5/9/06 Edition

Aisle Seat Teacher's Day edition
Andy Conducts Class on WHEN A STRANGER CALLS
Plus: RONIN Special Edition, New TV on DVD from Buena Vista & More

A few years ago director Simon West rose quickly through the Bruckheimer school and helmed “Con Air,” one of 1997's box office hits. Nearly a decade later, after fumbling high-profile star vehicles “Lara Croft, Tomb Raider” and “The General’s Daughter,” West has been relegated to helming low-budget horror dreck like the terrible remake of the memorable Carol Kane-Charles Durning 1979 teaming WHEN A STRANGER CALLS (*, 2006, 87 mins., PG-13; Sony).

Far worse than Screen Gems’ other genre re-do from last autumn (“The Fog”), “When a Stranger Calls” is a painful exercise in how not to make a horror movie. Unbelievably incessant music from James Dooley not just telegraphs every scare, but cranks up before the story is even established; we’ve apparently now reached the point where characters walking down corridors is apparently grounds for cliched “menacing music” to start up on the soundtrack. Writer Jake Wade Wall’s pedestrian script strips the story of Durning’s character from the original, focusing instead on the basic conflict between a teen babysitter (Camilla Belle) tormented by a creepy killer (voiced by Lance Henriksen), who’s (gasp!) really making calls from inside the house she’s in. Sorry if I gave it away, but that plot development was only used in all the trailers and marketing for the film!

About as scary as an early ‘80s Filmation cartoon, the 2006 “When a Stranger Calls” is a complete waste of time. I’d call it a waste of talent as well, but what talent is here is questionable; Bell makes for an unappealing heroine, Wall’s script tries (and fails) to develop the original’s opening 15-20 minutes into an entire feature, and West hasn’t a clue how to illicit suspense. If you’ve never -- and I mean never -- seen a horror film before, you might be sitting on the edge of your seat at the amount of pregnant pauses, faux scares, and that blaring music West uses. For anyone else, this is a bland, crushingly dull remake with one of the worst endings in recent memory...apparently meant to set up a sequel which Wade is writing, along with his work on the upcoming “Hitcher” remake and “Halloween” sequel. After seeing this film, one can hardly wait to see how Wade fares with those efforts!

Sony’s DVD (out on May 16th) offers a typically high-caliber presentation from the studio, with a 2.40 (16:9) transfer, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, two commentaries (one with West and Bell, another with Wall), a couple of brief deleted scenes and a standard Making Of featurette.

Also New From Sony

RONIN: Collector’s Edition (***½, 1998). 121 mins., R, MGM/Sony. DVD FEATURES: Commentary with John Frankenheimer; Making Of featurettes; Interviews; 16:9 (2.35) Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital.

Director John Frankenheimer’s last great film, Sony has finally brought the 2-disc Collector’s Edition of “Ronin” to the U.S. after lying dormant on the MGM shelves for nearly two years.

Frankenheimer's realistically filmed and impressively staged action sequences -- which were a precursor to (and possible influence on) the “Bourne” pictures -- were seldom more effective than they were in “Ronin,” a low-key, taut, and decidedly old-fashioned thriller that enabled the director to concentrate on what he does best -- provide excitement without padded exposition or reliance on visual effects. Nowadays in particular, it's refreshing to see a film that is fully satisfied to create a skillfully told, if leisurely, tale that wouldn't have been made any different thirty years before.

Robert DeNiro and Jean Reno are the principal leads in the simple, straightforward and uncluttered plot, co-written by David Mamet under a pseudonym, which could be best described as a more realistic rendition of the James Bond movies some years after the fact, in that the characters are former mercenaries and government employees, but seeking work in a world where the employers and secret packages are more suspect and deadlier than ever.

The performances of DeNiro, Reno, Natascha McElhone ("The Truman Show"), and Jonathan Pryce give the material the required nuance, double-crossing and deceit that it needs, but it's really Frankenheimer's show all the way. The French locales add immeasurably to the atmosphere and mood of the picture, while the car chase sequences -- much discussed and lauded by critics and fans -- deliver the goods in such a manner that you wonder why many prerequisite auto pursuits are so bland by comparison. With crisp editing and a pounding pace, Frankenheimer illustrated that pure filmmaking beats CGI, blue-screen, and other modern forms of filmmaking trickery any day of the week. From Nice to the tunnels of Paris, Frankenheimer evokes favorable comparisons to the equally dizzying set-pieces of his more memorable films ("French Connection II," "Black Sunday") with the movie’s two extended, masterfully executed car chases, which certainly rank as some of the finest action filmmaking of the '90s.

Sony’s two-disc Special Edition offers a newer 16:9 enhanced transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack that I’d rank as superior to MGM’s older DVD. The original disc’s alternate ending and commentary with Frankenheimer have been reprised, while a handful of featurettes (most running 10-20 minutes) include a look at Tony Gibbs’ editing, Robert Fraisse’s cinematography, and Elia Cmiral’s score to name a few. Vintage interviews from the Venice Film Festival and the original Making Of featurette make for a good, but not great, supplemental section -- the newer portions of which were shot some time ago, since they bear a 2003 or ‘04 copyright.

THE DIRTY DOZEN: The Deadly Mission & the Fatal Mission (1987-88, 94 mins. each; MGM/Sony, available May 23rd): With Warner’s two-disc Special Edition of the original “Dirty Dozen” due out in a couple of weeks, Sony has dusted off these made-for-NBC sequels starring Telly Savalas as an American major placed in charged of a dozen unhinged soldiers in WWII Europe. Decent production values permeated the two small-screen efforts, which obviously in no way approximate the entertainment value of the original “Dirty Dozen,” but provide fun, ‘80s-styled TV action for buffs, along with the requisite colorful supporting casts: Ernest Borgnine, Vince Edwards, Bo Svenson and two Van Pattens in “The Deadly Mission,” with Borgnine, Erik Estrada, Ernie Hudson, Heather Thomas, John Matuszak and Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini on-hand in “The Fatal Mission.” Sony’s disc includes decent full-screen transfers with mono sound; fans should note that the original, high-rated 1985 TV-movie starring Marvin (“Dirty Dozen: The Next Mission”) will be available in the Warner “Dirty Dozen” Special Edition out on May 23rd.

New From Paramount

LAST HOLIDAY (**½, 2005). 111 mins., PG-13, Paramount. DVD FEATURES: Deleted Scenes; Three Featurettes; Trailer; 16:9 (2.35) Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Queen Latifah’s engaging performance makes this old-fashioned comedy a pleasant, albeit predictable, star vehicle.

Latifah plays a plain, demure New Orleans department store clerk who learns she’s dying. Jeffrey Price and Peter Seaman’s script (updating J.B. Priestley’s screenplay for the 1950 Alec Guinness film of the same name) follows Latifah’s character to France where she opts to live life to its fullest, meeting chef Gerard Depardieu, and deciding to court co-worker LL Cool J.

The story might be formulaic and the film’s length unnecessarily padded to some 111 minutes, but director Wayne Wang does an excellent job coaxing amiable performances out of the cast (Latifah in particular) with colorful supporting characters making for an enjoyable, laid back romantic fantasy. The ending is as fluffy as its premise, but it’s all good fun, with a nice score by George Fenton adding further pleasure to the package.

Paramount’s DVD includes several deleted scenes, three basic Making Of featurettes, the trailer, and two recipes (note Emeril’s cameo at the end as well). The 2.35 (16:9) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound are both top-notch.

New TV on DVD from Buena Vista

It wasn’t a huge hit, commercially or artistically, but the Jim Henson-Michael Jacobs production DINOSAURS (1991-92, 30 Episodes) hits DVD for the first time next week in a four-disc set from Buena Vista. “Dinosaurs” took a standard family sitcom premise and “updated” it to suit a dinosaur clan. Henson’s company provided the animatronic characters, including the central Sinclair family, while fairly standard genre plots permeate each show...albeit with the unique trappings of prehistoric times.

I have to admit that I was never a fan of “Dinosaurs.” The series debuted when I was in high school and, as excited as I still was about the prospects of a Henson co-produced comedy about dinosaurs, the writing was never strong enough to lure me in to watch another episode after the pilot.

Flipping through Buena Vista’s superb four-disc DVD box set, which compiles the first and second seasons of the show (30 episodes total, since the first season debuted late in the 1990-91 season and only ran for six episodes), I found that the DVDs backed up my initial thoughts about the series. The characters are fairly well articulated, at least in an ‘80s Disney World/EPCOT sort of amusement park manner, but their movement is predictably stiff -- just like the jokes. A lot of time and effort went into producing the series but with little attention, it seems, at offering stories that broke away from the conventions of the genre. Young kids might enjoy the episodes (though keep them away from the horrifying -- and awful -- final episode should Buena Vista complete the series’ release on DVD), but anyone else is likely to find “Dinosaurs” to be a relic of early ‘90s sitcom manufacturing: had the program not boasted the setting it did, it’s doubtful the show would lasted the three years that “Dinosaurs” managed to on the ABC airwaves.

If you’re a fan, though, Buena Vista has done the series more justice than it perhaps deserves, offering bonus clips, sketches, and behind-the-scenes footage from Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, highlighted by series writer/designer Kirk Thatcher demonstrating his original designs for the characters. The full-screen transfers and 2.0 Dolby Stereo soundtracks are all in good condition.

This week, Buena Vista releases the Complete Fifth Season of THE GOLDEN GIRLS (1989-90, 26 Episodes) in another satisfying compilation for fans of the long-running NBC series. Thankfully, this time the studio has included new interviews with Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan and Betty White, who also provide commentary on six of the show’s 26 fifth season episodes (“Sick and Tired, Part 2"; “The Accurate Conception”; “Dancing in the Dark”; “Not Another Monday”; “Clinton Avenue Memoirs”’ and “An Illegitimate Concern”).

Though the series is currently on the fence in terms of being renewed, SCRUBS (2003-04, 22 Episodes) remains of TV’s most consistently funny series...and one of its most under-appreciated. NBC continues to bat the series around its prime-time schedule like a ping-pong ball, with only the series’ most dedicated viewers usually tuning in. Thankfully, the show’s reputation as a critical darling and cult favorite has enabled “Scrubs” to last five seasons with hopefully more to come -- provided struggling NBC finds a place in next fall’s schedule for the program.

Buena Vista this week issues the complete Third Season of “Scrubs” in a dynamite package that’s just as much fun as their previous box sets of the show. The four-disc set includes the third season’s 22 episodes with their original, unedited music soundtracks (in 5.1) and full-screen transfers; a gag reel; numerous unaired scenes; amusing featurettes; and other goodies for fans of the series. Highly recommended!

NEXT TIME: The Dirty Dozen Special Edition! 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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