7/26/05 Edition

Aisle Seat End of July Mania

Andy Reviews Cannon Classics and a Very Special Ferrigno Double Feature

Sometimes it’s good to feel guilty.

I didn’t care much for the original “XXX,” the Vin Diesel-Rob Cohen spy-adventure that nevertheless grossed well over $100 million domestically and seemed as if it had the potential for “franchise” written all over it.

Apparently, contractual negotiations and Diesel’s interest in the “Riddick” franchise (and we all know how that turned out) put the kibosh on a continuation of Vin’s “Xander Cage” character and a make-shift sequel, XXX: STATE OF THE UNION (**½, 101 mins., PG-13; Sony), was produced instead.

Released to theaters less than three months ago, “XXX 2" grossed a paltry $25 million and made one of the fastest transitions to DVD that you’ll ever see. What’s surprising about the film is that, in some ways, this mindless but entertaining action vehicle is superior to its predecessor -- the general public disinterest in the film notwithstanding.

Samuel L. Jackson actually gets billed this time out as he reprises his role of Agent Gibbons, a top-secret government agent whose department suffers an attack in the film’s opening minutes. With Diesel’s character recently killed in action, Jackson and fellow agent Shavers (Michael Roof, another holdover from the original) opt to recruit not another extreme sports star but a bad-ass inmate (Ice Cube) with “more attitude” to help them track down the culprit.

Cube has a history with Jackson, and soon uncovers a plot by the nefarious Secretary of Defense (Willem Dafoe) to overthrow the President (Peter Strauss). However, after Jackson is taken down in action, Ice has to work on his own -- and with a sympathetic NSA agent (Scott Speedman) -- to save the United States from being plunged into a state of Dafoe-led anarchy.

Lee Tamahori (“The Edge,” “Die Another Day”) directed this absurd but fun “old school” action romp that basically plays like the kind of no-brain escapism you’d routinely see back in the ‘80s. ILM’s effects are solid, the work of “Star Wars” vets Gavin Bocquet and David Tattersall give the movie a pleasing visual design, and Tamahori helms the stunts and action choreography in the same rugged style he typically brings to his projects. Marco Beltrami’s groovy action score also lends a solid assist.

The cast is just fine as well, though one could see any number of actors fitting into Ice Cube’s shoes: the rapper-actor’s lack of association with the action genre had to have been one of the main reasons for the film’s miserable box-office receipts. He’s not bad, but he’s basically acted off the screen by superior work from Jackson, Dafoe and even Strauss, in one of his first big-screen roles in quite some time.

“XXX: State of the Union” isn’t a great movie but for a blast of “summer fun” Sony’s DVD more than gets the job done. The 2.40 Widescreen transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack are each top-notch and the commentary from Tamahori and writer Simon Kinberg is more candid and informative than usual. Other supplements include a secondary commentary from the visual FX team, a couple of deleted scenes and standard “Making Of” featurettes.

Also new this week from Sony is URBAN LEGENDS: BLOODY MARY (**, 93 mins., 2005, R), a direct-to-video entry in the horror series that’s predictable but competent enough, and happily worth a look for genre fans.

Bearing no relation to either of its predecessors, “Pet Sematary” director Mary Lambert’s film is instead a straightforward ghost story. Kate Mara plays a high schooler who’s abducted by a group of high school jocks as a prank. What transpires from there closely resembles the tragic events of decades before, where a young girl was accidentally murdered in the midst of another joke played on her by a similar assortment of arrogant jocks. Could “Bloody Mary” be returning from the grave, seeking vengeance on Mara’s tormentors?

Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris -- whose credits include “X2" and the upcoming “Logan’s Run” remake -- scripted this standard tale of supernatural vengeance, with a villain as obvious as the cast credits (could it be...the only adult male in the entire film, perhaps?). Yet this formulaic teen horror tale boasts several gory, and effectively handled, murder set-pieces, plus a pair of likeable protagonists and even a competent score by Jeff Rona.

Clearly a cut or two above the norm for the direct-to-DVD market, “Bloody Mary” offers no real surprises but it’s entertaining enough for what it is, and thereby gets a passing grade (which is more than one can say for “Urban Legends: Final Cut”).

Sony’s DVD offers a standard Making Of featurette with a satisfying 1.85 widescreen transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

New From Disney

ICE PRINCESS (**, 2005). 99 mins., PG, Disney. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Commentary; Alternate Opening; Deleted Scenes; Music Videos; 1.85 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Bland Disney production attempts to recapture -- and recycle -- the studio’s success with “The Princess Dairies,” here chronicling the transformation of a nerdy high school psychics student (Michelle Trachtenberg) into a budding figure skating contender.

In the annals of skating movies, “Ice Princess” can’t hold a toe pick to either “The Cutting Edge” (which, amazingly enough, currently has a sequel in production) or the immortal Lynn-Holly Johnson/Robby Benson tearjerker classic “Ice Castles.”

Trachtenberg, Joan Cusack (as the cliched, antagonistic mom) and Kim Cattrall (as the tough-love coach who ultimately takes Trachtenberg under her wing) all give solid performances, but the Hadley Davis script and Tim Fywell direction are both Disney Channel-caliber, looking and feeling like an inoffensive, but instantly forgettable, TV movie. Everything about the movie is relentlessly predictable, from its bouncy pop soundtrack and feel-good, “chasing your dreams” morals, to its climactic sequence and token cameos by skaters Michelle Kwan and Brian Boitano. Even Christophe Beck’s score seems to have been directly influenced by its temp-track, which must have featured an overdose of Thomas Newman.

Disney’s DVD looks and sounds great in 1.85 Widescreen and 5.1 Dolby Digital. Extras include a few deleted scenes and an alternate opening, commentary by Trachtenberg and her co-stars, and music videos clearly targeted at the movie’s young, female demographic.

New From MGM

It was the summer of ‘83. The days of free-wheeling good times, surf, sand, and sun were about to come to an end. In just a few days my friend “G” and I would begin 4th grade, and on the last weekend of August we had an especially difficult choice to make.

Two movies were opening on August 27th, and each promised plenty of sword-and-sorcery. Both featured muscle-bound heroes out of myth and legend. And both would flop at the box-office, taking decades before they would be issued in quality presentations on video.

The two viewing candidates we had at our disposal were Ralph Bakshi’s animated fantasy “Fire And Ice” and Lou Ferrigno’s epic “Hercules.” Thinking that, as cool as Ferrigno still was back in ‘83 (after all, the “Hulk” had only gone off the air the previous year), that animation was the way to go, we opted for Bakshi’s film, and until this day I still haven’t made it all the way through the Ferrigno fantasy.

Now, some 22 years later, I can finally tell you that the fateful choice we made (okay, enough of the dramatics, I promise) turned out to be the wiser one -- though Big Lou as HERCULES (**, 90 mins., 1983, PG) still manages to boast a fair amount of fun.

Newly issued on DVD in 16:9 Widescreen courtesy of MGM, Ferrigno’s voice may be dubbed but his physical attributes at least get a workout as they throw down Cannon Films’ threadbare sets and comic-book action in Luigi Cozzi’s 1983 production. Shot in Italy with a stellar cast including Brad Harris and Sybil Danning, this sometimes tedious but colorfully amusing adventure includes the priceless sequence where Big Lou tosses a bear into space and generally raises hell in Italy. Pino Donaggio’s score attempts to convey a Williams-esque tone, but sadly “Hercules” is sub-“Red Sonja” on the overall entertainment scale.

More amusing, and also even more hysterical, is THE ADVENTURES OF HERCULES (**, 89 mins., 1985, PG) aka HERCULES 2, which MGM has wisely issued on the second half of the DVD’s double bill.

Shot before “Hercules” I even went into theaters (the original was actually distributed by MGM/UA and received a national release, unlike many Cannon efforts), “Hercules 2" opens with a “Superman II”-inspired recap of the original movie, set over a “whoosing,” Salkind-esque credits sequence. From there this crazed, low-low-budget action vehicle gets nuttier, and contains one of the strangest, most absurd climaxes ever -- basically looking like the sorts of animation you’d routinely see in Journey music videos (or, at the least, Steven Lisberger’s pre-“Tron” conceptual reels).

Donaggio returned for “Hercules 2" but the “big” supporting names like Danning and Harris wisely refrained from reprising their original roles. Can’t blame them, really, because even Ferrigno appears at times in footage clearly shot during the making of “Hercules” 1!

MGM’s DVD presentation of each film looks terrific in 16:9 widescreen, contains the original trailers and more than adequate 2.0 Dolby Surround soundtracks. Recommended for all B-movie enthusiasts and Ferrigno fans everywhere.

Now, finally, I can rest easy that “G” and I made the right choice back in the summer of ‘83...

SINBAD OF THE SEVEN SEAS (1989, 93 Mins., MGM): Think “Hercules” was bad? Cannon was pretty much folding up shop by the time the late ‘80s rolled around, but that didn’t stop them from producing one final, loud entry in the Lou Ferrigno fantasy sweepstakes: the indescribably-awful “Sinbad of the Seven Seas.” Working from a story from our old “Hercules” pal Lewis Coates (aka Luigi Cozzi), “Sinbad” finds Ferrigno back and dubbed again as the mighty sailor, who here helps noble prince Ali rescue the king’s daughter from the hands of the evil sorcerer Jaffar (John Steiner, in a nutty performance to say the least). Dov Seltzer’s plastic score fits nicely alongisde the appropriately plastic sets, in this “Cannon International” epic that quickly went straight to video. Pretty much an unwatchable mess, but worth it for die-hard aficionados of the bizarre, MGM’s long-awaited (?) DVD includes a superb 16:9 transfer with mono sound and even the original trailer. Now, where’s “The Seven Magnificent Gladiators” when you need it?

BILL & TED’S EXCELLENT COLLECTION (1988-91, 90 mins. and 94 mins., PG; MGM): Box set re-issue of the two, immortal Bill & Ted movies (remember those?) includes the previously-released DVD masters of 1988's “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” and 1991's bigger-budgeted (and arguably even more entertaining) sequel, “Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey.” These 2001 DVD masters still look just fine (16:9 widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound), so the incentive to pick up this box set rests with an all-new, exclusive bonus DVD: “Bill & Ted’s Bogus Disc,” which includes a new half-hour documentary. Offering recent interviews with star Alex Winter and writers Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon among others, this is a nice retrospective on the movie, though the supplements are otherwise somewhat lackluster, including the premiere episode of the short-lived Bill & Ted cartoon, an interview with guitarist Steve Vai, radio spots and an older interview with Matheson and Solomon.

WEEKEND AT BERNIE’S (***, 1989, 98 mins., PG-13; MGM): One of the big summer sleeper hits of recent decades, Ted Kotcheff’s hilarious 1989 comedy remains a viewer favorite and TV staple. Andrew McCarthy and Jonathan Silverman were the Owen Wilson/Vince Vaughn combo of their day, starring here as a pair of buddies who get wrapped up in a mob boss’ shenanigans -- both before AND after his death. Robert Klane’s script was appealingly performed by a great cast (you have to dig Terry Kiser's work) and still offers plenty of laughs -- as strange as it sounds, this is one of the few late ‘80s films that will still be screened regularly years from now. Previously issued on DVD by Live/Artisan, MGM’s DVD seems to be a marginal improvement, offering a newer 16:9 transfer with 2.0 Dolby Stereo sound (a full-screen version is available on the disc’s flip side). Alas, no special features (outside of the trailer) are included, which means that long-awaited Special Edition remains in the pipeline, waiting for Sony (MGM’s new owners) to give it the proper treatment.

THE GARBAGE PAIL KIDS MOVIE (*, 97 mins., 1987, PG; MGM): A few years late to the party, Topps Chewing Gum’s zany parody of Coleco’s “Cabbage Patch Kids” arrived on the silver screen courtesy of the Atlantic Entertainment Group (the folks behind the “Teen Wolf” movies). The resulting film from producer-director Rod Amateu was a barely-released time-waster starring Anthony Newley and young Mackenzie Astin acting opposite a group of freakish puppets from the Chiodo Brothers. Not nearly as amusing as the trading cards themselves, this production was quickly relegated to the scrap heap after a brief theatrical run, though fans may enjoy seeing this curiosity dusted off by MGM: the 16:9 enhanced transfer and Dolby Digital mono soundtrack are both satisfying, and the original trailer has been included as well.

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