3/13/07 Edition -- The AISLE SEAT BLOG Is Now Online!

Going Berserk With THE MANITOU
The Long-Lost Classic (Kinda) Arrives on DVD

If you’ve been a regular Aisle Seat reader over the years, you know that one of my sources of cinematic kryptonite is the over-the-top horror/sci-fi extravaganza. Gems like “Lifeforce,” “Dreamcatcher” and John Frankenheimer’s “Prophecy” have gotten a fair shake in these quarters, even if my reasons for enjoying all of them have little to do with how the pictures were intended to be appreciated.

Last week Anchor Bay released another of these guilty pleasures -- William Girdler’s massively entertaining, bizarre horror epic THE MANITOU, which answers the question “what might've happened if Blake Edwards directed a horror movie in the style of ‘The Exorcist’ the year after ‘Star Wars’ was released?”

Tony Curtis -- always your first choice for a genre film -- stars as a down-on-his-luck psychic who (shades of “The Producers” here) enjoys bilking old women out of their social security by reading their tarot cards. Things take a turn towards the surreal, however, when old flame Susan Strasberg comes to his apartment with news of a growth on her neck...a growth that turns out to be a fetus! And if that weren’t enough, it’s not just ANY fetus, but the body of an Indian medicine man, trying to be reborn into the-then swinging ‘70s!

Utterly strange, packed with laughs, and yet so sincerely written (by Girdler, Jon Cedar, and Thomas Pope, adapting a novel by Graham Masterson), “The Manitou” has developed a small cult following over the years, despite never being widely circulated on video. Anchor Bay’s new DVD release presents the first-ever 16:9 transfer of “The Manitou,” allowing viewers to enjoy every inch of its wide Panavision frame, and what a doozy they’ll be able to see

Curtis’ performance seems like it’s coming straight out of an Edwards comedy, with the actor apparently improvising some of his material, while the movie’s non-horror moments are brightly-lit and carried by a lyrical Lalo Schifrin score -- making it all the more jarring when “The Manitou” falls back upon its pulpy origins. Meanwhile, Michael Ansara (shades of Will Sampson’s later role in “Poltergeist II”) plays a modern-day Native American who agrees to help Curtis, so long as chewing tobacco is provided!

Together, the duo team up to defeat the evil once it’s “reborn,” leading to a hysterical climax with Strasberg -- now conveniently topless, by the way -- using some unbelievably bad special effects to take down the head Chief in an ending that simply has to be seen to be believed.

Co-starring Stella Stevens, Ann Sothern, and Burgess Meredith (in a sequence that’s actually intentionally funny), “The Manitou” is a grade-A howler all the way. Outlandish in its premise and just so straight-faced in its execution, the movie works as a classic bad movie because everyone involved seems to have approached it with good intentions. Despite being totally miscast, Curtis is likeable enough, the movie’s make-up effects are decent albeit not Dick Smith-quality, and Schifrin’s terrific score is quite possibly one of his finest. Eschewing the usual genre conventions for a full-blown orchestral approach, with a lyrical love theme and backing Indian motifs, Schifrin’s soundtrack demands a viewing by itself (and is certainly worth a CD release!).

It’s certainly a one-of-a-kind cinematic experience, with Anchor Bay’s DVD offering a solid transfer derived from a decent looking print that only shows its age here and there. Sadly, although the movie was screened in Dolby Stereo for 70MM showings, the DVD only offers a 2.0 mono soundtrack, failing to do proper justice to the dynamics of Schifrin’s music (it seems that the 70mm tracks might be lost since a British DVD of “The Manitou” likewise only offered a mono track).

The original trailer and a TV spot round out a must-have disc for all bad movie buffs. Wild, wacky and unquestionably recommended, especially if you have some friends to come along for the ride! (*** guilty pleasure rating [** for everyone else]; 104 mins., PG, 1978; Anchor Bay).

New From Warner Home Video

ALEXANDER REVISITED: The Final Cut (**, 214 mins., 2005, Not Rated; Warner): Oliver Stone's biopic of the great leader of ancient Macedonia quickly went into production to avoid competition from fellow flamboyant auteur Baz Luhrmann's (as-of-now cancelled) version, but tanked completely in the United States, necessitating a healthy run in international markets just to make up its budget and marketing costs.

Undeserving of the "Worst Movie of 2005" tag some placed on it, “Alexander” is also far from a misunderstood epic in need of re-assessment. Stone's movie benefits from some emotionally charged battle sequences and a majestic score by Vangelis, but shaky performances, curious casting and a disjointed dramatic structure -- only somewhat rectified by Stone’s longer, 214-minute “Final Cut” -- prevent it from becoming much more than a missed opportunity.

Stone's film paints Alexander (a miscast Colin Farrell) as a spoiled child who grows into a leader dominated by an overbearing, crazy mother with a penchant for snakes (Angelina Jolie), has sex with a wild, untamed woman (Rosario Dawson) who becomes his wife at the same time he has a close relationship with his trusty male companion Hephaistion (Jared Leto), and conquers the world one battle at a time, spreading Greek culture in the process.

Val Kilmer pops up as Alexander's disfigured father, Christopher Plummer and Brian Blessed offer fleeting cameos that are extended in the new version, while Anthony Hopkins appears as Ptolemy in unintentionally humorous sequences that attempt to bring some sense to Stone's dramatic structure.

This third attempt by Stone to get his wayward epic right does offer more development to Alexander’s background, his relationship with his parents, and his rise to power (which is intercut with his later military campaigns), but the fundamental problems that have plagued every version of “Alexander” remain: the film still doesn’t feel entirely coherent, and Farrell’s limp performance is something no amount of bombast, superb cinematography (by Rodrigo Prieto) and music (kudos to Vangelis for another evocative soundtrack) can compensate for.

Ultimately, perhaps the worst sin of Stone's film -- and all three versions of it now -- is that it's tedious and ultimately torturous to sit through. Stone's "drawing room" character scenes -- which are supposed to show the Machiavellian workings of Alexander's inner-circle, his relationship with his mother and close associates -- are lifeless and poorly-written, serving to drag down the rest of the film, which offers only intermittent pleasures when all is said and done. All told, this potential spectacle ranks as a substantial disappointment, and it’s clear no more time in the editing room could salvage it.

Warner’s two-disc set of Stone’s “Final Cut” does sport another superb 16:9 (2.35) transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, plus an on-camera introduction from Stone. For other supplements you’ll have to track down the theatrical and Director’s Cut DVDs, which ought to be inexpensively priced in pre-viewed bins everywhere.

THE DUKES OF HAZZARD: THE BEGINNING (**, 95 mins., 2007, Not Rated; Warner Premiere): The first effort from Warner’s new “Premiere” line of direct-to-video sequels is a decent enough prequel to the theatrical “Dukes of Hazzard,” following Bo and Luke (Jonathan Bennett and Randy Wayne) in their early days in Hazzard County, being aided in their shenanigans by Uncle Jesse (Willie Nelson, reprising his big-screen role) and doggedly pursued by Boss Hogg (Christopher MacDonald). April Scott makes for a fetching cousin Daisy in a ho-hum but at least competently-made mix of slapstick and action, though parents are forewarned that this small-screen follow-up is raunchier (and R-rated or Unrated, as in this version) than its predecessor. Warner’s DVD includes a 16:9 (1.85) transfer, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, and several Making Of featurettes.

SUBLIME (*, 113 mins., 2007, Not Rated; Warner): Warner’s second horrific (in more ways than one) “Raw Feed” production is an unpleasant tale of a regular guy (Tom Cavanagh from “Ed”) who ends up in a hospital for a standard procedure but soon experiences hallucinations, bloody gore and the usual grime you’d anticipate from a direct-to-video horror film. Trouble is, “Sublime” aspires at times for more, with director Tony Krantz (a “24" veteran) and writer Erik Jendresen throwing in all sorts of commentary on the medical system and right-to-die issues -- all the while failing totally to provide an engaging or suspenseful story. Pretty wretched all the way around, with Warner’s DVD offering a 2.35 (16:9) transfer, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, commentary, a look at a real “surgical exorcism” and more.
FOSTER’S HOME FOR IMAGINARY FRIENDS: Season 1 (294 mins., 2006; Warner): Cartoon Network series focusing on the subsequent adventures of various childhood pals once their young charges have outgrown them comes to DVD in a two-disc set. Featuring all 13 episodes of the first season plus one commentary track (by characters from the series), promos, interactive games and more.

New on Blu Ray

March Madness is in full swing with the NCAA basketball tournament starting up this week, so the timing is ideal for Fox/MGM’s release of the seminal sports movie classic HOOSIERS (****, 114 mins., 1986, PG) on high-definition Blu Ray disc.

Beautifully and authentically shot on location in Indiana, backed by a loving script accurate to time and place, and superbly performed by Gene Hackman, Barbara Hershey, Dennis Hopper and a cast of unknowns, “Hoosiers” tells a fictionalized account of a real event: the small Indiana town of Milan’s improbable 1954 run to the coveted State Championship, where the squad won the title game in dramatic fashion over Muncie. It’s a win that anyone associated with Indiana basketball (or high school basketball anywhere) still talk about, a veritable “Rocky” tale that cynics would decry as a cliche had it not actually happened.

Writer Angelo Pizzo and director David Anspaugh (who would later collaborate to produce another outstanding, true-life sports story, “Rudy,” in 1993) changed some of the names and added various dramatic elements in its central characters -- from Hackman’s hardened new coach to Hopper’s alcoholic player parent and Hershey’s disapproving teacher -- but the core of the Milan story remained intact. More over, the duo opted to shoot the film on-location during the fall, in real venues where the “Hickory Huskers” might well have played during the early ‘50s. They even staged the film’s climactic game in Indianapolis’ Butler Field House, where the actual 1954 game did, in fact, occur -- complete with real fans watching an expert re-enactment of the game’s conclusion.

Everything about the movie, from Fred Murphy’s cinematography down to Jerry Goldsmith’s marvelous score, rings true. Few sports films capture the moment and the feeling of importance to a community that “Hoosiers” does, and one needn’t be a basketball aficionado to mine the picture’s rich treasures.

“Hoosiers” has been released so many times on video by different labels that it’s not surprising that it’s never really been given the treatment it’s deserved until recently.

Originally released on video tape and disc by HBO, then by Vestron because of legal battles between Hemdale (which produced the film) and Orion (which released it), the DVD saga of this outstanding 1986 basketball story was likewise similar.

LIVE Home Video (now Lions Gate) released “Hoosiers” on DVD in 1997 but discontinued the disc because the rights somehow reverted back to Orion, which itself had been acquired by MGM. LIVE pulled their DVD after several months in circulation, and MGM released their own DVD in 2000 that had a disappointing transfer and muddled 5.1 Dolby Digital track both inferior to the earlier LIVE DVD.

MGM’s double-disc DVD from 2005 offered a 16:9 transfer and a treasure trove of extra features -- none of which, shockingly, have been carried over to Fox’s Blu Ray edition.

For a format that is supposed to have the potential to carry all kinds of content, not offering any supplemental features is downright baffling, but here with are with yet another Blu Ray title that fails to live up to its potential on that end of things.

And it’s a shame, too, because the transfer (MPEG-2 at 21 mbps, in full 1080p) and soundtrack (DTS HD 5.1 master lossless audio) are exemplary. The Blu Ray presentation does justice to Murphy’s cinematography and at last gives the soundtrack the proper stereophonic presence it’s lacked in nearly every DVD release to date.

If you’re an avid “Hoosiers” fan like I am, there’s no question this presentation is the definitive one of the film on video, yet I’m at a loss to explain why there’s no supplemental content outside of the trailer here (the last MGM DVD included commentary, over 30 minutes of deleted scenes, documentary materials, and even footage of the actual 1954 championship game). My best advice if you own a Blu-Ray player is to pick up the disc for the film, but retain that standard-DVD edition for the outstanding extras it contains.

Also New and Coming Soon On DVD

CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER (**½, 114 mins., 2006, R; Sony, available March 20): Zhang Yimou’s exquisitely shot Tang Dynasty epic -- centering on the fractured relationship between the Emperor Ping (Chow Yun Fat), his wife (Gong Li), and their inner-circle inside the royal family -- offers typically elaborate battle sequences and a plot that drags and isn’t entirely compelling. That said, aficionados of Asian cinema may warm to the film, which Sony has presented on DVD in an exceptional 16:9 (2.35) transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound. Extras include a Making Of featurette and footage of the movie’s L.A. premiere.

THE HOLIDAY (**½, 136 mins., 2006, PG-13; Sony): Nancy Meyers’ comedy-drama finds Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz switching homes and finding new romantic liaisons -- Diaz with dashing Jude Law, and Winslet with a film composer...played by Jack Black!?! As with “King Kong,” Black is the weakest link in a watchable but wholly overlong feel-good relationship picture from Meyers, which co-stars Edward Burns, Rufus Sewell (getting a good amount of work lately) and Eli Wallach. Sony’s DVD includes a commentary with Meyers and assorted guests, a Making Of featurette, a 16:9 (1.85) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack, sporting a low-key Hans Zimmer score.

THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS (***, 117 mins., 2006, PG-13; Sony): Chris Gardner’s remarkable true story about his travails from homeless hopelessness to climbing the corporate ladder makes for an at-times overly pat but nevertheless inspiring film. Will Smith is terrific here as Gardner, faced with trying to maintain an existence with his young son (Smith’s own son, Jaden Christopher Skye Smith) in tow, and while Gabrielle Muccino’s film feels a bit forced at times, the sentiment and sincerity of Smith’s performance carries the picture. Sony’s DVD offers a number of supplements including commentary from Muccino, several featurettes, and an interview with Gardner. The 5.1 Dolby Digital sound is fine and the full-screen transfer re-formatted from the Super 35 negative.

SCHOOL FOR SCOUNDRELS (***½, 1959, 94 mins.; Lionsgate): Kudos to Lionsgate for tapping into the back catalog and dusting off a superb print of the original (and superior) 1959 version of “School for Scoundrels.” In Robert Hamer’s British comedy, Ian Carmichael plays a businessman who turns to “College of Lifemanship” professor Alastair Sim after obnoxious Terry-Thomas steals his girlfriend (Janette Scott). Hilarious and witty, the original “School” is a far cry from last year’s marginally entertaining, modern American remake (with Jon Heder and Billy Bob Thornton), and Lionsgate’s DVD includes an excellent 16:9 (aprx. 1.78) transfer with 2.0 mono sound. Recommended!

THE MIRACLE MAKER: Special Edition (***½, 1999, 91 mins.; Lionsgate): Excellent Special Edition of the reverent, superbly-produced British/Russian stop-motion tale of the life of Jesus ought to provide perfect Easter viewing for families. Lionsgate’s new DVD offers commentary, a Making Of documentary, two interactive games, a splendid 16:9 (1.78) widescreen transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, the latter perfectly representing Anne Dudley’s lovely score.    

COME EARLY MORNING (**, 2006, 96 mins., R; Weinstein Company/Genius): Actress Joey Lauren Adams wrote and directed this tale of a single woman (Ashley Judd) who falls in love with a good guy (Jeffrey Donovan), thereby breaking her string of bad luck and one-night stands -- at least temporarily. Pretty ho-hum material and a bit too “dark” for date-night fare as well. Weinstein’s DVD offers only a 1.85 (16:9) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

THE LOOP: Season 1 (2006, 7 Episodes; Fox): Short-lived Fox comedy makes its way to DVD in a solid DVD with 1.78 widescreen transfers, preserving all seven episodes of the situational comedy. Speaking of which, “The Loop” is supposed to return to the Fox airwaves sometime this year, and we have to ask: could it be any worse than “The War At Home”?

THE CARE BEARS MOVIE (1984, 76 mins., G; MGM/Fox)
CARE BEARS: CARE-A-LOT ADVENTURES (2003, aprx. 45 mins.; Fox)
CARE BEARS: FOREST OF FEELINGS (2003, aprx. 45 mins; Fox)
Everything old...is new again? Apparently, so it goes for some of the toy franchises that were all the rage when I was growing up. First “The Transformers” heads to the screen in July (with a “G.I. Joe” movie to follow, apparently), and now the “Care Bears” are back in circulation, here in a trio of new releases from Fox.

Included in the batch are a pair of single-disc compilations from the 2003 animated series (produced by DIC) as well as the forgettable 1984 big-screen “Care Bears Movie,” featuring the voice of Mickey Rooney, a title song from Carole King, and additional tunes by John Sebastian. The transfers are all in full-screen and soundtracks in both stereo (the 2003 productions) and mono (the ‘84 theatrical film).

GOING TO PIECES: THE RISE AND FALL OF THE SLASHER FILM (***, 88 mins., 2006; Starz/ThinkFilm): Top-notch documentary ought to please horror fanatics as it traces the rise, fall, rise, and fall again of the slasher genre from its roots in “Psycho” and “Halloween” through the ‘80s, its later resurrection with “Scream” in the ‘90s and ultimate demise (at least temporarily) thereafter. Copious clips are interspersed with comments from the likes of John Carpenter, Wes Craven, Tom Savini and Rob Zombie, who ought to know a bit about the genre with his version of “Halloween” due out later this year. ThinkFilm’s DVD includes bonus interviews, a 16:9 transfer, 2.0 Dolby Surround, commentary and the proverbial “more.”

SHORTBUS (2006, 102 mins., Unrated; ThinkFilm): “Hedwig” director John Cameron Mitchell’s follow-up makes it to DVD this week in a loaded Special Edition from ThinkFilm. The Special Edition (and Unrated) DVD offers commentary, deleted scenes, a Making Of featurette, 16:9 (1.78) widescreen and a 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack.

NEXT TIME: CASINO ROYALE! Until then, don't forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards, check out the new Aisle Seat Blog, and direct any emails to the link above

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