7/4/07 Edition -- Happy Independence Day! The AISLE SEAT BLOG Is Now Online!

Fourth Of July Special
DIE HARD 4 Leads a Wrap Up of Theatrical Reviews!
Plus: New Criterions, HD-DVDs, LAST MIMZY & More

As we’ve been discussing on the Aisle Seat Message Boards, June 4th marked the 25th Anniversary of the original theatrical release of “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” -- an event that prompted me to re-examine the films that were also released during that same period.

Confirming what I had suspected all along, the Summer of ‘82 was packed with big-ticket films that have, to varying degrees, become classics of some kind: “E.T.,” “Blade Runner,” John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” “Rocky III,” “Poltergeist,” “Conan the Barbarian,” “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” “Tron,” and the U.S. release of “The Road Warrior” all came within a golden span of several months.

It goes without saying that it’s not just simple nostalgia that makes you look at that line-up of movies and realize 2007 isn’t even close on the entertainment scale to 1982. In fact, this summer has nearly been a total loss through its opening weeks, with the predictable “big three” sequels (“Spider-Man 3,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” and “Shrek the Third”) all performing well but not surpassing their hype, and countless other films opening to underwhelming box-office results, not to mention tepid critical reception.

The sole exception to the group so far is LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD (***, 129 mins., PG-13), a surprisingly satisfying, belated follow-up to the action franchise that launched Bruce Willis’ cinematic career nearly 19 years ago.

After two tremendously entertaining and hugely successful installments (Renny Harlin’s 1990 sequel “Die Hard 2: Die Harder” is in some ways even more fun than its predecessor), the series disappeared for a few years before returning with the borderline-embarrassing 1995 follow-up “Die Hard With a Vengeance.” The latter brought back original director John McTiernan but strayed from the original formula in a number of areas, not to mention suffered from a sluggish pace and an abrupt, wholly unsatisfying ending.

A lot has changed in filmmaking (and not for the better) over the last 12 years, but “Live Free or Die Hard” (titled “Die Hard 4.0" overseas) is a refreshing throwback to the action film of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Director Len Wiseman (of the excessive, if stylish, “Underworld” movies) might’ve seemed like an odd choice to helm this fourth outing for Willis’ tough NYC detective John McClane, but Wiseman happily not just nails the film’s action sequences, but also gets the tone and mood of the picture dead-on.

Mark Bomback’s script, meanwhile, recaptures the spirit of the first two “Die Hard” films as John McClane is assigned to escort computer hacker Justin Long back to FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C. It turns out that Long was unwittingly a pawn in a scheme hatched by disgraced Department of Defense worker Timothy Olyphant to paralyze the United States through manipulation of the nation’s transportation, power and financial systems. With Long as McClane’s latest unlikely sidekick, the duo attempt to put an end to Olyphant’s schemes, even as the East Coast undergoes one blackout after another.

Even though the movie isn’t on the level of the original “Die Hard” or “Die Hard 2" in terms of suspense and character development, “Live Free or Die Hard” nevertheless delivers ample entertainment. Crackerjack action sequences abound, from an exciting climax involving a tanker and an air force jet, to kung-fu fisticuffs involving McClane and Olyphant’s top henchwoman (Maggie Q). Wiseman delivers the goods on the visual front, while the screenplay allows Willis to open up, crank back and reprise John McClane without missing a beat. It’s gratifying to see Willis having fun again on-screen after starring in one too many M. Night Shyamalan films, and his performance here reminds you how much effortless charisma the star can exude in the right project.

Long makes for a perfect young sidekick while Olyphant is fine as the heavy -- he’s not exactly Alan Rickman but his modulated menace is effective enough, while Mary Elizabeth Winsted fills the requisite female lead as McClane’s now-college aged daughter (here’s hoping Bonnie Bedelia comes back if/when a fifth film is produced).

“Live Free or Die Hard” is good fun, then, and the only “blockbuster” of the summer that makes good on its intentions. It manages to get the series’ tone right, fulfilling the requirements of an action film that’s exciting but lighthearted, not overly cartoony but not intended to be taken too seriously at the same time. With Willis’ performance, dynamite action scenes and even Marco Beltrami’s score offering quotes of Michael Kamen’s original series motif, this is the one film this season I can recommend for action-starved, popcorn-munching movie-goers just looking for a good time.

Certainly “Die Hard 4" improves even more when you compare it to what else is out there, especially the crushing disappointment that is PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: AT WORLD’S END (**, 168 mins., PG-13).

Saddled with a nonsensical script, a ponderous pace, and a shocking dearth of set-pieces, this third entry in director Gore Verbinski’s set of Disney pirate adventures is a borderline-disaster almost from its very start.

After opening with a group of pirates about to be executed at the gallows (as downbeat a prologue as you could possibly imagine), “At World’s End” sets out to answer what happened to Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) in Davy Jones’ Locker, while Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley) and Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) attempt to get help from an Asian pirate king (Chow Yun Fat) in order to stave off certain extinction at the hands of evil British captain Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander).

It was reported that the previous “Pirates” sequel, “Dead Man’s Chest,” went into production without a fully completed script. While that film still managed to entertain thanks to a splendid array of action set-pieces, it’s clear now that writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio painted themselves into a corner they couldn’t get out of in “At World’s End,” having here to answer all kinds of questions involving Sparrow’s return from the netherworld (a self-indulgent, endless and unfunny stretch of film), villain Davy Jones’ convoluted backstory involving his “heart” and his love for the goddess Calypso, not to mention the Flying Dutchman’s power and Will Turner’s father (Stellan Skarsgard), who’s imprisoned as a crew man on the vessel.

Without elaborating upon each and every plot hole, let’s just say that the solution Verbinski, Elliott and Rossio come up with to resolve these disparate story threads is less than satisfying, whether it’s how Jones is supposed to be defeated, to the hugely unsatisfying conclusion to Will and Elizabeth’s relationship. What’s more, side characters who proved to be hugely enjoyable in previous installments like Jonathan Pryce’s Governor and Jack Davenport’s military captain are quickly disposed of here, presumably because the filmmakers couldn’t come up with anything else for them to do.

The weak story would have been one thing had “At World’s End” offered the same kinds of nifty set-pieces as its predecessors, but even there “Pirates 3" sinks to the bottom of Neptune’s depths. One can only assume the film’s mandated release date (it was shot subsequently with the prior installment) put the kibosh on outdoor action sequences, since the colorful Bahamian trappings of “Pirates” 1 & 2 have been replaced here with an abundance of green-screen, almost all-CGI visual effects sequences.

Even worse, though, is that there isn’t a whole lot of action for a film that runs nearly three hours in length -- the opening with Chow Yun Fat could’ve been discarded entirely, while talky stretches dampen the fun at every turn. And when even Rich Heinrichs’ production design disappoints (the pirate hideout “Shipwreck Cove” is nothing but a cross between the Ewok village and a Christmas tree), you know you’re in trouble.

“At World’s End,” then, is the worst kind of sequel: since it ties in so directly with its prior installment, it manages to put a sour taste on the adventure that came before it. And instead of focusing on the sorts of pleasures the very first entry in the series contained, it adds in dozens of sea monsters when one would’ve sufficed, stranding stars like Depp in a convoluted mess of a plot that clumsily concludes the series...for now at least.

Stephen King fans fare somewhat better with the cinematic adaptation of his short story 1408 (**½, 94 mins., PG-13).

John Cusack gives one of his strongest performances in recent memory as a B-list writer who specializes in the paranormal but doesn’t believe the supernatural actually exists. One day he receives a mysterious invitation to check into room 1408 in NewYork City’s swank Dolphin Hotel, much to the chagrin of manager Samuel L. Jackson. Seems that the room is packed with more ghostly activity than all of the Overlook Hotel itself, something that takes Cusack only a few minutes to realize.

Director Mikael Hafstrom does an effective job moving this Weinstein Company production along, the script by Matt Greenberg, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski effectively developing Cusack’s mounting paranoia as other “guests” of room 1408 manifest themselves, not to mention our protagonist’s deceased young daughter.

The first hour of “1408" works just fine, but things fall apart once Hafstrom and the writers try and pull an obvious “false ending” trick that doesn’t work at all. The movie never recovers from this “twist,” either, limping weakly to an unsatisfying climax and concluding sequence that left me thinking “who cares?”

Like a “Twilight Zone” episode stretched out to feature length, “1408" isn’t all that bad, and Cusack’s performance alone will make this one worth a rental at Halloween time. Yet at the same time, one feels that a missed opportunity to deliver a genre classic a la “Poltergeist” was missed here, with the movie’s botched final act putting the final nail in the film’s coffin.

But perhaps most telling of how poor this summer has been is evidenced by the almost Oscar-worthy reviews bestowed upon director Judd Apatow’s KNOCKED UP (**½, 129 mins., R).

Apatow struck box-office gold with his hit “The 40 Year Old Virgin” in 2005, and “Knocked Up” continues on with the same sort of raunchy yet “heartfelt” comedy, here showing what happens when broke slacker (and Apatow regular) Seth Rogen gets aspiring E! anchorwoman Katherine Heigl pregnant.

Numerous alumni from past Apatow projects like “Virgin” and his fantastic, short-lived NBC series “Freaks and Geeks” pop up in supporting roles, but “Knocked Up” isn’t nearly as funny or focused as some of the reviews would lead one to believe. Rogen and Heigl fail to ignite sparks as the unlikely expecting couple, while the overlong story is ultimately hijacked by Leslie Mann (as Heigl’s sister) and Paul Rudd (her brother-in-law) in supporting roles that are more interesting than the lead characters.

“Knocked Up” is, admittedly, pleasant and intermittently funny, but its over-rated praise from critics far and wide seems to confirm that, in the Summer of ‘07, mediocrity seems to be the most audiences can hope for. That sure wasn’t the case 25 years ago, was it?

New HD-DVDs From Universal

THE BIG LEBOWSKI: HD-DVD (****, 1998, 118 mins., R; Universal): Personal preference will dictate how much enjoyment you get out of the Coen Brothers’ 1998 romp, but for this critic, “The Big Lebowski” ranks as one of the funniest movies of all-time.

A brilliant mix of social satire, detective thrillers, and general observations on the human condition, “Lebowski” sends stoner bowler Jeff Bridges into a noir-ish mystery involving a millionaire daughter’s missing toe and -- more essentially -- Bridges’ stolen rug. The odyssey that follows is a hysterical, endlessly quotable adventure with Bridges joined by bowling cohorts John Goodman (never better than here) and Steve Buscemi as he attempts to uncover the truth and re-cover his beloved (and soiled) rug.

Having shown “The Big Lebowski” to a variety of viewers over the years, the reactions to this Coen effort have run from manic laughter to general disappointment. Yet I still haven’t laughed so hard and consistently at a film since “Lebowski” was released in 1998 -- some of the individual scenes are nothing short of uproarious, and it holds up just as well on repeat viewing.

Polygram originally released “Lebowski” on DVD in the fledgling days of the format, so fans have clamored for years for a bona-fide Special Edition. Alas, Universal’s HD-DVD is a reprise of the 2005 Collector’s Edition DVD, and as such is short on special features, offering only the same Making Of featurette from the original DVD; a photo gallery of Jeff Bridges’ behind-the-scenes pictures; and a tongue-in-cheek “restoration introduction” by “non-uptight film preservationist Mortimer Young.” Since the Coens aren’t renowned for their affiliation with Special Edition DVDs, it shouldn’t come as much of a shock that the HD-DVD isn’t packed with new material, though unlike even the standard-def Special Edition of “Blood Simple” (which at least had a cinematographer commentary), the special features here register barely a blip on the radar.

Nevertheless, “Lebowski” fans will enjoy seeing the film in HD for the first time, and the VC-1 encoded transfer is quite satisfying all told. The image is sharp and in focus throughout, well representing the cinematography of Roger Deakins. The 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus sound is also spot-on, making this a recommended purchase for all “Lebowski” buffs with HD-DVD players.

MYSTERY MEN: HD-DVD (**½, 1999, 122 mins., PG-13; Universal): Since Ben Stiller is all the rage these days, here’s an idea for a film that’s sure-fire: let’s have Stiller do a comic book film, and given the recent success of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, let’s pit him against, say, Geoffrey Rush as the bad guy. If “A Night at the Museum” can do over $200 million, surely Stiller in a super-hero film is going to do just as well, right?

The only problem with the idea is that it’s already been done -- back in 1999, before Stiller became a box-office draw in comedies like “Meet the Parents,” and it didn’t exactly fare well at the box-office.

Then again, if a similarly-themed super-hero lark like “Buckaroo Banzai” is regarded as a cult classic these days, then there's some hope for “Mystery Men.” This amiable comic-book spoof features several goofy comedic performances and a generous assortment of laughs, even if it never becomes as truly wacky and over-the-top as you hope it would.

Greg Kinnear plays a goody-goody superhero who is kidnapped by the evil Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush, whose dialogue is mostly incomprehensible gibberish) in a metropolis that looks an awful lot like Joel Schumacher's Gotham City. To the rescue come three loser-heroes, played by Stiller (who gets angry), William H. Macy (who shovels well), and Hank Azaria (who uses a Brit accent and throws his mother's kitchen utensils), who all recruit a collection of similar underdog-types to save the day.

With a cast like that, and on-target supporting roles filled by the likes of Janeane Garafolo and Wes Studi (hilarious as a message-spouting hero who guides the group), you know “Mystery Men” will have its share of laughs. Fortunately, it does, with most of them coming during the first half hour; Stiller in particular seems in tune with the manic energy of the film and Macy's timing is perfect, as it seemingly always is.

The reason why the film just misses the mark, though, is because the filmmakers weren't confident enough to completely go for Mel Brooks or Zucker Brothers-inspired laughs. Instead, in ultimately opting for a “Batman & Robin” styled mix of comedic moments and big special effects, they only make the movie blander and more a product of late '90s commercial moviemaking than it should have been. Some blame on that front has to go out to director Kinka Usher, who made his feature debut with “Mystery Men” and literally has no credits to speak of since! (Screenwriter Neil Cuthbert, meanwhile, managed to write one other feature before disappearing off the map -- sadly for him it was 2002's unholy Eddie Murphy bomb “Pluto Nash”).

Still, there are some choice moments in the film, enough so that “Mystery Men” may be worth a reappraisal for some viewers. Undoubtedly, if the film was released now -- in the wake of Stiller’s success with all kinds of mainstream fare -- it would likely make more in its first weekend than it did in its entire 1999 box-office run put together.

Universal’s HD-DVD edition of “Mystery Men” is a definite upgrade on the standard DVD release but isn’t anything to write home about in terms of picture clarity. The 1080p, VC-1 encoded transfer is inconsistent, exhibiting some weird artifacting in the backdrop from time to time, and likely showing the age of its master elements in the process. The 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus sound does fare better, while extras are all ported over from the previous DVD, including commentary by Usher, deleted scenes, and a Spotlight on Location featurette.

MEET JOE BLACK: HD-DVD (***½, 181 mins., 1998, PG-13; Universal): Flashback to 1998. Between all the talk of Republican conspiracies, the JFK cover-up, Area 51 and Roswell, I guess I didn't notice before that there may well have been a Brad Pitt conspiracy going on with critics. Granted, I didn't much care for “Legends of the Fall” and “Seven,” but I had been surprised by the ambivalent critical reception given Pitt’s then-recent performance in Jean-Jacques Annaud’s “Seven Years In Tibet.” The star’s performance was thoughtful and engrossing, and certainly deserved better than a lot of the reviews it received.

That reaction, however, was nothing compared to the all-out condemnations given to “Meet Joe Black” a short time later, even though Martin Brest’s movie is nothing but a poignant fantasy that dares to spend time developing characters with intelligent and insightful dialogue instead of the glitz and Tarantino-esque one-liners that too many scripts contained at the time of its release.

Many of the reviews specifically came down hard on Pitt's performance as Death, who comes to assume the form of an ordinary guy drawn to attractive doctor Claire Forlani, whose millionaire father (Anthony Hopkins) is about to end his stay in this plain of existence. Before he does, Death decides it's as good as time as any to study the real world, indulge in its pleasures (including Forlani) and take a vacation, all the while Hopkins battles for his corporation from a take-over bid by associate Jake Weber, one of those oily prep-school snobs usually branded the villains in movies like this.

Fortunately, little in “Meet Joe Black” is handled too melodramatically by Brest, working from a multi-authored screenplay that includes moments of delicate whimsy, romantic drama, and plenty of insight into the human existence. The movie is gentle and also subtle, and one of the many things I enjoyed about the script was how it took its time showing us the relationships of people who, by the end, feel as "real" as any characters I've seen of late at the movies. The picture is three hours long (but a relatively quick sit considering it's all character-driven dialogue), and yet there's nothing that doesn’t feel essential to the story's development, mainly because this is a film about people, not plot twists and moments of special effects wizardry.

Unsurprisingly, there are numerous performances worth savoring here. Anthony Hopkins delivers what’s unquestionably one of his better post-Hannibal roles, here as a good man who has lived a full life approaching his final days on Earth. There's Pitt and Forlani, who both share a strong physical presence on-screen and generate some pretty good sparks together. And there's also a terrific supporting cast, including Marcia Gay Harden and Jeffrey Tambor, all of whom are given enough time to memorably create three-dimensional roles. They're backed by a sterling production, including production design by Dante Ferretti and a gorgeous score by Thomas Newman that ranks as one of his best.

Coming at a time of “Pulp Fiction” and “Seven” wannabes, perhaps “Meet Joe Black” was too subdued for its own good, but for patient viewers, this is a film with many rewards and an obvious yet vital message of savoring every day that is rarely spoken but permeates through the entire film. Poignant and touching, and a first-class production undeserving of the bad reputation it’s often been saddled with.

Universal’s HD-DVD edition of “Meet Joe Black” looks and sounds superb. Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is brilliant in the VC-1 encoded, 1080p transfer, while 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus sound compliments the audio presentation. Extras include the trailer and a Spotlight on Location featurette, but not the Fredric March classic “Death Takes a Holiday,” which formed the inspiration for “Meet Joe Black” and was included on the latter’s “Ultimate Edition” 2-disc DVD release.

MALLRATS: HD-DVD (***, 1995, 96 mins., R, Universal): Kevin Smith’s first “studio” film is sillier, less pretentious, and in some ways more satisfying than most of his “indie” efforts. Jeremy London and Jason Lee head to the mall after being dumped by their respective girlfriends (Shannen Doherty and Claire Forlani), where they run into Jay & Silent Bob, try and ruin Michael Rooker’s game show, and win their significant others back.

Universal’s HD-DVD edition is nearly identical to the studio’s 2005 Special Edition DVD, minus that set’s extended 123-minute cut of the film. Only the 96-minute theatrical edit is on-hand here, though truth be told, the theatrical cut was infinitely more entertaining than the bloated, rambling mess that was the longer assembly.

Even though viewers aren’t given the choice here to watch the longer version, Universal has gone back to the very first DVD of “Mallrats” and included Smith’s hour-plus montage of deleted scenes, all introduced by the filmmaker and producer Scott Mosier, so the restored bits from the long cut are, at least, here (even if most are in rough, workprint form).

Other extras are all culled from the 2005 DVD release, including a new Making Of, the original DVD’s commentary track, additional outtakes, featurettes and as much “Mallrats” as a Smith devotee can take. The new 1080p, VC-1 encoded transfer is likely as good as this low-budget film ever could look, while robust 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus sound again underscores the audio presentation.

THE WATCHER: HD-DVD (**, 2000, 97 mins., R; Universal): Low-rent thriller wastes a good cast in a hackneyed tale of killer Keanu Reeves on the loose, tormenting FBI agent James Spader and his shrink Marisa Tomei. Director Joe Charbanic reportedly got Reeves to sign on for “The Watcher” when it was an indie film, which might explain how the star -- fresh off “The Matrix” -- agreed to appear in this watchable but formula B-thriller, which Universal has resurrected on HD-DVD in a decent, albeit unremarkable (by HD standards) transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus sound. A rental at best.

BEING JOHN MALKOVICH: HD-DVD (**½, 1999, 113 mins., R; Universal): Writer Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze’s stock isn’t as high now as it was back in 1999 when “Being John Malkovich” became all the rage on the indie circuit, earning acclaim far and wide. I’ve never been a big admirer of the film, but fans who are will appreciate Universal’s HD-DVD edition. The quality of the HD isn’t spectacular -- it’s an acceptable enough VC-1 encoded transfer of the film -- but it is, at least, an upgrade on the standard DVD with 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus sound, and numerous extras from the last DVD Special Edition, most of which are as eclectic as the film itself.

AMERICAN ME: HD-DVD (**½, 1992, 126 mins., R; Universal): Early ‘90s drama from star-director Edward James Olmos focuses on a Latino crime lord trying to go straight after spending time in prison. Sincere performances make this lengthy saga worth watching, though Universal’s VC-1 encoded HD transfer isn’t anything special. The 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus sound is fine, with extras including the trailer and the documentary “Lives in Hazard.”

BULLETPROOF: HD-DVD (*½, 1996, 85 mins., R; Universal): Tepid action “buddy comedy” with Damon Wayans and Adam Sandler (prior to the comic’s roster of breakout “solo” ventures) wastes the talents of director Ernest Dickerson and composer Elmer Bernstein, who returned to the comedy genre with this mediocre 1996 programmer. Universal’s HD-DVD disc sports a solid enough, VC-1 encoded transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus sound.

New From Criterion

Three surreal tales from Japanese filmmaker Hiroshi Teshigahara highlight the early July offerings from the Criterion Collection.

The three-film box-set (due out July 10th) contains three of Teshigahara’s more acclaimed works from the ‘60s: the ghostly the surprisingly sexual PITFALL (1962, 97 mins.),WOMAN IN THE DUNES (1964, 148 mins.), and the sci-fi esque THE FACE OF ANOTHER (1966, 124 mins).

These dreamy black-and-white films (all presented in their original 1.33 aspect ratios) are odd but striking in their use of visuals, with Criterion here offering the long version of “Woman in the Dunes” and a number of outstanding supplements to enrich these unusual and fascinating works: restored transfers, video essays from critic James Quandt, a new documentary about Teshigahara and his relationship with writer Kobo Abe, four additional shorts from the director (produced between 1958 and 1965), trailers, new subtitles, and extensive liner notes with copious essays on the filmmaker’s place in the history of Japanese cinema.

French filmmaker Chris Marker, meanwhile, is celebrated in a single-release from Criterion, offering two of his most renowned works: LA JETEE (1963, 27 mins.) is arguably Marker’s finest offering, forming the inspiration for Terry Gilliam’s “12 Monkeys,” while the later SANS SOLEIL (1973, 103 mins.) extrapolates on similar themes of time travel and meditation in a more extended fashion.

Marker approved both 16:9 (1.66) Criterion transfers while new video interviews are on-hand with filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin; a video featurette on Marker from critic Chris Darke; new subtitles; and excerpts from French television documentaries on Marker.

Also New On DVD

NEVERWAS (*½, 2005, 108 mins., PG-13; Miramax): An all-star cast was assembled for this virtually unreleased 2005 drama, tailored after another Miramax success in “Finding Neverland” but missing nearly every ingredient from Marc Forster’s Oscar-nominated hit.

Aaron Eckhart returns to his home town to work at a mental institution where his J.K. Rowling-esque children’s novelist dad (Nick Nolte) infrequently stayed prior to his suicide. There, he meets with inmate Ian McKellen, who believes that Nolte’s fantasy world from his book “Neverwas” is real, along with perky Brittany Murphy as a former childhood friend, William Hurt as a doctor, Jessica Lange as Eckhart’s cranky mother, and Alan Cumming and Bill Belamy as two of McKellen’s fellow asylum mates.

Writer-director Joshua Michael Stern’s feature debut (following his acclaimed work on “Amityville: Dollhouse”)  is a trainwreck nearly across the board, desperately trying to channel the fantasy/reality elements of “Finding Neverland” as well as mental health dramas like “Awakenings” and “Patch Adams.” The cast tries hard but even McKellen’s Gandalf-like performance rings hollow given the trite, pretentious nature of the story, which embarrassingly attempts to become inspiring and life-affirming at the end.

Miramax’s DVD includes a colorful 16:9 (2.35) transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, offering a Philip Glass score that tries to make the story emotional but only highlights how empty “Neverwas” is on nearly every front.

THE LAST MIMZY (**½, 97 mins., 2007, PG; New Line): Amiable enough family film from New Line founder Bob Shaye (who directed) and studio executive Toby Emmerich (who co-scripted) finds young Chris O’Neil and Rhiannon Leigh Wryn as young siblings who find a magical box with a stuffed bunny and other toys that give them magical powers. Lewis Padgett’s short story was developed for the screen by Jim Hart, Carol Skilken, Bruce Joel Rubin (“Ghost”) and Emmerich, and it’s a fanciful, if uneven tale (requiring a major suspension of disbelief) with able support from Joely Richardson and Timothy Hutton as the youngsters’ parents and Michael Clarke Duncan as a Homeland Security agent. Even Howard Shore was brought along to score the film, though the composer’s effort here is far from his most memorable work. New Line’s Infinifilm DVD includes numerous featurettes, 11 deleted scenes, interactive segments for kids, and a Roger Waters music video. The 16:9 (2.35) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital EX sound are both top-notch.

DRIVING LESSONS (**½, 2006, 98 mins., PG-13; Sony): “Harry Potter”’s Ron -- Rupert Grint -- goes through the same “coming of age” paces as many a cinematic lead before him in this entertaining, if highly uneven, British film from writer-director Jeremy Brock. Grint plays a 17-year-old who breaks free of his pious, domineering mom (Laura Linney, somewhat miscast here with a wandering Brit accent) by working for old dame Julie Walters; the struggle for self-awareness, loss of virginity, and other tried-and-true film cliches soon follow, but Grint and Walters make Brock’s film worthwhile in spite of its unevenness. Sony’s DVD includes deleted scenes, outtakes, and a Making Of featurette, while the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound and 16:9 (1.85) transfer are both solid. Parents are forewarned, though, that “Driving Lessons” strays more than a little from “Harry Potter” territory, despite its PG-13 rating, and is not recommended for pre-teens.

OUR VERY OWN (106 mins., 2005, Not Rated; Miramax): Small-town, late ‘70s-set drama with several residents of Shelbyville, Tennessee getting all excited about the return of local-girl-turned-movie-star Sandra Locke. Jason Ritter, Beth Grant, Hilarie Burton, Allison Janney, Cheryl Hines and Keith Carradine star in this 2005 effort from writer-director Cameron Watson, which makes its debut on DVD in a 1.85 widescreen transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

THE LAST CONFEDERATE (96 mins., 2005, R; ThinkFilm): Independently-produced Civil War tale tells the true story of Captain Robert Adams, and was produced, written, directed and stars (!) Adams’ great-great grandson Julian (who helmed the movie with A. Blaine Miller). Tippi Hedren, Mickey Rooney, and former AMC host Bob Dorian pop up in small roles in this intriguing tale which Civil War buffs ought to find interesting in spite of its cinematic shortcomings. ThinkFilm’s DVD offers deleted scenes, a Making Of, 16:9 (1.85) widescreen and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

AVENUE MONTAIGNE (101 mins., 2007, PG-13; ThinkFilm): French comedy from director Daniele Thompson stars Cecile de France along with a superb supporting cast including none other than Sydney Pollack, essentially playing himself! ThinkFilm’s DVD includes a 16:9 (2.35) transfer with a Making Of (subtitled), trailers, and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound in its original French dialogue with English subtitles.

Coming Soon From Fox

THE JOAN COLLINS COLLECTION (Fox): Super box-set offering no less than five features Joan Collins produced for Fox: the ribald comedy “Rally Round the Flag, Boys!,” “Sea Wife,” “The Girl In The Red Velvet Swing,” “Seven Thieves,” and “Stopover Tokyo.” Golden Age fans will love the 16:9 transfers, capturing the wide 2.35 aspect ratios (“Girl in the Red Velvet Swing” is in 2.55), while author Aubrey Solomon offers sporadic commentaries on all five movies in addition to trailers, interactive pressbooks, restoration comparisons and other goodies. Yet another fine “Cinema Classics” release from Fox.

SWEET LAND (***½, 2005, 111 mins., PG; Fox): Acclaimed, charming small film about a German mail-order bride who travels to Minnesota to marry a Norweigan farmer. The local town objects to their union, but the couple falls for one anpther regardless. Ali Selim impressively wrote and directed this well-acted tale (kudos to leads Elizabeth Reaser and Tim Guinee) which Fox has brought to DVD in a fine 16:9 (1.78) widescreen transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound and extras including commentary, the trailer, and a Making Of featurette. Highly recommended!

NEXT TIME: THE WARRIORS and THE UNTOUCHABLES in HD! Until then, don't forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards, check out the new Aisle Seat Blog, and direct any emails to the link above . Happy 4th of July everyone!

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