6/28/05 Edition

Aisle Seat Summer Mania!

Andy Reviews HOSTAGE, CURSED, and More New DVDs
Plus: THE ADVENTURERS Debuts on Disc

The Fourth of July is just days away, and while the American box-office continues its slump, there have been plenty of new DVD packages released in the last couple of weeks that can make staying at home worthwhile (“War of the Worlds,” opening this Wednesday, possibly excepted).

First among them is HOSTAGE (**½, 113 mins., 2005, R; Buena Vista; Aisle Seat DVD Pick of the Week), a sufficiently entertaining thriller starring Bruce Willis as a former negotiator-turned-Police Chief whose experience comes into play when the family of a wealthy but shady banker (Kevin Pollak) is held hostage by a group of teenage delinquents.

This competent suspense-ride seems a bit abrupt -- particularly towards the end -- but prior to the climax there’s more than enough action in “Hostage” to keep you glued to the screen. Willis, who has shown a tendency to sleepwalk through some of his more recent roles, gives a superb, fully-rounded performance as Jeff Talley, a man still feeling guilt over a tragic situation that forced him out of his previous job. Displaying a wide spectrum of emotion, Willis anchors director Florent Siri’s well-crafted movie, which benefits from a few exciting action sequences and a surprisingly good score by Alexandre Desplat. The latter offers a fully orchestrated pallet of thematic material -- a nice switch from the bland musical wallpaper we’ve been getting too often in a movie like this.

“Hostage” doesn’t completely work: Doug Richardson’s screenplay (adapted from Robert Crais’ novel) seems a bit disjointed, particularly in the final third. The movie builds up a decent head of steam as it approaches the climax, only to have that energy sapped by a poorly-conceived, tacked-on “secondary” ending that seems to have been considerably shortened in the editing room.

Still, for a hot summer night’s rental, “Hostage” delivers a solid lead performance by Willis and enough entertainment to make it a worthwhile view.

Buena Vista’s DVD offers a razor-sharp 2.35 transfer with a bass-heavy 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack. Extras include several deleted scenes and a pair of extended scenes (Willis and Demi Moore’s daughter, Rumer Willis, actually speaks in the latter), plus commentary from director Siri and a standard Making Of featurette.

Also worth a rental -- though only for Christina Ricci and horror addicts -- is Dimension/Buena Vista’s CURSED (**, 99 mins., 2005, Unrated), the disastrous reunion of “Scream” writer Kevin Williamson with director Wes Craven.

“Cursed” -- the released version at least -- stars Ricci and Jesse Eisenberg as siblings who run into all kinds of trouble when they crash into a werewolf and, in turn, Shannon Elizabeth. Ricci, a publicist for the Craig Kilborn show (yep, it was filmed that long ago), soon finds herself cutting loose and wearing skimpier outfits, while her dog runs away from her at every turn. Meanwhile, boyfriend Joshua Jackson is about to open a club in downtown L.A., and she’s got one last, important assignment to complete before she totally turns into a wolf: hooking up Scott Baio as a guest for her boss (I’m not kidding).

Williamson and Craven’s attachment to “Cursed” signals that this Dimension Films production was at one point intended to be a “franchise maker” like “Scream.” Needless to say, something went very wrong on the way to the silver bullet assembly line -- so much, in fact, that the studio reportedly deemed the first cut of “Cursed” to be an outright disaster.

Subsequently, whole sections of the film were re-shot in 2004 (Williamson likewise re-wrote his script), with several stars dropped from the movie altogether. Originally, Skeet Ulrich played Ricci’s love interest, Mandy Moore essayed one of Ricci’s pals, and Omar Epps had a central supporting role.

None of them are anywhere to be found in the “Cursed” that was released as a watered-down genre offering last winter, though for the departed cast members that’s not necessarily a bad thing. This is a slight, goofy but derivative film that offers a climax ripped right out of “Scream” and only a few scattered moments of modest amusement. Apparently more concerned with incorporating in-jokes than providing a compelling story line, Williamson’s script offers Baio and Kilborn playing themselves (Corey Feldman, Lance Bass and Freddie Prinze, Jr.’s cameos were apparently excised from the first version), and Ricci fighting an uphill battle in yet another disappointing project for the talented actress.

Most unfortunate of all, however, are the shockingly pedestrian werewolf and make-up effects -- an issue that allegedly lead to the movie necessitating its litany of alterations in the first place. Credited to Rick Baker and Greg Nicotero, these silly-looking werewolves seem a galaxy removed from Baker’s groundbreaking work on “An American Werewolf in London,” while poor CGI shots sub for the monsters in several sequences.

Ultimately, “Cursed” is watchable but rarely inspired -- a regulation genre offering from Dimension that could have easily bypassed theaters entirely had it not been for its cast and crew. Both Craven and Williamson are capable of better, as is the cast, which tries hard in spite of the picture’s numerous shortcomings.

Dimension’s DVD offers the requisite supplemental featurettes, but only a selected-scene commentary from Nicotero and actor Derek Mears. Given the picture’s problems, this was a great opportunity for Dimension to release the original version of “Cursed” alongside its theatrical release. At the very least they could have provided footage of the first cut, or a commentary by Craven on what was changed, but there’s nothing here aside from the usual, fluffy DVD filler. “Cursed” indeed!

Just as strange is Kevin Spacey’s downright bizarre bio-pic of crooner Bobby Darin, BEYOND THE SEA (**, 118 mins., 2004, PG-13; Lions Gate), which not only stars Spacey as Darin but also sports the actor directing, co-writing, co-producing, and singing every note of this unusual (to put it mildly) viewing experience.

Unusual since the 46-year-old Spacey looks positively out of his element as the young, charismatic Darin, who we meet as a young boy and follow through to his untimely passing at the age of 36 (at which point Spacey looks like he’s 60). Along the way, he works with his entourage of managers and family members (John Goodman, Bob Hoskins, Caroline Aaron), romances starlet Sandra Dee (Kate Bosworth), runs afoul of record execs who want him to embrace rock ‘n roll, and gradually sees his star status burn out as the counter-culture era dawns in the ‘60s.

“Beyond the Sea” is odd enough in its screenplay construction alone, never mind the auteur’s performance (or the drab, German filming locales). Spacey and co-writer Lewis Colick have crafted an old-fashioned, almost simplistic framework where (apparently) Darin has died and looks back on his work while making a biographical movie for the benefit of us, the viewing audience. The dialogue is so pedestrian that it could have been written by a middle schooler, while Spacey and the cast break completely into song in several sequences that completely put a surreal spin on the material. The latter aspect might have worked had “Beyond the Sea” been conceived as a full-blown musical, but such moments are contrasted by poor dramatic passages that simply feel “off.”

Spacey obviously poured his heart and soul into the movie (necessitating financing from no less than seven credited production houses), but at no point does he feel convincing as Darin. The fact that he looks more like Kate Bosworth’s father than her lover is, needless to say, a major obstacle, and that age issue proves to be the final undoing of “Beyond the Sea.” More over, could it have killed Spacey’s ego to include so much as ONE original Darin recording, even over the end credits?

Lions Gate’s DVD is light on special features, offering a commentary by Spacey and a standard, brief “Making Of” featurette. The 2.35 transfer is solid, as is the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

More satisfying, though also less ambitious, is COACH CARTER (**, 136 mins., 2005, PG-13; Paramount), starring Samuel L. Jackson as Richmond, California high school basketball coach Ken Carter.

Faced with turning around a struggling inner-city program where its players force more obstacles off the court then they do on it, Carter implements a tough, no-nonsense policy where his players are also students who must perform in the classroom. Naturally, this initially doesn’t sit well with his new players, their parents, or school administrators, who turn the other cheek at the kids failing out because basketball -- in their minds -- is their only outlet to success.

Well-meaning and strongly performed by Jackson, “Coach Carter” nevertheless offers no surprises. The team’s turnaround on the court is standard-issue sports movie formula all the way, while director Thomas Carter and writers Mark Schwahn and John Gatins pad the movie’s running time out to an unmanageable 136 minutes. Music star Ashanti has an unnecessarily large supporting role as the pregnant girlfriend of one of Jackson’s players -- a subplot that could have easily been excised from the movie without much consequence to its central themes. At the same time, other plot threads like Carter’s son switching schools to play for his dad are raised but then dropped almost entirely.

“Coach Carter” isn’t a bad film by any stretch, and offers valuable life lessons to go along with Jackson’s top-notch work. It’s just unfortunate that the movie’s excessive length and uninspired script turn Carter’s remarkable life story into a bland, forgettable genre piece.

Paramount’s DVD looks great in 2.35 widescreen and sounds equally fine in 5.1 Dolby Digital. Supplements include six deleted scenes and a pair of featurettes that do a fine job examining the real-life Coach Carter, his players and their return to the actual Richmond High. A music video by Faith Evans rounds out the package.

Last but not least there’s BE COOL (**½, 120 mins., PG-13; MGM), the modestly entertaining, if not unfocused, sequel to Elmore Leonard’s “Get Shorty.”

Reprising his role of Chili Palmer from nearly a decade ago, John Travolta comfortably fits back into the saddle as the likeable tough mob guy with a taste for Hollywood. This time Chili infiltrates the music industry and courts Uma Thurman (a widow of a recently bumped-off executive) as the two guide the career path of talented young diva Chrstina Milian. Also competing for her affections are Vince Vaughn (hilarious as a would-be gangsta record manager) and a gaggle of crazies, including Vaughn’s boss Harvey Keitel and Cedric The Entertainer as a scholarly executive.

Peter Steinfeld adapted Leonard’s novel while F. Gary Gray filled in for Barry Sonnenfeld in this light, bubbly comic confection. The cast has a great time and the scattered laughs are more than enough to recommend “Be Cool” as a satisfying summer DVD -- despite the overall thinness of the material. Obviously this sequel isn’t as smart or satisfying as “Get Shorty,” but taken on its own terms it’s an enjoyable enough lark -- particularly in lieu of The Rock’s hilarious supporting turn as one of Vaughn’s bodyguards.

MGM’s DVD offers an amusing Making Of documentary, deleted scenes, gag reel, and five additional featurettes examining the film’s supporting cast. The 2.35 transfer is excellent and the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound bouncy and vibrant.

New TV on DVD

It’s hard to tell if Kirstie Alley’s embracement of her noticeable weight gain is a genuine celebration of girth or rather just a wacky way of drumming up publicity for her previously-stalled career.

Alley teamed up with -- of all people -- “7th Heaven” creator-producer Brenda Hampton for FAT ACTRESS (2005, 230 mins., Ventura), a seven-episode Showtime cable comedy that basically serves up a mockumentary of Alley’s existence.

Playing “herself” -- a semi washed-up actress who has gained so much weight she’s become a tabloid staple -- Alley seeks to get back into the game by using her agent (MadTV favorite Michael McDonald), make-up girl (Rachael Harris) and publicist (Bryan Callen) to help her overcome Hollywood’s preoccupation with anorexic supermodels and find work despite her added size.

Stars from John Travolta and Kelly Preston to “King of Queens” star Leah Remini (who has likewise put on some pounds after delivering her first child) and even “Blossom” herself, Mayim Bialik, pop up from time to time in this watchable though, sadly, inconsistent series. Alley utilizes her comedic skills to good effect, but the material basically consists of size-related one-liners that ultimately reinforce the same old stereotypes about weight instead of offering a fresh new perspective. What’s more, like so many cable comedies, the profanity and adult-oriented situations seem inappropriate and employed merely to spice up the thinness of the various plots.

Despite Alley’s willingness to try and do anything to get a laugh here, “Fat Actress” is a repetitious show with only intermittent laughs, best left to fans of the actress, who deserves better than the material she’s saddled with here.

Ventura’s two-disc DVD set includes all seven episodes of “Fat Actress” in superb 1.85 (16:9 enhanced) transfers. The 5.1 and 2.0 Dolby Digital tracks arefine, and extras include amusing commentaries by Alley and her co-stars (including Callen and Harris), one Behind the Scenes featurette and cast biographies.

Capsule Recap

THE ADVENTURERS (**, 177 mins., PG, 1970; Paramount; available July 12): It takes about five seconds for the viewer to figure out why this 1970 turkey has forever been regarded as an all-time Bad Movie Classic. A young South American boy sees his beloved dog gunned down in slow-motion and then watches as a revolution spreads through his homeland, taking his family down with them. Years later, young “Dax” (Bekim Fehmiu, better known for his role in “Black Sunday”) becomes a playboy, hooks up with Candice Bergen, and forever desires to return home for REVENGE!! Lewis Gilbert directed and co-wrote this Joseph E. Levine production, an adaptation of a Harold Robbins book with a crazy, all-star cast, most of whom look utterly lost: you’ve got Ernest Borgnine hamming it up, Leigh Taylor-Young, singer Anna Moffo, Olivia de Havilland and Rossano Brazzi muttering the picture’s limp dialogue and absurd, soap opera theatrics. The cherry on top is Antonio Carlos Jobim’s excessive, awful score -- reasons all why “The Adventurers” is a camp favorite. Paramount’s DVD looks terrific in 2.35 widescreen and even sports a rock-solid 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack. Bad movie buffs can expect a treasure trove of laughs when “The Adventurers” hits DVD on July 12th.

LOCH NESS (**½, 101 mins., PG, 1996; MGM): Pleasant family film about an American doctor (Ted Danson) who heads to Scotland to prove the existence of Nessie. Trevor Jones’ lovely score is a major asset, but MGM’s DVD of this 1996 Polygram picture (unreleased in the U.S.) is sadly in cropped pan-and-scan format, greatly impacting the picture’s Panavision cineamtography. A disappointment.

THE WOODLANDERS (**½, 95 mins., PG, 1997; Buena Vista/Miramax): British filming of the Thomas Hardy novel finally gets a video release this week. Emily Woof plays a young woman who leaves her country life behind for school. When she returns, she has to pick between a stuffy doctor (Tony Haygarth) and the simple, rural “woodsman” (Rufus Sewell) she left behind. Well-acted but plain period piece is seldom more satisfying than your typical A&E/British TV movie, though “The Woodlanders” does sport a pleasantly atmospheric score by George Fenton and a supporting role for Jodhi May. The 2.35 transfer looks decent (the film obviously wasn’t shot on a big budget) and the 2.0 Dolby Surround sound is satisfying.

THE EVEN STEVENS MOVIE (94 mins., G, Disney): The popular Disney Channel series expands to feature length with a plot that satirizes “Survivor” and other TV reality shows. Suitable for viewers of all ages, Disney’s DVD also features a selected scenes audio commentary from stars Christy Carlson Romano and Shia LeBeouf, a DVD-ROM “party planner” and interactive set-top “challenge.”

CADET KELLY (100 mins., G, Disney): It’s been a rough go for Hilary Duff. Her new movie “The Perfect Man” has basically been a perfect flop, though fans of the tween-superstar should enjoy this Disney Channel cable-film -- a junior grade “Private Benjamin” with Duff joining her stepfather’s military academy and running into tough gal Christy Carlson Romano (see above). Colorful, juvenile comedy with a behind-the-scenes featurette, selected scenes commentary, and a DVD-ROM “party planner.”

NEXT TIME: Steven Spielberg's WAR OF THE WORLDS (a review will be posted prior to the weekend).
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