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Aisle Seat February DVD Round-Up

by Andy Dursin

Now that February is here, many folks will be wondering what to do with themselves. Football season is over, spring training is still several weeks away, and while the TV season is entering into sweeps territory, you may be looking beyond the typical network fare and wondering -- what else is out there?

For some, there isn't a better time of the year than now for getting caught up on video viewing, and taking the time to watch some of those DVDs that have been filling up your shelves, but have yet to actually get around to watch.

Naturally, the studios know this, and have been releasing titles at a rapid-fire clip since the beginning of January. At our Aisle Seat offices, we've been pouring through the goods to select the choicest of the elite, and have found an assortment of new releases worth your attention -- from GLORY to C.H.U.D, for young and old alike, there hasn't been a better time to be a Laserphile, as our monthly round-up of new titles clearly attests!


2-Disc Sets

The rise in popularity of Collector's Editions has become one of the happier surprises of DVD. When the format first broke onto the scene, some wondered if DVD would take advantage of its potential for including goodies like extra scenes, documentaries, and commentary tracks since laserdisc -- while typically rich in supplemental features -- never caught on in the mainstream. Such questions have been answered in the last few years with studios embracing multiple releases of the same film, and going the extra mile with two-disc editions of popular favorites.

Disney has tried this approach several times now in the last year with movie-only and deluxe editions of "Tarzan," "A Bug's Life," and the respective box sets of "Fantasia" and "Toy Story." Now comes another fabulous package for DINOSAUR (*** movie, ***1/2 presentation, $39.98 for 2-disc Collector's Edition), last summer's solid box-office performer that broke special effects ground with its combination of CGI, live action, and a wide variety of FX processes telling a feature-length tale of survival among the large beasts nearing the end of their time on Earth.

The reviews were only lukewarm on this ambitious project, and from seeing the final product for the first time on DVD it isn't difficult to see why: with a story that cobbles together elements from "Tarzan," "The Lion King," other Disney projects and non-Mouse fare like "The Land Before Time," there isn't much originality or imagination in the "been there, done that" screenplay. There are other times when the movie feels as if it's being stretched out to meet its 82-minute running time (with several minutes of end credits), and when Disney Animation President Thomas Schumacher says the movie "didn't come to us as a story we had to tell, it came to us as a concept we wanted to try," you can easily feel the movie's goals being set in the purely technological world.

That said, kids aren't likely to mind (or notice) the similarities between this and other Disney projects, while adults will be able to savor the eye candy on-display throughout the picture: this is one gorgeous production, beautifully assembled and lavishly produced with several memorable, standalone sequences (most notably when a meteor strikes the Earth, sending the dinosaurs on their way to a promised valley). The movie barely touches upon its themes of extinction (though an alternate ending better addresses this than the final cut), but as the filmmakers point out in a commentary track, there are theories that dinosaurs lived for up to 100,000 years after "the big one" touched down, so you can calm the fears of your young ones that they're all marching off to die at the end (though they perhaps might even know that since it's hard to see a living dino these days).

Disney's 2-DVD set includes a wealth of wonderful supplements: the first disc includes a stellar video and audio presentation of the movie, with a crisp 1.85 transfer and wonderfully active DTS and Dolby Digital audio tracks. Two commentaries are present on this disc, along with a supplement called "Film Facts Fossil Dig," which enables you to access behind-the-scenes material relevant to specific sequences in the movie. Accessible during the film or as a standalone supplement, there are deleted sequences here (including that alternate ending), plus storyboards and other extras. The second disc includes even more bonus materials, tracing -- in chronological order -- the development of the project through fascinating presentation reels, other deleted scenes (different than those contained on the first disc), featurettes and interviews with the filmmakers. There's even a brief, three-minute segment featuring James Newton Howard conducting his score, working with Lebo M and speaking about his music.

All in all, kids are sure to enjoy the movie, and as along as you aren't expecting "Walking With Dinosaurs," the movie's special effects work should have adults appreciating the production as well.


Columbia has also gone the Special Edition route for a 2-disc edition of GLORY (**** movie, *** presentation, $29.98), which has been previously available as a similarly-priced movie only edition.

The 1.85 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital track are no different than the earlier DVD, so where this package gains its distinction is through its supplements: like Columbia's release of "Ghostbusters," an "interactive" commentary is included, meaning either director Edward Zwick or stars Morgan Freeman and Matthew Broderick appear on-screen in a little window during the movie to discuss working on the picture. It's a highly effective way of producing a video commentary, though purists may equally appreciate Zwick's own, traditional audio commentary that is also available on the DVD.

The second DVD features even more supplements, including a standard full-frame presentation of the movie, plus "The True Story of Glory Continues," a documentary produced several years ago and narrated by Morgan Freeman, along with a "Voices of Glory" featurette, the movie's original promotional featurette, theatrical trailers, and cast & crew bios.

There are also a pair of deleted scenes, but judging from uncredited Jane Alexander's name being so prominently placed in the original trailer (with her name highlighted in a box), it seems likely that there were other sequences relegated to the cutting room floor that were not included on the disc.

As far as the movie goes, GLORY remains one of my favorite films of the '80s. The performances and stortytelling are all first-rate, while Freddie Francis's remarkable, Oscar-winning cinematography and James Horner's haunting score (still one of his all-time bests) enhance the historical drama at every turn. More moving than "Gettysburg" and far more stylized visually, GLORY belongs on every Laserphile's shelf, and with the added supplements, gets its definitive-to-date presentation through Columbia's new deluxe DVD (and is priced the same as the single-disc edition, no less).


Straight to the Small Screen

It isn't often that movies with big stars fail to surface in major theatrical release, but such was the case with UNDER SUSPICION (**, $24.98), a 1999 remake of the French "Garde a Vue" with stars Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman acting out a four-character interrogation drama. Set in Puerto Rico, Gino plays a tax attorney questioned by chief Freeman for the murder of several young teenage girls during the holiday season. Meanwhile, detective Thomas Jane tries desperately to pin Hackman down for the deaths of the teens while Gino's young wife, Monica Bellucci, sits idly by.

Director Stephen Hopkins, fresh off "Lost in Space," couldn't secure a domestic release for this European- funded thriller, but it's pretty easy to see why there were no takers. The movie is over-directed to a tee, obscuring the intimate nature of the drama, while Hackman's performance is often showy to the point of making this 110-minute affair torturous to sit through. The BT music score tries for a Zimmer-like wallpaper effect, but ultimately rams home how wrong the entire filmmaking approach was here.

Still, there are times when it's fun to see two old, seasoned pros working together, and "Under Suspicion" rates as a fairly intriguing curiosity item all told. Columbia's DVD looks solid in its 1.85 transfer and includes both 2-channel and 5.1 Dolby mixes, though the latter's dialogue is often difficult to hear at times. A featurette and trailer are included, as is a surprisingly frank audio commentary with Hopkins and Freeman engagingly discussing the picture's production and highlighting the movie's themes. (And it's a good thing Freeman seems as confused as I was at the end of the picture, since I thought I missed something along the way).


Anchor Bay Goodies

The independent label with the most is back again this month with more scintillating, eclectic fare, spotlighting several titles culled from the ranks of New World Pictures.

If you recall, the mid '80s were a high time for New World, which tried luring some big stars into the fold with movies like BLACK MOON RISING (**1/2, $24.98), a 1985 thriller that tries desperately hard to be "Blue Thunder" on the road.

Tommy Lee Jones -- back before anybody really knew Tommy Lee Jones -- gets his name over the credits for his role as a thief who unwittingly hooks up with aerospace designers Richard Jaeckel (in the midst of his mid-'80s resurgence) and William "My Name is Larry..." Sanderson, on the road to L.A. to close a deal for their sleek, top-secret new automobile design. After being stolen by another thief (Linda Hamilton, fresh off "Terminator"), Tommy Lee tries to get the car back from the clutches of villainous Robert Vaughn, even as government tough-man Bubba Smith breathes down his neck.

Co-scripted by John Carpenter, BLACK MOON RISING is cheesy '80s action all the way, playing at times like a soft, R-rated version of "The A-Team." Lalo Schifrin's score is suspiciously "WarGames"-like, while Haley Corkliss' direction moves from one scene to the next with all the panache of an NBC Night at the Movies extravaganza.

Nevertheless, I have to admit -- I kind of enjoyed the movie, and its easy-going charm (afforded by a likable cast) makes it more palatable than it has any right to be. Anchor Bay's DVD features both the original trailer, plus a surprisingly fun 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack (the subwoofer really kicks into gear when the Black Moon reaches mach-ten).

Another New World classic, C.H.U.D. (*1/2 movie, *** presentation, $24.98), has also found its way to DVD, and for entertainment value, this may be one of my picks for top DVD of the month.

A hilarious piece of horror trash with slumming stars John Heard and Daniel Stern (prior to their collaboration on the box-office phenomenon that was "Home Alone" years later), C.H.U.D. also features John Goodman and Kim "Brazil" Griest in a touching tale of Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers having lunch, dinner, and breakfast at the expense of unsuspecting New Yorkers.

The movie is a howl but even more entertaining is the commentary track with Heard AND Stern -- plus the director and screenwriter -- producing a high quotient of laughs at the expense of their own movie. At one point, they even start making fun of the no-name composer! ("I never even met him," says director Douglas Cheek). It's as close to MST3K as you can get without seeing Joel and the robots actually up there on the screen, and the movie is best appreciated with the commentary track selected.

Meanwhile, the 1.85 transfer and Dolby Digital soundtrack are both as fine as any mid '80s low-budget horror movie can be rendered on DVD.

Keeping in line with more mid-'80s fare, we next come to GIRLS JUST WANT TO HAVE FUN (**, $24.98), a movie that retains a certain amount of interest now that stars Sarah Jessica Parker, Helen Hunt and Shannen Doherty have all since gone onto varying degrees of fame and fortune.

A brainless slice of pop '80s nostalgia, Parker, Hunt and Doherty play three teens who want desperately to get on an afterschool dance program to show off their hot moves which had already become dated by the time the Cannon Group's immortal "Breakin'" hit screens several months later.

Directed by Alan Metter (who hit his peak with "Back to School" a year later and then a career nadir with "Police Academy: Mission to Moscow" in the early '90s) and produced by Chuck Russell (who since has directed "Eraser" and "The Mask"), GIRLS... is silly, stupid, and will appeal strictly to fans of the three actresses, but there's likely more than enough interest on the part of '80s nostalgia hounds to make this an entertaining trip for that audience (don't look at me!).

The 1.85 transfer is solid (there's also a full-frame transfer available), the 5.1 Dolby Digital mix is workable, and a theatrical trailer is also included.

Anchor Bay is slated to follow these epics with additional New World titles over the next several months, including the godawful JAKE SPEED ("Raiders" on Prozac), the Grace Jones vamp comedy VAMP, and other assorted entertainments. While these pictures will almost certainly appeal to specialty audiences in their genres, it's gratifying to see movies that once populated my now-defunct video store's shelves being reissued on DVD, and in superior transfers and soundtracks as well. Cool!

The label has also been continuing their relationship with Miramax, releasing little-seen dramas including the so-so 1990 Diane Keaton/Carol Kane sibling drama THE LEMON SISTERS (**, $24.98) and the low- key 1988 Lou Diamond Phillips drama DAKOTA (**, $24.98), two movies that sat on the shelf before being released several years after the fact. Both movies feature solid 1.85 transfers and contain basic Dolby Pro-Logic tracks ("Dakota" in mono, "Lemon Sisters" in 2.0 stereo).

Finally, we come to MANIAC (**, $24.98), the feel-good slasher movie that became a staple on video over the years. A fairly well-done "Halloween"/"Friday the 13th" knockoff from some independent filmmakers who shot the movie on Long Island, "Maniac" will be of interest to die-hard horror buffs, who may recall its popular release on Thorn EMI Video in the early '80s. The 1.85 transfer is acceptable, the mono soundtrack is fine, and there are some insightful liner notes to round out the package (along with a reproduction of the movie's one-sheet poster, with the film's theatrical distributor and then-copyright holder noticeably erased with white-out!).


Fox goes DTS

If your home theater set-up has both Dolby Digital and DTS capability, you may have noticed that DVDs featuring DTS simply sound a little better: louder, more stereophonic in nature, and with just a little more appreciable depth than the standard Dolby 5.1 track.

However, since DTS takes up more space on a DVD than does Dolby Digital (there's a price to pay for the extra quality), most studios neglect DTS and opt simply for the traditional Dolby mix.

Fortunately, this has started to change somewhat, with labels like Dreamworks and Universal featuring both DTS and Dolby soundtracks. Now, Fox has entered into the picture with new editions of films like PREDATOR (***1/2) and THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS (****, $29.98 each), both reissued with DTS 5.1 soundtracks noticeably crisper than their preceding DVD issues.

Not only is the audio improved, but so is the video in both of these cases: "Predator" and "Mohicans" here make their respective debuts in enhanced 16:9 widescreen transfers, and for those with high-end video systems, you're going to see a major difference. Even on standard, larger monitors "Mohicans" seems more fluid in its appearance with better contrast levels than the original, non-anamorphic DVD release.

Fox is clearly aiming these new "Enhanced Widescreen DTS" DVDs at home theater-philes who are going to be able to take advantage of top-of-the-line performance. If you don't have DTS capability or a monitor large enough to benefit from the advantages of the enhanced transfer, you're not going to be selecting these packages in the first place. On the other hand, if you have a mid-to-high range system and want to exploit it to its potential, both are worth the investment.


Image Cult Goods

Image continues to mine the vaults of cult movies both beloved and forgotten, but who can really forget GOLD OF THE AMAZON WOMEN ($24.98), the late '70s Bo Svenson made-for-TV staple that continues to be shown seemingly every other week on the SuperStation, or HYSTERICAL ($24.98), the lame-brained 1982 horror spoof with the Hudson Brothers that certain elementary school kids enjoyed on a rental home from the video store back in the mid '80s?

AMAZON WOMEN may feature elaborate production art with scantily clad femmes, but don't let the artwork fool you: this is small-screen fare all the way, with Svenson as a Doc Savage-type who stumbles across an ancient civilization of Amazons. Donald Pleasence is along for the ride as a goon looking to steal their lost Gold, which all culminates in some incredibly campy moments courtesy of director Mark L. Lester.

In regards to the latter, the Hudson Brothers never struck the big time the way that other siblings like the Farrellys have in the last few decades, but the mostly-unfunny HYSTERICAL still manages to raise a few small smiles in the wake of recent cinematic sibling fare like the Farrellys' "Me Myself & Irene" and the Wayan Bros.' "Scary Movie." The Hudsons star as a pair of brothers (now there's a stretch!) who investigate the death of a lighthouse keeper (Richard Kiel) in Hellview, Oregon who has since been restored to life by Julie Newmar. The cast also includes Kennan Wynn, Charlie Callas, Bud Curt, and Murray Hamilton, and if that doesn't say enough about how wacked this movie is, I don't know what else could.

Both discs feature decent full-frame transfers and mono soundtracks, with HYSTERICAL featuring a theatrical trailer as well. For nostalgia buffs, both come recommended!


NEXT TIME...MGM DVDs, BLESS THE CHILD, and Paramount's Football triple-header! As always, send comments to dursina@att.net and we'll catch you next time. Excelsior!


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