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May DVD Round-Up

BLUE VELVET, SHOWGIRLS, and less bizarre offerings from MGM!

An Aisle Seat Entry by Andy Dursin

Now that May is here, excitement is building over what should be a sensational summer of DVDs. CONAN THE BARBARIAN gets its Special Edition workout at the end of May (send the Universal people some emails so we can get a sneak peek, ok?) and from then on, there are plenty of goodies to follow this summer, from my long-awaited Deluxe Edition of SUPERGIRL to JAWS, which should carry over some of the supplements from the outstanding THX laserdisc box-set from 1996 and -- even better -- include an all-new digital stereo mix on separate Dolby Digital and DTS releases! (No isolated score, just as there had not been on the LD, either).

Incidentally, ABC is airing a Special 25th Anniversary showing of JAWS in prime-time this Saturday night (8pm EST/PST) and will include some outtake footage and interviews, possibly culled from that 1995 LD documentary. It's also possible that the airing might incorporate several deleted scenes into the film since past ABC network airings did just that.

Before we get too far into what should be a super season, we have some new DVD releases worth mentioning before we get deluged with those forthcoming Special Editions. So, before they're buried under a pile of other review copies, now's a perfect time to discuss the virtual cornucopia of MGM DVDs that have been released over these last few weeks of spring.

The studio seems to be diving not only into their back catalog of films (obscured slightly in that Warner Bros. now owns all pre-1987 MGM films), but also raiding titles controlled by other libraries and bringing them over into the Lion's Den for DVD.

A good example is BLUE VELVET (**, $24.98), David Lynch's controversial 1986 melodrama-thriller which was a De Laurentiis Entertainment Group release, and has been remastered by MGM in what is easily its best-looking video presentation to date.

Kyle MacLahlan, following through on his confused performance in the hideous DUNE with another Lynch potpourri, plays a guy home from college whose dad is in the hospital. After uncovering an ear in a nearby field, MacLahlan makes the mistake of playing a Hardy Boy and runs into an assortment of nuts as he probes the depth's of his town's seedy underbelly, including psycho Dennis Hopper, drug dealer Dean Stockwell, and their cavalcade of fun people. Turns out that hooker/night club singer Isabella Rosselini's husband and son have been kidnapped by Hopper, and are using her as bait to perform sadomasochistic acts to keep them alive. As MacLachlan heads deeper and deeper into the muck (and shuns good-girl high schooler Laura Dern in the process), he ultimately finds out his desires and voyeurism take him down a long, dark, dirty path.

Lynch's work, needless to say, is an acquired taste, and while I've enjoyed some of his work, I can't say that BLUE VELVET qualifies as part of it. I found the movie exceptionally drawn out and with a bare minimum of subtext to chew on. Even Lynch's absurdist "humor" is rarely on display, and when there are doses of it, it's so badly placed in the story that it never becomes a genuine examination of the contrasting views of suburbia Lynch would like us to look at. It's all surface gloss and flashy images, with no genuinely compelling characters, just stereotypes and freaks that you wish would be sucked into the abyss that Laura Palmer ended up in. (Ok, so I've never liked this movie, alright? Happy now??)

In fact, I can say with some confidence that the only project of his that I can enthusiastically endorse is the first season of his ABC series TWIN PEAKS, when it was quirky, offbeat, unsettling, but also inventive and enormously entertaining. Unfortunately, when the show returned for its second season, it became everything that a typical David Lynch movie generally resembles: too strange, too weird, too excessive. Only avid readers of Video Watchdog seem to have gotten anything out of that season, or Lynch's recent cinematic disasters like LOST HIGHWAY and the thoroughly interminable TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME (that said, I haven't seen THE STRAIGHT STORY, a G-rated road movie which a few critics called one of last year's best).

Going back to BLUE VELVET -- which caused a major stir in 1986 with a handful of critics calling it one of the best films of that year -- this is one of those movies that completely polarizes viewers: some will find it too gross and sadistic, others will think that it's a masterpiece that uncovers the underworld hidden in the depths of small-town suburbia. Having already drawn my line in the sand when it comes to most of Lynch's work, I'm siding on the former side, although you have to give Lynch credit for making a movie that set a kind of standard for countless other suburbia-isn't-perfect films that have followed over the years since its release.

There are stunning scenes, good performances, and atmosphere to spare, but once BLUE VELVET settles into detailing Hopper's antics, the movie bogs down and simply becomes dull, not to mention pointlessly disgusting as it nears the climax. Angelo Balamenti's moody score (always one of the constant assets in any Lynch project) and the excellent widescreen cinematography by Frederick Elmes lend an able assist, but once you're turned off by one of the plot points in Lynch's script, BLUE VELVET becomes a tiresome, repetitive affair, and I'm afraid I tuned out just after the movie hits the first hour mark.

In any event, hard-core Lynch-philes will want to run down to the store for MGM's new DVD release, which has a more accurately framed widescreen transfer (enhanced for 16:9 televisions) than Warner Home Video's older laserdisc release. BLUE VELVET is one of those movies that you have to see letterboxed or not at all, and the transfer here seems to be fully representative of the 2.35:1, JDC Scope cinematography. The Dolby Pro Logic sound is effective but not quite fully directional, and there's a theatrical trailer accurately capturing the movie's critical kudos included for good measure.

From a movie that was deservedly deemed "controversial" to a picture that tried so hard to elicit the same kind of attention, we shift to SHOWGIRLS (**, $24.98), Paul Verhoeven's much-maligned 1995 opus which stars -- hey, wouldn't you know it? -- Kyle MacLahlan along with top-billed Elizabeth Berkley and Gina Gershon in a silly, cliched story of a girl who rises to fame and fortune but finds out, when she gets there, that she never should have bothered trying.

The first (and last?) NC-17 release from a major studio, SHOWGIRLS was the movie that you had to flash your ID at the door or else a group of zit-faced 13 year-old ushers wouldn't allow you in. Still, for a movie that promised tons of T&A and remarkably stupid dialogue, I found it disconcerting when the matinee I attended was filled with women primarily over the age of 65!

Verhoeven set out to -- okay, I'm not sure what he or writer Joe Eszterhas (who worked together on the overheated BASIC INSTINCT) were smoking when they concocted this romp, but just the same, SHOWGIRLS provides a fair degree of entertainment, even if the picture isn't ever as sexy, titillating, or unintentionally funny as you wished it would be. More often than not, the movie is rather routine, with Berkley -- who actually was more appealing back on "Saved by the Bell" -- and MacLahlan both giving terribly uninteresting performances. Only Gershon was able to parlay this project into bigger success elsewhere (in the Wachowski Brothers' overrated lesbian thriller BOUND), while Robert Davi gets a few laughs in a supporting part.

If SHOWGIRLS failed to deliver on its intended goods in theaters (there are more R-rated movies with seedier sex than this one), at least it has weathered the storm somewhat on video and is dating a bit better now that the expectations are gone. MGM's DVD is 2.35 and looks great (shot in Panavision by Jost Vacano), although 16:9 owners won't appreciate the fact that it's not an enhanced transfer. The 5.1 Dolby Digital sound is enjoyable, and a featurette and trailer have been included as well. And for the part most will care about, yes, this IS the full NC-17 version, so no complaints that you're missing the 20 seconds of footage during the lap-dance sequence!

I found it amusing that one of the women who appears in the featurette discusses how SHOWGIRLS is a new kind of "modern musical," when MGM has also coincidentally rolled out a handful of GENUINE musicals among their recent titles.

The mega-budget 1958 Joesph Mankiewicz production of GUYS AND DOLLS (***, $24.98) is not regarded as a screen classic, but it's a generally faithful adaptation of the great Frank Loesser musical and MGM has once again given the movie more justice on DVD than it has ever received before. Marlon Brando (who sings and dances and actually doesn't embarrass himself) and Frank Sinatra have a grand time as Sky Masterson and Nathan Detroit, respectively, while Jean Simmons and Broadway vet Vivian Blaine slide comfortably in the female leads. The production is a bit much at times but Bob Fosse's choreography, the mammoth Cinemascope framing and -- of course -- the music keep you interested, especially if you've never seen the show live on stage.

This Samuel Goldwyn production was initially released on video by CBS/Fox in an only semi-letterboxed presentation years ago, then was reissued in a THX version by HBO/Image not all that long ago. MGM's first release of GUYS AND DOLLS appears to have a true, genuine 2.5:1 Cinemascope transfer, capturing all of the visuals of the production and enabling viewers to see everything that was shot in the process. GUYS AND DOLLS is a crop 'n scan-fest whenever it airs on AMC, so saying this is likely the best- looking video presentation of this picture is not a stretch. The 5.1, all-new Dolby Digital remix soundtrack is also terrific, with clear channel separations making for a great-sounding presentation of the score. A lengthy trailer with Ed Sullivan boasting about the film is included on the supplemental side along with some interesting trivia notes in the inlay booklet.

MGM has also released a fine DVD presentation of Charles Laughton's sensational THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (****, $24.98), with Robert Mitchum as a sheep in wool's clothing who dons the outfit of a man of the cloth and marries widow Shelley Winters after he hears her jailbird husband disclose the whereabouts of some stolen loot while both serve time in the big house. The movie is a lyrical, beautifully filmed thriller, one that was subsequently ripped off in countless movies all the way up to Martin Scorsese's disappointing take on CAPE FEAR. Laughton's film -- his only feature -- is a classic all the way, with Mitchum pursuing Winters and her two smarter children, and Lillian Gish as an orphanage matron who tries valiantly to protect them. The cinematography, direction, and performances of the cast (particularly Mitchum) create a spellbinding picture that's every bit as fresh today as it was in 1956. MGM's full-frame (as the picture was shot) DVD looks generally sharp with only some occasional background noise (it's no worse than any of Universal's Classic Monster releases), and the mono soundtrack is a bit better than expected. If you've never seen NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, by all means give it a view -- it's great cinema and the DVD is as good as it's ever looked on video before.

Also from MGM: it's not the GUNS OF NAVARONE, but the belated 1978 all-star spectacle that was FORCE 10 FROM NAVARONE (**1/2, $24.98) is nevertheless worth a view. In all honestly, how can you not recommend a movie that stars Robert Shaw, Harrison Ford, Carl Weathers, and Richard Kiel? I can't, so even though this bloated WWII action-epic is corny, silly, and has some dubious special effects work (it was co-produced by Samuel Z.Arkoff of American-International, after all), the cast makes it fun. MGM's DVD is 2.35 (not enhanced) and offers the original British version (126 minutes with the Columbia logo) in letterboxed format on one side, with the U.S. release version (118 minutes with the AIP logo) in a hideous pan-and-scan job on the other. The mono soundtrack features a jolly good Ron Goodwin score and since the movie was directed by Guy Hamilton of Bond fame, there are plenty of explosions on-hand to keep you interested.

NO WAY OUT (**, $24.98) was never one of my favorite late '80s thrillers, but remains a favorite for some viewers today for its steamy limo sex sequence between Kevin Costner and Sean Young -- back when Sean's cinematic appearances didn't instantly have "Direct to Video" written all over them. This political- cum-spy thriller with a groaner of a twist ending offers Gene Hackman in one of his many performances in this genre during the time (he was the Tommy Lee Jones of the late '80s), along with a stilted Costner essaying a naval commander sent to find a killer that doesn't exist after Hackman's mistress (guess who?) is killed by Gino in a fit of rage. Maurice Jarre's suspense-synth score is serviceable and director Roger Donaldson would go on to film other, better B-thrillers, but it's the physical interplay between Costner and Young that made this movie famous, and it's worth a look since all the true excitement occurs in the first 30 minutes. After that, the movie settles into a convoluted thriller formula that becomes increasingly unbelievable as it rolls along. MGM's DVD has both 1.85 and full-frame formats (neither enhanced) with a decent Dolby Pro-Logic track. If you do check this one out, make sure to rent HOT SHOTS PART DEUX shortly thereafter for a truly hysterical spoof of the limo ride.

BACK TO SCHOOL (***, $24.98) was a major hit for Rodney Dangerfield in 1986, and it's easy still to see why: this engaging, PG-13 rated comedy is, even for non-Rodney fans, a casual, funny vehicle for the comedian, offering a generous amount of laughs and a game cast to compliment the fun. The only downside is that MGM's DVD is -- at least in the widescreen version -- horribly misframed, cropping out far too much of the picture (even the opening credits slide below the black borders!) for comfort and lobbing off heads in the process. The good news is that there's an adequate full-frame version also included, which allows you to see a substantial amount of picture above and below the frame that was hacked off by the widescreen edition. The Dolby Surround track, fortunately, doesn't suffer through nearly as many problems!

Finally, if someone can explain how the rights to HONEYMOON IN VEGAS landed with MGM, surely someone who spends their time trying to figure out film ownership rights will sleep easier tonight. This is a Castle Rock movie distributed theatrically by Columbia, presented in association with New Line Cinema. Now, even though Castle Rock is a Time Warner company and New Line is as well, somehow the rights reverted over to MGM (!) on the video end, but no matter -- it doesn't make this belabored Andrew Bergman comedy (**, $24.98) with Nicolas Cage and Sarah Jessica Parker any funnier. Whatever happened, by the way, to Bergman? SO FINE, THE FRESHMAN, FLETCH and THE IN-LAWS were all pretty entertaining and then?his comedic juices simply ran out? (I mean, we're talking STRIPTEASE, IT COULD HAPPEN TO YOU, and ISN'T SHE GREAT here, people!). In any event, MGM's DVD is a full- frame, non-enhanced effort with a bouncy Dolby Pro-Logic track, featuring an enjoyable assortment of Elvis covers by various artists (Billy Joel, Trisha Yearwood) that's the most entertaining element in the picture.

NEXT TIME: The Aisle Seat looks at GLADIATOR, while THE INSIDER hits DVD and Fox rolls out a Special Edition of BUTCH CASSIDY on DVD. Until then, all emails can be sent to me via dursina@att.net and we'll see you next week!


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