Aisle Seat Groundhog Day Edition

and The Mail Bag Returns!
By Andy Dursin

Last week's Oscar nominations didn't contain a whole lot of surprises. Aside from the lack of noms for Miramax's much-touted "Cold Mountain" -- and a strong showing by Peter Weir's "Master and Commander" -- there weren't many shocking revelations to be found in the annual announcements. This also extended to the musical score candidates, though I was heartened to see that James Horner copped a well-deserved nomination for "House of Sand and Fog," which ranked as one of my favorite scores of 2003.

This week's DVD reviews include a movie that snagged a few nominations itself -- Sofia Coppola's "Lost in Translation" -- plus some vintage classics just appearing on disc for the first time, including "The Gods Must Be Crazy" and "Blacula."

February DVD Calendar

February 3rd
Black Widow
Gods Must Be Crazy I & II (reviewed below)
Lost in Translation (reviewed below)
Midnight Madness (Disney; re-release)
Raw Deal (Fox; re-release)
Rain Man (Special Edition)
Under the Tuscan Sun (reviewed below)

February 10
Airport Terminal Pack (all four Airport movies)
Best of Abbott & Costello (box set; eight Universal films)
In The Cut
Intolerable Cruelty

February 17
John Stanley's Nightmare in Blood (Special Edition)
Roswell Season 1
Runaway Jury

February 24
Just One of the Guys
Matchstick Men
The Missing
Spy Kids 3-D

New This Week

LOST IN TRANSLATION (***, 2003). 102 mins., R, Universal. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: "A Conversation with Bill Murray and Sofia Coppola" featurette; behind-the-scenes documentary; extended and deleted scenes; 1.85 Widescreen, 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital sound.

Sofia Coppola's ode to alienation and travelers "lost" both physically and psychologically in a foreign land -- in this case, Tokyo, Japan -- won major critical kudos last year and, more recently, a slew of Oscar nominations. It's certainly a great honor for Coppola, who once was hissed off the screen (not entirely deserved, in my opinion) for her starring role in "The Godfather Part III," but now is coming into her own as a filmmaker.

"Lost in Translation" isn't an extraordinary movie or an example of gripping dramatic filmmaking. It is, on the other hand, a smartly observed "mood movie" that finds Bill Murray as an American actor making a few million as a spokesman for a Japanese whiskey, and Scarlett Johansson as a young wife whose rock photographer husband (Giovanni Ribisi) leaves her to toil around the streets of Tokyo while he's away at work.

Both Murray and Johansson find themselves in a hotel overlooking the cityscape of Tokyo, and end up striking a friendship in a land where they have little to connect with but each other.

It's a keenly-written travelogue and a quietly poignant, amusing movie that gets a lot of mileage out of the realistic performances of Johansson (nicely understated) and Murray, playing his usual droll, dour self to fine effect. All of it is vividly photographed by Lance Acord and nicely paced by Coppola, who gets inside the heads of her characters but then, about midway through the movie, backs off and loses a bit of dramatic momentum in the process. True, the movie is obviously striving to be "real," but at what point do you stop the pseudo-documentary approach and build drama and tension? Coppola doesn't seem to find a comfortable balance in that regard, and the movie fizzles out a bit as a result (the concluding scene is satisfying, however).

Despite my reservations about the picture's second half, "Lost in Translation" is well worth a look for its atmosphere and performances, both of which are markedly well captured in Universal's DVD. Out this week, the disc includes a beautiful 1.85 transfer with 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital soundtracks. For supplements, there's a segment with Coppola and Murray discussing the movie (in lieu of a commentary track), several extended/deleted scenes, a behind-the-scenes documentary and a music video.

ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO (**1/2, 2003). 102 mins., R, Columbia TriStar. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Isolated Music Score and Sound Design track with commentary; Director's Commentary; Deleted Scenes; Making Of featurettes; 1.78 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Writer-director-cinematographer-editor-composer Robert Rodriguez's third entry in his "El Mariachi" trilogy is deftly-made, amusingly played, but like many of his films, wears you out before it's over.

Maybe that's because -- much like the preceding film in this series, "Desperado" -- "Once Upon a Time in Mexico" gives the viewer a montage of "cool moments" instead of a fully developed or satisfying story.

Antonio Banderas is back as El, a retired gunslinger brought back into the fold by a corrupt CIA agent (Johnny Depp) who wants him to knock off the leader of a drug cartel once he's assassinated the president.

Rodriguez has assembled a talented group here: Willem Dafoe, Ruben Blades, Enrique Iglesias, Mickey Rourke, and familiar Rodriguez staples Cheech Marin and Danny Trejo. With Salma Hayek having been unavailable for the duration of the shoot, she's relegated to a cameo -- an unfortunate occurrence since the movie lacks the chemistry between she and Banderas, who comprised the romantic element the preceding picture contained.

Rodriguez's always compelling eye for composition was given more freedom here because of his work with HD cameras. As a result, the sequel plays like a larger-budgeted version of "El Mariachi," with free-wheeling cameras aiding the action at every turn. Certainly the movie looks amazing (the DVD transfer is absolutely picture-perfect, with bold colors and excellent detail), yet Rodriguez's script suffers from the same issues that have plagued much of his recent work. The movie jumps from one scene to the next breathlessly with plenty of colorful characters, yet none are developed enough so that we become engaged in the story itself. This off- sets some of the cute and amusing set-pieces (especially Banderas and Hayek's hotel escape), and ultimately wears you down: by the midway point, I felt as if I had seen enough.

Nevertheless, fans of Rodriguez and the way in which movies are made ought to be satisfied with Columbia's terrific DVD. The filmmaker provides a candid and consistently fascinating commentary track where he discusses how using the high-definition cameras revolutionized his work, in addition to how the sequel came together. Fans of Rodriguez's music will also be thrilled by the inclusion of an Isolated Score/Sound Design track, that contains 5.1 audio of his original score along with comments from the filmmaker; it's a "how to" course in do-it-yourself filmmaking and composing. Separate featurettes examine the use of HD movie-making, the creation of the movie, deleted scenes, and more.

As I mentioned earlier, the 1.78 Widescreen transfer is as good as any I've seen on DVD. Even if you don't have a 16:9 set or plasma TV, you can appreciate the enhanced detail and warm colors that the HD cameras afford to filmmakers. The 5.1 Dolby Digital sound is rich, with a plethora of sound effects and Rodriguez's score making for a pleasing sonic experience.

MY BOSS'S DAUGHTER (**1/2, 2003). 90 mins., R (re-edited from PG-13 theatrical release), Dimension/Buena Vista. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Outtakes, Behind the Scenes special, Tara Reid audition, "re-filmed ending" easter egg; 1.85 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Easily my guilty pleasure pick of the week, David Zucker's tasteless yet surprisingly amusing ensemble comedy plays like "Noises Off!" meets "American Pie."

Ashton Kutcher, who's more palatable here than in most of his roles, plays a junior executive in grumpy mogul Terence Stamp's Chicago company. Kutcher's in love with Stamp's daughter (Tara Reid), which leads to him accepting her invitation -- to house-sit the family's posh home. While father and daughter are out at a party, Kutcher gets into all kinds of predicaments, from a fired secretary (Molly Shannon) looking to reclaim her job, Stamp's cast-off son (Andy Richter) trying to fend off his drug habit, a burglar (Michael Madsen) looking for the latest score, and a next-door neighbor (Jeffrey Tambor) who thinks Kutcher is his daughter's blind date.

David Dorfman's script is utterly ridiculous and the laughs often low- brow (there's even a totally gratuitous Carmen Electra wet T-shirt scene), yet former "Airplane!" vet Zucker throws in a few very funny gags reminiscent of the good old Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker days -- enough so that you can partially forgive the movie's lapses in good taste. (It's certainly better than Zucker's more financially successful but comedically bankrupt "Scary Movie 3" from last year). More over, the cast is amusing, especially Shannon, Richter, and Stamp's funny straight-faced turn as the company CEO.

"My Boss's Daughter" (originally titled "The Guests" and released under that name in certain international territories) is not a great film by any means, but for a movie that wasn't screened for critics on its opening weekend it's certainly better than expected. The end credits list the Farrelly Brothers at the top of the thank you acknowledgments, and one can sense their brand of humor having been a major influence throughout.

Dimension's DVD offers a few outtakes, a fluffy behind-the-scenes special, a six-minute audition tape of Tara Reid, and -- as an easter-egg -- a "mock up" filming of a scene Zucker added to the movie's ending after test screenings, intended to convince studio executives to allow them to do re- shoots (it worked). The 1.85 transfer is fine and the 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack sports an amiable score by Teddy Castelucci and better-than- average songs.

UNDER THE TUSCAN SUN (**1/2, 2003). 113 mins., PG-13, Touchstone/Buena Vista. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Director commentary, deleted scenes, Making Of featurette; 1.85 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Despite a sappy script, Diane Lane gives a wonderful performance as Frances Mayes, a California writer whose husband leaves her and their idyllic life behind. A friend decides to give Frances a nice present -- ten days in Tuscany -- which ultimately changes her life.

I can tell you that I never read the book by Frances Mayes that formed the basis for Audrey Wells' film, but my mother and her friends -- who DID read it -- cried foul at the changes to the original story that were made by the filmmakers. Mayes' original non-fiction account of her travels to Italy were as much about the cuisine as anything else, though somewhere in there the filmmakers found a tale of female independence that needed to be told. (Mayes, the author, is apparently married in real life).

So, in come the standard Lifetime Movie of the Week romantic aspects (her relationship with a local guy played by Italian star Raoul Bova for one), which ultimately detract from the otherwise solid production -- principally, lush settings superbly served up by cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson. Christophe Beck (best known for his work on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer") also contributes a pleasant, heartfelt score, but it's Lane that keeps the movie on-track. She's good enough to keep you watching despite the overly melodramatic aspects of the story -- it's just unfortunate that the story needed to be "sapped down" for the common movie-going public.

Touchstone's DVD looks terrific in 1.85 Widescreen and features a soothing 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack. Extras include several deleted scenes, a ten-minute Making Of, and commentary with director-writer Audrey Wells.

THE FIGHTING TEMPTATIONS (**, 2003). 122 mins., PG-13, Paramount. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Eight extended musical numbers; 5 extended scenes; 2.35 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

A big city conniver (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) returns to his small Georgia town to inherit his aunt's legacy: the church choir. Having just lost his job due to falsifying his background, Gooding finds it to be the perfect antidote since the job entails the challenge of winning a statewide gospel competition -- and the possibility of netting a few dollars in the process.

It's all fine and good, except the choir isn't very good (of course), and strict church guidelines have forced the best weapon at Gooding's disposal -- former childhood sweetheart Beyonce Knowles -- to leave the flock and strike out as a torch singer on her own. It's up to Gooding to rally the troops and whip the choir into shape.

"The Fighting Temptations" is certainly a noble idea at a comedy- musical, and indeed the gospel soundtrack sounds great and helps the picture come alive. Unfortunately, director Jonathan Lynn's career-long knack for bloated running times and lackadaisical pacing results in a tedious film that takes forever to get going (it's nearly 45 minutes before you actually get to "the plot"). It would have be more tolerable if the script were actually funny, yet the Elizabeth Hunter-Saladin K. Patterson screenplay is filled with the requisite small-town types who simply aren't very amusing. It all adds up to a movie where Gooding's hard work and Knowles' good looks work overtime to overcome the pedestrian material, but ultimately it's a losing battle.

Paramount's DVD at least looks good (in 2.35 widescreen) and sounds better, with an enveloping 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack. Special features include 7 extended scenes (yes, the movie could have been even longer than its two-hour running time!) and 8 extended music performances, which should have been surrounded by a better story.

WUTHERING HEIGHTS (**, 2003). 88 mins., PG-13, Paramount. DVD FEATURES: 1.85 Widescreen, Dolby Surround stereo.

Slick, MTV rock 'n roll variation on the Emily Bronte novel finds Erika Christensen as Cate, part of a family that lives in an isolated lighthouse (!) which rocker Mike Vogel becomes involved with. Johnny Witworth and Katherine Heigl are two of Christensen's siblings, who aren't exactly enraptured by her newfound love, which culminates in fame, fortune, and tragedy in Suri B. Krishnamma's made-for-TV film.

Jim Steinman produced the songs for this MTV production, which looks slick and features an attractive young cast. However, as we've seen with previous "hip" literature takes like "William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet," the marriage between classic novels and contemporary commercialism is seldom an easy one. "Wuthering Heights" ultimately doesn't work for a myriad of reasons, not the least of which is that it tries to cram as much of the original story into its 88-minute running time as it can. The Max Enscoe-Annie DeYoung script might have been more workable as a feature film, yet despite solid work from cineamtographer Claudio Chea, it comes off as material that would have been better suited to being a full- blown musical.

Paramount's DVD looks terrific in 1.85 Widescreen (16:9 enhanced) and features a standard Dolby Surround track.

Recent Vintage & Cult Releases

THE GODS MUST BE CRAZY (***, 1980 [released in 1984], 109 mins., PG) and THE GODS MUST BE CRAZY II (**1/2, 98 mins., 1989, PG). Columbia TriStar Home Video. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: "Journey to Nyae Nyae" featurette, Jamie Uys remembrance featurette, 2.35 (First film) and 1.85 (sequel) Widescreen, Mono (I) and Dolby Stereo (II) sound.

One of the great international hits of all-time, Jamie Uys' silly slapstick comedy -- complete with sped-up comedic shenanigans, bad dubbing and a goofy soundtrack -- has come to DVD at long last.

Uys' tale of a bushman (N!Xau) in the Kalahari desert, hit by a Coke bottle that falls from the sky, was a smash success around the world. The tale of the bushman is interwoven with two other plots -- one involving a group of terrorists, the other featuring a romance between a bumbling biologist and a schoolteacher -- in a fabric that shouldn't work due to its haphazard filming (some scenes are out of focus, others are so badly edited that they're amusing by themselves) but does, thanks to its innocent charm and exotic locales. Its gentle, amusing look at civilization contrasted with the fairy-tale existence of the African tribe that N!Xau comes from enables the picture to endure even today.

I fondly remember seeing the movie back during a "team trip" (i.e. camping expedition) at Moses Brown School in 8th grade (circa 1988). The scanned and cropped tape looked awful, but even with a group of disparate 6th, 7th and 8th graders looking on, the movie worked its magic, proving how universal the appeal of "The Gods Must Be Crazy" is -- provided you approach it with an open mind.

Uys' film was released in the U.S. in 1984, and its unprecedented success spawned a bigger-budgeted sequel, "The Gods Must Be Crazy II," in 1988. The sequel again follows N!Xau's Xixo as he tries to save his children, who accidentally become stowaways on a poacher's truck, and meets a bevy of "civilized" people along the way. Though the movie is engaging and fun (and boasts a score by Charles Fox of all people), the sequel lacks the charm of its predecessor and doesn't favorably compare.

That said, both movies have been out of circulation on video for some time, and Columbia TriStar's DVD Double Feature will prove to be a godsend for fans of the original. The first movie's Techniscope (2.35) frame has been preserved for the first time on video, and it looks great -- right down to all of the splices and out-of-focus scenes you'll remember from seeing the movie the first time. The sequel was shot at 1.85 and looks better, the result of more money (most of it American) having been added to the budget. The soundtracks (mono on the original, Dolby Stereo on the sequel) are as good as can be expected.

Columbia has also done an excellent job adding a pair of thoughtful featurettes to the DVD, with one major caveat.

"Journey to Nyae Nyae" is a moving, half-hour program that documents a filmmaker's return to the village where N!Xau lived. Footage from 1990 is combined with a more recent return to the village, where computers were donated to the local Kalahari school by the studio. Interviews with N!Xau and the school's teachers are included, but sadly, none of their comments are subtitled in English -- something that I assume has to be a technical glitch with the disc (there IS a subtitle option, yet there aren't any English subtitles -- only the Japanese subtitles work!). This takes a lot away from the poignancy of the documentary, which was newly produced expressly for the DVD. A featurette on the second disc includes Buster Reynolds recalling his work with Jamie Uys on the two movies, while a photo gallery of the Kalahari school rounds out the set.

BLACULA (**1/2, 93 mins., 1972, PG) and SCREAM, BLACULA, SCREAM (**1/2, 96 mins., 1973, PG). MGM Home Entertainment. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Trailers, 1.85 Widescreen, Mono Sound.

One of the last times I really laughed at Saturday Night Live post- 1990 was when comic Sinbad appeared in a short skit entitled "Bram Stoker's Blacula." It was a hilarious bit that, as the title implied, surmised what would happen if Francis Ford Coppola had adapted the cult favorite American-International '70s exploitation pic instead of going for the self- indulgent "arty" approach he employed on his 1992 film.

I mention that because I had hoped, in watching the original "Blacula" films now on DVD from MGM, that the films would be heavily dated and as amusing as the concept implies. Instead, what I found were a pair of surprisingly "safe," PG-rated horror efforts that never quite take the concept as far as it could have gone.

Granted, William Marshall -- with his booming voice and charismatic screen presence -- IS a good deal of fun as the former African prince turned vampire by Dracula himself. "Blacula" wakes up from his slumber just in time to find a new mate in William Crain's 1972 original film, and then, in 1973's "Scream, Blacula, Scream," he goes up against voodoo priestess Pam Grier when her brother feels ticked that he's been passed over for the family power.

Both DVDs look fine in 16:9 Widescreen and feature groovy '70s soundtracks (Gene Page's score from the original movie makes for a great album), though nothing in the way of extras aside from the original theatrical trailers.

Though the movies aren't as "groovy" as I hoped, both "Blacula" films have their share of fans, who will be pleased by their arrival on disc at long last.

Also New on DVD

THE RETURNER (**1/2, 2002, Available February 10). 117 mins., R, Columbia TriStar. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Making Of featurettes (subtitled in English) with optional commentary; 5.1 Japanese (subtitled) and English dialogue tracks; 1.85 Widescreen.

Japanese sci-fi thriller combines "The Terminator" with "E.T." to mixed results.

Takashi Yamazaki's film follows Anne Suzuki as a girl from the future -- 2084, to be exact -- where humankind is entrenched in a war with extraterrestrials. They're losing the battle (being holed up in Tibet isn't a good sign), and in a last-ditch effort, send Suzuki back to 2002 Tokyo in an effort to prevent the whole war from happening.

It turns out that an evil drug lord is to blame for the mess, since he abducts a lost E.T. and ignites the whole conflict. She teams up with a gunslinger named Miyamoto (Takeshi Kaneshiro), who's waging his own battle with the drug lord (Goro Kishitani, who comes across as the Japanese Gary Oldman), in an attempt at saving the E.T. and the future in the process.

Yamazaki directed the film, co-wrote it, and designed the special effects, which are fairly impressive at the picture's end (I loved how the E.T.'s ship looks like a 747 but changes shape into an otherworldly form). The problem is that the movie otherwise is pretty ordinary and overly derivative of American genre films, in spite of a pair of central characters who you do come to care about. More over, the sappy second half feels like warmed-over Spielberg or "Mac and Me"-- in fact, had it not been for some bloody R-rated violence, the picture would have been best suited to younger audiences who wouldn't be bothered by the material recycled from other movies.  Columbia TriStar's DVD offers a solid 1.85 transfer with 5.1 Japanese and English tracks, sporting a satisfying score by Akihiko Matsumoto. Special features include several Making Of featurettes and an hour-long production diary, subtitled in English and sporting optional commentary by Yamazaki. A nice touch for an interesting Japanese production that sci-fi fans may find to be worth a look in spite of its shortcomings.

SIN (**, 2002). 107 mins., R, Columbia TriStar. DVD FEATURES: Trailer, 1.85 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Ving Rhames plays a former cop whose sister (Kerry Washington) is dragged into a seedy world of drugs and porn. Yep, it's "Hardcore" again to a certain degree, but this time played out as a pseudo-western with Gary Oldman as the psycho in charge of the operation who Rhames has to take down.

Director Michael Stevens and writer Tim Willocks have fashioned a taut independent thriller, shot entirely in Nevada with a solid cast. Michael Giacchino's score is atmospheric and the movie is reasonably well-crafted, yet the story is grimy and the characters unpleasant -- the movie's relentlessly downbeat tone ultimately wears on you.

Columbia TriStar's DVD offers a fine 1.85 Widescreen transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound. Extras are limited to the original theatrical trailer.

Aisle Seat Mail Bag

From Bruce Marshall:

I appreciated your comments on ST:Undiscovered Country.
I despise Super 35. On home video they are practically unwatchable. I refuse to watch them in the Widescreen Version. I rent the full-scrren , if available. Only one video store in SF even carries the full-frame versions. I tried to convince the manager of Tower Video to carry both versions, but he refused, telling me customers prefer ws so they can see the "whole picture". I tried explaining how Super 35 works, not an easy thing to do.
I agree with you, that a compromise 1:78/1:85 IS THE IDEAL solution. The director of THE RECRUIT, a Super 35 film, released his 1:78.
People who worship at the altar of OAR's do not know what they are missing!
From Marty McKee:
Hi, Andy!

Are you sure REAL MEN went straight to video? I'm 97% sure I remember it playing in Carbondale, Illinois, but I never got around to seeing it. I planned to, but it disappeared too quickly. The IMDB has no release date listed, but it does have a box office gross, which implies that it did get a theatrical release.

We've since come to the conclusion that REAL MEN might have received a "token" theatrical run in a few small markets (likely to fulfill contractual obligations), but basically was dumped straight to tape by a disinterested MGM-UA. Heck, how many 1987 films have MONO soundtracks?


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