Aisle Seat August Assault

Plus: August DVD Calendar and the Summer Soundtrack Wrap-Up!
By Andy Dursin

There are times when DVD titles are delayed for no apparent reason, disappearing off the release schedule nearly as soon as they're supposed to hit shelves.

While Buena Vista's "Ed Wood" Special Edition awaits a mid-October release, one highly-sought after title is indeed coming out later this month: Steven Spielberg's masterful made-for-TV effort DUEL (***1/2, 90 mins., 1971, PG; Universal).

Arriving August 17th along with the DVD debut of Spielberg's feature bow, "The Sugarland Express," "Duel" has had an interesting journey to DVD. Initially announced in 2002, some copies actually made it onto shelves (and, subsequently, eBay) last year at this time before the plug was pulled.

Whatever the reason for the delays, Universal's Special Edition DVD of this taut, tense, and terrific thriller will finally deliver the goods for Spielberg fans. The DVD transfer -- in the original full-screen 1.33 ratio -- is colorful, crisp and superlative, easily outdoing any other version of "Duel" previously released. Even better, the soundtrack has been remastered for 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital stereo, giving added dimension to the movie's sound effects and Billy Goldenberg's experimental score, which Spielberg rightly praises for going beyond the usual confines of '70s television music.

Based on a Richard Matheson story (and scripted for television by the author), "Duel" is undoubtedly the defining staple of the highway thriller. Movies like "Joyride," "Highwaymen," and "The Hitcher" may have followed in its wake, but none have surpassed "Duel" in terms of sheer visceral thrills and overall effectiveness.

Dennis Weaver plays a motorist who has a series of increasingly terrifying encounters with a truck on a lonely, dusty highway. The plot is minimal, but Weaver's growing anxiety and Spielberg's crisp direction make "Duel" a memorable and highly satisfying outing that shows, once upon a time, that made-for-TV movies were actually worth watching.

In addition to the solid audio and visual presentation, Universal has also included a handful of special features. A 35-minute interview with Spielberg is included, and like most conversations with the filmmaker, Spielberg is candid, funny, and honest about the creation of the picture and working within the tight confines of a television schedule. An additional 10-minute featurette focuses on Spielberg's work on the small screen (including "Night Gallery" and "Columbo"), while Richard Matheson is profiled in "The Writing of 'Duel'." The movie's European theatrical trailer, a photo gallery, and production notes round out the release.

Also worth catching is THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS (***1/2, 1974, 108 mins., PG; Universal), which also streets on August 17th.

Spielberg's film, based on a true story, stars Goldie Hawn as a fugitive mother who attempts -- along with husband William Atherton -- to prevent their son from being adopted by the state of Texas. Michael Sacks is excellent as the state trooper they kidnap, and John Williams's moving, flavorful score -- featuring the harmonica performances of Toots Thielemans -- adds to the picture's strong rural atmosphere.

A box-office flop at the time of its release, "Sugarland" offers a memorable viewing experience with location filming beautifully captured by Vilmos Zsigmond. Highly recommended for Spielberg fans and any aficionado of '70s cinema.

Universal's DVD offers a decent 16:9 enhanced transfer with 2.0 mono sound. Like the original release of "Jaws," the film's monophonic mix is surprisingly strong, and the theatrical trailer has been included as an extra.

Another '70s favorite has been re-issued this week: Disney's THE BLACK HOLE (**, 100 mins., 1979, PG), which is just one of several genre films from the studio newly re- released on disc under the Disney banner.

Previously released by Anchor Bay on DVD, Disney's edition is an improvement on the old, out-of-print AB release, offering a superior 16:9 enhanced transfer (the 5.1 sound, from my recollections at least, sounds just as good). The framing and overall picture quality is improved from the Anchor Bay disc, while the Overture has been retained (backed by an on-screen title card), as has the extended theatrical trailer.

While the Disney DVD does not include Anchor Bay's worthless photo gallery, the new release does boast an interesting, 16-minute conversation with special effects designer Harrison Ellenshaw. Ellenshaw recounts his work on the film, including his originally conceived ending that included the Sistine Chapel (!), in a segment that should be of chief interest to fans of the movie.

Speaking of which, younger viewers likely won't know that there once was a time when you could watch "The Black Hole" on video but not "Star Wars." Growing up in the late '70s and '80s, I firmly recall a pair of occasions when adults tried to make up for the lack of "Star Wars" on VHS (it didn't debut on video until the mid '80s) by showing my friends and I a rented copy of "The Black Hole" instead. Talk about an unfair trade-off!

Aside from robots, laser guns, and a few nifty special effects, the similarities between "Star Wars" and "The Black Hole" pretty much end there. Whereas George Lucas's film had humor and warm characters, "The Black Hole" offers stiff protagonists, a leisurely pace, and canned dialogue that all too obviously was looped (nearly entirely) in post- production.

Any kid could realize the difference between the two movies, but I do look back on "The Black Hole" now with a fair amount of nostalgia -- despite its sterile, "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea"-influenced plot, it's hard not to like John Barry's score (as repetitive as the main theme is), plus the fact that Roddy McDowall and Slim Pickins provide voices for the automatons.

Far better sci-fi is on hand in PREDATOR (***1/2, 107 mins., 1987, R; Fox), which has at long last arrived in a Special Edition package from Fox, just in time for the release of "Alien Vs. Predator" on August 13th.

This slam-bang extraterrestrial brawlfest is still one of the best outings for both star Arnold Schwarzenegger and director John McTiernan, offering tense, well- choreographed action, superb effects, and a rousing story line encompassing the best of '80s action filmmaking.

Fox previously released "Predator" twice on DVD here in the States: first in a standard, non-anamorphic version, then again in a 16:9 enhanced version with DTS surround. The new two-disc edition sports the same, somewhat grainy transfer from the earlier 16:9 disc, but adds a boatload of new supplements, including commentary from McTiernan, an on-screen text commentary by historian Eric Lichtenfeld, a half-hour featurette on the creation of the film, a vintage, promo-like featurette from 1987, the original trailer, a deleted scene in workprint form, special effects featurettes, and more. There's also a brief look at "Alien Vs. Predator" (and a free ticket apparently, though there sadly wasn't one in my copy) and "I, Robot" as well.

Aisle Seat August DVD Calendar

Please note that all dates are tentative, and that this list is (obviously!) by no means comprehensive.

August 3
13 Going on 30
Best of Abbott & Costello Vol. 3
The Black Hole (Remastered)
Darby O'Gill and the Little People
Knight Rider: Season One
Moon Over Parador
Something Wicked This Way Comes (Remastered)

August 10
Crossroads (1986)
Freaks (1932)
Lost Boys (Special Edition)
The Prince and Me
Village of the Damned/Children of the Damned (Double Feature)

August 17
Candyman (Special Edition)
Connie and Carla
Goodfellas (Special Edition)
Happy Days (Season One)
Laverne & Shirley (Season One)
Mean Streets
The Sugarland Express
Taking Lives (Unrated)

August 24
The Apple
Ella Enchanted
The Girl Next Door (Unrated)
Lord Jim (1965)
Night Gallery (Season One)
Shaolin Soccer (Miramax release)

August 31
The Passion of the Christ
Physical Evidence
Relentless (1989)
Relentless 2
Rose Tattoo
Star Trek (Season One; New Special Edition box set)
Trekkies 2
Videodrome (Criterion Collection)

Aisle Seat DVD Pick of the Week

13 GOING ON 30 (***, 2004). 98 mins., PG-13, Columbia TriStar. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: 18 Deleted/Extended Scenes; Blooper Reel; Two Commentaries; Making Of featurette; Vintage '80s Music Videos; '80s Retrospectives; 1.85 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

One thing I've noticed over the last few years is that comedies aren't fun any more. Most recent comedies tend to be smirking, sarcastic and overly self-referential: a product, I suppose, of our times. Yet, if you go back to a typical '80s comedy and compare it with a generic product of today, I think you'd find the majority of releases back then were at least honest in their intentions and genuinely enthusiastic. I say that because last spring's box-office hit "13 Going On 30" was one of the more charming movies I had seen in a long while. That it resembled an '80s film (and the body-swap/kid- to-adult genre so popular during the decade) was undoubtedly part of the point of the filmmakers, who set to out to make an appealing, warm vehicle for "Alias" star Jennifer Garner and succeeded in enough of the areas that make a piece of escapist fluff like this click.

Less of a variation on the Tom Hanks favorite "Big" than a cross between that movie and (yes) "A Christmas Carol," Garner plays the adult incarnation of a hapless 13- year-old girl in 1987 who wishes she was 30. After attending a disastrous birthday party, Jenna Rink wakes up as the adult Garner -- a NYC magazine editor with a hockey player boyfriend, plenty of money, and seemingly everything she ever wanted. To help her sort out her new surroundings, Garner tracks down her former middle-school guy-pal Mark Ruffalo, who now lives in the Village and makes a modest living as photographer. Ruffalo helps Garner fill in the blanks of the lost 17 years of her life, and Garner finds herself discovering that she's not exactly the person she thought she might be in the process.

One of the things I enjoyed about "13 Going On 30" was how it paid scant attention to the regulation requirements of this genre (launched in the contemporary era by "Freaky Friday," made popular by "Big," then carried on through films like "Vice Versa"). Screenwriters Josh Goldsmith and Cathy Yuspa don't spend an eternity on Garner first discovering that she's 30 -- nor do they hit you over the head with gags about Garner being out of her element as a 13-year-old living in an adult body.

Instead, the filmmakers have made an appealing story about the consequence of bad choices and trying to make amends for those decisions. Garner is as effervescent as you'd anticipate her being, and she's perfectly matched with Ruffalo, laid back as a heartbroken soul who discovers himself falling for a girl who ultimately tortured him in high school. Even though the movie doesn't do an especially good job developing its supporting players ("Gollum" himself, Andy Serkis, is wasted as Garner's high-strung boss), "13 Going on 30" has a satisfying romance at its center that makes it very difficult to dislike. The ending is especially well-handled, the bouncy soundtrack is filled with the expected '80s pop tunes and a superb score by the ever-reliable Theodore Shapiro, and the leads are so downright likable that the film works in spite of its abbreviated running time.

A blast from the past on a handful of levels, "13 Going on 30" is a winning romantic comedy that should satisfy viewers in a wide range of age groups, Garner fans, and anyone seeking the kind of upbeat, fun comedy Hollywood rarely turns out these days.

Columbia TriStar's DVD, out today, offers a Special Edition package with lots of fun supplements. Some 18 deleted/extended scenes are included, along with a pair of commentary tracks, a making of featurette, two music videos from the '80s (Pat Benatar's godawful "Love is a Battlefield" and the Rick Springfield classic "Jessie's Girl"), a pair of featurettes focusing on the '80s and Garner's juvenile geekiness, and an "'80s Outfit Challenge." The 5.1 Dolby Digital sound is just fine and 1.85 transfer colorful and warm, perfectly befitting the film.

Also New On DVD

DIRTY DANCING: HAVANA NIGHTS (*1/2, 2004). 84 mins., PG-13, Lions Gate. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Commentary with choreographer/producer, deleted scenes, Making Of, dance auditions; 1.85 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Mechanical, in-name-only (and just-for-the-money) ersatz-sequel follows the exploits of a young American teenager (the appealing Romola Garai) in a pre-Castro Cuba, who finds love with a dancing local (Diego Luna) just in time to make the finals of a Christmas Eve ballroom competition.

Garai, who starred in the underrated "I Capture the Castle," and Luna make for an attractive couple, but this poorly-scripted and indifferently-directed "sequel" barely constitutes as a "film." The plot follows the outline of the 1987 classic, but nothing in the movie is developed whatsoever: not Garai's family, not Luna's revolutionary brother, not their friends, not their relationship -- just a bunch of montage scenes with a strikingly anachronistic soundtrack (there are times you'll think the film is set in the present day, not the 1950's), which totally offsets any sense of time and place. Compare that to the original "Dirty Dancing," which offered a genuine setting and set of characters far more developed than the cardboard cut-outs of this film.

The movie -- specifically the leads -- will keep you watching for a while (Patrick Swayze shows up in a cameo that had to have been shot in one day), but just when the movie seems to be building a head of steam, it fizzles out with an anti-climax and rolls the credits at the 78 minute mark. Pretty "dirty" indeed!

Lion's Gate's DVD does offer an excellent 1.85 transfer with bass-heavy 5.1 Dolby Digital and DTS sound. Commentary from the filmmakers, deleted scenes, audition footage, and a fluffy Making Of are included, making for a solid supplemental package. "Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights" could have been charming (especially considering the two leads), but ultimately comes across as a total waste of celluloid -- you'll be thinking, they waited 17 years to make THIS?

THE PRINCESS DIARIES (**, 2002). 115 mins., G, Disney. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Deleted scenes, outtakes, bloopers, "Princess Diaries 2" preview material, Making Of featurette; 1.85 and 1.33 full-screen transfers, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Two-disc DVD re-issue of "The Princess Diaries" offers a few new featurettes, plus a discount admission voucher to the upcoming "Princess Diaries 2," which seems to have been the logical tie-in rationale for this repackaging.

I wasn't a big fan of the original movie -- which stars the charming Anne Hathaway as an American girl who finds out her Thermopolis family heritage entitles her to become a princess to the faraway land of Genovia -- but the target audience for Garry Marshall's film isn't my demographic in the first place. Gina Wendkos' script, adapted from the novels by Meg Cabot, is aimed clearly at family audiences (and young girls in particular), who turned the 2002 original into a huge box-office hit.

Disney's new DVD offers both full-screen and 1.85 widescreen transfers, both of which look colorful and pristine, plus 5.1 Dolby Digital sound sporting a pleasant score by John Debney.

Summer Soundtrack Wrap-Up

So far, it's been a fairly adequate summer all told for movies, though some of the more interesting genre outings (EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING and ALIEN VS. PREDATOR) are yet to come. Still, any time you get a summer movie as satisfying as SPIDER-MAN 2, it's hard to deem Summer '04 as a total wash.

In the soundtrack world, things have perked up a bit lately, thanks to solid outings from veterans like Danny Elfman ("Spider-Man 2") and John Williams, whose "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" was another strong outing for the composer, despite my reservations that it didn't compare favorably with its predecessors.

The Disney/Hollywood Records summer line-up has included a trio of albums: James Newton Howard's THE VILLAGE (62464, 42:29), Hans Zimmer's KING ARTHUR (62461, 57:41), and Trevor Jones's AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS (61103, 58:11).

For "The Village," someone must have told JNH not to give away all the twists in his track titles, as the album sports generic-titled cues seemingly careful not to divulge too much of the picture's story. At 43 minutes, it's also the kind of score that's going to require a viewing of the movie to really appreciate -- it doesn't provide the type of knock- out experience Howard's great score from "Signs" provided as a soundtrack album, and the disc's last cue is not only brief but an odd one to conclude the CD with (there's no dramatic ending tying everything up here). On the plus side, Hilary Hahn's wistful violin performances are nice, especially in the extended cue "The Vote."

Zimmer's "King Arthur," meanwhile, includes the usual requisites of any recent score by the composer: wailing female vocals (here by Moya Brennan), thunderous action cues, ample doses of percussion and blaring orchestra. It's another lengthy brew of Zimmer- esque cliches, but if you're a fan of the composer, "King Arthur" gives you your money's worth with nearly an hour of extended cues (just seven tracks).

The extremely expensive "Around the World in 80 Days," meanwhile, will arguably go down as the summer's biggest flop (with the possible exception of "Thunderbirds"), which wasn't any surprise to me since the trailer looked horrible and the whole idea of Jules Verne via Jackie Chan seemed like box-office poison to begin with. The score, at least, offers some spark, with Trevor Jones and the London Symphony providing a rousing action score that's pleasant though hardly memorable. Three songs (two produced by David A. Stewart, who's also credited with "Additional New Music") round out the disc.

Upstart label La-La-Land Records, meanwhile, has unleashed a bevy of excellent titles, starting with Carlo Siliotto's terrific score from THE PUNISHER (LLLCD1020, 65:37) and Michael Giacchino's superb soundtrack for the Lucasarts video game SECRET WEAPONS OVER NORMANDY (LLLCD1013, 80 mins. over two CDs).

Having played through the entire Xbox game (the first time I've finished a game in years!), I can say that Giacchino's great score was one of the reasons I became so involved in "Secret Weapons..." This rousing work is on a par with Giacchino's previous, stellar works for the "Medal of Honor" series, offering potent, stirring aerial combat cues with top-notch performances from the Seattle Symphony, copious liner notes, and bonus interviews (playable on PC or Mac) with the composer, who will make his studio scoring debut with Disney/Pixar's "The Incredibles" later this year.

Siliotto's "The Punisher," meanwhile, is a striking, highly satisfying score that grafted an old-fashioned, European feel onto an adaptation of a distinctly American Marvel Comic character. Dark, melancholy cues, bittersweet moments, and strong action themes dominate this generous album, which sports a couple of songs and liner notes from director Jonathan Hensleigh. One of the year's most refreshing scores, be sure to check "The Punisher" out -- it's as close to a "Marvel Morricone" score you'll ever hear.

Also out from La-La-Land are Richard Gibbs's score from the surprisingly good TV remake of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA (LLLCD 1015, 68:24), plus the limited edition release of THE FANTASY FILM MUSIC OF GEORGE PAL (LLLCD1016, 71:49).

Gibbs's score is clearly his most satisfying to date, offering a subdued, introspective work marked by a small ensemble, synths, and lots of percussion. Those expecting the blaring heroic motifs of Stu Philips will be disappointed, but Gibbs's score functioned perfectly in the show and those who enjoyed it will likely find the album of interest as well. La-La- Land's CD offers nearly 70 minutes of score with notes from Gibbs and director Michael Rhymer.

The George Pal CD, meanwhile, is even better, sporting cues from the original soundtracks to "Atlantis: The Lost Continent," "The Time Machine," "Seven Faces of Dr. Lao," "The Power," "Tom Thumb," "Wonderful Worlds of the Brothers Grimm," and my personal favorite, "Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze." The latter makes its digital debut here, and the generous 21-minute suite includes several strong cues from the film -- though I'd still love to see a full album release happen one day. Colorful packaging offers extensive liner notes from Randall Larson, making for a nice "sampler" overview of Pal soundtracks.

Meanwhile, Decca has released an assortment of new titles, highlighted by John Williams's THE TERMINAL (B0002924-02, 57:58) and Stephen Warbeck's TWO BROTHERS (B00025560-2, 59:35).

I didn't see "The Terminal," but Williams's score functions, like so many of the composer's works, perfectly as an album. A breezy, romantic, and decidedly "old fashioned" offering, "The Terminal" is a light, bubbly score from Williams. You won't find much in the way of diverse thematic material: just a lovely, low-key score that echoes what Williams wrote for Sydney Pollack's remake of "Sabrina" back in the '90s.

Warbeck, meanwhile, provides a superb, ethnic-tinged score for Jean-Jacques Annaud's fine and unfortunately little-seen adventure film. Though the "Two Brothers" soundtrack lacks the sheer emotional quality of your standard James Horner work, Warbeck compensates for it with a relatively restrained score that fits the film perfectly and works fine as a solid, if not somewhat overlong, album.

NEXT WEEK: The Fonz returns! HAPPY DAYS Season One (and LAVERNE & SHIRLEY too) debut on DVD, plus Walter Hill's CROSSROADS!


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