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Aisle Seat April Assault

Director's Cut DVDs, Spectacles, and other news!

Reviews from LAWRENCE OF ARABIA to THE NATURAL, plus the scoop on LEGEND!

By Andy Dursin

It's been busy around here at The Aisle Seat, with lots of new (and highly desired titles) ready for release over the next few weeks and months. Everything from STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE to SUPERMAN will be on their way to DVD, the kind of news that has certainly gotten many movie buffs quite excited 'round these parts.

Last week, however, came word that Universal was canceling their planned 2-DVD set of LEGEND, which was first announced for a Thanksgiving 2000 release that didn't materialize. Some wondered if this would be the end of the line for the planned restoration of the Jerry Goldsmith-scored cut -- but I'm here to tell you that there's no need to worry. Paul MacLean tells me, straight from one of his sources, that the project has actually INCREASED the amount of supplements it was originally going to contain due to the delay. Now, when the release happens is still anybody's guess (it could be Thanksgiving again!), but LEGEND should be out by year's end, in an edition more comprehensive than the one we would have had last year -- and with a better transfer, apparently, as well.

By all accounts, SUPERMAN should be quite the must-purchase when it's released on May 1st. Unfortunately, since a certain PR agency has deemed us "too small" to receive a pre-release copy (quite laughable given that sites like steve's-pot-of-DVD.com already have one), all I can tell you about it is that the transfer and sound are reportedly excellent. The movie runs 151 minutes (with 8 minutes of added footage), and includes a pair of deleted scenes on the supplemental disc (reportedly the comical Lex Luthor "feeding the babies" scenes). However, that still leaves some 30 minutes of deleted footage -- seen in the expanded TV versions -- out in the cold. I don't understand why this footage also couldn't have found its way into the supplemental section at least, but that may have well been the workings of director Richard Donner, who participates in a tell-all commentary track with "story consultant" Tom Mankewicz (really the script doctor who put the polish on SUPERMAN I & II) that I can't wait to hear.

Of course, it's not that you have to wait to get your hands on Special Edition titles. Lately, it seems as if there has been a new deluxe title being released each week -- exactly what any Laserphile's wallet does not need!

Columbia has gone that route twice in as many weeks with the long-awaited, Limited Edition 2-DVD set of LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (****, $39.98), David Lean's 1962 classic that needs no introduction to most cinephiles, and a not-quite-as-comprehensive edition of THE NATURAL (***1/2, $24.98), Barry Levinson's 1984 baseball fantasy that nevertheless sports one of the year's most gorgeous transfers.

Starting with the full-course meal, LAWRENECE includes many of the goods one would hope this classic film would -- starting with a terrific 2.35 transfer that, while occasionally showing its age, compensates by clear, vivid detail and strong colors that surpass all previous home video transfers of its 2.35 widescreen frame (and this includes the countless "Special Edition" releases from Criterion, among others, that found their way to laserdisc). The 5.1 Dolby Digital remix boasts an impressive depth for Maurice Jarre's powerful score, but a more modest 2.0 stereo encoding is also available for those without the benefit of 5.1 receivers.

There is no commentary track here, but instead -- much like Columbia's "Bridge on the River Kwai" release -- a handful of extras contained (along with the second part of the film) on the bonus second disc. Chief among the new features is a new, hour-long documentary from supplemental-expert Laurent Bouzereau, boasting new interviews with Anthony Quinn, Omar Sharif, and Anne V. Coates. These new clips have been incorporated into older conversations featuring Peter O'Toole and the late David Lean, which were shot in 1989 at the time of LAWRENCE's re-constructed, restored theatrical re-release. As he has accomplished on countless outstanding documentaries, Bouzereau does a fine job addressing all aspects of the film's production -- from the behind-the-scenes story, to the movie's various cuts and restoration of material in 1989 (with some ADR re-looping), and its proper significance in film history.

The other extras found in this edition are OK, but have been mostly released before -- these include various featurettes shot during the film's production and release, as well as a rough-looking theatrical trailer.

The best of the supplements, however, are found in the DVD-ROM section, which include maps and archival photographs -- giving the viewer a good sense of the story's historical background -- as well as an overview of the production. This is achieved in a frame browser that covers each and every chapter of the DVD with anecdotal notes, production shots and historical still photos. The easy-to-access presentation allows you to go directly to a sequence in the film and quickly read the details of that scene's shoot, as well as its historical relevancy.

Since every chapter on the DVD has its own anecdotes, it's simple to skip through the film to choose what you'd like to read about, while you can also select to watch the film in a small window while you read up on its background info (though this feature is mainly for reference, not a substitute for watching the movie). I found that I'd actually access this presentation more often than sifting through endless still galleries or listening to most audio commentaries for over three hours. Unfortunately, most Mac users will left out of the loop as these features are only viewable in properly equipped PC drives.

The cloth-bound packaging houses both discs and a color reproduction of the movie's original premiere booklet notes. Columbia says that this edition will not be available for an indefinite period of time, though interestingly, there has been talk (on DVDfile.com among others) that a 40th Anniversary limited theatrical release will happen next year, and a subsequent DVD package may follow. This potential release may include an isolated score track of Jarre's music, which wasn't included in this edition for one reason or another.

While news like that may make some film score lovers decide to hold off until that happens, it's unlikely the transfer and sound will be any different than the excellent presentation Columbia has given us here. Buy it!

And speaking of presentations, Caleb Deschanel's cinematography is one of the chief virtues of Barry Levinson's THE NATURAL, a crafty adaptation of Bernard Malamud's book (keeping large chunks of the narrative but changing the overall tone) that brought us a baseball fantasy with Robert Redford as the archetypal baseball hero in a story filled with references to mythology, the Bible, and parallels to real-life historical events.

Having just visited Cooperstown (a large disappointment, but we'll save that for another time), and having the season just get into full swing, I found that this was a perfect opportunity to revisit THE NATURAL on DVD, since Columbia's new 1.85 transfer is immaculate. Deschanel's cinematography makes countless sequences look like a work of art, and backed by Randy Newman's now-classic score, the movie's flaws -- its overlength and somewhat-cluttered script (by Roger Towne and Phil Dusenberry) -- seem much less significant.

The cast remains tremendous (Redford, Glenn Close, Robert Duvall, Kim Basinger, Barbara Hershey, Wilford Brimley, and Richard Farnsworth among others), and the film works as a superb piece of escapist entertainment, a morality fable and depiction of the game of baseball as a forum for a discussion of good and evil and Americana tied together.

For his new documentary film, producer Charles Kiselyak opted to concentrate more on the baseball element in THE NATURAL, interviewing Orioles great Cal Ripken, Jr. and director Barry Levinson, where both discuss the nature of the game and how it is captured -- in glowing terms -- by Levinson's film. This is not a specialized look at the making of the film, or about Malamud's book, but one that incorporates actual Major League Baseball footage in its essay-like prose. It's certainly interesting and effective, especially for sports fans, but not what many viewers may be expecting.

A theatrical trailer is included along with some production notes that better illustrate the long struggle it took to get THE NATURAL to the screen. For the transfer alone, this comes highly recommended.

Restoration and "Director's Cut" are terms that several recent Buena Vista DVDs have prominently displayed on their packaging.

Using as its source a reconstruction produced by Scott MacQueen in 1996, Disney has released a beautiful DVD edition of BEDKNOBS AND BROOMSTICKS (***, $29.98), its 1971 musical-fantasy with Angela Lansbury as a witch doing her part to take on the German forces in a quaint English village during WWII. An obvious attempt to craft a vehicle similar to "Mary Poppins," Robert Stevenson's film offers supporting turns from "Poppins" vet David Tomlinson, Roddy McDowall, and Sam Jaffe, along with a tuneful score by the Sherman Brothers and several goofy animated sequences (including a notorious soccer game that the Shermans weren't all that fond of!).

The behind-the-scenes history of the film is almost as entertaining as the movie itself. Originally intended to be Disney's big, "roadshow" release during Christmas '71, the movie was cut from over 140 minutes down to 117 minutes -- losing a good deal of its story and pacing along the way. Despite decent critical notices, the movie was never embraced by audiences or critics the way the producers thought it would, something the filmmakers lament was directly related to the movie's hack-and-slash editing (which reportedly included a drastic reduction in McDowall's role). A later re-release at 98 minutes didn't help any.

Five years ago, historian MacQueen set out to fully restore the film, and came close to uncovering all of the deleted scenes. His 139-minute cut restores several songs and dance sequences, along with upping McDowall's screen time and making more sense out of the Bill Walsh-Don DaGradi script. Only one song, Lansbury's introductory number ("A Step in the Right Direction"), could not be found, so MacQueen opted to include the song as a supplement, using the film's surviving audio tracks with still-frame photographs.

The restoration story is included in full detail in a recent "Music Magic" featurette including new interviews with Lansbury, the Sherman brothers, and MacQueen. For a Disney Channel production, the program does a surprisingly adept job at covering the movie's turbulent post-production process. Other features include three still frame galleries, theatrical trailers, a PR-like "recording session" with Tomlinson and conductor Irwin Kostal, plus a pair of vintage Disney animated shorts.

The main draw, however, is the movie itself, which looks gorgeous in its 1.66 transfer, and sounds superb in a crisp 5.1 Dolby Digital remix. MacQueen's efforts at restoring the film were evident only for those who had a copy of the earlier laserdisc release (or saw the film on Disney Channel airings), so this deluxe presentation is going to be many viewers' first chance at seeing BEDKNOBS AND BROOMSTICKS as it was originally intended to be seen.

Other recent Buena Vista releases cover newly constructed re-edits of new projects that were met with either critical resistance and/or little support from viewers.

Two of these include 2-disc sets for the latest "Highlander" effort, HIGHLANDER: ENDGAME (**, $29.98), and Kevin Smith's barely-aired animated "Clerks" series, which has surfaced in a complete, unedited six-episode collection entitled CLERKS: UNCENSORED (**1/2, $29.98).

In the case of "Highlander: Endgame," you get not one but TWO different versions of the film than the one that played in theaters last August. Unfortunately, neither version really seems to make that much sense: reportedly shot before the script was finished (at least according to some of the interviews with stars Christopher Lambert and Adrian Paul included in the featurette), Douglas Aarniokoski's film is a jumbled mess of time travel, sword fights, double-crosses, and special effects. Then again, I've never really understood the whole fascination with this series in the first place, so perhaps you need to be a die-hard "Highlander" fan to get anything out of this.

The Dimension/Miramax DVD presentation is first-rate, however. The 2.35 transfer of the "official" new version (12 minutes longer than the theatrical cut) is terrific, the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound is excellent, plus you get a DVD-ROM supplement to help you make sense of the character timelines (be prepared to take notes!), audio commentary with the filmmakers, and an entire second disc with a copy of the film's workprint! This version includes a timecode but at least is mixed in stereo, and includes alternate music (perhaps the work of Nick Glennie-Smith, whose score was, if I'm not correct, replaced with one by Stephen Graziano), and different scenes. And while there are OTHER deleted scenes included on the first disc's supplements, apparently there were even MORE special effects sequences, either fully or partially shot, seen in the movie's trailers not included here!

"Clerks," meanwhile, is a crudely-animated but entertaining extension of Smith's crudely-shot but amusing debut feature. Unfortunately, ABC had a hard time accepting the series, and showed only two episodes in odd time slots before axing the project altogether. For that very reason alone, Smith's commentary track is a blast, since the filmmakers spend most of their time diving into their head-on collisions with network execs and venting their frustrations. Fun!

The 1.33 transfer is obviously excellent, the 2.0 stereo is modest but effective, and newly filmed introductions by Jay & Silent Bob have been shot for each episode. Throw in some trailers (including the Super Bowl spot), various DVD-ROM extras (including storyboard/script comparisons), and uncensored, R-rated language and you have a flawed but intriguing piece of comic animation that Smith fans should not hesitate to pick up.

Another project that found filmmakers and studio execs clashing over was John Frankenheimer's last directorial outing, the 2000 action-thriller REINDEER GAMES (**1/2, $29.98), with Ben Affleck as a guy, just out of prison, who ends up as part of an improbable casino heist masterminded by psycho Gary Sinise and sister Charlize Theron.

Ehren Kruger's script is filled with lots of plot holes and, alternately, a few funny lines, but it's Frankenheimer's taut, assured direction that keeps you watching, along with the performances and snowy winter setting. This is probably best viewed as a Christmas-time thriller, but short of that, REINDEER GAMES would make for a decent thriller on a hot summer night in July or August. It's flawed, but entertaining nevertheless.

REINDEER GAMES was a box-office flop, and was not helped by the studio's decision to delay the movie's Christmas '99 release to February 2000, in order to do re-shoots and tighten up the movie's pacing. This meant the studio softened the movie a great deal in the editing room, where the film's two-hour plus running time was hacked down to 104 minutes.

This new version of the film represents, in Frankenheimer's words, a hybrid of the theatrical cut with scenes from his original director's version. With some 20 minutes of new footage and scene extensions, REINDEER GAMES is indeed edgier and more cohesive than the theatrical cut, especially when you contrast the movie to its "theatrical cut scene" counterparts, here included in the supplemental section for comparison's sake.

The original DVD for the movie included a director's commentary, and while I did not screen that copy, it seems to me that Frankenheimer's "all new" commentary track here is a pastiche of newly-recorded material with bits from the earlier track. The other special features here are carried over from the earlier DVD, including the theatrical trailer and a featurette.

The 2.35 transfer is OK, but exhibits some "jumps" when new material has been re-inserted (which can be quite obvious). The 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack is excellent, featuring a solid score by Alan Silvestri. Having not seen the first version of REINDEER GAMES, I was pleasantly surprised with this release, as it's not quite the misfire I thought it would be. Action fans should give it a spin.

Finally, Dimension has also released a marvelous, three-disc set of THE CROW COLLECTION ($89.98), with a new, much-needed remastered presentation of the original CROW (***), plus deluxe editions of the horrible 1996 sequel THE CROW: CITY OF ANGELS (*) and the barely-released new, third installment, THE CROW: SALVATION (**), starring Kirsten Dunst.

We'll have a lengthier analysis of this box-set in a future column, but the main draw here is the 2-disc, new edition of the original CROW (***), featuring an excellent, brand-new 1.85 transfer that finally -- unlike the previous LD and DVD releases -- gets the colors and lighting right. The 5.1 soundtracks include both superb Dolby and DTS mixes, plus a commentary track by producer Jeff Most and writer John Shirley (the same features are included on the CITY OF ANGELS and SALVATION discs. It should also be mentioned all titles are available separately for $29.98.)

The second disc includes a profile of comic-book creator James O'Barr, along with brief deleted scenes and outtake montages, plus a featurette on the making of the film, storyboards and stills, concept art, DVD- ROM features, and other extras. Unfortunately, there was room here for more, and the lack of participation from director Alex Proyas is regrettable. In fact, screenwriter David J. Schow said this release was meant to include a 90-minute documentary and a Proyas commentary, but both were scrapped at the last minute. For Schow's entire analysis of you aren't seeing, click here.

NEXT WEEKÖBack with Anchor Bay cult classics, including an all-time Andy favorite, MIDNIGHT MADNESS! Send all comments to dursina@att.net and we'll see you then. Excelsior!


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