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The Inaugural Aisle Seat Y2K DVD Round-Up

Plus: Isolated Score News and The Truth about SUPERGIRL

By Andy Dursin

It may only be the end of January but we have already have been flooded with handfuls of new DVD releases at our official Aisle Seat offices.

First, a bit of news before we dive into the review pile. Columbia TriStar has announced isolated score tracks on their upcoming Collector's Edition DVD releases of THE MESSENGER: THE STORY OF JOAN OF ARC and the Winona Ryder-Susan Sarandon version of LITTLE WOMEN. Both will be 5.1 Dolby Digital score-only tracks, and will compliment supplement-laden deluxe packages. While both pictures will contain deleted scenes and commentary tracks, THE MESSENGER will also run 10 minutes longer than its U.S. release version. Both discs will be available in mid-April and retail for $24.98. (Columbia has been including more score-only tracks than any other major studio thanks to their recent DVD "Special Edition" packages, which have also included JUMANJI, JAKOB THE LIAR, and the upcoming RANDOM HEARTS. Hopefully this trend will continue throughout the year!)

Anchor Bay has also announced more details about their upcoming release of SUPERGIRL, which will be issued in two different flavors: your $29.98 standard-release and $44.95 2-DVD limited edition set (just like their terrific packages of HALLOWEEN and ARMY OF DARKNESS last year).

The $44.95 version will not only contain a THX-remastered, letterboxed, Dolby Digital remixed edition of the European 125-minute version (supplanted by a 105-minute version in North America), but also--get this--a 140-minute, never-before-seen version cut from the original negative! The disc will also contain the "Making of Supergirl" special, TV spots, trailers, and other goodies. Needless to say, it looks like Anchor Bay listened to consumers and are putting the best-possible Special Edition possible, so mark May 7th on your calendars for the day this highly-awaited DVD hits stores.

Recent DVD Releases

In the heyday of the laserdisc format, the Criterion Collection name was synonymous with great transfers, extensive supplements, audio commentaries, and other goodies. Unlike today, major studios could have basically cared less about releasing anything other a straight movie-only disc (one was lucky to even have letterboxing for a while!), so it was up to Criterion for many years to provide viewers with a presentation that truly lived up to the capabilities of the medium.

The company set a standard for which studios later began living up to on laserdisc, and which they have all but taken full advantage of on DVD. Criterion-worthy DVDs are now released every week or so, which is why it's not surprising that we haven't heard much out of Criterion/Voyager in the last few years.

I am, however, proud to report that the company is back to their old tricks with the new Deluxe Edition of RUSHMORE ($39.95, ***1/2 movie, ***1/2 presentation), the quickly, eccentric 1997 comedy from director Wes Anderson that grows on you after repeat viewings, and which greatly benefits from its Criterion Collection presentation on DVD.

The movie, which I found to be a bit off-putting at first glance (many of the movie's themes doesn't come across until you see where the story ultimately ends up), is offbeat and charming in its own way, and unlike a lot of pictures made in the '90s (particularly teen movies!), makes great use of Panavision cinematography, eclectic editing and a soundtrack comprised of British "Invasion" rock and quirky Mark Mothersbaugh score. It's wildly cinematic and while some of the devices Anderson uses to convey his story (co-written with Owen Wilson) can initially distract one's attention, they enrich the film on subsequent viewing.

In fact, RUSHMORE makes a fascinating companion piece with one of last year's best teen comedies, Alexander Payne's ELECTION: both films examine high school life, the pains of growing up, overachievers, sexuality, and how adulthood contrasts to youth, but the two pictures end in completely divergent fashions. ELECTION tells us some people never mature and paints a bleaker portrait of its characters, while RUSHMORE--in its own quietly poignant conclusion--tells us otherwise, for both grown-ups and those about to be.

The Criterion Collection DVD is a must for anyone who enjoyed the film, for it includes plenty of supplemental goodies: an entire "Charlie Rose Show" interview with Anderson and Murray, who comment separately on the picture; an audio commentary by Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, and Anderson, along with interesting, albeit slightly repetitive, documentary footage shot by his brother, Eric Chase Anderson; cast audition footage, trailers, storyboards, and even brief, funny bumpers shot for last year's MTV Movie Awards, with the "Max Fischer" players spoofing OUT OF SIGHT, ARMAGEDDON, and THE TRUMAN SHOW.

The transfer, naturally, is terrific, framed in the 2.35:1 format (the only way to appreciate this film is seeing it letterboxed), and the Dolby Digital soundtrack is potent, though both features are also available on Disney's standard-release version.

Criterion hasn't made much noise in recent years, but from the perfectly designed menu screens, package art (it even includes a map of the Rushmore campus), and accompanying materials, hopefully RUSHMORE will mark the beginning of a new era in Criterion releases produced expressly for the DVD format.

Speaking of Special Editions, Image has released an elaborate and jam-packed DVD celebrating 50 years of Bob Clampett's BEANY & CECIL (**** presentation, $29.98), two enduring children's characters that Clampett created for a live-action puppet TV show in the '50s and later developed into some truly wacky animated 'toons in the '60s.

Truth be told, I did not grow up on BEANY & CECIL, not even its reruns (if memory serves me right, they weren't around when I was growing up. Our local Southern New England airwaves in the late '70s/early '80s was filled with every Hanna-Barbera cartoon, early anime like "Star Blazers," plus the late '60s "Spider-Man," as likely Lukas could attest).

If you are under 30, chances are good that this is your first exposure to Clampett's work, and Image's wonderful DVD does a superb job conveying to first-time viewers the imagination, humor, and pioneering work that Clampett turned out in animation and, particularly, the early days of B&W television.

The DVD, produced by Image's Greg Carson in conjunction with Clampett's son Robert, includes portions representative of all of Clampett's output, from episodes of the television program to the animated segments produced in the early '60s. Sections detailing Clampett's animated work for various studios in the '30s and '40s are included, along with audio commentary segments (culled from old Clampett interviews and new ones with artists like Stan Freberg, who supplied some of the voices), production artwork and concepts, and even material for a '70s production named "Three-Dimensional Man" that never materialized. Along with these extras are conceptual work and test footage from an early attempt at collaborating with Edgar Rice Burroughs ("Mars"), stop footage sequences, a clip from a 1961 Edgar Bergen Show, promotional films and merchandise.

What I particularly enjoyed with this DVD is that the producers obviously had fondness for this material, and were able to apply their enthusiasm in producing a disc that will not just appeal to fans and nostalgic baby-boomers who grew up on it, but also animation aficionados and anyone interested in learning about Clampett and his creations. It's both a great primer and fully satisfying for fans, and one of the best supplemental discs I've seen on DVD in the last year.

Swinging from cartoon craziness to comic-book styled, old-fashioned adventure, Touchstone has unleashed a movie-only edition of THE 13TH WARRIOR (***, $29.98), the long-delayed, re-edited, re-shot adaptation of Michael Chrichton's "Eaters of the Dead."

After being on the shelf for over a year, the movie finally materialized minus any substantive character development, an abbreviated 103 minute running time, a new score by Jerry Goldsmith (replacing Graeme Revell's "edgier" original work), and yet... the final cut still works.

Crichton took over in the editing room for director John McTiernan and hacked away at subplots, but there's a decent chance most of the performances (particularly by a confused Antonio Banderas) didn't work in the first place and the film could only function on the level that Crichton re-cut the movie: as a rousing, heroic adventure picture, complete with a bold, bombastic score by Goldsmith.

On DVD, I confess that I enjoyed this movie even more than I did in theaters for a number of reasons. First, the gaps in the narrative are easier to overlook, and more significantly, some of the pitch-black action sequences as photographed by Peter Menzies, Jr. are more comprehensible on the small screen. Touchstone's DVD certainly adds to the entertainment with its terrific 2.35:1 transfer (there is a bit of "slow down" in the reel changes, as if a frame or two is missing for some reason--perhaps evidence of how much the movie was re-cut), and the Dolby Digital soundtrack is pulse-pounding and supremely effective.

Flaws and all, THE 13TH WARRIOR nevertheless makes for great home video, and the DVD is a perfect rendering of the elaborate production, despite its lack of special features (only a theatrical trailer, copyrighted 1998 and with Revell's name still on the credits, is included).

Disney has also released a movie that is close to the hearts of Elisabeth Shue fans everywhere, and that picture is obviously ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING (***, $29.98), here released in a matted 1.85:1 letterboxed format for the very first time.

One of filmmaker Chris Columbus's most unpretentious (and therefore most engaging) films, Columbus's directorial debut was a must-view mainly because of Shue's charismatic lead performance as a flustered babysitter who ventures into the big city and endures a succession of AFTER HOURS-like comic nightmares. While Columbus, who got his chops writing for Spielberg (the underrated YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES, the still-grating THE GOONIES), didn't write the picture, he did show enough flair behind the lens to establish a foundation as a filmmaker with this effort. (Unfortunately, he parlayed his success here and on HOME ALONE into maudlin, mind-numbing tripe like STEPMOM, MRS.DOUBTFIRE, and NINE MONTHS in the '90s).

Surprisingly rated PG-13 (for one memorable use of a certain four-letter word), this often funny comedy managed to be a big box-office hit back in 1987, where it became a classic for any poor teenage guy who developed a crush on its star (I confess! I'm guilty!). Years later, it's one of the best films of its kind from the late '80s, and Touchstone's DVD looks and sounds better than any previous video incarnation did. Sure, the transfer is a bit grainy, but the matting helps and the Dolby Surround sound has more than its share of directional effects (and a relatively early Michael Kamen score).

No extras here, but the sheer fact that Disney released this late '80s teen staple on DVD is reason enough for some of us to celebrate.

Another '80s classic has been re-issued on DVD as a Collector's Edition, the immortal Patrick Swayze- Jennifer Grey (with the cuter, older nose) team-up DIRTY DANCING (*** movie and presentation, $24.98).

One of the most profitable films made during the decade (its budget of $5.2 million was followed by an international gross exceeding $170 million), this Vestron release became a genuine craze in its day, thanks to a pair of soundtracks that each cracked the Top Ten charts, and a touring stage show that had folks around the country going nutty for the film's mix of Motown standards and '80s power-rock (via Bill Medley and Eric Carmen hits).

Removed from the phenomena of the day, this little sleeper remains precisely that: a formulaic but highly enjoyable romantic drama that, through its appealing performances and energetic soundtrack, transcends its melodramatic roots. Swayze, as a bad-boy dancer at a Catskills resort during the early '60s, and Grey, as the Jewish Princess who falls for him, generate enormous chemistry together, while Jerry Orbach gives a superb performance as Grey's almost-understanding father.

Artisan previously released the movie on DVD in both full-frame and matted formats, and while the new "Collector's Edition" DVD contains only the 1.85:1 matted transfer (that looks a bit grainy, especially near the beginning), it also offers a nice collection of supplements that the original release lacked. Writer Eleanor Bergstein, who based the movie somewhat on her own experiences, gives an interesting but at times too-chatty commentary track, reflecting on the work of late director Emile Ardolino and the location filming (in North Carolina and Virginia, subbing for New York). Music videos, trailers, several interesting featurettes and additional promotional material are also included, but the biggest extra is the entire "Dirty Dancing: Live in Concert" 1988 special, an 88-minute program featuring dancers re-creating the movie's choreography while singers from Eric Carmen to Bill Medley trot out on-stage to perform their chart- topping hits. (Yes, the movie was THAT much of a hot item at the time).

It's a nice bonus on a disc that fans of the movie will want to own, and judging from the picture's continued popularity (not to mention the soundtrack itself, which you still can't get away from on Adult Contemporary radio formats!), there are likely a lot of them out there.

Moving back into more recent territory, MGM has released one of last summer's surprise hits, the stoic, sleek remake of THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR (**, $24.98) on DVD.

I didn't quite go for the romantic sparks (not) ignited by Peirce Brosnan and Rene Russo, but a lot of audiences did, escalating the gross of this rare MGM hit into the $70 million domestic range. Also to give credit where it's due, director John McTiernan's remake of the overrated 1968 Steve McQueen-Faye Dunaway thriller doesn't make the same mistakes as its predecessor did (turning Crown into less of an icy cold '60s "anti-hero" and more up Brosnan's alley as a suave, sophisticated Bond-like protagonist), though it suffers from its own ailments--mainly a meandering narrative, lack of action, and a terrible score by Bill Conti that becomes more tolerable on second viewing only because you accept just how inept it is.

MGM's DVD looks great, but only in its 2.35:1 widescreen transfer. Try watching the Pan-and-Scan version on the other side and you'll soon remember what it was like to watch anamorphic movies back in the days before letterboxing (my favorite moment comes at the very beginning when Brosnan is seated, eating a sandwich, and looking at a painting on a far wall that goes completely unseen on the cropped version!).

The Dolby Digital soundtrack is effective, theatrical trailers are included for both the original '68 version and this remake, and there's also Director Commentary, where McTiernan delivers a generally plodding chat on the supplemental side (filled with long pauses and obvious statements about the movie's plot).

Anchor Bay, meanwhile, has released a handful of various items from the obscure to the acclaimed and forgotten. From that wild and wacky time of the '70s come a collection of interesting releases, spotlighted by a pair of Special Editions.

Paul Schrader's BLUE COLLAR (***, $24.98), a powerful 1978 drama about a corrupt union and the plight of the working man, boasts strong performances from Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel, and Yaphet Kotto. Director Paul Schrader made a film whose bleak messages remain potent today, and gives a commentary track that dives head-on into the picture's turbulent production (where Pryor was out-of- control and the three leads refused to talk to each other).

Lighter and more enjoyable is Anthony Harvey's splendid 1971 adaptation of James Goldman's play THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS (***, $24.98), with George C.Scott as a retired Judge who thinks he's Sherlock Holmes. Joanne Woodward is terrific as his Dr.Watson and the movie--a reunion of the creative team behind THE LION IN WINTER (including composer John Barry)--is a lot of fun. Anchor Bay's DVD includes commentary from Harvey and film preservationist Richard A.Harris, and contains the expanded 98-minute version not seen in theaters (principally restoring an early role by F.Murray Abraham).

Other Anchor Bay new releases worth taking a look at include the wonderful 1962 Disney family picture BIG RED (***, $24.98), with Walter Pidgeon training an Irish setter who bonds with a young boy; the engaging 1971 John Cassavetes comic-drama MINNIE AND MOSKOWITZ (***, $24.98), featuring commentary from stars Gena Rowlands and Seymour Cassel; and rounding off their new releases, a pair of dated '60s items, the Lesbian drama THE KILLING OF SISTER GEORGE (**, $29.98) from director Robert Aldrich (with a serviceable score by Gerald Fried), and the totally-"mod" romantic comedy SMASHING TIME (*1/2, $24.98), which looks to be the kind of movie that Austin Powers would have grooved to back in the late '60s (it even features Michael York!).

On the above, all titles feature 1.85:1 transfers and look excellent, along with workable mono soundtracks and recreations of the movie's one-sheet posters on the respective DVD inlay cards. (BLUE COLLAR, THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS, and MINNIE also contain trailers and featurettes).

NEXT WEEK: Back with your comments and additional DVD reviews, movie news--you know, the usual! Don't forget to send all comments to Excelsior!

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