Aisle Seat DVD Madness

RETURN OF THE KING hits the small-screen
Plus: New UNDERWORLD, ANGEL HEART Special Editions
By Andy Dursin

I've just returned home from a much-needed Disney World vacation, and while it was plenty hot and humid, a week away from reviewing another barrage of DVDs felt pretty darned good!

If you head down to Disney World in the near future, be sure to check out the Downtown Disney Store's selection of CDs. I haven't paid much attention to Disney attraction soundtracks in the past, but the exclusive soundtrack CDs I found there of PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN and THE HAUNTED MANSION are absolutely fabulous. Both discs feature the entire soundtrack of the respective rides (remixed in full stereo) with recording demos, advertisements, outtakes, and liner notes. "The Haunted Mansion" even includes a generous, 12-minute suite from the "Phantom Manor" at Disneyland Paris, sporting a fantastic John Debney score (which incorporates Buddy Baker's classic music from the domestic version) and discarded narration by Vincent Price.

These discs are also sold at Disney Land and certain outlets on the net (do a bit of research and you can find them around their $20 price tag). Definitely recommended for collectors and casual fans alike.


Before I went back to work, I was also able to check out a pair of new movies: the witty teen comedy MEAN GIRLS (***) and the massive epic TROY (**1/2).

The latter provided an unusual viewing experience: Wolfgang Petersen's film is entertaining, visually enticing, and hardly boring. At the same time, it never draws you in emotionally, and the relationship between Paris (Orlando Bloom) and Helen (Diane Kruger) is a dud. Speaking of Kruger, she's the weakest link in a film that offers several fine performances (particularly from Eric Bana as Hector) and a handful of strong scenes. Still, throughout the movie, I kept thinking that there was something missing -- you never really care about the plight of the characters, with Petersen favoring epic spectacle in favor of human drama.

As far as the music is concerned, I actually didn't mind James Horner's score. While it's not one of Horner's best (and I could have lived without Josh Groban crooning the end credit song), the score is still effective and Horner's battle music fits the action perfectly. By comparison, Gabriel Yared's much-discussed unused score (which you can find on his site at www.gabrielyared.com) is superb, yet it's almost too operatic for the confines of the finished film. His love themes are gorgeous, but I can understand why his music was discarded -- it's just a bit too melodramatic, and would have likely called attention to itself.

"Troy" won't remind anyone of "Ben-Hur" (or even "Gladiator"), but it's a passable entertainment that's visually pleasing and, at least, never dull.


New This Week on DVD

LORD OF THE RINGS: RETURN OF THE KING (***, 200 mins). 2003, PG-13, New Line. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: National Geographic special, Making Of segments, Lordoftherings.net featurettes, trailers, TV spots, video game featurette; 2.35 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

The critically-acclaimed, Oscar-winning final entry in Peter Jackson's adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's novel nicely wraps up the epic trilogy. This particular installment, arguably the most satisfying of the three films, features some brilliant moments -- a marvelous climactic battle that surpasses anything in "The Two Towers," a chillingly effective confrontation with a giant spider, and a moving ending that sweetly concludes the adventure -- along with some of the same issues that have plagued each of Peter Jackson's films. Like its predecessors, the first hour of "Return of the King" takes forever to get going, and along the way there are a few too many "operatic" slow-motion shots that build to an endless series of false crescendos. What's even more curious is that Jackson cut all of Christopher Lee's scenes because of time, and yet he retained an ultimately pointless subplot involving Borimir's father that feels like the sort of thing that should have been relegated to a DVD deleted scenes supplement. Jackson easily could have trimmed the movie by a good half-hour, and despite one unintentionally hilarious moment (when one character ends up on fire and runs off the edge of a castle), there's no denying the overall artistry involved in the production and its compelling central story. I also felt that Howard Shore's score was more balanced and introspective here than his work on "The Two Towers," with his new themes nicely complimenting an adventure that didn't quite capture my heart as much as it has for other viewers, yet remains an admirable stab at epic fantasy filmmaking few have attempted before.

New Line's two-disc DVD set, out today, offers a sterling presentation of the movie's theatrical release version. While I'm sure the Director's Cut will restore Lee's deleted scenes, "Return of the King"'s theatrical cut clocks in at over three hours and will likely be the choice version of most casual viewers. The 2.35 widescreen transfer is gorgeous and the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound loaded with elaborate effects and a broad, stereophonic sound stage.

Extras on the disc are similar to the supplements found in the preceding theatrical version DVDs. Short featurettes from the lordoftherings.net take an interesting look behind the scenes, while three longer Making Of segments include an excellent National Geographic special and "The Quest Fulfilled: A Director's Vision."

Some die-hard fans will likely find the inclusion of trailers and TV spots to be the DVD's biggest asset, since they're omitted from the more expensive Director's Cut editions. Speaking of which, the extended "Return of the King" DVD will roll out this Thanksgiving.


UNDERWORLD: Unrated Extended Edition (**1/2, 134 mins). 2003, Columbia TriStar. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Re-cut version of the film; new commentary; bloopers; "Fang Vs. Fiction" AMC documentary; visual effects and other new featurettes; 2.35 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Ridiculous, humorless, yet stylish genre potpourri crosses "Highlander" with "The Crow," adds in a dash of vampire and werewolf action, and does a poor job developing characters for a movie that runs a full two hours. All that being said, though, the central story in Len Wiseman's hit film is an intriguing one: in a nondescript, towering city, a centuries-old war is being waged by aristocratic vampires and street-savvy "Lycans," whom the legions of the undead want to extinguish from the world as we know it. Humans rarely interact with either species, which is why vampire huntress Kate Beckinsale finds it odd that one of the last Lycan mobs is targeting a human hospital internist (Scott Speedman).

Screenwriter Danny McBride weaves a compelling story of an ages-old conflict between warring supernatural forces, yet one wishes that the relationships between the protagonists -- especially the "forbidden bond" between Beckinsale and Speedman -- had been elaborated upon. The society the vampires have established for themselves is intriguing as well (particularly in its contrast with the Lycan world), yet the movie frustratingly never indulges us in anything more than what feels like an outline of a full- blooded story.

Still, the visuals and action keep you watching, while Wiseman's obvious fetish for Beckinsale in leather (he married her following production) results in a sleek female action hero who will be return in a sequel, which begins shooting this fall. With smarter dialogue and a more developed script, "Underworld 2" could be a strong sequel that surpasses its predecessor; this one, flaws and all, is still worth a look for genre buffs.

Columbia TriStar's new, double-disc "Unrated Extended Cut" DVD offers an alternate version of the film (not a "Director's Cut" according to Wiseman) that boasts over 20 minutes of restored and/or re-cut footage (the running time is 13 minutes longer than the theatrical cut). Generally, this cut does improve on the original version, thanks to added character bits and scene extensions, flowing more smoothly overall. The DVD includes a new commentary track with Wiseman, Beckinsale, and Speedman (the latter for a few minutes, at least). Discarding the previous DVD's commentary tracks, this new track is unfortunately a bit too jokey at times for its own good, but there's enough new information here to please fans.

Other new additions to the "Unrated Extended" DVD include a 47-minute cable documentary, "Fang Vs. Fiction," which attempts to chronicle the origins of the vampire and werewolf myths and how they've been modernized on the big-screen; a reel of outtake bloopers; plus new visual effects and production design featurettes. Carried over from the previous disc are "The Making of 'Underworld'" and featurettes on the creature effects, stunts, sound design, storyboards and a music video. The 2.35 transfer is on a par with the previous disc, while the Dolby Digital sound is excellent. Columbia's packaging is also quite nice, sporting a mini-comic book adaptation of the film.

If you missed "Underworld" either in theaters or on video, this is easily a superior presentation of the movie on DVD, and possibly worth an upgrade if you're a major fan of the material.


CRUEL INTENTIONS 3 (*1/2, 85 mins). 2004, R, Columbia TriStar. DVD FEATURES: 1.78 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

For those counting at home, this is actually the first "sequel" to the popular 1999 Sarah Michelle Gellar-Reese Witherspoon hit, since "Cruel Intentions 2" was actually the rejected pilot for a Fox TV series that never made it onto the airwaves.

Not that "Cruel Intentions 3" bares any resemblance to its predecessors, except for the participation of producer Neal H. Moritz and a passing mention of the characters in the original film. Here, Kerr Smith -- best known as Jack on "Dawson's Creek" -- plays an arrogant, cocky college student who competes with arrogant, bitchy Kristina Anapau as they bed, bribe, and attempt to out duel each other on their school's singles circuit.

Scott Ziehl directed this tedious melodrama, which looks and feels like something you'd find on Cinemax or Showtime after 10pm (on the other hand, at least it doesn't take itself too seriously). Columbia TriStar's DVD offers a somewhat soft 1.78 Widescreen transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, and trailers for other films.
 


ANGEL HEART (**, 112 mins). 1987, R, Lions Gate. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Newly remastered transfer; new interview and introduction by Alan Parker; new interview with Mickey Rourke; new documentaries on voodoo; Parker commentary, vintage interviews and featurettes from earlier releases. 1.85 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Best known as the controversial movie that led Bill Cosby to remove Lisa Bonet from the cast of "The Cosby Show," "Angel Heart" has been re-issued by Lions Gate on DVD in a remastered presentation filled with new special features.

I have to admit that I've never much cared for the movie. Sure, filmmaker Alan Parker's adaptation of the William "Legend" Hjortsberg novel is richly stylized, filled with moody cinematography and arty production design, yet at its core, "Angel Heart" is an unpleasant supernatural thriller where the outcome is as obvious as the identity of Robert DeNiro's character when he first appears on-screen. Mickey Rourke stars as a NYC private eye hired by DeNiro's enigmatic "Louis Cyphre" to track down a missing crooner from the WWII era. Rourke's journey into darkness includes a sexy rendezvous with backwoods priestess Bonet, who looks good even when she's rolling around naked in blood. There's plenty of symbolism and violent imagery to go around, yet while Parker keeps you watching all the way, the ending is heavy-handed and poorly executed (look out for those glowing eyes!).

That said, "Angel Heart" does have its fans, and if you're one of them, Lion's Gate's new DVD is a must-own. The 1.85 transfer has been newly remastered for 16:9 TVs, and it looks crisp and well-composed. The 5.1 Dolby Digital sound features lots of bass and Trevor Jones's effective score, while new supplements include recent interviews with Parker and Rourke and extensive documentary material about voodoo culture. Parker's commentary from a preceding release and vintage Making Of segments and interviews round out the disc.


NEXT WEEK: June arrives with a massive round-up of new releases, from FIELD OF DREAMS Anniversary Edition to TV box-sets galore!



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