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Jurassic-Sized DVD Round-Up!

From JURASSIC PARK to goodies from Buena Vista, Paramount, and Columbia, a Round-Up of New Releases on DVD!

By Andy Dursin

Because I've been frantically trying to keep up with the amount of new DVDs pouring into our Aisle Seat offices, space considerations have curtailed several new cinematic reviews I promised I'd write up.

Briefly, I can say that I thoroughly enjoyed GODZILLA 2000, which is now on its way to video where it may become a cult favorite for quite some time. A full-fledged Japanese epic (the latest in a lengthy series of new Toho films, apparently), I had a nostalgic blast watching this entertaining monster opus, which features some decent special effects and a tremendous final brawl that will not disappoint anyone who grew up watching Gojira films on "Creature Double Feature" as a youngster. The dubbing was right at home with the Godzilla of yore, though with a kind of affectionate nod, right down to the hilarious final discussion of Godzilla's place in this world of ours. If you were at all interested in seeing this one, make it a point to view it on video when the time comes.

I've also seen NURSE BETTY and BRING IT ON, the surprising box-office hit that has generated surprisingly good word-of-mouth. BETTY, the latest from Neal LeBute, is a quirky, strange fairy-tale/black comedy with several wonderful moments. LeBute's direction is more subdued and effective than his past work, but there's an inconsistency in the material that never clicks, and an opening murder that is the single most gratuitous and unnecessary sequence in any film I've seen this year.

The cheerleader competition epic BRING IT ON is a guilty pleasure, but you can see why audiences embraced this late-summer sleeper: the picture is bright and energetic, making it an engaging teen comedy that arrived just when it looked as if this particular genre had run its most recent course. I'm betting that it will be a staple on video and cable TV for years to come.

Now, back on with the (DVD) show, once again going studio-by-studio through some upcoming new releases...


UNIVERSAL: After last year's generally superb first batch of Classic Monster Collection releases, the studio has returned for an encore of four new titles, each remastered with new transfers and a generous assortment of extras. The new titles originate from a variety of different eras in monster-moviemaking, and each have their own distinct charm.

James Whale's brilliant, often chillingly comic THE INVISIBLE MAN (***1/2), the 1933 adaptation of H.G. Wells' novel that established Claude Rains as a star, holds up perhaps the best of the entire batch. Rains's performance as a scientist driven mad after he takes a serum that renders him invisible is maniacally amusing, while the R.C. Sherriff screenplay includes ample doses of humor and horror that make it one of the best of Universal's original, golden-age horror efforts. The trick cinematography holds up remarkably considering the film's age, and you needn't look any further than this summer's so-so "Hollow Man" to know that the plot remains an enduring blueprint in the mad scientist genre.

Rains appeared in the lead role (albeit third-billed) in Universal's lavish, 1943 color version of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (***), starring as the mysterious masked figure who designs to make diva Susanna Foster a star, while top-billed Nelson Eddy sings a few bars as the leading man. Not generally regarded as a classic, there is nevertheless a great deal to savor in the picture, especially if you're an opera fan or aficionado of Eddy. The cinematography is saturated with warm, primary colors, and the technical element of the picture garnered the film three Oscar nominations (for photography, art direction, and Edward Ward's music and adaptations).

Underwater cinematography is what made the 1954 Saturday matinee chiller CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (***) an enduring part of '50s sci-fi cinema. Perhaps the quintessential Universal film from that era, CREATURE marked the first of three flicks starring the Gil-Man from deep under the ocean, in a kind of sympathetic, aquatic version of the "Frankenstein" monster. Jack Arnold's direction set the standard for many an imitation to follow, while the Henry Mancini/Hans J.Salter/Herman Stein co-score is bombastic and a great deal of fun.

The fourth and final new DVD release in the series (officially labeled as a part of "Universal Studios' Comedy Legends") is a classic of a different kind -- the hilarious ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (***1/2), a 1948 post-mortem to the entire cycle of Universal's pre-1945 horrors, with Bud and Lou meeting Dracula (Bela Lugosi), Frankenstein's monster (Glenn Strange) and the Wolfman (Lon Chaney, Jr.) in a frantic farce that still tickles the o'l funny bone to this day. The Robert Lees/Frederic I. Rinaldo/John Grant script is filled with hilarious sequences while the tone and look of the picture effectively hearken back to the initial wave of Universal horrors, managing to be spooky and funny at the same time.

All four DVDs retail for $29.98 each and include commentary tracks and documentaries on each picture: CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON offers a fine commentary by historian and author Tom Weaver in addition to a documentary featuring interviews with surviving cast members and even Monstrous Movie Music's David Schecter, who analyzes the popular Universal genre music of the period in several generous minutes of screen time.

THE INVISIBLE MAN features a commentary by historian Rudy Behlmer and a documentary that -- like the other DVDs produced from James Whale's horror classics -- spends too much time dissecting Whale's personal life, with needless clips from "Gods and Monsters" interspersed into the presentation. Scott McQueen's comments on PHANTOM OF THE OPERA are often enlightening, and the documentary may be the best of this new wave of DVDs, since it contains an intriguing look at Universal's studio politics and the film's production history, featuring interviews with Turhan Bey and Susanna Foster among others. Finally, ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN contains analysis from historian Gregory W. Monk and a documentary looking back on Abbott & Costello's career in addition to the elements that made the picture a bona-fide comedy classic.

The soundtracks and transfers are generally in good condition on all features, though the PHANTOM OF THE OPERA looks to be in the best shape, with bold colors that never bleed. Production stills, notes, trailers (often of the re-issue variety) and cast bios are included on each DVD, making for must-purchases for the Universal horror fan -- and a great gift come Halloween or the subsequent holiday season.

Speaking of must-purchases, there aren't many out there who haven't been craving the long-awaited DVD arrivals of JURASSIC PARK and THE LOST WORLD (okay, so maybe more have been anticipating the former instead of the latter). Fortunately for you dino-seekers, you're less than a month away with both flicks scheduled for release on October 10th ($29.98 each, in separate Dolby Digital and DTS versions).

I've received advance copies of both titles, and unless you were only purchasing these DVDs for the "Jurassic Park III" trailer, the news is good on all fronts.

The original JURASSIC PARK (***1/2) looks and sounds sensational in its 5.1 mix and enhanced 1.85 transfer. The soundtrack will knock your socks off and the visuals look crisper than any laserdisc presentation I have seen. On the supplemental side, the DVD contains the outstanding, 50-minute "Making of Jurassic Park" documentary which first aired on NBC, with an abundance of behind-the-scenes footage including a revealing look at the various stages of special effects production that will provide buffs with plenty to chew on. Other supplements carried over from MCA's "Making of Jurassic Park" laserdisc release include Spielberg's camcorder scouting of Hawaiian locations, storyboards, and other goodies. The movie remains a blast of entertainment and wonderfully realized set pieces (and special FX, of course), even though some of the casting still feels awkward (Laura Dern in particular) and the script could have used a polish or two.

All of the original's flaws were magnified in the hugely disappointing 1997 sequel THE LOST WORLD (**), which for me remains Spielberg's worst movie. Not that the film is totally devoid of entertainment (John Williams's score is a highlight), but this misconceived, poorly-written sequel never gets its act in gear, from abandoning characters like Pete Postelthwaite near the end for a lackluster climax set in San Deigo, or a preachy environmental message that ruins the picture's final minutes. And I can never forgive Spielberg for the "Power Rangers"-like sequence where Jeff Goldblum's daughter uses some gymnastics moves to fend off a group of raptors -- an incredibly embarrassing sequence that likely would have been more harshly criticized had anyone other than Spielberg directed it.

The DVD, to its credit, stresses the film's high points, with a kicking 5.1 track and razor-sharp 1.85 transfer helping to overcome some of the deficiencies in Janusz Kaminski's drab cinematography and the gaping plot holes of David Koepp's script. The supplements here seemed to have been compiled for a planned 1997 Special Edition Laserdisc that never materialized, at least judging from the copyright on Laurent Bouzereau's 50-minute documentary. The deleted scenes that ran on Fox's network TV airings have been included as a supplement, along with storyboards, sketches and conceptual paintings.

Both DVDs include trailers for all of the JP movies (though the original JURASSIC PARK trailer, featuring footage shot expressly for the ad, isn't included), which brings me to the terrible "trailer" for JP III. If you are only picking either DVD up for this "bonus," don't bother: the trailer is a shoddy, brief, shot- on-tape teaser featuring footage seemingly culled from the earlier films, a couple of sound effects, and then the title with a "Summer 2001" tag. Hardly worth the fuss, though the DVDs otherwise will almost certainly not disappoint (though where are the deleted scenes on JURASSIC PARK, which reportedly contained Samuel L. Jackson's arm being torn off?).

Finally, as a sign that all movies truly get another chance on video, there's ISN'T SHE GREAT? (**, $24.98), the box-office bomb from last winter starring Bette Midler in a somewhat comic biography of junk novelist extraordinare Jacqueline Susann, author of "Valley of the Dolls" among infamous others. A great cast joins Midler in the shenanigans (including Nathan Lane as Susann's husband, Stockard Channing, David Hyde Pierce, Amanda Peet, and John Cleese), but despite a few laughs and glossy cinematic treatment courtesy photographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub and composer Burt Bacharach (who reunited with lyricist Hal David for the first time in many years to pen a pair of new songs), the movie is stuck in the zone between parody and drama-edy, and never really can figure out what it wants to do.

Universal's DVD does look good (1.85) and sound fine (5.1 Surround), and aficionados of Midler, Lane, or Susann should find sufficient viewing interest despite the mixed results of the final cut.


BUENA VISTA: The studio that, once upon a time, was one of the last holdouts on the DVD format continues to release a variety of satisfying Special Edition packages that should be of sufficient interest for a wide array of viewers.

The multi-Oscar nominated THE CIDER HOUSE RULES (***, $29.98) was one of last year's few genuinely acclaimed pictures, a moving adaptation of John Irvin's only semi-controversial novel that managed to appeal to the mainstream despite some dicey issues (like abortion) that lurked underneath the surface of the film's gentle, beautifully shot exteriors.

As an orphan growing up in 1940s Maine, Tobey Maguire manages to exude a little more warmth than usual as a young man who strikes out beyond the boundaries of his youth to explore the world and its various pleasures -- which, lucky him, include meeting up with none other than Charlize Theron. Michael Caine's memorable character turn as a friendly neighborhood abortionist earned him a well-deserved Oscar, while the immaculate cinematography of Oliver Stapleton and lyrical score by Rachel Portman help the picture capture the essence of time and place that director Lasse Hallstrom was seeking.

The 2.35 transfer and 5.0 Surround are both technically fine, but the real gem of the DVD are the supplements, which include a commentary from Hallstrom, Irving, and producer Richard N. Gladstein, along with a handful of deleted scenes, a documentary featurette, TV spots and a trailer, and full cast and crew bios.

I'm not the biggest fan of Irving's novels (much less the previous cinematic adaptations of them), but CIDER HOUSE is less about politics and hot-button issues than it is a coming-of-age tale told in a wonderfully realized cinematic fashion.

Supplements are also copious on the Collector's Edition release of SCREAM 3 (***, $24.98), Wes Craven's said-to-be-final installment in his enjoyable genre semi-spoof series. Laid back with some good jabs at Hollywood filmmaking, this one keeps leading lady Neve Campbell on the sidelines for most of the way, spending time instead with bumbling cop David Arquette and newswoman Courtney Cox Arquette, with excellent turns from Parker Posey and Scott Foley on the supporting end of things. Go here for my original review of the film.

The Dimension DVD contains a flawless 2.35 transfer and superlative 5.1 Surround track, along with a substantial amount of extras: outtakes, deleted scenes (and an alternate ending taken off videotape), trailers, TV spots, Creed's music video, commentary from Wes Craven, and featurettes from all three SCREAM pictures. (Collector's Editions of SCREAM and SCREAM 2 will be packaged together in a forthcoming box-set for the entire trilogy later this month)

Finally, while not a full-fledged special edition release, one of my favorite comedies from the last decade -- Frank Oz's raucous 1991outing WHAT ABOUT BOB? (***1/2, $24.98) -- has finally found its way to DVD.

Representing some of the finest work of star Bill Murray and Richard Dreyfuss, this farce finds Murray as a neurotic patient who follows therapist and bestselling author Dreyfuss and his clan on vacation in New Hampshire. Insanity ensues, along with a succession of memorable moments and big laughs, as Dreyfuss gives a slow burn performance right up there with the actor's best work. Murray, on the other hand, displays deft comic timing and the two have a potent on-screen chemistry that makes this an enduring favorite.

The 1.85 transfer is quite good, the 2.0 Dolby Surround track is effective, and a fun theatrical trailer has also been included. Tons of fun!


PARAMOUNT: It took a while, but the long-awaited, much-requested, "where the heck is it???" DVD of BRAVEHEART (****, $29.98) has finally arrived in a presentation perfectly befitting Mel Gibson's stirring 1995 Oscar winner.

The best news is that the 2.35 transfer has been spruced up here: not quite as colorful as the at-times erratic THX laser transfer but much more consistent, the enhanced DVD picture looks good, even better than it did in theaters. The 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack is fairly elaborate considering the film's historical-drama background, and gets quite energetic (as you might expect) during the movie's thrilling battle sequences.

After years of rumors that Pioneer would be producing a "Special Edition" Laserdisc release, Paramount went to the trouble of including new supplements for the DVD, including a sporadic but satisfying commentary from Gibson, along with an insightful 30-minute featurette, "Braveheart: A Filmmaker's Passion," which shows the director/star at work on what turned out to be one of the last decade's few genuine epics. A pair of theatrical trailers round out the presentation -- one that will not let down the legions of fans the film has picked up since its initially modest theatrical run.


COLUMBIA: Finally, the studio that includes the most isolated score tracks on DVD continues to turn out quality release after quality release for music fans.

Though not advertised on the back jacket, Maurice Jarre's score for Hugh Hudson's box-office flop I DREAMED OF AFRICA (**, $24.98) has been incorporated on a DVD of this great-looking but bubble-headed biopic of Kuki Gallmann, a woman (here played by Kim Basinger) who heads with her son and new hubby for the Kenyan countryside where all kinds of problems ensue. Basinger delivers an OK performance but the script by Paula Milne and Susan Shilliday is pretty terrible, compensated for to a degree by the 2.35 widescreen cinematography and Jarre's score. Other extras include an HBO Making Of, production notes, and a trailer.

Ed Shearmur's original score has been isolated on the DVD of WHATEVER IT TAKES (**1/2, $24.98), one of several teen comedies that sputtered last spring at the box-office. A surprisingly enjoyable take on "Cyrano" by screenwriter Mark Schwahn, this engaging and often funny farce gets a boost from a likeable cast, most specifically Marla Sokoloff from "The Practice" as a girl set in the midst of a mix n'match relationship. The 1.85 transfer is great, and the release also includes filmmaker commentary, deleted scenes, trailers, a featurette, and full talent files -- not bad for an overlooked youth comedy!

Finally, it doesn't contain isolated score, but Columbia's DVD of Michael Crichton's insanely goofy 1984 sci-fi thriller RUNAWAY (**, $24.98) is worth a look for genre fans and admirers of Jerry Goldsmith's electronic score. This loopy, comic-book styled adventure features Tom Selleck in one of his many failed '80s attempts to establish himself as a big-screen star, as a cop in the future who finds himself taking on bad guys Gene Simmons (from Kiss) and Kirstie Alley, while robot critters run amok causing trouble all over the place. The film is incredibly stupid but fun for non-discriminating viewers, and at least looks great in the 2.35 Panavision transfer included here, while Goldsmith's score receives a better-than-expected 4.0 Dolby Digital track. An over-the-top trailer has been included with talent files for extras.


NEXT TIME... More new releases, ALMOST FAMOUS, and your comments. In the meantime, direct all emails to dursina@att.net and we'll catch you then. Excelsior!


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