3/28/06 Edition

Aisle Seat Spring Ahead Edition
Agatha Christie, New Criterions, And More
Plus CUTTING EDGE 2, DERAILED, and the APES...again!

In this current era of “serious” escapist entertainment (by that I mean “Batman Begins” as opposed to Adam West and company), it’s hard to imagine that an Agatha Christie film or television adaptation would provide the kind of tongue-in-cheek flair that MGM’s glossy, highly entertaining Miss Marple series did in the early ‘60s.

Margaret Rutherford starred as Christie’s dotty sleuth in four features that Warner Home Video has splendidly collected on DVD for the first time in North America. (The films had previously been available in England for a limited time, and have been out of print and highly sought-after since).

Produced by MGM, shot in England, and co-starring a myriad of well-known faces (including Arthur Kennedy, Robert Morley, Ron Moody, James Robertson-Justice, Lionel Jefferies, Flora Robson, and Rutherford’s husband Stringer Davis), the Marple films -- all directed by George Pollock -- employ a light approach, accentuating Rutherford’s memorable characterization, penchant for comedy, and a jaunty, jazzy soundtrack by Ron Goodwin that’s completely of the era (and no less satisfying for being so). Christie herself was no fan of the MGM movies, apparently, but taken on their own merits, each film offers first-class entertainment that holds up today.

The series launched with MURDER SHE SAID (***½, 86 mins., 1961), a loose adaptation of Christie’s “4:50 From Paddington”; was followed by the slightly more comedic MURDER AT THE GALLOP (***, 81 mins., 1963), derived from Christie’s “After The Funeral,” with Rutherford paired with Robert Morley; and completed a year later with an original story, MURDER AHOY (***, 83 mins., 1964), and the final entry, MURDER MOST FOUL (***, 91 mins., 1964), based on the author’s “Mrs. McGinty’s Dead.”

Warner’s four-disc box set contains the movies in individual cases with nostalgic poster art and excellent 16:9 transfers, nicely presenting the slight 1.78 aspect ratios of the black-and-white features. The mono soundtracks are crisp and trailers for the other Christie features rounds out the package.

It’s worth noting that Rutherford’s Miss Marple might have ended her own franchise in 1964, but she returned to the role for a gag cameo in MGM’s lone Poirot picture, “The Alphabet Murders,” in 1965. That semi spin-off starred Tony Randall as Christie’s detective with Robert Morley as Hastings in a film likewise lambasted by fans of the writer, but much like the Rutherford Miss Marple movies, offers an infectious Ron Goodwin score and an easy-going mix of laughs and light mystery. (Fans may note TCM has a screening scheduled of the rarely-seen film next month, 4/19 at 8am EST).

Also newly available from Warner, to coincide with the release of their Miss Marple box set, is the 1965 production TEN LITTLE INDIANS (***, 90 mins.), based on Christie’s “And Then There Were None.”

Marple veteran George Pollock directed what would be the first of several cinematic adaptations from producer Harry Alan Towers. This particular Seven Arts release isn't as good as Rene Clair's 1945 version but is easily the best of Towers' lot (we’ll speak nothing of his 1989 Cannon remake starring Frank Stallone!), offering an eclectic cast including Hugh O’Brian, Shirley Eaton, Fabian, Wilfird Hyde-White, Daliah Lavi and Leo Genn, in an efficient adaptation of its source material (with an alternate ending culled apparently from Christie’s stage version).

Warner’s DVD also offers a three-minute, William Castle-esque “Whodunit Break” segment that accompanied the film’s theatrical release (included in the supplement), the same trailers from the Miss Marple discs, a generally satisfying 16:9 transfer and Dolby Digital mono sound.

Criterion’s latest releases this week are highlighted by the exemplary 3 FILMS BY LOUIS MALLE, collecting a trio of Malle’s most personal, autobiographical works: the 1971 coming-of-age story “Le Souffle Au Coeur [Murmur of the Heart],” following a 15-year-old growing up in post-war France; Malle’s 1974 release “Lacombe, Lucien,” following a young man in WWII France, who tragically opts to work with the Germans after being rejected by the French resistance; and “Au Revoir Les Enfants,” Malle’s 1987 masterpiece about the relationship between two boys -- one a Catholic and the other a Jew hiding from the horrors of the war -- at a boarding school in the early ‘40s. The latter is every bit as emotionally charged as you’d anticipate but so eloquently filmed by Malle that it encourages repeat viewing; I still vividly recall my first viewing during a 7th grade, class-trip matinee back in early 1988 (at the Avon in Providence), and watching it again in Criterion’s new DVD only enhanced my regard for the picture.

All three films have been treated to superb, new 1.66 transfers and are packed with supplemental materials, primarily found in the set’s third disc. Interviews with Malle’s widow Candice Bergen, biographer Pierre Ballard, and others are on-hand, along with excerpts from a French TV program sporting on-set footage of Malle at work on his ‘70s features; audio interviews with the director collected between 1974-1990; new subtitles; trailers; essays from critics Pauline Kael, Philip Kemp, and Michael Sragow; and topped off by Charlie Chaplin’s 1917 comedy “The Immigrant,” featured in “Au Revoir Les Enfants.”

Criterion’s box set pays full tribute to three of Malle’s finest films with supplements worthy of each -- any serious movie buff is strongly encouraged to check it out.

Also new from Criterion this week is Vittorio De Sica’s 1944 masterpiece THE CHILDREN ARE WATCHING US (1944, 84 mins.), a movie that some critics feel marked the start of the “neo-realist” phase of Italian filmmaking. It marked the first collaboration between De Sica and writer Cesare Zavattini, and it pungently cuts to the emotional center of a family’s break-up as seen through the eyes of their son Pico, the movie’s four-year-old protagonist.

Criterion’s DVD includes a remastered transfer with brand-new subtitles and a pair of interviews: one with Luciano de Ambrosis, who played “Pico” in the film, along with De Sica scholar Callisto Cosulich. A 24-page booklet, including comments from scholar Peter Brunette and critic Stuart Klawans, rounds out the release. Essential for any fan of De Sica’s work or foreign cinema aficionados.

Finally, Fox this week goes back to the PLANET OF THE APES with both a re-issue of the “Legacy Collection” box set from some years back and -- for the most die-hard fanboy out there --a limited-edition, Ape-head packaged DVD collection (for roughly $130) featuring the entire APJAC series, both the live-action and animated TV series, Tim Burton’s remake and a bonus disc of supplements.

While that huge collection is unavailable for review, everything in that “Ape-Head” set is available separately, and you can get most of the newly available material in the “Legacy Collection” box-set re-issue.

As with the previous, non-anamorphic “Legacy” set, the box includes all five original “Apes” films, but this time in 16:9 widescreen -- the sequels making their debut in anamorphic widescreen for the first time, along with the “extended,” 96-minute version of “Battle For The Planet of the Apes.”

Previously seen in the movie’s TV broadcasts in the U.S. and on video courtesy of an old Japanese laserdisc, the extended “Battle” offers several minutes of restored footage that actually improves the movie (at least marginally), though very little on Fox’s packaging even indicates this is the longer cut of the film!

Despite the curious packaging, with the sequels in 16:9 widescreen and “Battle” presented in its longer version, the “Legacy” collection will give you more bang for your buck (it’s about $35 -- or roughly $100 less than the limited edition) with most of the new DVD features Fox’s latest “Apes” collection has to offer (you can find the animated “Return To The Planet of the Apes” separately for just about $20).

In terms of supplements, though, you will need to go elsewhere for the “definitive” POTA. Fans will want to hang on to both the 35th Anniversary 2-disc “Planet of the Apes” set -- as well as Image’s two-disc “Behind The Planet of the Apes” DVD -- since the “Legacy” set offers only a single-disc version of the original “Planet,” excising most of the supplements from the 35th Anniversary set (which ARE, apparently, contained in the $135 Limited Edition set).

“Behind The Planet of the Apes,” meanwhile, is the very same, single-disc DVD that accompanied the previous “Legacy Collection,” and as such is inferior to the more feature-packed Image 2-DVD set (still available, by the way), which exclusively offers an uncut, two-hour interview with Roddy McDowall that’s just as entertaining as the superb documentary on the history of the franchise itself.

New From Sony

THE CUTTING EDGE: GOING FOR THE GOLD (**, 2006, 98 mins., PG-13; Sony): OK, it’s not “The Cutting Edge.” D.B. Sweeney and Moira Kelly are nowhere to be found, and neither is writer Tony Gilroy.

That being said, this made-for-TV, “tweeny-bopper” sequel to the 1992 romantic comedy favorite serves up a serviceable rehash of the original. Director Sean McNamara and writer Dan Berendsen’s follow-up stars former tween-fave Christy Carlson Romano as the daughter of the Sweeney and Kelly characters: an ice princess who suffers an injury, moving her out of singles competition and into the pairs category. Her new (and improbable) partner is Ross Thomas, an L.A. extreme sports star (read: surfing, in-line skating) who has some chemistry with Romano but also some issues of his own that need to be worked out.

Compared to the original, “Going For The Gold” is a pale imitation of its predecessor, no question. Romano’s performance is borderline weird at times, with wild swings of emotion and believability, but at least Thomas seems to get into the fun. The two don’t generate a whole lot of chemistry, either, and the music is lousy (with all kinds of sub-par pop tracks), but there’s still something about the formula that ultimately works in spite of the problems. The movie manages to push most of the requisite buttons and Stepfanie Kramer and Scott Thompson Baker even do a nice job substituting for Sweeney and Kelly, offering support to their obnoxious screen daughter, whom they hope will turn it around just in time for Olympic gold (and you know I don’t need to tell you how it ends).

Sony’s DVD of “Cutting Edge 2" (which recently debuted on the ABC Family Channel) sports a somewhat soft 1.78 transfer, though at least it’s 16:9 enhanced (unlike their re-issue of the original “Cutting Edge” last month). The 5.1 Dolby Digital sound is fine and supplements include commentary from Thomas, Romano, and McNamara; two featurettes (one of which consists of clips underscored by Romano pop tracks); and a photo gallery.

RENT (***½, 2005). 135 mins., PG-13, Sony. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Commentary by Chris Columbus and cast members; Documentary; Deleted Scenes; 2.40 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Jonathan Larson’s quintessential ‘90s musical should have hit the screen years before, but even considering its dated aspects, Chris Columbus’ under-rated filming of “Rent” is a vivacious adaptation of the Broadway smash.

Most of the show’s original cast (Taye Diggs, Jesse L. Martin, Idina Menzel, Anthony Rapp, Adam Pascal among them) returned here -- despite being quite a bit older than their characters’ twentysomething ages -- and both director Columbus and writer Stephen Chbosky stay more or less faithful to Larson’s original story: a modern take on “La Boheme” with ample doses of sex, drugs, tragedy, and plenty of rock ‘n roll. Larson’s effervescent score features plenty of highlights and catchy melodies, while Rob Cavallo’s strong musical production opens up the arrangements for a larger backing while maintaining the tone of the original arrangements.

“Rent” is a product of the “grunge” era to some degree, and Menzel’s “performance artist” character comes in and literally stops the movie cold during a sequence that could well have hit the cutting room floor. Elements like that do stamp “Rent” as a product of the mid ‘90s, but the central dramatic elements of the story still come across loud and clear, with Columbus excellently adapting the ensemble piece to a splashy, big-screen aspect ratio, with kudos also going out to cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt for his use of colors and textures.

For musical fans “Rent” is a rare treat and well worth catching on DVD, particularly in Sony’s two-disc Special Edition. In addition to a fascinating commentary with Columbus, Rapp, and Pascal (one that divulges a great deal of background detail on the show and its transition to film), there’s an excellent, feature-length documentary -- “No Day But Today” -- that chronicles the history of “Rent” from Larson’s original conception to Columbus’ film, with copious interviews and archival footage. Additional deleted scenes (including an alternate ending that ties in more directly with the start of the film) and PSA’s round out the package, while the 2.40 Widescreen transfer is excellent and the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound as pungent as you’d anticipate given the soundtrack

SHE SPIES: The Complete First Season (2002-03, 20 episodes, 900 mins., Sony): Following on the heels of Pam Anderson’s guilty-pleasure favorite “V.I.P.,” MGM filled the void of no-brain syndicated weekend TV fun with this offering. Natasha Henstridge, Kristen Miller, and Natashia Williams starred here as a trio of sexy former femme-felons who work for the government in this unabashedly silly series, which initially debuted on NBC before shifting into its comfortable syndicated weekend slot, where it lasted for two years before it tried to be more “serious” and was cancelled shortly thereafter (who wants to take a show like this seriously at all?). Sony’s four-disc box set includes good-looking full-screen transfers of the series’ first and best season with 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks. A guilty pleasure to be sure, nicely captured on DVD as well.

Thrillers, B-Efforts and More

RING AROUND THE ROSIE (*½, 2005, 88 mins., R; Sony): Tom Sizemore is back, and he’s bad! I’m not sure what’s more depressing in the direct-to-video “Ring Around the Rosie”: Sizemore’s performance as a family estate’s caretaker or the fact that lovely Gina Phillips can’t seem to get work other than direct-to-video efforts like this. While you can join me in debating that question, producer-director Rubi Zack’s would-be Shyamalan rip-off is a pedestrian affair about a woman who returns to the ancestral home to find her sister and Sizemore, hiding a secret she can’t remember....something everyone involved with this mess may want to do the next time they revise their resumes. Sony’s DVD includes a 16:9 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

THE CONFESSOR (*½, 2004, 90 mins., PG-13; Sony): It’s been a while since Christian Slater nabbed top billing (“Alone in the Dark,” perhaps?), but suffice to say “The Confessor” -- aka “The Good Shepard” -- isn’t going to spur a comeback for the one-time star. Slater plays a priest who opts to investigate a murder that one of his colleagues in the church is being charged with, leading him to the discovery of a gay Catholic support group. Oh the horror indeed -- this low-grade Canadian production also boasts Stephen Rea (remember him?) in a fourth-billed role and the under-rated Molly Parker, who deserves better than this material. Sony’s DVD includes a 16:9 widescreen transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound. More entertaining than “Ring Around the Rosie” but still not worth a viewing unless it’s a free one.

DERAILED (**, 2005, 112 mins., R; Genius Products): Don’t let the trailers fool you: this would-be steamy melodrama about a husband (Clive Owen) who cheats on his wife with a charismatic woman (Jennifer Aniston) he meets on a commuter train -- only to be robbed and then blackmailed by a thug (Vincent Cassel) who interrupts their meeting -- is actually a ridiculous thriller that grows more and more preposterous as it moves along. Director Mikael Hafstrom and writer Stuart Beattie have fashioned a grimy-looking movie that pushes the boundaries of any believability once Owen decides to “fight back” and gets involved with an ex-con (RZA) who works at his office -- an angle shamelessly intended to pander to the “urban” audience in a drama otherwise about the sorry plight of the modern white businessman. Surprisingly, Aniston’s much-hyped role ultimately becomes more of a secondary one, while poor, 29-year-old Melissa George is once again saddled with playing a movie mom to a 15-year-old teenager for the second time in six months! (see “The Amityville Horror). “Derailed” does keep you watching, mainly through the performances and Peter Biziou’s effective cinemtography, but it’s a hollow thriller packed with empty cinematic calories, especially in its second half. Genius Products’ DVD of this inaugural effort from The Weinstein Company offers a fine 16:9 transfer (1.85) with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, several deleted scenes culled from a workprint, and a standard Making Of featurette.

Also New On DVD

CHICKEN LITTLE (**½, 81 mins., 2005, G; Disney): Cute, if unmemorable, Disney CGI feature for the little ones does feature a suitably appealing little protagonist (voiced by Zach Braff), whose penchant for misguided warnings takes a turn when actual alien visitors descend from the skies above. On the one hand, “Chicken Little” -- the studio’s first “solo” (non-Pixar) foray into CGI -- lacks the cross-over appeal that the best “family” films have had in recent years, opting to play it fairly straight and directly to its target audience. On the other, it’s somewhat refreshing to see a feel-good kids’ feature made without the winking sarcasm of the likes of “Shrek” and other PG-rated efforts; “Chicken Little” might provide mild amusement for adults but it’s perfect for children and on those grounds I heartily recommend it. Disney’s DVD provides a smashing 16:9 (1.78) transfer, though the animation and overall design of the picture isn't nearly as elaborate (or expensive) as similar CGI fare, with a robust 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack. Special features include deleted scenes and three alternate openings, a Making Of featurette, music videos and the requisite interactive games for kids.

DREAMER (**, 106 mins., 2005, PG; Dreamworks): A great cast, a sure-fire premise...so what went wrong with “Dreamer”? This well-intentioned but sleepy tale of a young girl (Dakota Fanning) who convinces her down-on-his-luck trainer dad (Kurt Russell) to nurse an injured horse back to being a thoroughbred contender also offers Kris Kristofferson as Grandpa and (for me at least) the added bonus of Elisabeth Shue as Fanning’s understanding mom, not to mention cinematography from Fred Murphy (“Hoosiers”) and a pleasant score by John Debney. Alas, little in writer-director John Gatins’ movie catches fire: the film has too much talk and not nearly enough magic (for lack of a better term), and despite the performances, is never once compelling. It’s pleasant but tedious and wholly forgettable at the same time. Dreamworks’ DVD includes several featurettes, most of which are aimed at younger viewers, plus deleted scenes, an excellent 2.40 Widescreen transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

SLIVER: Unrated Cut (**, 1993, 107 mins., NR; Paramount): Sharon Stone’s expensive and critically lambasted follow-up to “Basic Instinct” put the star in this troubled adaptation of an Ira Levin novel. As a new tenant in an apartment building where voyeurs and murderers lurk around every corner, Stone tries to accentuate the steamy side of director Philip Noyce’s film, but the Joe Eszterhas script is so muddled that neither aspect comes across. Neither sexy nor suspenseful, “Sliver” was also plagued by extensive re-shoots, including an entirely new ending that was shot at the last minute (to replace Stone's original fate of falling into a volcano!). Paramount’s new Unrated Cut, obviously intended to capitalize on the upcoming release of “Basic Instinct 2,” sports a few minutes of new footage but nothing in the way of the original ending or other deleted scenes. Even more curiously, the original Panavision 2.35 aspect ratio has been cropped here to just about 1.85 (!), making this DVD a major disappointment for the die-hard Stone fans it was meant to appeal to.

FRIENDS: THE ONE WITH ALL THE BABIES (2006 compilations; 156 mins. and 175 mins., respectively; Warner): “Friends” aficionados not into collecting season-long box sets of the series ought to check out these single-disc, low-priced compilations newly available from Warner Home Video. Included in the new releases are exactly what their title conveys: episodes culled from the series’ 10-season run centering on weddings and little tykes, each show sporting unaired footage added for this disc and offering commentaries on selected episodes from executive producers Kevin S. Bright, Marta Kauffmann and David Crane.

NEXT TIME: Horrors from John Carpenter, Stuart Gordon and...KNOTS LANDING! Don't forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards, direct any emails to the link above and we'll catch you then. Cheers everyone!

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