Aisle Seat Christmas DVD Preview, Part 3

New Releases and Andy's Seasonal DVD Round-Up!
By Andy Dursin

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!

New Holiday Releases

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.

ALL I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS (**, 1991, 92 mins., G, Paramount): Forgettable early '90s family comedy has pretty much been forgotten over the years. A very young Thora Birch and Ethan Randall (from the John Hughes flop "Dutch") play kids who try and bring their separated parents (Harley Jane Kozak and Jamey Sheridan) back together. Grandma Lauren Bacall and Santa himself (Leslie Nielsen) attempt to help out. This post "Home Alone" comedy has some slapstick laughs and a pleasing Bruce Broughton score, but otherwise feels like any typical made-for-TV holiday flick. Paramount's DVD includes a decent 1.85 transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

ELF (**1/2, 2003, 95 mins., PG, New Line): Cute, appealing but somewhat under-developed vehicle for Will Farrell stars the former SNL cast member as the North Pole's only human elf, "Buddy." Wanting to meet his real dad (an under-written role for James Caan), Buddy ventures to the big city where he tries to spread Christmas cheer and falls for cute department store clerk Zooey Deschanel. Jon Favreau's movie has its heart in the right place and a few big laughs, but as gentle a fantasy as "Elf" is, the final result just never really gels. New Line's DVD is a winner, though, sporting commentaries from the filmmakers, a few deleted/alternate scenes, plenty of Behind the Scenes segments, interactive games for kids, a superb 1.85 transfer (plus a full-screen version) and a 5.1 soundtrack sporting a breezy John Debney score.

ELOISE AT CHRISTMAS TIME (***, 2003, 87 mins., G, Disney): Classy TV-movie follows the adventures of Kay Thompson's juvenile hero, who toils around town with Nanny Julie Andrews and a veteran cast including Christine Maranski and Jeffrey Tambor in tow. Kevin Lima directed this enchanting family film, co-produced by Denise DiNovi and written by Elizabeth Chandler. Bruce Broughton's score is lovely and the whole film perfect for seasonal viewing. Disney's DVD offers a full-screen transfer, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, a Making Of featurette, and profile of author Kay Thompson. Recommended!

MICKEY'S TWICE UPON A CHRISTMAS (**1/2, 2004, 68 mins., G, Disney): CGI renderings of the classic Disney characters give a glossy visual sheen to this cute made-for-video production. Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, Donald and Pluto are all on-hand to celebrate the season in a handful of short vignettes that kids should enjoy. The animation is excellent for a small-screen affair, the stories predictable but the characterizations are well-handled and young viewers should savor the visual eye-candy. Extras include deleted scenes, a featurette on Michelle Kwan (and how she "inspired" the ice skating segment of the production), plus various games and activities for kids. The 1.78 transfer is flawless and the 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital soundtracks both superb.

GARFIELD: HOLIDAY CELEBRATIONS (***, 71 mins., Fox): Solid compilation of three prime-time Garfield specials that aired on CBS in the late '80s. "A Garfield Christmas" is one of the best of the animated Jim Davis adventures, with an engaging story line and satisfying mix of mirth and merriment. "Garfield's Thanksgiving" is mostly forgettable, though there's some nifty animation in the satisfying and sometimes spooky "Garfield's Halloween Adventure" (that recalls the ghostly apparitions in John Carpenter's "The Fog" -- OK, well, just a little!). The full-screen transfers are all serviceable and the mono soundtrack just fine.

NATIONAL LAMPOON'S HOLIDAY REUNION (**, 2003, PG-13, Fox): Judge Reinhold gets billed below Bryan Cranston (who?) in this decent TV-movie comedy. Reinhold plays the constipated suburban dad whose family (including Penelope Ann Miller) reluctantly agrees to travel to Idaho, where Reinhold's long lost cousin (Cranston) turns out to be a Randy Quaid-clone from the superior "Vacation" films. Better than National Lampoon's other 2003 TV-movie offering -- the hideous "Christmas Vacation 2" -- thanks mainly to the lead performances, a competent score by the ever-underrated Robert Folk, and sure-handed direction from veteran Neal Israel. Fox's DVD includes both full-screen and 1.78 widescreen transfers, plus 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Irreverent Gift Ideas For The Cult Movie Fan

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?

Ed Wood Box Set (Image, apprx. $30-35): Colorful box set collects all of Ed Wood's major cinematic contributions, from "Plan Nine From Outer Space" and "Glen or Glenda?" to "Robot Monster" and "Bride of the Monster." Also on-hand is "Jail Bait" and "Night of the Ghouls," as well as "The Haunted World of Ed Wood," an excellent two-hour documentary on the man, the myth, and his filmmaking legacy. The individual discs are all repackagings of Image's previous DVD remasters taken from the Wade Williams collection, and they're all uniformly excellent, particularly in comparison to the countless public domain Wood discs you can find out there. Stick with the real thing, and pick this set up for the devious Wood aficionado on your holiday shopping list!

New DVD Releases

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).

THE PRINCESS DIARIES 2: Royal Engagement (**, 2004). 115 mins., G, Disney. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Deleted Scenes, Commentary, Bloopers, Music Video, Making Of featurette; 1.85 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

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.

DODGEBALL: A TRUE UNDEROG STORY (***, 2004). 92 mins., PG-13, Fox. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Commentary; Deleted/Extended Scenes, Blooper and Gag Reel; 2.35 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

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.

Christmas '04 Capsules: Family Finds

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.

WHERE THE RED FERN GROWS (**1/2, 86 mins., 2004, PG; Disney): Independently produced adaptation of the Wilson Rawls novel pairs a fine assortment of veteran actors (Kris Kristofferson, Dabney Coleman, Ned Beatty) with newcomers (Joseph Ashton and singer Dave Matthews) in the heartwarming, albeit sad tale of a young boy growing up with a pair of hunting dogs. The picture is pleasant for older children but lacks a certain emotional wallop, in part because of some awkward performances and a disjointed script, credited to four different writers. While it's no "Old Yeller," this is still passable family entertainment. Disney's DVD edition includes two Making Of featurettes, 1.85 Widescreen and full-screen transfers, and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

SLEEPOVER (**1/2, 2004, 89 mins., PG; MGM): Colorful, ridiculous nonsense for teenage girls (meaning I'm the perfect choice to review it, of course), "Sleepover" plays like a less entertaining variant on my old childhood favorite, "Midnight Madness." "Spy Kids" star Alexa Vega is one of a handful of high school freshmen who gets invited to participate in an all-night scavenger hunt; predictable shenanigans and lingo neither you nor I can understand follow. The Elisa Bell script is predictable but the movie is watchable and fast-paced, like a manic episode of "7th Heaven" without the preachy parental units on-hand. MGM's Special Edition DVD includes commentary from director Joe Nussbaum and cast members, several Making Of featurettes, a gag reel, photo gallery, the original trailer and more. The 1.85 transfer is perfect and the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound sufficiently bubbly.

B-Movie Fun

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.

BLIND FURY (**1/2, 1989, 86 mins., R; Columbia TriStar): Rutger Hauer slices 'n dices his way through this oddball curiosity from the late '80s, based on the Japanese "Zatoichi" series. As a blind Vietnam vet trained as a ninja and back home to find old army chum Terry O'Quinn (billed here as "Terrance"), Hauer gives a goofy but intriguing performance. "Blind Fury" introduced "Dead Calm" director Philip Noyce to the United States, but its cult potential was undercut by an uneven script that never makes up its mind as to whether to play the material straight or not. Ultimately, the movie settles somewhere in between, never fully satisfying but entertaining enough for what it is (what else could you expect from a Tim Matheson production?). Columbia TriStar's DVD of this catalog title looks good, and only a bit grainy, in its 1.85 transfer, with a potent, late '80s Dolby Surround soundtrack containing a J. Peter Robinson score typical of its era.

THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (**1/2, 1989, 93 mins., R, MGM): Just in time to coincide with the release of "Andrew Lloyd Webber's 'Phantom of the Opera'" comes MGM's long-awaited DVD of the '89 Robert Englund horror-ization. One of only a few releases to originate from Menahem Golan's post-Cannon tenure at 21st Century Films, this reasonably stylish and entertaining effort stars Englund as Gaston Leroux's dark hero, and Jill Schoelen at the peak of her B-movie fame as Christine. Misha Segal's score is surprisingly good, the Kevin Yagher effects are solid, and Dwight Little (see "Anacondas" above) helms the whole show with more class than most of its genre brethren from the period. (Also, be on the lookout for future SNL star Molly Shannon basically playing herself). MGM's DVD includes 16:9 widescreen and full-screen transfers, plus a 2.0 Dolby Surround soundtrack and the original trailer.

Also New & Noteworthy

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.

SHAUN OF THE DEAD (**1/2, 2004, 100 mins., R; Universal): England's big zombie-comedy smash did only modest business on this side of the Atlantic. Truth be told, after hearing all the buzz over Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright's latest effort, I expected something a bit more exciting than what "Shaun" ultimately delivers: some scattered laughs and observations, but also a fairly languid pace and obvious satiric targets. After all the fuss, "Shaun" comes across as a mild disappointment, though its fans should savor Universal's domestic DVD. Featuring a terrific 2.35 transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, the disc also includes copious supplements, from a pair of commentary tracks to deleted scenes, outtakes, casting tapes, effects comparisons, TV bits and more.

THUNDERBIRDS (**, 2004, 95 mins., PG; Universal): One of the year's biggest studio flops (with a domestic gross of about $6 million), Jonathan Frakes' colorfully misguided take on the old Gerry Anderson series plays like the original "Thunderbirds" crossed with the worst of Nickelodeon's live-action programming (or, even more so, a less-satisfying "Spy Kids"). Bill Paxton and Anthony Edwards are two of the "Thunderbirds" crew whose kids come to their parents' rescue when villainous Ben Kingsley strikes. It's hard to see what the studio honchos were thinking when "Thunderbirds" went into production: "let's see...let's take a forgotten '60s British TV show that wasn't all that popular in the U.S...and resurrect it as a vehicle for primarily American kids too young to even know what the show was in the first place!" Good thinking, eh? At least Hans Zimmer's score doesn't just cash the check. Universal's DVD includes a vibrant 1.85 transfer with a 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack; special features include Frakes' commentary, numerous Making Of featurettes, and a music video.


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