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"Close Encounters," "Big Trouble" Blast Onto DVD!

Plus: Andy's Soapbox on the SUPERMAN DVD lawsuit!

An Aisle Seat Entry by Andy Dursin

It's a great time to be a Laserphile. The "Superman" box-set, "Jaws 2," plenty of classic war movies, and other excellent Deluxe Editions have been pinching the pennies of consumers everywhere, with more scintillating titles in the weeks and months to come.


Of all the big major new releases, though, few come as anticipated as CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (****, $27.95, Columbia TriStar), which hits stores May 29 and will offer to viewers the finest presentation of Steven Spielberg's 1977 classic to date on video.

Not that there haven't been an abundance of releases of CE3K on video before, of course -- there have been no less than three different cuts of the movie available to the general public (the 1977 theatrical cut, the 1980 "Special Edition," and 1998's "Collector's Edition"), plus a fourth screened on ABC network television (which combined all footage from the '77 cut with the new "Special Edition" scenes).

Viewers originally had their choice of the '77 theatrical cut, or the '80 "Special Edition," back in the early days of VHS. After a few years, however, the "Special Edition" usurped the original cut as the only version of CE3K that would be available for many years.

In 1990, the Criterion Collection released a magnificent, pricey ($125) deluxe laserdisc set that included the first-ever letterboxed transfer of the movie on video, as well a restoration of the original 1977 cut -- which, after many years, seemed to be a revelation for many viewers. Spielberg's original intention behind the "Special Edition" re-edit had been to tighten up the movie's domestic-strife mid-section, though in the process, he lost some of the film's humor (i.e. when Richard Dreyfuss tears up his neighbor's yard) and humanity from the original '77 version.

Combined with the fact that he hated the pointless "inside the Mothership" addendum to the film's finale (which Columbia forced him to shoot as a hook to releasing the "Special Edition"), Spielberg had ample reason to re-visit the movie -- AGAIN -- with his "Collector's Edition" cut several years ago. Despite a few complaints from viewers that they once again had to buy another version of the movie, I didn't mind, since it seemed to me that the best version of the film lied somewhere between his '77 cut and the '80 "Special Edition" -- and this is exactly what we got in the latest "Collector's Edition" version.

Basically, Spielberg's 137-minute "Collector's" cut is comprised of his original '77 edit minus two scenes (Dreyfuss at the electric plant, and a later conversation with military honcho Carl Weathers), with the addition of the new scenes shot for the "Special Edition" -- minus the superfluous ending with Dreyfuss inside the UFO. This version, then, restores the lost domestic scenes between Dreyfuss and wife Teri Garr, while adding the neat additions Spielberg shot for the "Special Edition," while axing the unnecessarily extended climax.

This version of the film was released on laserdisc several years ago in a deluxe edition, featuring a decently spruced-up transfer and a somewhat disappointing Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. While the DVD contains the exact same transfer as the LD, the heightened resolution of the format allows you to better appreciate the superior clarity of this release as opposed to prior editions (including the Criterion laserdisc). More over, the 5.1 DTS soundtrack debuted here is an appreciable improvement on the Dolby Digital track (also included), with the dialogue heightened in clarity and more directionality added to the various sound effects and music.

All in all, aside from some grain issues detectable in the print, few fans are going to carp about the look or sound of the CE3K DVD, and that will come as a relief to the legions of Spielberg fans who have been clamoring for the film's DVD release for years.

Columbia's 1998 laserdisc also included a wealth of extras, the majority of which have been carried over to this package's second disc.

The most intriguing supplement is a 102-minute 1998 documentary produced by Laurent Bouzereau, which -- unlike Universal's disappointing DVD of "Jaws" -- runs its full length and has not been cut for DVD. Like Bouzereau's "Jaws" and "1941" documentaries, the program touches upon all facets of the production, including interviews with Spielberg (on the set of "Private Ryan"), Dreyfuss, co-stars Bob Balaban, Teri Garr, and Melinda Dillon (who must have had a face-lift or two), John Williams, special effects wizards Douglas Trumbull and Robert Swarthe, and even a grown-up Carey Guffey, who must either have the most incredible memory of anyone's childhood on the planet or who is vividly recalling STORIES his mother told him from the set (my bet is that it's latter).

Among the goodies in the documentary: hilarious unused footage of the aliens literally flying around on the set on wires, and discarded scenes of the extraterrestrials in rapid-motion that clearly didn't work out.

Some 25 minutes of deleted scenes are also carried over from the LD. These include the two-excised scenes from the '77 cut, the "Special Edition" ending, and several never-before-seen sequences. These latter scenes -- not featured in any version of the film -- include the original opening of the film, where Francois Truffaut and interpreter Bob Balaban actually arrive at Chicago's O'Hare airport to investigate the Air East flight, whose run-in with a UFO is delineated in the film's early air-traffic control sequence. As interesting as these scenes are, however, they're also incredibly slow-paced and won't take you long to understand why they were excised (or -- in the case of Truffaut's introduction -- refilmed as the discovery of WWII planes in the Mexican desert).

Two trailers and a 7-minute featurette ("Watch the Skies") round out the package, which omits a lengthy collection of stills, dubbed the "Close Encounters Archive," from the preceding LD release. Plenty of outstanding production shots, storyboards, publicity stills, promotional artwork and other forms of memorabilia comprised the section, which will make collectors want to hold onto their copies of the Columbia laserdisc -- just as laserphiles still treasure the unique interviews and supplements contained in Criterion's own laserdisc set, which have not been duplicated on any subsequent release.

But, to simply watch, savor, and enjoy CE3K in its finest aural and visual presentation, Columbia's DVD is easily the best release of Spielberg's picture -- still one of the finest sci-fi films ever made and an enduring classic in cinema history.


John Carpenter's BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (***, $29.98, Fox) may not be a classic, but this cult favorite -- a pastiche of kung-fu mysticism, sci-fi fantasy, Saturday-matinee serials, '80s FX extravaganzas, and supernatural hokum that was clearly ahead of its time -- nevertheless deserves its deluxe, two-disc DVD presentation from Fox that arrives in-stores this Tuesday.

Originally a western (!) that was substantially re-written by W.D. Richter ("Buckaroo Banzai"), "Big Trouble" stars Kurt Russell in one of his most engaging performances as trucker Jack Burton, who improbably stumbles into San Fransisco's Chinatown, where an ensuing war between rival gangs coincides with the kidnapping of his best friend's bride. Undaunted by any of Richard Edlund's fine special effects, Russell and pal Dennis Dun, along with reporter Kim Cattrall, venture into the lower depths of a mysterious world where monsters run amok, an old sorcerer wants to seize the promise of eternal life, and folks fly around in a way that we would not see again until last year's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."

Carpenter's jokey, 1986 comic-book adventure was way ahead of the curve in pre-dating the '90s revival of kung-fu movies, but "Big Trouble" owes as much to Indiana Jones and the genre of big, FX-heavy blockbusters that were so prevalent in the mid '80s as it does to Hong Kong cinema. Russell and Cattrall work up some believable chemistry, the pacing is quick and fun, Carpenter's trademark use of the wide Panavision frame is on full display, and even one of the director's better musical scores (composed with then-partner Alan Howarth) helps out. "Big Trouble" has always been one of my favorite Carpenter films, so I was thrilled to see that Fox decided to take advantage of the movie's continued popularity by releasing a brand-new, 2-disc DVD edition with a full range of extras. The movie itself has been remastered in a terrific new transfer (2.35, of course), with a throbbing new 5.1 DTS track that completely outperforms the 4.1 Dolby Digital mix included here in both power and volume.

Chief among the disc's pleasures is a newly-recorded commentary track with Russell and Carpenter. As anyone who has spent time listening to commentary tracks will tell you, Carpenter's commentaries when he talks by himself are some of the dullest, driest discussions you'll ever hear (try "Assault on Precinct 13" or "In the Mouth of Madness," where he was accompanied by cinematographer Gary Kibbe). However, when Russell is around to rehash stories (as in "The Thing" and the laserdisc of "Escape From New York"), the two provide some of most engaging, revealing commentary talks you'll find.

Happily, that's the case here as both dive into the disappointing box-office performance of "Big Trouble," pointing the blame at studio executives and poor marketing on the publicity department's end. They also don't shy away from talking about Richter and his involvement in the shooting (specifically, how he hated Cattrall's performance and ultimately didn't visit the set again), how then-Fox prez Barry Diller made Carpenter shoot the movie's opening scene in an attempt to make Russell out to be more heroic (!), and also about current issues involving the writer's strike (which Capenter wisely believed would be settled by the time the DVD was released) and other issues of movie-making in general. It's a good-humored and fascinating discussion that is easily one of my favorite commentary tracks I've heard on DVD to date.

The second disc is comprised entirely of supplements, including three trailers (one in Spanish), several TV spots, a promotional featurette, a new on-camera interview with Richard Edlund, production notes, plenty of stills and storyboards, and a pair of magazine articles from 1986 -- from Cinefex and American Cinematographer, respectively -- chronicling the action behind-the-scenes. You also get a hysterically bad music video of the movie's theme song, featuring the "Coupe de Villes" including lead vocalist Carpenter himself!

"Big Trouble" is one of many movies that failed to find an audience in theaters (as a pre-teenager, I was one of the few viewers there when it opened), but clicked with viewers on video and TV in the years since its release. This is no-brain entertainment with great effects and a fun story that -- enhanced by Carpenter's trademark use of anamorphic cinematoghraphy -- proves to be an ideal title for DVD. Highly recommended!


ANDY'S SOAPBOX

Great Caesar's Ghost... SUPERMAN sued over new DVDs!

News hit last week that a lawsuit was filed that could possibly recall the COMPLETE SUPERMAN COLLECTION on DVD, or at least SUPERMAN III and SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE.

Basically, the suit amounts to claims made by Pueblo Film Licensing that Warner Bros. went behind their backs in releasing SUPERMANs III and IV on DVD without their consent. Pueblo is the successor-in- interest to producer Alexander Salkind, who died in 1997, and controlled the ownership of the Superman film series at least through the first three installments.

The suit also claims the two films were "re-edited and altered in a manner that would violate the Superman Picture Contracts and [were] done so unlawfully using materials owned by [Pueblo]."

Confused? You should be. I'm not entirely sure the details of this news article are correct -- it could well be that the Salkind's controllers are angry that the original SUPERMAN was altered on DVD, or that II and III were released on DVD without their consent.

With the exception of a curious re-mastering error in the special effects department (outlined in Superman Cinema's news section last week), SUPERMAN III has not been re-edited for video, nor was SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE. SUPERMAN II was also left untouched on DVD. Only the original SUPERMAN received a major overhaul with a new soundtrack and the addition of extra footage, with Warner Bros. holding the copyright for this Special Edition of the film (and I cannot imagine WB did not clear every legal hurdle before undertaking this restoration).

The details of the suit make even less sense when talking about the ownership of the pictures. The copyrights on SUPERMAN I, II, and III all belong to Salkind's film financing trust, but certainly not SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE, which is one of the two movies outlined in the case.

In fact, Salkind had nothing to do with SUPERMAN IV. In exchange for cash and an on-screen credit noting that he "initiated" the film series, Salkind sold the character's movie rights off to the now-defunct Cannon Group, which now, in turn, lie with Warner Bros. Unless there's a stipulation that Salkind had his hands in the ownership or licensing of the movie, I can't see any reason why SUPERMAN IV is one of the films in question here.

We do know that Salkind and Warner Bros. never got along. The studio had wanted to do a restoration of the original SUPERMAN for years but reportedly did not want to have to deal with the Salkinds. This all changed when Alexander Salkind died in 1997 -- and if there's any validity to this case, perhaps it is due to Warner Bros. being overzealous in believing that the trustees to his film library would not rigorously defend their cinematic property the same way that Salkind did when he was still alive.

Interestingly, the commentary and supplements on the DVD of the original SUPERMAN are all from the perspective of director Richard Donner, with none of the Salkinds' production team (producer Pierre Spengler, Ilya Salkind, Richard Lester) interviewed at all.

Obviously, if Pueblo is successful, it could mean an out-of-court settlement or, at the worst, the removal of the offending films on DVD altogether. Collectors, though, may want to wait before stockpiling copies to sell on eBay, since the details of the suit seem a bit sketchy as we know them so far.

One thing, though, is certain: Warner's has always been cautious about re-releasing and restoring the SUPERMAN series due to the legal problems involved with the Salkinds (to say nothing of other, separate court battles involving Marlon Brando and the Salkinds). This latest case, whether it is successful or not, may prove to WB again that the series -- at least for them -- is more trouble than it's worth.


More "Superman" DVD Ramblings...

On a similar note, some viewers seem to be taking Richard Donner and Tom Mankiewicz's shoot-the-breeze commentary on the first SUPERMAN DVD as the Gospel when, in fact, the two seem to clearly have lapses in recalling specific shots and the development of the production. Often times I got the impression the two were either putting us on sometimes about certain facts or trivia, or simply couldn't remember everything that had been transpired.

Case in point: Donner goes on at length for five minutes about selecting either Jerry Goldsmith or John Williams to handle the scoring chores, saying how he offered the film to Goldsmith, then had Williams come aboard, etc. Then -- after talking about scheduling conflicts for a lengthy period of time, trying to appear even-handed -- Donner says Williams was always his "first choice" and offered it only to Goldsmith because he felt obligated to him after "The Omen"!

Another example: Mankiewicz seems to be certain the sequence where Superman rescues a kitten from a tree (the scene where the little girl he hands the feline to ends up being slapped by her mom!) was shot in England, but Donner is adamant the ACTORS were filmed on-location in New York. If you take a look at the expanded TV airings, though, there's additional dialogue between Superman and the little girl, who seems to be speaking with a BRITISH accent.

Hey, I'm not saying I didn't enjoy the commentary (I love how Mankiewicz questions Donner as to why he even put the tedious scene with Superman being tested in Lex Luthor's lair back into the film!), but I would take some of the dynamic duo's comments with a grain of salt or two.

Along similar lines, Lukas' reaction to Ken Thorne's music from SUPERMAN II and III in his May 18 column is something I concur with wholeheartedly. I don't agree with the common assertion that John Williams did not return to score SUPERMAN II simply because Donner wasn't involved. I find it more probable that it was either a scheduling or economic conflict or, perhaps even more likely, Richard Lester's previous work with Ken Thorne that explained Thorne's involvement. (And nobody will ever dispute II wouldn't have been even better if Williams had returned to score it).

However, to give credit where it is due, Thorne's score from SUPERMAN III is actually very good. Freed from simply regurgitating Williams' themes, Thorne's music gets a chance to work on its own terms, with some nice new cues (the opening slapstick ballet, the love theme for Lana Lang) that were unfortunately given short-shrift on the original Warner Bros. soundtrack album (which was half-score and half-songs). Maybe some day we'll get a complete score album for Thorne's sequels, and a CD of Alexander Courage's okay score for SUPERMAN IV as well (I know what you're thinking -- keep dreaming!).


LATER THIS WEEK: ANGEL EYES and A KNIGHT'S TALE, plus war-classics on video in time for Memorial Day. Email all comments to me at dursina@att.net and we'll catch you next time. Excelsior!


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