9/12/06 Edition

Aisle Seat 10th Season Premiere!
Agatha Christie Sets, New Criterions, and Much More
Plus: Comprehensive Fox, Sony and Tartan Coverage!

And here we are again, fellow readers: another September, and another year for The Aisle Seat! It’s traditional each year to look back on the past 12 months, marvel at the latest DVDs and reflect on the most recent movies, but frankly the newest cinematic offerings have been collectively so unimpressive that I feel it’s best to start out fresh. (I’ll also spare you a rant on the current state of film music, but let’s just say I didn’t buy one soundtrack for a 2006 film this entire summer -- for the first time in my adult life! Older releases and re-issues...that’s a different story, obviously. God bless you Lukas and Doug Fake!).

We have plenty of new elements in-store that will be introduced throughout the year, including what I hope to be a regular Aisle Seat Podcast, giveaways, and other goodies.

In the interim, just out this week from Warner Home Video is a terrific box-set compiling some eight Agatha Christie TV-movies from the 1980s.

The AGATHA CHRISTIE CLASSIC MYSTERY COLLECTION (Warner) sports three Helen Hayes efforts, two of which involve Miss Marple; three adventures for Peter Ustinov’s Hercule Poirot; and two other tele-films adapted from Christie’s bestselling books.

These American-financed films from CBS and Warner Bros. TV followed on the heels of the well-received EMI Christie theatrical features from the ‘70s and early ‘80s -- films like “Murder on the Orient Express,” “The Mirror Crack’d,” “Endless Night,” “Death on the Nile,” and “Evil Under the Sun,” the latter two starring Ustinov as Christie’s famous sleuth.

Ustinov would reprise the role in a trio of engaging small screen affairs, all contained in the box set: 1985's “Thirteen at Dinner,” with future Poirot David Suchet, Bill Nighy, Faye Dunaway, and “Matt Houston”’s own Lee Horsley co-starring and Lou Antonio directing; 1986's Clive Donner-directed “Dead Man’s Folly,” with Jean Stapleton, Nicolette Sheridan and would-be leading man Jeff Yagher; and “Murder in Three Acts,” also from 1986, with Tony Curtis, Emma Samms and Pedro Armendariz having a good time in Acapulco under the direction of Gary Nelson.

Production values on the three Poirot mysteries are high, with excellent scores for the first two features from John Addison (Alf Clausen scored “Murder in Three Acts”), while Warner’s DVD presentations are uniformly fine, with good-looking full-screen transfers. (Those wanting only the Ustinov Poirots can pick up the three-disc AGATHA CHRISTIE COLLECTION FEATURING PETER USTINOV for less than half the price of the eight-disc “Classic Mystery Collection.”)

While Ustinov would play Poirot one last time in Cannon’s tepid 1988 feature “Appointment With Death,” Miss Marple would remain a fixture on the small-screen. In fact, outside of Margaret Rutherford’s comical MGM offerings from the ‘60s and Angela Lansbury’s mixed reception as Marple in 1980's “The Mirror Crack’d,” Agatha Christie’s female detective was primed for the small-screen, with Joan Hickson’s memorable performance carrying so many superb BBC productions throughout the 1980s.

Helen Hayes started out her Agatha Christie resume not by playing Marple but rather taking a supporting part -- alongside fellow old pro Olivia de Havilland -- in the entertaining Bill Bixby-Leslie Anne Down mystery “Murder Is Easy,” which is also contained in the Collection. This 1982 TV-film also boasts an early supporting turn for Jonathan Pryce and an effective score by Gerald Fried, in a somewhat dated tale (Bixby’s American protagonist is a computer whiz at Commodore 64-styled machines!) but nevertheless great fun, for its engaging cast if nothing else.

Hayes would follow that effort with a pair of Marple efforts: 1983's solid “A Caribbean Mystery,” with an almost-“Love Boat” esque supporting cast (Barnard Hughes, Jameson Parker, Swoosie Kurtz, Maurice Evans, Brock Peters) and pleasant, if sometimes overly obtrusive, Lee Holdridge music; and 1985's “Murder With Mirrors,” which was notable for being Hayes’ last project, as well as the top-notch names appearing alongside her (Bette Davis, John Mills, Leo McKern among others).

Sadly, despite a lovely Richard Rodney Bennett score and a very early supporting role for Tim Roth, “Murder With Mirrors” is tired stuff, and the Marple mantle would quickly be passed to Joan Hickson’s unsurpassed performance as Christie’s dotting sleuth, who was just beginning to appear in her own BBC adaptations around the same time.

Similarly to the Ustinov Collection, Warner has also made Hayes’ three films available in a separate set (AGATHA CHRISTIE COLLECTION Featuring HELEN HAYES), though the packaging is somewhat deceiving since it implies that all three movies feature Miss Marple.

Meanwhile, the 8-disc “Classic Mystery Collection” also boasts a pair of exclusives: the 1983 ensemble piece “Sparkling Cyanide” with Anthony Andrews, Pamela Bellwood, June Chadwick (from “V”), Harry Morgan and the ever-underated Deborah Raffin (you can only stomach watching “7th Heaven” so many times); and last but not least, the surprisingly enjoyable, lightweight “The Man in the Brown Suit,” a 1988 affair with Tony Randall, Edward Woodward, Stephanie Zimbalist, Ken Howard and Rue McClanahan going through the paces of a scenic mystery travelogue, backed by a fun Arthur B. Rubinstein score. With Zimbalist on-board, the project unsurprisingly has a “Remington Steele”-esque flavor, but it’s still a nice switch from the usual genre fare.

Collectively, this eight-disc set may irk Christie purists who undoubtedly prefer the BBC adaptations of many of the same stories, yet all the features are good fun for what they were: CBS Sunday Night Movie premieres back in the ‘80s, with ample entertainment value and appealing, all-star casting in every production. Highly recommended!

Fox September: New & Recommended Offerings

THE BOB NEWHART SHOW: Complete Season 4 (1975-76, 607 mins., 24 Episodes, Fox)
BOB NEWHART: Button Down Concert (1995, 62 mins., Fox): While “Newhart” fans continue to wait patiently for Bob’s beloved 1982-90 sitcom to hit DVD, Fox continues to release strong box-set presentations of the comedian’s terrific ‘70s series “The Bob Newhart Show.” Season Four (1975-76) of the high-rated CBS series offers uncut episodes in clear, full-screen transfers with mono sound; selected commentary tracks; gag reel; and the new “A Second Family” featurette. As with before, if you’re a BNS aficionado, Fox’s presentation couldn’t come more highly recommended.
Also coming from Fox is the DVD debut of Newhart’s “Button Down Concert,” with Bob performing in a concert taped in Pasadena in 1995. Offering many of Newhart’s classic skits, this no-frills program is essential for fans (it’s the only official, full-length concert that’s been previously available on video) and Fox’s DVD presents it in stereo and full-screen. A bonus “Buttoned Down” featurette and photo gallery rounds out the release (both available September 19th).

LAUREL & HARDY COLLECTION, Volume 2 (Fox): Three more vintage Laurel & Hardy comedies the duo produced in Hollywood make their way to DVD for the first time: 1942's “A-Haunting We Will Go,” 1943's “The Dancing Masters,” and their final film for Fox, 1945's “Bullfighters.” Transfers and soundtracks have been remastered as well as can be, while three featurettes, historian commentaries, and vintage Fox Movietone newsreel footage compliment a marvelous set of comedic riches for Laurel & Hardy fans.

MY NAME IS EARL: Complete Season 1 (526 mins., 24 Episodes, 2005-06, Fox): One of last year’s more successful shows on the slumping NBC schedule, “Earl” offers Jason Lee as a down-trodden regular fella who wins the lottery and opts to make things right by attending weekly to correct a series of life-long wrongs. Lee is terrific but “My Name Is Earl” isn’t nearly as witty or hilarious as “The Office,” though at this point NBC can obviously take whatever it can get. Fox’s four-disc box set includes all 24 inaugural “Earl” episodes with numerous commentary tracks, deleted scenes, bloopers and a Making Of featurette. The 16:9 (1.78) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack are both top-notch. (available September 19th)

PRETTY POISON (***, 1968, 89 mins., R, Fox): Acid-black comic thriller from director Noel Black and writer Lorenzo Semple, Jr. (adapting a Stephen Geller novel) sports Anthony Perkins (perfectly cast) as an arsonist who gets out of a mental institution, only to meet a cheerleader (Tuesday Weld) who becomes as unhinged as he is. Weld and Perkins are marvelous in this highly amusing, unpredictable tale that Fox has finally brought to DVD in an excellent 16:9 (1.85) transfer with 2.0 stereo and mono sound. Alas, outside of the trailer, extras are nowhere to be found -- a major disappointment since certain international versions offer a commentary track by Black and a discussion of a scripted deleted scene.

SHOCK TREATMENT: 25th Anniversary Edition (**½, 1981, 92 mins., PG, Fox): Richard O’Brien and Jim Sharman reunited in 1980 to make a sequel to their cult perennial “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” but few went to see “Shock Treatment” upon its initial release -- and its relatively few showings over the years since has kept it in obscurity. Despite its PG rating and lack of “Rocky Horror” freshness, however, “Shock Treatment” is an uneven but occasionally entertaining musical romp with bouncy O’Brien-Richard Hartley songs and a fun, if obvious, satirical plot that slams America’s fascination with television and the media (making it just as current today as it was in 1981). Jessica Harper and Cliff DeYoung reasonably fill in for Susan Sarandon and Barry Bostwick as Brad and Janet Majors here, while numerous “Rocky” alums turn up in new supporting turns -- with the major exception of Tim Curry, whose manic energy is sorely missed. Fox’s long-awaited (by “Shock” buffs) DVD doesn’t disappoint, with two retrospective featurettes, a pair of trailers, and a highly enjoyable commentary from “Shock Treatment Fan Club” Presidents “Mad Man Mike” and Bill Brennan offering numerous insights into the rocky (no pun intended) history of its production. Visually the 16:9 (1.85) transfer is a bit soft and the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound drops out during the opening “Denton” production number, but this is still an under-rated and enjoyable enough musical worthy of some re-evaluation.

TAPS: 10th Anniversary Edition (**½, 1981, 126 mins., PG; Fox): Director Harold Becker’s tale of a cadet uprising at a Northeastern military school that’s been newly sold to real estate developers is backed by a strong cast (George C. Scott as the veteran who’s seen it all; Timothy Hutton, Sean Penn and Tom Cruise as the cadets in charge of the revolution) and atmospheric cinematography by Owen Roizman. Unfortunately, despite a strong opening, the Darryl Ponicsan-Robert Mark Kamen script (adapted from the novel “Father Sky” by Devery Freeman) ultimately fails to provide a satisfying dramatic finish to its first two-thirds, and Hutton seems overshadowed (despite his character’s prominence in the story) by the work of Penn and Cruise among others. Fox’s new DVD edition supplants their previous disc by offering a new 16:9 (1.85) transfer, 4.0 Dolby Digital sound, and numerous supplements, including a fresh commentary by Becker, two retrospective featurettes, and TV spots.

THE UNIT: Season 1 (564 mins., 13 Episodes, 2006, Fox): Dennis Haysbert might have left “24" but didn’t leave the airwaves for long (or at all, if you count his Allstate commercials), as the actor quickly migrated to the excellent CBS series “The Unit.” This David Mamet/Shawn Ryan produced military drama is solid across the board, with an excellent supporting cast (including Scott Foley and Robert Patrick) and well-drawn characters making for an entertaining series that’s quickly developed a fan base. Fox’s four-disc box set offers the series’ first 13 episodes in 16:9 (1.78) widescreen transfers with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, one commentary track, and an “Inside Delta Force” featurette. (available September 19th)

BLACK. WHITE.: Season 1 (273 mins., 6 Episodes, 2006, Fox): Ice Cube co-produced this FX “reality” series, which attempts to put a serious spin on Eddie Murphy’s old “Saturday Night Live” sketch where he donned the physical make-up of a white businessman (and received free gifts when out in public and no African-Americans were present!). In the six episodes of “Black. White.”, a Caucasian family from Santa Monica exchanges places with an African-American clan from Atlanta in donning heavy make-up and seeing what sorts of public reactions they illicit in a number of situations. Some controversy clouded “Black. White.” in that some of the scenarios were allegedly controlled for the benefit of TV (generating some debate over its honesty), but it’s certainly an intriguing experiment with some powerful moments. Fox’s two-disc DVD set offers commentary tracks, casting videos, a study guide in PC-ROM format, and an Ice Cube music video; the 1.33 full-screen transfers and 2.0 Dolby Stereo soundtracks are all perfectly acceptable.

GOOSEBUMPS: Shocker on Shock Street
GOOSEBUMPS: My Best Friend Is Invisible
GOOSEBUMPS: Perfect School (43 mins. each, 2006, Fox): R.L. Stine’s empire continues to grow with three new DVDs, each offering a pair of tales from the live-action “Goosebumps” series for kids. Full-screen transfers and 2.0 Dolby Stereo soundtracks comprise the standard packaging, with no extras included in the affordable, single disc releases.

BRATZ BABYZ: The Movie (66 mins., 2006, Fox): MGA Entertainment’s popular “Bratz” dollz (sorry!) previously made their way into a full-fledged Saturday morning cartoon and have now, apparently, been spun-off into their own juvenile version: “Bratz Babyz: The Movie.” This 66-minute feature for kids offers over an hour of inoffensive nonsense for the little ones, plus a full-screen transfer and 2.0 Dolby Stereo sound.

Criterions for September, Act One

A pair of fascinating foreign works mark the Criterion Collection’s latest slate, just in time for Halloween.

With the number of recent Asian horror imports becoming seemingly as formulaic, in their own way, as routine American genre fare, Criterion’s release next week of Nobuo Nakagawa’s JIGOKU (1960, 101 mins.) comes as a startling revelation.

Nakagawa is regarded as the “father” of the modern Japanese horror film, and “Jigoku” is a landmark of its genre that has been screened shockingly few times outside of its home country. The film tells of the descent into hell of its lead protagonist (a theology student who flees a hit-and-run accident), with a shockingly visceral final third taking up every gory corner of the wide, 2.35 Shintohoscope frame and easily comprising the most violent cinematic imagery anyone had seen at the time of its 1960 release.

Criterion’s single-platter DVD edition includes a remastered and breathtaking widescreen transfer; a documentary on Nakagawa and the production of the film entitled “Building the Inferno”; the trailer; poster and stills galleries for other Shintoho and Nakagawa films; and an essay from critic Chuck Stephens.

Though not directly connected to the supernatural, Victor Erice’s THE SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE (1973, 99 mins.) does boast a connection with one of the greatest horror films of all.

In Erice’s acclaimed picture, two young sisters become possessed by a screening of “Frankenstein” in their small Spanish village in the early 1940s. At the same time, their disconnected parents live out a strange, isolated existence of their own that’s nearly as “unreal” as the girls’ belief that the spirit of the Karloff monster still lurks in the woods nearby.

Extremely slow but undeniably powerful in its visuals, “The Sprit of the Beehive” (El Espiritu de la colmena) is a film that won a wealth of accolades upon its release in the early ‘70s. Though it may not be to everyone’s personal taste, there’s no question this is a fascinating piece of cinema, with stark, engrossing cinematography complimented by Criterion’s new high-definition (1.66) transfer. The double-disc set also includes a brand-new documentary offering interviews with Erice, scholars and actors, all reflecting on a film that remains regarded as a hallmark in Spanish cinema.

New From Sony

POPULATION 436 (92 mins., 2006, R; Sony): Jeremy Sisto maintains a straight face in this intriguingly-plotted but ultimately disappointing semi-supernatural thriller. Sisto plays a federal census bureau investigator (how many leading protagonists have we seen from that field before?) who runs into a tiny rural town where their old religion states that its populace not creep over the infamous number 436. Our hero attempts to spring a rescue with leading lady Charlotte Sullivan, but we all know how Shirley Jackson’s “Lottery” turned out, and writer Michael Kingston’s similarly-flavored tale ends on a familiar, depressing note. Director Michelle Maclaren does an okay job establishing characters but there’s never anything especially suspenseful about “Population 436"; aside from a few violent and sexual asides, this made-for-video effort could have easily been a Lifetime TV movie of some kind. Still, at least it’s not offensive, and Sony’s DVD offers 16:9 (1.78) widescreen, a 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack, and an alternate ending that’s somewhat more satisfying than the abrupt, dismal conclusion that befalls Sisto’s character in the final cut.

CLIVE BARKER’S THE PLAGUE (88 mins., 2006, R; Sony): Clive Barker hasn’t been around much in the last couple of years, but agreed to lend his name to this not-half bad small-screen effort. Also answering where James Van Der Beek has been since Dawson gave Katie Holmes away to Tom Terrific, “The Plague” posits what might happen if kids all over the world became comatose for 10 years, only to wake up as mute zombies. Director/co-writer Hal Masonberg’s little movie is surprisingly watchable for what it is (and, at least, is far superior to “Population 436"), with an interesting ending that makes the whole project feel like a modern variant on “Village of the Damned.” Sony’s DVD offers both 16:9 (2.35) and full-screen transfers with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, a commentary track, and several deleted scenes extracted from the workprint.

ALL THE KING’S MEN (***½, 1949, 110 mins., Sony): Robert Penn Warren’s razor-sharp, Pulitzer Prize Winning novel came to the screen in writer-director Robert Rossen’s Oscar-winning 1949 film version, which also won Oscars for stars Broderick Crawford (Best Actor) and Mercedes McCambridge (Supporting Actress). Sony’s new DVD has been re-issued to coincide with the release of the new “All The King’s Men,” sporting a trailer and sneak peek of the remake plus interviews with stars James Gandolfini, Jude Law, and Anthony Hopkins. Strongly recommended!

JIM HENSON’S FANTASY FILM COLLECTION (Sony): An affordable price (around $30) and a Tokyopop Magna comic preview (of forthcoming “Return to Labyrinth” and “Legends of the Dark Crystal” books) are the main reasons for fans to splurge on this three-disc Sony box-set, compiling a trio of fantasies from the Jim Henson Company: Henson’s own 1982 classic “The Dark Crystal,” his tedious 1988 teaming with David Bowie and George Lucas, entitled “Labyrinth,” and the recent, destined-for-cult-status “Mirrormask.” All three discs are veritable reprises of Sony’s prior (and excellent) Special Edition DVD packages, so there’s nothing new in terms of DVD supplements or other goodies -- just a silver outer-box housing spiffy new packaging and the comic insert, making it recommended for Henson completists or, better yet, those who haven’t owned the three pictures before.

New This Week From Tartan

ONE TAKE ONLY (2001, 90 mins., Not Rated, Tartan): Oxide Pang’s tale of a Bangkok couple, unaware of each other’s position (he’s a drug dealer, she’s a hooker), is a stylish, fast-paced thriller, but isn’t regarded by most Asian cinephiles as one of the Pang Brothers’ better works. Tartan’s excellent DVD does include notes by Justin Boywer; the original trailer; and a Making Of for Oxide Pang’s “Ab-Normal Beauty.” The 16:9 enhanced transfer and 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital soundtracks make this the one version of “One Take Only” to check out on this side of the Atlantic.

THE DEATH OF MR. LAZARESCU (2005, 153 mins., R, Tartan): Critically acclaimed Romanian black comedy from director Cristi Puiu follows a 63-year-old man caught in the endless web of his country’s health care system (and not entirely different than our own!) as he’s bounced from one hospital to another while requiring medical attention. Tartan’s DVD of this acclaimed and celebrated film offers an interview with Puiu, booklet notes, a 16:9 transfer and 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital sound.

THE MAID (2006, 89 mins., Not Rated, Tartan): Tartan continues to mine the horrific offerings of other countries, and their latest acquisition is this weird chiller from Singapore that has nearly as many riffs from Italian horror (like Fulci’s “The Beyond”) as it does from the typical confines of the Asian horror genre. Yet, “The Maid” is still pretty much standard-issue and predictable despite some of its interesting stylistic touches. Tartan’s DVD includes 16:9 widescreen, 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital sound, the trailer, and a Making Of featurette.

Capsules in Brief

LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN (**½, 2006, 110 mins., R, Genius Products): Engaging performances from Morgan Freeman, Bruce Willis, Stanley Tucci, and Ben Kingsley nearly make this over-plotted thriller from writer Jason Smilovic and director Paul McGuigan work. Josh Hartnett plays a down-on-his-luck young man who enters into an urban battle between feuding crime bosses Freeman and Kingsley; the twists come fast and furiously, but so much so that you just know there’s a “big one!” coming at the very end. Tarantino and Shyamalan-esque “Slevin” wants to be, but despite falling short of its aspirations, McGuigan’s overly-telegraphed film is still energetically played and directed. Genius Products’ DVD includes deleted scenes, an alternate endings, two commentaries (one by McGuigan, another with Harnett, Liu, and Smilovic), and a Making Of featurette. The 2.35 (16:9) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack are each top-notch.

ELLEN DEGENERES SHOW: DVD-Licious! (2006 compilation, 104 minutes, Warner): In case you haven’t seen enough of Ellen’s daily act (or -- gasp -- might actually be at work while it’s airing!), Warner’s 2-disc set compiles highlights of Ellen’s first three years on the air, with numerous celebrity interviews dominating the fun. This package is actually an exclusive to Target stores until November 27th, when it will become available to consumers online and at other retail venues. (available September 19th)

NEXT TIME: Universal's latest (BATTLESTAR GALACTICA 2.5, BORIS KARLOFF COLLECTION). Plus: we venture into THE WOODS as Lucky McKee's supernatural chiller is finally unleashed from the MGM-UA vaults! Until then, don't forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards and direct any emails to the link above . Cheers!

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