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THE KARATE KID Returns to DVD (in Widescreen at Last!), plus SKY CAPTAIN and More

International viewers have had the opportunity to watch a widescreen copy of viewer-favorite THE KARATE KID for years, but only now has a legitimate Special Edition package been released in the U.S. for one of 1984's smash hits.

Out this week from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment is a brand-new DVD box set – THE KARATE KID COLLECTION (my Aisle Seat DVD Pick of the Week) – compiling all of the “Karate Kid” franchise films, including an exclusive Special Edition of the original and best installment (***½, 126 mins., 1984, PG).

An informative, sometimes uproarious group commentary with stars Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita, writer Robert Mark Kamen, and director John Avildsen is the highlight of the disc, though the 45-minute “Way of the Karate Kid” documentary is likewise superb, offering a fresh retrospective on the making of the picture. In addition to new interviews with all the creative personnel (sans Elisabeth Shue), the documentary includes copious home video footage shot by Avildsen during pre-production and shooting, plus plenty of revealing anecdotes (like how Kamen didn’t particularly care for the first studio choice for Mr. Miyagi -- Toshiro Mifune!).

Additional featurettes examine the movie’s application of martial arts and use of the Bonsai, while composer Bill Conti is on-hand to discuss the soundtrack in “East Meets West: A Composer’s Notebook.” Conti discusses his relationship with Avildsen and how the choice of a symphonic score wouldn’t date the film (unlike the picture’s source music, as he points out), and remains satisfied (deservedly so) with his efforts on the picture.

The 1.85, remastered widescreen transfer is excellent, with only some scenes displaying their age. Columbia’s previous DVD version of “The Karate Kid” was an open-matte, non-widescreen rendition, as were all previous laserdisc editions. Subsequently, this DVD marks the first-ever letterboxed presentation of the film on video in the U.S., some 21 years following its theatrical release.

The “Karate Kid” Special Edition is available only in the new box set, which also houses all three sequels: 1986's box-office blockbuster hit THE KARATE KID PART II (***, 113 mins., PG), its pointless, 1989 flop follow-up THE KARATE KID PART III (*1/2, 112 mins., PG), and the little-seen but enjoyable 1994 spin-off THE NEXT KARATE KID (**1/2, 104 mins., PG).

Both Parts II and III continue the formula established by Avildsen and Kamen, with Macchio back as the not-so-kiddish Daniel, and Morita reprising Miyagi, the karate guru who instructs his high school protégé in martial arts and life itself. With most of the same behind-the-scenes crew returning for both follow-ups (including Avildsen and Kamen), the sequels are easily able to re-create the atmosphere of the original film, although only the 1986 picture comes close to matching its charm. With Miyagi traveling back to Okinawa to visit his ailing father, Macchio’s Daniel travels with him, resulting in the usual culture clash and a romance with a young local girl (Tamlyn Tomita). It's formula but pleasant just the same.

PART II was a bona-fide smash at the box-office (grossing $115 million in 1986 dollars is pretty impressive), but the belated PART III (managing a return of $38 million) disappointed during the summer of 1989, lost in the last, truly "big" movie summer most of us remember ("Batman," "Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade," "Ghostbusters 2," "Lethal Weapon 2," "Star Trek V," "The Abyss," and "Licence to Kill" were just a few of the season's high profile movies).

In reality, though, the third go-round is a laughably melodramatic affair, with its comic book villains (including an over-the-top Thomas Ian Griffith) and tired plot. And Macchio himself, now five years removed from the original (okay, so he's a young 27!), seems ill-at-ease in his surroundings here.

Identical to their previous DVD releases, both KARATE KID II and III feature solid 1.85 transfers and 2.0 Dolby Surround soundtracks, again highlighting Bill Conti's enjoyable scores (plus some good, and bad, '80s pop music like Part II's hit single "The Glory of Love," performed by Peter Cetera). Trailers for the first two films are included on both discs, and there's a vintage featurette included on Part II as well.

Though the Daniel-Miyagi formula had pretty much run dry by the time THE NEXT KARATE KID was released, this nevertheless engaging 1994 installment is particularly fascinating now for its casting of young Hilary Swank as a high school outsider whose parents die in an accident. Her grandfather was an army buddy of none other than Mr. Miyagi, which leads our sage martial arts expert to Boston to help her out – and don’t you just know there’s a vile gang (at least you know it’s vile when Michael Ironside is heading it) spoiling everyone’s high school experience in Brookline.

Shot on location in Boston and its surrounding suburbs, Christopher Cain’s sequel is a refreshing change of pace and a big improvement on “Part III.” Swank’s role as an outsider who comes to appreciate Miyagi and the martial arts makes for an interesting contrast with her role in this year’s “Million Dollar Baby.” While there’s naturally far more dramatic development in Clint Eastwood’s film, her performance here is worthwhile and makes the routine aspects of Mark Lee’s script far more tolerable.

Sony’s transfer looks quite good in 1.85 Widescreen (all four films are 16:9 enhanced) and sounds satisfying in 2.0 Dolby Surround, with Bill Conti again reprising some of his original themes. (Columbia’s original “Next Karate Kid” DVD offered an additional full-frame transfer and has been out of print for some time).

At well under $30 a pop, this is a superb anthology package from Sony. Though fans who only desire the original film may be disappointed that the Special Edition is only (for the moment at least) available in this box set, the low price and assortment of supplements on the original “Kid” makes it a worthwhile package. Wax on, wax off, and recommended!

Also New On DVD

SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW (**, 2004). 106 mins., PG, Paramount. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Commentary by Kerry Conran and visual FX supervisors; Commentary by producer Jon Avnet; Hour-long documentary “Brave New World”; featurette “The Art of World of Tomorrow”; Deleted Scenes, Outtakes, and Conran’s original six-minute featurette; gag reel; 1.85 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Pretty pictures do not make a great film, and sadly, Kerry Conran's ambitious but bland salute to '30s sci-fi matinees is yet another example of technological advances masking a simplistic and under-nourished screenplay.

In a romantic, 1930s NYC, Jude Law is a heroic pilot with Gwyneth Paltrow as a plucky reporter who uncovers a plot by an evil scientist to steal away the Earth's energy resources by utilizing huge robots and other flying contraptions. It's up to the constantly bickering duo to stop the bad guy from carrying out his nefarious plan, which means flying around in Law's plane, trying to rescue pal Giovanni Ribisi, and receiving assistance from Law's one-eyed ex-lover, played by Angelina Jolie in what basically amounts to a cameo role.

It's a fun idea for a movie packed with homages, but "Sky Captain" is absolutely bereft of innovation beyond its glossy visual sheen. There's no character development beyond the quick quips and forced banter between Law and Paltrow, who's grating and totally miscast here. Just as disappointing is that -- for all of its visual effects -- there's ultimately very little action in the film. There's plenty of running from one location to another, but no major set-pieces after an opening aerial duel, and what might have been an elaborate battle between Law and an evil hench-woman played by Bai Ling never materializes.

Visual effects buffs, however, may find plenty of eye candy in “Sky Captain” to cover over the redundant narrative, and in that regard, Paramount’s DVD is smashing. The 1.85 transfer looks even better than the movie did being projected in theaters, with the sepia tones and stylized visual design of the picture being more striking on the small screen. The 5.1 Dolby Digital sound is likewise excellent, with plenty of effects to satisfy (alas, if only Edward Shearmur’s redundant, forgettable score was as much fun to listen to).

Conrad based his feature-length “Sky Captain” on a six-minute short he produced in 1998, and that original short (which looks nearly identical to the finished film) is one of the many special features included on DVD. A two-part documentary, “Brave New World,” is the highlight, examining the movie’s fascinating origin as a short to an expensive, albeit independently-produced, feature film funded by Dino DeLaurentiis’ nephew and, ultimately, Paramount Pictures. Watching Conran working with the actors against a giant blue-screen backdrop is actually more interesting than sitting through the movie.

A pair of commentary tracks will provide interest for fans, with Conran and the visual FX supervisors offering a discussion heavy on the technical challenges of the picture, while producer Jon Avnet is more focused on the picture’s funding and distribution. An additional featurette, “The Art of World of Tomorrow,” examines the production design, while a pair of deleted scenes (one fully completed, the other in a “mock up” workprint form) and gag reel round out the disc.

As much as I wanted to like “Sky Captain,” the film itself – beyond its visual aspects – is a tedious and highly disappointing affair. (By comparison, 1991's “The Rocketeer” paid homage to old-time matinee adventures with more heart [and story], providing a far superior entertainment in the process.) Conran's hollow script and lack of anything remotely interesting aside from its design (which wares off after a few minutes) ultimately turns "Sky Captain" into a dull, derivative ride that never takes flight.

Also New This Week

LITTLE BLACK BOOK (**, 2004). 107 mins., PG-13, 2004. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Making Of featurette, “Inside Daytime Talk Shows” featurette; 2.40 Widescreen and Full-Screen versions, 5.0 Dolby Digital sound.

Brittany Murphy plays an aspiring TV producer who gets a job for a Jerry Springer-like, New Jersey talk show hostess (Kathy Bates). After being tutored in the ways of tabloid television by fellow producer Holly Hunter, Murphy improbably finds herself in the midst of a conspiracy designed to get her on the show when she discovers the “little black book” of her hockey agent boyfriend (Ron Livingston). Soon, her intrigue upon opening the book turns to jealously as Murphy tracks down all of Livingston’s ex-girlfriends, one of whom still harbors feelings for him.

“Little Black Book” has some good elements in it, namely amiable performances from Murphy, Bates and Hunter, who rise above the sitcom-ish aspects of Melissa Carter and Elisa Bell’s script. What doesn’t work is Livingston’s under-written role, which might have been more effective if the film portrayed him as a louse and not a seemingly nice guy. What’s more, the satirical talk show elements are an awfully easy target that seem a few years out of step, and the ending confrontation is a prolonged affair that detracts from the few, charming elements of the picture that do work (such as Murphy’s fondness for Carly Simon songs).

Columbia TriStar’s DVD includes good-looking widescreen (2.40) and full-screen transfers, plus a standard Making Of featurette and a look behind actual talk show series (with interviews with Springer producers among others). Christophe Beck’s score is by-the-numbers but sounds just fine in 5.0 Dolby Digital sound.
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