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Aisle Seat Holiday Gift Guide Part Two

'80s Favorites from WILLOW to ST. ELMO'S FIRE

By Andy Dursin

Welcome back, folks. Days are counting away towards Christmas, so if you need some more DVD gift ideas for a friend or relative, today we offer a plethora of titles culled from the '80s that have recently been released -- and then, for your bonus viewing pleasure, a wrap-up of small-screen and kids titles in a bonus attached column!

So let's get things started as we continue with Part II (and then some) of 43 total reviews we're giving away for free here at the Aisle Seat. [Go here for yesteryday's part one.]


New, but Noteworthy?

WILLOW. Fox, $26.98.

THE NUTSHELL: George Lucas' 1988 fantasy, directed by Ron Howard, finds diminutive Warwick Davis as the title hero, who finds a sacred baby and subsequently sets out on a quest to rid the kingdom of evil Queen Bavmorda (Jean Marsh) with the help of a Han Solo-like rogue (Val Kilmer) and comic relief served up by a pair of "Brownies." Lots of effects, chases, and action ensue.

ANDY'S ANALYSIS: Despite being a modest success at the box-office, I've never been a big fan of WILLOW, and watching it again on Fox's new DVD didn't do much to change my mind. The movie is ugly to look at, with dark, drab cinematography by Adrian Biddle, a dour and often uninvolving screenplay that recycles bits and pieces of "Star Wars," and a likewise hackneyed James Horner score that also has never been a particular favorite of mine (I'll take "Krull" any day). What saves the movie are the individual set-pieces and then cutting-edge special effects by ILM, which were groundbreaking at the time ("morphing! cool!") and ushered in a succession of incredible advances in FX over the next several years.

DVD GOODS: A nice Special Edition from Fox usurps Columbia TriStar's letterboxed Laserdisc release, which retailed for $70 and offered nothing in the way of extras! Here, you get a chatty commentary track from Davis, two featurettes (one looking back on the work of ILM, the other a promotional but fun documentary from 1988), tons of trailers, teasers and TV spots, plus a stills gallery and other extras. The 2.35 transfer is THX- approved and looks great (or at least as good as the movie CAN look), while the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound is top-notch.

GIFT POTENTIAL: Fans of the movie will love the DVD, as will special effects scholars and die-hard Lucasfilm fans. WILLOW is rightly regarded a landmark in filmmaking for ILM's achievements at the time, but it's still a glum fantasy that didn't offer anything fresh or original in 1988, and hasn't improved with age, either.


STRANGE INVADERS. MGM, $14.98.

THE NUTSHELL: Michael Laughlin's terrific 1983 homage to '50s sci-fi finds college professor Paul LeMat searching for his ex-wife (Diana Scarwid), whose disappearance leaves their young daughter in his care, and a tabloid news journalist (Nancy Allen) hot on the trail. Turns out the quaint little Midwestern town Scarwid is from harbors a deep, extraterrestrial secret -- as does Scarwid herself!

ANDY'S ANALYSIS: I loved STRANGE INVADERS when I watched it on video as a kid, and MGM's DVD is going to enable new viewers to enjoy it for the first time, since the film has been out-of-circulation for years. This is a knowing, funny, and terrific homage to the kinds of sci-fi flicks that were so popular in the '50s, with just a dash of '80s gore (it still qualified for a PG) and a fantastic score by John Addison that has sadly never been released. The performances are fun, and the script by Laughlin and William Condon (Oscar-winner for "Gods and Monsters") manages to rehash old cliches without turning into a campfest.

DVD GOODS: MGM's line of Midnight Movies has been one of the happiest developments we've seen on DVD lately. At the rock-bottom retail price of $15, you get a terrific 2.35, 16:9 enhanced transfer and commentary with Laughlin and Condon (recorded separately), plus the theatrical trailer. The mono sound is a bit weak, but to see STRANGE INVADERS in its original Panavision aspect ratio is a sight for sore eyes.

GIFT POTENTIAL: A cult classic that's a must for sci-fi fans, STRANGE INVADERS was one of my favorite sleepers of the '80s. With a great new letterboxed transfer and commentary to boot, you can't ask for much more given the price. Great job by MGM, and check out their other Midnight Movies titles for other genre faves.


SHEENA. Columbia TriStar, $19.98.

THE NUTSHELL: Tanya Roberts IS Sheena, comic-book heroine and Queen of the Jungle, in this 1984 adventure that finds the scantily-clad heroine falling for a TV journalist (Ted Wass, fresh off "Curse of the Pink Panther") and combating an evil prince (Trevor Thomas) who wants to take over the land of her beloved people.

ANDY'S ANALYSIS: I have a soft spot for this John Guillermin-directed turkey, which features a campy script by Lorenzo Semple, Jr. and David Newman ("Superman") and a wooden performance from Roberts. Offering as many unintended laughs as intentional ones, SHEENA features plenty of eye candy, from Roberts herself to the gorgeous African landscapes, plus a terrific score by Richard Hartley. When you find yourself in shock over the dialogue between Wass and Roberts, you'll know that it's the kind of entertainment that only a good bad movie can provide.

DVD GOODS: Shot in Panavision, Columbia's DVD offers the first-ever 2.35 transfer of SHEENA on home video. One of those instances where cropping takes away from the fun, it's great to see SHEENA finally letterboxed, and if you need a reminder how messy the movie looks in pan-and-scan, a cropped version is available on the flip side. The 2.0 Dolby Surround track is fairly weak, but it's passable.

GIFT POTENTIAL: A perfect pick for the lover of "so bad it's good" cinema, or the Tanya Roberts fan who has worn out their copy of "A View to a Kill." Finally in widescreen, SHEENA is a gas all the way around.


SPACEHUNTER: ADVENTURES IN THE FORBIDDEN ZONE. Columbia, $19.98.

THE NUTSHELL: Not to be confused with "Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn," Ivan Reitman's 1983 3-D sci-fi adventure stars Peter Strauss as the Spacehunter, a futuristic bounty hunter battling the evil Overdog (clearly one of the great villain names from the early '80s) in one of those Mad Max-like wastelands that we saw routinely at the movies in the '80s. Molly Ringwald, a year away from her first John Hughes movie (and stardom), plays a rag-tag kid who tags along with Spacehunter as they attempt to rescue three lovely maidens from the clutches of Overdog.

ANDY'S ANALYSIS: You either have a soft, nostalgic place in your heart for SPACEHUNTER -- one of countless 3-D efforts from '82 and '83 -- or you don't. Honestly, I don't, although you wouldn't think that a film produced by Reitman and scored by Elmer Bernstein would be as cheap and pathetic as this one. Lame special FX and garish cinematography make for a tedious cinematic affair, minus the 3-D effects that were obviously the movie's main selling point. Even Bernstein's score is completely blah, though Michael Ironside steals the show (trust me, it's not hard) as Overdog.

DVD GOODS: A basic package from Columbia gives you trailers for several other sci-fi films, a pretty good 4.0 Dolby Digital soundtrack, and a choice of two aspect ratios. While shown in theaters in 2.35 3-D, SPACEHUNTER was actually matted for its theatrical presentation. Subsequently, the DVD gives you a 1.85 transfer on Side A, and a full-frame version on Side B that actually opens up the frame at the top and bottom without losing anything on the sides. The transfer is OK, and it's about as good as the film could seemingly look on home video.

GIFT POTENTIAL: Find yourself the biggest Molly Ringwald fan you can find, and give them SPACEHUNTER as a gag present. Either that, or purchase it for yourself (and don't tell anyone!).


ST. ELMO'S FIRE. Columbia, $19.98.

THE NUTSHELL: The definitive "Brat Pack" film, Joel Schumacher's 1985 melodrama looks at the lives and loves of young twentysomethings just out of college, trying to make a go of it in the Georgetown area of Washington, D.C. Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez, Andrew McCarthy, Judd Nelson, Demi Moore, Ally Sheedy, Mare Winningham and Andie MacDowell were the familiar faces still fresh on the big screen back in '85, when ST. ELMO'S FIRE became a big hit at the box-office.

ANDY'S ANALYSIS: Shot in Panavision, Columbia's DVD is noteworthy since it's the first letterboxed edition of the movie on home video (a necessity to fit all the actors on- screen at once). It's a glossy, pretentious soap opera all the way, but the cast makes it compelling, with an immediately recognizable David Foster score and excellent cinematography by Stephen H. Burum. Anyone who lived through the '80s had to have come across this movie at some point, and it's a blast of nostalgia that has held up as well as most tenny-bopper vehicles of the day.

DVD GOODS: The 2.35 transfer is excellent and the 4.0 soundtrack quite crisp. Columbia has included a nice assortment of extras, from an informative commentary track from the director, to the original featurette, theatrical trailer, and (yes!) music video of John Parr's immortal hit single, "Man in Motion." The usual production notes and filmographies are also available.

GIFT POTENTIAL: Anyone still living in the '80s, or wishing to re-live just a bit of that era, would be a perfect recipient for ST. ELMO'S FIRE. So what if the movie is unintentionally funny at times? It's all part of the fun. Columbia's DVD looks great and features several nifty special features for the price. Highly recommended.


WHITE WATER SUMMER. Columbia TriStar, $19.98.

THE NUTSHELL: Filmed in 1985 but left on the shelf for two years (before receiving a very limited theatrical release), this odd teen adventure stars Kevin Bacon as a vindictive outdoor guide who heads to the mountains to show city boy Sean Astin and a group of others what life in the wild is all about.

ANDY'S ANALYSIS: Few paid any attention to this forgettable but well-made kids' adventure at the time of its release, but WHITE WATER SUMMER has received a lot of exposure on cable TV over the last few years and, oddly enough, must have drawn enough attention from Kevin Bacon fans to warrant a release on DVD. As it is, it's a simplistic but entertaining movie for teens, beautifully photographed by the late John Alcott (frequent Stanley Kubrick collaborator) primarily in New Zealand. Michael Boddicker's synth score is mixed with blaring rock songs typical of an '80s studio film, but Bacon's arrogant bad-buy guide is fun and strikingly similar to the role he played in "The River Wild" several years later.

DVD GOODS: The 2.35 transfer is excellent, capturing all of the Panavision frame, while a worthless pan-and-scan version is included as well. The 4.0 Dolby Digital sound is competent, and a brief theatrical trailer rounds out the release.

GIFT POTENTIAL: Kevin Bacon fans might have missed this little-seen adventure, and Columbia's DVD looks superlative. For Bacon or Sean Astin fans -- or any DVD- obsessed teens you know -- WHITE WATER SUMMER is well worth a view.


CASUALTIES OF WAR. Columbia, $19.98.

THE NUTSHELL: Following on the success of "The Untouchables," Brian DePalma directed this true story of an American military unit in Vietnam, led by loose screw Sean Penn, that opts to take out their frustration by kidnapping and then raping a Vietnamese girl. Michael J. Fox plays the moralistic soldier who tries to bring justice after the incident takes place.

ANDY'S ANALYSIS: DePalma's 1989 film was not the box-office or critical success Columbia hoped it would be, and yet like many of the director's flawed and ultimately unsuccessful films, it still has much to offer: solid performances, excellent widescreen cinematography by Stephen H. Burum, and a fairly good score by Ennio Morricone. It may be one of the lesser films to come out of the Vietnam film cycle of the '80s, but Fox and Penn make it worthwhile.

DVD GOODS: A 30-minute documentary with new interviews and a handful of deleted scenes make this a solid Special Edition. The 2.35 transfer is excellent and the 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack fairly elaborate for a late '80s flick. The trailer is also included.

GIFT POTENTIAL: Not a real candidate for repeat viewing, CASUALTIES OF WAR is best recommended for DePalma, Fox, or Penn die-hards, who should, at least, appreciate the transfer and supplements on Columbia's commendable DVD presentation.


WEEKEND AT BERNIE'S II. Columbia, $19.98.

THE NUTSHELL: The sequel nobody wanted to see, this 1993 box-office flop finds buddies Andrew McCarthy and Jonathan Silverman back with Bernie (Terry Kiser) -- still dead, of course. This time out, they're down in the Virgin Islands trying to retrieve some $2-million of Bernie's fortune that he stole from their company, and a Vodoo priestess decides to get in on the action by enabling the Bern-man to dance. Co-starring Barry Bostwick!

ANDY'S ANALYSIS: The original WEEKEND was a laugh riot, but while original writer Robert Klane returned to duty here (taking over Ted Kotcheff's place in the director's chair), Part II is a needless rehash that was done strictly for the money by all involved. The colorful settings are easy on the eyes and Kiser again provokes a few guffaws as the most lively corpse you'll ever see, but from the moment the animated title sequence appears, you just know WEEKEND II is D.O.A.

DVD GOODS: The 1.85 transfer is excellent and the Dolby Surround soundtrack passable. And that's about it for special features, aside from several trailers.

GIFT POTENTIAL: If you're buying the original film as a present, make sure you don't confuse this DVD with the genuine article. Even hard-core fans of the first film found little amusement in this follow-up, which might have been produced as a tax write-off by the producers. Luckily, there hasn't been any talk of Part III, though it's doubtful even that could be worse than this sorry affair.


SUBWAY. Columbia, $19.98.

THE NUTSHELL: Relatively lightheared 1985 Luc Besson caper/romance finds Christopher Lambert as a thief whom bored millionaire's wife Isabelle Adjani falls for, even though he's taken off with her prized papers. They retreat to the subterranean world beneath the streets of Paris, eluding police and other hazards involved with city life.

ANDY'S ANALYSIS: Besson's glitzy filmmaking techniques were in evidence even back in '85, as one can discern from watching just a few minutes of SUBWAY on DVD. The action scenes, unsurprisingly, offer the most entertainment here, but the plot -- never a strong suit in Besson's films -- doesn't have enough going for it to sustain the viewer's interest for 102 minutes. On the plus side, Columbia's DVD offers the original French language version with English subtitles, making the story a bit more coherent compared to the original, dubbed U.S. version. Just don't be confused by the shot of Lambert holding what looks a light saber on the box cover -- SUBWAY is anything but a sci-fi adventure!

DVD GOODS: The 2.35 Technovision transfer is excellent, with both the French language track and American dubbed mix offered for audio selections. The U.S. version is not recommended, but at least they didn't replace Eric Serra's score with Bill Conti compositions here. Trailers are included for other Besson films.

GIFT POTENTIAL: Besson fans will want to add SUBWAY to their collections, but if you've never sat through one of the French auteur's films, this probably isn't the best place to start. Still worthwhile but awfully uneven, petering out at the finish line.


Anchor Bay Holiday Ideas

Just as the company has done for the last three years, Anchor Bay's end-of-the-year slate has included an eclectic array of vintage and more contemporary efforts.

Their biggest and most exciting release for a lot of reasons is their Special Edition of THE STUNT MAN ($29.98), Richard Rush's acclaimed 1980 black comedy with Steve Railsback as a Vietnam vet, running from the law, who improbably stumbles upon a movie set and its dictator-like director (Peter O'Toole). Barbara Hershey is the actress with whom Railsback falls in love, while Dominic Frontiere provides a surprisingly deft score that matches the lunacy of the proceeding perfectly.

Anchor Bay's 1.85, THX-approved transfer is grainy but generally acceptable, while the 6.1 DTS and Dolby Digital EX tracks are quite vibrant, courtesy of Chace Digital Stereo. Rush contributes a commentary track while deleted scenes, the original screenplay, trailer, and countless other extras are included on the DVD, which comes (in the two-disc Limited Edition set) with a two-hour documentary on the making of the film -- offering new interviews with all of the principals and touching upon every facet of the film's conception, production, and release. (THE MAKING OF THE STUNT MAN is available separately for $19.98).

I read the other day that Dr.Who may be coming back to the silver screen -- and what better timing could there be for Anchor Bay to release the two big-screen 'Who flicks from the mid '60s starring Peter Cushing?

DR. WHO AND THE DALEKS ($29.98) finds the doctor battling those dreaded Daleks, machines that enslave humans on a distant planet named Skaro. Now, if you're not a newbie to the world of Dr. Who, don't worry: this colorful 1965 sci-fi adventure doesn't quite tie into the old BBC series, portraying the title character as a kindly grandfather figure (in a splendid interpretation by Cushing) in a self-contained story that nevertheless was followed by a sequel of its own the following year.

AB's DVD features a capable 2.35 transfer, mono soundtrack, audio commentary with stars Jennie Linden and Roberta Tovey, plus the trailer, stills gallery, and a photo essay of Doctor Who.

Available for the first time uncut on DVD, the Sean Penn bad-boys-go-to-prison melodrama -- appropriately entitled BAD BOYS -- has also surfaced from Anchor Bay in a letterboxed edition with new director commentary by Rick Rosenthal. This 1983 effort is a gritty and well-acted effort that doesn't flinch from its graphic depiction of a juvenile detention center, though the ending comes off as a bit soft.

AB's DVD looks good in its matted 1.85 transfer and features the original trailer. The mono soundtrack is undistinguished, though it does boast an effective, fine score by Bill Conti.

Finally, SPACECAMP ($24.98) was an ill-timed failure at the box-office during the summer of '86, following the destruction of the space shuttle Challenger by several months. It's a nice enough movie for kids that wasn't fully deserving of its poor theatrical showing, with sincere performances and a pleasant John Williams score.

The cast also reads like a who's-who of '80s cinema (Kate Capshaw, Lea Thompson, Kelly Preston, Tom Skerritt), and there's even a robot on-hand -- hey, it WAS an '80s sci- fi film, after all!

Anchor Bay offers both 1.85 and full-frame versions, plus a better-than-average Dolby Surround soundtrack, the original trailer, and an interview with director Harry Winer in the liner notes.


LOOKING FOR MORE REVIEWS? Tomorrow: a bonus Aisle Seat look at MOULIN ROUGE, STAR TREK Season Three on DVD, and more! Email your questions and comments to the Andyman at Dursina@att.net.


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