7/4/06 Edition -- Happy Fourth of July!

4th of July Aisle Seat Special!
Plus: July Vintage Titles From ALICE B. TOKLAS to Fox Golden Age Classics

The beaches are beckoning and the fireworks are about to be launched...so for those of you taking a few days off in the next few days (or weeks), here's the Aisle Seat's special Fourth of July edition, packed with new releases and upcoming vintage titles with something to appeal for everyone...

It’s curious that among Superman “fan boys” who praise Richard Donner for everything that’s great about “Superman II” and blame Richard Lester (the credited director) for any shortcomings that the sequel might have, most of those viewers aren’t aware that Lester’s cinematic output in the 1960s helped define the then-changing landscape of modern moviemaking.

Between “Help!,” “A Hard Day’s Night,” and PETULIA (***½, 105 mins., 1968, R; Warner), Lester’s filmmaking technique -- particularly his use of editing which was striking for its time -- was a force in the decade’s radically shifting cinema, which by the end of the ‘60s had graduated to fully adult, “R”-rated fare that wouldn’t have been produced ten years prior.

Scripted by Lawrence B. Marcus from a John Haase novel, “Petulia” offers a story which isn’t overly compelling on its surface: Julie Christie plays an unhappily married, kooky young woman who gravitates towards surgeon George C. Scott, unhappily divorced from his wife (Shirley Knight). Both seek something out of a San Fransisco that was fully enveloped in the hippie era during the movie’s production, with Lester, cinematographer Nicolas Roeg and editor Tony Gibbs brilliantly cross-cutting between shifting time frames and capturing side details that provide “Petulia” with the spice that makes it an indelible film of its time.

In fact, Roeg and Lester photograph everyday ‘60s locations in such a way that they seem as foreign today as they did when the movie was made: the duo make locales from a “futuristic” hotel to a 24-hour supermarket into empty, soulless settings that perfectly capture its disenchanted protagonists. John Barry’s haunting, unobtrusive score adds a further dramatic layer to a movie that’s every bit as much about its surroundings as its central story; like a time capsule of its period, “Petulia” is a compelling film that Warner has issued it as a top-notch catalog DVD.

A new featurette on the making of the movie offers comments from co-star Richard Chamberlain and others about the creation of “Petulia,” and in particular the Flower Power settings the filmmakers shot the movie in. A vintage, amusing featurette (“Petulia: The Uncommon Movie”) compliments a healthy 16:9 (1.85) widescreen transfer with mono sound and the trailer rounding out a top-notch package.

Another movie that captures, to a lesser degree, its time and place is Irvin Kershner’s off-the-wall 1966 picture A FINE MADNESS (**, 103 mins., Warner), which was one of the first vehicles that attempted to launch Sean Connery beyond the 007 image the superstar was fully immersed in at the time.

Alas, despite surrounding Connery with a game cast (Joanne Woodward, Jean Seberg, Colleen Dewhurst, John Fiedler, Clive Revill, Jackie Coogan, Patrick O’Neal), this bombastic “comedy” is strictly a product of its era. Connery portrays a wholly unlikeable poet/carpet cleaner/tough guy who threatens his wife (Woodward) and others to the point where she seeks the council of shrink O’Neal, who has an unhappy wife (Seberg) of his own and attempts to employ scientific methods to make Connery into a normal, balanced human being.

“A Fine Madness” isn’t a film that often gets dusted off very often, and it’s easy to see why: this shrill comedy is heavy-handed and often lacking in laughs. Connery tries too hard at every turn and exhibits little chemistry with Woodward, while Kershner is unable to coax much hilarity out of the Elliott Baker script. On the positive side, the authentic New York City locales give the movie an identity most set-bound comedies of its era lacked, and John Addison’s breezy score does its best to sell the unappealing story.

In the end, any film where a man punches his wife at the end of the film isn’t likely to be wholly embraced these days, but “A Fine Madness” may be worth a rental for Connery aficionados, just to see the star attempting to do something different at the fever pitch of Bond mania (Connery shot the film in between “Thunderball” and “You Only Live Twice”). Warner’s 16:9 (1.85) transfer is admirable, the mono sound is fine, and a hysterical vintage featurette -- “Mondo Connery” -- is actually more fun than sitting through the film itself.

Just as dated but a lot more fun is the 1968 Warner-Seven Arts comedy I LOVE YOU, ALICE B. TOKLAS! (***, 94 mins., R, Warner), starring Peter Sellers as a lawyer, engaged to be married, who falls for hippie Leigh Taylor-Young and quickly finds his life turned upside down.

Elmer Bernstein’s hilarious score (gotta love the theme song!) is one of the main selling points of Hy Averback’s comedy, which Paul Mazursky and Larry Tucker penned with a handful of memorable, standalone sequences (particularly the brownie consumption scene) that enable Sellers to craft one of his most satisfying comedies produced outside of director Blake Edwards’ involvement.

Warner’s DVD serves up a generally satisfying 16:9 (1.85) widescreen transfer with mono sound and the original trailer as the disc’s only extra.

Last but not least among Warner’s collection of vintage comedies is the 1971 MGM release THE GANG THAT COULDN’T SHOOT STRAIGHT (**½, 96 mins., PG-13, Warner).

This Robert Chartoff-Irwin Winkler production offers a talented cast (Jerry Orbach, Leigh Taylor-Young, Jo Van Fleet, Lionel Stander, and a young Robert DeNiro) in a film produced by an equally gifted assortment of personnel (writer Waldo Salt, cinematographer Owen Roizman, composer Dave Grusin among others). Obviously, since this comedy remains relatively obscure, something went amiss at one stage or another of production, with my money on director James Goldstone being unable to bring the proper sense of comic timing to this adaptation of Jimmy Breslin’s novel.

That said, the cast and the flavorful NYC settings make this well-intentioned but ultimately disappointing comedy worth a view for movie buffs, with Warner’s DVD presentation offering both a satisfying 16:9 (1.85) widescreen transfer and Dolby Digital mono sound, plus the original trailer.

Aisle Seat Sneak Peak

BASIC INSTINCT 2 (*, 2006, 116 mins., Unrated; Sony, available July 11): Sharon Stone gives a smug, one-note performance apropos to a National Lampoon spoof in this box-office disaster and belated sequel to the 1992 Paul Verhoeven-directed thriller.

In the follow-up that nobody (David Cronenberg and John McTiernan among others were attached at one point to direct; original star Benjamin Bratt was thrown out allegedly because of Stone’s interference) wanted to make -- and nobody went to see -- Stone reprises her role of Catherine Tramell, femme fatale and bestselling author who once again finds herself in hot water. After the car she’s driving crashes in London, killing an English athlete, shrink David Morrissey is called in to investigate the mysterious Tramell, who may or may not be the culprit behind the death.

“Basic Instinct 2" opens with a fairly exciting, well-edited opening set-piece with Tramell getting it on while driving her car over 100mph, but -- unsurprisingly -- that credits sequence also turns out to be the best scene in the film. From there, director Michael Caton-Jones fashions a laughably misguided character drama lacking the visual panache and suspense that Verhoeven brought to the original “Basic Instinct.” Make no mistake: its predecessor wasn’t a good movie, either, but at least it was a stylishly-made, polished studio product with ample amounts of action and a haunting Jerry Goldsmith score. “Basic Deux” turns out to be wholly depressing by comparison, filled with lots of talk, uninteresting supporting characters (Morrissey is no Michael Douglas, but you didn’t need me to tell you that), and a dreary, uninteresting story credited to Leona Barish and Henry Bean. The movie would qualify for “so bad it’s good” status if it wasn’t so tedious that the laughs, ultimately, aren’t even worth waiting for.

Sony’s Unrated Edition DVD, out next week, sports commentary from Caton-Jones, 10 deleted scenes, a weak alternate ending (which doesn’t explain any more about the film’s absurd “open-ended” conclusion than the finished version), and a Making Of featurette. The 16:9 (2.40) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound are both excellent (as you would expect with Sony), with John Murphy’s adequate score recycling Goldsmith’s original theme throughout.

New From Paramount

FAILURE TO LAUNCH (**½, 2006, 96 mins., PG-13; Paramount): The undeniable charisma of Matthew McConaughey once again helped turn a mediocre “product” into boffo box-office with last winter’s “Failure to Launch.”

McConaughey plays a 35-year-old who lives at home with a pair of parents (Kathy Bates, Terry Bradshaw) who want desperately to kick him out. Enter relationship expert Sarah Jessica Parker, who McConaughey’s “‘rents” pay to make him fall in love with her...as you can tell (and I don’t even need to write the rest of this plot summary to fill you in), the predictability quotient in the Tom J. Astle-Matt Ember script is turned up to an extreme, but “Failure to Launch” still has some pleasures beyond its absurd, sitcom-ish premise. McConaughey is cool and amusing as the playboy who hasn’t left the nest, but the movie is basically stolen by cute and quirky Zooey Deschanel, even though she’s stuck in the thankless “best friend” role to Parker’s female lead. Deschanel manages to enhance her character with some amusing comedic shadings that easily trump Parker’s somewhat phoned-in performance...in fact it might have been more amusing if Deschanel had the lead in this film altogether!

Paramount’s DVD includes a batch of standard Making Of featurettes, a colorful 16:9 (2.35) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, offering a pleasant collection of songs and Rolfe Kent score.

THIS IS AMERICA, CHARLIE BROWN (1988-89, 194 mins., Paramount): Highly enjoyable Peanuts offering was the first animated “mini-series” to air in the U.S.

This eight-part series (which CBS broadcast at infrequent times during 1988 and ‘89) offers an engaging assortment of history lessons for kids with Charles M. Schulz’s beloved characters working their way into each segment. The episodes include “The Mayflower Voyagers” (previously available on the “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” DVD), “The Birth of the Constitution,” “The Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk,” “The NASA Space Station,” “The Building of the Transcontinental Railroad,” “The Great Inventors,” “The Smithsonian and the Presidency” and “The Music and Heroes of America,”all 30-minute segments spread across the two discs in Paramount’s colorfully packaged set.

Low-priced at under $15, this is an easy recommendation for all Peanuts fans and kids in particular.

TRACK OF THE CAT (***, 1954, 102 mins.; Paramount): Paramount continues to mine the Batjac back catalog with this unusual 1954 western from director William Wellman, with Robert Mitchum battling a mountain cat that’s preying on his troubled family’s cattle. Vividly shot by William Clothier and Wellman in a stark color scheme that also takes full advantage of the wide Cinemascope frame, “Track of the Cat” is a curiosity item that Paramount has preserved splendidly on DVD, complete with a crisp 16:9 transfer and 2.0 and 4.0 Dolby Digital soundtracks offering an interesting score by Roy Webb. Ample supplements include a commentary from William Wellman, Jr., co-star Tab Hunter and Frank Thompson, plus various behind-the-scenes featurettes. Fascinating, and not entirely successful, but well worth a view for western fans.

Fox July Round Up

Fox’s July DVD slate offers several new entries in the studio’s superb “Studio Classics” line, as well as a handful of vintage “Marquee Musicals” new to disc. Among the highlights this month:

Fox Studio Classics

THE BLACK SWAN (1942, 85 mins., Fox): Just in time for the release of “Pirates of the Caribbean 2" is one of the original swashbuckling classics, starring Tyrone Power as a free-wheeling, supposedly reformed pirate and Maureen O’Hara as the lass he falls in love with. Rousing music by Alfred Newman, beautiful Technicolor hues, and exciting derring-do highlight this superior Fox production, directed by Henry King and written by Ben Hecht and Seton Miller, adapting Rafael Sabatini’s novel. Fox’s DVD includes commentary from historian Rudy Behlmer and actress Maureen O’Hara, the original trailer, both 2.0 stereo and mono tracks, and a restoration comparison (the new full-screen transfer is excellent!). Outstanding fun!

THE KEYS TO THE KINGDOM (1944, 137 mins., Fox): Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Nunnally Johnson adapted A.J. Cronin’s novel for this 1944 production, sporting one of the earliest starring efforts of Gregory Peck as a young priest sent to China to “tame a hostile land” as the description would have it. Kenneth Geist and Chris Mankiewicz offer commentary on this well-regarded drama, which offers co-starring roles for Vincent Price, Roddy McDowall and Edmund Glenn among others. Old-fashioned, moving entertainment from Fox’s Golden Age, with a healthy full-screen transfer and 2.0 stereo and mono tracks offering another strong dramatic score by Alfred Newman.

THE RIVER’S EDGE (1957, 87 mins., Fox): Cinemascope Western fun with Anthony Quinn and Debra Paget as a young couple tormented by the arrival of shady Ray Milland. Good action and widescreen cinematography sell this 1957 genre effort, which Fox has preserved on DVD in 16:9 anamorphic scope with 2.0 stereo and mono soundtracks and a commentary from historians James Ursini and Alain Silver.

Fox Marquee Musicals

THE DOLLY SISTERS (1945, 114 mins., Fox): Betty Grable and June Haver dance their way into this charming 1945 Fox musical, presented in a satisfying full-screen color transfer with 2.0 Dolby Stereo and mono soundtracks. Commentary from historian Drew Casper, a vintage Movietone news reel, a photo gallery and a set of collectible lobby cards make this “Marquee Musicals” effort a must for genre aficionados.

MOON OVER MIAMI (1941, 91 mins., Fox): Betty Grable, Carole Landis, Don Ameche, Robert Cummings and Charlotte Greenwood seem to be having a gay old time in this silly slice of early ‘40s musical fluff, presented on DVD by Fox in its original Technicolor glory with 2.0 stereo and mono sound, a photo gallery and more collectible lobby cards.

DOWN ARGENTINE WAY (1940, 88 mins., Fox): Before Grable and Ameche painted Miami red, the duo tap-danced their way down south in this fun ‘n fluffy 1940 Fox musical, boasted by the presence of none other than Carmen Miranda herself. Fox’s DVD offers a Betty Grable A&E Biography special and a commentary with historian Sylvia Stoddard, plus a stills gallery and lobby card reproductions.

MY BLUE HEAVEN (1950, 96 mins., Fox): Betty Grable and Dan Dailey portray a married set of entertainers in this enjoyable 1950 Fox Technicolor musical, happily with no relation whatsoever to the terrible 1990 Steve Martin-Rick Moranis comedy. Fox’s DVD includes another commentary track from historian Drew Casper, a photo gallery and more collectible lobby cards.

Other Fox Vintage Titles

SHIRLEY TEMPLE: CAPTAIN JANUARY (1936, 76 mins.,), JUST AROUND THE CORNER (1938, 70 mins.) and SUSANNAH OF THE MOUNTIES (1939, 79 mins): Three new entires into Fox’s Shirley Temple collection includes the 1936 “Captain January” (co-starring Guy Kibbee as a lighthouse keeper); “Just Around the Corner” with Charles Farrell; and the particularly fun 1939 “Susannah of the Mounties,” with Randolph Scott co-starring. As with many of Fox’s previous Temple DVDs, both restored black-and-white and colorized transfers are on the discs, along with 2.0 stereo and mono soundtracks.

WILL ROGERS COLLECTION Volume 1 (Fox, available July 25): Fox’s four-disc anthology of Will Rogers features includes four pictures the entertainer starred in, all produced in one year! (1935). “Life Begins at 40,” “In Old Kentucky,” “Doubting Thomas,” and the John Ford-directed “Steamboat ‘Round the Bend” are contained in this well-packaged box-set which Fox rolls out on July 25th. The full-screen transfers are in decent shape and are well worth a view for nostalgic Golden Age fans.

TV on DVD From Fox

VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA: Season 1, Volume 2 (Fox, available July 11): Another excellent Irwin Allen package from Fox, here offering episodes 17-32 of the ‘60s series’ first season. The black-and-white transfers are in good condition with 2.0 stereo and mono soundtracks complimenting the audio package; extras include interviews with David “Al” Hedison, a blooper reel and still gallery. Highly recommend for all “Voyage” aficionados!

THE PRETENDER: Complete Season 4 (Fox, available July 18): The fourth and final season for the Michael T. Weiss series offers a few answers for fans, and Fox’s four-disc, 19 episode collection completes the show’s run on DVD with selected commentaries, a pair of featurettes, Dolby Surround soundtracks and highly satisfying 16:9 (1.78) widescreen transfers.

NEXT TIME: New MASTERS OF HORROR, THE QUIET EARTH, Warner Westerns and More! 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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