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Aisle Seat Summer DVD Preview Part II

New Releases from Universal, Image, and Artisan, plus Anchor Bay rolls out the Special Edition of KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE!

By Andy Dursin

Continuing on through big recent and upcoming DVD releases this summer while waiting in line for MISSION IMPOSSIBLE 2 tickets...


UNIVERSAL: While the most anticipated DVD of the summer is undoubtedly the July bow of Steven Spielberg's JAWS, there are a handful of noteworthy new Universal releases out there to tide you over till Bruce the Mechanical Shark comes swimming over for a bite.

The best of the bunch is Scott Hicks's beautiful SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS (***1/2, $24.98), a film that is alternately a murder-mystery, romance, and social commentary all at once. Based on the acclaimed novel by David Gutterson, SNOW is better as a mood piece than a character study, with Ethan Hawke as a reporter in post-WWII Washington state covering the trial of a Japanese fisherman (Rick Yune) married to his former flame (Youki Kudoh). Max Von Sydow, James Rebhorn, Richard Jenkins, and Sam Shepherd co-star in this evocative, slow-moving but fascinating film, although the big star of the movie turns out to be cinematographer Robert Richardson.

Best known for his work on many Oliver Stone projects, Richardson steals the show with one of the most impressively shot films I can ever recall seeing. The scenes of the small town, coupled with the majestic oceanic shots -- both punctuated by gloomy skies and falling snow -- often resemble a painting in their artistry. Later on in this review we'll look at the great documentary VISIONS OF LIGHT (now available from Image), which chronicles the work of the finest cinematographers, and it's no stretch to think that Richardson deserves to be placed in that company.

Universal's DVD, while not billed as a Special Edition, features a handful of deleted scenes, commentary with the director, a promotional featurette and trailer, and more -- quite a bargain considering the $25 retail price. James Newton Howard's superb score is perfectly rendered in the Dolby Digital soundtrack, and the 2.35 transfer is likewise excellent. One of last year's more underrated films, SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS is highly recommended.

A box-office flop but nevertheless an entertaining picture, Milos Forman's biography of Andy Kaufman, MAN ON THE MOON (***, $24.98) has also been released on DVD in a release not dubbed a "Collector's Edition," though it might as well be.

Jim Carrey gives a truly magnificent performance as Kaufman, and while a lot of audiences stayed away since they had no interest in the subject matter, it's certainly a worthwhile picture for anyone interested in entertainment, celebrity, and the ways in which comedy has changed over the past 30 years or so -- through the rise of Saturday Night Live, talkshow hosts like David Letterman (who appears in the film as himself), and comics like Kaufman, who paved the way for many of today's comedians that use character guises instead of simply standing and telling jokes.

The DVD boasts deleted scenes, a featurette, a look at Kaufman through actual film clips, and rounds out the release with a strong 2.35 transfer and a choice of DTS or Dolby Digital soundtracks. While there is not a gigantic difference between the two audio formats, the DTS track simply sounds a bit crisper and more enveloping.

Now, even though both SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS and MAN ON THE MOON weren't designated as "Collector's Edition" releases, both have more interesting supplements than END OF DAYS (**, $29.98), which despite being dubbed an official Collector's release, only offers a dull commentary track from Peter Hyams and a featurette on the special effects, in addition to the usual Universal standbys of a promotional documentary and a trailer for one of their upcoming theatrical releases (in this case, U-571).

As a movie, END OF DAYS is a well-mounted horror film to be certain, although Andrew Marlowe's script turns into an uncertain marriage of supernatural OMEN-like thrills and the over-the-top antics of a typical Arnold Schwarzenegger action romp. On the sheer guilty pleasure meter, however, END OF DAYS has some wonderfully surreal moments (such as Arnold beating up batty o'l English lady Miriam Marguiles!), so it may well be worth adding to your library just the same.

Visually, the DVD is a marvel, offering an always-active Dolby Digital soundtrack and a terrific 2.35 transfer. For my original review of the movie, click here.

Kevin Costner generally had a good track record with baseball movies up until last year's FOR LOVE OF THE GAME (**1/2, $29.98), a movie that had an overall theatrical attendance on a par with a typical mid- September Expos home game in Montreal.

Still, as corny, sentimental, utterly predictable, and overlong as this 138 minute is, I had to admit I was entertained by most of it. You have Costner as your gruff, aging pitcher trying to win at both life and the game itself, Kelly Preston as his love interest, plenty of actual baseball locales shot in widescreen quite effectively by John Bailey, and direction from Sam Raimi that looks good if nothing else. Basil Poledouris, meanwhile, provides a moving, lower-key variation on THE NATURAL-esque baseball hymns on the musical end, making the whole project a glossy star vehicle that's as watchable as it is routine.

Once again, Universal's DVD includes a handful of deleted scenes (including the nude scene Raimi cut to get the film a PG-13 rating), a terrific Dolby Digital track and a flawless 2.35 transfer as well. It looks good, it sounds good... the movie could have been better, but for an evening's entertainment, you could do a lot worse.

Following on the heels of Universal's excellent DVD of THE BIRDS last month, the studio has turned their attention to another Alfred Hitchcock '60s effort, MARNIE (***, $29.98), generally regarded as a lesser Hitchcock vehicle but still better cinema than most filmmakers' "second-tier" projects.

In a role intended for Grace Kelley, 'Tippi' Hedren is just-about-adequate as a compulsive thief who is married by Sean Connery in an effort to reform her mischevious past. Bernard Herrmann's score -- correctly designated as one of his best in the documentary and liner notes -- lends a major assist in making this drama work, although there are times when Jay Presson Allen's script threatens to turn into outright tedium. Connery is good but there are moments when you wish that he was working opposite another actress, since Hedren doesn't have the kind of range to make the various emotions inherent in the character come explicitly across. Still an interesting picture, however -- just not on the level with some of Hitch's other classics.

If the movie leaves you somewhat cold, Universal has sweetened the deal with a fine assortment of extras. The 58-minute documentary feature is almost more interesting than the film, containing interviews with Joseph Stefano, Tippi Hedren, and most compellingly for FSM readers, a lengthy examination of Herrmann's work by Steven C.Smith. The comments about the music are fascinating and illustrate just how essential Herrmann's music was not only to MARNIE but all of the films he collaborated with Hitchcock on.

The 1.85 transfer is as clean as I've seen a print of the film look, and the 2.0 mono sound -- while not anything extraordinary -- does the job. Still photo archives, production notes, and the director's usually entertaining theatrical trailer fill out another great package for Hitchcock buffs.

Finally, while I try not to cover too many direct-to-video projects here, I do have to make special mention of Universal's recent production of the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice musical JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT ($29.98).

Anyone who went to school in England or the US over the last, oh, 25 years or so, likely had to sit through a production of this wacky but exuberant musical, which has been filmed specifically for video not as a live-concert, but rather as a slightly-more-cinematic-than-usual production capturing the pageantry and general fun of the more recent worldwide stage production. Contrary to what you might recall, Lloyd Webber's music is actually terrific, with a handful of different song styles and arrangements (from pop to country-western, jazz, calypso, and lyrical ballads), while Rice's lyrics are witty and sharp, making JOSEPH truly great entertainment for adults and kids alike. It also helps that the cast (including Donny Osmond as Joseph and Maria Friedman as the Narrator) is tremendous and the entire production first-class all the way.

Universal's DVD boasts an amazingly pristine, 1.55 transfer and both Dolby Digital and DTS audio tracks. Once again, the DTS track frequently exhibits a warmer sound, although on both mixes, there's a tendency for some passages to be recorded at a volume much too low in relation to the rest of the track. An interesting documentary chronicles both the production of the program and a look at the genesis of the musical, but concentrates primarily on why JOSEPH remains an enduring work for school children around the world, interspersing clips from a British school production to illustrate that point. Great stuff!


IMAGE: One of our favorite independent labels has stepped up to the plate and released a pair of terrific documentary features on DVD.

VISIONS OF LIGHT: THE ART OF CINEMATOGRAPHY (***1/2, $24.98) is a spellbinding look at a purely cinematic artform, masterfully edited to include a wide range of movies and photographic styles. When I say wide range, I mean movies from the RKO efforts of Gregg Toland (on Orson Welles's films) and the pioneering film noir films of the '40s and '50s, to the current work of greats Vittorio Storaro, Conrad Hall, Haskell Wexler, Vilmos Zsigmond, William A.Fraker, and Gordon Willis just to name a few. Along the way there are clips from films as diverse as APOCALYPSE NOW (Storraro), DAYS OF HEAVEN (Nestor Almendros), JAWS (Bill Butler), and others representing the work of Frederic Elmes (BLUE VELVET), Michael Chapman (RAGING BULL), and Ernest Dickerson (DO THE RIGHT THING) among others.

All clips culled from widescreen films (like JAWS) are screened in their original aspect ratios; the 92-minute program looks good and sounds more than adequate. A documentary that's enlightening, no pun intended, and scholarly without being stuffy and boring, VISIONS OF LIGHT is an essential component to any movie buff's DVD collection.

Also new from Image is one of the all-time great cult documentaries, Bruce Brown's endlessly entertaining THE ENDLESS SUMMER (***1/2, $24.98), which is back in circulation on a high-end video format years after Image's out-of-print laserdisc from nearly a decade ago.

This surfing documentary is somewhat dated now (it's actually 40 years old!), but only in the attire of the beach-goers and the GIDGET-like music on the soundtrack. The activity and the sport itself is bigger now than it was then, making this engaging chronicle of two surfers traveling the world to capture the perfect wave more nostalgic than ever (if nothing else, seeing desirable beaches without hundreds of surfers on them is a blast from the past!).

The worldwide locations -- from West Africa, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti and Hawaii to various California surfspots -- were an immeasurable part of the program's appeal and Brown's own narration keeps things lively and fun. Even after all these years, THE ENDLESS SUMMER remains fresh and highly rewarding, even if you've never been called Moondoggie!

Image's full-frame transfer looks perfectly acceptable and is certainly colorful enough; the mono sound is also clearer than I expected for a film of this age. If you enjoy this one, try and check out THE ENDLESS SUMMER 2, which has even more spectacular surf footage and looks at how surfing has changed over the years since the original's first release (it's not on DVD yet, however).

Image has also been adding to their roster of obscure and bizarre cult films, something that the nutty 1967 opus known as SHE-FREAK ($24.98) provides in spades.

A color reworking of Tod Browning's FREAKS but with a sense of humor and affection, this twisted tale of carnival lust and murder stars Claire Brennen as a waitress who joins up with a traveling sideshow and becomes mixed up with a two-timing jerk named Blackie who has an affair with Brennen and kills off the carny owner. Those freaks vow revenge after Brennen takes over the show, leading to a climax right out of Browning's film, albeit with less of a sadistic edge.

Image has rolled out all the stops with this DVD, including commentary by the film's producer, David F. Friedman, the original trailer, a gallery of exploitation art, plus rare newsreel footage of Siamese twins and sound footage of an actual '30s sideshow. The colorful transfer is well-rendered in full-frame format and for anyone seeking some vintage, indie-styled horror from a different era, SHE-FREAK may be just the ticket for your viewing pleasure.


ANCHOR BAY: If the words "we're building a fighting force of extraordinary magnitude" mean anything to you, then chances are good that 1977's KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE (****, $24.98, available June 20th) is one of your all-time favorite comedies. At 75 minutes, this sketch-comedy epic boasts as many memorable comedic moments as any film I've ever seen, from a hilarious parody of "Enter the Dragon" (A FISTFUL OF YEN) to satires on morning TV shows, commercials, coming attraction trailers (who will ever forget CATHOLIC HIGH SCHOOL GIRLS IN TROUBLE or THAT'S ARMAGEDDON?), reality- based programs (DANGER SEEKERS!), and an assassination board game that -- as the filmmakers point out in their audio commentary -- makes more sense in less than three minutes than Oliver Stone's JFK did in three hours!

A film that launched the careers of director John Landis (who went onto ANIMAL HOUSE shortly thereafter) and writers Jim Abrahams, David and Jerry Zucker (who hit paydirt with AIRPLANE a couple of years later), KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE is one of the funniest, raunchiest examples of sketch comedy you're going to find. Along with Ken Shapiro's THE GROOVE TUBE (which predated this film and also deserves to be screened on DVD), KFM helped to establish a new kind of post-Mel Brooks sight gag comedy, and laid the groundwork for programs like Saturday Night Live.

Anchor Bay's DVD will be headed to stores in mid-June, but judging from the advance copy I received last week, you may want to pre-order this baby: the transfer, in either 1.85 matted widescreen or full-frame (which feels more comfortable), is better than I've ever seen the movie appear before, and the sound is surprisingly clearer and louder as well. Image's old LD had a grainy, weak transfer that was almost unwatchable, but Anchor Bay has truly done a superb job and made this DVD the best-looking presentation of the movie ever screened before.

Fans will also go bonkers over the hysterical audio commentary for the film, which features Landis, the Zucker brothers, Abrahams, and producer Robert K.Weiss recounting their frequently hilarious adventures during the film's production. While the speakers frequently talk over each other, it's jam-packed with funny bits of trivia (like how the composer of KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS scored the FISTFUL OF YEN segment with music so bad it made the sequence even funnier than they thought it would be!) and is one of the most entertaining chats you'll hear on a commentary track. A trailer and some production notes help to make this DVD a great presentation for an all-time classic!

AB has also been busy releasing a handful of Euro horror movies, including the sexy BLOOD SPATTERED BRIDE (with some of the sexiest women I've ever seen in a horror film!) and the nutty Freddie Francis spoof THE VAMPIRE HAPPENING, both of which contain their share of lovely, busty young ladies and plenty of T&A for those so inclined (both letterboxed, $29.98). Also newly released from the company is their latest batch of Hammer horrors, including QUARTERMASS 2 (with audio commentary by Val Guest and Nigel Kneale), Terence Fisher's FOUR SIDED TRIANGLE, and THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN (all letterboxed, $29.98). Sonny & Cher fans, meanwhile, may want to take a peek at GOOD TIMES ($29.98), William Friedkin's feature debut (!) offered in a pleasing widescreen format and with several immortal (or in this case -- with the exception of "I've Got You Babe" -- mortal) songs by the singing duo.


ARTISAN: Two interesting, offbeat thrillers with similar antagonists comprise the studio's most recent batch of releases.

BLADE RUNNER scribe Hampton Fancher's THE MINUS MAN (**1/2, $24.98) is a compelling but protracted psychological thriller with Owen Wilson as a serial killer who drifts into a small town and starts to practice his profession on an unsuspecting populace. However, even though the performances by Wilson, Janeane Garofolo, Brian Cox and Mercedes Ruehl are excellent -- and Marco Beltrami's music effectively creepy -- the movie ends up being something minus the sum of its parts. Nevertheless, adventurous viewers will want to take a look, with the 2.35 transfer and well-detailed Dolby Digital track both well-rendered on DVD.

Finally, filmmaker Atom Egoyan's follow-up to his acclaimed "The Sweet Hereafter," FELICIA'S JOURNEY (**1/2, $24.98), didn't receive a lot of press last year, but it's nevertheless a well-shot, interesting affair boasting an excellent performance by Bob Hoskins as a seemingly ordinary chef who, like Owen Wilson, also has a problem taking other people's lives. Paul Sarossy's evocative cinematography and Mychael Danna's eerie score go a long way to making this slow-moving drama palatable, while Artisan's DVD offers a crisp 2.35 transfer, Dolby Digital track, commentary from the director and a handful of trailers and featurettes to round out the package.


NEXT TIME: MISSION IMPOSSIBLE 2, SHANGHAI NOON, a look at the DVD of BRINGING OUT THE DEAD and, of course, your comments! Until then, send all emails to dursina@att.net and have a great Memorial Day weekend. Excelsior!


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