Aisle Seat Post-Labor Day Edition

By Andy Dursin

Several items of business to start off this week:

*A brief correction to last week's column: Paramount's STAR TREK: GENERATIONS Collector's Edition DVD does not, in fact, include the advertised theatrical trailers. I must have "watched" the trailers in my sleep, since they are not present on the currently- released disc. Paramount is reportedly recalling the DVD and will re-issue it with the trailers included. We'll keep you posted on the situation as it develops!

*Disney's SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES DVD re-issue sports the movie's theatrical trailer, which includes the studio's moniker (it was matted out in the Anchor Bay DVD) with Georges Delerue receiving credit for composing the score. The transfer on the new disc is good but the 1.85 widescreen matting is too tight, cropping off picture present on the previous laserdisc and DVD releases. Unless you're on a strict diet of 16:9 enhanced discs, stick with the full-screen version (also on the disc) instead.

*I would be remiss if I didn't mention my recent viewing of EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING, which opened two weeks ago without the benefit of critic screenings. While most movies that arrive with a media blackout are typically the sign of trouble -- and there sure was trouble behind-the-scenes on this production -- I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised by the final cut served up by action veteran Renny Harlin.

Granted, Harlin's action background results in a less-than-subtle film that feels more like a horror/action hybrid than a pure supernatural chiller, but the finished film does boast a superb performance by Stellan Skarsgard, several well-executed sequences, and a few neat references to the original classic that started it all. Also commendable is an effective plot twist and Harlin's opening prologue, the last shot of which is deftly reprised at the end.

The movie does have some goofy moments, including a climax that's awkwardly shot, but the photography of Vittorio Storaro and a better-than-expected score by Trevor Rabin make for a movie that's nowhere near the embarrassment some anticipated. Chalk it up at **1/2 stars, which is *1/2 better than "Exorcist II."

Aisle Seat DVD Picks of the Week

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (***, 1974). 127 mins., PG, Paramount. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Making Of featurette in four segments; trailer; "Agatha Christie: A Portait"; 1.85 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

First and best of the many Agatha Christie film adaptations produced with all-star casts in the '70s and early '80s stars Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot, who tries to sort out the murder of an American (Richard Widmark) traveling on the Orient Express. The possible suspects include a who's-who of celebrity co-stars, including Lauren Bacall, Martin Balsam, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Vanessa Redgrave, and Michael York.

Paul Dehn (best known by sci-fi fans for his work on the "Planet of the Apes" pictures) adapted Christie's bestselling novel, which was produced by John Brabourne and Richard Goodwin for EMI Films -- the British company that would later turn out "Death on the Nile" and "Evil Under the Sun" among several other Christie films. Where "Murder on the Orient Express" has an advantage on its successors is in its cast and Sidney Lumet's direction, which is taut and effective, more so than the later Christie pictures. There's a tension in the air and lush production qualities throughout this high- class production, which garnered six Oscar nominations, including one for Richard Rodney Bennett's superb score.

Paramount's DVD offers a sterling remastered 1.85 transfer with an excellent 5.1 remixed Dolby Digital soundtrack. The title may come at a budget price, but it boasts two excellent special features: "Agatha Christie: A Portrait" includes a fine 10-minute interview with Christie's grandson Matthew Pritchard, while "Making 'Murder on the Orient Express'" is a new, four-part featurette sporting recent interviews with Sidney Lumet, producers Brabourne and Goodwin, Jacqueline Bisset, Sean Connery, and Michael York, plus Richard Rodney Bennett and Nicholas Meyer, who offers anecdotes about the composer's score (including how Bernard Herrmann was apparently irritated by Bennett's main title waltz!). Running about 40 minutes all told, this is an excellent Making Of that enriches a superb '70s entertainment. Recommended!

THE PUNISHER (**1/2, 2004). 123 mins., R, Lions Gate. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Making Of; Deleted Scenes with optional commentary; Commentary by director Jonathan Hensleigh; Music Video; 2.35 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Jonathan Hensleigh's downright wacky adaptation of the Marvel Comic makes for an odd movie on many levels: this violent action-fest nearly defies description by crossing the standard one-man-wrecking-crew genre with pulpy melodrama and ribald humor via colorful supporting players. Made on a modest budget for this kind of film (under $35 million, some of which undoubtedly went to co-star John Travolta's salary), "The Punisher" stars Tom Jane as a retiring FBI agent whose family is savagely killed by a mobster (Travolta) out for revenge. Holing up in a dilapidated apartment building with waitress Rebecca Romijn- Stamos and another pair of outcasts, Jane brands himself "The Punisher" and goes about taking down Travolta's Tampa, Florida criminal enterprise by any means necessary.

Though the subject matter is pretty heavy for a comic book film, "The Punisher" refuses to go the route of treating its source material too seriously. It would have been easy for Hensleigh and co-writer Michael France to play up the dark, psychological aspects of the character, but make no mistake, this is a comic movie all the way that works best if you don't take it too seriously. Hensleigh manages to capture the essence of a fast-moving Marvel comic by utilizing a quick pace, Conrad W. Hall's moody cinematography, and game performances by a fine cast. Jane makes for a brooding yet appealing tortured hero, while Travolta does his usual villainous shenanigans and Will Patton and Laura Herring ably back him up on the bad-guy front. Romijn-Stamos nicely underplays her role, and there's a chemistry between her and Jane that's predictably (and unfortunately) not fulfilled by the time the picture ends.

Speaking of that, there are plenty of killings in "The Punisher," though not a whole lot of elaborate action scenes. Instead, there are some amusing, intimate sequences between Travolta and his posse (especially Patton), Jane and his crazy neighbors, and a well- choreographed fight between The Punisher and a Russian hit man (was it asking too much to cast one-time "Punisher" Dolph Lundgren in the role?). The movie leaps from a few disturbing instances of graphic violence to what appears to be overly campy melodrama and back again, making for an uneven yet decidedly offbeat movie that keeps you watching, provided you swallow its required suspensions of disbelief. (Hell, even Roy Scheider turns up as Jane's father!). Also effective is Carlo Silotto's score. Like the film, it's different and not exactly what you'd anticipate coming from a modern comic-book movie, but somehow it works.

Lions Gate's Special Edition DVD, out today, offers a commentary from director Hensleigh and a better-than-average "Making Of" featurette entitled "War Journal: On the Set," which runs a half-hour and offers comments from the director about Carlo Silotto's hiring (there's also some recording session footage on-hand). Two brief deleted scenes are included with optional commentary, though oddly, an entire subplot that was jettisoned is only briefly touched upon in the before-mentioned "Making Of" featurette. Another featurette on the movie's stunts and comic book origins is also included, along with a music video and trailer for the upcoming video game. The 2.35 transfer is crisp while the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound is packed with effects and Silotto's solid score. "The Punisher" may be a bit much for some viewers, but taken in the right spirit, it's a deftly-made, "low tech" action-revenge fantasy that should satisfy the character's faithful fans.

JERSEY GIRL (**, 2004). 102 mins., PG-13, Miramax. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Commentaries; Tonight Show clip; Behind the Scenes special; Ben Affleck and Kevin Smith interview; Text Interviews; 2.35 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

CLERKS: 10TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION (***, 1994). 89 mins., R, Miramax. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Original laserdisc commentary; "enhanced playback track"; lost scene; MTV spots; trailer; auditions; longer original cut with new audio/visual commentary; new Making Of documentary; outtakes, journals, reviews; DVD ROM material; 1.66 Widescreen, Dolby Digital sound.

Kevin Smith goes soft in "Jersey Girl," a by-the-numbers drama-edy about a workaholic single father (Ben Affleck), raising his daughter in his New Jersey hometown, and the video store clerk (Liv Tyler) who inspires him to love again after his wife (Jennifer Lopez) tragically died in childbirth.

Smith's comedic touch is on-hand only sporadically in "Jersey Girl," a movie that would have been just another run-of-the-mill Hallmark TV movie had it not had the participation of the filmmaker and a fine cast, from Affleck, Tyler, and Lopez, to George Carlin, Jason Biggs, and even a one-scene cameo from Will Smith. The movie has the look of quality as well, with Vilmos Zsigmond providing the cinematography, yet the story is so pedestrian, predictable, and unconvincing, that it feels as if Smith was on a leash from beginning to end. Affleck's lead character suffers from wild mood shifts that aren't exactly believable; ditto for the outrageous climax, where the cast performs "Sweeney Todd" at a grammar school concert.

Miramax's DVD boasts an assortment of special features, including commentary with Affleck and Smith, plus an additional talk with Smith, producer Scott Mosier, and "special guest" Jason Mewes; an interview with Smith and Affleck; a clip from one of Smith's "Tonight Show" appearances; and a typical "Making Of" featurette. There are also text interviews with the cast and crew, plus a solid 2.35 widescreen transfer (the package erroneously reads 1.85) and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Also available today is the 10th Anniversary Edition of Smith's first big smash, CLERKS, the 1994 indie film that launched the View Askew universe and remains a viewer favorite.

Miramax's three-disc DVD set offers a host of fresh supplementary features, making this the definitive presentation of "Clerks" on video to date. The package includes the 1995 laserdisc commentary, a deleted scene, MTV spots with Jay and Silent Bob, cast auditions, the original trailer, an entirely different, extended cut of the movie screened here for the first time on Disc 2, plus a new, 90-minute documentary, "Snowball Effect: The Story of 'Clerks'." Outtakes, journals, reviews (many text materials) and more round out the disc, while the movie includes a solid 1.85 widescreen transfer and even Smith's first draft of the script on DVD-ROM. An excellent package for a movie that's still fresh and entertaining, and will reportedly be followed by a sequel expected to be shot by Smith sometime in 2005.

HIGHWAYMEN (**, 2004). 82 mins., R, New Line. DVD FEATURES: 2.35 Widescreen transfer, Full-screen transfer, 5.1 Dolby Digital and DTS sound, theatrical trailer.

Slight, disappointing thriller stars Jim Caviezel as a man whose wife was killed in an intentional hit-and-run by a driver (Colm Feore) still preying on innocent victims across the land.

Director Robert Harmon was the filmmaker behind the cult favorite "The Hitcher" with Rutger Hauer, and he brings a similarly strong, visceral approach to "Highwaymen," which also looks (no pun intended) smashing thanks to Rene Ohashi's widescreen cinematography. Caviezel brings the same conviction and haunted look to his role that distinguished his past performances in films like "Angel Eyes," and able support is given by Frankie Faison as a highway investigator and Rhona Mitra as Feore's latest target.

Alas, there's a fatal flaw in "Highwaymen," and that's the script by Craig Mitchell and Hans Bauer, which is so thin and undeveloped that the movie feels like part of a TV- movie anthology without any supporting stories. The film literally runs out of gas before it hits the 80-minute mark, and there's almost no character development to speak of. For that reason, you can see why New Line barely released the film, which had an effective enough theatrical trailer that (in retrospect) shows you all you need to see of "Highwaymen."

New Line's DVD offers a fantastic 2.35 widescreen transfer (a full-frame version is also available) with a bass-heavy 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack, sporting an okay score by Mark Isham. The theatrical trailer is the disc's only extra.

CGI Film Fest

In the wake of "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within" and its box-office failure, studios have held back from producing elaborate, non-comedic 3-D animated films. Yet, the art form holds a lot of potential, even if much of it has been unrealized so far.

One recent effort from France, KAENA: THE PROPECHY (**1/2, 2003, 91 mins., PG- 13; Columbia TriStar) offers the same kind of outlandish visceral fantasy that "Final Fantasy" contained, though once again storytelling proves to be an obstacle for its filmmakers.

Kaena, voiced here in the domestic version by Kirsten Dunst, is a rebellious young girl with a large forehead who lives with her people on an odd-looking planet (resembling a giant tree) floating above the clouds named Axis. When the sap literally seems to be running out, Kaena opts to venture beyond the clouds where an equally strange civilization awaits.

"Kaena" was a big-budgeted French production, and the animation is excellently handled throughout. The main character's features and reactions are lifelike, and kids (at least older ones) should enjoy the fanciful story and creatures she encounters. Those seeking a coherent or original narrative are less likely to be impressed by the picture, which is fairly routine from a story angle and not altogether satisfying.

Columbia TriStar's DVD offers a sterling 1.85 widescreen transfer and bass-heavy 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack, sporting an okay score by Fario Russlan (and an unintentionally funny love ballad heard over the end credits). The disc only includes the English dialogue track (which also sports the voices of Richard Harris and Anjelica Huston), though the two special features -- a decent "Making Of" and tongue-in-cheek press "interview" with Kaena -- are in French with English subtitles.

Also out this week is the first new adventure for the G.I. Joe franchise in many years: the CGI-animated G.I. JOE: VALOR VS. VENOM (**1/2, 77 mins., 2004, PG; Paramount), which once again pits the good Joe soldiers against Cobra Commander, Destro and the Baronness.

Here, the script (by Star Trek aficionados Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens) finds Cobra launching a new kind of soldier into the never-ending battle by combining animal DNA with human strands. The result is an unstoppable, animalistic warrior that Duke, Scarlett, Snake Eyes and the gang have to take down before humanity is eradicated from the world!

The animation by Reel FX is actually quite good in "Valor Vs. Venom," which offers colorful action and an engaging story line for kids and G.I. Joe fans of all ages. The 77- minute feature is in keeping with the Marvel-Sunbow cartoons of the '80s, but the story is both less flamboyant but somehow more entertaining at the same time.

Paramount's DVD boasts a pristine full-screen transfer with a decent 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack. The music by Juniper is the production's one weak spot, failing to compare to the bouncy, sing-a-long quality of the old TV cartoon soundtracks. Special features include a short but interesting "Making Of" with character profiles, music video, trailer, game demo, storyboards and more.

Capsules In Brief

HARDCORE (***, 1979, 108 mins., R, Columbia TriStar): Paul Schrader's tough 1979 thriller pits church-going, Midwestern father George C. Scott against the seedy underbelly of Southern California, where his daughter has runaway from home and gotten involved in the porn industry. Scott's excellent performance is over-the-top at times, but he's flamboyantly entertaining in a John Milius-produced effort that's a modern variant on "The Searchers." Columbia TriStar's DVD offers a crisp 16:9 enhanced transfer in the 1.85 aspect ratio, plus a decent mono soundtrack sporting Jack Nitzsche's score.

MOON OVER PARADOR (***1/2, 1988, PG-13, 104 mins., Universal): Paul Mazursky's delightful romantic comedy stars Richard Dreyfuss in a dual role as the ruler of a fictitious South American country and the struggling NYC actor hired to take his place after he dies of a heart attack. The late Raul Julia, meanwhile, is wonderful as the country's head of security, with Sonia Braga as the sexy mistress at Dreyfuss's side. Leon Capetanos and Mazursky scripted this colorful, breezy romp, boasting one of Maurice Jarre's most unabashedly romantic and lyrical scores. Universal's long-awaited DVD (by me at least) sports a perfect 1.85 widescreen transfer with 2.0 Dolby Surround sound. Highly recommended!

THE STING II (**, 1983, PG, 102 mins., Universal): In the annals of strange sequels, this belated 1983 follow-up to the Redford & Newman Oscar winner ranks right up with the oddest. Jackie Gleason and Mac Davis were and still are an unlikely choice to fill the roles of Newman and Redford, but they do their best, and are at least surrounded by a solid supporting cast including Karl Malden, Teri Garr, and Oliver Reed (in Robert Shaw's role from its predecessor). David S. Ward wrote the original "Sting" and returned to pen the follow-up, but Jeremy Paul Kagan's film has an artificial and contrived feel that it can never shake off. Pleasant score by Lalo Schifrin, though. Universal's DVD offers a decent 16:9 enhanced transfer and mono soundtrack, plus the theatrical trailer.

10.5 (2004, Not Rated, 165 mins., Lions Gate): NBC Mini-Series stars Kim Delaney as a scientist trying to put an end to a series of earthquakes disrupting all life as we know it on the West Coast. This pre-"Day After Tomorrow" disaster-fest is good for dumb fun, with Delaney, John Schneider, and President Beau Bridges attempting to stave off certain doom. The effects, meanwhile, are decent for small-screen fare, and Lions Gate's DVD includes a perfectly adequate full-screen transfer with Dolby Surround 2.0 stereo, sporting a better-than-the-material-deserves score from veteran composer Lee Holdridge.

ROUNDERS (**1/2, 1998, 121 mins., R; Miramax): The current poker craze sweeping the nation has extended to this re-issue of John Dahl's interesting though not entirely satisfying 1998 character study, with Matt Damon as a card whiz trying to bail out buddy Edward Norton from loan shark John Malkovich. Dahl's movies are always interesting (I'm still waiting on a re-issue of "Unforgettable" with the Nat King Cole song re- instated), and "Rounders" is no exception: the performances of Damon, Norton, Malkovich, John Turturro, Famke Jenssen, and Martin Landau are excellent, as is the picture's ample atmosphere. The script by David Levien and Brian Koppelman, meanwhile, is another issue, with the movie rambling at times when it ought to be fully compelling. Miramax's Special Edition DVD is heavy on the Poker features, from a set- top-game to professional poker featurettes. There's even a new commentary from professional card players and card tips in addition to a feature commentary track from Dahl and Norton among others. The 2.35 transfer is solid, as is the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Paramount TV on DVD

Two new box-sets are about to hit stores in the seemingly never-ending cascade of TV shows hitting the DVD circuit.

MORK AND MINDY may never be regarded as anything profound, deeply moving, or intensely original in the annals of series television. This "Happy Days" spin-off (one of many) is, however, a major cultural artifact since it introduced and first showcased the immense comedic talents of Robin Williams, who first burst upon the scene as the alien from Ork who comes to Earth and moves in with care-free young lady Pam Dawber in Boulder, Colorado.

"Mork"'s first appearance came in an episode of "Happy Days," portions of which are reprised in the hour-long pilot, with Mork meeting up with The Fonz and Laverne in '50s Milwaukee. Several decades later (though there's no mention of the time difference; another sign of how insignificant "Happy Days"' setting ultimately became), Mork returns to Earth, moves in with Dawber's Mindy, and begins what would ultimately become a four-year sojourn into the day-to-day living of ordinary human beings.

"Mork and Mindy" was a massive hit in its early years, at least until some ill-advised casting changes and story alterations (the show attempted to become more "socially relevant") curtailed what might have been an elongated series run. As it turned out, though, "Mork and Mindy" still enjoyed a successful tenure on ABC, and Paramount's First Season box set showcases the show at its best, in its infancy. Williams's comedic timing and interplay with Dawber makes for colorful, irresistible escapism, and adequate support is lent by Conrad Janis as Dawber's father and Elizabeth Kerr as her grandmother.

The full-screen transfers look better than any Nick at Nite rerun ever has, and the ability to see the episodes in their original full-length versions, minus syndication edits, makes this four-disc set a must for all Mork maniacs.

Out next week from Paramount is the complete first season of 7TH HEAVEN, the insanely popular WB series that's still going strong, even as it approaches nearly a decade on the air.

This six-disc set illustrates the popularity of Brenda Hampton's family series, which isn't afraid to tackle serious issues at the same time it offers up a lightly comedic look at a big, frazzled family lead by "Star Trek" big-screen veterans Stephen Collins (as Minister Eric Camden) and Catherine Hicks. Mom and Dad struggle to balance work and raise teenagers Mary (Jessica Biel) and Matt (Barry Watson), at the same time tending to young Simon (David Gallagher) and little Ruthie (Mackenzie Rosman), who's a troublemaker even in the early episodes!

"7th Heaven" is comfort food for a lot of viewers, and I'll admit (yes) that I watched the show on and off when it began during my senior year of college (Fall of '96) and -- also -- that I did follow it for a while until it "Jumped the Shark" some time ago, about the time that each one of the older (barely 21-year-old) kids decided they had to get married (for a show promoting family values, I've never understood the obsession about marriage, which began when the female leads turned 17!). Still, for a family series, "7th Heaven" is entertaining prime-time programming, with some good messages and likable performances -- a recipe that's made to order for a series that shows no signs of slowing down.

Paramount's DVD set sports colorful, sunny full-screen transfers and Dolby Digital stereo. Recommended for all "7th Heaven" addicts (those in AND out of the closet!).

Also New This Week

ALIAS: Complete Third Season (Buena Vista): The third season of J.J. Abrams' cult favorite series lost some steam -- as well as some of its fanboy love -- by fast-forwarding ahead two years from the end of the second season and becoming overly wrapped up in confusing plot machinations. Granted, "Alias" has always been a show that's tough to follow at times, but just from watching a few scattered episodes of Season 3, it's safe to say that you'll be totally lost without having taken in the previous two years. Garner's still terrific and highly appealing, but it's easy to tell why the third season wasn't overly beloved by critics or its fan base. Buena Vista's DVD sports deleted scenes, bloopers, teasers, selected commentaries, an "Animated Alias Tribunal" filling in the gaps of Sydney Bristow's missing two years, 1.78 widescreen transfers and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

BEAR IN THE BIG BLUE HOUSE (Buena Vista): The extremely popular Disney Channel series comes to DVD in nine separate discs that parents should snap right up for their little ones. The releases include "Everybody's Special," "Tidy Time With Bear," "Dance Party," "Heroes of Woodland Valley," "A Bear For All Seasons," "Sleepy Time With Bear and Friends," "Shapes, Sounds and Colors With Bear," "Party Time" and "Potty Time With Bear." Each DVD sports three episodes of the series with just-fine full- screen transfers, sing-a-longs, and other extras perfectly suited for kids.

DISNEY PRINCESS COLLECTION (Buena Vista): Three volume DVD set from Disney, geared towards young girls, includes "Princess Party," "Sing-Along-Songs," and "Princess Stories," all three featuring interactive games, animation, songs, and more. Colorful packaging and the offer of a free bonus Princess Castle (with appropriate shipping and handling charges, of course) should make this appealing for parents seeking age-appropriate entertainment for young female viewers.

FOX CINEMA LATINO (Fox): Three acclaimed Latin-American films get the DVD treatment from Fox this week: "El Segundo Aire" (2001, 100 mins., Not Rated); "Sexo, Pudor Y Lagrimas" (1999, 108 mins., R); and "Vivir Mata" (2002, 92 mins., Not Rated). Each DVD contains a 1.85 Anamorphic widescreen transfer, Dolby Surround (5.1 on "Sexo"), and original Spanish language tracks with English subtitles.

NEXT TIME: The Aisle Seat returns for its Seventh Season debut!


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