Aisle Seat March Madness Edition

A Massive Assortment of New Release DVD Reviews
Plus: Andy's take on "The Passion" and The Mail Bag!
By Andy Dursin

I can quite honestly say that -- for a lot of us not in sunny Southern California where the Film Score Monthly offices are located -- the arrival of March is one of the happiest occurrences of the year. This has been one brutal winter, my friends: first it was the snow, then it was the cold. So chilly, in fact, that some of my DVD review copies (left outside for a few hours) needed to be thawed out before they could run in my player! (OK, maybe not, but you get my drift).

This week we have a full range of new DVDs for review, from the arrival of "Schindler's List" to new releases like "School of Rock."

First, though, I also wanted to say a few words about THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, which has opened to enormous audience interest and a wide assortment of reactions from critics and political/religious punditse verywhere.

Without going into the movie's religious and historical elements (which I assume will either compel or disinterest you, dependent on your own beliefs), I found this to be a film of enormous power simply from a filmmaking standpoint.

Mel Gibson's vivid cinematic portrayal of the final hours of Jesus has beent ossed around every cable talk show and editorial column to no end over the last month, receiving polarized reactions from pundits on all ends of the religious and cultural spectrum. Charges of anti-Semitism, excessive violence, and a lack of spiritualism have been leveled at the movie, and it seems that many critics have approached the movie not reviewing the film so much, but rather how Gibson's beliefs and the picture's politics match up with their own views.

All I know is that, for me, "The Passion" is one of the most powerful and artistic pieces of filmmaking I've seen in years. Neither as unrelentingly grim or excessively violent as some have made it out to be -- nor lacking in the spiritual elements some have claimed it is -- Gibson's beautifully, painfully rendered movie is so compelling you can't take your eyes off the screen.

Caleb Deschanel's vivid cinematography, John Debney's evocative music (unquestionably his finest score, and ranked #19 on the Billboard album charts this week), and Gibson's conviction behind the lens collaborate to make an inspired film. The performances by Jim Caviziel as Jesus, Maia Morgenstern as Mary and a fine supporting cast (including Monica Bellucci as Mary Magdalene) support Gibson's evocation of the Stations of the Cross. This is a movie that looks like it would have cost well over $100 million by usual Hollywood standards, but was stunningly made for a fraction of that cost (a reported $30 million).

As a film, "The Passion" was one of the most remarkable pictures I've seen in a long while. Any movie that challenges its audience and encourages conversation at a time when so few films do is more than worth the trip to the cinema, and its superlative cinematic presentation only adds to its impact.

Aisle Seat DVD Picks of the Week

SCHINDLER'S LIST (****, 1993). 196 mins., R, Universal Home Video. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: "Voices of the List" documentary; Shoah Foundation featurette; 1.85 Widescreen, 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital soundtrack.

Steven Spielberg's outstanding Oscar winner needs little introduction to viewers, though it took quite a while for the film to finally arrive on DVD.

Out this week, Universal's DVD offers a fine 1.85 transfer of the movie (spread to two discs) with strong DTS and Dolby Digital soundtracks ,but is unfortunately light on the supplemental side. A 77-minute documentary, "Voices of the List,'" offers testimony from real-life Holocaust survivors whom Spielberg's Shoah Foundation interviewed in the months and years following the movie's release. It's a powerful segment introduced by the director, but other than that and a brief profile of the Foundation itself, the DVD offers no other extras -- not even a trailer.

It's a disappointment that otherwise mars a first-class DVD presentation of one of Spielberg's best. Hopefully a more features-packed Special Edition will follow in the near future.

SCHOOL OF ROCK (***, 2003). 109 mins., PG-13, Paramount. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Commentary by Jack Black and Richard Linklater; Making Of featurettes; music video; kids commentary track; 1.85 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

As entertaining as any mainstream film of 2003, Richard Linklater's highly engaging comedy stars Jack Black as a burned-out rocker who ends up pretending he's a music teacher at a private school in the Chicago suburbs.

Mike White previously scripted the equally satisfying "Orange County," which starred the wild-man Black as the stoner brother of highschooler Colin Hanks. Here, White takes the same brand of humor (cleaning it up a bit for the younger audience, albeit still in the PG-13 realm) and director Richard Linklater brings the energy he brought to the terrific "Dazed and Confused." The result is a superior Hollywood formula film, with Black being engaging and frequently hilarious throughout. His love of rock and connection with the kids (all of whom are more believable than your typical juvenile actor) is evident and the movie is fun at every turn, thanks to Black's manic energy. I could carp that Joan Cusack's turn as the school principal should have been further developed, but everything else in "School of Rock" clicks so well there's scant reason to complain.

Paramount's DVD offers a bevy of cute special features, from several featurettes to multiple commentary tracks involving Black and Linklater, as well as members of the young cast. The 1.85 transfer is great and the 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack will enable you to rock along at home with the soundtrack. Highly recommended!

Also New on DVD

THE MISSING (**1/2, 2003). 137 mins., R, Columbia TriStar. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: 2.35 and Full-screen formats (Super 35), 5.1 Dolby Digital sound; three alternate endings and deleted scenes/outtakes; Making Of featurettes; Ron Howard interview.

Great-looking Western -- atmospherically shot by Salvatore Totino and scored by James Horner -- suffers from uneven pacing and a predictable climax.

Cate Blanchett plays a doctor raising two daughters in the New Mexico wilderness. After having run off to live with the Indians, her father (Tommy Lee Jones) re-appears on the scene, wanting reconciliation. Blanchett refuses his apology, but after Blanchett's lover is killed and her oldest girl (Evan Rachel Wood) abducted by a sadistic Indian witch doctor (Eric Schweig), she reluctantly teams up with Jones to find the girl before she's sold south of the Mexican border.

Ron Howard directed "The Missing," a movie that has an atmospheric, polished visual gloss, but takes its time -- ultimately too much of it -- developing its lead characters. Jones is excellent as a man looking to make amends for running out on his family, though I didn't find Blanchett quite as convincing playing a compassionate mom and tough woman on the range. Howard's pacing ebbs and flows throughout the movie with many strong scenes contrasted by ones that could have been easily trimmed from the bloated 137-minute running time. Though the look of the film and Horner's superb score kept me watching, the predictable ending and tired gun-fight climax ultimately detract from the picture as a whole.

Columbia's DVD is still worthwhile, though, for its splendid visual transfer (2.35 and full-screen formats) and powerful 5.1 surround sound."The Missing" is a vividly shot film that looks workable in either 2.35 or full-frame (being a Super 35 effort, the movie looks just as good in 1.33 as it does in widescreen), and Horner's score sounds great in Dolby Digital.

Extras are copious, including three alternate endings (basically variations on the final cut), numerous deleted scenes, several Making Of featurettes, and interviews with Ron Howard. There's also a five-minute conversation with Howard and James Horner, featuring recording session footage.

MONA LISA SMILE (**, 2003). 120 mins., PG-13, Columbia TriStar. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: 1.85 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital, Making Of featurettes, music video.

Well-made soap opera has a great cast and lovely settings, yet someone forgot to polish off the hackneyed script of "Mona Lisa Smile" before the cameras rolled.

Julia Roberts plays a free-spirited art teacher who arrives at Wellesley College in Massachusetts during the early '50s. In a female variation on "Dead Poets Society," she's just in time to inspire a group of intelligent yet fresh young women who already know the answers to all the questions in their lives -- including the paths their lives will take (this being a Hollywood movie set in the '50s, it's marriage and kids, needless to say). Naturally, Julia sees no problem with trying to convince each of them-- stuck-up Kirsten Dunst, prim and proper Julia Stiles, trampy Maggie Gyllenhaal and awkward Ginnifer Goodwin-- that they can do whatever they set out to accomplish, despite the confines of the time period they live in.

Mike Newell directed this extremely good-looking film, which has glossy cinematography by Anastas Michos and a predictably sweet score by Rachel Portman. The performances all try to transcend the melodramatic framework of the story, but the seams in the script (by Mark Rosenthal and Lawrence Konner of "Superman IV" infamy) begin to show even in the first few minutes of the picture.

From the opening scenes at Wellesley -- laughably showing the student body "knocking on the door of education" -- to the rude attitude of the girls towards their new teacher (which I found quite unbelievable given the time and place) and the "evil administration" stereotypes, "Mona Lisa Smile" is so cliched that it's amazing the film wasn't rewritten before going into production. I found it impossible to believe intelligent young women at Wellesley in the period ever would have talked back to their professors like they do in this movie -- a clear sign that the film's dialogue is far too contemporary and not evocative of the period.The first half-hour also shows signs of post-production tinkering: there's a scene in which Roberts discusses the recent firing of one character, referring to a conversation that hasn't (in the movie) taken place yet!

It's unfortunate the script and dialogue are so pedestrian, because the performances are sincere and the movie so well-crafted that "Mona Lisa Smile" could have been a superb slice of mainstreaming moviemaking. As it is, it's tolerable for fans of the actresses and the genre, but little more.

There were reports that director Mike Newell had been thrown out of the editing room just days prior to the film's opening (one newspaper article said the movie was close to being "unreleaseable"), and the relatively light supplements on Columbia's DVD seem to hint at this. There's no director commentary track or deleted scenes here -- just an engaging, albeit fluffy ,Making Of featurette split into several different segments. An Elton John music video rounds out the disc, which is graced by a lovely 1.85 transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

DUPLEX (**, 2003). 88 mins., PG-13, Miramax. DVD FEATURES: 1.85 and Full-screen versions, Director Commentary, Deleted Scenes, Making Of; 5.1 Dolby Digital.

Unfunny Drew Barrymore-Ben Stiller comedy stayed on the shelf at Buena Vista for quite a while before being issued to limited box-office appeal last fall.

Newlyweds Drew and Ben buy a NYC apartment, only to find out that their picture-perfect new home is being tormented by an elderly neighbor (Eileen Essel) who refuses to turn down her TV at night and generally wreaks all kinds of havoc. The couple then try every which way to dispose of the old bat, to predictably wacky results, in this Danny DeVito-directed effort that's tired and forced at every turn.

There's nothing original or subtle about "Duplex," which gets by due to the energy of Stiller and Barrymore, even though the duo have little chemistry with one another. DeVito tries valiantly to recapture the magic of his early hits like "Throw Momma From the Train," but Larry Doyle's script doesn't measure up, and the movie is quickly forgotten once it's over.

Miramax's DVD offers a fine 1.85 Widescreen transfer (a full-frame version is included on the second disc), along with 5.1 sound sporting an OK score by David Newman. The scant extras include a fluffy featurette and a few deleted scenes.

COLD CREEK MANOR (*, 2003). 119 mins., R, Touchstone. DVD FEATURES: 1.85 Widescreen, Director Commentary, Deleted Scenes and alternate ending; 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Genuinely unpleasant formula thriller stars fun couple Dennis Quaid and Sharon Stone as a pair of NYC yuppies who relocate -- along with their two kids -- to the sticks and a crusty old mansion that they opt to renovate. It should have been apparent to them that the town is bad news when Juliette Lewis appears as the waitress at the local diner/bar/gas station/convenience store, but Quaid and Stone are oblivious to it. Nor do they sense a problem when Stephen Dorff pops up as the young man -- recently released from prison -- whose family owned the property. Instead, they offer him a fine meal and ask that he help renovate the old homestead's pool, thereby uncorking a succession of "Fatal Attraction"/"Hand That Rocks the Cradle" villainy that's painful to watch.

Mike Figgis directed this dreary and ridiculous piece, notable mainly for the unintended yucks his movie provides: first in the coupling of Quaid and Stone (who have zero chemistry with one another), next in Figgis' laughably overwrought music score, which has a few bombastic passages that rival even Elliot Goldenthal's "A Time To Kill" soundtrack. Otherwise, it's a predictable and unpleasant thriller that's not worth your time.

Touchstone's DVD offers a fine 1.85 transfer with Dolby Digital sound. Extras include an alternate ending that's even worse than its counterpart in the final cut; several deleted scenes; commentary with Figgis and a featurette on the "Rules of the Genre," which "Cold Creek" manages to rehash without any identity of its own.

SPY KIDS 3-D (**, 2003). 83 mins., PG, Dimension/Miramax. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Both 3-D and 2-D versions in 1.85 Widescreen; 5.1 Dolby Digital sound; commentary, Making Of material, interactive games.

Third entry in Robert Rodriguez's "Spy Kids" series was actually the most successful of the trio at the box-office, though it's also the most uninspired and tedious of the lot.

With adult stars like Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino relegated to cameo status here (despite their top billing), this sequel focuses on the adventures of ex-kid secret agent Juni Cortez (Daryl Sabara), who is lured back into the fold when his sister (Alexa Vega, who doesn't appear until the 50-minute mark herself) goes missing while investigating a new video game designed by an insane toy manufacturer (Sylvester Stallone). It turns out that Sly wants to take over the minds of his juvenile game players, and only Juni and grandfather Ricardo Montalban stand in the way of his plan.

The earlier "Spy Kids" movies served up exciting juvenile fare with enough wit to appeal to adults as well. Though "Spy Kids 2" went on a little long, it feels a lot shorter than "Spy Kids 3-D," which has an abbreviated running time but nowhere near the energy or inventiveness of its predecessors. This is an FX-filled adventure with little story, and the 3-D effects -- while fun for a few minutes -- are ultimately over-used and headache-inducing on home video. Dimension has thankfully included a 2-D version of the movie that plays better on the small-screen, but even then, the over-abundance of effects will cater this entry strictly to the under-12 crowd. Stallone and Montalban seem to be having fun (and share a scene together that buffs might enjoy), but it's not enough to off-set the thin, recycled script.

Dimension's DVD offers 1.85 transfers of both the 2-D and 3-D versions (four pairs of red-and-blue glasses are included), along with an active 5.1 Dolby Digital sound mix. Extras include commentary by Rodriguez and several Making Of featurettes, concert music videos from the movie's premiere, interactive 3-D games and more that kids should find of interest.

Aisle Seat Vintage DVD Premieres

FRESH HORSES (***, 1988). 103 mins., PG-13, Columbia TriStar, available March 16th. DVD FEATURES: 1.33 Full-screen (cropped from1.85), 2.0 Dolby Stereo.

FOR KEEPS? (**1/2, 1988). 98 mins., PG-13, Columbia TriStar, available March 16th. DVD FEATURES: 1.33 Full-screen (open matte), 2.0 Dolby Stereo.

After leaving John Hughes and her halcyon days of teen movie-dom behind, Molly Ringwald's career ended up in unsettled waters during the late '80s. It's likely that ANY project Ringwald chose was going to be grilled by critics looking to shoot her down, though the actress didn't exactly help herself by immediately trying out "edgier" roles that were a few steps removed from the youthful fun of "Sixteen Candles" and "Pretty in Pink."

FOR KEEPS? was step one in Ringwald's box-office decline, though it's not quite as bad as its reputation would lead one to believe. It's an earnestly-performed piece that stars the actress as a high school senior who ends up pregnant just as she's about to graduate and head off for college. This alternately satiric and schmaltzy movie was written by Second City alumnus Tim Kazurinsky and Denise DeClue, and directed by "Rocky" auteur John G. Avildsen. Ringwald is actually quite good in the movie (as is Kenneth Mars as her boyfriend's father), but the central problem with the picture is Randall Batinkoff, who gives a weak performance in the pivotal role of Ringwald's boyfriend. Bill Conti's jazzy score gives the movie a typical '80s kind of sound, but that's not surprising for a movie that has all the depth of an "After-School" special.

If "For Keeps?" changed audience perception of Ringwald, then FRESH HORSES would pretty much put the final nail in her box-office coffin before the year was out.

That being said, this is an atmospheric and extremely well-crafted drama that reunites several key personnel behind "Hoosiers," including director David Anspaugh and cinematographer Fred Murphy, who give this romantic drama a polished look and feel.

Andrew McCarthy plays a Cincinnati college student engaged to a beautiful, wealthy girl. Ben Stiller plays his carefree friend, who drags him out in the middle of the midwestern countryside for a final single fling. Naturally, she comes in the form of "Jewel," a girl from the wrong side of the tracks played by Ringwald. Their meeting soon develops into a full-blown romance, with McCarthy torn between the future laid out in front of him by his parents and fiancee, and a more unpredictable course that Ringwald's character represents.

Filmed on location in Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana, "Fresh Horses" is a soap opera that works simply due to its evocation of time and place. David Foste rand Patrick Williams' score, Paul Sylbert's production design, Murphy's cinematography, and Anspaugh's sensitive direction result in an underrated film that had two strikes against it in re-teaming Ringwald and McCarthy in parts far removed from their popular roles in "Pretty in Pink." That alone had to have been most of the reason for the movie's poor reception from critics and audiences, but the passage of time has made it less of an issue now. Larry Ketron's script (adapted from his play) is simultaneously compelling and a bit melodramatic, yet if you're in the mood for a polished soap opera, "Fresh Horses" works (also be on the lookout for Viggo Mortensen in one of his earliest roles).

Columbia TriStar has issued both movies on DVD in full-screen transfers, though the presentations vary between the two films. "Fresh Horses" has unfortunately not been transferred in an "open matte" format, meaning the image is zoomed in, clipping the sides (by comparison, the original video and laserdisc release have more picture on all four sides of the image!). "ForKeeps" fares better with a colorful, less grainy image that is open-matte, and also boasts a stronger stereo soundtrack.

WRONG IS RIGHT (**, 1982). 117 mins., R, Columbia TriStar. DVD FEATURES: 1.85 Widescreen, Dolby Digital mono.

From the opening bombast of Artie Kane's none-too-subtle score, you know you're in for a blast of early '80s cinema, and that's exactly what this now-forgotten Sean Connery black comedy serves up.

Connery plays a self-righteous TV reporter who travels the globe profiling international celebrities and political figures. His latest endeavor finds him tracking down a terrorist (Henry Silva) about to sell an atomicbomb to a country in the Middle East, and the various problems that follow when the President of the United States (George Grizzard) tries in vain to convince everyone that there isn't a bomb. Grizzard is also fighting off a re- \election battle with a rising new candidate (Leslie Nielsen), while Connery finds a possible connection between the U.S. government and the situation he uncovers.

Filmmaker Richard Brooks ("In Cold Blood," "Bite the Bullet") made several fine films during his career, but "Wrong Is Right" was not one of them. Brooks's political satire is obvious, and while there's a certain irony in the story's parallels to recent international events, there's also an unfortunate ,creepy aspect to the picture's climax -- which finds Connery trying to defuse a bomb placed on top of the World Trade Center. If that wasn't enough, the movie's outlandish performances are so over-the-top that it's hard to take the film seriously in any capacity, especially considering the film's cardboard sets and Henry Silva playing the heavy. Connery gives it his all, but the movie needed a subtler touch, or -- at least -- a funnier script. (Note for movie buffs: be on the lookout for a young Jennifer Jason Leigh, who shares a scene with Connery early in the film).

Columbia's DVD looks quite colorful and only a bit grainy at times. The 1.85 transfer seems somewhat tightly composed, and is not enhanced for16:9 televisions. The Dolby Digital mono sound is fine, but any way you slice it, it's difficult not to snicker at Kane's blaring score, which mixes American marches with early '80s synthesizers and fits the movie all too well.

Aisle Seat Mail Bag

First off this week, I have news and no news on several oft-asked questions.

I still have no idea what's going on with the twice-delayed DVD of ED WOOD. There are various Special Editions available overseas, yet the U.S. domestic release has now been pulled a pair of times before reaching shelves. While a few discs trickled out, most fans are still waiting -- patiently! -- for the movie to arrive. When I hear something other than Buena Vista saying they're "reconsidering" the release date, I'll let y'all know!

Secondly, a two-disc Special Edition of WYATT EARP will indeed be out later on this spring. From what I could gather from reading the press release, it seems like it'll be the standard theatrical cut with the deleted scenes from the Director's Cut included as extras.

Finally, Disney has released several new-to-DVD catalog titles, including NIGHT CROSSING. However, the studio seldom provides review copies of their "library" discs, so I haven't been able to take a look at the film. By all means drop a line if you've picked it up.

From Kirk Henderson:

I just wanted to add a bit of perspective on Andy Dursin's review of THE CHASE, newly released on DVD.I pretty much agree with his assessment, however, although the film is clearly obvious (spoiled rich kids, crooked politicians, frustrated housewives - a whole lineup of Southern character cliches), at the time the film was released, the ending came as a big surprise. In 1966 the ending (and don't read further if you haven't seen the film because a GREAT BIG SPOILER is ahead--), hadn't been turned into the obvious shock format that those endings soon became. But at the time, Robert Redford's unexpected killing on the steps of the courthouse felt like what we had lived through just a short while before with Lee Harvey Oswald's shooting by Jack Ruby. The shock of the Kennedy assassination had primed us for what we were given in THE CHASE, perhaps the earliest Hollywood film with such a shocking conclusion. Now those style endings seem like total cliches and thinly obvious techniques to give a shallow film some weight. In this regard the film doesn't hold up, but I've always enjoyed Brando's angst-ridden performance, and love Barry's score, still one of his best.

Excellent points on the ending, Kirk. The film was well before my time, but I can definitely see how that kind of conclusion came as a shock considering the era.

From Simon St. Laurent:

Hi Andy,

Having done a few anamorphic squeezes myself -- as an optical cameraman -- from Super-35mm shot films, I have to say that I have never seen a 35mm neg with a built-in hard matte.With Super-35mm you basically shoot the whole negative area (which runs across the negative right over to the sprockets on both sides -- unlike "Academy" where the optical axis is over a little to one side to account for the eventual  soundtrack).When you shoot, the camera has been outfitted with the appropriate finder markings on the eyepiece ground glass. Depending on what you have outfitted as markings, you have a choice to favour 2:35, 1:85, 1:66, or full frame which is 1:33 (or 1:37).Having so many choices, and with so many people deciding on what the picture should be lensed as, you have cameramen/women complaining, "you can't really compose for any aesthetic since there's so much pressure to keep the action or subject close together -- it's ending up on tv anyway".

I think that 2:35 is a waste of time since many houses can't even show the full frame (and when this ratio ends up on home video you are only utilizing a portion of the already poor resolution of the television set/monitor. Don't listen to those comical salesman in "home theatre" departments).1:85 is a farce, from a technical standpoint, because you just chop away the top and bottom of the frame to get the widescreen effect .All thatprecious neg area thrown out the window -- although this can possibly be shown fullframe when ending up on video. When I was shooting a music video a few years ago,  Iwas asked by the director to shoot it in 1:85. Even though the video was obviously being made for television, I knew that request was coming since many people in this business seem to think that ultimately letterboxing the picture is "cool" or somehow legitimizes what your doing. Maybe Hollywood should start letterboxing scripts!

More theatrical films should be shot "full frame" -- widescreen photography is just film-wanking since most filmmakers today don't know what to do with the widescreen anyway. Perhaps it's just a lost art.

The poor state of film scoring today is perhaps a more pressing concern -- and relevant to this site -- but it's interesting to address the subject of film formatting.

Just don't get me going about those so-called "stadium seating" theatres... you really don't want to hear what people like me have to say about those places.

From Steven Awalt:

I read your column today and noticed a letter about the DUEL DVD release (or lack thereof--). I didn't see an answer posted, but if you were looking for any information, my site has literally the most complete information on the history of the release available.

The information can be found here:


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