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Aisle Seat Winter Wonderland O'DVD

A look at hot new releases to keep your player warm

Plus: WIN copies of Anchor Bay's A BETTER TOMORROW/A BETTER TOMORROW II!!

By Andy Dursin

A group of films that were released into limited distribution in major metropolitan areas last December went into wider release last weekend, but despite the wider exposure, neither CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON, 13 DAYS, or O BROTHER... made much noise on the national scene (instead, the MTV Films production SAVE THE LAST DANCE drew the teeny-bopper and dating crowd, making a solid showing over $20 million).

It could be that the poor showing by Hollywood studios over the last year (and particularly the Christmas season) could be to blame for the lackluster financial performance of these films, or simply that audiences have more to do in January -- like watching NFL playoffs, indoor activities, or simply enjoying a DVD at home, out of the cold weather.

Indeed, major labels have begun to frolic in the fields of releasing new and remastered titles on DVD, right when the post-holiday blues begin to set in. It's almost as if energies are spent on the part of the major studio executives, and the video folks finally have their Super Bowl season to oversee a glut of titles on DVD.

MGM is one such studio, but before we dive into their staggering number of releases (which veer from '70s "Soul Cinema" hits to titles like BREAKHEART PASS and GORKY PARK), here's a round-up of titles studio-by-studio, rated for your viewing pleasure this winter season.

Then, read on for details on how YOU can win copies of Anchor Bay's A BETTER TOMORROW and A BETTER TOMORROW II, along with AB T-shirts, which we're giving away right here at The Aisle Seat!


WARNER HOME VIDEO:

The WB's big release over the last month was easily THE EXORCIST: THE VERSION YOU'VE NEVER SEEN (****, $24.98), the DVD release of last fall's "Special Edition" cut which grossed over $30 million theatrically.

We've spent a good deal of time delineating the changes made to this cut of the movie, which includes some nine minutes of previously excised footage -- most notably the infamous "spider walk" sequence and the "upbeat" coda to the film, both previously cut by director William Friedkin but restored with the director's participation to this edition of the film. Many fans chastised the alterations, but I admired the new scenes and thought the overall character development of the film was enhanced by their inclusion. For more, read my original review of this version here.

The big change in terms of comparing this DVD release to Warner's terrific 1998 25th Anniversary Edition are obvious and substantial: the 1.85 transfer is stronger, more colorful, and is generally less grainy, while the 5.1 Dolby Digital EX soundtrack is a clear enhancement of the original stereo track in every way. There's more power to the sound in this edition, and most laserphiles will want to pick up this release for the new, overhauled soundtrack by itself. The transfer, meanwhile, is exceptionally good and appreciably better than the first DVD release.

In terms of supplements, however, you'll still want to hang onto the 25th Anniversary discs: the extras exclusive to that release (which include a 75-minute documentary and interviews o'plenty) remain unique to that edition. There's a new audio commentary with Friedkin here, but it's not particularly enlightening given the director's audio discussion previously heard on the preceding issue.

On the whole, however, the transfer and sound should be enough to make this essential viewing for any EXORCIST completist, whether they loathe or appreciate the changes made to the new cut.

Warner has also done an exemplary job releasing one of the best films of the '50s -- William Wyler's highly acclaimed FRIENDLY PERSUASION (****, $19.98) -- on DVD.

This Civil War era tale of a Quaker family struggling to cope with the inevitability of war includes one of Gary Cooper's finest performances, plus tremendous work from Dorothy McGuire and a young Anthony Perkins as well. Dimitri Tiomkin's wonderful score is the perfect compliment to Michael Wilson's thoughtful screenplay, both of which hold up exceedingly well today.

Warner's DVD is gorgeous; the remastering has made the 1.85 transfer sharp and clear, and freed from the grain you usually associate with a film from 1956. The mono soundtrack is in decent shape, while Warner has included a segment from the 1955 NBC series "Wide Wide World," selling the movie's production, along with a trailer and the usual production notes.

If you're looking for a classic drama on DVD at a time when vintage studio fare has been so often neglected in the format, FRIENDLY PERSUASION is a perfect choice.


PARAMOUNT:

In addition to the pending release of a handful of football-oriented pictures (from THE LONGEST YARD to NORTH DALLAS FORTY), Paramount has released a good mix of catalogue titles and new releases of late, though none especially heavy on the supplemental side.

THE UNTOUCHABLES (****, $29.98) remains one of Brian DePalma's shining moments, and the new 2.35 transfer presented on the DVD release is something to behold: more appropriately framed than the earlier letterboxed laser issue and perfectly rendering Stephen H. Burum's Panavision cinematography, it's a visual knockout for a knockout movie. Kevin Costner stars as Eliot Ness in what remains one of the actor's best performances, though it's the work of Robert DeNiro as Al Capone, and especially Sean Connery in his Oscar-winning supporting performance, that most viewers remember. The individual DePalma "homage" sequences are effective and supremely memorable, and the movie is every bit as entertaining -- if not more so now -- than it was upon its original release.

Ennio Morricone's score sounds good in the 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack, though there's also a basic 2.0 Dolby Surround mix included for those without the 5.1 capabilities. The movie's effective theatrical trailer is included for extras, but that's it on the supplemental side.

A trailer is the only extra included on Paramount's release of THE WARRIORS (***, $29.98), Walter Hill's 1978 thriller about a Coney Island gang trying to navigate home through the streets of New York with every other "warrior of the night" after their heads.

One of two heavily-criticized gang-themed films released in 1978 (Phillip Kaufman's excellent "The Wanderers" was the other), Hill's picture is a comic-book actioner all the way, moving breathlessly from one incident to the next with a surreal quality that has made it an enduring favorite of viewers. Credit Andrew Laszlo's cinematography for sustaining viewer interest when the story is so basic but compelling at the same time.

Paramount's DVD is the best the movie has ever looked on video to date, with a clear 1.85 transfer backed by the movie's original mono soundtrack. It's too bad the studio didn't include any of the extra footage that was included on certain TV airings of the picture, but without Hill's reported participation there wasn't any chance of that happening.

Finally, Paramount has rolled out a decent assortment of extras (featurettes, interviews) to compliment the DVD release of Sofia Coppola's well-received though little-seen THE VIRGIN SUICIDES (**, $29.98), with Kirstin Dunst starring as one of several sisters who take their own lives in a repressed '70s household overseen by Kathleen Turner and James Woods.

The movie, a bizarre coming-of-age tale with elements of black comedy that don't always come off, is interesting without being entirely successful. Woods and Turner make for one odd bit of casting here, while there are cameos by the likes of Danny DeVito among others. The subject matter and mood was a bit too grim for my taste, while the cliched narration by Giovanni Ribisi hammers home the obvious without being especially enlightening.

Still, if you're looking for something REALLY different from the usual teen fare, THE VIRGIN SUICIDES might be worth a look. The 1.85 transfer and Dolby Digital soundtrack are both up to the studio's usual high standards.


BUENA VISTA:

It was one of last year's most acclaimed movies on this side of the Atlantic, but despite nicely detailed animation and a gorgeous score by Joe Hiashi, PRINCESS MONONOKE (**1/2, $29.98) left me a little cold.

Yes, this fairy-tale adventure (suitable only for teenagers due to a good deal of violence) is the highest grossing picture released in Japan, and there are some unforgettable sequences mixed into the fabric of Hayao Miryazaki's film. But at over 130 minutes, this is a sluggish, slow-moving fantasy, one that tends to ram home its pro-environmental message without adding any additional subtext.

Although the Disney DVD features a well-done English-dubbed track featuring the likes of Minnie Driver, Billy Cudrup, Billy Bob Thornton, and Claire Danes among others, perhaps something was lost in the translation of the film to American shores -- or too much of the movie is steeped in Japanese culture and legend to have the same significance here. (As my friend Paul MacLean pointed out to me, why is the movie called "Princess Mononoke" when she's basically a supporting character to the Prince?).

Still, even for those not familiar with "anime," I would recommend the movie due to its artistic design and the lyrical score by Hiashi, both of which are prominently highlighted by Miramax's DVD, which features a flawless 1.85 transfer and a surprisingly well-detailed Dolby Digital soundtrack as well. A featurette on the dubbing of the American version, featuring interviews with the actors, is included as an extra.

Speaking of transfers and sound, Touchstone's DVD of the much-ballyhooed GONE IN 60 SECONDS (**, $29.98) boasts a razor-sharp transfer and throbbing Dolby Digital soundtrack that opens with a flourish and never lets up.

Not that it should any surprise, since this Jerry Bruckheimer production -- another Nicolas Cage check- ca$hing venture -- is a mindless entertainment, with Cage leading a group of car thieves in a loose remake of H.B. Halicki's '70s low-budget actioner (recently issued on DVD itself). The movie is thoroughly by-the numbers but nevertheless is fun in a no-brainer kind of way, and the DVD transfer (in 2.35 widescreen) and that soundtrack will hold your attention.

Touchstone has done a good job with the DVD release, including several featurettes created exclusively for this package, detailing the excellent stunt work with the usual self-promotional interviews one usually associates with DVD supplements interspersed. A music video and interview with Bruckheimer are also included in a nice looking and sounding presentation that's slick and creatively bankrupt at the same time.


COLUMBIA TRISTAR:

Paul Verhoeven's claustrophobic, under-written Invisible Man thriller, HOLLOW MAN (**1/2, $24.98) provides compelling viewing in a good-bad-movie manner, but its extras-packed DVD release makes for great fun, and is notable mainly for its inclusion of an isolated score track with -- for the first time -- commentary from composer Jerry Goldsmith himself.

Speaking whenever his cues aren't running (which isn't very often in the second half of the film), Goldsmith provides some insight into his craft, spending a good deal of time talking about his association with Verhoeven and how the director pushed him into creating one of his finest scores for Basic Instinct. Goldsmith also touches upon the specific structure of his score for Hollow Man, elaborating upon the various motifs included in his soundtrack, and speaks about the different kinds of cues and transitions inherent in movie scores (he describes one such kind of cue as "f*king around music"!).

At times, though, it's hard to tell if Goldsmith either has some difficulty articulating about his work or is simply disinterested in speaking about this particular score, which does, however, rank as one of his best in quite some time. There may not be a great deal of revelations here that fans aren't aware of, but to hear the maestro participate in a commentary track is something that many listeners are going to savor; kudos again to Columbia for being the leader in incorporating film-music content into their DVD releases.

The DVD otherwise boasts an exemplary 1.85 transfer, bass-heavy Dolby Digital soundtrack, and a wonderful assortment of extras. In addition to the Goldsmith score, you get another fun Verhoeven commentary track (the man truly is a bit on the wacky side, isn't he?), an HBO Making Of segment, three brief deleted scenes with optional Verhoeven commentary, and then a magnificent assortment of special effects segments (no less than 15 featurettes are included!) illustrating the wizardry of the various F/X- makers. The movie may have its problems, but the DVD boasts plenty of engaging supplements that make it a recommended purchase.

Even more entertaining is GODZILLA 2000 (***, $24.98), the U.S. domestic edition of Toho Pictures' first post-Emmerich monster fest.

Godzilla fans of all ages should definitely enjoy this sci-fi epic, with the Big Green (and I'm not talking about Dartmouth!) taking on an extraterrestrial menace that looks like a cross between H.R. Giger's Alien and a jellyfish. The requisite "plot" scenes are played with a humorous touch in the American dubbing, but that only adds to the fun -- be patient and you'll be rewarded with a massively entertaining monster brawl in the final third, one of the best of the many Godzilla battles that have taken place in the poor city of Tokyo over the years.

While not filled with as many extras as "Hollow Man," GODZILLA 2000 does boast one of the more entertaining commentary tracks in quite some time, where the folks who worked on the U.S. version discuss the changes they made from the original Japanese cut. Some footage was re-arranged (for the better, it seems) and music re-scored (there's more of it in the American cut), but the end result is deliriously entertaining.

Columbia's DVD is in 2.35 widescreen, features a fun Dolby Digital soundtrack, and in addition to the commentary, trailers and some behind-the-scenes footage from the original Japanese shoot. Hopefully GODZILLA 2001 will follow later on this summer!


ANCHOR BAY:

Ridley Scott's "Hannibal" is due out in just a few weeks, which is no doubt one of the reasons that AB has decided January 30 is the right time to debut their brand new release of Michael Mann's MANHUNTER (***1/2), the 1986 adaptation of Thomas Harris' "Red Dragon" that's a superior movie to Jonathan Demme's "Silence of the Lambs" in several aspects.

Featuring William Petersen as an FBI agent tracking down a serial killer (Tom Noonan) with the participation of Hannibal Lecter (Brian Cox in a performance more restrained but almost as effective as Anthony Hopkins' later Hannibal), MANHUNTER has become a film respected by audiences and acclaimed by critics in the years since its marginally successful theatrical run. It's less "showy" and theatrical than Demme's film, but the heightened realism only adds to the suspense and makes the material all the more believable, at least in my mind.

Anchor Bay will be releasing two packages for the picture: a single-DVD release of the theatrical cut ($29.98) features a sterling, new 2.35 transfer, excellent Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, the theatrical trailer, and a pair of new featurettes: one an interview with cinematographer Dante Spinotti, the other containing interviews with Petersen, Noonan, Cox, and co-star Joan Allen.

The other package is an elaborately-designed 2-DVD Limited Edition set ($39.98) "limited" to 100,000 copies, and which features a "dossier" booklet with full-color photos and rather pompous liner notes from admirers of the movie.

The main addition to the set is the inclusion of the movie's 124-minute "Director's Cut" on the 2nd DVD. Unfortunately, the usefulness of this re-edited cut (which initially aired on Showtime) is almost non- existent since the transfer is one of the worst I've come across to date on DVD. A persistent instability in the image makes the entire picture unfocused from the very beginning to the end, while there's a constant grain and the 2.35 framing is inappropriately matted (masking off picture at the top AND bottom!).

It almost looks as if someone took a video tape of the Showtime cut, then matted out the picture and tried applying some video filters to smooth out the image. (Did Michael Mann even see this?). Whatever the case may be, it's hard to believe that anyone will prefer watching this version over the theatrical cut, unless they're a die-hard fan of the movie. (The Director's Cut also doesn't contain any additional features).

For most viewers, then, the single-disc release should suffice, since the extras are the same in both packages and the presentation is clearly superior in the theatrical cut.


AISLE SEAT CONTEST 2000!

That's right, folks, as promised, Anchor Bay and Radini Public Relations have furnished us with a handful of copies of A BETTER TOMORROW and A BETTER TOMORROW II on DVD -- both of which hit stores this week.

So, if you can tell me the name of the NEW, soon-to-be-released John Woo movie that ought to be hitting theaters from MGM sometime this summer (hint: it stars Nicolas Cage and was mentioned in Lukas' column last Friday), you will be qualified to win copies of BOTH pictures, along with an Anchor Bay T- shirt!

Send all responses to me at dursina@att.net and I'll get back to the winners. And check out both discs from Anchor Bay, which look and sound superior to any versions of these classic Hong Kong actioners (featuring Chow-Yun Fat at his best!) to date.


NEXT TIME...The Aisle Seat weighs in on CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON -- as good as everyone says, or just a bandwagon critic hit? Email me at dursina@att.net and we'll catch you next time.


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