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
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
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"
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
and we'll see you then!