Aisle Seat April Madness Edition

Plus: New Columbia Titles and More!
By Andy Dursin

A few new discs hit stores this week, and because I'm short on time, let's get right to it!

New This Week

KILL BILL (***, 2003). 111 mins., R, Miramax. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Making Of, Bonus Musical performances; 2.35 Widescreen, 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital sound.

I'm not the world's biggest fan of Quentin Tarantino, but this impressively designed, stylish and fun movie-movie is one of his most satisfying works to date.

Equal parts comic book and '70s Hong Kong kung fu homage, "Kill Bill Vol. 1" is the first half of Tarantino's tale of revenge and retribution ("Vol. 2" arrives in theaters Friday). Uma Thurman stars as "The Bride," a sleek assassin who's shot on her wedding day and left for dead by her former boss and employees. After spending four years in a coma, she wakes up, ready to enact some vengeance for the death of her fiancee and unborn child by taking down "Bill" (David Carradine) and his deadly band of contract killers (including Lucy Liu, Vivica A. Fox and Daryl Hannah).

Tarantino's movie opens up with a Shaw Brothers logo, setting the tone for a movie that's filled with in-jokes, homages, and plenty of energetic filmmaking that shows off the filmmaker at his best: yes, it's violent, but somehow the tone of "Kill Bill" manages to be more playful and less vindictive (in spite of its copious gore) than much of Tarantino's previous work. Using all corners of the widescreen frame, Tarantino has made an enthusiastic film -- an exercise in style more than plot, no question -- that works best if you take it in the proper spirit, sporting a number of cinematic styles (including a full-blown anime used to render the back story of Liu's character) backed up by Robert Richardson's evocative cinematography. Even the hodge-podge soundtrack works great, sporting copious doses of Bernard Herrmann's score from "Twisted Nerve."

Miramax's DVD, out today, sports a serviceable 2.35 transfer with more satisfying 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital soundtracks. As you might anticipate, this is a wonderfully layered mix, with sounds coming at you from all directions. Supplements are definitely on the light side, however (just a 22-minute "Making Of" featurette and music videos), leading me to believe a features-packed Special Edition will follow down the road.

HOPE SPRINGS (**, 2003). 92 mins., R, Touchstone. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Making Of featurette; 2.35 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Barely-released film simply fails to connect, despite a solid cast and a story line that seemed perfectly suited for a good romantic comedy.

Colin Firth plays a British artist who flees his native land and ends up in the sleepy New England town of Hope. There, he meets a predictably wacky assortment of characters who try and help him overcome his broken heart, caused by his former fiancee (Minnie Driver). Included among the ensemble are goofy motel owners Mary Steenburgen and Frank Collison, nutty mayor Oliver Platt, and caregiver Heather Graham, who's been in town forever and finds a soulmate in Firth.

English filmmaker Mark Herman ("Brassed Off," "Blame It On the Bellboy") adapted "Hope Springs" from a novel by Charles Webb, who's best known as the author of "The Graduate." The cast tries hard and the setting is charming (even though the settings aren't authentic New England but rather British Columbia), but "Hope Springs" manages to fail just the same on nearly every level. The pacing is off, the script isn't very funny, and none of it is compelling, despite what sounds like a "can't miss" premise (even a second-hand rehash of any old "Newhart" episode would have been passable). Firth and Graham also have little chemistry with one another, which must have been one of the reasons Touchstone barely released the film in the U.S.

The studio's DVD does look nice in 2.35 widescreen and sports a 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack, comprised of forgettable pop songs and nondescript John Altman score. Extras include a standard Making Of featurette.

Aisle Seat DVD Sneak Preview

A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN Special Edition (***, 1992). 128 mins., PG-13, Columbia TriStar, available April 20th. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Director/cast commentary, 15 deleted scenes with director introductions, New Making Of documentary, music video; 2.35 Widescreen and full-frame, 4.0 Dolby Digital sound.

One of Penny Marshall's most successful outings as a filmmaker, "A League of Their Own" has been re-issued by Columbia TriStar in a spiffy new double-disc Special Edition just in time for the start of the baseball season.

The movie, released in 1992, remains a favorite of many viewers, not so much because of its sometimes-syrupy plot (and an unnecessary epilogue), but rather because of its deft comedic performances -- one of which comes from Tom Hanks, who, in the early '90s, was still trying to improve his image after starring in a myriad of mindless comedies.

Hanks' role as a boozy manager of a women's baseball team won him critical kudos in addition to a plethora of laughs, and basically paved the way for his resurgence as a dramatic leading man in "Philadelphia" and "Forrest Gump." He's the perfect compliment to a standard but entertaining yarn of underdogs who test the conventions of 1943 America, giving a dose of feminine empowerment to the country at a time of war. Geena Davis gives a strong lead performance as the team's MVP, while an excellent ensemble backs her up. They includes Lori Petty, Madonna, and Rosie O'Donnell, the latter two forming an unlikely odd couple that clicks on-screen, while other supporting roles are filled by David Straithairn, Garry Marshall (brother of the director), and Jon Lovitz.

The widescreen cinematography of Miroslav Ondricek gives the movie a glossy visual sheen, while Hans Zimmer's bouncy score remains one of his best from the period. In all, "A League of Their Own" is a classy production, a good story, and a highly entertaining movie that has worn well over the years.

Columbia TriStar's DVD offers a remastered 2.35 widescreen transfer that's an appreciable improvement on the earlier single-disc release from several years ago. Ondricek's cinematography demands to be seen in the wide scope dimensions, and a worthless pan-and-scan version is also included to confirm that fact to anyone new to the film. The 4.0 Dolby Digital sound is fine, and a second disc full of supplements is sure to please fans of the movie.

Extras include a full half-hour of deleted scenes, plus a new Making Of sporting recent interviews with all the major participants (sans Madonna), a music video of the godawful Madonna song "This Used To Be My Playground," and commentary during the film with Marshall, Petty, and Marshall's daughter, Tracy Reiner, who plays a role in the film.

Highly recommended!

New From Fox

CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN (**, 2003). 98 mins., PG, Twentieth Century Fox. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Director commentary, kids commentary; deleted/extended scenes; featurettes; 1.85 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Disappointing family comedy takes the true story of the Gilbreth family (previously filmed in the '50s as a Clifton Webb vehicle) and turns it into a modern Steve Martin movie that's so absurd that it very nearly resembles a science fiction film.

Martin and Bonnie Hunt play the amiable parents of 12 fun-loving offspring, who range in age from toddler twins to teens Hilary Duff and Tom Welling and grown-up Piper Perabo. When Martin, a Division III football coach, gets an offer to helm his alma matter's Division I football team, he packs up the family and drags them to the big city, where almost immediately he ends up in over his head. To make matters even more troublesome (not to mention more unbelievable), Mom's new book is published and she bolts town on a freewheeling publicity tour (presumably so we can see the requisite Regis & Kelly cameo) just as the kids begin their first day of school.

Now, I know you need to take a suspension of disbelief when dealing with comedies geared at kids, but "Cheaper By the Dozen" asks us to believe that Martin, a father of 12 kids, has to single-handedly parent all of them once he takes the reigns at a Division 1 program (like the University of Illinois) -- even when he's supposed to be coaching the team in games with 50,000+ people in the stands? It also asks us to believe that he'd repeatedly forget the name of one of his kids, and that Bonnie Hunt would leave all of them when their children are starting at a new school AND dad has not one but two huge games on national television. Not only that, but they also have no relatives who could help them out? And that the response of their next-door neighbor (the ridiculously over-the-top Paula Marshall), when one of Martin and Hunt's kids goes missing, is "see, I told you one of your kids would end up on a milk carton!"??

That should give you some indication of how hackneyed and trite the Sam Harper-Joel Cohen-Alec Sokolow script is, which also leaves all kinds of loose ends dangling in the end. Aside from an Ashton Kutcher unbilled supporting role, there's nothing really funny or charming about Shawn Levy's movie, which is noteworthy only for its missed comedic and dramatic opportunities, plus Christophe Beck's effective dramatic score.

Fox's DVD offers good-looking widescreen and full-screen transfers, plus Dolby Digital audio. Supplements include a pair of commentary tracks by Levy and the young cast, plus a "Director's Viewfinder" featurette.

THE COMMITMENTS (***, 1991). 117 mins., R, Twentieth Century Fox. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Director commentary; new Making Of and interview with author Roddy Doyle; vintage Making Of featurettes, music videos; 1.85 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound. Alan Parker's highly entertaining adaptation of Roddy Doyle's novel has been re- issued by Fox in an excellent new double-disc Special Edition. The new DVD offers a remastered 1.85 widescreen presentation on Disc One with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound and a new commentary track with Parker. Disc Two offers new supplements including a 45-minute documentary sporting interviews with Doyle, Parker, and others, plus a 15-minute conversation with Doyle about his work, a pair of featurettes produced at the time of the film's release, a pair of music videos and theatrical trailers. "The Commitments" is a slice-of-life about a fledgling rock band in Dublin. The music is superb, the performances are genuine, and the laughs and emotion the movie generates likewise honest. Despite its somewhat bloated running time, Parker's movie is one of his most satisfying pictures, and the DVD's presentation and affordable price (under $20 in most outlets) makes it doubly appealing.

The Universal monster movies first made their way to DVD in the late '90s, where a few of the studio's classics were treated to Special Edition packages, including documentary features and historian commentary tracks.

All of them have been out of print for some time, and while fans debated whether or not they would be re-issued, most looked to the release of the Universal's upcoming blockbuster "Van Helsing" as the opportune moment for the vintage B&W classics to be resurrected on DVD once again.

Sure enough, that scenario has come to pass. To coincide with the May 7th release of Stephen Sommers' film, out next week are a trio of box-sets dubbed THE LEGACY COLLECTION, which compile the Universal feature films starring DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN, and THE WOLF MAN, respectively. Each set includes a dual- layered disc sporting two features, plus a two-sided second disc offering additional movies and supplementary materials.

The great news for fans is that the box-sets include -- with the exception of Production Notes -- all of the Special Features from the original Universal Monsters "Special Edition" DVDs. This includes all of the commentary tracks, Making Of specials, trailers, and production/photo archives from those earlier discs -- something which a few viewers doubted would be reprised in the new sets.

Even better is that the terrible, fan-lambasted transfer of THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN -- mis-framed, grainy, and an overall mess in its premiere DVD release -- has been remastered for this edition! No longer are heads being slightly trimmed or the entire compositional balance thrown off, as in the earlier disc. Not only that, but the movie looks so much cleaner as well, that there's simply no comparison between the "Legacy Collection" transfer and the original DVD release -- something that will be more than reason enough to entice fans to purchase the set.

The FRANKENSTEIN box-set also includes the original 1931 film, of course, in its "Restored Version," plus the later sequels "Son of Frankenstein," "Ghost of Frankenstein," and "House of Frankenstein." These run the gamut from the series' origins as part of the Golden Age of Horror to their B-movie status by the genre's fading post- WWII period, but each has its own merits. Both "The Frankenstein Files" and "She's Alive!" (documentaries produced for the earlier DVDs on the 1931 film and its 1935 sequel) are included, along with the short "Boo!", poster and photo galleries for both "Frankenstein" and "Bride of Frankenstein," trailers for all the movies, and commentaries on the '31 original (by Rudy Behlmer) and the '35 follow-up (from Scott MacQueen).

The DRACULA box-set benefits from what Universal calls "newly remastered audio tracks for maximum clarity." This can be heard especially on the soundtrack of "Dracula's Daughter," which was recorded at such a low level on its first DVD release that viewers had to turn up their volumes nearly to the max to hear the dialogue.

The "Legacy Collection" release of our favorite bloodsucker's studio output includes the 1931 original -- sporting both the original soundtrack and Philip Glass' new score -- plus the Spanish version, "Dracula's Daughter," "Son of Dracula," and, making its debut on DVD, "House of Dracula," the unofficial end of the Universal Monster cycle. The Legacy Collection also includes all of the special features from the "Dracula" Special Edition, with the added benefit of being able to change audio tracks on the fly. So, if you want to switch from the original "Dracula" soundtrack to the Glass score or the commentary track, you can do it during the movie, instead of having to go out to the menu screen to do so (which you had to do in the original DVD).

THE WOLF MAN box-set is overall the weakest of the three, if only because the four movies contained in it -- as a whole at least -- are the least compelling of the three sets. While the original 1941 "Wolf Man" is a classic, the same can't be said for its brethren "Werewolf of London" (1935) and "She-Wolf of London" (1946). Before Larry Talbot's tale was continued in the "House Of" all-star monster mashes, a sequel to "The Wolf Man" surfaced in 1943's "Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man," which also continued the Frank saga from "Ghost of Frankenstein." That entertaining team-up is also included in the Wolf Man Legacy box-set, along with all of the special features from the "Wolf Man" special edition including the John Landis-hosted "Monster By Moonlight" documentary and Tom Weaver's audio commentary.

All three of the "Legacy Collection" sets also includes a short (10-minute) featurette on "Van Helsing," with director Stephen Sommers discussing how each respective classic monster worked his way into the new movie. It's mostly promotional filler designed to get audiences stoked for the release of the "Van Helsing" film, and will surely help tide viewers over until May 7th.

By reprising nearly all of the supplemental features and adding a few new enhancements along the way (specifically the improved "Bride of Frankenstein" transfer), Universal has done a superb job with these box-sets. Each set retails for around $25, and can be had as a whole for under $60 -- a bargain indeed for the amount of movies and materials contained in these sets.

Hopefully Universal will see fit to issue a Legacy Collection for "The Mummy," as well as re-issue the other Classic Monster titles that remain out-of-print on DVD (like "Creature From the Black Lagoon" and "The Invisible Man"). In the meantime, fans should be thrilled by the presentation and affordability of these Universal classics, which are back in circulation at long last.

Also New On DVD

PASSIONADA (**1/2, 2002). 104 mins., PG-13, Columbia TriStar. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Alternate ending, deleted scene, commentary tracks; 2.35 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital surround.

Whenever I would visit our beloved publisher Lukas Kendall en route to Martha's Vineyard, I would end up catching a ferry out of New Bedford, Massachusetts. New Bedford is a town steeped in history -- a piece of Old New England, to be sure, with a few areas you'd rather not be driving around at night, but also some scenic spots to bring a few clamcakes to snack on, several maritime museums, and a strong Portugese community that continues to thrive in the city by the sea.

That community forms the centerpiece of Dan Ireland's well-intentioned film "Passionada," which was filmed entirely in New Bedford and a few neighboring southeastern Massachusetts towns (plus Connecticut's Mohegan Sun casino), and benefits enormously from a strong sense of time and place.

The atmosphere, caught in full widescreen by Claudio Rocha, helps to off-set a predictable romantic drama (by Jim and Stephen Jermanok) that finds widowed Sofia Milos falling for English gambler Jason Isaacs, in town and staying with friends Seymour Cassel and Theresa Russell. In exchange for dating Milos (who sings at a local restaurant), Isaacs agrees to tutor her daughter Emmy Rossum in the ways of cheating at blackjack. Once he and Milos fall for each other, though, he finds that his lies are becoming increasingly harder to pull off.

All the elements for a charming romantic comedy and character study are in place in "Passionada," including amiable performances from Milos and Isaacs, deftly playing against the villainous type he's essayed in movies like "The Patriot" and "Harry Potter." Harry Gregson-Williams's score is superb and the locations are used to good effect, yet there's something overly artificial about the story, with the entire subplot involving Milos's daughter totally failing to pay off. (As further evidence of an uncertain script, check out the DVD's 15-minute alternate ending, which the director states was a terrible idea and was wisely re-shot).

Columbia's DVD does offer an excellent 2.35 transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound. Extras include a pair of commentary tracks, one from director Dan Ireland and members of the cast, the other with the screenwriters. Other extras include the before- mentioned excised ending and one deleted scene.

"Passionada" begins well and offers a unique cinematic setting, and in spite of its flaws, is worth a look for curious viewers.

THE HAUNTED MANSION (**, 2003). 88 mins., PG; Disney, available today. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Deleted scene, commentaries, Making Of featurette, extensive DVD-ROM material, outtkakes; 2.35 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Disappointing fantasy for kids falls somewhere between the near-brilliance of "Pirates of the Caribbean" and the inanity of "The Country Bears" as far as Disney rides- to-movie adaptations go. Eddie Murphy manages to give one of his dullest performances as a real estate agent who travels with his kids and wife Marsha Thomason (unless Disney is advocating teen pregnancy, she's a bit too young to be a parent of a 12-year-old) to a mansion owned by ghostly Nathaniel Parker and butler Terence Stamp. Turns out the house is under a curse that can only be resolved by Parker "marrying" Murphy's beloved because she's the reincarnation of his lost love.

There are plenty of references to the Disney ride (one of the most beloved attractions at the theme parks) and visual effects to keep kids interested, but the David Berenbaum script is too busy and plot heavy for its own good. Murphy doesn't seem too interested and the basic "plot" of the film is so convoluted that much of the movie is spent with characters running down corridors, finding Indiana Jones-like contraptions and requisite supernatural forces. Ultimately, "The Haunted Mansion" is too workmanlike in all facets of its execution to hit the bullseye, though young children might enjoy the film as a passable rainy-day entertainment.

Disney's DVD offers a sterling 2.35 widescreen transfer with plenty of supplemental features. Standard extras include outtakes, a deleted scene, commentary tracks, a Behind the Scenes featurette, a virtual tour of the mansion, and a pounding 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack. DVD-ROM content is even more abundant, including photo galleries, a history of the attraction, and lots more -- available in both PC and Mac flavors as well.

TUBE (**1/2, 2003). 116 mins., R, Columbia TriStar, available today. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Making Of featurette; 2.35 Widescreen, 5.1 English and French dubbed soundtracks, 2.0 Korean (English subtitles are derived from the English dubbed track).

Entertaining Korean variant on "Speed" stars Seok-Hoon Kim as a detective on the trail of a master criminal who commandeers a subway car, taking hostage a politician and a young woman in love with the brooding cop. Turns out that the bad guy (named "T") took down Kim's wife in a previous meeting, enabling the cop to get a chance at payback.

Woon-Hak Baek's film opens with a furious gun battle, promising plenty of action, and for a while "Tube" is nearly on the level with its American counterparts. The relationship between Kim and Doo-Na Bae as his love interest is interesting and could have benefited from further development, but the movie never stops moving ahead with a compelling story and enough suspense to keep you watching. Unfortunately, the heavy-handed, melodramatic climax -- which also prolongs the film by a good 20 minutes -- puts a damper on the enthusiasm and excitement that preceded it.

Columbia's DVD offers a good-looking 2.35 transfer. The soundtracks include English and French 5.1 dubbed tracks (the Americanized version is reasonably well- done), plus the original Korean track in 2.0 Dolby Surround. Adding a bit of insult to injury is that the English subtitles are captions for the English dubbed version and not a translation of the original Korean dialogue -- a practice that's becoming unfortunately more common on multi-lingual U.S. DVDs. Extras include a music video and a properly subtitled Making Of featurette.

LOVERBOY (**, 1989, 99 mins., PG-13; Columbia TriStar, available May 4th): Patrick Dempsey had his fair share of hits in the teen/romantic comedy genre during the '80s -- films like "Can't Buy Me Love" and "In the Mood" (where's the DVD, Warner Bros?) in particular. His starring role in 1989's "Loveboy," though, is not remembered as one of the better genre films of the period, and with good reason. Dempsey plays a college student who ends up working as a pizza delivery boy during his summer vacation. Ultimately, Dempsey finds his charms work on a variety of women he delivers pies to, including Kirstie Alley, Carrie Fisher, and Barbara Carrera. Director Joan Micklin Silver was a hot item in Hollywood for a bit in the mid to late '80s, but it's safe to say "Loverboy" isn't the movie she nor the cast will want to remembered for. This is a thoroughly mediocre movie of the period and nothing more -- worth it if you want to be nostalgic for the fashions and Michel Colombier's synth-heavy score, but the film otherwise is a pretty laughless, by- the-numbers affair. Columbia's DVD, due out in a couple of weeks, sports a fine 1.85 transfer enhanced for 16:9 televisions.

SWORD OF THE VALIANT (**, 102 mins., 1983, PG; MGM): The Cannon Group proudly presented their "Excalibur" with this adaptation of the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Unfortunately, despite casting the likes of Sean Connery (as the Green Knight) in this period piece, "Sword of the Valiant" proved to be one of Cannon's costlier flops just the same. The movie is stilted and a little dull, not helped out any by a tepid music score, but it's nevertheless amusing for movie buffs because of the presence of Connery, who reportedly shot the film in between breaks from "Never Say Never Again." Though MGM announced that "Sword of the Valiant" would be arriving on video for the first time in its original widescreen 2.35 dimensions, the DVD sports a disappointing pan- and-scan transfer instead. The Dolby Surround sound is adequate and a theatrical trailer has been included, but those seeking the original J-D-C Scope ratio will have to hope for a superior DVD release elsewhere around the world.

NEXT TIME: TIMELINE reviewed at long last!!


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