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Another Aisle Seat April DVD Assault

WALKING WITH DINOSAURS, plus new Warner and Paramount releases on DVD!

By Andy Dursin

Plenty of new DVD releases have been filtering through our Aisle Seat offices here in New England, which has made enduring the generally gloomy (and wet!) month of April around here quite a bit easier.

Easily the most impressive and recommended release is Fox/BBC Video's breathtaking presentation of the documentary WALKING WITH DINOSAURS (****, $34.98), a compulsively watchable, brilliant achievement that has already become the highest-rated documentary in both BBC and American television history.

After sitting through each of the six episodes, it's easy to see why: using simply gorgeous cinematography and outstanding CGI special effects (we've come a long way when TV can do JURASSIC PARK-like visuals full justice), this BBC/Discovery Channel co-production presents a colorful, fascinating visual education on what life was like on Earth during the reign of the dinosaurs. Each episode focuses on a separate theme (air predators, underwater life, etc.), and builds a story markedly similar to a generic nature documentary with one main catch: the dinosaurs are recreated here in remarkable detail through digital effects artistry, complimenting live-action backdrops shot around the world by the production team.

Some have criticized portions of the program's science, but a great deal of dinosaur history is purely speculative anyway since... well, none of us have seen dinosaurs recently, right? The show's look and tone, complimented by images that are as remarkable as any you'll see on your television screen, will prove spellbinding to adults and older children (some images and graphic violence will be unsuitable to youngsters, so be wary of showing this to the little kids, as much as they'll want to watch it). It's a truly outstanding experience that should be difficult for anyone to resist, like a schoolboy's dinosaur book come to life.

Now, while it's true that the Discovery Channel aired the special last week (to gargantuan, history-making cable ratings), the DVD is superior for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it presents the original, BBC broadcast version -- with extra footage, markedly improved visuals, and Kenneth Branagh's narration -- in place of the abbreviated version Discovery aired in the U.S.

The changes are substantial, for while Discovery aired an edited version of a 6-part, 180 minute program (cut to accommodate commercials and gorier shots), the BBC version presents the program in its respective, self-contained episodes, with Branagh's narration a significant improvement on Avery Brooks's rather one-note, monotone delivery heard in the U.S. airing.

For whatever reason, the DVD looks so much better than the Discovery channel broadcast it almost appears as if the U.S. version originated from an inferior PAL-derived source, accounting for some blurry and washed-out images. At least, anyone who only saw the program on the Discovery Channel didn't see the effects and photography in their truest, genuinely warm, colorful hues, something rectified by Fox's flawless DVD transfer (which keeps the program letterboxed at 1.78:1, enhanced for 16:9).

The two-disc set features a dual-layer presentation with all 6 episodes on one disc, with occasional picture- in-picture footage showing behind-the-scenes footage and commentary from the producer. This comes in addition to THE MAKING OF "WALKING WITH DINOSAURS," a 50-minute documentary you can find on the 2nd DVD, along with some promotional spots.

For entertainment and educational purposes, WALKING WITH DINOSAURS is my favorite new DVD release of 2000 thus far, and for anyone with any sort of interest in the dinos, it's good enough to rekindle your youthful fascination with these creatures. Truly remarkable, and dino-mite! (my apologies to Jimmie Walker there).

Warner Home Video's recent slate of releases include a pair of remastered presentations for two late '70s/early '80s comedies that have become fan favorites over the years: Barry Levinson's wonderfully nostalgic comedy-drama DINER (***1/2, $19.98) and the golf classic CADDYSHACK (***, $19.98), both featuring letterboxed transfers and 30-minute retrospective documentaries to boot.

DINER is certainly the more artistic success of the two films, a portrait of friendship and growing up in Baltimore during the '50s by Levinson, who here made his directorial debut. Steve Guttenberg, Mickey Rourke, Daniel Stern, Kevin Bacon, Paul Reiser, and Tim Daly are the life-long friends awash in those youthful problems of working, finding a spouse, and growing up in the carefree days of the '50s; Levinson develops their dialogue and characters beautifully in an eloquent script that set the tone for many a "rites of passage" film made during the '80s, as well as laid the groundwork for later pop-culture character discussions present in the dialogue of Quentin Tarantino, just for starters. The movie never hits a wrong note and remains one of the finest films made by the respective stars, and serves as a reminder that Mickey Rourke was legitimately once viewed as a promising young actor on the rise (and not the constant brunt of jokes by late-night talk show hosts!).

DINER is an MGM film but since the pre-1987 MGM catalogue is now owned by Warner Bros. (through their acquisition of Turner Entertainment), the WB has issued DINER on DVD in a new remastered presentation boasting a sharp 1.85:1 transfer. The movie was shot on a quite modest (meager?) budget and therefore doesn't have the most pleasing aesthetic in cinematographic terms, but the transfer is easily the sharpest that I've seen the movie on video before and will prove fully satisfying for fans. The mono soundtrack is passable and features a collection of '50s standards (along with a pair of orchestral underscore tracks heard only at the very end of the picture) that fit nicely in with the preceding instead of being distracting.

Levinson has not recorded a commentary track here, but instead participated in an engaging 30-minute new documentary produced for the DVD release. Featuring interviews with all the stars (sans Mickey Rourke) and the director, it's a fun, insightful look at the making of the picture (apparently Guttenberg was not just the only sex-starved young actor on the set!), offering a great deal of insight into Levinson's then-unrefined directorial approach and neat trivia about the production. Particularly interesting is the discussion about MGM's handling of the film's release; at one point the studio considered shelving the picture altogether before good reviews leaked out, essentially forcing them to release it nationwide (see, it's a good thing Warner's owns the film now or else you'd never hear stuff like this!).

DINER remains one of the most enjoyable comedies of the early '80s and in the "growing up" post-teen genre, it's an essential movie to have in your collection.

A few years earlier, the fledging Orion Pictures studio unveiled what would prove to be an immortal classic in the annals of the "slob comedy" (a genre established by ANIMAL HOUSE in 1978) -- 1980's CADDYSHACK, with disgruntled new country club member Rodney Dangerfield battling Chevy Chase and Ted Knight out on and off the golf course. Bill Murray makes the most of his oft-quoted character, Carl, while a puppet gopher and a floating candy bar elicit plenty of laughs in this Harold Ramis-directed effort, a quintessential film for sports fans and raucous, raunchy comedy.

Warner's DVD supercedes their original, full-frame only effort with a matted 1.85:1 transfer and a 31- minute documentary touching upon the movie's cult status and production history. Like the "Diner" effort, it's a light, moderately interesting program that fans of the movie will particularly enjoy, and a theatrical trailer has also been incorporated. (The DVD, however, lacks the isolated score/effects track heard on Image's laserdisc from last year).

The remastered picture looks a bit better than the original DVD effort, and the 1.85:1 matting is efficient, but there still are a lot of flaws inherent in the source material, something that has to do with CADDYSHACK not exactly being a big-budget effort in the first place. The 1.0 mono soundtrack is also on the weak side, and has to be pushed to high levels to coax any kind of presence out of it (the mono soundtrack from Image's LD last year is much stronger by comparison).

Still, it's not nearly enough to detract from the best looking presentation of CADDYSHACK out there, and the movie is still funny enough to illicit a generous quotient of chuckles from fans and first-time viewers alike (even if it was followed by a lame sequel ten years after the fact).

Warner's has also rolled-out a super DVD presentation of last Halloween's box-office hit, THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (**, $19.95), a remake of the 1959 Vincent Price thriller that, truth be told, wasn't a classic of the genre.

This new version isn't, either, but it does have its moments: Geoffrey Rush, doing what appears to be more of a James Woods imitation than anything else (perhaps Jimmy didn't feel up for more gore after slogging through the mess that was JOHN CARPENTER'S VAMPIRES), plays a crazy amusement park designer who invites a motley assortment of guests together for a party in a former insane asylum. Turns out that Rush's mechanical gadgets only go so far as to explain the truly supernatural phenomena that follow as ghosts of the former mental patients (including mad surgeon Jeffrey Combs) turn up and have a grand o'l time ousting the partygoers one-by-one.

The effects are passable but the most fun comes from watching the cast at work: Rush is amusing, and SNL's Chris Kattan gets a few laughs in playing the Elisha Cook role. Ali Larter (recently seen in the enjoyable FINAL DESTINATION) and Taye Diggs make for a pair of appealing protagonists, while former actress-on-the-rise Bridgette Wilson, singer Lisa Loeb, and BUFFY's James "Spike" Marsters appear in secondary roles.

Director William Malone pushes the gore quotient and jacks up the Dolby Digital soundtrack (and Don Davis's score) to their highest possible limits, but ultimately all the razzle-dazzle can go so far as to cover for a rather pedestrian screenplay that leaves a lot of explaining to do when all is said and done.

Warner's DVD, however, looks and sounds great in its 1.85:1 enhanced transfer, and sweetens the deal with director commentary and several deleted scenes featuring Debi Mazar, cut from the finished print. It's a moderately entertaining ride best suited for horror fans.

Paramount, meanwhile, has been occupied with releasing the original STAR TREK TV episodes on DVD, something that has led to the long-awaited remastering of several TREK as well, an event that laserdisc fans asked for years ago.

Starting from STAR TREK IV and working backwards from there, STAR TREK III: THE SEARCH FOR SPOCK (***, $29.98) is the most recent to benefit from Paramount's remastering, offering a crisp and generally pristine 2.35:1 new transfer and a terrific Dolby Digital 5.1 remixed soundtrack to back up the visuals.

Truth be told, Leonard Nimoy's inaugural directorial effort in the series really doesn't exist as a stand-alone entry. As a bridge between STAR TREK II and IV, the movie serves primarily to get the viewer through a lengthy progession of narrative events that tie up loose ends left by the more elaborate dramatic fireworks of STAR TREK II, and set the stage for the more gleeful and energetic THE VOYAGE HOME.

Producer Harve Bennett's script this time finds Kirk, McCoy and the gang plunging down again to the Genesis planet, fighting Klingons, destroying the Enterprise, and just trying to bring Spock back from the dead along the way. It's a fairly cut-and-dried script that often feels like a bloated episode of the original show, not helped by some bland direction by Nimoy in his first stint behind the lens.

Obviously, Nimoy wasn't done any favors by the production backing him up here: the movie is claustrophobically shot entirely on sound-stages, the casting isn't as interesting as STAR TREK II, and the absence of Kirstie Alley in the Saavik role doesn't help (Robin Curtis followed her ineffective performance here with a series of TV guest bits and Alpo commercials). And what more can you say about a movie that follows Ricardo Montalban's stellar performance as Khan with villains portrayed by Christopher Lloyd and John Larroquette, best known at that time for their sitcom performances?

That said, if you're a fan, there are still some choice moments to savor (especially when Scotty fools around with the Excelsior's engines) and Bennett's script does afford a few one-liners ("don't call me Tiny!") that make for pleasing entertainment. Nimoy, however, learned from some of this picture's mistakes and made a more entertaining picture the next time out, making STAR TREK III an essential part of the three-picture story arc but certainly not the most effective installment.

Paramount's DVD, enhanced for 16:9 TVs, does look far superior to their older letterboxed LD release, and the remixed 5.1 soundtrack is likewise more potent. A brief theatrical trailer, which feels more like an extended TV spot, has also been included. Plans are underway for ST-TMP and THE WRATH OF KHAN to follow on DVD later this year.

With the glut of serial killer thillers out there, it's interesting to go back to the early '90s, a time that saw the release of THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, a movie that instigated an entire genre that is still going strong with copycats almost a decade later.

Within a year of LAMBS's 1991 release the clones started popping up, and one of them, JENNIFER 8 (***, $29.98), proved to be almost as interesting at least in cinematic terms as its far more popular and acclaimed predecessor was -- something confirmed by Paramount's remastered DVD presentation of Bruce Robinson's 1992 feature.

Director-writer Robinson's neatly plotted thriller stars Andy Garcia as a cop investigating a series of murders of young women. The trail leads to a blind woman (Uma Thurman) who becomes a witness in the investigation, and also a love interest for Garcia, while the cop tries to track down the killer before another young woman is slaughtered.

Superb cinematography by Oscar-winner Conrad Hall goes a long way to setting this thriller apart from other, similarly-themed pictures, but there's also a lot of character development that Robinson includes that helps distinguish JENNIFER 8 from its brethren. Garcia complained after the film's release that there were additional backstory sequences that were regrettably cut from the final print (including more screen time for FBI agent John Malkovich), but even in its final 125 minute release version, JENNIFER 8 is visually stimulating and suspenseful enough to sustain one's interest.

Paramount's DVD boasts a solid 1.85:1, enhanced transfer (no easy feet given the movie's dark, drab look) and an effective 5.1 remixed soundtrack featuring one of Christopher Young's better scores of the period. A theatrical trailer is the only supplement found in the release.

Finally, Anchor Bay has once again done a favor for all fans of Dario Argento and "Spaghetti Splatter" with a pair of Director's Cut DVDs of two of his most sought-after films: 1975's DEEP RED (Profondo Russo) and his 1980 follow-up to "Suspiria," INFERNO ($29.98 each), both of which hit stores this week.

Although I managed to make it through PHENOMENA last year (albeit only because of my longtime crush on Jennifer Connelly), I must admit I'm not the biggest fan of Argento or Euro-horror. Even so, there is still a lot of visual flair on-hand in both of these pictures that will merit a viewing for curious horror aficionados, and certainly make for "must-haves" for Argento-philes.

DEEP RED, one of Argento's most celebrated works, looks stunning in its 2:35 transfer (enhanced for widescreen TVs) and boasts an effectively remixed, Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack from Chace Productions. A featurette from Italian TV has been included, along with both Italian and U.S. theatrical trailers, and the option of listening to either the English or Italian dubbed tracks. As with the case with some recent Anchor Bay imports, some sequences are in Italian with English subtitles since these sequences were cut from the U.S. release and, subsequently, were never dubbed. More vital for fans will be the fact that AB's DVD is uncut from the original 126 minute running time (U.S. prints initially ran 98 minutes), making a bit more sense than previous versions -- but not much. (Visuals are the key to Argento films, not the plots).

INFERNO isn't as effective or interesting, and is primarily regarded as a lesser Argento work. Best looked at as a follow-up to or extension of themes from "Suspiria" instead of a straight sequel (the film suffers by direct comparisons), INFERNO has been given a 1.85:1 (enhanced for 16:9 TVs) transfer and a 5.1 Dolby Digital English soundtrack remastering expressly for this release; the supplements aren't as copious, however, being limited to a trailer and interview with Argento.

Both titles look and sound superb, and for U.S. fans who have had to suffer with bootleg copies of longer prints over the years, your ship has come in.

Finally, AB has mined another gem from the Disney vaults (how's that for a switch in genres?!), that being the 1956 Cinemascope effort THE GREAT LOCOMOTIVE CHASE (***, $24.98), with Fess Parker ("Davy Crockett") and Jeffrey Hunter (Captain Christopher Pike) in a true-life Civil war spy story that gets a major boost from its first-ever letterboxed release (2.35) here of the original Scope print.

It's good entertainment for adults and kids, made palatable by the widescreen framing that's finally done justice through AB's DVD-- even if the print seems a bit banged-up and the transfer is not enhanced for 16:9 televisions.


NEXT TIME: Movies, dammit, movies! A veritable Spring Round-Up including RULES OF ENGAGEMENT, GOSSIP, THE SKULLS, FINAL DESTINATION and more! Don't forget to send all emails to me at dursina@att.net and we'll see you then!


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