Aisle Seat Pre-SITH Edition

Plus: RACING STRIPES, GRUDGE Director's Cut, and Andy's Vacation Blog!

I just returned from vacationing in the Orlando, Florida area, and even there I couldn’t escape a little bit of critiquing!

More on that in a second. First, my fiancee and I ran through Disney, both Universal parks, Sea World, and fortunately the weather was not only less humid and downright steamy as it was a year ago (it was like the middle of July they told us last year), but the lines were again nearly non-existent at every park and attraction we encountered.

The only lines were reserved for the newly-installed "Happiest Celebration" Disney World attractions that have been imported from other Disney parks, and opened literally while we were there. For example, Epcot is now home to SOARIN', an import from Disneyland, complete with Jerry Goldsmith's score and the original Imax-like film it accompanied. It was fun, but somewhat less effective if you're seated on the bottom tier of "gliders" like we were. At least it was better than the godawful LIGHTS, MOTORS, ACTION! "extreme stunt show," an import from Disneyland Paris that's now playing at the Disney-MGM Studios. One of the most excruciating, tedious attractions I've ever seen at Disney World, this is sure to be overhauled as it goes along (many -- including us -- walked out long before it actually ended).

One interesting element about our trip to Universal: they have a "preview" area set up where they invite certain park patrons (non-Florida residents and studio employees) to view upcoming TV pilots. They sit you down at your own monitor, give you headphones, and also pay you to sit through a prospective series pilot (and give brief answers to a myriad of questions that follow).

Though there was a new sitcom they were screeening there, we fortunately received FATHOM as the show we had to critique: a strange, hour-long pilot about a mysterious sea creature and the handful of characters who come in contact with it. I believe I read on that Wes Craven had a hand in producing the show, but as there were no credits of any kind I couldn't verify it.

At any rate, the 45-minute show had one excellent set-piece where a couple of divers, fishing off an oil refinery, meet up with the barely-seen serpent underwater. It was effectively handled, but the rest of the show was in need of major work: you had a single-mom scientist who encounters the monster deep in the ocean depths (think THE ABYSS), a teenager with an obnoxious sister who finds one of the creature's eggs and brings it home into his aquarium (where it hatches!), one of the before-mentioned divers who can't get the monster out of his head after seeing it underwater and leaves his family (shades of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS), and to round it off, a shady foreign scientist with a thick accent who works for the government (think every sci-fi movie you've ever seen), who basically serves as "the bad guy."

The production values were fairly high: the one sequence underwater looked really good for TV and was quite well directed. The music seemed to be mostly temp (one cue from JAWS even surfaced), and the ending hinted that the monster(s) may not be coming from our own oceans but falling from the skies intriguing twist.

Needless to say FATHOM has some interesting elements, and may work OK as a four-hour mini-series (particularly if the series follows through on its last-minute twist). At the most, I could see NBC running it as limited (six episode) series like their current “Revelations,” from “Omen” creator David Seltzer.

On the downside, the program had a lot of problems: too many characters for one, and too many cliched, predictable ones at that. The bad guy was so heavy-handed that I suggested that I would have switched channels if I was able. The domestic scenes involving the single-mom character (not sure who the actress was) were absolutely grating. The teen element actually worked better than expected, but the adult male lead barely registered with his screen time.

Let's face it: a weekly show about the hunt for a possibly extraterrestrial sea monster? FATHOM isn't likely to ever surface (no pun intended) on that level. But if NBC has enough vested interest in the show, and re-casts one of the leads (and eliminates the heavy), I think it's possible-- though not likely -- we'll see it in some form next year, maybe as a two-part mini-series or limited run series.

Anyway, it was a fun way to burn off 45 minutes, and we each got $15 for our trouble. Not bad at all -- I just wish I got that much for each DVD I have to review!

New Family Films, Sequels & More

The trailers looked horrible, but the surprising box-office hit RACING STRIPES (***, 102 mins., PG, Warner Home Video) is a good deal more entertaining than its bombastic advertising would suggest.

This colorful, nicely-mounted production utilizes the talking-animal technique from “Babe” and applies it to a homespun slice of Americana, focusing on a farm-owner (Bruce Greenwood) and his daughter (Hayden Panetitere) adopting an abandoned baby zebra. After appropriately calling him Stripes, the little fella becomes a full-fledged member of the farm, becoming fast friends with a wise-acre crane (voiced by Joe Pantoliano), a wise o’l goat (Whoopi Goldberg) and a sage horse (Dustin Hoffman) who soon tutors Stripes (Frankie Muniz) in becoming a racing zebra who could possibly rival Kentucky Derby contenders!

With a strong score by Mark Isham, lovely cinematography by David Eggby and production design from Wolf Kroeger, “Racing Stripes” is more than your standard-issue, saccharine family film. Frederik Du Chau’s film has a lot of laughs and plenty of heart to spare, with the celebrity-voiced animals being nicely contrasted with a typical -- but well-executed -- underdog tale that should appeal to viewers of all ages. “Racing Stripes” doesn’t break new ground and isn’t the next “Black Stallion,” but it’s superior and classy entertainment that should entertain adults as well as kids, and for that reason alone comes highly recommended.

Warner’s DVD looks spectacular with its strong 1.85 widescreen transfer and offers a satisfying 5.1 Dolby Digital surround mix on the audio side. Special features include a wisely-axed alternate ending (more of an unnecessary epilogue), several deleted scenes, outtakes, a commentary from director Du Chau, a featurette on the movie’s soundtrack including interviews with Sting and Bryan Adams (thankfully the movie isn’t littered with pop tunes), the trailer, and plenty of interactive games aimed at kids.

Also out this week from New Line is the innocuous SON OF THE MASK (**, 89 mins., PG), the belated follow-up to the Jim Carrey comic-book smash from a decade ago. This inoffensive but forgettable sequel offers superb ILM animation and a pleasant Randy Edelman score, but not a heck of a lot else to distinguish it.

Jamie Kennedy plays an animator whose infant son improbably becomes attached to the same magic mask that Carrey used to help certify his red-hot career in the original film. Traylor Howard is his wife, Alan Cumming is the Norse god who comes looking for his creation, and Bob Hoskins shows up in a cameo as Cumming’s father, Odin.

Colorfully shot but essentially bankrupt in the humor department (save for some excellent animation and homages to Tex Avery and Chuck Jones among others), “Son of the Mask” is just like watching a live-action cartoon. It’s no better or worse than the “Spy Kids” sequels, but even on its own level I couldn’t help but think a better sequel could have been delivered -- even with its premise and the B-level cast.

The talented Kennedy is reduced here to playing straight man, with The Mask effects more or less relegated to his toddler son and the family dog. A better idea would have been for Kennedy to infuse his own brand of humor as The Mask himself, but alas, only in a few brief minutes late in the movie does the comedian-actor get any chance to strut his stuff.

New Line’s DVD offers a typical, exemplary widescreen transfer in the 1.85 aspect ratio with a 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack as overly-active as the movie itself. Special features include deleted scenes, several Making Of featurettes, a commentary track with the filmmakers, and the usual bells and whistles one comes to expect from a New Line “Platinum Edition” DVD package.

Grudge Director’s Cut, Boogeyman & More From Sony

You’ve got to hand it to Sam Raimi’s new “Ghost House” Pictures label. The Columbia-housed genre brand has already produced a pair of titles superior to anything to come out of the “Dark Castle Entertainment” group run by former “Tales From The Crypt” producers Robert Zemeckis, Joel Silver and Walter Hill (responsible for the putrid “Ghost Ship” and current “House of Wax” remake).

That’s not to say either “The Grudge” or “Boogeyman” are great films, even of a genre kind. Just that their PG-13 ratings at least mean a lesser amount of gore and overall excess than their R-rated counterparts, and at least an attempt at crafting a somewhat more subtle storyline.

Coming on May 31st is Ghost House’s most recent offering, BOOGEYMAN (**½, 2005, 89 mins., PG-13), which scared up a respectable $46 million domestic gross in theaters last February.

This odd, off-kilter thriller stars former “7th Heaven” heartthrob Barry Watson as a tormented soul who not only saw the scary, ghostly title creature when he was a kid, but watched his own father be dragged and murdered in his bedroom closet by the ghoul.

Flash-forward years later, and Watson encounters the Boogeyman yet again, shortly after the passing of his mother (a cameo by “Xena” star Lucy Lawless, who’s not coincidentally married to Raimi’s producing partner Robert Tapert). Watson is comforted by a childhood friend (Emily Deschanel, Zooey’s sister) but tormented by memories of the Boogeyman, who has apparently claimed the lives of countless young children, one of whom (Skye McCole Bartusiak) appears to help Watson face his childhood nemesis.

The Eric Kripke-Juliet Snowden-Stiles White script owes a bit to the underrated “Darkness Falls,” from its effective opening set piece involving the lead character as a child, to its haunted protagonist returning back home to his small town roots. Aside from the simple plot set up, “Boogeyman” is a strange, disjointed film, littered with unexplored plot developments and a particularly abrupt finale. Yet, at the same time, director Stephen Kay (who helmed the under-appreciated “Get Carter” remake) is able to craft an engaging horror flick, old-fashioned in many respects, that doesn’t feel the need to explain everything that’s going on and delivers (in spite of its lack of answers) a crazy finale that somehow works, if you’re willing not to ask the obvious questions the film raises.

That may sound like a half-hearted recommendation, but “Boogeyman” is refreshingly restrained for most of the way, and despite its lack of explanation, provides an entertaining view for genre buffs. Watson delivers a strong performance that anchors the movie, which was shot in New Zealand (fairly obviously, judging from the bad American accents by most of the supporting cast),
and boasts some effectively unnerving sequences courtesy of director Kay. The FX are likewise low-key until the wild finale, while Joe LoDuca contributes a decent musical score (with a particularly bombastic cue written for the movie’s climax).

Sony’s DVD offers a handful of deleted scenes plus a lengthy alternate ending, which seemed a bit more lyrical and might have worked better than what was utilized instead. A multi-part Making Of featurette, animatic mock-up footage, and visual FX progressions are also on-hand, along with an appropriately creepy 1.85 transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Also newly available from Sony is a Director’s Cut of THE GRUDGE (**, 98 mins., 2004, Unrated), an American variation on director Takashi Shimizu’s Japanese horror series (“Ju-On”) that serves as only a negligible improvement on its predecessors -- which frankly weren't all that good to begin with.

At least Ghost House did recruit Shimizu himself to helm "The Grudge" in his native Japan, and subsequently, the movie does boast the same languid pace as the original film and an atmospheric use of cinematography and sound design. Alas, if only the plot (what little there is of it) was as satisfying.

Sarah Michelle Gellar plays the film's heroine: an American nurse living with her exchange student boyfriend (Jason Behr) in Japan. After a colleague goes missing, Gellar is sent to the home of an American couple with an incapacitated mother, only to find the couple also missing and the restless spirits of a murdered family hard at work. See, in the universe of "The Grudge," whenever someone dies a violent death, they haunt the location in which they died, and anyone who comes in contact with them is doomed to meet a violent, disturbing end.

Once this set-up is established, "The Grudge" has the same central problem as its Japanese predecessors (which included a TV series and a slew of sequels): namely, there's literally nowhere else for the movie to go except to show the demises of its lead characters. Unlike "The Ring," there's no real story in Shimizu's film (adapted by Stephen Susco), but rather a series of flashbacks showing what happened to the characters that triggered the event, and the deaths of the missing individuals. In those scenes, sure enough, we get all the standard Japanese horror devices: a restless female spirit with long dark hair and a wide-open iris (so scary!), dripping water, creepy sound effects and quick cutaways whenever the murders take place.

If you’re a fan of the movie, however, Sony’s new Director’s Cut offers an appreciable upgrade on the previous DVD, albeit with alterations in the supplemental department.

What’s new is an extended version of the film, running 98 minutes (seven minutes longer than the theatrical cut), plus a subtitled Japanese commentary involving director Shimizu and other members of the production team. There are also no less than 13 deleted scenes and a curious alternate ending, which seems to hint at a totally different cause for the haunting (optional commentary is on-hand for the excised sequences as well). Two of Shimizu’s original “Ju-On” short films are also included, along with a pair of fun, 10-minute “Video Diaries” with Sarah Michelle Gellar and co-star Kadee Strickland touring around Japan. Storyboards, a production designer’s notebook, and a tour of the “Grudge House” round out the extras, which offer a far more satisfying package than the original DVD.

Omitted from Sony’s initial DVD package are the American commentary track (with Raimi and Gellar) and the longer Making Of featurette. Otherwise, this is a superior version of the film, and worth the purchase for “Grudge” fans.

Sony has also recently released a pair of small-screen sequels that are better left to the bottom rung of the video store shelves that they were manufactured for.

VAMPIRES: THE TURNING (*½, 83 mins., R, Sony) is a bloodless ride that has nothing to do with John Carpenter’s “Vampires” or its initial made-for-disc sequel. Here, American couple Colin Egglesfield and Meredith Monroe run afoul of warring vampire clans in Thailand, leading to as many poor kung fu sequences as cliched genre standbys (glowing eyes! Fangs! Bela Lugosi should be so scared!). Only the fetching Stephanie Chao (as the “good” vampire clan leader Song  Neng) offers any perk to the preceding, which was directed by Marty Weiss and scored by Tim Jones. It’s also depressing to see the formerly promising Monroe (of “Dawson’s Creek” fame) reduced to material like this, but I guess when you’re desperate, even “The Turning” is better than nothing.

Sony’s DVD looks as good as the movie possibly can, with a fine 1.85 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound that are particularly good considering the movie’s meager budget.

Last but not least there’s WILD THINGS 3: DIAMONDS IN THE ROUGH (**, 87 mins., R; Sony), the third (for those counting at home) installment in the “Wild Things” line, though like “Wild Things 2,” “Diamonds in the Rough” offers good-looking, scantily-clad young females and otherwise no connection with its predecessors.

Sarah Laine plays a spoiled little rich girl who stands to inherit a fortune from her late mom. Unfortunately for her and her step-dad (Brad Johnson, one-time rising star in Spielberg’s “Always”), Johnson has been set up for raping a local bad girl (Sandra McCoy), leading Laine to pick sides in a tangled web of lies, T&A and the occasional appearance by a legitimate actress. In the latter camp is a slumming Dina Meyer, who plays an FBI agent who gets wrapped up in Laine and McCoy’s shenanigans.

Marginally better than “Wild Things 2,” this mindless diversion delivers the promised goods to any viewer who would choose to watch it in the first place, so it’s not a total wash (like “Vampires: The Turning”).

Sony’s DVD offers a robust 1.85 transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound. Both exhibit superior production values than the second film, though “Wild Things 3" isn’t any competition for the superior, original film by director John McNaughton.

Aisle Seat DVD Pick of the Week

It’s gross, crass, frequently uneven, and often uproarious. Despite its flaws, Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE (***, 98 mins., 2004, Unrated; Paramount) must have hit me at just right the moment. This modest box-office performer deserved a better fate with audiences last fall, and hopefully it’ll find the cult following it deserves now that it’s arrived on video.

Though less focused -- and therefore not as satisfying -- as the duo’s “South Park” movie, “Team America” nevertheless boasts a solid share of belly laughs, especially if you’ve watched any one of Gerry Anderson’s “Supermarination” shows like “Thunderbirds.”

Parker, Stone and Pam Brady’s script offers a ribald look at a team of American superfighters (with a definite Anderson look and feel) who run up against South Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il. Kim-Jong has recruited a handful of Hollywood stars -- from Alec Baldwin to Michael Moore and Susan Sarandon -- to help him take over the world, which allows for ample ribbing of celebrity liberalism.

Though taken on the surface as a direct commentary on the recent role of the U.S. military in world affairs, “Team America” takes as many shots at the Hollywood left, mocking the self-righteous and misguided tone of Sean Penn and others. Mainly, though, any target is grist for the mill, though “Team America” isn’t so much a political spoof as it simply mocks big-scale Hollywood blockbusters (especially Michael Bay’s “Pearl Harbor”).

The puppeteering by the Chiodo Bros. and the team of technicians is superb, as are the visual effects and Bill Pope’s cinematography in full scope widescreen. Even better is the movie’s hilarious collection of songs, again penned by the creators alongside Marc Shaiman (whose score for the movie was tossed out at the last minute). With sharp lyrics that satirize various genres (including ‘80s movie montages, big love ballads, country tunes and even the G.I. Joe theme song), the songs help “Team America” breeze over some of its rough spots, including a longer-than-necessary running time and misfired gags.

Special kudos also go out to Harry Gregson-Williams for his hysterical soundtrack, which basically reprises every Media Ventures cliche in the book.  Here, though, the score works wonders when set against the film’s comedic backdrop. You’ll never laugh so hard at a vomit scene again!

Paramount is offering two versions of “Team America” on DVD, including the R-rated theatrical cut and an Unrated version that extends the movie’s graphic (well, as graphic as you can get with puppets) love sequence by several seconds. Though the movie is already often in bad taste, the added footage in the Unrated version puts the movie into completely puerile territory, so I wouldn’t be surprised if some viewers stick with the R-rated version (the contents of the DVDs are supposed to be identical otherwise).

Special features offer a handful of Making Of featurettes, heavy on the technical detail that went into the production. It’d be easy to write off “Team America” as simply a “South Park” movie with puppets, but a lot of work went into creating the movie’s action-figure world, and the attention to characterization and detail is deservedly celebrated in the DVD’s supplements. Don’t forget that the movie was rushed through production on its way to theaters and it’s miraculous that the film looks as good as it does.

Several short deleted/extended scenes, storyboards, a puppet test, and a pair of trailers round out the disc, which includes a superb 2.35 widescreen transfer with an active 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack.

Recommended for Parker/Stone fans, and anyone looking for a few good laughs -- provided you’re prepared for a few spots that drag and a couple of jokes in poor taste. Otherwise, you’ll be singing “America, #$@! Yeah!” as if it was our alternate national anthem (and maybe it ought to be?).

Also New On DVD

ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (**, 2005, 109 Mmins., R; Rogue/Universal): Misguided remake of John Carpenter’s 1976 cult classic. Ethan Hawke plays a cop who reluctantly teams up with con Laurence Fishburne after their about-to-close Precinct 13 is attacked by a gang on the outside. Carpenter’s original script was substantially reworked here by writer James Demonaco, who unwisely opens up the claustrophobic tension of the original film by adding a handful of unnecessary supporting characters, including a crooked cop played by Gabriel Byrne. The everything-but-the-kitchen-sink cast includes Brian Dennehy, Maria Bello, Drea De Matteo, Ja Rule and John Leguizamo, and while viewers unfamiliar with the original may find this “Precinct” to be a modest programmer, it’s but a shadow of its predecessor. Rogue’s DVD offers a few minutes worth of deleted scenes and a handful of behind-the-scenes featurettes, plus a bass-heavy 5.1 DTS/Dolby Digital soundtrack and 2.40 widescreen transfer.

Special Programming Note

I’ll be posting my STAR WARS EPISODE III: REVENGE OF THE SITH review late Wednesday night right here, so check back for an update!!

NEXT WEEK: Back with more reviews, comments and more! Don't forget to drop in on the Message Boards, direct any emails to the link above and we'll catch you then. Cheers!