Aisle Seat Mid-April Report

Paramount Preserves LIL ABNER on DVD
Plus: AMITYVILLE HORROR Returns, EXORCIST IV News, and More!

You’ve got to hand it to Hollywood yet again. In this day and age of political correctness, even a mindless horror remake like THE AMITYVILLE HORROR (** of four) can’t go unaltered by the P.C. police.

More on that in a moment. First off, MGM and Dimension Films teamed up with Michael Bay to produce this slick, competent, but surprisingly bland re-do of the 1979 American-International box-office hit.

Based on the supposed true story of the Lutz family (whose tale inspired Jay Anson’s book and various reports of a hoax in recent years), Ryan Reynolds and Melissa George play the recently married couple who pack up – along with George’s children – for the quaint Long Island community of Amityville and that infamous house where evil dwells.

No sooner do the Lutzes move in than all kinds of weird shenanigans take place: dad Reynolds begins to exhibit a whole new personality; a dead little girl walks the halls and speaks to the Lutz’s young daughter; doors and windows mysteriously open and close; and the fact that the family that previously occupied the house were slaughtered by their eldest son begins to creep into the parents’ consciousness. Gee, you think just MAYBE the sweet deal they got on their home was too good to be true?

Slickly shot in scope and adequately packaged by director Andrew Douglas, the new AMITYVILLE HORROR presents a more potent visual package than its blandly-directed -- though more effectively low-key -- predecessor. Reynolds and George both manage to give good performances despite a sometimes thinly-drawn script, and even the young actors playing their children aren’t overly affected. There’s even one especially effective set piece set on top of the Amityville home, where the Lutz daughter attempts to jump off the roof.

Unfortunately, the new AMITYVILLE suffers from some of the same ailments as the original movie: namely, the direct influence that can be felt from other, better genre films. Here, you’ve got not only the sense of deja vu provided by the original and “The Exorcist,” but also “The Ring” (the dead little girl who can’t help but cause trouble), “What Lies Beneath” (look out for the bathtub!), “The Shining” (dad goes more ballistic in this rendition), “Poltergeist” (an angelic young blond girl flirting with the supernatural), and even “Jeepers Creepers” (a mysteriously clad, shadowy figure wearing a fedora who may be at the center of the haunting).

That latter aspect also ties in with the movie’s most regrettable element: the addition of a “cause” for the haunting that’s ridiculously P.C. As described by Dr. Hans Holzer in his original investigation, the Amityville house in question was built on an Indian burial ground, and the haunting itself was allegedly caused by an angry Indian Chief simply mad at those living in the abode above him.

Apparently it’s not P.C. to have that as the center of the problem, so the producers here have pulled a “Poltergeist II” and concocted the tale of a Christian missionary who TORTURED Native Americans, and how HIS anger is the root of all the evil (chalk it up as yet another blow against organized religion in movies). Predictably, though, none of this is really developed, though a brief appearance by the Creeper-looking like bad guy could leave the door open for future sequels...sigh.

Not that the altered denouement of the movie is the only problem: a senseless subplot involving an oversexed babysitter (about as believable as 28-year-old George having three kids, including a 15-year-old) is a needless addition, while the climax fizzles out right when it seems to be building up a head of steam. And why is it that only one of the slain DeFeo family – their youngest daughter – is still trapped in the house, while the others are apparently out having a smoke? (Naturally these are the sorts of questions not worth asking in a movie of this sort, but when you’re as bored as I was while watching the film, they do cross your mind!).

Though not a complete misfire, “The Amityville Horror” fails to take advantage of a great opportunity to make an effective modern haunted house tale. More often than not the movie is simply dull, regurgitating cliches and scenes from other movies, and stumbling when it tries to differentiate itself from the pack. Sometimes competent isn’t good enough.

Aisle Seat DVD Pick of the Week

LIL ABNER (***½, 1959). 113 mins., Paramount. DVD FEATURES: 16:9 Widescreen, 2.0 Dolby Digital mono.

The delightful Broadway musical gets a gorgeous presentation on DVD courtesy of Paramount.

You needn’t be familiar with the residents of Dogpatch, U.S.A., either, to enjoy the wonderful songs by Gene de Paul and Johnny Mercer, the engaging performances and candy-coated colors of the Panama-Frank production (“stagy” in the best sense of the word). The VistaVision frame is captured perfectly in Paramount’s DVD, while the mono soundtrack is remarkably crisp and pungent – one of the best two-channel tracks you’ll ever hear on DVD.

Norman Panama and Melvin Frank were a Hollywood tandem who made their Broadway debut with “Lil Abner” in 1956. After a successful run, the duo brought their production to the screen three years later almost completely intact from its original source.

The plot finds Abner, Daisy Mae, and the entire Dogpatch gang wrapped up with a mad scientist, the government, nuclear tests, and the usual backwoods shenanigans one would expect to find in Al Capp’s comic. It’s mostly an excuse for a lot of unabashedly silly goings-on and a bevy of wonderful songs by de Paul and Mercer, including the opening “It’s a Typical Day,” the splendid duet “I’m Past My Prime,” and the lovely ballad “Namely You.”

What makes LIL ABNER, the movie, so much fun is its faithfulness to its source: not only does the movie replicate its original staging and choreography, most of the original Broadway cast returned as well, including big Peter Palmer as Abner and Stubby Kaye as Marryin’ Sam (who sings the rousing “Jubilation T. Cornpone”), with Edie Adams replaced by the lovely Leslie Parrish as Daisy Mae.

It’s a sweet treat that Paramount has brought home beautifully on disc. The 16:9 enhanced widescreen transfer is splendid, and the mono track, as I mentioned earlier, is superlative. Though the DVD does not boast any extras, this is a perfect presentation of a movie that’s also one of my favorite musicals. Highly recommended!


The Bob Newhart Show: The Complete First Season (1972-73). Fox.

The Jeffersons: The Complete Third Season (1976-77). Sony.

Before he ran Vermont’s Stratford Inn, Bob Newhart starred as Chicago shrink Dr. Bob Hartley in CBS’ long-running series, which – due to perpetual re-runs – has virtually never left the broadcast spectrum.

Season one of THE BOB NEWHART SHOW kicked off on a Saturday night in September, 1972, a time slot it would occupy for virtually the following six years. Newhart’s good doc put up with a cavalcade of crazies at work, from patients like Jack Riley’s Elliot to secretary Carol Kester (Marcia Wallace), his dentist pal Peter Bonerz and pilot-neighbor Howard Borden (Bill Daily). Rounding out the ensemble and a primary element to the series’ vitality was Suzanne Pleshette’s perfectly pitched performance as Bob’s understanding wife Emily – a splendid compliment to Newhart’s subdued, wry humor. Interestingly, comedian Lorenzo Music not only co-created the series, but co-penned the series’ memorable instrumental theme song with his wife Henrietta.

Fox’s three-disc DVD set features the entire, uncut first season of “The Bob Newhart Show” with good-looking full-screen transfers and clear mono sound.

Just a short time after Newhart scored a major hit that ran for the balance of the ‘70s, CBS launched another show that had an even longer tenure on the air: The Jeffersons, with Sherman Hemsley and Isabel Sanford as the upwardly-mobile African-American couple who struck it rich and moved to the East Side of Manhattan.

Unlike many of Norman Lear’s sitcoms of the era, THE JEFFERSONS boasted fewer episodes that were dominated by social issues, concentrating instead on making its audience laugh. Based on that focus, The Jeffersons was able to transcend its roots as a spin-off of All in the Family and became one of TV’s all-time classic sitcoms, running for over a decade in prime time. Even now, the show remains hysterically funny, with potent one-liners and topical humor perfectly balanced by a great cast.

Following a gap between the first and second season sets, Sony has issued the complete third season box set of The Jeffersons sporting all 24 episodes, satisfying full-screen transfers and brief episode synopsis. Even better, just like Newhart, the episodes are their full-length, uncut broadcast versions, and not the truncated edits sent out in syndicated re-runs.

Garfield & Friends Vol. 3 (Fox): The Aisle Seat admits to having a soft spot for the televised adventures of Jim Davis’ lazy feline, who starred in a handful of prime-time specials and this fondly-remembered Saturday morning cartoon series. Paired with episodes from Davis’ defunct strip U.S. Acres, these amusing 24 episodes of Garfield & Friends look right at home on DVD, with passable transfers and colorful packaging. Fans can also look out for a host of compilation DVDs from Fox, the latest of which – Garfield Fantasies – will be out later next month.

Also New On DVD

HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS (***, 2004). 119 mins., PG-13, Sony. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Commentary by Zhang Yimou and Ziyi Zhang; 45-Minute Making Of Featurette; Music Video; Visual FX Featurette; 2.35 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital (Chinese with English subtitles or English dubbed).

Zhang Yimou’s exquisitely filmed action epic is set in 9th century China and revolves around the relationship between Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro), a government agent, and the blind dancer (Zhang Ziyi, who also appeared in “Crouching Tiger” and “Hero”) he’s investigating for her possible connection with a revolutionary movement. The two fall in love while Jin has to answer to his fellow officer, Leo (Andy Lau), who forms the other part of the triangle in Yimou’s script, which was co-authored by Li Feng and Wang Bin.

After “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Hero,” it seemed that American audiences had seen enough of the new wave of “kung fu” epics from overseas. Granted, “House of Flying Daggers” has a thinly-drawn story, a leisurely pace, and a predictable tragic outcome – reasons all, perhaps, why the movie didn’t catch fire at the box-office like its predecessors. Nevertheless, fans of the genre will find the cinematography and fight sequences here to be nothing short of spellbinding. The wide spectrum of colors in Zhao Xiaoding’s photography alone makes this a more compelling experience than “Hero,” even if it’s more successful on a visual level than a narrative one.

Sony’s DVD, available this week, looks fantastic in 16:9 widescreen and boasts an effective 5.1 Chinese Dolby Digital soundtrack (a far less satisfying English dubbed version is also included), with optional English subtitles. Extras include a subtitled commentary with director Yimou and star Zhang, plus a 45-minute Making Of featurette, a visual FX featurette, storyboards, photo galleries, and a music video of “Lovers,” the movie’s eloquent ballad performed by Kathleen Battle.

SPANGLISH (**, 2004, 131 mins., PG-13; Sony): James L. Brooks’ comic-drama misfire stars Adam Sandler as a good-guy father whose wife (Tea Leoni) suffers a mental breakdown. At the same time, they welcome in a sexy housekeeper (Paz Vega) with a young daughter, resulting in a clash of cultures and relationships. Sandler gives a nicely modulated performance, but Leoni is all over the map in a strange, rambling performance that just doesn’t ring true. Nor does Brooks’ script, which offers a trite, TV sitcom-like view of its main characters and their interaction with one another. A disappointment both with critics and at the box-office, “Spanglish” has been given a solid presentation on DVD courtesy of Sony. The 1.85 transfer is superb, the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound is just fine for this kind of film, and extra features abound, including Brooks’ commentary, additional scenes (which might have helped explain some of Leoni’s fragmented personality), casting audition tapes, an HBO First Look special and DVD-ROM goodies.

News & Notes

As discussed on the Aisle Seat Message Boards, Paul Schrader’s EXORCIST IV (title tentative) is supposed to receive a theatrical release of some kind on May 20th via Morgan Creek/Warner Bros. How wide the distribution will be is anybody’s guess, but Schrader has at least spilled the beans about the movie’s soundtrack – which predictably had to be compiled on a shoestring budget. Here are a few comments from the director, taken from a Stellan Skarsgard website:

“I was allowed to complete my Exorcist, but only at minimal expense. To put the score together I had to be creative and call up some favors. The music editor and I were able to remix an hour of the Renny Harlin/Trevor Rabin score and adapt it to my film. The Rabin score, however, did not contain a 'theme' cue. For this I turned to Angelo Badalamenti (with whom I've done four films) who provided fifteen minutes of music gratis. The Rabin remix wore thin, particularly during the final twenty minutes of the film. For this I turned to some friends in the heavy metal group Dog Fashion Disco. They scored the last reel and we were able to go back through the film and integrate some of the musical elements. In addition they wrote and performed a song, 'Satan's March,' for the tail credits."

Sounds intriguing, if not downright bizarre! Don’t forget to drop by the Aisle Seat Message Boards to discuss the movie, plus the latest DVD deals and theatrical releases!

NEXT WEEK: BLADE: TRINITY, LEMONY SNICKET and More! Don't forget to say Aloha on the Message Boards, direct any emails to the link above and we'll catch you then. Cheers!