Aisle Seat New & Vintage Round-Up

From Cosby Comedies to THE CLONE WARS, Andy Wraps Up March's DVD Releases

To promote the upcoming release of “Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith,” Fox has released a splendid package of the acclaimed STAR WARS: CLONE WARS animated “vignettes” (dubbed a “micro series”), which aired in 2003-04 on the Cartoon Network (***, 67 mins., Not Rated; Aisle Seat DVD Pick of the Week).

“Samurai Jack” producer Genndy Tartakovsky and his Cartoon Network staff were hired to produce a series of extremely short (most are three minutes) episodes that would bridge the gap between the end of “Episode II: Attack of the Clones” and the forthcoming third “Star Wars” adventure. The segments are brilliantly animated in a way that, like “Samurai Jack,” looks to be a combination of hand-drawn animation with anime and 3-D backdrops, while the story is an all-action affair chronicling the adventures of Anakin and Obi-Wan during the Jedi war with the Separatists (as George Lucas points out in one of the DVD’s bonus interviews, you never actually see the Clone Wars taking place in the movies themselves).

More impressive in scope than any past “Star Wars” animated work (though that competition is admittedly limited to Nelvana’s old “Ewoks” and “Droids” series from the mid ‘80s), “Clone Wars” makes for a rousing, briskly-paced 67-minutes of entertainment, and Fox’s DVD looks immaculate. The colors and animation are consistently compelling from one moment to the next, and because the structure means something dramatic will occur with the passing of each “episode” segment, the story moves like gangbusters with, admittedly, little dramatic development.

Nevertheless, this is a must-have DVD for any “Star Wars” fan, and the supplements are in concert with the disc’s gorgeous 16:9-enhanced transfer and 2.0 Dolby Surround sound (offering John Williams’ music and new underscore from James Venable among others). A Making Of feeaturette includes interviews with Lucas and Tartakovsky, while there’s a sneak peek at “Clone Wars: Volume 2,” which will debut on TV shortly and offer longer segments with, one would presume, more developed narratives. A pair of commentaries, galleries of concept art and storyboards, a playable level of the Xbox “Star Wars: Republic Commando” video game, and a teaser for “Episode III” (sadly not the new, longer trailer) round out the package.

From the world of animation to a live-action feature comes Bill Cosby’s downright odd FAT ALBERT (**, 2004, 93 mins., PG; Fox), a well-meaning but strange attempt to bring Cosby’s jovial, overweight cartoon heavy man to the big screen.

Seemingly 20 years too late to the party, “Fat Albert: The Movie” posits what would happen if Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids somehow made it into today’s modern, “real” live-action world. It’s an interesting idea, but somehow the filmmakers (director Joel Zwick, writers Cosby and Charles Kipps) neglect the fact that Fat Albert went off the air several decades ago and really hasn’t been heard from since. (They do throw in the fact that the show is airing on TV Land, but unlike many cultural relics from the ‘60s and ‘70s, “Fat Albert” hasn’t stayed in circulation like, say, “The Brady Bunch” or other programs with more of a cult following).

Undaunted by the bizarre central premise, Fat Albert (Kenan Thompson) and his now “real” pals come to the aid of a young girl (Kyla Pratt) who’s having a hard time fitting in at high school. Her foster sister offers support, but the death of her grandfather has made her adjustment to teenage life difficult, and no matter how hard she tries, Pratt simply isn’t comfortable with her surroundings. Naturally, Albert and company offer as much support as they can give, singing a few songs, helping out, and simultaneously attempting to fight off their “fading” physical presence (shades of “Back to the Future”) while they get ready to jump back into the TV and their “real,” animated world.

“Fat Albert” has its heart in the right place: it’s gentle, inoffensive and offers good messages to its target audience. Yet it’s also simply bizarre to see a character with no following in today’s generation making his way through the modern world as if anyone under the age of 35 would identify with the subject matter. The movie also shifts its focus so often (is it about Pratt? Fat Albert? Albert’s relationship with Pratt’s foster sister? The old TV show? Pratt’s grandfather? Albert’s band of brothers?) that it has a schizophrenic feel in spite of its colorful exterior, and the weepy finale also seems to come out of left field.

Fox’s DVD includes both widescreen (2.35) and full-screen transfers bathed in warm primary colors, along with a bouncy 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack. Extras include commentary by Joel Zwick and producer John Davis, several extended scenes, a featurette, and the original trailer.

At least “Fat Albert” fared better at the box-office than Bill Cosby’s infamous 1986 bomb LEONARD:PART VI (**, 1986, 85 mins., PG; Sony), which Cosby warned audiences away from while appearing on talk shows days before the movie opened.

The “Cos” was at the height of his “Cosby Show” popularity when he produced, co-wrote and starred in this outlandish secret agent comedy as Leonard Parker, a former Bond-type who has to don his old outfit and try to stop a nefarious villainess (Gloria Parker) intent on destroying the world with her crazy collection of animals.

“Leonard Part VI” certainly had all the makings of a hit. Cosby brought in a top-notch production crew to support the movie, including cinematographer Jan DeBont, visual effects master Richard Edlund and composer Elmer Bernstein, but forgot one basic element: an actual script. The movie is a mess, offering an off-kilter balance of action and slapstick, as well as tedious “domestic” sequences involving Cosby’s ex-wife and daughter. There’s also the fact that Leonard has become a restaurant entrepreneur since his secret agent retirement, which leads to the movie’s unabashedly ridiculous end credits sequence.

Despite the problems (and there are a ton of them), “Leonard Part VI” isn’t the worst Bad Movie ever made. The off-the-wall mix of elements, combined with solid effects and a terrific soundtrack, makes for a fascinating genre curio, and the icing on the cake is Peabo Bryson and Regina Belle’s gorgeous end credits ballad “Without You.” Several years prior to their award-winning teaming on “A Whole New World” from “Aladdin,” Peabo and Regina offer what is unquestionably one of the best songs ever written for a flop movie, and enjoying the ballad over a marathon end credits sequence (where Leonard and his ex-wife engage in a food fight) is unquestionably the highlight of the movie.

Sony’s DVD, out next month, includes a great-looking, 16:9 enhanced widescreen transfer with 2.0 Dolby Digital sound. Don’t be put off by the cover art (which makes the movie look like Eddie Murphy’s career nadir, “Pluto Nash,” and it’s at least twice as good as that) and soak up the fun of this fiscal turkey from Christmas of ‘86, now nicely preserved on DVD.

New This Week on DVD

CLOSER (**½, 2004). 104 mins., R, Sony. DVD FEATURES: SuperBit transfer, 1.85 Widescreen, 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital sound, Music Video.

Patrick Marber adapted his stage play for this appropriately “stagy” four-character piece from director Mike Nichols.

Jude Law is a London obituary writer who runs into American stripper Natalie Portman. They fall in love, but Law soon falls for photographer Julia Roberts, who later becomes married to obnoxious doctor Clive Owen (actually that description could apply to any of the characters). Law then breaks up with Portman, Roberts dumps Owen (who also engages in the occasional, graphic sex chat online with Law), and each one of the characters struggles to find the proper balance between sex, love and honesty.

Director Nichols uses London locales and a quiet, introspective soundtrack to nice effect, yet regardless of his efforts – or that of the cast, who are uniformly excellent – “Closer” doesn’t really work as a cinematic experience. The dialogue, staging, and story can’t escape their origins on the stage, and as such, its “theatrical” elements come off as being forced and pretentious when captured on screen. None of the characters are appealing and the movie feels clinical and cold, which -- while likely being part of its point -- are I’m guessing only amplified by seeing the work filmed as opposed to being performed live.

Nevertheless, “Closer” is worth a look due to its performances, particularly by Portman in a role (deservedly nominated for an Oscar) that confirms her status as one of the finest young actresses working today.

Sony’s DVD, out this week, includes a superb SuperBit transfer in the 1.85 aspect ratio with DTS and Dolby Digital sound. Supplements, subsequently, are sparse, with just a music video of Damian Rice’s lovely “The Blower’s Daughter” included.

Aisle Seat Sneak Preview Reviews

SUSPECT ZERO (**½, 2004). 99 mins., R, Paramount. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Director Commentary; Remote Viewing featurettes; Alternate Ending; Trailer; 1.85 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, available April 12th.

Zak Penn’s much-lauded script for “Suspect Zero” was originally intended to be filmed with Tom Cruise in the late ‘90s. Alas, the serial killer thriller was put on the shelf for several years before Cruise co-produced the movie with Paula Wagner in 2003, albeit with Penn’s script having been re-written and a less-than A-list cast attached. The result is a better-than-average thriller with some unique elements that mostly go unrealized under the direction of E. Elias Merhige.

Aaron Eckhart plays an FBI agent on the trail of a deadly serial killer. Carrie-Ann Moss (in a thankless role) plays his partner and former lover while, in a scenery-chewing performance, Kingsley essays a mysterious man who claims to be an ex-FBI agent tracking down the elusive killer. While Kingsley seems to have more nefarious motives behind his actions than he’s letting on, both Kingsley and Eckhart possess abilities that ultimately bring them closer together than Eckhart ever imagined.

“Suspect Zero” is mostly a routine serial killer/police procedural suspense effort -- with under-developed characterizations -- but its big “twist” (revealed on the back of the DVD packaging!) does throw a few curveballs into the mix. The connection between Kingsley and Eckhart offers something different than the norm, yet the movie never follows through on its premise as much as it should. Director Merhige dwells on the typical conventions of the genre (the mutilation of the victims, flashy camera work, etc.) and never fully realizes the unique qualities of the story, suppressing them and thereby diminishing the film’s overall dramatic impact.

Not a bad film by any means, “Suspect Zero” ultimately goes down as a missed opportunity. The material was there to craft a superior thriller, yet the execution and script ultimately come across as just another exercise in the genre. Die-hard fans of this sort of thing, however, may still want to check it out.

Paramount’s DVD, available April 12th, includes an appropriately gritty 1.85 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, the latter sporting an atmospheric, moody score by Clint Mansell. Extras include commentary by Merhige, who spends most of his talk explaining the movie to the viewer (a sign that perhaps the film doesn’t work quite as well as even he would like). A four-part featurette on the phenomena of “Remote Viewing” is included, and it’s fairly interesting as well, though it’s a good thing Merhige put the kibosh on the regulation alternate ending, which was rightly tossed in favor of the picture’s more ambiguous final note.

Runaway Daughters (***, 1994, 82 mins., PG-13; Dimension/Buena Vista).
Reform School Girl (**½, 1994, 82 mins., R; Dimension/Buena Vista), both available April 5th.

Back in the mid ‘90s, Showtime produced “Rebel Highway,” a series of made-for-cable remakes of various American-International ‘50s B-movies. Some of the films were straight remakes, others offered a comical twist, but ultimately only a few were successful: Robert Rodriguez’s “Roadracers” (with Salma Hayek and David Arquette) and Joe Dante’s cute “Runaway Daughters” being the most entertaining of the lot.

While we wait on “Roadracers,” “Runaway Daughters” makes its debut on DVD next week, and a fresh viewing on DVD confirms that the production is easily one of Dante’s best post-1990 efforts.

The eclectic filmmaker re-teamed with “Matinee” and “Gremlins 2" scribe Charlie Haas for the cute, bouncy tele-film which chronicles the misadventures of a trio of young ladies (Julie Bowen, Holly Fields and Jenny Lewis) in the sunny, consumer-driven world of the 1950s. Paul Rudd plays a slick, hip Elvis-type while Fabian and countless Dante regulars (Cathy Moriarty, Dee Wallace-Stone, Robert Picardo, Belinda Balaski, Wendy Schaal and, of course, Dick Miller) round out the supporting cast in this nostalgic road trip, which looks and feels like a Dante vehicle in the best sense of the world.

Less successful was “Reform School Girl,” also making its debut on DVD. Aimee Graham is a poor, innocent girl who takes the fall for boyfriend Matt LeBlanc after he causes a hit and run in a stolen hotrod. Soon Graham is whisked off to a bad girls’ reform school, where she learns about life on the inside from inmate Teresa DiSpina and Carolyn Seymour as the token heavy. Jonathan Kaplan’s film tries to be more adult and tongue-in-cheek about its pulp origins than you might anticipate, but the results are basically a forgettable tease that only die-hard genre fans should find of interest.

Both Dimension DVDs sport excellent full-screen transfers with 2.0 Dolby Stereo soundtracks, each with a few vintage pop tunes and scores by Hummie Mann.

Capsule Round Up

JoJo’s Circus: Animal a Go Go and Take A Bow (2003): The much-loved Disney Channel character comes to DVD in a pair of releases, each offering an hour of entertainment and four separate lessons for pre-schoolers.

Disney’s Learning Adventures: Mickey’s Around the World in 80 Days and Mickey and The Beanstalk (2005): Two volumes of edu-tainment for youngsters are on-hand in another pair of new Disney releases. “Mickey’s Around the World in 80 Days” stresses geography and language skills for preschoolers, while “Mickey and the Beanstalk” accentuates math fun.

Hustle (90 mins., 2004, PG-13; Buena Vista): Tom Sizemore dons a really bad wig in this so-so ESPN made-for-cable film as controversial baseball star Pete Rose. Peter Bogdanovich was brought in to helm “Hustle,” but despite good work from Sizemore, it’s tough to develop Rose’s story within the parameters of a 90-minute running time. More interesting than the film are Buena Vista’s DVD supplements, including a full PrimeTime Live special with Charlie Gibson, a SportsCentury interview with Rose, the late Bart Giamatti’s press conference where he banned Rose from the game, and additional interviews. The full-screen transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound are both excellent.

Apollo 13 (***½, 140 and 116 mins., 1995, PG; Universal): 10th Anniversary edition of Ron Howard’s superb 1995 dramatization of the Apollo 13 mission offers both the original theatrical cut (140 minutes in 2.35 widescreen), as well as its trimmed-down, 2002 IMAX version (116 minutes in 1.66 widescreen). Since the movie was shot in Super 35, you’re not missing much picture information in the IMAX version, which also boasts a superior DTS soundtrack and improved picture quality from the theatrical version. It’s also missing some of Kathleen Quinlan’s scenes as the worried housewife, which is another plus. Supplements include many extras ported over from the previous laserdisc and DVD special editions, including a pair of commentary tracks, the “Lost Moon” documentary, and two additional documentaries on the IMAX disc.

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