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DVD Holiday Buyer's Guide Part II

A Round-Up of 22 New Releases!

An Aisle Seat Special

By Andy Dursin

I received a good deal of positive feedback from last week's DVD Holiday Buyer's Guide, so without further ado -- and due to space requirements -- we're going to take this final installment even faster and more furious this time out, going studio by studio, with a look at their most recent DVD offerings (some of them ideal for holiday yuletide giving, of course!).


DISNEY

In my next "Laserphile" column for the print FSM, we'll be taking an extensive look at Buena Vista's recent animated DVD releases, though it can easily be said that any of their long-awaited new digital packages will make perfect gifts this holiday season -- their relatively high price tag notwithstanding.

While THE LITTLE MERMAID (***1/2, $39.98), HERCULES (***, $39.98) and MULAN (***, $39.98) offer robust animation and engaging storylines (although I'm not certain that either HERCULES or MULAN will be joining LITTLE MERMAID as a genuine "classic" in the years to come), the cream of the crop is undoubtedly the Collector's Edition of A BUG'S LIFE (***1/2 movie, **** presentation, $49.98) which boasts one of the most gorgeous, flawless transfers you'll ever find, along with a superior collection of supplements.

The movie, which marked another technical achievement for Pixar and director John Lasseter, is slightly more simplistic than their TOY STORY pictures and is geared a bit more towards young children, but the movie nevertheless has a bounty of visual riches that are spectacular to behold. Film score fans will appreciate the isolated music track of Randy Newman's score (in 2.0 Dolby Stereo), while sound effects enthusiasts will certainly find the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound FX track to be worthy of interest. A production team commentary has also been included, but most of the goodies are found on the Supplemental DVD, which contains a flurry of outstanding extras, from all the pre-production material and storyboards you'd ever want to glance at, to test footage and abandoned concepts, touching upon all aspects of the movie's production inbetween. (A nicely laid out chapter scheme covers everything from the various stages of production -- a section which utilizes the multi-angle feature of your DVD player -- to the sound effects and promotion of the picture).

A BUG'S LIFE was shot in digital Cinemascope, and while a re-composed 1.33:1 TV version was produced specifically for video, a chapter on the video formatting shows that while certain scenes were "re- framed for TV" (moving characters closer together, for example), others were simply panned-and-scanned and cropped in the traditional full-frame approach. Although you can see both this reformatted full-frame version and the original widescreen dimensions on the stunning DVD, the letterboxed version certainly looks more comfortably framed and often contains additional peripheral information throughout.

Turning away from animation and back to live action -- though only in a technical sense -- is INSPECTOR GADGET (**, $29.98), the special effects filled adaptation of the cartoon character that a lot of folks from my generation gravitated towards back in the '80s.

Matthew Broderick has the thankless task of playing a hapless security guard who is turned into a cyber- police officer by scientist Joely Fisher, complete with all kinds of gadgets and goodies up his sleeve (and in his body, of course). Inspector Gadget is, in fact, created just in time to stop the nefarious "Claw" (Rupert Everett, who at least looks as if he's having a good time) from trying to take over the world and ruin everyone's good time by inventing an "Evil Gadget" twin Broderick that likes to set fire to elderly men's beards.

It's only in this latter aspect where viewers over the age of 12 will find material to laugh at, since the helter- skelter movie is paced at a rapid fire clip closely resembling a movie trailer (the film runs 78 minutes, and that INCLUDES almost ten minutes of credits!). Still, nostalgic twentysomethings and teens could find this to be somewhat engaging fluff, and undemanding young kids (with short attention spans) should also find it to be fairly amusing with the constant barrage of FX keeping them interested. (And yes, John Debney's appropriately cartoonish score includes incessant use of the old TV cartoon theme!).

Two releases from the Miramax/Dimension "Collector's Series" have also been released; they being last year's enjoyable Oscar-winning romantic comedy SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE (***1/2 movie, ***1/2 presentation, $39.98) and the horror opus HALLOWEEN: H20 (** movie, ** presentation, $39.98) with Jamie Lee Curtis.

The latter was originally announced as containing director commentary and a plethora of extras (including DTS audio), but arrived in stores only containing a trailer and a documentary feature -- and that's it for your $40. The transfer on this one is excellent, as is the case with most Buena Vista titles, and the Dolby Digital soundtrack is crisp and pungent, but if it's supplemental you crave, it unfortunately disappeared from the DVD, much in the same way that the Shape himself mysteriously vanishes into thin air.

SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, meanwhile, comes up aces in its Collector's Edition release. Available in Europe for some time now, the deluxe-packaged DVD offers not one but two enjoyable audio commentaries, a 22-minute promotional documentary, television spots, 10 minutes worth of deleted scenes, a trailer, and both a pleasant Dolby Digital track and a superlative 2.35:1 widescreen transfer to round it off. Image had previously released this title on LD ($39.98) in a two-disc edition, but both that release and the earlier DVD Buena Vista issued ($29.98) lacked the special features of this package -- which is, all told, one of the more engaging supplemental releases for an amiable movie that fully deserves the special treatment.


FOX

20th Century Fox has been releasing more DVDs than even I can keep up with, so let's do a quick run-through of their fourth-quarter releases.

Aside from the families of the cast and crew, few went to see RAVENOUS (*** movie, ***1/2 presentation, $34.98) last Spring. Badly advertised as some kind of terrible black comedy about cannibalism set in the 1850s, Fox would have been wiser to sell this decidedly tongue-in-cheek horror comedy as a straight genre piece, which probably would have gotten a few more teens into the theater. Nevertheless, this definite curio offers scenic locales (shot in Slovakia doubling for California), a solid cast (Robert Carlyle, Guy Pierce, Jeffrey Jones), an intriguing script that meshes historical satire with ghoulish horror, and direction from Antonia Bird that somehow fuses all of these disparate elements together. The cannibal angle is treated like vampirism (giving the film a semi-traditional genre structure), but both the sometimes over-the-top performances and the wildly eclectic music score by Michael Nyman and Damon Albarn (one of those scores that makes no sense on its own but works perfectly in the film) manage to stay on the engaging side of the offbeat.

Just as appetizing as the movie is a full slate of DVD extras, from a pair of audio commentaries (the one by writer Ted Griffin and Jones pointedly discusses the movie's tumultuous shoot, which found the first director canned and the whole production shut down for several weeks!) to an extensive array of deleted scenes. One of those movies that was D.O.A. in its theatrical run, RAVENOUS is definitely worth a look for genre fans and one of the more pleasant surprises on DVD this past year.

The remainder of the recent Fox slate contains basic, movie-only releases with theatrical trailers: ENTRAPMENT (**1/2, $34.98) is an engaging, junk-food moviemaking concoction with Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones in a May-December romance that still generates three times as much heat as Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo's hook-up in the similarly-themed but less inviting THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR. Transfer and sound are both fine, and Christopher Young's score is also a definite improvement over Bill Conti's disaster on THOMAS CROWN. Fox has also released RISING SUN (**, $34.98) as a companion Connery vehicle, and both the 1.85:1 transfer and Dolby Digital audio surpass the picture's earlier THX laserdisc release by a wide margin. Alas, the movie -- a stilted adaptation by Philip Kaufman (THE RIGHT STUFF) of Michael Crichton's novel -- is a mixed bag, altering Crichton's political commentary and throwing in some uncertain kung fu riffs with Wesley Snipes right at the climax.

NEVER BEEN KISSED (**1/2, $34.98) offers Drew Barrymore trying hard -- at times too hard -- to carry a lightweight teen comedy that gets its only mileage out of Drew's lead performance and a good supporting cast. Transfer on this Super 35 movie also looks excellent and the soundtrack includes an OK score by David Newman that fits the movie nicely. PUSHING TIN (**1/2, $34.98) is an engaging but uneven comedy-drama from Mike Newell (FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL) and "Cheers" writers Glen and Les Charles with John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton as air traffic controllers whose lives -- and wives (Cate Blanchett, Angelina Jolie) -- become entangled in comedic and dramatic predicaments. Nicely filmed and well-written, the picture goes on too long at 135 minutes, but offers solid performances and enough good dialogue to make it worth a look. Also shot in Super 35 (meaning the DVD is framed at 2.35:1 and does include extra peripheral information), the transfer is crisp and the Dolby Surround track features an atmospheric score by Anne Dudley, coming off her somewhat undeserved Oscar win for THE FULL MONTY.


IMAGE

Our friends at Image launched the "Mario Bava Collection" a few weeks ago with the first domestic release of the Uncut, Unedited original version of BARON BLOOD (*** movie, ***1/2 presentation, $24.98), Bava's 1972 Euro-horror classic.

Video Watchdog's estimable Tim Lucas lent a helping hand to the project, authoring the DVD liner notes which will give viewers unfamiliar with Bava a good introduction into the world of this Italian horror- meister.

Now, I myself am not the biggest aficionado of Bava or Italian horror, but if you are, this release is as close to a must-purchase as you'll find: eight minutes of material previously excised from U.S. prints have been restored to the movie domestically for the first time, and most notably for film music fans, Stelvio Cipriani's popish-jazz score has been reinstated to the film (American prints contained an apparently more orchestral, "spooky" score by Les Baxter). A complete biography of Bava, director and cast filmographies, poster and still galleries, and a theatrical trailer round out a great title for fans of the filmmaker.


WARNER

I received quite a bit of feedback about THE IRON GIANT from my review last week, but due to the interest of time we'll save some of those reader comments until next week.

Recent back-catalog re-issues (first-time on DVD) from Warner include MEATBALLS (***, $24.98), the 1979 Ivan Reitman comedy with Bill Murray parading around the campgrounds and cliches found in many a kids' outdoor comedy. You have the inevitable climactic race where the nerdy kid has to prove himself, not to mention the usual shenanigans involving the nearby girls' camp, and romantic predicaments of the counselors themselves. That being said, MEATBALLS is still the seminal camp movie, with its semi- raunchy humor (you'd never see a PG rated kids comedy now with as much adult material as this), fun mix of goofy Elmer Bernstein score and songs (written almost entirely by Elmer and Norman Gimbel), and steady stream of laughs making for a good time for one and all. HBO's DVD features a 1.85:1 matted transfer, the theatrical trailer, and both the original mono soundtrack and a reprocessed-for-stereo mix (though admittedly I couldn't detect much difference between the two).

THE SEA WOLVES (***, $19.98) is another film from the late '70s/early '80s period that comes recommended: an enjoyable, leisurely paced WWII comic-adventure with Gregory Peck, Roger Moore, and David Niven as veterans drafted into spying on German merchant vessels off an India colony in 1943. Roy Budd's score is as old-fashioned as the movie itself, scripted by Reginald Rose and efficiently directed by action vet Andrew V.McLaglen. The 1.85:1 transfer of this Lorimar release looks very crisp and the Dolby Stereo sound has a bit more activity than to be expected in a film from this period.

Finally, we jump ahead to the 1986 Warner Bros./Producers Sales Organization release of THE CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR (**, $19.98), which remains a favorite for fans of shapely Daryl Hannah, who uses her athletic frame to good use as blonde cave-girl Ayla in this monotonous adaptation of Jean M.Auel's bestselling novel. A chronicle of warring Cro-Magnon tribes (Daryl representing the more attractive and advanced form of evolution as opposed to the grunting, filthy Neanderthals played by Pamela Reed and James Remar), CLAN's virtues rest in Daryl's good looks and the sweeping widescreen cinematography of future auteur Jan DeBont, which fortunately comes letterboxed in Warner's new DVD (there's also a cropped version for those who desire larger close-ups of Daryl's white teeth and future CHARLES IN CHARGE/BAYWATCH babe Nicole Eggert as a juvenile Hannah). The transfer is definitely on the soft and grainy side, but it's easily the best the movie has looked on video, and the Dolby Stereo track sounds adequate, sporting one of Alan Silvestri's earlier (and weaker) film scores.


NEXT WEEK

Anchor Bay's holiday releases and back to the movies with ANNA AND THE KING and plenty of your comments. Don't forget I can be R.S.V.P.'d at dursina@att.net and until then we'll see you next week! 'Nuff said.


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