4/25/06 Edition

A Line-Up of EVENT DVDs
from GUYS AND DOLLS to EVENT HORIZON, the latest reviewed!
Plus: CASANOVA, steve martin's SHOPGIRL and more

There are good movies, and there are bad movies. Then there are bad movies which end up as great DVDs.

Paramount’s two-disc Collector’s Edition of EVENT HORIZON (**, 1997, 95 mins., R) isn’t just a nice DVD presentation -- it’s one of the studio’s more accomplished “Special Edition” packages in recent memory. That the movie itself remains a big-budget turkey on a number of levels doesn’t detract from the superb extras and polished presentation Paramount has given to a film that was more or less universally dismissed by critics and most audiences when first released in 1997.

It’s not as if the movie is unwatchable or doesn’t have some positive aspects: Paul Anderson’s film was a major British production, augmented by American studio money, and offers both impressive cinematography by the late Adrian Biddle and evocative production design by Joseph Bennett. The cast is also terrific: Laurence Fishburne, Sam Neill, Kathleen Quinlan, Joely Richardson, Jason Isaacs and Sean Pertwee manage to create one of the more impressive ensembles you’ll see in any sci-fi/horror genre piece.

The problem with “Event Horizon” then and now remains the story: a ship, deep in space, attempts to uncover what happened to the vessel Event Horizon, which was presumed lost until it turned up in the far reaches of the galaxy, minus any signs of actual life. On the case are captain Fishburne, crew Quinlan, Richardson, Isaacs and Pertwee, and mysterious doctor Sam Neill, who may know more than he's saying about the secretive mission.

Philip Eisner’s original story had to do with an alien force inhabiting the deserted ship but Anderson and producer Jeremy Bolt opted to alter the premise to suit a “haunted house in space” plot. The monsters were excised but the visions of hell itself remained -- along with a messy script that rips off “The Shining,” “Dead Calm,” “Hellraiser,” “Alien,” “Aliens,” “2010" and “Lifeforce,” to name just a few. The movie's premise is similar to Michael Crichton's novel “Sphere” (which opened a short time after “Event Horizon” in its own, ill-fated film adaptation), which wouldn’t have been so much of a problem had the movie not developed its own characters and dramatic situations uniquely.

Instead, despite its visuals, the picture becomes increasingly ridiculous as it goes along, ultimately succumbing to unintentional laughs and one of the worst fade-out endings in recent genre history. Thinly-drawn characters make all the usual mistakes of running down dim corridors and succumbing to their own private demons, while horror fans will have to weigh the decent quotient of gore on-hand (and there was even more in Anderson’s original cut) with ample doses of cringe-inducing dialogue (like Neill’s “we don’t need eyes where we’re going!” and the cliched, “ethnic” comic relief supplied by Richard T. Jones, with the immortal “something hot and black inside you” line about drinking coffee!).

I suppose hard-core horror fans can overlook those shortcomings and find sufficient entertainment in “Event Horizon,” but other viewers are likely to marvel at the movie’s look while being puzzled by its basic, under-nourished screenplay. My friend Paul MacLean and I had a memorable experience watching the film on the big-screen back in ‘97, noting at times that the chair Fishburne sat in didn’t seem quite big enough to support the tall actor -- and then laughing hysterically when the same chair blows up and flies into the camera near the end! Add in the ridiculous “Funky S--t” end title techno track (featuring samples from Barry Devorzon’s “SWAT” theme song!) and we pretty much lost it altogether walking out of the theater, while distraught movie-goers in back of us had a more hostile reaction to the picture’s flaws.

Though still viewed today as a missed opportunity, “Event Horizon” is back on DVD in a surprisingly robust package from Paramount.

Anderson talked for years about restoring his grizzly hell footage and offering a longer cut of the movie, which he lamented didn’t happen back in ‘97 due to a lack of post-production time. That being said, Anderson did willingly trim his two-plus hour version down for the eventual 97-minute theatrical release, noting the first cut was too long...but then realizing now that the theatrical cut isn’t long enough.

Unfortunately, Anderson couldn’t locate all the elements needed to restore the movie, so what we have here is a new 16:9 presentation of “Event Horizon”’s released version with commentary from Anderson and Bolt (who admit to not having seen the movie in a long while, which results in infrequent moments of silence), along with a second disc of extras offering what remains of the deleted sequences.

The highlight of the extras is a fascinating, thorough documentary running over 100 minutes, featuring new interviews with Anderson, Bolt, Jason Isaacs and even the two fellows who comprise “Orbital” (who added techno elements to Michael Kamen’s orchestra, resulting in a loud, pulsating score) talking about the movie. It’s a bit dry and could have used some editing -- some of the speakers repeat the same information a few times over the course of its duration -- but it’s nevertheless essential for “Event Horizon” fans. An additional documentary, “The Point of No Return,” includes more technically-oriented featurettes, primarily devoted to the filming and effects.

Even more revealing are the tantalizing deleted sequences, including an alternate climax (albeit without dialogue but rather commentary from Anderson), other unfinished scenes (one of which was written by “Seven” and “Sleepy Hollow” scribe Andrew Kevin Walker), and an unused prologue in storyboard form. Some of the material had to be culled off surviving videotaped footage, though all of it points to an even more graphic and bloody movie than the still-violent final cut that was eventually released.

“Event Horizon” is a movie that looks good, sounds good, and is fairly well acted, but ultimately fails to provide a coherent and suspenseful story to match its creepy tone and atmosphere. Regardless of how you fall on the movie, though, there’s no question Paramount’s DVD is one of the year’s best catalog releases to date, offering ample extras and deleted scenes for fans and plenty of entertainment for its low, under $15 price tag. Recommended!

New Titles From Sony

New Extended and Deluxe Editions highlight this week’s DVD offerings from Sony.

Top of the list is Samuel Goldwyn’s 1952 adaptation of the classic Loesser-Burrows musical GUYS AND DOLLS (***, 149 mins., MGM/Sony), which was previously available in a bland DVD from MGM.

This new, remastered “Deluxe Edition” package sports a fresh 16:9 transfer that seems more colorful and vibrant than the previous DVD (though the print still shows its age in places), while the 5.1 and 3.0 Dolby Digital tracks give the viewer a pair of options for your particular home theater set-up. MGM’s previous DVD only offered a non-anamorphic presentation and while I don’t have that disc on-hand to perform a direct comparison, I believe this is -- at the least -- a substantial upgrade from the original DVD, and the best one could hope for short of a full-blown, proper restoration of the movie.

Of equal significance for “Guys and Dolls” fans will be the two new documentaries, “From Stage To Screen” and “The Goldwyn Touch,” which together offer a broad, interesting 45-minute look at the making of the film. Comments from choreographer Michael Kidd, author A. Scott Berg, composer Frank Loesser’s wife and children, and filmmaker Tom Mankiewicz (son of the picture’s legendary director Joseph L. Mankiewicz) are honest and help to assess where this good-but-not-great adaptation falls in the Hollywood musical canon, with the group particularly lamenting Goldwyn’s decision to toss several key songs from the show (“A Bushel and a Peck,” “I’ve Never Been In Love Before,” and “My Time of Day”), only considered by most theater buffs to be some of the musical’s most priceless tunes.

The casting of Marlon Brando is also given a relatively honest appraisal as well, with Berg noting that the star compensated for his lack of singing voice by acting out the songs -- and giving plenty of kudos to sound engineers who pieced his vocal takes together as best they could. While Brando tries hard and isn’t awful, he still leaves a black hole in a role that could have been filled more capably by so many other talents (including co-star Frank Sinatra, relegated to the sideline here while Brando attempts to perform his staple song “Luck Be a Lady”) that it’s his casting -- and the misguided decision to trim those songs -- that keeps “Guys and Dolls” from being the classic film adaptation that it might have been.

About 10 minutes of additional interviews (outtakes from the documentary) round out the package, which is contained on a single platter along with a full-color, 72-page scrapbook reprinting the movie’s original press materials. All that’s missing is the original theatrical trailer, which was included on the previous DVD.

Also out from Sony this week are two “Extended Cuts” of Brian DePalma’s 1989 Vietnam drama
CASUALTIES OF WAR (**½, 1989, 119 mins., R) and the under-rated, 2000 Mel Gibson Revolutionary War adventure THE PATRIOT (***½, 2000, 175 mins., R).

Following on the success of "The Untouchables," Brian DePalma directed “Casualties of War,” writer David Rabe’s adaptation of Daniel Lang’s novel, focusing on an American military unit in Vietnam -- led by loose screw Sean Penn -- that opts to take out their frustration by kidnapping and then raping a Vietnamese girl. Michael J. Fox plays the moralistic soldier who tries to bring justice after the incident takes place.

DePalma's film was not the box-office or critical success Columbia hoped it would be, and yet like many of the director's flawed and ultimately unsuccessful films, it still has much to offer: solid performances, excellent widescreen cinematography by Stephen H. Burum, and a fairly good, if overdone, score by Ennio Morricone. Despite the film’s sometimes heavy-handed dramatic approach, Fox and Penn make it worthwhile, and the picture has been improved somewhat here by the restoration of some seven minutes of additional footage (most of which was included in the deleted scenes of the previous DVD).

Sony’s single-disc offering reprises the previous, excellent 30-minute documentary from the 2001 DVD, sporting interviews with DePalma, Fox, and Rabe, with an additional interview with Fox. The 16:9 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack are both top-notch.

“The Patriot,” meanwhile, is also back on DVD for the third time (following a superb, 2-disc Special Edition and a Superbit re-issue, sans the previous disc’s commentary track), here offering 10 minutes of footage restored back into the picture.

Neither as blatantly flag-waving, "Braveheart"-inspired, or corny as you might have heard, this Revolutionary War action-drama from Roland Emmerich is inspired entertainment, beautifully shot by the great Caleb Deschanel ("The Black Stallion," "The Right Stuff") and splendidly scored by John Williams, in what remains one of the maestro's most satisfying recent works.

Mel Gibson delivers a terrific performance (no, he doesn't go around shouting "freedom!") as a family man thrust into the conflict between American colonists and the British army, overseen by the stuffy but far from cartoonish General Cornwallis (the terrific Tom Wilkinson), whose one particular general (the truly dastardly Jason Isaacs) does enough damage to Gibson's clan to lure the former solider back into the military fray.

With equal parts intensity and sympathy, Gibson reminds us how effective and wide-ranging his performances can be, and anchors “The Patriot” with a personal touch amongst the epic backdrop. In that category, director Emmerich succeeds in telling a historical drama with just enough actual people and events that will lure curious viewers to seek out more information on the subject matter ("read more about it", as they used to say on CBS Saturday morning TV).

The real heroes of the movie, in addition to Gibson, are Deschanel, whose vivid photography paints a picture in nearly every scene, and Williams, who contributes a winning, rousing score perfectly complimenting the emotion and expansiveness of the drama. It’s sweeping Americana, uplifting "Liberty Fanfare," and "Born on the Fourth of July" all at once, with a sumptuous love motif and stirring main theme.

One could argue that Robert Rodat's screenplay never quite dives into the intricate reasons as to why anyone other than Mel was fighting this war, but at 160+ (now 175) minutes, it's unlikely that the movie's pacing wouldn't have been slowed down further by drawing-room histrionics.

With sterling support turned in by Heath Ledger (as Gibson's eldest son), Chris Cooper (as an American revolutionary war general) and Tcheky Karyo as a French soldier, “The Patriot” provides rousing entertainment with a marvelous visual gloss that ranks as one of the more intelligent Independence Day “blockbusters” released in recent history.

In addition to the 10 minutes of extra scenes (again, most of which were included in the previous DVD in supplemental form), Sony’s DVD reprises most of the extras from the original DVD, with featurettes and photo galleries, though like the Superbit, it does not include the first disc’s commentary track. Recommended for aficionados of the movie.

New From Buena Vista

SHOPGIRL (**½, 2005). 106 mins., R, Touchstone. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Commentary by director Anand Tucker; Deleted Scenes; Featurette; 16:9 (2.35) Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Excellent performances and superior direction by Anand Tucker make “Shopgirl” a satisfying though flawed film based on a novella by Steve Martin, who penned the script and also co-stars in the picture as Ray Tucker.

Ray is one of three characters in Martin’s character drama, with Claire Danes’ Mirabelle the title character whom the plot revolves around. A lonely, transplanted young woman from Vermont who works in Beverly Hills, Mirabelle has few options available to her for human companionship: the awkward, immature Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman) tries too hard and fumbles his initial chances to forge a relationship, while Mirabelle is subsequently taken by Ray, a suave, older professional who eventually engages in a sexual relationship with her. Ray doesn’t take their relationship as seriously as Mirabelle does, however, leading to Mirabelle’s emotional breakdown and truths about the nature of relationships revealed to each character by the drama’s end.

Danes is tremendous here, Schwartzman is fine in a comparatively easier role as the awkward slacker who grows up over time, and Martin is superb, conveying quietly aggressive behavior in a cool, laid back manner. Ray isn’t all bad, however, and it’s this trait -- inherent in Martin’s writing -- that allows “Shopgirl” to have an informed, three-dimensional set of characters who grow throughout the film. Director Tucker also opens up what could have been a claustrophobic piece with snazzy scope cinematography (courtesy of veteran Peter Suschitzky) featuring evocative shots of L.A., under-scored by appropriate orchestral music by Barrington Pheloung.

Where “Shopgirl” fails to match its performances and direction is the story itself. Within minutes most viewers will know where Martin’s drama is going, and indeed, the movie never deviates from the path it quickly establishes that it’s on. The result is a film that manages to convey keen observations on relationships at the same time its script is relentlessly predictable, punctuated by needless narration by Martin at certain points throughout.

Touchstone’s DVD contains a commentary from Tucker, several deleted scenes, and a 20-minute featurette. The 16:9 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound are both top-notch.

CASANOVA (***, 2005). 111 mins., R, Touchstone. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Three featurettes; extended sequence; commentary by Lasse Hallstrom; 16:9 (2.35) Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

While Heath Ledger’s appearance in “Brokeback Mountain” garnered all kinds of publicity, Ledger’s decidedly more straightforward (in more ways than one) starring effort, “Casanova,” went almost entirely overlooked by audiences and the press itself.

It’s a shame, because this comedic romp is a marvelously entertaining lark -- somewhat reminiscent of another, recent period film set in Venice (“Dangerous Beauty”), but played more for laughs and with the same, airy tone director Lasse Hallstrom brought to his enchanting “Chocolat.”

Ledger plays the legendary lover, who meets his match in the form of Sienna Miller’s Francesca, a budding writer in Inquisition-era Venice, where the Church is embodied by Jeremy Irons in another one of his conniving establishment villains (make no mistake, Irons still does it splendidly, but how many times has he tapped into this well?). Oliver Platt (who also starred in “Dangerous Beauty”) is a particular delight as Papprizio, Francesca’s rotund fiancee, while Hallstrom brings all of the top-caliber production talent one might anticipate to his picture. The result is a splendid looking film (kudos to cineamtographer Oliver Stapleton and production designer David Gropman), with an effective use of predominantly classical music and what little remained of Alexandre Desplat’s original score.

“Casanova” is not intended to be an actual account of Casanova’s escapades but rather a romantic piece of fluff with a modern, feminist viewpoint and decidedly tongue-in-cheek tone. It’s good fun if you can get into its spirit, and highly recommended on DVD since so many viewers bypassed it in theaters.

Touchstone’s DVD includes commentary from Hallstrom and an extended sequence (“Hidden In Plain Sight”) that was cut substantially in the film. Three standard Making Of featurettes round out the disc, which include boisterous 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital soundtracks and a lovely 16:9 transfer.

New From Criterion

Following on the heels of their superb Louis Malle box set from a few weeks back, Criterion this week releases the French filmmaker’s debut feature, THE ELEVATOR GALLOWS (***½, 1957, 92 mins.). Miles Davis’ memorable jazz score infuses this moody, atmospheric thriller that proves to be a delicious treat on DVD, where Criterion’s new digital transfer gives Malle and cinematographer Henry Decae’s haunting black-and-white appearance a brand new visual gloss. The movie made an international star out of Jeanne Moreau and remains a favorite of many buffs for its intricate, suspenseful story of a man (Maurice Ronet) who conspires to murder the husband of his lover (Moreau), only to have a young couple steal his car and a series of misunderstandings result.

Criterion’s new double-disc edition includes a recent interview with Moreau; older, vintage interviews with Malle, Ronet and Moreau, as well as original soundtrack pianist Rene Urtreger; footage of Davis and Malle from the original recording session, showing Davis’ improvisational artistry; comments about Davis’ score with trumpeter Jon Faddis and critic Gary Giddins; Malle’s student movie “Crazeologie,” with a title song by Charlie Parker; and extensive booklet notes from Terrence Rafferty, an interview with Malle and a tribute by his son, film producer Vincent Malle.

Also out from Criterion this week is the 1965 Italian drama FISTS IN THE POCKET (***, 1965, 108 mins.), director Marco Bellocchio’s critique of the bourgeois, Catholicism, and a family plagued by hereditary diseases...call it a “neo realist horror film”!

“Fists in the Pocket” is not for every taste (I first saw the movie years ago in a class at Boston College), but it’s certainly interesting and Criterion’s new DVD offers a fresh transfer; new interviews with Bellocchio, actors Lou Castel and Paola Pitagora, editor Silvano Agosti, and critic Tullio Kezich; a “video afterward” by Bernardo Bertolucci; and a booklet offering an essay from critic Deborah Young and an interview with Bellocchio.

Also New On DVD

GARBAGE PAIL KIDS: The Complete Series (1989, 13 episodes, 5 hours; Paramount): If you’re like me and grew up in the ‘80s, chances are very good that you might have picked up a pack or two (or three or four) of the Topps Chewing Gum parody series “Garbage Pail Kids.” I still have a few stacks of these amusing cards which grilled the “Cabbage Patch” phenomenon sitting in my closet, and apparently there’s still a market among collectors for the cards online (especially since Topps re-activated the series not that long ago).

One would assume that had to provide the motivation for Paramount’s release of the “Garbage Pail Kids” cartoon series, which was produced for CBS following the disastrous and barely-released 1987 live-action theatrical film (which MGM issued on DVD last year). Note that “produced for” doesn’t mean broadcast, since parent groups and others managed to convince CBS not to air the series, feeling its vulgar tone and lack of any meaningful content would have made it pure and simple “junk food” TV for kids.

Incredibly enough, the pressure worked and the series never aired in the U.S. -- and with good reason: this manic and completely-devoid-of-educational-content adaptation is as senseless and silly as the cards themselves, with the 13 episodes contained in Paramount’s double-disc set usually comprised of a movie or TV parody (starring the kids) and then a proper “Garbage Pail Kids” adventure. The latter offers a handful of small tykes who magically transform themselves into the Garbage Gang to fight local injustice -- think of it as a cruder, more foul version of the “Super Friends.”

The animation is late ‘80s Saturday morning quality as you would anticipate, but the shows at least zip along with parodies of TV commercials and other fashions of the moment mixed up in between the two central story lines in most episodes. It’s utterly bizarre and leaves no doubt as to why CBS didn’t air the show, but it’s a curiosity item that fans will relish seeing on DVD for the first time.

The two-disc DVD set offers reasonably good-looking transfers and 2.0 Dolby Digital soundtracks (with a theme song produced by music supervisor/future crooner Steve Tyrell, who I’m guessing left this off his resume!), and an appropriate description on the back cover that notes the series has remained “unaired and unseen” over the years. Worth a viewing for aficionados, though it’s the kind of thing that could fry your child’s brain cells if they’re over-exposed to it!

WONDER SHOWZEN: Season One (2005, 169 mins., 8 episodes; Paramount): Anyone reading The Aisle Seat knows how little I watch MTV, so I had no idea about the insanity that is “Wonder Showzen.” This Sesame Street parody is childish, crude, rude, and offensive at times...and also hilariously funny at others, especially if you grew up on any program produced by the Children’s Television Workshop. Structured like an episode from Sesame Street, “Wonder Showzen” offers adult-oriented meditations on life and ethical dilemmas, with foul-mouthed puppets and even children-on-the-street reports that are hilarious if not a bit mean-spirited. Still, when I saw a youngster blurt out “how you’re never too young to experience a Vietnam flashback” (followed by stock footage from “Platoon” and “Casualties of War!”), I couldn’t help but laugh uncontrollably, and similar moments abound throughout -- enough so that you can overlook the gratuitous and predictable shots at established religion, etc. Paramount’s double-disc DVD set includes plenty of supplements, including outtakes, guest commentaries, a locker poster and other goodies for fans. “Wonder Showzen” certainly isn’t for every taste and definitely works best in small doses, but when it’s funny it hits the mark as effectively as any other comedy on TV today, so adventurous viewers ought to check it out.

NATURAL CITY (**½, 2003, 113 mins., R; Tartan): Just for comparison’s sake, this relatively elaborate Korean sci-fi thriller is more fun than “A.I.” though ultimately not as entertaining as “I, Robot.” Writer-director Byung-Cheon Min’s picture offers a similar plot to those American studio efforts, with human-like cyborgs revolting in a future world where the machines are destroyed after serving their human masters; Ji Tae Yoo is a military commander fighting the uprising, at the same time he has fallen in love with his own robot! (played by Rin Seo). “Natural City” offers a somewhat leisurely pace that could have benefitted from additional editing, though the visuals are nice and sci-fi fans could do worse looking for a genre work from overseas. Tartan’s typically superb DVD presentation offers 16:9 (2.35) widescreen, 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital sound, deleted scenes, a subtitled documentary, and the original trailer, with both English and Spanish subtitles offered on the original Korean-language print contained within.

THE DETONATOR (*½, 96 mins., 2005, R; Sony): So is it pretty much over for Wesley Snipes? The ex-superstar has become the latest direct-to-DVD action hero, following in the footsteps of former big-screeners Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Segal before him. Snipes’ latest effort, “The Detonator,”  follows our star as C.I.A. agent Sonni Griffith, tracking down a weapons dealer and trying to stop the sale of a nuclear bomb...in Poland (that’s what happens when you can’t scrape up enough cash to shoot in the U.S.!). “The Detonator,” co-produced by former Salkind associate Pierre Spengler, isn’t the worst, pedestrian small-screen action vehicle you’ve ever seen, but it is depressing to see Snipes relegated to starring in the kinds of movies you’d never have imagined him making a decade ago. Sony’s DVD offers a 16:9 presentation and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound. 

Compilation of the “Little Einsteins” animated series includes three episodes from the popular series (an off-shoot of the highly successful toddler videos), including the premiere episode, in colorful full-screen transfers with Dolby Digital surround and an interactive game (“Spot It”) for the little ones.

NEXT TIME: More new releases, notes and more! 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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