There's no time to delay this week: Christmas is just days away, and as always, I'm due for picking up a few last-minute presents. So, let's get right to it with two -- yes, two!! -- columns in one: first, a round-up of this year's new Holiday releases, with a few irreverent gift ideas tossed into the mix. Secondly, we look at new and recent DVDs in the usual Aisle Seat style.
Before we begin, though, I'd like to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. There will be an all-new column for next week, then the first of several Aisle Seat "Lost Article" specials for the beginning of 2005. Stay safe and have a merry one!
I WANT A DOG FOR CHRISTMAS, CHARLIE BROWN (***, 2003, 75 mins., Paramount): Appealing, recently-produced Peanuts cartoon retains much of the warmth from the classic Charlie Brown specials of yesteryear. Here, Rerun (Linus and Lucy's sibling) wants Santa to bring him a new dog for Christmas, and finds numerous obstacles put in his path. Ultimately, he tries to make Snoopy's wayward brother, Spike, into his own pet, with understandably mixed results. Paramount's DVD includes a colorful full-screen transfer with stereo sound, sporting a pleasing score by David Benoit, reprising many of Vince Guaraldi's wonderful themes. Supporting featurettes include the Whoopi Goldberg-hosted "Making of 'A Charlie Brown Christmas,'" plus the vignette-laden "Charlie Brown's Christmas Tales," which was produced in 2002 for ABC's new airings of "A Charlie Brown." A must for all Peanuts fans.
Godzilla Vs. Gigan
Godzilla Vs. Hedorah
Godzilla Vs. Mechagodzilla
Son of Godzilla
Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. (Columbia TriStar, apprx. $20 each)
After years of languishing in poor pan-and-scan DVDs and countless bootlegs, Godzilla finally gets his due with Columbia's new widescreen editions of numerous Big G romps from the late '60s and early '70s, plus the latest Godzilla adventure from overseas.
Starting out with 1967's SON OF GODZILLA -- actually one of the best of the later "first-cycle" Godzilla films (with a downright touching finale!) -- Toho's series began a decline that still offered numerous giant monster delights for kids of all ages. 1971's GODZILLA VS. HEDORAH ("Godzilla Vs. The Smog Monster" for those of us who grew up watching the movie on TV) isn't vintage Toho, but still has its merits as Godzilla takes on a creature created by human pollution (there, look what you've done!). As silly as "Hedorah" is, things go even more downhill -- at least in terms of a semblance of a plot -- in GODZILLA VS.GIGAN (1972), though there's plenty of action on-hand in GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA (1974), the real last gasp of the old series, which sports a gaggle of comedic moments and rubbery effects.
Columbia's DVDs all offer terrific widescreen presentations in full 2.35 TohoScope, marking the first time that each of the above "golden age" Godzilla epics were issued domestically in their proper aspect ratios.
The quality presentation extends to last year's supposedly penultimate Godzilla film, GODZILLA: TOKYO S.O.S. This sequel to 2002's "Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla" finds Mecha-G being rebuilt while Mothra warns humanity that another attack of impending doom threatens to destroy all of Tokyo. Masaaki Tezuka's film is fast-paced (91 minutes) and offers solid effects to compliment a fairly engaging story, though the movie -- like a lot of the recent Godzilla efforts -- is a bit too serious for its own good (hopefully the upcoming "Godzilla: Final Wars," supposedly the end of Toho's series, will offer some old-school G fisticuffs and fun).
Given that Godzilla has never been treated well on video in the past, it's gratifying to see Columbia giving these Toho productions their first-ever widescreen transfers on U.S. home video. The framing makes the movies that much more fun, while you can hear the original Japanese tracks (with optional English subtitles) if you want a more academic Godzilla experience instead of the English dubbed tracks -- though really, who wants that?
KING ARTHUR: Director's Cut (***, 2004). 139 mins., Unrated, Buena Vista. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Director Commentary; Trivia Track; Alternate Ending; Round Table cast and crew discussion; Making Of featurette; Photo Gallery; Xbox game demo; 2.35 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.
A box-office disappointment in the U.S., Jerry Bruckheimer's muscular take on the legend performed exceedingly well overseas, where one might have assumed this action-packed Arthurian rendition would have failed to drum up much business.
Granted, "King Arthur" will never be revered as a celebrated epic like Mel Gibson's "Braveheart", as a visionary fantasy like John Boorman's "Excalibur," or a beloved cult item like "Conan the Barbarian." Still, you could do a lot worse than to take in Antoine Fuqua's fantasy.
Here, Arthur (Clive Owen) and his Knights are servants of the Roman Empire, which itself is about to withdraw from England and leave its people to fight off a Saxon invasion lead by evil Stellan Skarsgard. With the Knights behind him, Arthur opts to stay and take down the invading Saxon threat, with the help of a rival band of warriors lead by Merlin and Guinevere, here envisioned as a Xena-type warrior and played by Keira Knightley.
I wish David Franzoni's script had a bit more character development, but this occasionally enthralling epic generally gets the job done in spite of its shortcomings. The actors perform admirably across the board, and there's at least one inventive battle sequence (with Arthur's band and the Saxons fighting on a sheet of thin ice) that's particularly effective. At a time when so many films are overly reliant on CGI, it's also refreshing to see a movie utilize actual locales, stunt men, and settings without the glare of glossy effects work. Fuqua's direction may be standard for the Bruckheimer school, but the movie thankfully doesn't cross-cut every few seconds like a typical Michael Bay epic, making "King Arthur" perfect for a night's worth of escapist entertainment.
That feeling is reaffirmed by Buena Vista's "Director's Cut" DVD, which premieres the longer, more violent version Fuqua wanted released to theaters. Featuring over 15 minutes of extended scenes and a bit more blood, this more visceral cut is preferable to the theatrical version (which has been released separately). Extras on the disc include commentary from Fuqua, an alternate ending that doesn't work as well as the one in the final cut, a "roundtable" discussion with cast and crew members, a Making Of featurette, photo gallery, and a playable demo of the Xbox game. The 2.35 transfer is crisp and efficient, and the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound is likewise fine.
One last criticism, however: can we now, officially, put the kibosh on Hans Zimmer's constant use of wailing female vocalists? Since "Gladiator," nearly every Zimmer score (not to mention countless other movie soundtracks) have been inundated with depressing cues punctuated by a Lisa Gerrard-esque vocalist. In "King Arthur," those moments come off as a distraction that takes away from the film's identity, reminding one of other scores and movies that sounded exactly the same. If you're going to call on James Horner for the over-use of various repetitive motifs, we're now well beyond the point of criticizing Zimmer and his stable of composers for now doing exactly the same thing. Enough already! (Insert wailing female vocalist riff here).
Contrived sequel to the 2001 smash picks up five years after its predecessor, with Anne Hathaway's Princess Mia from Genovia having graduated from college and ready to ascend to the throne of her kingdom.
Unfortunately for her, screenwriters Shonda Rimes (of the immortal Britney Spears bomb "Crossroads") and Gina Wendkos have fashioned a hackneyed plot that means Mia has to find a suitor in order to become queen. Thus, old pal Heather Matarazzo reappears alongside Hathaway to try and uncover a suitable husband-to-be, which means the usual complications involved with courting, a few comical asides, and multiple musical montages, including the long-awaited duet teaming of Julie Andrews with Disney Channel star Raven.
Garry Marshall's original "Princess Diaries" wasn't a great movie by any means, but Hathaway's charm carried the picture to boffo box-office results. Those financial receipts were nearly reprised when "Princess Diaries 2" debuted in theaters last summer, but this sequel feels awfully tired right out of the gate. Marshall apparently had trouble finding a workable script for the follow-up, and should have kept at it: "Princess Diaries 2" isn't so much a bad picture as it is a generic and uninspired sequel that also feels awfully claustrophobic, like you're watching a filmed version of a play.
Hathaway and Andrews, along with Hector Elizondo, are all fine again, but the material fails to rise to their level. Marshall also carts out a handful of old familiar faces -- from Tom Poston and Larry Miller to even Paul Williams (!) -- but the movie is so overlong and padded with musical montages that even young viewers who enjoyed the original may find their patience stretched to the breaking point.
Disney's Special Edition DVD includes a colorful 1.85 widescreen transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, plus a Making Of featurette, commentary from Marshall and Andrews, deleted scenes with the director's introduction, music video, bloopers and more.
There isn't a whole lot of substance in this Vince Vaughn-Ben Stiller comedy, but "Dodgeball" does, just the same, offer a solid quotient of laughs.
This intentionally hyper-silly though often inspired lark stars Vaughn as the affable owner of a small gym whose millionaire competitor (Stiller) wants to buy him out. To raise the needed capital to keep his gym going, Vaughn and his motley assortment of clients opt to enter the Las Vegas Dodge Ball Invitational, which carries a cash price of $50,000 and coverage on ESPN 8 ("The Ocho").
The gags are all outlandish but many hit in the mark in Rawson Marshall Thruber's film, which boasts perfect comic timing and some very funny supporting turns from the likes of Gary Cole and Jason Bateman (as the ESPN8 announcers), Rip Torn, and even Chuck Norris and William Shatner.
"Dodgeball" isn't high art and parents will likely object to some of the adult-oriented content (which just managed a PG-13 rating), but the movie raked in well over $100 million -- filling up last summer's dumb fun quotient -- and is poised to become an equally strong success on video.
Fox's Special Edition DVD includes commentary from Stiller, Vaughn, and writer/director Rawson Marshall Turner; deleted and extended scenes (including an alternate ending) with optional director commentary; bloopers, Making Of featurettes, trailers, the original script on DVD-ROM and more. The 2.35 transfer is terrific and the 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack just fine, sporting plenty of songs and Theodore Shapiro's original score.
YOUNG BLACK STALLION (**1/2, 51 mins., 2004, G; Disney): Made-for-IMAX mini-feature from screenwriter Jeanne Rosenberg and co-producer Fred Roos, who earlier collaborated on the classic 1979 "Black Stallion." This lightweight but beautifully photographed prequel is, obviously, not on a level with the Francis Coppola/Carroll Ballard masterpiece, but should still suffice for horse lovers of all ages. Disney's DVD extras include interactive content and several behind the scenes featurettes, showing director Simon Wincer and others on location in Namibia, plus an additional 15-minute story segment. The 1.78 widescreen transfer is superb and is paired with an oddly framed full-screen version (compressing the IMAX dimensions) along with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound. The effects and sound design have a nice range but William Ross' overwrought score lacks the simplicity of the original's sublime Carmine Coppola soundtrack.
ANACONDAS: HUNT FOR THE BLOOD ORCHID (**, 2004, 97 mins., PG-13; Columbia TriStar): The original "Anaconda" was a modestly entertaining B-movie with a cast of has-beens (Eric Stoltz) and yet-to-bes (including Jennifer Lopez). Columbia's continuation of the "franchise" doesn't include either of those categories, with a no-name, road company cast traveling down the amazon. Though they're trying to find an elusive plant that may provide the fountain of youth, all the bland characters encounter instead is another assortment of hungry serpentine creatures. An agreeable timewaster, "Anacondas" is good fun for a one night rental but little more; the effects are adequate and the direction of genre veteran Dwight Little ("Halloween IV," "Murder at 1600") is taut and effective for this kind of small-scale production, which nearly raked in as many bucks at the box-office as its predecessor. Columbia's DVD includes both 2.40 widescreen and full-screen transfers, plus 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, a Making Of featurette, and several deleted scenes culled from a workprint.
SILVER STREAK (***, 1976, 113 mins., PG; Fox): Fully satisfying, entertaining comic caper with Gene Wilder as a regular guy who finds romance with secretary Jill Clayburgh at the same time he becomes embroiled in a mystery plot nearly worthy of the Master of Suspense himself (or, this being the mid '70s, certainly worthy of Hitch himself). Colin Higgins' script mixes the comedic and suspense elements better than his follow-up effort ("Foul Play"), thanks in part to Arthur Hiller's direction and performances from Wilder, Clayburgh, Richard Pryor (the first of several outings with Wilder), Ned Beatty, Clifton James and Patrick McGoohan. Henry Mancini's superb score is certainly another plus. Fox's DVD looks excellent in 1.85 widescreen and the 2.0 Dolby Surround sound is modestly stereophonic. The original trailer is included along with ads for countless other "Fox Flix" library titles.