Aisle Seat Valentine’s Day Edition


February is not a heavy month for DVD releases, with most high-profile titles having been released a week ago. It is, however, a big month for Valentine’s releases, being issued just in time to coincide with Valentine’s Day next Monday.

In lieu of the upcoming event, here are a few choices that may make for suitable Valentine’s viewing (a couple being dependant on your viewing situation at the moment. I may not be able to pull off showing a few of these to my girlfriend, but you may have better luck!).

New This Week

THE NOTEBOOK (**½, 2004). 124 mins., PG-13, New Line. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Commentary tracks by director Nick Cassavetes and author Nicholas Sparks; Screen Tests; 12 Deleted/Extended Sequences With Editor/Director Commentary; Making Of Featurettes; 2.35 Widescreen and Full-Screen versions, 5.1 Dolby Digital EX sound.

Last year’s sleeper hit plays like a PG-13 rated “Hallmark Hall of Fame” movie, though the performances by its cast of both young stars (Rachel McAdams, Ryan Gosling) and old pros (James Garner, Gena Rowlands) ultimately puts it over the top.

Nick Cassavetes’ film, based on Nicholas Sparks’ novel, is a simple romance of a young couple (Gosling, McAdams) who meet and fall in love in a small, coastal Carolina town in the 1940s. Though social circumstances – like McAdams’ brittle, disapproving mother (Joan Allen) – stand in their way, only Gosling’s eventual involvement in WWII ultimately puts the kibosh on their relationship. Years later, they find each other again, right when McAdams is about to be married to upper-crust fiancee James Marsden, and...

...while their relationship unfolds, the film is broken up by a framing story set in the present day, with James Garner reading the young couple’s notebook to Alzheimer’s patient Gena Rowlands. Clearly Garner is more involved than he’s letting on about Rowlands and their connection with the young couple, but his patience and understanding is key to unlocking Rowlands’ memory.

Jeremy Leven adapted Sparks’ novel, which makes for a predictable, melodramatic, but competent cinematic love story. Few folks bother to produce an honest-to-goodness, old-fashioned romantic drama these days, but Cassavetes and the cast deserve kudos for bringing some dignity and a general restraint to “The Notebook.” The picture is nicely shot by Robert Frausse and superbly acted by Gosling and McAdams (so engagingly obnoxious in the Rob Schneider vehicle “The Hot Chick”), who do a great job selling the characters and making the picture work to a degree.

On the downside, “The Notebook” suffers from somewhat of a disjointed finale, which goes on a bit too long and could have been more effectively handled. Another disappointment is the forgettable, overly-restrained score by Aaron Zigman. Here’s a movie just crying out for a sweeping, memorable main theme and occasional moments of dramatic power, and yet Zigman’s score is so quiet and disposable you hardly realize it’s in the movie. While the latter may have been what the filmmakers wanted, it’s ultimately a major miscalculation, since the film could have used a grand dramatic gesture, the kind that Marvin Hamlisch or even Dave Grusin could have provided. Too bad.

New Line’s Special Edition DVD, out this week, includes a pair of commentary tracks (one by author Nicholas Sparks, the other by Cassavetes) plus 12 deleted/extended scenes. Two of the excised sequences are more explicit love scenes, which editor Alan Heim notes had to be trimmed in order to qualify for the filmmakers’ intended PG-13 rating. Three Making Of featurettes and McAdams’ screen test are included, while the studio’s excellent 2.35 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound are both exceptionally fine (a full-screen version is also included).

SHALL WE DANCE (**½, 2004). 106 mins., PG-13, Miramax. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Commentary with director Peter Chelsom; Deleted Scenes with optional commentary; Three Making Of featurettes; Music Video; 1.85 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

SHALL WE DANCE? (***, 1996). 119 mins., PG, Miramax. DVD FEATURES: English, French and Spanish subtitles; 1.85 Widescreen, 2.0 Dolby Digital Surround (Japanese language only).

The 1996 hit Japanese import “Shall We Dance?” was remade into an American vehicle for Richard Gere, Jennifer Lopez and Susan Sarandon last fall with uneven results.

In Peter Chelsom’s film, Gere plays a typically harried Chicago businessman who’s never able to see his wife (Sarandon) and longs for something more out of life. One day while riding the train, Gere gazes upon a dance studio run by an ex-budding ballroom champion Jennifer Lopez. Upon signing up for lessons, Gere finds his life re-energized, though his wife suspects he may be cheating on him. Thus begins a circle of confusion, with Sarandon using a private detective (Richard Jenkins) to track Gere’s whereabouts down, Gere not wanting to reveal his cha-cha-cha nightlife and the promise of an upcoming competition waiting in the wings.

Audrey Wells adapted Masayuki Suo’s 1996 film somewhat faithfully, though despite pleasant performances and some charming moments, the American “Shall We Dance” suffers from the same, fragmented feel of director Chelsom’s last Miramax comedy: the disposable John Cusack vehicle “Serendipity.” The film is overloaded with supporting players (most of whom have little to do) and thinly-drawn subplots which should either have been further developed or excised altogether, since the story’s momentum never feels like it’s in the right gear. Gere and Sarandon’s relationship fares best in the film, though Lopez’s role seems flat and under-written.

It’s curious how Chelsom made a name for himself thanks to charming, offbeat imports like the wonderful “Hear My Song,” but has struggled to maintain consistency in his Hollywood work. It’s as if he’s trying too hard to make “Shall We Dance” too quirky and unpredictable, when it would have been sufficient to simply keep the focus on Gere and his relationships with Sarandon and Lopez. Less, here, would have been more.

At least Gabriel Yared’s soothing score is a bright spot (though Chelsom’s past collaborator John Altman shares the composer credit here), and sounds fine in Buena Vista’s DVD. The disc includes commentary by Chelsom and a handful of deleted scenes, including an elaborate, discarded alternate opening. Three standard Making Of featurettes are included along with a music video, a strong 1.85 transfer and satisfying 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack.

Buena Vista has also taken the opportunity to issue the superior Japanese version on DVD. Though the presentation is standard (a decent 1.85 transfer with an acceptable Dolby Surround mix and English subtitles), Suo’s film is a charming import that works better in its original form than the American remake.

VANITY FAIR (**, 2004). 141 mins., PG-13, Universal. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Director commentary by Mira Nair; Deleted Scenes; Two Making Of featurettes; 2.35 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Uneven, strange adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel, an uncertain melding of stately British costume drama with director Mira Nair’s flair for Indian ethnic elements and desire to inject contemporary parallels into the drama.

Reese Witherspoon gives her all but comes off as a bit shallow as Thackeray’s heroine Becky Sharp, who in the early 1800's attempts to navigate through British society by any means possible. Eileen Atkins, Jim Broadbent, Gabriel Byrne, Romola Garai, Bob Hoskins, Rhys Ifans, and James Purefoy are just a few of the individuals she comes in contact with in a film that never settles on a consistent tone. The identity crisis can be felt throughout: at times “Vanity Fair” feels like Merchant-Ivory, at others like a “Moulin Rouge”-esque adaptation of “Sense and Sensibility.”

Nair’s widescreen lensing (photographed by Declan Quinn) is as fetching as her previous works, but this time the movie feels forced and stuck between genres. More over, many readers of the novel were irritated by numerous changes Nair and screenwriters Julian Fellowes, Matthew Faulk and Mark Skeet made to Thackeray’s novel, and even Mychael Danna’s aimless score rubs the wrong way when it’s all said and done (once can sense Nair wanting to throw in a full-fledged Bollywood musical number, though she stops just shy of that).

Universal’s DVD sports a competent, though somewhat soft-looking widescreen transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound. Extras include Nair’s commentary, a handful of deleted scenes (including a totally different ending), and two fluffy “Making Of” featurettes. Nair’s interview in the latter – in which she discusses how “contemporary” she wanted the film to be – is especially revealing as it pretty much states everything that’s wrong with the picture.

Recently Released

MR. 3000 (***, 2004; Aisle Seat DVD Pick of the Week). 103 mins., 2004, PG-13; Touchstone. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Outtakes, Deleted Scenes, Director Commentary, Making Of featurettes; 1.85 Widescreen, 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital soundtracks.

Surprisingly good comedy-drama offers Bernie Mac as an egomaniac ex-baseball star stymied by his attempts to break into the Hall of Fame. After hitting the 3,000 hit plateau and bailing out on his fellow Milwaukee Brewers, Mac’s Stan Ross finds his Cooperstown candidacy severely comprised a decade later after statisticians uncover an error in the books: “Mr. 3000" actually doesn’t have 3,000 lifetime hits, but rather 2,997!

With the prospects of gaining admission into the Hall and gaining more publicity in the process, Ross makes a deal with the Brewers’ owner (Chris Noth) and rejoins the struggling team, just in time to find out he’s got a lot of work to do in order to hit the 3,000 hit mark. Meanwhile, a former flame (Angela Bassett) shows up now working for ESPN, and the team’s manager (the silent Paul Sorvino) has little to say as his young players laugh at Ross’ futility.

Charles Stone III’s highly entertaining film is filled with heart and even a few moving dramatic moments, which all help elevate “Mr. 3000" from what appeared (in its trailers at least) to be a typically over-the-top sports comedy. Mac manages to effectively straddle the fence between a vain sports ego and a guy who finally realizes that he’s got his priorities out of whack, while Bassett offers strong support as an aging TV personality (a sad reflection on the state of modern broadcasting!). One wishes that more time was spent on developing Mac’s relationships with manager Sorvino and the younger players on his team, but even in its final cut, “Mr. 3000" is a solid, feel-good comedy punctuated by realistic on-field action and a jazzy, effective score by John Powell.

Touchstone’s Special Edition DVD offers only a few deleted scenes and outtakes, plus extended “Tonight Show” and “Sportscenter” segments that are seen intermittently in the picture. Commentary from Stone and several Making Of featurettes are also included, along with a fantastic 1.85 transfer and excellent 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital soundtracks. Recommended!

PAPARAZZI (**½, 2004). 85 mins., 2004, PG-13; Fox. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Director Commentary; Deleted Scenes with optional commentary; Stunts and Making Of featurettes; 2.35 Widescreen and full-screen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Flamboyant, over-the-top, and guilty-pleasure suspense-thriller pits action star “Bo Laramie” (Cole Hauser) against a pack of cutthroat, vile Paparazzi – including Tom Sizemore and a disheveled Baldwin brother – who nearly cause the death of his young son and wife Robin Tunney.

Instead of leaving matters in the hands of detective Dennis Farina (who always seems two steps behind everyone else), Laramie opts to track down the pack of Paparazzi by any means necessary. This entails setting up the photographers in traffic accidents, framing them for murder, and generally serving up revenge by infiltrating their seedy hangouts in bars, strip clubs, and Sizemore’s docked houseboat.

With cameos by Vince Vaughn, Chris Rock, and producer Mel Gibson, “Paparazzi” is a movie that’s almost impossible to take seriously. Sizemore’s bonkers performance is a great match for his wretched collection of underlings, including the washed-up Baldwin (Daniel, whose older brother Alec is referenced in an in-joke), who serve up a quartet of villains as disgusting as, well, the Paparazzi themselves.

Forrest Smith’s script is all cliches and the movie has no surprises at all, but credit director Paul Abascal for fashioning a visually slick and fast-moving thriller that makes its point (that the Paparazzi are scum) and hammers it into the ground with style. The performances are so engagingly nutty that “Paparazzi” ranks as a delirious thriller that’s at least one of the more entertaining efforts of the past year (even if it’s for all the wrong reasons).

Fox’s DVD offers matching widescreen (2.35) and full-screen transfers with a throbbing 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack, sporting a fairly nondescript score by Brian Tyler. A couple of deleted scenes are included with optional director commentary (Abascal also talks during the film proper), as are a pair of featurettes (one on the widescreen side, the other on the full-screen version) and the theatrical trailer.

Godzilla Double Feature

You have to give it up for Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. Of all the studios that have handled Godzilla and his associates over the decades, only Sony has shown the Big G some respect, having released newly-remastered, widescreen editions of countless Godzilla efforts over the last year or so.

This week, they dust off a pair of Toho productions – one from the tail end of Godzilla’s “Golden Age” ‘60s efforts, the other an entertaining jaunt from his ‘90s adventures.

The best and brightest of the duo is easily GODZILLA VS. THE SEA MONSTER (***, 1966, 87 mins., PG), a colorful, lightly-scripted and irresistibly appealing (for Kaiju addicts, of course) production that (along with the already-reissued “Son of Godzilla”) represents the last great Godzilla movie made in the ‘60s (some would argue it’s one of the last great Godzilla movies, period).

This Jun Fukada-directed effort finds a group of sailors stumbling upon a remote island where a terrorist organization (the Red Bamboo!) is hard at work, using “The Sea Monster” (Ebirah, to be exact) to fend off any possible trouble and manufacturing nuclear bombs that will soon threaten mankind. Our heroes find out that Godzilla is nearby, fortunately, and G teams up with none other than Mothra (his former rival) to take down the Bamboo and Ebirah at the same time.

The teaming of Godzilla and Mothra makes for some exciting action late in the game, but even before that point, there’s life in Shinichi Sekizawa’s screenplay (which Steve Ryfle notes in his indispensable book “Japan’s Favorite Mon-Star” was originally constructed as a starring vehicle for King Kong!). With an energetic (for this series at least) script and beautiful widescreen imagery here at last restored to its full 2.35 dimensions, “Godzilla Vs. The Sea Monster” represents the best of Toho’s finely-tuned monster mash formula.

Kids and Kaiju fans alike should rejoice over the presentation Sony has given the film on DVD: the 16:9 enhanced transfer will blow away your old, LP-recorded sell-thru VHS releases, and the Japanese/English tracks (with optional English subtitles) will enable you to make the choice of hearing the actual dialogue tracks or the dubbed renditions you grew up with. Highly recommended!

Not quite as much fun but respectable nonetheless, 1993's GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA II (**1/2, 106 mins., PG) offers a more serious battle between the newly reborn Mechagodzilla, Rodan and G himself, in this sequel to 1992's “Godzilla Vs. Mothra: The Battle For Earth.”

With a thankfully less-convoluted screenplay than most of Godzilla’s ‘90s efforts and a solid Akira Ifukube score (deftly recycling many of his classic themes), this G production offers big-scale action sequences and superior special effects than his ‘60s fare. On the other hand, there seems to be a bit less “heart” in this entry, despite the introduction (or re-introduction) of Godzilla Jr., who hatches out of obscurity and into the continuity of the later films.

Not shot in widescreen, Sony’s 1.78 transfer looks adequate (not as glossy as “The Sea Monster,” though perhaps that’s due to the somewhat dreary cinematography of the film itself), and there are 2.0 Japanese and English tracks again with optional English subs.

Hopefully Sony isn’t done with their Godzilla remasterings and will continue to re-issue some of Toho’s more sterling efforts down the line. For the time being, fans should be more than satisfied with these two Big G DVDs, available for the first time in solid presentations in the U.S. at last.

In Brief: New Made-For-Video Sequels and Direct-To-DVD Releases

BALTO III: WINGS OF CHANGE (79 mins., 2005; Universal): Cute small-screen sequel to “Balto,” which I assume must have become a big hit on video since the original movie wasn’t a success at the box-office back in 1995. Here, Balto and his friends take on a pilot who thinks he can deliver mail and supplies faster than our favorite sled dog and his friends. Nicely animated and good fun for the little ones, with a colorful full-screen transfer, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, and an interactive game thrown in for good measure.

MULAN II (79 mins., 2005; Disney): Disappointing, direct-to-video Disney production fails to capture the charm of the 1998 original. This time out, Mulan and General Shang are assigned to escort three princesses to a distant Chinese city. The songs are forgettable (though Joel McNeely’s score is pleasant enough), but it’s really the flaccid story and bland action that makes “Mulan II” one of the weaker small-screen efforts from Disney of late. The DVD presentation is nice enough, though, with a pristine 1.78 transfer, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, a few deleted scenes, two featurettes, and interactive games aimed at its young intended audience.

CAROLINA (**, 2002, 98 mins., PG-13; Buena Vista): Julia Stiles stars as a young TV show producer whose eccentric Southern family includes grandma Shirley MacLaine, deadbeat dad Randy Quaid, and sister Azura Skye. Stiles’ fruitless attempts to land a boyfriend start to change, though, once a striking British contestant (Edward Atterton) makes a move on her, which ultimately leads bestfriend Alessandro Nivola to proclaim his love for her as well. Filmed in 2001 and never theatrically released, Marleen Gorris’ film, written by Katherine Fugate, plays like a younger variation on your typical stereotypical Southern family drama-edy (a la “Steel Magnolias” and “Fried Green Tomatoes”). This film, though, is fairly creaky right from the start, with a desperately “wacky” score by Steve Bartek and over-the-top performances from old vets MacLaine and Quaid. Miramax’s DVD offers a 1.85 transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, plus a short Making Of featurette.

3 STEPS TO HEAVEN (91 mins., 1996, R, Miramax): Made-for-British TV thriller about a woman who investigates her boyfriend’s death, leading her to uncover his secretive “second life.” Miramax’s DVD of this one (shot over a decade ago!) includes a 1.85 transfer with 2.0 Dolby Digital sound.

NEXT WEEK: RAY Tunes Up On DVD, plus more comments and reviews! Don't forget to say Aloha on the Message Boards, direct any emails to the link above and we'll catch you then. Cheers!