- a group of “cool” moments that will get teenage boys aroused with its explicit violence and brainless action -- but there’s no weight to the movie at all because Miller and Rodriguez didn’t make any dramatic adjustments to the material. “Sin City” looks and feels like a comic book come to life, alright, but what works dramatically on the printed page doesn’t necessarily translate to the cinematic realm, as plainly demonstrated here.

Regardless, I realize there are numerous aficionados out there who’ll love Buena Vista’s “Recut, Extended, Unrated” DVD box set, which contains a newly edited version of the film, running just about 25 minutes longer than the theatrical version (it also separates each of Miller’s tales into self-contained sequences). The original, 124-minute theatrical cut is also on-hand, as well as three supplemental audio tracks: a pair of Rodriguez commentaries, one with Tarantino and another with Miller; and a recording of the Austin, Texas audience reaction to the movie’s premiere.

Loads of supplemental content are also on-hand here, to compensate for the previous, mostly-vanilla DVD release from last summer: Rodriguez typically shoots ample behind-the-scenes material, knowing it will make for interesting viewing on disc, and that’s the case here, as you’ll learn pretty much everything there is to know about the film. Though I’m not a fan of the movie, there’s no question that Rodriguez employed all kinds of amazing tricks to achieve the unique look and feel of the movie, and for some (like myself), you may find these featurettes more interesting than watching “Sin City” itself.

The 16:9 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital/DTS soundtracks are identical to the reference-level original DVD, while the superb packaging includes a copy of Miller’s original graphic novel.

THE BROTHERS GRIMM (**, 2005). 118 mins., PG-13, Dimension/Buena Vista. DVD FEATURES: Commentary by Terry Gilliam; Deleted Scenes with optional commentary; Two Featurettes; 16:9 Widescreen (1.85) and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Strange is the most appropriate word to describe the latest from director Terry Gilliam...not that strange hasn’t ever been used to discuss one of Gilliam’s past movies, but here it totally applies to this muddled attempt at crossing Tim Burton’s “Sleepy Hollow” with a “Ghostbusters” kind of plot and the former Python's stylized visuals.

Matt Damon and Heath Ledger play the Brothers as a pair of traveling storytellers who run into a forest of nightmares for real after traveling into a small German town in 1812. There, they meet a brave local girl (Lena Headey) haunted by her past and, together, attempt to end the curse put on them by an evil queen (Monica Bellucci) who utilizes numerous fairy tale elements in tormenting the townsfolk.

“The Brothers Grimm” was a troubled production that was delayed for months before being released. MGM initially funded the movie and later backed out, leaving the Weinsteins and Miramax to bail Gilliam out of a film that could have possibly gone the way of the auteur’s abandoned “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.” After tales of tension between Gilliam and the Weinsteins, the finished “Brothers Grimm” opened to mixed reviews and decent, if not respectable, box-office last August.

Though the movie has atmospheric cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel and a terrific cast, the picture itself is disjointed and simply not very appealing. Damon and Ledger both look out of sorts here, mumbling silly dialogue and neither appearing comfortable in their roles as con men who eventually turn into heroes. Peter Stormare’s over-the-top performance as a henchman for local French government villain Jonathan Pryce is too far in the other direction, though Headey effectively channels Keira Knightley in both looks and persona as a tough heroine.

Gilliam’s penchant for outlandish visuals is once again on-hand, but somehow his creations here are unsettling rather than imaginative: a demonic horse that swallows a child and another young one who becomes a gingerbread man (and eats a part of his arm, exclaiming “I’m delicious!”) are the kinds of unsavory effects you’ll find in a movie that also boasts a fair amount of unsatisfying CGI. Worst of all is the brittle musical score by Dario Marianelli, one that sounds off-kilter from the very beginning and calls the wrong kind of attention onto itself throughout.

Dimension’s DVD offers an informative, though not especially critical, commentary from Gilliam, along with nearly a dozen deleted scenes likewise with comments from the director. Given the turbulent production, it’s surprising to hear Gilliam talk at all about the picture, making the DVD worthwhile for fans on those grounds alone. Two short Making Of featurettes are included, along with a satisfying 16:9 (1.85) transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Also New and Noteworthy

MAKE LOVE! THE BRUCE CAMPBELL WAY. Rykodisc Records, 6 CDs: Highly entertaining adaptation of B-movie auteur Bruce Campbell’s semi-fictional account of trying to go “straight” in mainstream Hollywood receives an interesting audio adaptation from Rykodisc. Campbell not just narrates his tale (filled with tales of run-ins with Hollywood insiders) but also “stars” in what basically amounts to a radio dramatization of his work, and not just your standard “Books on Tape” production. Through six discs, Campbell charts his misadventures with stars and studio moguls, while trying to make a remake of “Let’s Make Love!” with Renee Zellweger. Production values are high and while most of the material here is tongue-in-cheek, no doubt that a lot of Bruce’s barbs are right on target and based on his own experiences. Recommended (use the Amazon link on the Aisle Seat front page to order directly with free shipping).

THE CAVE (**, 2005). 97 mins., PG-13, Sony: Watchable time-waster finds a team of explorers venturing into a subterranean lair, where they encounter a new form of creature running amok. Aside from Patrick Tatopoulos’ creature design and a decently-executed final 15 minutes, this is a routine genre piece from director Bruce Hunt, Screen Gems, Lakeshore and Cinerenta, with an appropriately-cast assembly of B-stars: Cole Hauser, Eddie Cibrian (“Invasion”), Morris Chestnut, Lena Headey, and Piper Perabo, who vanishes off the roster fast. Sony’s DVD, out on January 3rd, offers commentary from Hunt and writers Michael Steinberg and Tegan West, plus two featurettes, one of them focusing on Tatopoulos’ effects. The 16:9 enhanced transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks are both fine.

And with that, I will bid you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
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