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Aisle Seat March DVD Madness!

Paramount, Universal and Anchor Bay New Titles Aren't Just For THE BIRDS

By Andy Dursin

I haven't seen the recent theatrical restoration of Alfred Hitchcock's REAR WINDOW that so many have raved about, but Universal Home Video has a restored DVD presentation of their own due out on March 28th when a Collector's Edition of THE BIRDS (****, $26.98) hits stores everywhere.

Hitch's sensational 1963 thriller, a free adaptation of Daphne DuMaurier's story by screenwriter Evan Hunter (in collaboration with the director), was if nothing else a major technical achievement for its era. Like the CGI dinosaurs in JURASSIC PARK, THE BIRDS utilized every known technical and sound process in the book available in the early '60s. Subsequently, the movie integrated believable blue-screen backdrops, matte paintings, optical effects, and actual stunts to form a genuine filmmaking tour de force.

That aspect of the film's legacy is addressed directly in this supplemental-laden Universal DVD, offering the movie's first matted widescreen aspect ratio (1.85:1) presentation on home video. The movie looks a bit grainy in spots but is generally colorful; the mono sound fares a bit better, offering a crisp, pungent representation of the film's unusual sound design.

As most FSM readers are aware, Hitchcock and Hunter agreed upon not using a music score for fear that the orchestra and sound effects wound prove to be too much for viewers. Working with early electronic synthesizers and real sounds, Hitchcock managed to create stunning and effective outbursts of cacophonous noise, contrasted by silence at several key moments (Herrmann worked as a consultant and liaison between the director and the sound designers).

This unique element of the picture is discussed by Herrmann biographer Steven C.Smith in the terrific, lengthy documentary "All About THE BIRDS," which features new interviews with Tippi Hedren, Rod Taylor, Veronica Cartwright, and the surviving technical folks behind-the-scenes who played a prominent part in making Hitchcock's follow-up to PSYCHO such a masterpiece of film terror. From detailing Hedren's casting (her screen tests with Martin Balsam are included) to detailing the special effects production and arduous bird wrangling required to make the movie work, it's an inclusive, insightful look at Hitchcock's wizardry and compelling viewing for any cinephile.

The DVD also includes storyboards and script excerpts for a lost deleted scene, and a likewise presentation of Hunter's original scripted ending, which essentially carries the movie forward into one final action sequence without adding any new wrinkles from a narrative standpoint. (Unfortunately you cannot still- frame, manually forward or reverse through these segments, so you better be able to read quickly!). Hunter also discusses his original finale in the documentary, revealing that he was stunned the film ended the way it did, suspecting that an additional month of complicated technical shooting (and budgetary planning) was the reason why Hitchcock didn't feel compelled to shoot it.

Two Universal newsreels and the typically engaging Hitchcock-hosted trailer are also included for a movie that remains a genuine classic thriller, one that still manages to shock and startle -- its newly certified PG- 13 rating is certainly warranted -- even 37 years after its initial release. Needless to say, Universal's DVD is highly recommended for both the movie and the extras.

More gruesome but nowhere near as effective, Universal will be releasing last fall's box-office success THE BONE COLLECTOR (*1/2, $26.98) next week.

This dismal serial killer thriller is just another run-of-the-kill genre effort, wasting a good cast that often appears completely uninterested in the preposterous plot concocted by Jeremy Iacone from Jeffery Deaver's novel.

Denzel Washington doesn't exactly evoke memories of Jimmy Stewart in REAR WINDOW as a bed- ridden, paralyzed cop who improbably guides rookie patrolwoman Angelina Jolie as she investigates a series of brutal murders in New York City caused by a weirdo who abducts and brutalizes his victims.

Director Phillip Noyce's credits include CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER, PATRIOT GAMES, THE SAINT, and DEAD CALM, but there's nothing in THE BONE COLLECTOR resembling any of the suspense or entertainment found in his earlier films. The script is thoroughly absurd and wildly unbelievable (the way Jolie uncovers the killer's motivation, by literally stumbling upon a turn-of-the- century crime novel in a used bookstore, is sheer hokum all the way), while Jolie appears completely ill-at- ease and a number of dependable veteran character actors (Michael Rooker, Ed O'Neill) are given disappointingly little to do.

The DVD at least looks great (2.35:1 widescreen) and sounds superb, with a multi-layered surround presentation offering plenty of kick in either its Dolby Digital or slighlty superior DTS mix. Noyce's commentary is also included, along with a trailer and the studio's usual production notes-and-bios.

While Spike Lee's recent flicks have struck out at the box-office, his cousin Malcolm scored one of last fall's big hits with the engaging romantic comedy THE BEST MAN (***, Universal, $24.98), which aside from distinguishing itself from the usual Meg Ryan fluff by being an African-American take on the genre, clicks primarily because of its superb ensemble performances and honest writing.

Taye Diggs stars as a writer whose latest book, soon-to-be-hawked on Oprah, is a thinly-veiled chronicle of his collegiate exploits, filled with dirt on the relationships of his friends -- who just happen to be reunited for the wedding of Diggs's football playing pal (Morris Chesnut). Of course, complications and confrontations naturally arise once Diggs's friends read a preview copy of the finished book and a series of revelations about each others' personal and sexual liaisons come out.

A lot was made about the film being one of the first of its kind to feature an African-American cast, although some critics carped that the movie wasn't as unique or different enough from the usual genre movie as it could have been given its black take on the genre. My response is that the movie, while being formulaic, is no less enjoyable because of that, and uses its ethnicity to put a fresh, insightful, and highly enjoyable spin on familiar material. I didn't find the movie to be a "sell out" at all as it skillfully created a handful of amiable characters with different motivations and personalities we can all identify with regardless of color -- something that the movie's wide appeal and box-office take confirmed.

Diggs, Chesnut, Harold Perrineau, and Terrence Howard are all terrific as the male leads, while Nia Long, Sanaa Lathan, Monica Calhoun and Melissa DeSousa prove to be their equals on the female side. Writer- director Lee includes a handful of well-worn genre cliches in his script (the raucous bachelor party and its fallout, a groom who doesn?t want to commit, etc.), but because the characters are so clearly defined, the film feels fresh and THE BEST MAN makes for an enjoyable comedic drama all the way through.

Universal's DVD contains a solid 1.85:1 transfer and both Dolby Digital and DTS stereo tracks; as is usually the case, if you have a DTS-compatible receiver, I'd choose the latter track, which has a bit more energy although there are lengthy stretches of film that never utilize the surround channels. A "Spotlight on Location" promotional featurette is included along with a trailer, production notes and bios, and for some reason, a teaser for the upcoming Jonathan Jackson FIRM,Jr. thriller THE SKULLS.

Also recently released from Universal is Vincent Gallo's truly strange one-man-show BUFFALO '66 (**, $24.98), with the actor directing, scoring, co-writing, and starring as Billy, an ex-con who kidnaps a tap- dancer (Cristina Ricci) to take home and introduce as his wife to a pair of parents (Ben Gazzara, Anjelica Huston) who seem to be more interested in the Buffalo Bills than in their Billy's whereabouts over the last few years.

Gallo certainly assembled a cast perfectly befitting the tough, bleak storyline here (what else can you say about a movie that co-stars Mickey Rourke and Jan-Michael Vincent?), but most of BUFFALO '66 comes across as your "I'm straining to do something really different because this is an indie movie" kind of project that a filmmaker tries too hard to differentiate from the conventional "studio" film. Obviously shot on a meager budget despite its terrific cast (Rosanna Arquette also appears as one of Gallo's grade-school classmates), BUFFALO '66 has its off-putting moments that only fans of independent cinema will appreciate, although there are a few sequences where it seems as if Gallo has a genuine touch for a Coen Brothers comedic sensibility. Too bad the auteur couldn't have trimmed some of the fat (the movie is spread across a bloated 111 minutes), or else BUFFALO '66 might have found more admirers during its post-Sundance festival circuit run.

Universal, to give credit where it is due, should be commended for giving movies like this a DVD release. The transfer (1.85:1) often feels far too tight on top, and the Dolby Surround sound is barely in stereo, but it likely is the best that the print ever looked before. The theatrical trailer and Universal's production-notes- and-bios round out a bizarre flick that may be worth a look for fans of Gallo, Ricci, or genuine indie efforts.

From the harsh side of life to the sunny contrast of it, DRIVE ME CRAZY (**1/2, Fox, $34.98) was one of last year's many teen comedies, this one starring Melissa Joan Hart (those of us who watched Nickelodeon obviously know her from "Clarissa," those of us who haven't grown out of T.G.I.F. still enjoy her antics as "Sabrina") as a trendy high schooler who decides to perform a make-over on her next-door neighbor (Adrien Granier) and make him into the perfect prom date.

Yes, every cliche in the book is here (and where would we be without a prom sequence finale?), but the blandly titled DRIVE ME CRAZY is actually pretty decent for this kind of film -- not quite as energetic or funny as 10 THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU but a definite step up from the sub-par juvenile piffle that was SHE'S ALL THAT and NEVER BEEN KISSED.

For one, both Hart and Granier make for a pair of engaging leads, while the movie does a better-than- expected job establishing supporting characters and relationships with more believable development than most films of its ilk. Credit screenwriter (and former "Dawson's Creek" scribe) Rob Thomas for writing dialogue that sounds realistic for this age group, and crafting interaction between teens that, for once, isn't as melodramatic as many other films in the genre often are.

Even so, the movie has a groaner of a final scene and often feels as if it was condensed to fit within its requisite 90 minute running time; Stephen Collins (Captain Decker to you and me, but Reverend Camden on the WB's "Seventh Heaven" for this movie's target audience) has just two throwaway scenes as Hart's dad, though it's always nice to see Faye Grant ("V") out and about as her Mom.

Fox's DVD, due out March 14th, looks colorful in its 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and features a fairly vibrant Dolby Digital soundtrack to spice things up on the audio end. Britney Spears's "Crazy" video is included (the movie switched its name from NEXT TO YOU just so it could capitalize on the Britster's Top 40 popularity) along with another lame video for a group I can't remember and the usual assortment of trailers & TV spots.

Paramount's recent DVD releases include home presentations for two of last year's biggest hits, the $150 million-grossing RUNAWAY BRIDE (***, $29.98) and the surprising $110-grossing woman-in-peril thriller DOUBLE JEOPARDY (**1/2, $29.98), which catapulted Ashley Judd into fame and fortune, despite the fact that she's billed below another check-cashing performance from Sir Tommy Lee Jones.

RUNAWAY BRIDE was the second of last summer's Julia Roberts romantic comedies, and while it lacks the elegant production sheen and incisive dialogue found in NOTTING HILL, this follow-up to PRETTY WOMAN from director Garry Marshall is actually more fun.

For starters, Roberts is paired again with Richard Gere, who seems at least to be enjoying himself more on- screen than in most of his cinematic output from the '90s (what, FIRST KNIGHT, MR.JONES, RED CORNER, and INTERSECTION didn't do the trick for you?).

Roberts plays a screwed-up small town girl who has left behind many a groom at the altar; Gere is the cantankerous USA Today columnist who smells a story but loses his job after writing a fiery editorial condemning the girl. Seeking retribution, Gere drives down to the picaresque small Maryland town to get the true scoop on the so-called "Runaway Bride," and everyone can take it from there in terms of what happens next.

As with most of the more successful applications of this formula, it's not what happens at the end that matters, but how you get there. In this regard, Marshall's movie is a disarming charmer, feeling more in tone and spirit to an older '40s or '50s almost-screwball comedy than a film like NOTTING HILL.

Roberts and Gere are able to re-generate the slow-simmering sparks that enabled their last teaming to be such a monster hit, while Marshall throws in some goofy laughs and utilizes numerous familiar faces from his previous films in the supporting cast (Hector Elizondo, Larry Miller, Sela Ward). It's all escapist fluff, but its unpretentious and earnest tone make it surprisingly endearing, and Marshall knows how to push all the right buttons in a movie of this sort. If you have to rent a "date" movie, this is one of the better ones, no doubt.

To make the DVD even more appealing, Paramount has included a frequently hilarious commentary from Marshall, who has no problem acknowledging the movie's frivolous plot and letting us in on some of the more amusing anecdotes that occur during a film's production. Marshall even laughs about one of his last cinematic effort by saying, "they paid me NOT to do the commentary track on EXIT TO EDEN!" I rarely listen to commentaries all the way through, but Marshall brings enough good humor and interesting stories to the track that it's definitely worth listening to.

The DVD looks comfortably framed at the 2.35:1 aspect ratio (I'm betting this was shot in Super 35, however), and the Dolby Digital track contains a pleasant score from James Newton Howard and not-too- many obtrusive songs. A theatrical trailer and a Dixie Chicks video round out a nice DVD all around.

DOUBLE JEOPARDY was another "girl power" movie from 1999, a movie that clearly tapped into the same karma and audience that Roberts's hit SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY found back a decade ago.

Call this one SLEEPING WITH THE FUGITIVE, with Judd as a wealthy wife sent to the Big House for committing her husband's murder during a blackout?or did she? While in the can, she learns that the o'l bugger turns up sporting a sexy new spouse while their child simply wants mommy to come home. Tommy Lee plays Lt.Gerard of the?.oh sorry?.a parole officer who follows Judd's moves at every turn, assuming she's guilty but learning once again, slowly but surely, that there may be more to her story than meets the eye.

Few realized that the architect behind this formulaic but moderately engrossing thriller was none other than director Bruce Beresford, the former Oscar-nominee for DRIVING MISS DAISY. While Bruce would undoubtedly rather be working on a film with the hopes of earning another golden statuette (movies like A GOOD MAN IN AFRICA and RICH IN LOVE will knock you down a peg, no way around it), the film benefits enormously from its sure-handed direction and competent performances. Judd is good in the lead and Jones essays yet another gruff man of authority with a heart lurking someplace beneath the surface.

It's all popcorn-munching twists and turns, but the movie is well-made and entertaining enough to get the job done.

Paramount's DVD features a 2.35:1 transfer (culled from the Super 35 negative) and a workable Dolby Digital soundtrack. The theatrical trailer, which reveals far too much of the plot, is included along with a brief promotional behind-the-scenes featurette.

Finally, I have to briefly mention Anchor Bay's recent double-pooch-feature culled from the Disney vaults, Carroll Ballard's outstanding 1983 feature NEVER CRY WOLF (***1/2, $24.98) and the entertaining 1961 production NIKKI, WILD DOG OF THE NORTH (***, $24.98), adapted from a story by James Oliver Curwood (THE BEAR).

Ballard's film boasts remarkable nature footage and cinematography in its chronicle of a scientist sent to Alaska to study the behavior of wolves; Charles Martin Smith stars in the deliberately paced but memorable adventure film, best suited to older children and adults. Hiro Narita's photography really sings in the super 1.85:1 transfer, and the Dolby Stereo track features a moody, early score from Mark Isham.

NIKKI makes for more satisfying viewing for children, but nevertheless contains excellent outdoor photography and a rousing story that makes for an efficient 71-minute feature. The good-looking 1.85:1 transfer makes it a perfect companion piece to Ballard's later, more mature yarn.

NEXT WEEK: MGM releases, your comments, and more! Send all emails to dursina@att.net and we'll see you then. Cheers!


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