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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 listening.)

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 life.


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 itself).

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 it.

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 Strikes Back!

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 DVD releases.

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 RECALL).

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 "Citizen Kane."

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 several decades:

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 dursina@att.net and we'll catch you next time. Excelsior!


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