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Post-Fourth of July Aisle Seat Blow-Out

DIE HARD Explodes in a sizzling new box-set; plus other new releases!

By Andy Dursin


Note: FSM's entire website will be offline for several hours midday today, Thursday, July 5, 2001, Pacific time, as our hosting company relocates our physical server. We apologize for the inconvenience.


Late news: Laureate conductor John Williams returns to the Boston Pops for their concert tonight on PBS, with special guest Harry Connick, Jr., in a salute to the movies. Regular conductor Keith Lockhart returns next week. See http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pops for more information!

The Fourth of July has come and gone, and if you're still in the mood for a few small-screen fireworks, Fox's DIE HARD: ULTIMATE COLLECTION box-set -- due out on DVD next Tuesday -- will provide hours of entertainment for the action-craving movie freak in all of us.

The box-set features three 2-disc Special Edition sets for the Bruce Willis trilogy, available together for $79.98 or each sold separately ($29.98 each; the contents are identical to the box-set discs). With commentary, deleted scenes, interactive extras, brand new transfers and soundtracks, the discs rank as some of the all-out best DVDs released in the last couple of years -- no small achievement given the wide array of deluxe packages we've seen recently.

The original, 1988 DIE HARD (***1/2) is a superlative action film -- easily one of the best of the '80s -- and Fox's new 2.35 transfer easily outdoes ANY previous presentation of the picture on video (that includes the remastered laserdisc and the initial DVD release), while adding a multitude of supplements that are far more elaborate and fascinating than your general DVD extras.

For your hard-earned $30, you get: two commentary tracks (one by director John McTiernan and production designer Jackson deGovia; another by the special effects team), two deleted scenes (one of which, showing the power being restored to the high-rise, can be put back INTO the actual movie via seamless branching), a nine-minute reel of other deleted scenes and bloopers, trailers and TV spots, footage of the movie's televised newscasts (culled from VHS tape), an on-screen text with production anecdotes, articles from American Cinematographer and Cinefex, interactive stills gallery, the entire full-length script, assorted DVD-ROM features, and an especially cool feature called the "Cutting Room."

This neat bonus allows you to access a handful of scenes from the movie, then re-edit them using alternate takes, or re-mix them by raising/lowering the sound effects and music! (Yes, Michael Kamen fans, here's YOUR chance to get back at the sound editors!). Then, you can playback your "cut" and compare it to McTiernan's finished product. Criterion tried to implement a similar feature on their laserdisc of BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA many years ago, but Fox has done a far superior job making it work on this DVD.

If all of that wasn't enough, the movie looks better than ever, and with a new DTS 5.1 soundtrack that blows apart any previous mix of the film, this definitive DIE HARD truly proves to be worthy of its "Five Star Collection" namesake.

The movie itself is still fun of the highest order -- a potent action movie with a smart script (by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza), solid direction from McTiernan, top-notch performances by Willis, Alan Rickman (perhaps the best of any slick '80s villain) with capable support from Alexander Godunov, William Atherton and Bonnie Bedelia, good-looking cinematography by Jan de Bont, and solid special effects as well.

Incidentally, McTiernan -- one of the few filmmakers who isn't afraid to deliver an honest commentary track -- addresses Michael Kamen's score at several points, and says that Kamen's music at the end was re-scored with tracked music from ALIENS since Kamen's original score "didn't accomplish what" he wanted, and that the tracked music was "more effective" in its place.

The original deservedly rates as one of the top '80s action flicks, but 1990's sequel DIE HARD 2 (****) is in many ways an even superior film. It recycles thematic elements -- the basic plot structure changes the skyscraper setting to snowy Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C., while Michael Kamen opts for Sibelius over Beethoven -- in a way that recalls their successful use in the original, but adds more elaborate action set pieces, a leaner pace with fewer supporting players, and even better special effects (courtesy ILM).

Renny Harlin's film, written by Doug Richardson and Steven E. deSouza, deservedly won critical kudos (ranking #6 on Gene Siskel's best of 1990 list!) and showed how a successful sequel should be made, topping the original in box-office receipts in the process.

Fox's 2-disc DVD features commentary from Harlin, plus featurettes, special effects vignettes, trailers and TV spots, and several deleted scenes (mostly involving Marvin, the janitor who helps out Willis at various places in the film). The 2.35 transfer is as good as Fox's earlier, solid DVD release, but the new 5.1 DTS soundtrack is even more powerful than the older Dolby 5.1 mix (which is also available).

In-fighting between producers Joel Silver and the Gordon brothers led a new team of producers -- namely, ex-Carolco bigwig Andrew Vajna and his Cinergi Entertainment -- to take over the series for its third and weakest entry, DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE (**).

Despite having John McTiernan return in the director's chair, this tedious 1995 sequel is a bloated follow- up that had "production problems" written all over it, from its obvious use of multiple locations (like South Carolina) used to save money, to Michael Kamen's particularly uninspired soundtrack, which was heavily re-scored at the very last minute (Kamen, trying to continue the classical motif from the first two films, was going to use Brahms' Third Symphony before his original ideas were thrown out).

The movie introduces Samuel L. Jackson's inner-city shopkeeper as an unlikely ally to Bruce Willis' John McClane character, here trying to stop a series of terrorist attacks in NYC instigated by evil Jeremy Irons, the brother of Alan Rickman's character from the original. The usual shoot 'em up and action sequences follow, with some very under-whelming special effects work (by an assortment of different companies) making you feel that you're watching a watered-down, inferior remake of its predecessors. (I won't even go into the endless sequence of Irons and his henchmen stealing gold from a bank vault, which ranks as one of the dullest moments in any action film of the last 20 years.)

The last half-hour turns out to be an ill-conceived mess of climaxes that even McTiernan shoots down in his frank commentary -- the most revealing and entertaining of the three DVD commentaries. When McTiernan isn't talking, screenwriter Jonathan Hensleigh discusses how his script "Simon Says" was re- worked into a DIE HARD movie, and gives an equally honest assessment of the finished film's strengths and weaknesses.

Fox's 2-DVD release also features an interesting alternate ending -- a six-minute epilogue with Willis and Irons engaged in a two-man duel-at-the-dinner-table that was excised since it was (correctly) deemed that it made Willis out to be too unsympathetic. (Still, it's no worse than the shoddy helicopter showdown that was filmed instead). Other documentary features, vignettes on the effects, trailers and TV spots, interviews and more comprise the supplements, while the 2.35 transfer is a huge improvement on Fox's original, awful-looking DVD, and the 5.1 DTS mix appreciably sharper on the audio end as well. Despite my reservations about the third film, the supplements make it worthwhile.

Fox has done a super job with these discs, wrapping up each jam-packed disc with some of the most elaborate menu screens I've yet seen on DVD. If you're in the mood for explosive action viewing at home, there's no doubt that the DIE HARD ULTIMATE COLLECTION is the perfect remedy to cure your summer-time blues.


New from Paramount

YOU CAN COUNT ON ME (***, Paramount, $29.98): One of last year's most acclaimed films, this low- key family drama stars Oscar-nominee Laura Linney as a single mom trying to raise her son in scenic New England while struggling to straighten out her loose cannon younger brother (Mark Ruffalo).

Kenneth Lonergan wrote and directed this insightful, well-performed drama, which creates believable characters and situations without devolving into maudlin sentimentality or melodrama. Lonergan also appears in the movie as an understanding priest, and the film's sensitive incorporation of religion into its plot is surprising for a modern day movie (given that most films portray any organized faith as an evil institution, if there's any mention of it at all).

Linney is excellent, as is Ruffalo as the lost brother and Matthew Broderick in an ELECTION-esque role as Linney's new bank manager (the film's weakest aspect). Lonergan's script -- another Oscar nominee -- is smart and his film feels like a good stage play (in fact, it originated as a two-act play), with a natural flow that lets the actors paint distinctive portraits of their characters.

Paramount's DVD features an okay 1.85 transfer (the print exhibits some minor problems, likely due to the movie's low budget), 5.1 and Dolby Surround soundtracks with a mix of classical works and country songs, and commentary by the director. A better-than-average "Making Of" featurette rounds out a splendid package.

If you're looking for a change of pace in your summer viewing -- and a movie about real people with an understated script -- YOU CAN COUNT ON ME comes highly recommended.

SAVE THE LAST DANCE (**, Paramount, $24.98): This $90 million-grossing teen hit begins and progresses well before fizzling out at the finish line.

Julia Stiles gives a superb performance as a teen who moves to Chicago after her mother has died. Faced with being one of the few white students at a minority-dominated high school, Stiles nevertheless finds friendship with a black male aspiring to be a doctor (Sean Patrick Thomas in an equally fine performance), who, in turn, helps her realize her dreams of dancing her way to Julliard.

For most of the movie, director Thomas Carter does an excellent job establishing the relationship between the characters and developing supporting parts for Thomas' sister (well interpreted by Kerry Washington) and Stiles' relationship with her estranged father (Terry Kinney). Unfortunately, SAVE THE LAST DANCE sputters completely at the climax, ending with a perfunctory montage sequence and a quick transition to an end credits dance scene. After watching Stiles and Thomas' relationship progress throughout the movie, how could the filmmakers conclude the film without a last scene between them?

Still, the movie found box-office gold with its receptive teen audience, and Paramount's solid DVD features a fine array of supplements, including deleted scenes (which could have worked just fine in the finished film), audio commentary, featurettes, and a music video.

The 1.85 transfer is fine and the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack quite vibrant, featuring a mix of songs and serviceable original score by Mark Isham.

WAYNE'S WORLD (**1/2, Paramount, $29.98) and WAYNE'S WORLD 2 (**, Paramount, $29.98): I guess we can blame Wayne and Garth for the long line of terrible Saturday Night Live movies we've received in the wake of these two, amiable comedies, which ruled the box-office in 1992 and, to a lesser extent, in the 1993 sequel.

But, taken on their own terms, the WAYNE'S WORLD movies provide some laughs that hold up fairly well today -- references to now-defunct rock groups notwithstanding. Penelope Spheeris' original film brought the antics of Illinois' favorite public access TV hosts -- rocking metalheads Wayne and Garth -- into a feature film that enabled stars Mike Myers and Dana Carvey to use their comic skills in a sketch- styled format filled with spoofs, references to movies and TV commercials, and pop culture in general.

Clearly, the magic was with the original film, where Wayne and Garth are offered a slot at a network TV shot by bigwig Rob Lowe (in a surprisingly amusing performance). Tia Carrere, Donna Dixon, and Lara Flynn Boyle provide the eye candy for our two heroes in the picture, along with a host of cameos.

WAYNE'S WORLD 2 followed in 1993, but the Mike Myers-Bonnie and Terry Turner script isn't as fresh or funny as its predecessor, with Wayne and Garth trying to stage their own rock concert and attempting to stop evil music mogul Christopher Walken, who stands in the way of success for Wayne's girlfriend (Carrere again) in the recording industry. There are more (and sometimes funnier) star cameos here, but also an over-reliance on head-bashing, early '90s rock-and-roll, particularly at the end.

Both discs have been newly remastered with 1.85 transfers, Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks, director commentaries, and even new, 20-minute retrospectives (featuring recent interviews with Myers and Carvey) on each title.

Paramount should also be commended for the terrific menu screens here, which look and feel like the "TV Preview Channel" from your local cable system! Not only does the top half of the screen alternate between community bulletin boards, weather forecasts, and trailers of upcoming fare, but the channel listing down below enables you to select the movie, its special features -- or what's on another channel altogether! There are selectable clips from the Charles Grodin-Joan Collins epic SUNBURN, an exercise workout show, and THE BRADY BUNCH available for your viewing pleasure on the other channels. Fun stuff!


New Titles From Columbia

Columbia TriStar has released a handful of excellent films on DVD of late -- from '80s favorites (most of which we'll review next week) to several recent pictures.

One of last year's best films, the under-rated THE HOUSE OF MIRTH (***1/2, $24.98) presents a superb adaptation of Edith Wharton's tragic morality tale, with "X-Files" star Gillian Anderson turning in an excellent performance as a woman attempting to marry a man of wealth in turn of the century New York. Excellent performances by Eric Stoltz as a would-be suitor, Laura Linney, Jodhi May, and Terry Kinney make this outstandingly performed period piece a real treat, adapted and directed by Terence Davies, with lovely Glasgow locales subbing for the states and fine cinematography turned in by Remi Adefarasin.

Columbia's DVD features a 2.35 transfer, 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack, commentary from Davies, a handful of deleted scenes with optional commentary, trailers, production notes and biographies. Judging from the transfer, it seems as if the movie was shot on something along the lines of high-definition video, as there's a blur to the image at times that indicates the production may have been shot for European television. Highly recommended.

Jennifer Lopez struck out at the box-office with the under-rated "Angel Eyes" just last month, but predictably found success with the far more mediocre THE WEDDING PLANNER (**1/2, $24.98), a typical "date movie" that hooked "J Lo" up with Matthew McConaughey.

The plot is obvious: he's the doctor engaged to a stuffy snob (Bridgette Wilson-Sampras, now sporting the last name of her tennis champion husband), she's the perky, nice wedding planner who just can't seem to snag the right man. The Pamela Falk-Michael Ellis script isn't anything special, but thanks to a game cast, the movie coasts along with sporadic laughs and a few pleasant sequences.

The DVD from Columbia is filled with extras, including commentary from both the director and the writers, a promotional featurette, several deleted scenes, trailers, production notes, and other goodies. Technically, the 1.85 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound are both on a par with Columbia's high standards.

Other new releases from the studio include releases from early '90s and '80s cinema, meaning a few favorite catalog titles of many viewers are just now making their debut in the format.

John Singleton's 1994 film HIGHER LEARNING (**1/2, $24.98) is an uneven look at life on an American college campus, with its various races, sexual orientations, and cultural groups trying to survive the melting pot that is the USA. Singleton portrays the southern California campus and its relationships as a microcosm of life in America, and while the movie has as many fine elements as it does cringe-inducing ones, the film is never boring and boasts several fine performances, notably from Omar Epps as a young African American student-athlete and Larry Fishburne in a slightly over-the-top role as the knowing college professor.

Singleton, currently enjoying success with the release of his new film "Baby Boy," also delivers a new commentary track on Columbia's DVD, reflecting in particular on the movie's famous lesbian coupling of Jennifer Connelly and Kristy Swanson (in a sensitively handled, PG-13 kind of love scene). His comments -- relating that he was so satisfied in editing the scene that he showed it to a receptive Al Pacino on the studio lot -- are almost enough to recommend the entire disc by itself! The 1.85 transfer and 5.1 soundtrack are both strong on the DVD, which also includes trailers of this and other Singleton films.

Finally, it wasn't the box-office hit that Paramount and Columbia were anticipating, but their pricey 1995 co-production of THE INDIAN IN THE CUPBOARD (***, $19.98) is a nicely handled children's fantasy, adapted by E.T.'s Melissa Mathison from the well-known British book, and sincerely directed by Frank Oz.

Young Hal Scardino plays a grammar schooler who improbably finds his miniature Indian action figure transformed into a miniature, yet very much alive, American Indian (played by Litefoot). What transpires is a moving film that's hurt only by close-ups of Scardino's noggin (especially at the end!) and an overbearing score by Randy Edelman. In fact, Miles Goodman was slated to score the picture but composed only 15-20 minutes before nervous producers and studio execs thought audiences needed to be spoon-fed a broader, more obvious soundtrack.

The late composer had sent me a personal tape years ago of his music, which is delicate and under-stated in a way that's the complete opposite of Edelman's output. It's still heartbreaking to think that Goodman's finest film work wasn't used in the movie it was written for. (Incidentally, some of his thematic material did ultimately work its way into Goodman's final film score, 'TIL THERE WAS YOU).

Columbia's DVD features a fine 1.85 transfer, basic 2.0 stereo mix, and a good commentary track from Oz, newly recorded.


NEXT TIME: New movies, '80s sequels invade DVD, and your comments, which can always be sent to dursina@att.net. Until then, have a great weekend!


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