Aisle Seat April Assault Edition!

New Lions Gate, MGM Catalog Titles

April is typically a quiet month for new movies and DVD releases – the calm before the storm of May, when Hollywood unleashes the annual barrage of major studio productions competing for your hard-earned dollar.

This year, May couldn’t come quickly enough, since 2005 to date has yielded numerous flops and few blockbuster performers – generally in keeping with what was a disappointing 2004 at the movies. While we can only hope that things turn around (between Episode III and “War of the Worlds” I’m cautiously optimistic), the DVD format continues to turn out one quality release after another, from small independent films to vintage titles and deluxe editions of recent releases.

New offerings this week include titles from Sony, Lions Gate, MGM and more, from Hanna-Barbera’s live-action theatrical debut (and demise!) to recent independent films with stars including Kevin Bacon, Robin Williams, Lauren Graham, and Jim Caviezel and others.

New From Sony

THE WOODSMAN (**½, 2004). 87 mins., R, Sony. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Director Commentary by Nicole Kassell; Deleted/Extended Scenes; Making Of featurette; 1.85 Widescreen, 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital sound.

Kevin Bacon’s superb, restrained performance is the standout element in Nicole Kassell’s adaptation of Steven Fechter’s novel.

As a former child molester recently released from prison, Bacon’s character struggles to find solace in his new job and meaning in a relationship with co-worker Kyra Sedgwick. His best friend is also his brother-in-law (Benjamin Bratt), who comes to visit him in spite of his wife – Bacon’s own sister – who still can’t come to terms with her brother’s crimes.

“The Woodsman” is a low-key film that, at times, plays like an R-rated “Lifetime Movie of the Week.” Bacon’s character struggles with his relationships and also the fact that he’s living next to a grammar school, which could either lead him on the path to temptation or possibly redemption. It’s a great showcase for Bacon, but there’s a simplistic element to the story (scripted by Fechter and Kassell) that doesn’t feel quite right. Some of the supporting characters feel forced (like Eve as a pushy co-worker and Mos Def as a police detective leery of Bacon’s presence in the community), making the project a well-acted character piece that’s quickly forgotten once its 87 minutes expire.

Sony’s DVD, out this week, includes commentary from Kassell and several deleted/extended scenes, one of which definitely would have pushed the movie into veritable “Afterschool Special” territory. A very brief “Getting it Made” featurette is included alongside a superb 1.85 transfer and one of the best soundtracks you’ll ever hear in a film like this. Nathan Larson’s moody score is complimented by a rich, stereophonic sound design, on-hand in both DTS and Dolby Digital flavors.

DRAGON’S WORLD: A FANTASY MADE REAL (2005). 100 mins., PG, Sony. DVD FEATURES: Behind the Scenes featurette; 1.78 Widescreen, 2.0 Dolby Surround.

British-made, ersatz documentary attempts to do for dragons what the BBC’s superb “Walking With Dinosaurs” did for our prehistoric pals.

Though this Animal Planet/Discovery co-production lacks the technical polish of the “Walking With...” efforts (with a needless “modern day” paleontologist supposedly uncovering dragon remains), kids should enjoy this fanciful look at what the world may have been like had dragons actually existed.

Ian Holm narrates the 100-minute presentation (which reportedly was cut considerably for its American TV airings last month), which is chock full of superb special effects by Framestore CFC, showing the digitized dragons first feeding on a tyranosaurus and later fighting for their lives during medieval times. Justin Hardy directed Charlie Foley’s concept, which is easily better than recent theatrical duds like “Reign of Fire,” at least giving the dragons more time in the spotlight.

Sony’s DVD includes a somewhat disappointing 1.78 widescreen transfer. Perhaps because I enjoyed the “Walking With Dinosaurs” series so much (with its outstanding DVD quality), my expectations were set too high here. Nevertheless, the DVD transfer is surprisingly soft and grainy at times, though this could well be a result of the production’s relative lack of budget. A Making Of featurette is included on the supplementary side.

New From Lions Gate

THE FINAL CUT (**, 2004). 91 mins., PG-13, Lions Gate. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Making Of and additional featurettes; Deleted Scenes; Commentary; 2.35 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Uneven but well-performed sci-fi tale stars Robin Williams as a “cutter” in the not-too-distant future. Williams’ job is to assembly the memories of newly deceased individuals via an implanted memory chip which “captures” their lives from start till end. Naturally this entails editing out the controversial elements – something that becomes a problem when Williams’ latest assignment has him compiling the seedy life of a lawyer associated with the company that produces the chip.

Omar Naim’s short (barely over 90 minutes) film is a cautionary, predictable tale of where technology could lead us, and the performances of Williams as a man haunted both by his past and lack of identity -- as well as Caviezel as the renegade wanting to take the corporation down -- are right on the mark. If only the rest of “The Final Cut” was as focused: the finished product is often disjointed with several poor supporting performances, most notably a miscast Mira Sorvino as the blonde bombshell who captivates Williams’ fancy. An incestuous subplot adds a grimy element that compounds the picture’s derivative aspects, offsetting the strong work provided by the leads.

Lions Gate’s DVD includes a razor-sharp 2.35 transfer (the box erroneously lists 1.85) with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound. Like the movie, Brian Tyler’s score is a mixed bag: the opening titles sound too much like Danny Elfman for comfort, though later passages work well when meshed with the drama. Extra features include Naim’s commentary, deleted scenes, storyboards, and several Making Of featurettes.

STAGE BEAUTY (**½, 2004). 109 mins., R, Lions Gate. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Commentary; Featurettes; 1.85 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Billy Crudup plays a 17th century actor renowned for his stage portrayals of women; Claire Dances is his dresser and companion who ultimately takes over for him when the King opts to eliminate his edict that only males can play females.

Richard Eyre’s period piece/character study boasts a strong supporting cast (Rupert Everett, Tom Wilkinson, Ben Chaplin), yet this Robert DeNiro-produced adaptation of Jeffrey Hatcher’s stage play (scripted by the author) comes off as a claustrophobic, small-scale piece without the lush trappings of a typical Merchant-Ivory film. The performances of Crudup and Danes are both praiseworthy, yet the movie never really takes hold of the viewer.

Lions Gate’s DVD offers a colorful 16:9 enhanced transfer with commentary from director Eyre, several vignettes/featurettes on the making of the film, and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound. The surprisingly ineffective score was penned by George Fenton, boasting some jarring “contemporary” passages atypical of the composer.

EARTHSEA (2004, 172 mins., Lions Gate): Entertaining Sci-Fi Channel mini-series follows the adventures of a young wizard (Shawn Ashmore) as he attempts to restore peace to the gorgeous, besieged fantasy world of Earthsea. Kristin Kreuk (“Smallville”), Isabella Rossellini and Danny Glover co-star. Having never read Ursula K. LeGuin’s novel, I can’t attest to the faithfulness of Rob Lieberman’s production (fans were angered by it), but on its own terms this “Lord of the Rings”-inspired effort from Robert Halmi’s Hallmark Entertainment is a good deal of fun for genre buffs. The 1.85 transfer is crisp, Jeff Rona’s score packs a potent punch in the disc’s 5.1 audio, and a Making Of featurette round out the disc.

Attack of the Shelved High School Movies

SHE GETS WHAT SHE WANTS (**, 2001). 97 mins., PG-13, Lions Gate. DVD FEATURES: 1.85 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, Trailer.

Long-shelved teen comedy produced by Germany’s Constantin Film stars Piper Perabo as a French exchange student who throws a few wrenches into the plans of Texas high school queen Jane McGregor.

Originally titled “Slap Her...She’s French,” this colorful but only occasionally funny effort gets appealing performances out of McGregor as the bitchy Texan who changes her ways only after Perabo’s seemingly demure French girl takes over her world, including her high school clique and  wacky family. Unfortunately, the Lamar Damon-Robert Lee King script fails to take off and exploit the scenario as effectively as it might have: the movie has the requisite vomiting and gross-out gags of its genre, though with the kind of PG-13 “edge” that “Heathers” hinted at back in the late ‘80s. Obviously, “She Gets What She Wants” isn’t nearly as effective as that 1988 cult classic, but it’s an interesting attempt at doing something different than the norm, even if it’s only partially successful.

Lions Gate’s DVD includes the theatrical trailer (which ran years ago as memory serves), plus a colorful 1.85 widescreen transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, sporting an okay score by David Michael Frank.

BAD GIRLS FROM VALLEY HIGH (*, 2000). 84 mins., R, Universal. DVD FEATURES: Deleted Scenes; 1.85 Widescreen, 2.0 Dolby Surround stereo.

This flimsy excuse for a high school black comedy was actually shot all the way back in 1999 – hence the on-screen appearances of Janet Leigh and ex-teen star Jonathan Brandis, who have since passed away, not to mention “The Bubble Factory,” the ill-fated production group originated by Sid Sheinberg that likewise kicked the bucket several years ago.

Julie Benz, Monica Keena, and Nicole Bilderback play a trio of hapless, mindless high schoolers who opt to knock out the foreign exchange student who infiltrates their clique. Murder, mayhem, and an uneasy mix of gags and gore ensue in this weird adaptation of Paul Fleischman’s novel “A Fate Totally Worse Than Death.”

Universal’s DVD includes a couple of minutes of deleted scenes, but oddly no chapter menu functions and nothing else outside of a basic 1.85 transfer with 2.0 Surround sound.

New From MGM

LUCKY 13 (*½, 2004). 78 mins., R, MGM. DVD FEATURES: 1.85 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

One of those small indie movies that give indie movies a bad name, this 78-minute “comedy” from director Chris Hall is a torturous affair that can’t even be saved by the presence of “Gilmore Girls” star Lauren Graham.

Brad Hunt plays one of the least appealing romantic comedy leads in recent memory as a down-on-his-luck guy whose childhood sweetheart (Graham) is about to move away for good. Undaunted by his lack of grace, manners, and appealing personality, Hunt tries to win her back by asking all 12 of his ex-girlfriends whether he was “any good” or not, all the while pal Harland Williams helps out.

“Lucky 13" may run less than 80 minutes but it feels like it’s three hours: the Hall-Ari Schlossberg script is tepid and the whole movie simply feels “off.” Maybe it’s because of Hunt’s performance (Williams would have been a more convincing romantic lead), maybe it’s the fact that the movie feels like it was shot in a couple of days, or perhaps it’s just plain bad, “Lucky 13" is a charmless effort hardly even worth considering as a rental.

MGM’s DVD has no special features, just an okay 1.85 widescreen transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

C.H.O.M.P.S. (**½, 1979). 91 mins., PG (though labeled as the G version), MGM. DVD FEATURES: Full-Screen Transfer, Dolby Digital mono.

Hanna-Barbera made their first and only foray into the world of live-action theatrical films with C.H.O.M.P.S., the wacky tale of a young engineer (“Land of the Lost” star Wesley Eure) who creates for his boss (Conrad Bain) a robotic dog that they believe will revolutionize the home security industry. Valerie Bertinelli plays Bain’s daughter, while Red Buttons and Chuck McCann are the duo up to no good in Hanna-Barbera’s bid for big-screen success.

Of course, teaming with Samuel Z. Arkoff’s American-International Pictures couldn’t have been much of a help, but C.H.O.M.P.S., as seen today, still provides mindless fun for younger viewers, albeit one with a major caveat: though advertised as the G-rated version, MGM’s DVD of C.H.O.M.P.S. (available Tuesday) is actually the unedited PG-rated theatrical cut.

While ordinarily that’s good news for buffs, it comes as bad news for parents, because there was some alarming and needless profanity in the original version of C.H.O.M.P.S. that was later edited out of the film. Here, however, the few four-letter words are intact, including a totally gratuitous obscenity spoken by C.H.O.M.P.S.’ neighborhood rival right before the credits roll! Thus, if you have kids, be aware of the foul language and proceed accordingly.

MGM’s DVD is in full-screen but appears perfectly composed throughout; chances are that the movie (directed by Don Chaffey of “One Million Years B.C.” fame) was filmed full-frame and matted for theatrical release, so unless you’re a 16:9 TV owner, I doubt there will be many complaints. The mono sound is a bit coarse but works fine, sporting an appropriately bombastic score by none other than Hanna-Barbera vet Hoyt Curtin. The original trailer rounds out the disc.

NEXT WEEK: A TV on DVD Marathon! Don't forget to say Aloha on the Message Boards, direct any emails to the link above and we'll catch you then. Cheers!