Aisle Seat Christmas DVD Preview

Part One of Our Annual New Release Round Up!
ULTIMATE MATRIX Box Set, STAR TREK Season 3, Vintage and More!
By Andy Dursin

Though we receive a steady diet of box sets and re-issues at our Aisle Seat offices, the recent release of Warner Home Video's massive ten-disc ULTIMATE MATRIX COLLECTION (approx. $79) gives even the most jaded consumer reason to take notice.

This is possibly the most comprehensive package ever assembled for a filmed trilogy on DVD, adding new layers to the films with the addition of fresh commentary tracks and Making Of featurettes.

Of course, you'll have to be a Matrix enthusiast to mine the vast assortment of riches the set provides. The Wachowski Brothers open up the dissection of their saga with two pages of liner notes, where the filmmakers discuss their idea of having two distinct, and unconventional, DVD commentaries: one by philosophers (Dr. Cornel West and Ken Wilber), the other by film critics (Variety's Todd McCarthy, Vogue's John Powers, and author David Thomson). The idea, as the Wachowskis point out, wasn't to "suggest that one was right and one was wrong, rather the point was the juxtaposition of perspective so that in the implied dialogue that takes place between the tracks, the viewer would be offered reference points with which they might triangulate their own position."

The result, as the directors also go on to point out, is an oddball commentary track that runs throughout "The Matrix," "The Matrix Reloaded" and "The Matrix Revolutions," with the philosophers noting the spiritual/religious/theological elements that are infused throughout the pictures, and the critics often providing a dissenting view of why the trilogy ultimately doesn't work. It's an interesting, if lengthy, discussion that will provide literally hours of information for buffs to dissect.

More conventional features are found throughout the box, starting with "The Matrix Revisited," housing "The Music Revisited" (41 rock tracks selected by the Wachowski Brothers for the film), "Behind The Matrix" (five featurettes), and matching "Red Pill"/"White Rabbit" featurettes (11 in all), totaling 126 minutes. "The Matrix Reloaded" supplements include a marvelous look at the movie's breathtaking car chase (8 featurettes), teahouse fight (two featurettes), "Unplugged" (five featurettes), "I'll Handle Them" (four featurettes), "The Exiles" (two featurettes), and some 23 live-action scenes -- mostly starring Jada Pinkett Smith -- that were filmed specifically for the "Enter The Matrix" video game. Extras for "The Matrix Revolutions" are split up into titles dubbed "Crew" (four total), "Hel" (six featurettes), "Super Burly Brawl" (four featurettes), "New Blue World" (five featurettes), "Siege" (five featurettes), and "Aftermath" featurettes.

If that wasn't enough, the set also houses "The Animatrix" anthology plus another three discs (!) entitled "The Matrix Experience." This exhaustive package includes the two-hour "The Roots of The Matrix," which underscores the theological implications of the series, plus an examination of whether The Matrix itself is plausible; "The Burly Man Chronicles," which recounts the creation of the series from pre-production on "Reloaded" through the final "Revolutions" shot in a solid documentary feature; and "The Zion Archive," which sports trailers and TV spots for the whole series, tons of production and conceptual art, CGI montages, and more.

The movies themselves look breathtaking in 2.35 widescreen, with the original "Matrix" receiving a new remastering courtesy of cinematographer Bill Pope. The 5.1 Dolby Digital sound on the set is likewise outstanding.

While some of the supplements are of the mostly fluffy, promotional variety, most of them are quite good (particularly "The Matrix Experience" documentaries), and fans will be sure to devour this set as the final (?) word on the Matrix series.

New From Paramount

It's exciting whenever a vintage movie arrives on DVD for the first time and is treated to a Special Edition package. For that reason, kudos go out to Paramount, which has proven to be the choice studio lately for releasing a steady diet of catalog titles, many of them with supplementary features that film buffs should savor.

Milos Forman's solid adaptation of E.L. Doctorow's bestseller RAGTIME (***, 1981, PG, 154 mins.) is chief among the new releases, sporting commentary by the director, an excellent Making Of documentary covering the Dino DeLaurentiis production, and even a lengthy deleted scene culled from a surviving workprint.

The 1981 film didn't receive the widespread acclaim that many thought it would have, having been based on a massively successful book and sporting an excellent cast. Among the stars was James Cagney, who made his final screen appearance (and first in over 20 years following "One, Two, Three") as a police commissioner at the turn of the century. With a top-flight production crew including cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek, art director Patricia Von Brandenstein, and composer Randy Newman, "Ragtime" had all the makings of a classic, yet its sometimes uneven pacing (the result of trying to cram in numerous plots from the novel) ultimately resulted in a movie that was good, but not the great American masterpiece some anticipated.

Nevertheless, "Ragtime" is worth revisiting now that Paramount has issued a splendid DVD, complete with a terrific 2.35 Widescreen transfer and an excellent 5.1 remixed Dolby Digital soundtrack. The movie looks and feels authentic in every frame, and Newman's pensive, melancholy score remains one of his finest.

The supplements are likewise superlative. Forman and producer Michael Hausman contribute an informative commentary that chronicles the history of the film, from the original intention of casting Jack Nicholson, to detailing Cagney's involvement and how screenwriter Michael Weller pared down Doctorow's novel (which the author had wanted, perhaps rightly so, to be turned into a longer TV mini-series). The Making Of featurette includes interviews with the filmmakers, plus star Brad Dourif, and does a nice job tracing the history of DeLaurentiis' production. Though the theatrical trailer isn't available, Paramount has included a 10-minute deleted scene focusing on Elizabeth McGovern's character. The footage is in black-and-white and will be worth viewing for admirers of the film, though McGovern aficionados may be disappointed that some topless nudity is digitally obscured here.

Another library title debuting on DVD for the first time with supplementary features to boot is Richard Benjamin's wonderful RACING WITH THE MOON (***1/2, 1984, 108 mins., PG).

This delightful slice-of-life follows a pair of boyhood pals (Sean Penn, Nicolas Cage), growing up in their small northern California town in the final days before they leave for WWII. Elizabeth McGovern is the object of Penn's affection, while Dana Carvey and Michael Madsen can be glimpsed in early supporting parts.

Writer Steve Kloves has since gone on to pen all three installments in the "Harry Potter" series, but started out in the business with his moving script for "Racing With The Moon." The project was picked up by Paramount producers Stanley Jaffe and Sherry Lansing, with veteran Richard Benjamin opting to helm the project.

The resulting film isn't overly melodramatic or saccharine; it's a leisurely paced and flavorful film with many wonderful scenes, all beautifully shot by John Bailey and perfectly performed by the three leads. Dave Grusin's score adds just the right emotional touch to the picture, and Benjamin's direction is true-to-life, with not a wrong note hit.

As with "Ragtime," Paramount has included a terrific Making Of documentary produced by Laurent Bouzereau. Sporting interviews with Benjamin, Jaffe, Lansing, producer Alain Bernheim and Elizabeth McGovern, the documentary is filled with anecdotes covering the production from start till end, while Benjamin contributes a talkative, relaxed, and enlightening audio commentary. The 1.85 transfer is superb and the 5.1 Dolby Digital remixed sound right on target.

Tony Scott's TOP GUN (***, 109 mins., 1986, PG), meanwhile, is certainly not your typical library title. This blockbuster Tom Cruise smash contains some of the most memorable imagery of any '80s studio film, with Cruise's Maverick trying to fly his way to the top of the Navy's elite fighter pilot program, backed to a rockin' Harold Faltermeyer/Kenny Loggins/Berlin soundtrack and performances from the likes of Kelly McGillis, Val Kilmer and Anthony Edwards.

Back in the old days of laserdisc, it seemed as if a new release of "Top Gun" appeared every few months. It hasn't been that way on DVD, with Paramount and Scott Free's Charlie de Lauzirika only now giving us the supplemental-packed, remastered Special Edition fans have been pining for.

The movie looks brilliant, here in the full 2.35 Super 35 aspect ratio of its theatrical exhibition (many previous releases offered a 1.85 frame that showed the entire picture area that was shot). Even better is the wonderfully layered 6.1 DTS surround (a 5.1 Dolby Digital track is also on-hand), which brilliantly captures the sonic oomph of the movie's original sound design.

For supplements, de Lauzirika has packaged a two-hour plus documentary, "Danger Zone: The Making of 'Top Gun'," split into six different segments. Offering new interviews with producer Jerry Bruckheimer, director Tony Scott, stars Val Kilmer and Rick Rossovich (Cruise appears only fleetingly), and composer Harold Faltermeyer among others, this is an insightful and entertaining look at the creation of the film and logistics involved in utilizing the various jets and carriers, all of which necessitated the cooperation of the U.S. Navy. Faltermeyer, meanwhile, appears along with singer Kenny Loggins in dissecting the creation and massive success of the score (and the soundtrack album).

There's also vintage behind-the-scenes featurettes (including a videotaped interview with Cruise), TV spots, four classic music videos, and commentary from Bruckheimer, Scott, and the Naval veterans who offered their sage advice to the filmmakers. Highly recommended for all "Top Gun" buffs, and easily the most comprehensive packaged ever assembled for '86's #1 box-office hit.

Other recent Paramount vintage releases may not offer supplements, but rather superlative audio and visual presentations of catalog favorites.

Chevy Chase and Goldie Hawn have a ball in Colin Higgins' entertaining 1978 comedic thriller FOUL PLAY (**1/2, 116 mins., PG), with Chevy as a 'Frisco detective who aids librarian Goldie Hawn in preventing a plot to assassinate the Pope.

TV producers Thomas L. Miller and Edward K. Miklis produced this amiable, albeit overlong, farce, with Dudley Moore offering able support as "Stanley Tibbets" and Burgess Meredith also popping up as one of Hawn's neighbors. The Charles Fox score is standard fare, though it did yield a Barry Manilow smash, "Ready To Take A Chance Again," which is performed over the movie's prolonged opening and end credits sequences.

Paramount's no-frills DVD package includes a beautiful, pristine 16:9 transfer that captures the picture's strong location cinematography. On the audio side, the movie's original mono mix has been re-mixed (much like "Ragtime" and "Racing With The Moon") to 5.1 surround, and like the studio's previous efforts, it sounds terrific.

As does the well-meaning but predictable 1988 drama DISTANT THUNDER (**, 113 mins., R), which stars John Lithgow as a disgruntled Vietnam vet in the Pacific Northwest whose long-lost son -- high school valedictorian Ralph Macchio -- comes looking for him after graduation.

Rick Rosenthal's film was one of countless Vietnam tales produced in the mid-to-late '80s, and despite good performances from Lithgow and Macchio, its conventional script (credited to Robert Stitzel) failed to separate it from similar fare. In fact, "Distant Thunder" was barely released theatrically, despite its cast and top-flight production team (including cinematographer Ralf Bode and composer Maurice Jarre).

Paramount's DVD will still be worth a look for aficionados of Lithgow or Macchio, with the 1.85 widescreen transfer appearing crisp and well-composed. Jarre's heavily-electronic score does its best to stay out of the way, and sounds just fine in the disc's 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Also new on the vintage side from Paramount is the 1993 documentary IT'S ALL TRUE (***, 87 mins., G).

This acclaimed production charts the troubled tale of Orson Welles' lost 1943 documentary about life in Latin America. Utilizing some of the only remaining footage from Welles' shoot (including one nearly-intact sequence, chronicling a quartet of fishermen who travel up and down the coast of Brazil), plus interviews with the filmmaker, his editor, and others, directors Richard Wilson, Myron Meisel and Bill Krohn fashioned a fascinating account of a project that was ignited by Nelson Rockefeller's interest in producing a "Good Neighbor" policy vehicle, and ultimately collapsed at the same time that Welles' own "Magnificent Ambersons" was being cut to pieces by RKO back home.

Narrated by Miguel Ferrer, "It's All True" is filled with anecdotes, tales of studio in-fighting, and should be of chief interest for all movie buffs. Paramount's full-screen transfer is just fine and the Dolby Surround stereo likewise satisfactory (now, where's the DVD of "Hearts of Darkness"?).

And last but certainly not least from Paramount is next week's release of STAR TREK: THE ORIGINAL SERIES, SEASON 3 (1968-69, over 22 hours), which sports the final 24 adventures of Captain Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise in a bright red box set with additional special features.

Even die-hard Trekkies will concede that the third year of Star Trek was by far the weakest of the original show's run. Though a fan campaign brought the series back to the NBC airwaves for its third year, diminishing ratings and production support resulted in an inconsistent season that's often goofy and sometimes unintentionally funny. Witness gems like "Spock's Brain" and one of my guilty pleasures, "Turnabout Intruder," with Captain Kirk exchanging bodies with Janice Lester -- a spurned ex-lover who, even in Kirk's guise, acts suspiciously like a woman! Social commentary also fell flat in season three: "The Way To Eden" boasts a traveling troupe of hippies (including Charles Napier) who cause trouble on the Enterprise, while "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield" embarrassingly tries to address racial concerns with Frank Gorshin as an alien that's half-white and half-black.

That being said, it's still "Star Trek," and even in its wackiest moments, the third season boasts the charm of the original cast, with William Shatner and company trying valiantly (sometimes overly) to hold the ship together. Other episodes from the final year include "The Enterprise Incident," "The Paradise Syndrome," "And the Children Shall Lead," "Is There In Truth No Beauty?", "Spectre of the Gun," "Day of the Dove," "For the World Is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky," "The Tholian Web," "Plato's Stepchildren," "Wink of an Eye," "The Empath," "Elaan of Troyius," "Whom Gods Destroy," "The Mark of Gideon," "That Which Survives," "The Lights of Zetar," "Requiem for Methuselah," "The Cloud Minders," "The Savage Curtain," and "All Our Yesterdays."

Paramount has also included both versions of "The Cage," the original Jeffrey Hunter pilot, both in its 1988 reconstruction with Gene Roddenberry's introduction, and its more recent, color restoration with superior picture and sound.

Supplements in this set aren't as bountiful as the previous Original Series packages: no audio commentaries at all and just a pair of Michael and Denise Okuda text commentaries (on "The Savage Curtain" and "Turnabout Intruder") are on-hand for episode extras, though again Paramount has included all the original preview trailers from the NBC broadcasts. The full-screen transfers and 5.1 soundtracks, meanwhile, are all superlative on the episodes proper.

A myriad of featurettes are on-hand on the 7th disc (along with the two versions of "The Cage"): "To Boldly Go...Season Three" looks at the problems the cast and crew faced as the final television voyages of the Enterprise began; "Life Beyond Trek: Walter Koenig" profiles The Man Who Would Be Chekov's collecting obsession; "Memoir From Mr. Sulu" gives the charismatic George Takei time to address his Trek experience; "Chief Engineer's Log" includes a sad interview with James Doohan, obviously in poor health; "Star Trek's Impact" surveys the significance of the show and its enduring elements; "A Star Trek Collector's Dream Come True" looks at a model maker and Trek enthusiast, while production art rounds out the disc.

Though I would have liked to see additional commentary tracks (particularly on "The Cage," which just cries out for the supplemental treatment), this is another satisfying package that likely will be the last DVD word on the Original Series. For that reason alone, the set comes highly recommended and worth every penny for Trek enthusiasts.

Also New on DVD

I, ROBOT (***, 2004). 114 mins., PG-13, Fox, available December 14th. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Commentary by director Alex Proyas and writer Akiva Goldsman; Making Of featurette; 2.35 Widescreen, 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital sound.
Satisfying, if not inspired, summer sci-fi hit stars Will Smith as a detective in a future Chicago where a giant corporation plans a roll-out of household robots. On the eve of the greatest consumer event since Walmart decided to cut 2004 holiday shopping prices, scientist-inventor James Cromwell takes his own life, and sends Smith on a journey into the inner-workings of the corporation where our hero meets a human-like robot (articulated and voiced by Alan Tudyk) who seeks to find the answers to his existence. At the same time, Smith wonders if "Sunny" was the reason for Cromwell's death -- or if another conspiracy is involved.

Loosely based on Isaac Asimov's classic novel, "Dark City" and "The Crow" auteur Alex Proyas' film is a fast-paced, sometimes clever, and generally entertaining production. Smith gives a nicely dialed-down performance, which helps to compensate for Bridget Moynahan's latest D.O.A. female lead (is there some reason why filmmakers continually cast the uncharismatic Moynahan in these parts? Wasn't her invisibility in "The Sum Of All Fears" enough?).

The Digital Domain special effects, along with Patrick Tatopoulis' production design, help create a future world that, for once, isn't just another "Blade Runner" knock-off, while the motion-capture of Tudyk's performance is downright brilliant. "Sunny" truly feels like a main character in the movie, and the use of an actual actor to perform the role (even if it's digitized afterwards) gives the actors a sense of interaction with the character which translates to the viewer at home. The robot doesn't feel stiff, nor do the characters' interaction with him -- like Gollum, it's another technological triumph that obviously yields better results than the stick-figure stand-ins George Lucas mostly used to play off actors in his new "Star Wars" films.

If there's a problem in "I, Robot" (other than Moynahan), it's the movie's conventional finale. Despite some of the clever dialogue and interplay in the Jeff Vintar-Akiva Goldsman script, the picture ultimately turns into just another chase/shoot 'em up, with slow-motion gun battles and an army of robots looking suspiciously like the clones from Episode II. It's competently handled, but it makes the picture more ordinary and detracts from the film as a whole.

Fox's DVD, out next week, offers a strong 2.35 transfer with superb 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital soundtracks. The DVD, though, is light on supplements, only offering a commentary with Proyas and Goldsman, plus a fluffy "Making Of" featurette. Due to the picture's box-office success and the fact that there's a bona-fide Special Edition available in certain overseas territories (reportedly with isolated score), I'm willing to wager that this is basically just a vanilla release that will be followed by a 2-disc Special Edition package down the road.

Buena Vista Round-Up

HERO (**1/2, 2003). 99 mins., PG-13, Miramax. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Conversation with Quentin Tarantino and Jet Li; Storyboards; "Hero Defined" featurette; 2.35 Widescreen; 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital Cantonese (with English subtitles), English and French dubbed tracks.

Jet Li stars in Zhang Yimou's artfully-made and beautifully scored (Tan Dan with violin solos by Itzhak Perlman) martial arts adventure, which became a box-office hit last summer after sitting for nearly a year on the Miramax shelf.

Despite gorgeous cinematography and an impressive sound design (which comes across best in the DVD's 5.1 DTS mix of the original Cantonese language track), "Hero" is a bit of a disappointment, with an overabundance of talk and a somewhat uninvolving story line (as concocted by Yimou with Li Feng and Wang Bin). Genre aficionados who ate up "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" will likely be impressed, but others should proceed with hesitation.

Miramax's DVD includes a sterling 2.35 widescreen transfer with multiple audio tracks, though the DTS Cantonese track is best for the overall sound design. Extras include a conversation between Jet Li and Quentin Tarantino, which is pretty much a pat-yourself-on-the-back affair, while storyboards and a featurette, "Hero Defined," round out the package.

THAT'S SO RAVEN: SUPERNATURALLY STYLISH (90 mins., 2004): Four episodes -- including one never-before-broadcast -- highlight this DVD extracted from the hit Disney Channel TV series. Extras include a pair of music videos performed by Raven herself, full-screen transfers and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

KIM POSSIBLE: THE VILLAIN FILES (87 mins., 2004): The latest DVD release of the popular Disney Channel series showcases four episodes from the animated adventures of crime-fighting teen Kim Possible, including a brand-new episode that was never broadcast. Extras include an interactive game aimed at its young target audience, a LMNT music video, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound and just-fine full-screen transfers.

New From Universal

THE BOURNE SUPREMACY (**1/2, 2004). 109 mins., PG-13, Universal. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Commentary by director Paul Greengrass, deleted scenes, Making Of featurettes including an interview with composer John Powell, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, 2.35 Widescreen.

So-so sequel to the 2002 smash raked in even more bucks at the box-office than its predecessor, though truth be told, "The Bourne Supremacy" feels more like a recycled product than a fresh adventure.

Matt Damon is back as Jason Bourne, once again on the run after assassins take down girlfriend Franka Potente (second-billed for less than five minutes of screen time). Joan Allen is the new CIA charge, Brian Cox and Julia Stiles are back (though Stiles' character still makes no sense), and the globe-tripping adventures take Bourne from Berlin to Moscow as he once again tries to clear his name.

Tony Gilroy returned to pen this second installment in the Robert Ludlum franchise, but what's surprising is how much "The Bourne Supremacy" resembles its predecessor: the mood of the movie, the music, the plot -- all of it is so similar to the original that at times you think you're watching the same film. At about the midway point, "Supremacy" perks up with a twist or two, but it's still only moderately interesting until director Paul Greengrass delivers the goods with a memorable car chase climax.

Universal's Special Edition DVD includes director commentary and a slew of mostly-fluffy Making Of featurettes. Included among the latter is a four-minute talk with composer John Powell, who discusses his solid musical contribution to the series. Additional extras chart the production of the car chase and special effects, in addition to several deleted scenes (though strangely, there are none of the alternate endings the filmmakers reportedly previewed in test screenings). The 2.35 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound are both excellent.

THE BILLY MADISON/HAPPY GILMORE COLLECTION (**1/2, 1995-96, 90 and 92 mins): Special Edition Double Feature packaging of two of Adam Sandler's earliest -- and most agreeable -- vehicles include lengthy deleted scenes (around 20 minutes on each), remastered 16:9 transfers and DTS surround. Unlike some of the comic's later works, there's no pretentiousness in either "Billy Madison" or "Happy Gilmore" -- just a rapid-fire succession of gags, some of which work and some of which don't. Still, the latter has some choice moments, and Sandler fans will love the added outtakes and cut scenes contained in Universal's Double Feature set.

NEXT TIME: Part 2 of the Christmas Preview, Soundtracks and More! You can contact me through my site,, where you can also check out exclusive content and the Aisle Seat Message Boards for some good old-fashioned fun. Cheers everyone!


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