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Aisle Seat Special Edition DVD Column

Reviews of THE GODFATHER COLLECTION, SNOW WHITE

...and more of the year's most anticipated DVD releases!

By Andy Dursin

As we get closer to December, studios begin releasing their most elaborate, top-of-the-line DVDs just in time for the holidays. Inevitably, most of us will have to separate which titles are truly going to be worth the money since virtually every studio will be competing for our hard-earned dollars. (And the last thing you want to do is fork over some cash for a basic version that will later be replaced by the THX, end-all-be-all remastered one months down the pike!)

We'll cover most of these titles in more detail in an upcoming Laserphile in FSM, but in the meantime, here's a brief rundown on several of the year's most anticipated DVD releases -- each one almost impossible to resist for movie buffs!


SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS.

Disney "Platinum Edition," $29.98. Available this week. **** for content and presentation.

Walt Disney's landmark 1937 production was the first full-length animated feature film, giving birth to an entire genre onto itself and a multimedia empire that, only recently, has begun to grasp the full potential of DVD as a means of reproducing and enhancing their classic pictures on home video.

This double-disc set marks the inaugural release of the studio's "Platinum" Editions, which will be issued once a year and only for a limited time. While the studio, truth be told, has already released outstanding packages of their recent animated efforts ("Tarzan," "Emperor's New Groove"), not to mention terrific box-sets with bonus supplemental discs ("Fantasia Legacy," "Toy Story Collection"), this lavish edition of "Snow White" represents a genuine, big-budget attempt at exploiting DVD technology in a way few, if any, DVDs have attempted before.

It's a unique experience that provides hours and hours of entertainment both for kids and die-hard Disney buffs, who should find this package to be the equivalent of spending a day at Disney World itself.

Oh, by the way, the movie itself looks and sounds like never before...

TRANSFER AND SOUND: "Snow White" was previously restored in 1987 and 1993, but the THX- approved new transfer of the DVD benefits from the only recent ability to reap the full benefits of the remastering efforts through digital technology at home.

When I say this transfer is a knockout, make no mistake: it's almost hard to believe this is a film from 1937. The colors, contrasts, and general condition of the elements are simply amazing, so clear and vastly superior to even the solid job Disney did adapting "Fantasia" to DVD last year.

Almost as impressive is the new 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack, which expands the sound stage for full discrete surround but does it such a way that never becomes overbearing or detrimental to the movie. It opens up the music and enhances the dialogue for 5.1, but doesn't feel the need to "re-think" the soundtrack or add new sound effects. It's simply terrific, and purists still have the opportunity to hear the original mono soundtrack as well.

EXTRA FEATURES: The first disc houses the feature plus an introduction to the "immersive experience" Disney promises with its interactive features. What that basically means is that virtually every menu option and feature is introduced by a celebrity host or the Magic Mirror on the Wall. It's a cute feature that's neat the first time around (especially for kids), but fortunately Disney has given the viewer the option to skip ahead of the menu transitions once you've seen enough of them.

In addition to a handful of interactive games for the young ones, Disc One also features a solid, 40-minute documentary on the film's production and historical impact; a new Barbara Streisand performance of "Some Day My Prince Will Come"; plus an audio commentary and a Silly Symphony short, "Goddess of Spring."

Most of the extras can be found on Disc Two, ranging from trailers from virtually every re-release of "Snow White" to radio broadcast audio of the 1937 premiere along with promotional spots, three vintage radio broadcasts, recording session audio of "Silly Song" and one deleted song ("You're Never Too Old To Be Young"); pressbook, stills, and poster galleries; the original RKO opening credits and end title card; several deleted scenes, most in the rough animation stage (though fairly well along in their production, with one fully animated deleted bit with the Witch), with storyboards of other deleted concepts and storyboard-to-film comparisons; biographical information on Walt Disney, a production chronology, and text of the original Brothers Grimm story; along with an extensive section devoted to the film's production, from original concepts to camera tests and other extras.

Add in an entire recap of the Disney empire's accomplishments through the decades (produced expressly for the DVD and hosted by celebrities like Angela Lansbury and Dean Jones), and substantial time devoted to the film's visual and audio restoration, and you have a top-flight supplemental package that's one of the best I've ever seen, period.

ANDY'S BOTTOM LINE: If you know a Disney fan of any age, or a true lover of film animation, "Snow White" is an absolute must-have DVD. The movie itself looks simply breathtaking and the supplements will keep viewers busy for hours. It's all presented in a beautiful package that addresses every aspect of the film and its rich historical legacy -- most all of it newly produced, exclusively for the DVD. This premiere "Platinum" release is perfect in almost every way, and will be followed next year by "Beauty and the Beast." Too bad we have to wait THAT long!


THE GODFATHER COLLECTION

Paramount, $99.98. Available this week. **** for content and presentation

An offer you can't refuse? Absolutely. Film buffs have been waiting -- some panting breathlessly -- for October 9 after Paramount first gave word that this four-disc boxed-set, containing all three "Godfather" films plus a bonus disc of supplements, was on its way.

I've spent several hours going through the set, and absolutely feel that, if you're a fan of the series, this should be priority #1 on your DVD shopping list as we head into the end of the year.

TRANSFER AND SOUND: A lot of you will be wondering how the 16:9 enhanced, 1.85 transfers hold up of the series' films on DVD.

The good news is that, to my eyes, the transfers are superior to the THX-approved laserdiscs that Paramount released a few years ago. The source material exhibits some grain at times, but Parts I and II look remarkably good, short of a full-blown restoration. For some odd reason, Part III seems to be the shakiest transfer of the lot, showing more age in places, even though it was shot some 16 years after its predecessors. (Still, you'll likely be watching that installment the least, so it won't matter much). Francis Ford Coppola was involved in the transfers of all three films, so the director approval was surely in effect here.

The 5.1 soundtracks aren't incredibly elaborate, but that's to be expected with the original mono recordings of I and II. Part III, originally recorded in Dolby Stereo, obviously benefits the most from the 5.1 process here. There are also full-length audio commentaries from Coppola on all three, divulging the secrets behind-the-scenes, with some great anecdotes and even a discussion of a possible Part IV bandied about throughout.

EXTRA FEATURES: Yes indeed, welcome to the party. Paramount's fourth disc is chock full of extras, from some 40 minutes of deleted scenes from the trilogy, to trailers (some of them re-issue ads), TV spots, a seven-minute featurette on location filming with production designer Dean Tavoularis, plus various novelty clips of Coppola's Oscar acceptance speeches -- even his original introduction to the network television premiere! Also included is the original 1972 featurette, as well as an hour-plus documentary, "The Godfather: A Look Inside," shot during the production of Part III, offering a nice retrospective on the series.

Other supplements focus on Coppola's meticulous planning from script to screen. "Coppola's Notebook" is comprised of a new, ten-minute interview with Francis, who shows us his storyboards and screenplay, and talks about the creative process.

There are also a pair of featurettes on the soundtracks, and FSM readers will particularly want to hear the audio of Coppola's first visit with Nino Rota in 1972, taken from the director's personal cassette recording. Rota plays demos of his now-classic themes on piano for the director, tossing out ideas about orchestration and arrangements along the way.

It's interesting to note that, in his audio commentary for the first film, Coppola claims that Paramount and executive Robert Evans hated Rota's music, wanting it replaced from the film altogether. Coppola clashed with Evans and the movie retained Rota's score -- with only a pair of sequences tracked with source music. Rota's original music for one of the scenes, showing an airplane flight to Los Angeles, is played during the music featurette on the composer.

There's likewise a piece on Carmine Coppola's involvement in the three films, showing the elder Coppola at the recording sessions for III, sporting an interview with the late composer culled from the same period.

The disc is rounded out with complete chronologies of the Godfather timeline and a family tree, written by Peter Cowie; featurettes with Mario Puzo on the script (eight minutes); Gordon Willis talking about his cinematography (three minutes); storyboards from I and II; photo galleries; and, buried somewhere in the disc production credits, a funny clip from "The Sopranos" referencing Coppola's classics.

The deleted scenes, presented in chronological order, include the sequences previously restored for the "Godfather Epic" TV airings, as well as never-before-seen deleted footage from III (including a fascinating alternate opening).

ANDY'S BOTTOM LINE: Any self-respecting film lover is going to not only need this set, but take hours savoring all that it has to offer. Paramount is not selling any of the films individually (at least not yet), but despite the higher-end price tag (which can be found at a discount in various retail and online venues), you're getting your money's worth and then some with all the extra features the package has in store for you.

As a movie buff and "Godfather" fan, you couldn't ask for much more. Hands down one of the year's top titles, and one long-awaited classic cinema series that truly was worth the wait on DVD.


THE TERMINATOR

MGM, $26.98. Available this week. ***1/2 for content and presentation

James Cameron's 1984 sci-fi hit was released more times than I'd care to remember on home video and laserdisc. Since the picture was made independently and released through Orion, it predictably jumped from label to label, each time offering something new but not quite definitive in terms of high-quality transfer and sound. Sure, the later releases might have been an improvement on the very first VHS release from Thorn EMI Video (remember that one -- the muddled, unfocused transfer that looked like you were watching the entire film through a dirty drinking glass?), but none of them really took advantage of the rapid improvements in home theater technology.

MGM's new, deluxe edition of THE TERMINATOR, produced by Cameron's Lightstorm Entertainment team, is the closest we've come to a "definitive" presentation of the film on home video. Featuring a new transfer, extensively-overhauled 5.1 remixed soundtrack, and a plethora of extra features, this edition -- which has been available in Europe for several months -- comes with all the bells and whistles you'd expect it to.

TRANSFER AND SOUND: The 1.85 transfer is a revelation compared to past Terminators you've likely come across. At times I truly felt like I was watching a brand-new movie! (Granted, it has been several years since I last watched the film, but it looks far better than I would have expected it to).

The movie's original mono soundtrack is available as an audio option, but most viewers will likely prefer the all-new, remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. Although some purists may prefer the original blend of sound effects and music on the mono track, there's no question the Dolby Digital track offers far more in the way of three-directional ambiance and effects.

EXTRA FEATURES: Leading the way is Van Ling's new, hour-long documentary, "Other Voices," featuring interviews with Cameron, producer Gale Anne Hurd, Michael Biehn, FX master Stan Winston, and composer Brad Fiedel (Arnold and Linda Hamilton appear only in interviews culled from T2's production).

This is an honest and interesting piece reflecting not only on the special effects, but also the development of the story (the original treatment is included as a text supplement). Fiedel's score, severely constrained by the film's relatively low budget, is also discussed in detail, with Cameron and Hurd both praising his music, composed in spite of little time and means.

The filmmakers also don't pull any punches in criticizing Orion Pictures, the original distributor, for its weak publicity and advertising of the picture upon its original release.

The DVD also features a full range of previously unreleased deleted scenes (with Cameron's commentary), ranging from additional character development between Biehn and Hamilton, to a wisely-excised "ironic," Twilight Zone-like coda that was already implied by the final version.

You also get a featurette made around T2's release; a teaser trailer, the original trailer, and a foreign version, plus a pair of TV spots; still galleries; and the before-mentioned original script treatment.

ANDY'S BOTTOM LINE: This is virtually the same disc that you folks overseas have had for a while, with the exception of the movie's on-screen title cards not being burned into the picture.

For $25, the disc gives you solid supplements and a terrific remastering of both picture and sound. THE TERMINATOR is still proof that solid storytelling beats technical advancements time in and time out (it's more compelling than T2 and most of Cameron's bigger-budgeted blockbusters), and MGM's disc is a must for fans.


Also New & Noteworthy

THE FRENCH CONNECTION (****, $26.98, Fox): Fox's latest "Five Star Collection" release is a superb rendering of William Friedkin's gritty 1971 classic, starring Gene Hackman as "Popeye" Doyle and Roy Scheider as Buddy Russo -- a pair of New York City cops who take down an international drug cartel in a film inspired by Robin Moore's book (itself based on the real-life exploits of cops Sonny Grosso and Eddie Egan).

Most movie buffs recall the film for Friedkin's dynamite car chase -- one of the greatest of all-time, if not THE greatest -- but the rest of the movie is every bit as potent. Friedkin's documentary-like approach, the realistic performances and atmospheric use of NYC locations courtesy of Owen Roizman's cinematography all helped to make "The French Connection" a multi-Oscar winner that was revolutionary in its day and remains a landmark in the crime-thriller genre.

Fox's double-disc set offers hours of extras, highlighted by two documentaries: "The Poughkeepsie Shuffle" was produced by Mark Kermode for the BBC in 2000, and like his "Exorcist" documentary, it's an engaging, compulsively watchable program with interviews with the filmmakers. Not to be outdone, Fox produced their own, new special for the Fox Movie Channel, "Making the Connection," that is every bit as fascinating, sporting newer conversations with the real-life participants and the filmmakers. Both programs run under an hour and will provide essential viewing for fans.

Twenty minutes of deleted scenes, culled from very rough surviving prints, are also included, along with a pair of commentary tracks: one by the director (always willing to share an anecdote), the other with Scheider and Hackman alternating in separately recorded interviews. Still galleries and trailers (for both this film and its sequel) round out the supplements.

The film itself isn't in pristine condition, but the 1.85, THX-approved transfer is the best the movie has looked to date on video. The 5.1 remixed soundtrack is also acceptable, with the older Dolby Stereo track included as well.

[The soundtrack CD is still available from FSM! Go here for details and sound clips.]


More MGM Special Editions

FIDDLER ON THE ROOF (***1/2, $19.98, MGM) boasts a strong, 2.35 remastered picture and 5.1 soundtrack, along with a terrific commentary track from director Norman Jewison and star Topol, plus a handful of supplements on the disc's flip side. The excellent, early '70s documentary "Norman Jewison, Filmmaker" is included, along with the previously-unseen deleted song "Any Day Now" (using still photos) and a full color version of "Teyve's Dream" (which is tinted in the film). Storyboard to film comparisons, the trailer, a reproduction of the movie's pressbook, and information on the original Sholom Aleichem stories and the film's historical background are also here, making this a superb presentation of a movie that could well be viewed as the last, great Broadway musical adaptation to reach the silver screen.

William Goldman's THE PRINCESS BRIDE (**1/2, $29.98, MGM) offers the same 1.85 transfer and 5.1 soundtrack from MGM's earlier DVD release, but sweetens the pot with new bonus features. For an additional $10 over the original's price tag, you get two commentary tracks (one from Rob Reiner, the other from Goldman), a new documentary ("As You Wish") sporting recent conversations with the participants, footage that star Cary Elwes shot during production, the original featurettes, and more. For fans of the movie, it may be disappointing to see another edition of the film so closely follow last year's movie-only DVD release, but if you can trade in your original copy, this new edition is worth the upgrade. For my review of last year's disc, click here.


NEXT WEEK: JOY RIDE, SERENDIPITY, and more new movies, plus more recent DVD titles. Email me at dursina@att.net and we'll catch you then. Excelsior!


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