3/7/06 Edition

Aisle Seat March Madness
Plus: ZATHURA and THE ICE HARVEST cool off on DVD

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Jane Austen’s PRIDE AND PREJUDICE has been adapted to film and television numerous times over the years, but perhaps never so eloquently as Joe Wright’s acclaimed and vividly shot adaptation (***½, 129 mins., PG; Focus/Universal) from last year.

Some Austen purists carped at changes director Wright and screenwriter Deborah Moggach made to the original novel, but those without a preconception of the material will likely be enchanted by this splendid production. Keira Knightley here stars as Lizzie Bennet, one of five daughters attracted to the rich, “unpleasant” Mr. Darcy (Matthew Macfadyen) in late 18th century England. Their sparring eventually leads to romance over a period of time that also finds Lizzie’s sister (Rosamund Pike) initially turned down by Darcy’s friend, while an old acquaintance of Darcy’s -- Mr. Wickum -- turns up and runs away with a younger Bennet sister (Jena Malone), much to the dismay of their parents (played wonderfully by Donald Sutherland and Brenda Blethyn).

One of the wonderful things about “Pride and Prejudice” is that Wright’s film comes alive visually, far more than a typical, static Merchant and Ivory piece: filling the widescreen vistas with details, deftly utilizing the superb work of cinematographer Roman Osin and the sublime score by Dario Marianelli (making amends for his brittle score for “The Brothers Grimm”), Wright accentuates the thoughts and feelings of Austen’s characters perfectly. Watching the sun rise at the beginning of the movie, and again when Lizzie and Darcy finally merge at the end of the piece, is a joy that only enhances the work of the performances and the strength of the story itself.

In regards to the acting, Knightley and Macfadyen build up some serious chemistry together, as one might anticipate, and supporting performances from Pike, Malone, Sutherland, Blethyn and Tom Hollander (as Mr. Collins, Lizzie’s would-be suitor) are likewise strong across the board.

“Pride and Prejudice” may not have received a Best Picture nomination but this is one of last year’s best films, likely to satisfy most Austen devotees and especially newcomers to the material, who are likely to embrace this adaptation lovingly with open arms. Don’t miss it.

Focus’ DVD includes a commentary track by Wright and four Making Of featurettes, including an HBO First Look special. The 2.35 (16:9) transfer is exceptionally crisp and beautifully reproduces the film’s visuals, while the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound prominently displays Marianelli’s introspective score. My only complaint about the latter is that there are times when the accents are hard to discern amongst the music and background chatter, which may lead some to hit the subtitle button just to clarify certain lines here and there.

THE ICE HARVEST (**, 2005). 88 mins., R, Universal. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Commentary; 2 Alternate Endings; Outtake; Making Of featurettes; 1.85 Widescreen (16:9), 5.1 Dolby Digital.

Harold Ramis directed this adaptation (by Robert Benton and Richard Russo) of Scott Phillips' novel, which met with icy box-office receipts last November.

John Cusack plays a Kansas mob lawyer who, along with associate Billy Bob Thornton, robs local mafioso Randy Quaid of some $2 million in change. Getting away with the crime proves to be a major problem, as Cusack's Christmas Eve includes a run-in with his ex-wife's husband (Oliver Platt), a tango with mysterious Connie Nielsen, and a henchman (Mike Starr) hot on the loot's trail.

"The Ice Harvest" boasts a fine, low-key performance from Cusack as the anti-hero surrounded by characters more despicable than he is; Thornton is ok in what's more of a supporting turn and it's always nice to see the under-rated, sexy Nielsen back on-screen as the femme fatale. Ultimately, though, "The Ice Harvest" almost plays like the kind of movie "Fargo" might have been without the Coen brothers' edge and eye for comedic detail. In one of the disc's featurettes, Benton and Russo discuss how easy Phillips' book was to adapt, despite the author's initial thoughts that his writing was too internalized to work on-screen. Although I have not read the book, there may be some validity to his claim, since "The Ice Harvest" feels abrupt and lacking in background detail: minor supporting characters and subplots don't amount to much, and there isn't anything especially funny or suspenseful about how the movie plays out. On the printed page, perhaps these characters and situations carried a lot more weight than they do on-screen, but outside of Platt's amusing turn as Cusack's drunken buddy, "The Ice Harvest" serves up “comedic noir” that’s lukewarm at best.

Universal's Special Edition DVD includes commentary from Ramis, discussing the Illinois location shooting, as well as two downbeat alternate endings and one brief outtake. The 1.85 transfer is satisfying and the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound likewise fine, offering a predictably ironic use of Christmas tunes and a David Kitay score that primarily stays out of the way. Several Making Of featurettes do a nice job examining the production, with the conversation between Benton, Russo and Phillips providing the most interest. It's unfortunate the movie wasn't able to be made earlier, since Benton in his prime might have brought more of an edge to the material than Ramis, a veteran comedy filmmaker who seems as if he was at least partially out of his element here. 

Also Newly Available on DVD

NORTH COUNTRY (**½, 2005). 130 mins., R, Warner. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Making Of featurette; Deleted Scenes; 2.35 Widescreen (16:9), 5.1 Dolby Digital.

"Whale Rider" director Niki Caro's "North Country" was inspired by the first successful sexual harrasment case in the United States, but is cluttered with so many extraneous subplots and characters that its central focus is often shifted off-course.

Charlize Theron gives an excellent performance as the ficticious Josie Aimes, a woman who flees from her abusive husband back to the Minnesota town where she grew up. There, Josie, with kids in tow, attempts to rebuild her life by taking a job in the iron mine that also employs most of the town's workers, including her father. Unfortunately, the men who work in the mine are less than receptive to the few women who work there, teasing and tormenting the females with as many lewd gestures and jokes as possible, and Theron's attempts to work things out with the mine's stuffy patriarchal heirarchy are met with offers of resignation.

The actual events that "North Country" is only loosely based on occurred in Minnesota in the mid '80s, and must not have had enough dramatic juice behind them to meet the demands of a "powerful" Hollywood message film. Thus, screenwriter Michael Seitzman adds an innumerable amount of melodramatic subplots, from Josie's teenage rape and her loser of an ex-boyfriend working at the mine, to another colleague (Frances McDormand) fighting a losing battle with Lou Gerhig's disease. Then there's Josie's relationships with her disgruntled, ashamed father (Richard Jenkins), her rebellious teenage son, a hotshot lawyer (Woody Harrelson), and even "The Town" itself, which views Josie as a trashy, philandering outsider who (gasp!) had a child out of wedlock and basically ruins everything she comes in contact with.

Cox gets a good amount of mileage out of the cast, and Theron is both believable and sympathetic, but "North Country" ultimately feels like a stew with everything but the kitchen sink thrown in for good measure. In bringing up Josie's sexual past and putting that on trial along with the sexual harrasment suit, the movie becomes a sort of hoary old melodramatic potboiler -- a more graphic and profane version of the kinds of soapy movies Hollywood turned out decades ago...more about Josie's crusade for personal redemption and less about the landmark case itself, or what it meant to women in workplaces across the United States.

Warner's DVD includes a highly satisfying 2.35 widescreen transfer that looks well-composed and atmospheric. The 5.1 Dolby Digital sound is likewise just fine for this kind of film, and includes a moody score by Gustavo Santaolalla. Special features offer numerous deleted scenes, many of which focus on the relationship between Theron and McDormand (which is basically abandoned in the final third of the movie), and a Making Of featurette that interviews many of the actual participants from the real "Jensen v. Eleveth" case.

Also New On DVD

ZATHURA (**½, 2005). 102 mins., PG, Sony. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Commentary by Jon Favreau and Peter Billingsley; Making Of featurettes; 1.85 Widescreen (16:9), 5.1 Dolby Digital.

Engaging though mostly formulaic fantasy from actor-director Jon Favreau adapts one of Chris Van Allsburg's popular children's books -- a follow-up to "Jumanji" that functions as a variation on that story's central premise.

A pair of squabbling brothers uncover a mysterious, vintage board game named Zathura while their divorced dad (Tim Robbins) is running off a copy for a meeting and their teenage sister (Kirsten Stewart) is sleeping off a party from the night before. Whatever forces were at work behind Jumanji had to have been behind Zathura as well, since the brothers soon find that playing the game literally sends their home into outer space, where they meet up with aliens and even an astronaut (Dax Shepard) who knows a thing or two about the game itself.

Favreau notes in his commentary that he wanted to make a fantasy that would evoke the Spielberg-produced Amblin' films of the '70s and '80s, and for that reason utilized as many optical effects as possible in place of an over-use of CGI. That decision comes across loud and clear in "Zathura," with the movie focusing on characters and the dramatic weight of the story instead of an excessive parade of computer-generated action sequences. The director receives strong performances across the board but the script is so similar to "Jumanji" -- and, more significantly, doesn't offer the adult support that film had from Robin Williams and Bonnie Hunt among others -- that it will likely be best appreciated by kids and genre fans nostalgic for a sci-fi fantasy produced in a relatively old-fashioned manner.

Sony's DVD sports a dynamite 1.85 transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound. There are plenty of effective sound effects employed throughout but John Debney's routine, unmemorable score doesn't help the picture nearly as much as it should. Special features offer an insightful, thoughtful commentary by Favreau and co-producer Peter Billingsley, who you may well remember as Ralphie from "A Christmas Story.” Making Of featurettes examine the production in typical, mostly-promotional style, with an accent to being kid-friendly, much like "Zathura" itself.

THE CUTTING EDGE: GOLD MEDAL EDITION (***½, ** presentation; 1992, 97 mins., PG; MGM/Sony): Isn’t it depressing when a DVD re-issue comes out that offers new material but fails, overall, to match the presentation of its predecessor? That’s the unfortunate case with Sony’s new “Gold Medal Edition” of the fan-favorite “Cutting Edge,” the delightful romantic comedy which remains a classic of its kind. MGM’s previous DVD offered a 16:9 transfer of the 1992 film (which stars Moira Kelly as a figure skater in need of a new pairs partner and D.B. Sweeney as the former hockey star who finds skating to be a bit more difficult than he anticipated), but nothing in the way of supplements. Sony’s new DVD includes a fresh, 10-minute featurette from J.M. Kenny (“The Cutting Edge: Reflections”) sporting recent interviews with Sweeney and Kelly, but it’s sadly just a brief, albeit pleasant, look back at the stars’ memories of working on the movie. Even more depressingly, the DVD stunningly trades in the previous disc’s 16:9 transfer for a non-anamorphic -- and appreciably darker -- letterboxed transfer that’s not even as satisfying on standard 4:3 sets (to say nothing of those with 16:9 TVs!). A major disappointment to be sure, since the picture demands the kind of Special Edition treatment its fans have been hoping for...and will have to keep on waiting for.

New Criterions

A re-issue of a Criterion catalog favorite and a newcomer to the Collection highlight the latest offerings from Criterion.

An Ealing Studios classic, KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS (****, 106 mins., 1946) receives a splendid presentation from Criterion. The 2-disc set offers a new, high-definition transfer superior to the movie’s most recent DVD appearance (in Anchor Bay’s “Alec Guinness Collection”), the alternate American ending (which differs only in the assembly of images in the final seconds), the original trailer, and a gallery of production and publicity photos. The second disc houses new supplements, including an essential BBC documentary on the marvelous productions that Ealing released, as well as a 1977 talk show appearance by Guinness that runs over an hour. An essay from critic Philip Kemp compliments the release.

Criterion has also re-issued their superb, 2-disc edition of Steven Soderbergh’s TRAFFIC (***½, 147 mins., 2000, R) this week. This Special Edition includes all the goodies from the original 2002 set, including three commentary tracks (including one with composer Cliff Martinez, highlighted by a pair of unused cues); 25 deleted scenes with commentary from Soderbergh and writer Stephen Gaghan; 30 minutes of additional production footage and multiple angles; trailers, K-9 unit trading cards, a 16:9 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound. If you missed this superlative set the first time around, this 2nd printing is the perfect time to pick up another essential Criterion edition.

Fox Film Noir

Three superb new entries mark this month’s Fox Film Noir catalog titles.

Joseph L. Mankiewicz was not renowned for melodramatic potboilers like NO WAY OUT (***, 1950, 106 mins.), but this taut, compelling drama ably demonstrates that the prolific filmmaker was able to work effectively in multiple genres.

Sidney Poitier is billed below the title but has the lead as a young, African-American intern who takes on the care of a pair of brothers who were shot while robbing a gas station. One of them dies, leading his unhinged, racist brother (Richard Widmark) to seek retribution from Poitier; Linda Darnell (quite good) is his ex sister-in-law, who falls for hospital chief resident Stephen McNally as the truth is sorted out.

With a strong dramatic score by Alfred Newman and superb performances from the cast, “No Way Out” is an effective drama made all the more enjoyable by Fox’s DVD presentation. The black-and-white transfer is effectively crisp, while stereo and mono soundtracks (which virtually sound identical) back up the audio side . Extras include an insightful commentary from noir expert Eddie Muller, the original trailer, publicity shots and photos in a still gallery, and a pair of brief Movietone news reels.

More atmospheric suspense is on-hand in FALLEN ANGEL (***½, 1945, 97 mins., Fox), with Dana Andrews as a poor drifter who falls for femme fatale Linda Darnell in a small California coastal town. Andrews then marries plain-jane Alice Faye for her money but Darnell’s waitress is eventually murdered, sending our anti-hero to seek the responsible party.

Otto Preminger’s follow-up to “Laura” was produced by many of the same crew members, including composer David Raksin. “Fallen Angel”, based on a novel by Marty (really Mary) Holland and scripted by Harry Kleiner, is a highly entertaining and moody “noir” with memorable sets, performances and dialogue that buffs ought to love. Fox’s DVD sports another satisfying transfer with commentary from Muller, this time teamed with Dana Andrews’ daughter Susan; more still photo galleries and the original trailer.

Last but not least is HOUSE ON TELEGRAPH HILL (***, 1951, 93 mins., Fox), Robert Wise’s pungent adaptation of a Dana Lyon novel with Valentine Cortesa as a concentration camp survivor who assumes the identity of an affluent friend following WWII. Cortesa arrives in San Fransisco to meet her friend’s son, falls for Richard Basehart, and then finds out that someone isn’t happy about her arrival and the fortune she has collected.

This somewhat convoluted but nevertheless entertaining noir again boasts a solid presentation from Fox on DVD: the full-screen transfer captures all the moody contrast of the original black-and-white cinematography, with another commentary from Muller, more photo galleries, and the original trailer rounding out the DVD. Highly recommended for all noir enthusiasts!

NEXT TIME: The Return of HARRY POTTER, Plus New Titles From Paramount and Buena Vista! 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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