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Spring DVD Round-Up

Warner's THREE KINGS plus Columbia Goodies and Anchor Bay Cult Classics Equal Seasonal Viewing Pleasure!

An Aisle Seat Entry by Andy Dursin

Spring is in the air, and for those that follow the inner-workings of the video industry, that undoubtedly means a plethora of titles are on the way that will attract the eyes of consumers everywhere. Indeed, April will see THE PHANTOM MENACE makes its way to the small screen (though not on DVD), in addition to a whole new box-set of James Bond movies from MGM that we hope to do a piece on next month (stay tuned). Some of last fall's movies will bear down on the cassette & DVD market, too.

It was regarded as one of last year's best films, and for those who felt that it was, David O. Russell's Gulf War hyper-action-thriller-comedy THREE KINGS (***, $24.98) will make for a must-purchase when Warner Home Video unveils their supplement-filled DVD on April 11th.

George Clooney stars with Mark Wahlberg and Ice Cube as three Gulf War soldiers who improbably stumble upon a treasure map detailing the location of some secret stash Sadaam and his soldiers stole from the Kuwaitis. After finding the gold, the three plan their escape but get mixed up with a band of anti- Sadaamites trying to fend for themselves after the U.S. frees Kuwait but leaves the local people alone to fight their own battles.

Warner, which has always been one of the champions for extras in the DVD format, does not disappoint here with a presentation chock-full of goodies: two audio commentaries (one from Russell, another from the producers), a handful of featurettes (including a 21-minute documentary and a bit with Ice Cube about acting), trailers, deleted scenes (basically extensions or alternately filmed footage of existing sequences), and production artwork. The behind the scenes footage is quite revealing, with Russell's "Video Diary" featuring shots of an appropriately annoyed Clooney and some additional, uncensored rants from Russell about working with the studio. The movie was reportedly a difficult shoot for most of the crew, and some of that animosity can be seen in this featurette.

As far as the movie goes, Russell has a few clever ideas up his sleeve (he wrote and directed the picture), but tends to over-direct the movie in a way that feels as if he was trying to out-do Quentin Tarantino. The mad rush of cuts, use of filters, and handheld camera feel more like cinematic trickery than elements that enhance the drama; in fact, the scenes that don't employ these devices (such as when Wahlberg is tortured by a member of the Republican Guard) pack more of a punch than the unstable "action" sequences. When blended with the mix of songs and non-stop profanity, THREE KINGS comes off at times like a Tarantino- wannabe.

Because Russell and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel shot the movie with different filters and what appears to be different stocks of celluloid at that, there's a disclaimer that runs before the film stating that the discrepancy between the appearance of certain scenes was intentional and done for dramatic effect. With that in mind, Warner's 2.35:1 transfer (enhanced for 16:9 TVs) looks as good as it probably could, with some excessive grain in certain sequences but solid colors and details. The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is highly effective with a great deal of surround activity, along with an eclectic collection of songs and Carter Burwell score.

It's still fun and effective at times, but Russell the director tries too hard to make THREE KINGS into the kind of non-stop '90s "cool movie" that will seem dated in a few years the way that Tarantino's pictures, to a degree, already are. A little more faith in his own material would have produced a movie with more of its own voice and less of a stylistic technique that has been already been beaten to death.

Warner's has also rolled out a DVD for last year's wacky romantic comedy THREE TO TANGO (**, $24.98), with Matthew Perry (getting his slapstick chops in before THE WHOLE NINE YARDS) as an architect who falls for iron-wielding artist Neve Campbell (you think this is FLASHDANCE all over again for a few seconds), the girlfriend of his boss Dylan McDermott. Unfortunately for Perry, his office believes that he's gay after he gives homosexual pal Oliver Platt a congratulatory hug and kiss after they land a big job. Oh, the problems of dating in the '90s! (or is it the '00s now?)

This extremely lightweight but somewhat engaging farce was not a box-office hit, although it's certainly no better or worse than a lot of other frivolous genre flicks that HAVE become financial successes over the last few years (including IN AND OUT, which this movie is a reverse clone of). Perry and Campbell manage to generate an amiable chemistry that carries the movie past its poorly developed supporting characters and incessant use of swing tunes (so much for a movie with the Tango in its title!) that tends to get in the way of the fun.

Warner's DVD, also due out April 11th, is supplement-free for a change, offering only a theatrical trailer and some production notes. The 1.85:1 transfer (enhanced for widescreen TVs) looks colorful and the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is vibrant, offering a good score by Graeme Revell whenever the songtrack allows the composer a chance at writing his own material.

Columbia TriStar's new releases include a wonderful, remastered presentation of Jean Jacques Annaud's terrific 1988 outdoor adventure THE BEAR (***1/2, $24.98), adapted by Gerard Brach from James Oliver Curwood's "The Grizzly King."

This marvelous nature picture was outstandingly shot (Philippe Rousselot handled the cinematography) and beautifully scored by Philippe Sarde, technically complimenting the story of a bear cub left on its own and how it tentatively befriends a hunter (Tcheky Karyo) in the mountains of British Columbia during the mid 1880s. The movie is exciting and offers splendid, remarkable footage of the bears (including the Kodiak Bart who has since gone onto fame in movies like THE EDGE) in their natural habitat, along with a story that should enchant both older children and adults.

Shot in Panavision, Columbia's remastered presentation is a substantial improvement on the movie's letterboxed laserdisc release: the 2.35:1 transfer is clear and colorful (enhanced for 16:9 TVs) and boasts a superb 5.1 Dolby Digital remix in addition to the standard 2-channel Pro Logic track. The DVD includes two brief featurettes with some revealing behind-the-scenes footage of the bears at work, along with comments from Annaud. Production notes and talent files round out a fine package all around -- highly recommended.

One of last year's box-office underachievers, Sydney Pollak's RANDOM HEARTS (**1/2, $24.98) isn't quite the disaster many made it out to be. Sure, the romantic sparks between stars Harrison Ford and Kristin Scott Thomas are limited to Ford sneering and Thomas staring, the subplots are bare, the supporting cast is wasted, and the whole movie never answers the question "who cares about these people?," but there is still a touch of class in this old-fashioned melodrama.

Ford plays a D.C. internal affairs cop whose wife is killed in a plane crash along with senatorial candidate Scott Thomas's husband. A little detective work uncovers that the two were having an affair, and the pursuit of the truth leads Ford and Scott Thomas down a dangerous path--well, not so dangerous--where they find out they have more than common than just a pair of cheating deceased spouses.

Charles S. Dutton, Bonnie Hunt, Dennis Haysbert, and Richard Jenkins (whose lovely daughter Sarah was in my high school class; just thought I'd give him a plug whenever I can) comprise a solid supporting cast that has little to do but sit on the sides while Kurt Ludetke's script tries to craft a memorable love story for this media-obsessed age. Unfortunately, because Ford mopes about and has no chemistry whatsoever with Scott Thomas, RANDOM HEARTS doesn't catch fire, but the movie manages to work in spite of itself through Pollak's assured direction, good-looking cinematography, and a pleasant jazz score by Dave Grusin.

Grusin's score is isolated in 5-channel stereo in Columbia's DVD, which also features a 1.85:1 transfer (enhanced for 16:9 televisions), a 5.0 Dolby Digital soundtrack, Pollak's commentary, the HBO "First Look" Making Of special, three deleted scenes, and the film's problematic theatrical trailer (which tries and fails miserably to sell the movie both as a thriller and a romantic drama).

It's not AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER, and Ford's performance is not one of his best, but at least RANDOM HEARTS is a high-class production that looks and sounds good.

Artisan, meanwhile, has collaborated with TV mogul Robert Halmi in bringing a pair of his successful tube mini-series to DVD. However, there's no real comparison between the two in terms of quality.

LONESOME DOVE (****, $39.98) needs no introduction for most viewers. This 1989 mini-series was one of the highest rated of all-time and one of the most critically acclaimed television programs ever aired. After sitting through all six hours of it just a few years ago, I can say that the accolades were certainly justified.

Unlike most TV efforts, this lavish mini-series represents the best that the format can offer to filmmakers (longer running times, additional space for character development) but only seldom takes advantage of because less money is spent on budgets and casts are usually inferior to their big-screen counterparts.

Not so with LONESOME DOVE, an adaptation of Larry McMurtry's acclaimed novel, adapted by Bill Wittliff (THE BLACK STALLION), directed by Simon Wincer, scored by Basil Poledouris, and starring one of the best casts you'll ever see assembled for the small screen: Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, Anjelica Huston, Danny Glover, Diane Lane, Robert Urich, Frederic Forrest, and Rick Schroder among them.

It's a western with plenty of action, but also a moving, eloquent story focusing on the relationship between two aging, former Texas Rangers (Duvall, Jones) as they head on one final cattle drive to Montana. The film is technically proficient (Poledouris' score won't leave a dry eye in the house during the closing minutes) but it was the performances and remarkable dialogue that made LONESOME DOVE such a memorable event, one that has come to DVD from Artisan in a superbly mounted "DVD-18" package.

The "DVD-18" format has been employed only on recent releases like THE STAND, allowing a studio to glue two Dual Layer discs together to comprise both sides of a single DVD. This, in turn, enables the viewer to watch a six-hour mini-series like LONESOME DOVE on one DVD, without having to fumble through discs and change sides more than once.

Convenience aside, the best news is that the LONESOME DOVE DVD also looks better than Image's deluxe laserdisc box-set release from 1993 (and, because it was shot on film instead of video, infinitely superior to THE STAND DVD, which was grainier and a definite step-down from its laserdisc counterpart). The packaging notes that the soundtrack is 2.0 Dolby Surround, but it's a mistake: both the laserdisc and the DVD are in the program's original mono format (a tape I made of the initial broadcast airing in 1989 was in simulated stereo, confirming that the program was indeed recorded in mono).

New interviews with McMurtry and producer Suzanne dePasse are included in the program, along with end credits for each of the four 90-minute episodes that comprise the mini-series (the laserdisc omitted the respective end titles except for the final part). Image's LD did contain an interesting 50-minute documentary, but aside from that element, Artisan's DVD is a superior presentation all the way through. Definitely recommended for fans and anyone who hasn't sat through what remains a genuine classic of television entertainment.

Halmi's recent AFTERSHOCK: EARTHQUAKE IN NEW YORK ($29.98) isn't on the level of LONESOME DOVE, but it's superior to much of his recent output (including the wretched fantasy minis 10TH KINGDOM, ALICE IN WONDERLAND, and NOAH'S ARK).

A fun disaster movie with competent special effects, this highly improbably yarn sports Charles S.Dutton as the Mayor of the Big Apple and Tom Skerritt as a fire marshall who come to blows when an earthquake paralyzes the big city; based on the novel by Chuck Scarborough (the New York City TV anchor?).

All kidding aside, AFTERSHOCK is surprisingly watchable, with kudos going out to the director -- well- known cinematographer Mikael Salomon (THE ABYSS, FAR AND AWAY), once tapped to helm JURASSIC PARK 3 a few years ago but stranded directing films like HARD RAIN and this made-for-TV project instead. Salomon does a competent job and AFTERSHOCK makes for 170 minutes of popcorn- munching entertainment, particularly for Irwin Allen-philes like myself.

Finally, every few weeks we give a round-up of Anchor Bay's new releases, and each time there's undoubtedly something in there that will appeal to a very specific audience that will appreciate the pains AB has gone through to unearth a certain film on DVD.

AB's latest batch includes a handful of horror thrillers and a pair of unique music-oriented features that someone out there will savor and enjoy, particularly since they have all been transferred and enhanced for 16:9 televisions ("anamorphically enhanced," generally meaning sharper picture quality), retailing for $29.98 each.

The chillers open with the 1973 Carlo Ponti production TORSO ($29.98), starring Suzy Kendall as a college student over in Italy who becomes the target of a serial killer. With the international market booming and the horror genre on the rise, Ponti decided to turn away from producing epics like WAR AND PEACE and alter his approach to suit the need for horror movies featuring attractive, busty young ladies: hence TORSO, with its sexy women, gratuitous (but appreciative) nude scenes, exploitative atmosphere, "mod" generation get-togethers, and plenty of blood and violence for one and all.

Director Sergio Martino uses zoom-ins, quick cuts, and other filmmaking staples of the time to create a truly wacked-out movie that will surely make for a great night of entertainment for its core audience (and for anyone else who downs a few brews and just wants to see topless girls -- oh wait, that IS its niche audience!). The DVD is matted at 1.85:1, comes in either English or Italian languages (there's a notable lack of production sound in either version though the actors seem to be mouthing English), contains some footage chopped out of U.S. prints (subtitled in English), and a pair of theatrical trailers. The U.S. trailer features a hilarious electric guitar (and a voice-over guy who yells "TORSO!") while the actual film spotlights a moody '70s score by Guido and Maurizio DeAngelis.

Ennio Morricone was responsible for composing the appropriately spooky score for the 1973 effort AUTOPSY, starring Mimsy Farmer and Barry Primus. Yes, it's another Italian spaghetti splatter effort, with Mimsy as a forensic pathologist (apparently Jack Klugman was NOT available) who has visions of corpses and Primus as a priest who helps her out when suicides spurt up all over Rome. For fans of this one (it's not as much fun as TORSO), you do get 15 minutes never seen in the U.S. and a pair of trailers.

The final effort in the trio is Armand Mastroianni's THE KILLING HOUR (aka THE CLAIRVOYANT), an engaging, American B-movie from 1982 with Elizabeth Kemp as an art student with psychic powers who gains knowledge of a series of murders plaguing New York City. Perry King, Kenneth McMillan, Joe Morton, and Jon Polito offer able support to this competent thriller, which is presented here with deleted scenes, trailer, audio commentary by the director, and in a "Director's Cut" presentation to round it off (though the running time seems to be the same as all previous versions). Not bad, and a bit more entertaining than either of the Italian horrors above (not to mention a superior serial killer thriller than recent flicks like THE BONE COLLECTOR).

The two AB musical efforts include the rarely-screened 1966 British musical THE GHOST GOES GEAR, a totally "mod" British boy group tunefest starring The Spencer Davis Group (with Steve Winwood), along with appearances by Acker Bilk, The M6, Dave Berry, The Lorne Gibson Trio, St.Louis Union, and The Three Bells. It's absolutely dated (and apparently has never been available before in the U.S.), but if you're a fan of this music, the movie provides goofy fun to match the songs, along with a fun commentary from Davis and humorist Martin Lewis. Right up there with those Herman's Hermits movies screened on TCM from time to time.

Finally, there's Ulli Lommel's BLANK GENERATION, a movie likely shot when everyone was blitzed (on AND off the camera!). It's a staggeringly weird 1979 chronicle of life of the punk scene in NYC, with appearances by Andy Warhol and some other, bizarre looking folks. Still, Carole Bouquet (pre-FOR YOUR EYES ONLY) and Lommel's then-wife Suzanna Love star, so it can't be all bad. Strangest element? Elliot Goldenthal did the score, some years before he appeared on the mainstream scene in PET SEMATARY.

NEXT WEEK: Readers Respond to MISSION TO MARS! Remember to keep the emails coming to me at dursina@att.net and I'll see you for the post-Oscar fallout in 7. Excelsior!


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