Holiday 7/04/05 Edition

Aisle Seat 4th of July Extravaganza!

Andy Reviews STRIPES Extended Edition, HIDE & SEEK, PROZAC NATION
Plus: All The Latest Discs From Sony, Buena Vista and More!

STRIPES: Extended Cut (***½ , 1981, Aisle Seat DVD Pick of the Week). 107/125 mins., R, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Commentary by Ivan Reitman and Dan Goldberg; Hour-Long Documentary; Trailer; 1.85 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital.

One of the big hits of 1981, Ivan Reitman’s silly, frequently hilarious military comedy put Bill Murray and Harold Ramis through the paces of an R-rated “Buck Privates” for the “Animal House” generation.

As down-on-his-luck cab driver John Winger, Murray perfected his sarcastic leading man in “Stripes,” a film that offers a standard framework to back its comedy: a group of misfits (including Murray, Ramis, Judge Reinhold and John Candy) join the army, butt heads with their tough drill sergeant (Warren Oates), put up with a stuffy commandant (John Larroquette), romance a pair of military policewomen (P.J. Soles, Sean Young), and ultimately have to save the day for real.

Dan Goldberg, Len Blum and Ivan Reitman’s original script was intended to be a vehicle for Cheech & Chong, but after the project (fortunately) fell through, “Stripes” was snapped up at Columbia and re-tooled (sans most drug jokes) for Murray, who brought Ramis along to be his sidekick. The result is an ‘80s comedy classic: the combination of amusing sight gags and engaging performances by a terrific cast make for an irresistible slice of entertainment from its era. Candy and Reinhold are hilarious in some of their earliest roles, while Elmer Bernstein contributes a rousing score (which Varese recently issued on CD to coincide with Sony’s new DVD edition).

Sony’s Special Edition DVD offers a new “Extended” cut of the film, sporting 18 minutes of added footage (noted by a brief on-screen marker). The new scenes are amusing but “Stripes” has a tendency towards overlength, even in its original 107-minute theatrical version. For that reason, most viewers will likely prefer to stick with the theatrical cut (also included here), and watch the extended/deleted scenes in the DVD’s supplemental section.

Both are accompanied by an interesting commentary track by Reitman and Goldberg, who discuss the project’s genesis, Murray’s improvisational humor, shooting in Louisville, Kentucky (close to Sean Young’s home), its box-office success and subsequent cult following.

Just as much fun is an hour-long documentary recounting the production. Split into two half-hour segments, “Stars and Stripes” is a superlative look back at the making of “Stripes,” offering fresh interviews with Reitman, Ramis, Goldberg, Judge Reinhold, Sean Young, P.J. Soles and John Larroquette among others (Murray is also on-hand in material that looks like it was shot a couple of years back). Filled with humorous anecdotes, this is the kind of DVD documentary most viewers will actually watch from start till end. Bravo!

Sony’s 1.85 transfer looks markedly better than “Stripes”’ initial DVD release, while the remixed 5.1 Dolby Digital stereo soundtrack gives a broader stage for Elmer’s great score.

Entertaining and perfect comedy viewing for the 4th of July!

HITCH (**½, 2005). 118 mins., PG-13, Sony. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Deleted Scenes including an alternate opening with George Fenton score; Blooper Reel; Behind the Scenes featurettes; Music Video; 2.40 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Will Smith’s charisma sold “Hitch” as one of this year’s few box-office blockbusters, though the movie itself doesn’t quite measure up to the work turned in by either Smith or his terrific co-star Kevin James.

As an affable banker who can’t quite get the girl of his dreams (an heiress played by Amber Valetta), James almost steals “Hitch” out from under Smith, who’s equally engaging as Alex Hitchins, a so-called “Date Doctor” who tutors men in how to romance the opposite sex. Hitch’s inability to find true love contrasts with James’ improbable success, but a N.Y. Post gossip columnist (Eva Mendes) threatens to not only change that but ruin Hitch’s track record at the same time.

Director Andy Tennant’s breezy romantic comedy certainly makes for amiable cinematic “comfort food,” but the story itself isn’t developed enough to sustain its 118 minute running time. Smith and James are enormously appealing and unquestionably work well together, but I didn’t think the script or the casting of the female leads was up to their level. Certainly “Hitch” is entertaining and worthwhile viewing as a “date” movie, yet I felt it could have been funnier and more satisfying, especially when factoring in the excellent work from both male leads.

Sony’s DVD does offer a few deleted scenes and brief featurettes, but lacks one of the features its original press release highlighted: the option of an alternate audio track featuring George Fenton’s unabridged score. Apparently, several of Fenton’s cues were replaced by pop tunes, and originally the “Hitch” DVD was going to include the option of hearing his underscore restored intact to the film.

For whatever reason, though (perhaps a  “Hitch” Special Edition DVD coming down the line?), that track is nowhere to be found here, though the Deleted Scenes DO include the movie’s lengthy opening credits sequence with Fenton’s music fully restored (it’s almost completely replaced by a variety of songs in the theatrical version).

The 2.40 widescreen transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack are both excellent.

D.E.B.S. (**, 2005). 91 mins., PG-13, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Deleted/Extended Scenes; Making Of Featurette; Director and Cast Commentaries; Comic Animatic; Production Stills; 2.35 Widescreen and Full-screen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Featherweight comic spoof is actually a lesbian love story in disguise.

Sara Foster plays one of the D.E.B.S., a team of elite government spies who also happen to be goofy, attractive young college students. Her team’s mission is to take down villainous Jordana Brewster’s criminal empire, but instead of suspicions being confirmed, sparks fly once Foster and Brewster’s eyes lock.

Angela Robinson’s colorful spy satire likely played at Sundance for no other reason than its lesbian content, since D.E.B.S. itself isn’t especially funny or sexy. Foster and Brewster anchor the movie’s collection of attractive female leads, but the story is dispensable and ultimately just an excuse for the two to engage in some PG-13 level kissing. If that’s your scene, by all means give D.E.B.S. a view -- everyone else can safely avoid this bubblegum offering which appeared in, and vanished out of, theaters in a matter of days last winter.

Sony’s good-looking DVD includes both 2.35 and full-screen transfers, plus a solid assortment of extras. Robinson contributes a director commentary in addition to a cast commentary; a standard Making Of is on-hand in “Infiltrating D.E.B.S.,” while a comic animatic and production stills round out the disc. The 5.1 Dolby Digital sound is bouncy, sporting an OK score by Steven Stern and the requisite songs.

IMAGINARY HEROES (**½, 2004).  111 mins., R; Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Commentary with Sigourney Weaver; Commentary With Dan Harris and Emile Hirsch; Deleted Scenes; Featurette; Photo Gallery; 2.35 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Excellent performances by Sigourney Weaver, Emile Hirsch and Jeff Daniels mark writer-director Dan Harris’ at-times insightful, occasionally infuriating family drama. Laced with black comedy, this variation on “American Beauty” and “Ordinary People” begins with the death of the picture-perfect “All-American son” (Kip Pardue) and then follows its dysfunctional family unit (Weaver’s hippie mom, Jeff Daniels’ estranged dad, Hirsch’s troubled son and Michelle Williams’ scholarly daughter) through its gradual unraveling.

Harris enables his leads to give superb performances, yet there’s just something artificial about “Imaginary Heroes.” The plot’s similarity to other films in this genre -- a look at the dark underside to the seemingly pristine American family -- makes the film feels forced at times, and despite several excellent sequences, the movie is far satisfying when viewed in full.

Sony’s DVD offers a pair of commentary tracks: one with Weaver, the other with Harris and Hirsch. A handful of deleted scenes with optional commentary by Harris are included, along with a typical behind-the-scenes featurette and a photo gallery. The 2.35 transfer is just fine and the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound restrained as you imagine it might be given the context of the story.

New This Week on DVD

HIDE AND SEEK (*, 2005). 101 mins., R, Fox. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Four Alternate Endings; Commentary; 14 Deleted/Extended Scenes; Rough Conceptual Sequences; Making Of featurette; 2.40 Widescreen, 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital sound.

This year’s entry in the now-annual Worst Robert DeNiro Check-Cashing Performance is an unpleasant, predictable “thriller” with Bounty Bob snoozing his way through the role of a psychologist trying to reconnect with his daughter (Dakota Fanning) after his wife commits suicide.

After moving upstate, away from the noise of the city following the tragedy (partially the same set up as last year’s DeNiro genre bomb “The Godsend”), DeNiro and Fanning try to enjoy the good life and get to know each other again. Their next door neighbor walks over and gives out preserves; the sheriff (Dylan Baker) is a nice guy looking out for new home owners in the town; and even the lovely Elisabeth Shue appears in her first role in years as a single mom who (improbably enough) takes a liking to the newly-single doctor. Fanning, though, has a tough time adjusting, especially after she sees an invisible guy named “Charlie” appearing all over the place, torturing the family’s cat and leaving obscene messages behind about DeNiro’s love life with his late wife.

Scripted by Ari Sclossberg and directed by John Polson, “Hide and Seek” is a formulaic piece that offers as many genre cliches as you can fit into 102 minutes: a pet who you know won’t be making it into the last section of the movie; the “sacrificial lambs” who are dead meat the moment they appear on-screen; and the requisite “twist” ending you can see coming from miles away. The film squanders a game cast and atmospheric cinematography by Dariusz Wolski for a story that’s shocking in how pedestrian it turns out to be. Make you sure you run and hide from this one!

Fox’s DVD offers no less than four alternate endings, including one that would have been preferable to the final cut (let’s just say one character ends up institutionalized, and with good reason). Commentary from Polson, Schlossberg and Ford are included, plus no less than 14 deleted/extended scenes, a Making Of featurette, and “rough conceptual sequences” (live-action footage intercut with storyboards). The 2.40 Widescreen transfer is just fine, as is the 5.1 Dolby Digital and DTS sound, sporting a predictably “spooky” John Ottman score with liberal uses of children’s choir over the opening credits.

Speaking of which, “Hide and Seek” offers one of the silliest credit scenes in recent memory, with cast and crew names (either their first, last, or initials) being “shadowed” by creepy lettering. I’m SO scared!

New From Buena Vista

PROZAC NATION (**, 2001). 95 mins., R, Miramax. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Anatomy of a Scene featurette; 1.85 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Finally dusted off the Miramax shelf, this long-delayed (shot five years ago), critically panned adaptation of Elizabeth Wurtzel’s novel offers an excellent performance by Christina Ricci but little else to recommend it.

Ricci plays Wurtzel, an aspiring writer suffering from depression who attends Harvard, falls for Jason Biggs and meets pal Michelle Williams. Unfortunately, pressures from Wurtzel’s home life (specifically, her father’s departure and overbearing mother played by Jessica Lange) and the challenges of college take their toll, leading our heroine down a path of drugs and self-destruction that nearly cost her everything.

Erik Skjolobjaerg helmed this well-acted though somewhat routine filming of Wurtzel’s memoir, adapted for the screen by Galt Niederhoffer, Frank Deasy and Larry Gross. Ricci gives a valiant performance in a demanding role (she also co-produced the film), yet “Prozac Nation” ends up becoming a movie that often feels like a Lifetime TV film. The treatment of the subject matter and Wurtzel’s relationships are straightforwardly -- and unremarkably -- handled, resulting in a disappointing picture despite Ricci’s strong work.

Miramax’s DVD offers only a Sundance Channel “Anatomy of a Scene” featurette plus a fine 1.85 transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

BRIDE & PREJUDICE (***, 2004, 112 mins., PG-13; Miramax): Gurinder Chadha’s follow-up to her international smash “Bend It Like Beckham” is a colorful, entertaining hodgepodge of Bollywood, Jane Austen, and American musical. The radiant Aishwarya Rai plays a beautiful single Indian woman who first locks horns with -- then falls for -- an American businessman (Martin Henderson). Along the way there’s lush cinematography and a bevy of musical numbers bridging the character’s respective cultures. Not as successful story-wise as “Beckham” this is nevertheless an upbeat and highly entertaining film that looks fantastic in Buena Vista’s DVD: the 2.35 widescreen transfer is superlative and the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound likewise vibrant. Extras include commentary from Chadha and her husband (and co-writer) Paul Mayeda Berges, plus deleted scenes, several extended song sequences, interviews and a typical Making Of featurette. Highly recommended!

THE PACIFIER (**½, 2005, 93 mins., PG; Disney): Vin Diesel might have struck out with “The Chronicles of Riddick,” but he certainly mined box-office gold with this pleasant, innocuous family comedy. As a Navy SEAL sent to guard a single mom (Faith Ford) with a pair of predictably adorable kids, Diesel flexes his comedic muscles to surprising degree in this assembly-line Disney vehicle. The result is satisfying family fare, with Diesel’s superb supporting cast including the ever-underrated Lauren Graham (in a disappointingly minor role) and “Raymond” veteran Brad Garrett, who takes on the Vin-ster in the movie’s most amusing sequence. Disney’s DVD offers director commentary, deleted scenes and the requisite Making Of featurette. Technically the 2.35 transfer is colorful and crisp while the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound offers a collection of pop tunes and an amiable score by John Debney.

DEAR FRANKIE (**, 2004, 105 mins., PG-13; Miramax): Well-acted but ho-hum British import about a single mom (Emily Mortimer) whose deaf son (Jack McElhone) writes letters to his absentee father -- who in reality isn’t a sailor but really an abusive man who nearly killed them both. Mortimer hires a local bloke (Gerard Butler) to play McElhone’s dad, and you can anticipate what happens after the real father comes back into the picture...days away from dying at that. Shona Auerbach’s film is competently made and superbly acted, but the story is relentlessly predictable (and depressing), offering few twists and dragging itself out to the 105 minute mark. Miramax’s DVD includes commentary with Auerbach, several deleted scenes and an interview with the filmmaker, plus a Making Of featurette. The 1.85 widescreen transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound (sporting an almost Elmer Bernstein-like score by Alex Heffes) are all acceptable, though the cinematography and Scottish locales are fairly drab.

FANTASTIC FOUR: THE COMPLETE 1994-95 Animated Television Series (1994-95, 569 mins., Buena Vista): To coincide with the release of Fox’s big-screen “Fantastic Four” movie this week, Buena Vista has rolled out a four-disc box set compiling all 26 episodes of the FF’s 1994-95 Fox Kids animated series. Not as well-written or animated as Fox’s “Spider-Man” and “X-Men” series, this is still a fairly entertaining collection for kids and die-hard Marvel aficionados, with solid transfers and episode introductions from Stan “The Man” Lee himself. Hopefully Buena Vista will go back to the well and release the FF’s superior ‘60s animated series once the new movie hits DVD later on this year (a planned “Marvel Heroes ‘66" DVD collection has been announced with no date set for its release).

DIARY OF A MAD BLACK WOMAN (*½, 2005, 116 mins., PG-13; Lions Gate): Tyler Perry’s absurd performance as a crazed Grandmother named Madea disrupts the central story line of a woman (Kimberly Elise) deserted by her husband (Steve Harris) and seeking to rebuild her life. Based on Perry’s own plays (and scripted for the screen by the writer), this BET-produced comedy-drama seems more suited to the small screen than the multiplex, where it nevertheless drummed up a superb $50 million plus in domestic sales. Still, you’d have to be a die-hard fan of Perry’s material to get much out of this effort. Lions Gate’s DVD includes a fine 16:9 widescreen transfer, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, Perry’s commentary, outtakes, two featurettes and trailers.

NEXT TIME: An Anchor Bay Round Up and More!
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