November Mania at the Aisle Seat
FINAL FANTASY, MIDWAY, and more make their way on DVD
By Andy Dursin
Now that November is here, some of the year's most anticipated movies
are right around the corner. HARRY POTTER kicks things off on November
16, and John Williams' great score is already available to enjoy on CD.
(Be sure to pair it up with Varese's CD Club release of HEARTBEEPS -- one
of my all-time favorite Williams works -- for some superior soundtrack
Not to be outdone, Disney/Pixar's MONSTERS, INC. shot to the
top of the theatrical charts this past weekend, grossing well in excess
of $50 million. The movie itself (*** of four) may not be on the level
of the "Toy Story" films, though that doesn't mean it isn't great entertainment
for family audiences or special effects aficionados. Even if you don't
find it to be as sophisticated and cohesive as Pixar's other efforts, at
least you get the EPISODE II: ATTACK OF THE CLONES trailer attached to
it (which I found very cool indeed).
After a disappointing summer and autumn, we're due for some solid entertainment,
and it looks like we're going to be getting that between the British teenage
wizard and LORD OF THE RINGS.
Big DVDs have also been finding their way into stores everywhere: Paramount's
STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE hits stores on Tuesday (if you missed
my earlier review, click
here, which is a must for fans. Thanks to those who pointed out that
the trailer music I couldn't identity was John Williams' BLACK SUNDAY,
reportedly used in countless Paramount trailers during that same period.
And with the WRATH OF KHAN due out in June (thanks again for the info,
guys), plus THE NEXT GENERATION coming out in the spring, the future looks
bright for Trek-philes on DVD.
Here's our latest Aisle Seat round-up of other noteworthy new releases,
from MIDWAY to MONTY PYTHON. We'll be back next week with APOCALYPSE NOW
REDUX and TOMB RAIDER for your pre-Thanksgiving viewing pleasure!
New and Noteworthy
FINAL FANTASY: THE SPIRITS WITHIN (**1/2 film, *** extras, $29.98,
Columbia TriStar): Alien "phantoms" are threatening to destroy a depleted
futuristic Earth, and it's up to the military and a scientist with visions
to save us all in this big-screen spin-off of the popular, long-running
video game series.
One major thought ran through my mind while watching this film on the
big screen last summer: as much as the cinema has changed with advances
in technology, some things remain the same. One of those being that all
the special effects in the world cannot fully compensate for a weak script.
Such was the case with this gorgeously-rendered all-CGI feature, a
reported $115-million production that sank Square Pictures' film studios
and joined the ranks of several pricey genre films that failed to catch
fire at the box-office last summer.
While the design of the phantoms are reminiscent of other "anime" efforts
(why do the Japanese have a fetish for bloated, red, tentacle-laden creatures?),
the visuals ARE incredible, and the film's opening is spellbinding. There
are even times when you really believe that you're watching is live action
-- a tribute to the movie's expansive (and expensive) computer rendering.
Unfortunately, once the plot takes center stage, muddled storytelling
and poor dialogue become all too evident. Characters -- like James Woods'
evil general -- are poorly defined and major plot points either glossed
over or never explained at all (like the origins of the "spirits" the scientists
are searching for), while the movie's finale drags on, boasting a preachy
message reminiscent of "Princess Mononoke."
Elliot Goldenthal's score swells with bombastic energy, but it's just
another glossy trimming surrounding a story that ultimately fails to prove
equal to producer-director Hironobu Sakaguchi's visual invention. However,
that visual invention is certainly enough to recommend a viewing of the
film, which has recently been released on DVD in a terrific double-disc
set from Columbia.
The 1.85 transfer is understandably outstanding, mastered directly from
the filmless digital "files," and offering a razor-sharp reproduction of
the movie's amazing visuals. The 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack provides
an outstanding audio experience as well, with no less than three commentary
tracks -- one from a collection of American crew members, another from
the Japanese filmmakers (subtitled in English), and a third with composer
Goldenthal, whose music runs isolated whenever he's not speaking infrequently
about his score. (As such, it's less an "isolated score" than it is a composer
commentary track with the music running under it). An on-screen text "factoid"
track is available, as are storyboard animatics with optional filmmaker
commentary -- a virtual 80-minute "workprint" of the movie with temp effects
and/or storyboard concepts.
The commentaries are especially enlightening when the Japanese crew
elaborate upon the ending, and how it makes more sense for Asian audiences
as opposed to American viewers. The second disc houses most of the supplements,
presented in an interactive documentary entitled THE MAKING OF FINAL FANTASY.
Running 30 minutes by itself but providing plenty of additional material
for exploration (via an on-screen logo that enables you to access more
information about a specific topic), this is a well-done though slightly
over-produced documentary with herky-jerky camerawork and editing that
may grate on some viewers.
That said, there are lots of interesting tidbits to be found here, from
an alternate opening of the film to a look at the massive technological
innovations involved in getting FINAL FANTASY made. An interactive editing
workshop enables you to select different angles and create your own version
of a scene (similar to a feature on last summer's "Die Hard" Five-Star
Collection DVD), while specific character profiles (with a look at how
the incredible facial expressions of the CGI-rendered characters were achieved)
and production design featurettes are also included, along with extensive
DVD-ROM content including the complete script and a virtual tour of Square
Pictures. (There's also an utterly surreal rendition of Michael Jackson's
"Thriller" as performed by the CGI cast if you look closely on the second
DVD's menu screens).
It's all wrapped up with evocative menu designs created expressly by
Square for the DVD, including a brief clip of Aki Ross, the film's heroine,
walking seamlessly off the set and into the "real" world. It's a nice compliment
to a supplemental package paying tribute to the artists and designers who
labored to make each and every frame of FINAL FANTASY come to cinematic
MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL (***1/2 movie,
***1/2 extras, $29.98): Long desired by Python-philes and finally given
a full-blown Special Edition release on DVD, the comedy troupe's first
truly original theatrical piece is a hilarious medieval romp that doesn't
need much of a description for most viewers.
Although Criterion released a Special Edition laserdisc a few years
back, Columbia's 2-DVD package is superior in most respects, including
both the Terry Gilliam/Terry Jones commentary from the Criterion package,
as well as a new track combining Michael Palin, Eric Idle, and John Cleese
reflecting on the production.
The most entertaining new supplement is a 45-minute documentary, "The
Quest for the Holy Grail Locations," with Palin and Jones returning to
the scene of the crime in an engaging piece that fans are sure to love.
Some of Gilliam's storyboards, snippets from the Japanese version (with
its hilarious translation gaffes), a BBC "Film Night" piece from December
1974, photos, trailers, three singalong tracks, a handful of brief clips
running under five minutes each, plus the entire script (and additional
DVD-ROM content) make for a surplus of supplements.
As far as the movie goes, the 1.85 transfer is still grainy but, this
being the low-budget extravaganza that it is, you're not likely to see
a better looking HOLY GRAIL anywhere else. Both the original mono soundtrack
and an impressive new 5.1 Dolby Digital mix (created for last year's theatrical
re- release) round out the package, which includes the 24 seconds of extra
footage added back for the remastered version. It's a perfect holiday present
for the Monty Python fan you know and love.
Universal WWII Epics
MIDWAY (Universal, $24.98, **1/2 movie, *** presentation): This
so-so 1976 Sensurround epic was previously available as a movie-only DVD
from Image, but its inclusion of the older laserdisc transfer left a bit
to be desired. Universal's new Collector's Edition DVD improves immeasurably
on the earlier effort with both a new transfer and modified sound mix (to
accommodate the subwoofer-based Sensurround track), as well as several
strong supplements courtesy of bonus feature-meister Laurent Bouzereau.
As far as the movie goes, MIDWAY was one of the final gigantic WWII
epics to surface from Hollywood -- at least for quite a while, anyhow.
The Walter Mirisch production, directed in workmanlike fashion by Jack
Smight ("Airport '75"), stars a litany of veterans from Charlton Heston
and Henry Fonda to "guest stars" James Coburn, Glenn Ford, Toshiro Mifune,
Robert Mitchum, Cliff Robertson and Robert Wagner. Quick-eyed buffs can
also spot Tom Selleck, Erik Estrada, Pat Morita, and Dabney Coleman in
brief bits in the film, which chronicles the defining battle of WWII with
plenty of stock footage from countless other films (including "Thirty Seconds
Over Tokyo," "Tora! Tora! Tora!" and actual newsreel footage from the war
The movie's history may be accurate, but maybe it's because of the myriad
footage director Smight had to work with that the film has a cheap, cut-and-paste
feel to it -- sort of like an "Epic Lite" -- as opposed to so many other,
superior films on WWII combat. On the plus side, John Williams' score and
the "spot-the-star" novelty at least make for an entertaining film, especially
for history buffs. Universal's new DVD provides a 16:9 enhanced, 2.35 transfer
that is a marked improvement on the earlier DVD. The Sensurround soundtrack
has been (sort of) reproduced here by a 1.1 Dolby Digital mix (i.e. a mono
soundtrack with a LFE channel for your sub). About the only time you'll
ever notice this is during a big explosion (and there are quite a few in
the movie), but it's the best chance to comprehend what the "Wonder of
Sensurround" was all about for those of us too young to have actually experienced
The supplements include a 40-minute documentary on the making of the
film, featuring producer Walter Mirisch, director Jack Smight, and Chuck
Heston reflecting on the production and the war itself. Two shorter featurettes
take a look at the Sensurround process as well as John Williams' score,
including an interview with the composer. Both run just under five-minutes
each, and while they're not exactly in-depth, it's nice to see both topics
addressed on the DVD. The original trailer and promotional '76 featurette
are also included.
Lastly, several scenes that were added to the three-hour TV version
of the movie are present, but it's too bad ALL of the extra sequences aren't
present here. The TV version, for example, ran Williams' superb "Men of
the Yorktown March" (a distinct predecessor to "The Throne Room" from STAR
WARS) over the end credits as opposed to the jaunty "Midway Theme" most
viewers are familiar with.
Still, it's nice to see the fine work of Susan Sullivan as Heston's
wife, in a role created expressly for the small-screen version of the movie,
included in the 10-minute assortment of TV scenes included here.
MACARTHUR (Universal, $24.98, **1/2): Best known
by film music buffs as featuring the second half of Jerry Goldsmith's oft-performed
"Generals Suite" concert piece, the 1977 Universal effort MACARTHUR has
also been newly issued on DVD, to presumably coincide with the forthcoming
release of "Pearl Harbor."
An eagerly anticipated though only modestly successful 1977 screen biography
of the WWII general, MACARTHUR gets most of its mileage out of Gregory
Peck's strong performance as the title character, but the movie's somewhat
stilted cinematic approach makes it feel like more of a small-screen effort
-- even with a Hal Barwood-Matthew Robbins script and veteran director
Joseph Sargent ("Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three") at the helm. Fortunately,
Jerry Goldsmith's score is one of the movie's chief assessments, sporting
a rousing march and quieter, reflective marterial.
Universal's DVD looks fairly good with its 1.85 transfer, showing only
some grain inherent in the source material from time to time. The 2.0 mono
soundtrack is better than expected, displaying a wider range for the music
than most mono DVD tracks, while a theatrical trailer is included on the
special features side.
Artisan Limited Edition DVDs: Verhoeven
So if you were wondering if creative DVD packaging has gone too far,
consider Artisan's two Special Edition packages of Paul Verhoeven's biggest
two blockbuster hits: the Michael Douglas/Sharon Stone steamy-and-slick
1992 thriller BASIC INSTINCT, and 1990's Arnold Schwarzenegger gorefest
TOTAL RECALL ($26.98 each).
On RECALL, the disc is housed in a red tin that's supposed to be the
planet Mars (but looks more like a bloated red M&M), while on INSTINCT
you get a clear, aqua-blue oversize plastic case containing -- yes, believe
it or not -- an "ice pick" pen to scribble down your shopping list! They
may not be practical in terms of shelf-storage, but you have to give Artisan
a great deal of credit for trying something (very) different!
As far as the discs themselves go, these are 16:9 enhanced, remastered
presentations of both pictures, each previously available at the start
of the DVD format in non-anamorphic transfers that weren't all that bad
considering when they were released.
Truth be told, while BASIC INSTINCT's 2.35 transfer is more accurately
framed in its remastering here (containing the few graphic seconds that
were excised to attain an R rating), I couldn't spot much of a difference
between the new TOTAL RECALL and the older one. Sound wise, both 5.1 soundtracks
aren't appreciably sharper than the 5.1 mixes contained on the earlier
What DOES separate these DVDs aside from the 16:9 enhancement are new
supplements, lead by a pair of 30-minute documentaries on each, plus new
commentary tracks from Verhoeven (who is joined by Arnold himself on TOTAL
BASIC INSTINCT's documentary is more entertaining despite its over-analysis
as an important critique of sex and societal gender roles (I still find
the movie to be a glossy and entertaining piece of trash), with Verhoeven
and producer Alan Marshall defending their film from special interest groups
and making it seem as if they've made a movie every bit as meaningful as
RECALL's discussion is most interesting when it turns to the rocky development
of the film, particularly the Bruce Beresford-directed version that was
days away from shooting with star Patrick Swayze before DeLaurentiis Entertainment
Group went under! For Goldsmith fans, Jerry appears in both programs reflecting
on his rightfully-praised scores.
For bonus extras, BASIC INSTINCT includes an additional commentary with
"feminist critic Camille Paglia," storyboards, and a comparison between
the TV version and the movie, while TOTAL RECALL also boasts storyboards,
the original featurette, conceptual art, photo galleries, and a full run
of trailers and TV spots.
The new Limited Edition packages come recommended mainly for die-hard
fans of the film, or those with 16:9 television sets.
MGM Bargain Titles
Continuing on with their good-looking, bargain (under $20) DVD releases,
MGM's October slate included some engaging star vehicles from the last
CLAMBAKE (*1/2, $14.98): One of Elvis Presley's many brainless
musical romps (oft-mentioned on Conan O'Brien's program over the years),
this nutty 1967 spin on "The Prince and the Pauper" finds the playboy King
switching places with a water-skiing instructor in order to nab the attention
of perky Shelley Fabares. Bill Bixby gives a daffy performance as the obnoxious
rival, while the forgettable songs include Elvis crooning "Confidence"
to a playground full of kids!
For whatever reason, the non-enhanced 2.35 transfer is awfully weak,
showing lots of wear and not a whole lot of color, while a theatrical trailer
is included for extras.
NOT WITHOUT MY DAUGHTER (***, $14.98): In the wake
of Sally Field's Oscar-winning performance in "Places in the Heart," the
actress starred in several "woman-in-jeopardy" efforts, including this
solid 1991 adaptation of Betty Madhmoody's book -- a chronicle of her life
as an American housewife who moves to Iran with her Iranian husband and
daughter, and promptly becomes the victim of a stifling society that offers
no escape. Brian Gilbert's sensitive direction and solid performances from
Field and Alfred Molina (as her husband) make this a compelling production,
nicely scored by Jerry Goldsmith.
MGM's 16:9 enhanced, 1.85 transfer is fine, the 2.0 surround track acceptable,
with both the trailer and a fairly informative "Making Of" featurette rounding
out the disc.
PRANCER (***, $14.98): One of the better, low-key
family holiday films of recent years, this sensitive and warm 1989 drama
stars Sam Elliott as a single dad whose daughter (Rebecca Harrell) is convinced
that the injured reindeer in the back of the family farm actually belongs
to Santa himself. John Hancock's direction and sincere performances by
the entire cast combine to make this a sentimental and yet somewhat restrained
picture that's perfect for kids and adults, backed by a quietly effective
score by Maurice Jarre.
The 16:9 enhanced, 1.85 transfer is perfectly acceptable, as is the
2.0 stereo sound. The original trailer is included.
RUNNING SCARED (**, $14.98): I thought the pre-'86
MGM library was now controlled by Warner Bros., but regardless, MGM has
offered up a thankfully letterboxed presentation of the 1986 Billy Crystal-Gregory
Hines cop-buddy comedy. The movie, one of Peter Hyams' box-office hits,
gives you the requisite thrills and a couple of neat chase sequences (including
one on the Chicago L tracks), but it's the chemistry between the two stars
-- as a pair of wise-acre Chicago cops trying to nab a drug dealer -- that
distinguishes this otherwise formula effort.
MGM's DVD features a pretty good 16:9 enhanced, 2.35 transfer and 2.0
surround track, along with the original trailer and brief "outtakes" of
Crystal and Hines on the set.
RADIO DAYS (****, $19.98): I'm not the world's
biggest Woody Allen fan, but I've always admired his auto-biographical
1987 coming-of-age tale, contrasting Woody's youthful days in 1940s Queens
with the glamorous celebrities his family would listen to on the radio.
It's a warm and nostalgic, gentle and occasionally hilarious effort, starring
many Allen regulars (Mia Farrow, Diane Keaton, Tony Roberts), and backed
by typically superb cinematography (by Carlo DiPalma) and production design
(by Santo Loquasto). And the period music certainly, helps, too!
MGM's DVD offers a strong 1.85 transfer (enhanced for 16:9 TVs), a
clear mono soundtrack, and the original trailer. RADIO DAYS is also available
as part of the "Woody Allen Collection #3" six-disc box-set ($99.98).
NEXT WEEK: Left-over Halloween treats, plus APOCALYPSE
NOW REDUX, TOMB RAIDER, and more in the way of DVD excitement. Email me
at email@example.com and we'll catch
you next time. Excelsior!