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So Many DVDs, So Little Time...

Aisle Seat June Mania Part 2:

From John Wayne classics to the Muppets, a June feast of DVDs!

By Andy Dursin

A scheduling conflict nixed my TOMB RAIDER viewing this past weekend, not that the movie needed my dollars to seize the #1 spot. With Angelina Jolie flipping effortlessly through the air, this critically-lambasted fantasy debuted with a $48-million plus opening, a little lower than last summer's "X-Men." It remains to be seen if the movie won't suffer an astronomical decline this upcoming weekend (indeed, tracking indicated a steep decline between last Friday and Saturday), but it was a decent debut just the same. (I'll have a review for you next time -- promise!!).

If you caught my column earlier this week, you know that some prime DVDs are heading our way later on this summer and early this fall. Factor in Paramount's long-awaited GODFATHER box-set in early October, plus the arrival of THE MUMMY RETURNS and THE PHANTOM MENACE around the same time, and you can just sense your credit card being maxed out before we even get to the holidays!

Not that there haven't been some interesting releases of late. Here's an Aisle Seat rundown of John Wayne classics from Paramount, Columbia's new Muppet DVDs, and a few sleepers ideal for summer-time viewing at home...


New On DVD

ALL THE PRETTY HORSES (***1/2, $24.98, Columbia TriStar): Every once in a while it's nice to come across a movie that seems to have slipped through the cracks almost completely. This lyrical coming-of-age western saga, a Billy Bob Thorton-directed adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's 1992 bestseller, was reportedly cut down and left for dead by Miramax, then dumped into limited theatrical release with little fanfare last Christmas.

The 117-minute cut Columbia released is surprisingly cohesive (you can fill in the gaps where the excess of cut scenes could have been), and there is much to savor in the released version: the cinematography and music are outstanding, the lead performances assured, and the story itself a poignant and ultimately uplifting tale of a young man's maturation at a time when the old west was fading away and the "modern" world beginning to set in.

Matt Damon seems a little old for his role as the hero here, but he still gives one of his best performances as a man looking to find his place in the world. With pal Henry Thomas by his side, the two head south to Mexico, where they end up being followed by a young teen (Lucas Black) with a questionable past, working on a ranch belonging to a wealthy Mexican land owner (Ruben Blades), and falling in and out of trouble -- most of which comes in the form of Blades' daughter, played by Penelope Cruz, whom Damon falls in love with.

The movie has some uncertain pacing and does feel at times as if scenes were left on the cutting room floor, from incidental characters like Damon's father (played by prominently-billed Robert Patrick) to the entire relationship between Damon and Cruz. It's likely that their lack of on-screen chemistry could have been the main reason for their scenes together being condensed, but they're still functional enough for the drama to work.

Ted Tally's script includes a handful of exceptional sequences and dialogue interchanges, and Thornton's direction is sturdy, adeptly capturing the time and place of the setting, which is marvelously rendered in Barry Markowitz's cinematography (with second unit work turned in by Fred Murphy of "Hoosiers" fame).

The music by Marty Stuart, meanwhile, is another surprise. His score, which primarily utilizes guitar and strings, manages to perfectly evoke both intimacy and the epic scope of the material. With several memorable melodies and a strong finale, this soundtrack ranks as one of the best of last year and is also well worth seeking out on Sony Classical's CD.

Since there have been rumors of Thornton revisiting the film to create his own, four-hour Director's Cut, perhaps it should come as no big disappointment that Columbia's DVD is sparse in the way of supplements. Only a theatrical trailer (which gives away too much of the story) is included, leaving the movie's wealth of deleted scenes to wait for another edition. On the plus side, the 2.35 transfer of the Panavision frame is immaculate, and the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound crisp and atmospheric.

I wasn't expecting much from the film, but ALL THE PRETTY HORSES has a lot going for it -- enough so that it deserves a second look by audiences on DVD.


THE MUPPET MOVIE (***, Columbia TriStar, $19.98)
THE MUPPETS TAKE MANHATTAN (**1/2, Columbia TriStar, $19.98)

Like a lot of twenty/thirtysomethings, I grew up on the Muppets via Sesame Street, their own syndicated show, and, of course, the big-screen Muppet movies. For a long time, though, I never could get into the theatrical films -- somehow seeing Kermit, Fozzie, Miss Piggy, and Gonzo outside in the real world, away from their own confines, was something that I simply didn't buy at first glance.

Henson's first three theatrical films starring his creations -- 1979's MUPPET MOVIE, 1981's GREAT MUPPET CAPER, and 1984's MUPPETS TAKE MANHATTAN -- are a mix of standard cinematic plots punched up with satirical Muppet humor, along with song soundtracks that yielded a few hits in the process. The second Muppets film, THE GREAT MUPPET CAPER, is the best of the three (I prefer it for its enjoyable heist plot and Joe Raposo's terrific songs), but Columbia won't be releasing it on DVD until July 10. In the meantime, the studio has issued the first and third Muppet films, both of which -- while certainly entertaining and ideal fare for kids -- illustrate the kinds of problems that Henson, Frank Oz, and company had when trying to adapt the Muppets to the silver screen.

One of those problems is the use of guest star cameos, which sometimes slowed the movies down -- after all, do kids really care about Elliott Gould, James Coburn, and Telly Savalas popping up as extras? THE MUPPET MOVIE was the most prone to this predicament, with the story of Kermit and the gang venturing to Hollywood to make a movie being interrupted with gag appearances by the likes of Dom DeLuise, Mel Brooks, and Bob Hope. Adults will enjoy some of the interaction between the stars and the Muppets, but it's clear that a little of the in-joking goes a long way -- something that Henson and Oz undoubtedly realized as they pared down the cameos in their subsequent efforts.

Despite the sometimes uncertain pacing, THE MUPPET MOVIE is still fun. The Jerry Juhl-Jack Burns script has plenty of laughs, and the Paul Williams-Kenny Ascher songs include the classic "Rainbow Connection," which deserved an Oscar but lost to a wobbly Jennifer Warnes ballad from "Norma Rae."

For a first time outing, THE MUPPET MOVIE was a success, even if its follow-up -- the Henson- directed MUPPET CAPER -- would prove to be an improvement in both story and visuals. Having talked to some older friends who recall James Frawley's film to be quite grainy upon even its original theatrical release, I'm convinced that the uneven appearance of the 1.85 transfer on the new MUPPET MOVIE DVD is not the fault of the telecine operator. The print is fairly colorful but the source material doesn't seem to be in the best shape. Perhaps the fact that the movie's rights have switched hands numerous times over the years (ITC produced the film, Universal released it, CBS/Fox issued the first video release, then Disney handled a re-issue) is the main culprit in that respect. At any rate, having the original aspect ratio available here for the first time is nevertheless a plus, since the film -- like the other Muppet movies -- was shot in a "hard 1.85," meaning all full-frame video versions often obviously crop the left and right-hand edges of the frame. Audio wise, the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound is an OK enhancement from the movie's original 2-track stereo mix (also included), although there's not much stereo activity outside of the songs.

One note about the running time here: THE MUPPET MOVIE was originally released at 97 minutes, and then trimmed to 94 minutes. With logos, the DVD version runs just about 95 minutes, meaning whatever brief scene was excised from the original release print is still missing here. (Not that anyone at home is counting, except me!)

For supplements, Muppet fans will want to check out a truly fascinating "camera test" produced by director Frawley. Thinking that this would be a brief series of shots with Kermit driving in a car, I was surprised to find a 25-minute (!) assortment of improvised scenes with the Muppets driving, talking, and walking about in the English countryside. This is a truly priceless extra for fans, and Columbia should be saluted for including a full, virtual half-hour's worth of this material instead of just a few excerpted minutes.

There are no extras on the DVD of THE MUPPETS TAKE MANHATTAN, the third Muppet movie, directed by Frank Oz and released by Tri-Star back in the summer of 1984. Despite some fun scenes and lines, this entry is the weakest of the original films, with a recycled plot switching the first movie's Hollywood setting to Broadway, adding mediocre songs by Jeff Moss, and throwing in some weak star cameos to boot (James Coco, Dabney Coleman, and Linda Lavin aren't exactly Steve Martin, Richard Pryor, and Orson Welles!). Still, kids will enjoy it, and Columbia's DVD offers both the original, must-view 1.85 transfer and a pan-and-scan version, along with the original mono soundtrack. Fans should note that the trailer included here is a new video advertisement and not the actual theatrical trailer.

With THE GREAT MUPPET CAPER slated for release in a few weeks, the original trio of Muppet films will be available on DVD, leaving only one major omission from the more recent productions -- 1992's wonderful MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL, which in some ways is the most entertaining of all the Muppet films. (Let's hope Disney gets around to releasing it sooner than later). The newest Muppet movies -- the tedious "Muppet Treasure Island" and the ill-considered, song-less "Muppets From Space" -- may have improved upon the original Muppet movies in terms of technology, but certainly not in heart, as Columbia's DVDs once again attest.


JOHN WAYNE PARAMOUNT RELEASES:

After debuting "In Harm's Way" last month, Paramount is continuing to release a steady diet of John Wayne films on DVD. At such a time when "classic" movies are getting short-shrift on DVD, this has to come as a happy event for Laserphile fans of the Golden Age.
 
Certainly the three new Paramount Wayne DVDs come highly recommended, with a pair of acclaimed westerns and Wayne's final collaboration with director John Ford included among them.
 
The latter, 1963's DONOVAN'S REEF (***1/2, $24.98), is a highly enjoyable comedy with Wayne as an ex-Navy man on an isle in the scenic South Seas, horsing around with pal Lee Marvin and falling for Elizabeth Allen, a New Englander who arrives searching for her father (Jack Warden), who just happens to be a cohort of Wayne and Marvin.

The movie is a casual, relaxed affair filled with laughs, good-natured brawls, and beautiful locales. The Frank Nugent-James Edward Grant script allows for plenty of interaction between Wayne, Marvin, and a wonderful supporting cast including Dorothy Lamour, Cesar Romero and Dick Foran. It all comes off as a piece of fluff, but it's one of Wayne's more charming vehicles just the same.

Paramount's DVD looks great, including a clear, new 1.85 transfer enhanced for widescreen TVs. The mono soundtrack, featuring a catchy score by Cyril Mockridge, is acceptable, and a theatrical trailer is also included.

On the western side, Ford and Wayne had collaborated the preceding year on an all-time genre classic, THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (***1/2, $24.98), with Wayne as a gunslinger who improbably ends up turning a bumbling lawyer (Jimmy Stewart) into a folk hero in a film generally regarded as one of the top films for both star and director. Certainly the James Warner Bellah-Willis Goldbeck screenplay is a masterful mix of action, laughs, and character interplay, with Wayne and Stewart crafting two of their finest performances. The supporting cast includes Lee Marvin as Liberty Valance, Vera Miles, Edmond O'Brien, and Andy Devine. Paramount's DVD includes a decent 1.85 transfer that doesn't appear to be in as top shape as "Donovan's Reef," but it's still certainly acceptable. Paramount has remixed the sound in Dolby Digital 5.1, and it's an OK amplification of the original mono soundtrack (which is also included). A trailer is also available.

Finally, Wayne joined Dean Martin in the widescreen action-comedy THE SONS OF KATIE ELDER (***, $24.98), Henry Hathaway's 1965 western with the stars as the title characters, returning home -- along with fellow brothers Earl Holliman and Michael Anderson, Jr. -- to Texas to pay their last respects to their mother, and running into just a bit of trouble in the process. Elmer Bernstein's hummable score and Lucien Ballard's Panavision cinematography are the chief draws in this amiable production, here presented in a superb 2.35 transfer. Even though this would seem to be the most ideal of the three films to benefit from 5.1 Digital sound re-mastering, only the original mono soundtrack is selectable on the audio end. A theatrical trailer sounds out the package.


THAT THING YOU DO! (***, Fox, $19.98)
BACHELOR PARTY (**, Fox, $19.98):

To coincide with the release of "Castaway," Fox has released a pair of earlier Tom Hanks films on DVD.

Easily the superior of the pictures is THAT THING YOU DO! A surprising box-office underachiever from the fall of 1996, Hanks' feature directorial debut is a sweet, low-key tale of a young band trying to make it back in the pop music heyday of the early '60s. Tom Everett Scott plays the Hanks-like, nice-guy salesman who stumbles into playing drums for the One-ders, a group that improbably hits fleeting fame and fortune. Liv Tyler makes a good impression in one of her first lead roles, while Hanks' "Bosom Buddies" co-star, Peter "Newhart" Scolari, turns up as a TV host.

Hanks also wrote the script for this engaging comedy, filled with fun music (even if you get sick of the title song by the zillionth time it is performed!), colorful cinematography, and a good, nostalgic sense of time and place. Fox's DVD features a strong 1.85 transfer, 5.0 Digital soundtrack, plus trailers, TV spots and a pair of "music featurette videos."

The comedy is just a bit lower brow in 1984's BACHELOR PARTY, an independent production which Fox wisely decided to pick up on the notion of scoring a hit with the "Police Academy" crowd. Smart thinking there, as the picture reaped solid grosses back in the days when some R-rated comedies were actually funny as opposed to simply being gross.

Certainly Hanks' attachment to the film ignited a long run of silly '80s comedies in which he starred, and even though it would take him virtually a decade to break out of the mold, there's still something to be said for his zany performances from the days of "Splash" and "The Man With One Red Shoe" (notice I'm NOT talking about Nicholas Meyer's "Volunteers," still one of the all-time unfunniest comedies to come out of that decade).

BACHELOR PARTY is not a comedy classic, even of the over-the-top, '80s kind. But it does have its moments of inspired lunacy courtesy of the Neal Israel-Pat Proft script -- not nearly enough to sustain its prolonged 105-minute run time, but still enough so that you're guaranteed a few laughs if you've never seen it before.

Fox's DVD looks pretty solid, with a 1.85 transfer, a 4.0 Dolby Stereo track, along with the original mono soundtrack, a trailer, several TV spots, and a handful of promotional, mini-featurettes.


DUDE, WHERE'S MY CAR? (***, Fox, $24.98):

Nobody is ever going to expect this surprising box- office hit from last Christmas to appear on the AFI roster of the greatest comedies of all-time, but even I have to admit that Fox's brainless, energetic teen effort is amusing and sometimes quite funny. If nothing else, DUDE... did for the year 2000 what "Bill & Ted" did for idiotic youth pictures in the late '80s.

Ashton Kutcher from TV's "That '70s Show" and Seann William Scott (he's not being typecast, is he?) star as a pair of spaced-out party guys who can't remember last Saturday night. A search for their car ends up taking the duo on a quest that includes run-ins with bombshell Kristy Swanson (who you might have thought was too old for this genre a decade ago!), sisters Jennifer Garner and Marla Sokoloff, and a religious zealot (former "Talk Soup" host Hal Sparks) whose outer-space worship suit consists entirely of bubble wrap!

At 83 minutes, DUDE never wears out its welcome and includes plenty of moronic gags that hit the mark more often than not. Philip Stark's script and Danny Leiner's direction will not remind anyone of Tati, Chaplin, or Mel Brooks (on a good day), but suffice to say that if you're in the mood for a ridiculous teen comedy, WHERE'S MY CAR? is a perfect fit. Fox's DVD is commensurate with the film's financial success, going the extra mile to include seven (slightly) extended scenes, a music video, a full compliment of trailers and TV spots, the original featurette, and a totally wacked-out commentary with the director and lead actors. If it sounds like they're downing a few beers and discussing their personal relationships on this track, it's because they actually are!


NEXT WEEK: New movies (TOMB RAIDER, maybe ATLANTIS), MGM DVDs and Rutger Hauer strikes back in WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE. Send all comments to dursina@att.net and we'll catch you then. Excelsior!


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