Aisle Seat 8th Season Premiere!!

Reviews of MEAN GIRLS, Polanski's TESS, and More!
Plus: SKY CAPTAIN Bows On the Big Screen
By Andy Dursin

Yes dear readers, Fall is here once again, and so begins another year of The Aisle Seat at Film Score Monthly online. This column began on a regular basis in the Fall of 1997, and here we are some seven years later, starting what is the 8th Year of the Aisle Seat.

The upcoming year promises more extensive coverage of DVDs, plus the occasional film and soundtrack review for your reading enjoyment. As always, comments are welcomed at, and I plan on retaining new features that I've implemented in recent months like the monthly DVD calendar and our patented "Aisle Seat DVD Pick of the Week." I also plan on making a pair of major announcements for all Aisle Seat readers sometime in the Fall, so stay tuned for that!

In the meantime, the discs are calling, the Red Sox are headed for the playoffs, and we start off another year of reviews with one of the year's most surprising successes...

Aisle Seat DVD Picks of the Week

MEAN GIRLS (***, 2004). 99 mins., PG-13, Paramount. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Audio Commentary, Making Of featurette; Deleted Scenes with optional commentary; 1.85 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Sharp, funny, and winning teen comedy basically serves as this generation's "Clueless": an observant youth picture that broke through the confines of its genre to become one of the year's sleeper hits.

Lindsay Lohan stars as a home-schooled student who enters a suburban Chicago high school for the first time. There, she discovers all sorts of cliques, including one "in crowd" presided over by snobby Rachel McAdams, which promptly recruits her into its lair. Though torn between the "Queen Bees" and her outsider friends, Lohan ultimately succumbs to the pressure of popularity, and learns more than a few hard lessons about high school life in the process.

Saturday Night Live "Weekend Update" anchor Tina Fey scripted this adaptation of a Rosalind Wiseman novel, and also co-stars as one of Lohan's well-intentioned teachers. Her amusing and thoughtful screenplay anchors the colorful and consistently entertaining "Mean Girls," which sports solid performances from Lohan and McAdams, plus plenty of laughs throughout. This is one of those rare teen movies that can appeal to viewers of all ages, due to its easily-identifiable lead protagonist and on-target observations. Additional kudos go out to Rolfe Kent's comedic score, which utilizes African percussion and tribal beats to poke fun at the animalistic world of present-day high schools.

Paramount's Special Edition DVD includes a commentary track from director Mark Waters, Fey, and producer Lorne Michaels; three Making Of featurettes of the mostly fluffy, promotional variety; blooper reel; trailer and inter-stitials, plus deleted scenes. The 1.85 transfer is just perfect, and the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound is also ideal for this sort of picture.

TESS (***1/2, 1979). 172 mins., PG, Columbia TriStar. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Three-part, 70-minute Behind the Scenes featurette; 2.35 Widescreen, 2.0 Dolby Surround.

One of director Roman Polanski's most satisfying and lyrical films, "Tess" has finally arrived in the U.S. on DVD with an excellent new documentary that partially compensates for a somewhat disappointing visceral presentation.

Nastassja Kinski stars as Tess of the D'Urbervilles in this adaptation of the Thomas Hardy classic, which is blessed by a gorgeous Philippe Sarde score and Geoffrey Unsworth/Ghislain Cloquet cinematography that's something out of a storybook. The presentation is so romantic and cinematic that you're likely to be swept up in the melodramatic story, which is further enhanced by solid performances across the board, particularly by Peter Firth as one of Tess's suitors.

"Tess" has always been regarded as one of Polanski's most satisfying films, which is why its delayed release on DVD here has been a source of frustration for many cinephiles. While the film has materialized elsewhere around the globe on DVD, only next week will it be issued in North America on disc for the first time.

The good news is that Columbia TriStar's Special Edition DVD includes an exemplary, three-part documentary by Laurent Bouzereau that covers all facets of the film's production. Incorporating recent interviews with Polanski, Kinski, producer Claude Berri, and other crew members, this 75-minute featurette is an excellent "Making Of" that deftly dissects the production and should be essential for all aficionados of the picture. Bouzereau's documentary covers the film from pre-production through its American release, which at one point was supposed to have been in a specially re-cut version co- supervised by Francis Ford Coppola! (Both attempts at shortening the film for the American market were ultimately, and thankfully, discarded). Though Philippe Sarde is nowhere to be found, his score is rightly (albeit briefly) praised here.

Alas, the 16:9 enhanced widescreen transfer in the film's original 2.35 Panavision aspect ratio ends up being something of a disappointment. The problem seems to be with the source material, which here seems to be darker and less vibrant than I recall the film being on past viewing. There are also some blemishes on the print utilized, which takes a bit away from the overall lush look of the picture. The Dolby Surround track thankfully fares better, with Sarde's score being treated to a solid, early Dolby Stereophonic mix (which Polanski notes was a technical problem in post-production).

While not enough to prevent issuing a recommendation, the transfer is a bit of a let down on a DVD that otherwise satisfies, thanks to a superb supplemental package for a film rightly regarded as one of its director's finest.

Also New on DVD

ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND (**1/2, 2004). 104 mins., R, Focus/Universal, available September 28th. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Commentary with Charlie Kaufman and director Michel Gondry; Deleted scenes off workprint, Making Of featurettes, music video; 1.85 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital and DTS surround.

Typically offbeat Charlie Kaufman story finds Jim Carrey in a relatively "straight" role as a regular guy who falls for kooky bookshop employee Kate Winslet. Their differences ultimately result in a painful break-up, which leads both to seek out the services of a doctor (Tom Wilkinson) whose staff (Mark Ruffalo, Elijah Wood, Kirsten Dunst) is able to literally erase the memories of their relationship from their minds.

If "Eternal Sunshine" sounds like typical Kaufman fare ("Being John Malkvoich," "Adaptation"), that's because its premise certainly is, but director Michel Gondry is able to mix the fantastical elements with a realistic and downright tender love story that works because of Carrey's strong lead performance. The movie has some wonderful scenes, inventive cinematograhy by Ellen Kuras and an eclectic score by Jon Brion, but somewhere along the line "Eternal Sunshine..." tries too hard to touch upon a myriad of subjects, particularly Carrey's childhood. The latter results in some especially outlandish scenes that ultimately detract from the Carrey-Winslet relationship at the film's center, though the movie is certainly still worth viewing for its performances and playful inventiveness.

Universal's DVD offers several special features of note, including commentary from Kaufman and Gondry, an interview between Carrey (who seems deservedly satisfied with his performance, which is one of his best) and Gondry, a Making Of featurette, deleted scenes culled from the workprint, and a music video. The 1.85 transfer is excellent and the 5.1 DTS/Dolby Digital sound likewise elaborate for this kind of film.

MAN ON FIRE (*, 2004).146 mins., R, Fox. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Two audio commentaries featuring Tony Scott, Brian Helgeland, Dakota Fanning, and producer Lucas Foster; 2.35 Widescreen, 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital sound.

Typically over-directed Tony Scott mess, an adaptation of an A.J. Quinnell novel first brought to the screen (to equally disastrous results) in a 1987 film with Scott Glenn, Brooke Adams, Danny Aiello, and Joe Pesci.

Following a rash of kidnappings, Denzel Washington plays an ex-mercenary hired by parents Marc Anthony and Radha Mitchell to watch over their precocious little girl (Dakota Fanning) in Mexico City. Despite Washington's best efforts, Fanning is kidnapped by a group of thugs tied to Anthony's prior dealings, and Denzel quickly turns Rambo in a one-man assault at getting her back.

You'd think someone might have learned from the original "Man On Fire" and not bothered producing another rendition of its source, but director Tony Scott and writer Brian Helgeland apparently thought their film would have improved upon its predecessor. After a watchable, if overlong, first hour, though, the 2004 "Man On Fire" becomes an utter disaster, totally wasting the talents of its cast in an ugly, endless vigilante saga that's the most self-indulgent yet of Scott's works. No matter what scene you're watching, Scott cuts away to another shot, inserts a special effect, throws subtitles on the screen (even when the characters are speaking English!), zooms in, zooms out, or cuts to something else altogether. The result is a mind-numbingly restless and unpleasant film that made moderate box-office bucks solely on Washington's reputation.

Fox's DVD is light on supplements, including only two commentary tracks by the filmmakers, plus previews for upcoming Fox releases (including the odd-looking "Hide and Seek," with Fanning and what appears like it might be another check-cashing appearance for Robert DeNiro). The 2.35 transfer is fine and the 5.1 DTS/Dolby Digital soundtracks packed with explosions, sound effects, and a non-stop, forgettable score by Harry Gregson-Williams.

HOME ON THE RANGE (**1/2, 2004). 76 mins., G, Disney. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Deleted scenes in workprint form with filmmaker introductions; animated short "A Dairy Tale"; Games, activities for kids; music video; Making Of featurette; 1.66 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Cute Disney feature boasts several terrific songs by Alan Menken, but unfortunately not enough of them -- or a developed story line -- to make the film anything more than lightly entertaining.

This western parody focuses on a collection of crazy barnyard animals (three cows, a pumped-up stallion, and some wacky chicks) who attempt to save their dairy farm home from a group of shady, scheming outlaws.

The animation is colorful and intentionally comedic, and the Menken-Glenn Slater songs are tuneful and superb. Alas, "Home on the Range" doesn't have enough of a script to support its threadbare running time (72 minutes minus credits), and the DVD's supplements -- which include a deleted prologue with a set of narrators and an unused song -- point to a film that should have spent more time in development before being made. One could have imagined this being a full-blown Disney western-musical with additional songs and characters (something the opening prologue hints at), and on that level, "Home on the Range" comes as a missed opportunity. The picture still provides a fun jaunt for family audiences, but it's quickly forgotten once the credits roll.

Disney's DVD is heavy on the family-geared bonus features (music video, games and activities), with one animated bonus short ("A Dairy Tale: The Three Little Pigs) and several deleted scenes in workprint/storyboarded form. The 1.66 transfer is exemplary and the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound likewise distinguished.

New in Theaters

SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW (**): Pretty pictures do not make a great film, and sadly, Kerry Conran's ambitious but bland salute to '30s sci-fi matinees is yet another example of technological advances masking a simplistic and under-nourished screenplay.

Jude Law plays a heroic pilot with Gwyneth Paltrow as a plucky reporter who uncovers a plot by an evil scientist to steal away the Earth's energy resources by utilizing huge robots and other flying contraptions. It's up to the constantly bickering duo to stop the bad guy from carrying out his nefarious plan, which means flying around in Law's plane, trying to rescue pal Giovanni Ribisi, and receiving assistance from Law's one-eyed ex-lover, played by Angelina Jolie in what basically amounts to a cameo role.

It's a fun idea for a movie packed with homages, but "Sky Captain" is absolutely bereft of innovation beyond its glossy visual sheen. There's no character development beyond the quick quips and forced banter between Law and Paltrow, who's grating and totally miscast here. Just as disappointing is that -- for all of its visual effects -- there's ultimately very little action in the film. There's plenty of running from one location to another, but no major set-pieces after an opening aerial duel, and what might have been an elaborate battle between Law and an evil hench-woman played by Bai Ling never materializes.

Conran's redundant plot structure and lack of anything remotely interesting aside from its design (which wares off after a few minutes) ultimately turns "Sky Captain" into a dull, derivative ride that never takes flight. (PG, 104 mins.)

NEXT TIME: Back with more new reviews (including STAR WARS -- hopefully!)


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