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The Real Gladiator

Warner readies a terrific DVD of BEN-HUR

Plus: THE FANTASTICKS on video and troubling "Superman" news

An Aisle Seat Entry by Andy Dursin

A lot of movie buffs feel that classic movies have been given the shaft so far on DVD, and with the exception of a few cinematic milestones like "The Wizard of Oz" and "Gone With the Wind," there are simply too many pre-1960s masterpieces out there that have yet to be granted the digital treatment.

Warner Home seeks to remedy one major omission in the format when it releases a sparkling new, 2.75 transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound of BEN-HUR (****, $24.98) on March 13th.

Previously filmed in 1925 with Roman Novarro and Francis X. Bushman, not even that silent classic could eclipse the triumph of William Wyler's 1959 production, which garnered 11 Academy Awards (including nods for Best Picture, Director, Cinematography, Costume Design, Music, Actor, Supporting Actor, Art Direction, Sound, Editing, and Special Effects) and became a benchmark for the biblical/gladiator genre that has been recently revived by this year's Oscar front-runner, "Gladiator."

Any comparisons, though, between Ridley Scott's commercially successful pop-epic and this MGM masterpiece should be dropped right there since BEN-HUR is very much the "real deal": rousing, moving, thrilling, and truly spectacular in a way that no amount of computer-generated special effects could possibly duplicate.

Giving his best performance, Charlton Heston is a rock as the Jewish nobleman whose trials and tribulations in Palestine are chronicled during the time of Christ. Outstanding supporting performances from Stephen Boyd (as Messala), Jack Hawkins and Hugh Griffith are all complimented by Robert L. Surtees' cinematography, Miklos Rozsa's brilliant score, and a handful of unparalleled, individual set pieces, including the unforgettable chariot race -- a moment that films from "Gladiator" to "The Phantom Menace" have all tried to emulate.

The movie may be a bit slow at times, but BEN-HUR is the kind of invigorating cinematic experience that makes for perfect DVD viewing -- something that Warner's new package provides for all cinephiles.

I'm not all that familiar with BEN-HUR's preceding laserdisc releases, but the widescreen transfer seems quite colorful with consistent contrast levels and only the usual dirt/speckle that appears on the print. The movie is one of the tightest letterboxed titles you'll ever see, and the original MGM Camera 65 aspect ratio of approximately 2.75:1 has been effectively rendered here.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack isn't quite as potent as you might expect, though perhaps that's actually an indication of the movie's actual stereo tracks being utilized and not evidence of a major enhancement with newly-added sound effects being implemented (see the reported news on "Superman" below). Rosza's score sounds fine but there isn't a whole lot of activity in the surround channels, perhaps a result of the lack of "bleed-through" in the discrete 5.1 audio process.

Warner's "DVD-18" disc also features some strong extras, most notably the 1993 documentary "Ben-Hur: The Making of an Epic," featuring interviews with surviving cast and crew members and other Hollywood dignitaries (including David Raksin, who discusses the music), plus clips from the '25 version and priceless behind-the-scenes footage. Screen tests (including one for Leslie Nielsen) are also included, along with a photo gallery and theatrical trailers. Also included is a feature-length audio commentary by Charlton Heston that does have its gaps (it IS a 217-minute movie, after all), but Warner has smartly included a forward-scan feature that enables you to easily access the next stretch of commentary.

All in all, this is a fine presentation for a bona-fide Hollywood classic, and hopefully more features from "The Golden Age" will be following suit.


FANASTICK at last

After nearly six years on the shelf, Michael Ritchie's big-screen version of the classic musical THE FANTASTICKS hits both video and DVD on Tuesday -- the first time, aside from a scant theatrical release last fall, that the general public has been able to screen the movie.

The story of "The Fantasticks"' road to the silver screen is almost as interesting as the film itself, having been completed in 1995 but then shelved by MGM/UA after several test screenings. After several shifts in the management of MGM, new board member Francis Ford Coppola took a look at the movie over a year ago, around the same time he attempted to salvage another troubled studio picture (Walter Hill's dismal SUPERNOVA).

Trimming some 25 minutes and streamlining the narrative to eliminate some of the movie's more "theatrical," stagey moments, Coppola screened his "revision" of the film for director/producer Ritchie and the show's creators -- Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt -- whose contract necessitated that the movie receive a theatrical release before going to video.

Unlike Coppola's "Supernova" reworking, the changes worked enough to satisfy Ritchie, Jones, and Schmidt, who indicated in press releases that the shorter, reworked Coppola version was an improvement on their original 1995 cut.

It is this 87-minute version that represents the print of THE FANTASTICKS (**1/2, $24.98) available on video, and while the movie is flawed in several areas, the finished product boasts many positive attributes that should make it essential viewing for musical lovers.

The show, which I saw once in a local production several years ago, is an intimate, ensemble drama that is deceptively simple, timeless and poignant, chronicling the relationship between a pair of lovestruck teens and their respective, feuding single fathers (who scheme to set their children up). A narrator, El Gallo, watches and ultimately tutors the couple in adversity and reality on the way to showing the teens what real love is all about.

Ritchie's film expands the intimacy of the play for the big-screen, using the concept of a traveling carnival to lure El Gallo and his lessons onto a vast, scenic Arizona landscape where the pair of seemingly warring fathers (Joel Grey, Brad Sullivan) seek to unite their children (Jean Lousia Kelly, Joe McIntyre).

This decision by itself creates some problems, in that the entire concept of a circus of motley folks who aren't what they appear to be has been worn out to death over the last half-century. At times, Ritchie's film almost turns into SOMETHING MUSICAL THIS WAY COMES, with El Gallo (Jonathon Morris) establishing a sexual tension with the girl that's a bit heavy-handed and obvious. (Fortunately, much of the carnival material seems to have been wisely removed by Coppola in the editing room, since most of the DVD's deleted scenes feature sequences originating from the film's first half).

Judging from the extended/deleted songs and excised scenes found as supplements in MGM's DVD release, it seems apparent that Coppola worked to tighten the film's pace and pare the El Gallo character down as much as possible in order to preserve his mystery. There are times when the re-editing doesn't quite work, such as the removal of "Try to Remember" from the film's opening credits, and the virtual disappearance of Grey and Sullivan from the second half of the movie.
 
However, to Coppola's credit, he also seems to have picked up on what does work well in the film: namely, the gorgeous landscapes breathtakingly captured by cinematographer Fred Murphy (HOOSIERS) and the central relationship between the two leads. There are few sequences that seem to have been excised relating directly to the teen couple, so in that regard it seems that Coppola may have better understood preserving the intimate nature of the film's central storyline as opposed to Ritchie's at-times cluttered visual presentation of the carnival and its workers (which include a wasted Barnard Hughes and Teller, minus Penn, who actually speaks in one of the movie's deleted scenes).

While McIntyre, a former member of the New Kids on the Block, has a decent singing voice, most of the film is stolen by Kelly, who fulfills both the acting and vocal requirements of the Luisa character in a bright, lovely performance. On the musical side, Jonathan Tunick's colorful orchestrations are splendid, opening up the score on a larger canvas while retaining the lyricism of Harvey Schmidt's songs.

As a film, THE FANTASTICKS is a flawed piece, and after watching the film, I'm not sure that any cinematic approach would do appropriate justice to the show's close, personal nature. It is, however, an ambitious and admirable film, and for fans of musicals, it's a beautiful-looking production that will remain a major curiosity item in a long line of stage-to-screen adaptations.

MGM's DVD features an outstanding 2.35 transfer capturing all of the anamorphic Panavision frame that demands to be seen in letterboxed format. The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack boasts a clear, crisp dialogue track, and MGM has included a full complement of extras as well -- including an original trailer that looks and sounds as if it was produced for the planned Thanksgiving '95 theatrical release that never happened.

Expanded songs, deleted songs, the movie's original opening, an alternate ending, and a handful of deleted scenes are all included, presented in an aspect ratio of 2.2:1 and 2.0 Dolby Stereo. The show's original "Rape" song seems to have been shot only for prosperity, but it too has been included, taken from a videotape of a workprint. In this day and age of seamless branching, it would have been nice if Ritchie's original cut was selectable as an alternate version, but it seems as if the folks at American Zoetrope (who produced the DVD) have done the next-best thing by including all kinds of scrapped material (brief asides, entire musical numbers) that originated from the 1995 version.

Ritchie also contributes a disappointing commentary track, discussing the film's production (he is deservedly proud of the film's look, having cost $10-million), but never really divulging the lengthy, turbulent history of the project's tenure on the shelf -- or elaborating upon Coppola's reworking or anything of that nature, which is a shame.

Anyone looking for comments from the director on Coppola's involvement can take a look at a good USA Today piece on the subject by clicking here.


Other New Releases

New Line doesn't bill it as a "Special Edition," but there's audio commentary and copious deleted scenes found in their DVD of the unholy mess LOST SOULS (*, $24.98), last year's tedious Winona Ryder- meets-the-Anti-Christ project that sat on the shelf for the better part of a year while the studio and director Janusz Kaminski tinkered around with various re-edits, including the filming of several different endings.

The resulting film is a real yawn, not terribly excessive but not particularly scary, either. What's more, the movie is garishly shot and perhaps even more grainy on video than it appeared in theaters. Throw in an ending that almost feels as if the filmmakers are playing a joke on the audience and you have an extremely curious brew that seems as if it had too many cooks participating in its creation.

The DVD is almost saved, however, by an occasionally interesting commentary track by Kaminski, who laments the preview process and seems to be genuinely disheartened by what happened in the editing room. Kudos to New Line for allowing the director to speak his mind, and for including some of the scenes that were left on the cutting room floor (though the movie's unused reshot endings are NOT included here).

Warner has issued a special collection of Oliver Stone discs in their pricey 10-disc OLIVER STONE COLLECTION set (available for $276.68), which features not only Warner titles but also Stone films from other studios (including Universal's "Born on the Fourth of July" and "Talk Radio," along with Fox's "Wall Street"). Unique to the set is a two-disc edition of the entertaining ANY GIVEN SUNDAY, which is unfortunately not available as a separate item, and a bonus disc reflecting on Stone's career and including clips from his student film, "Last Year in Viet Nam."

Fortunately, the 2-DVD set of JFK ($24.98) is available as a stand-alone release, and if you are a fan of this cluttered but certainly cinematic 1991slice of Stone political paranoia, you won't want to miss it. The film is presented in its 205-minute "Director's Cut," with a sharp 2.35 transfer and strong Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack on a par with the high level of most Warner DVD releases.

A second disc contains a pair of "multimedia essays" produced by Charles Kiselyak -- one featuring an interview with the real-life "Agent X," the other touching upon other new theories about JFK's death. More interesting for viewers will be the vast array of deleted/extended scenes, presented with or without Stone's commentary (the director also has a full-length commentary track running under the feature). Again, if you're a fan of Stone, don't miss it.

Finally, Fox has gone back to the Double Feature DVD-route, though they've by-passed the OUR MAN FLINT/IN LIKE FLINT double-bill they promised in advertising that accompanied their first wave of $24.98-priced double-features last fall.

This time, the spotlight is turned to 80s comedies, and for teen movie fans, both the REVENGE OF THE NERDS/REVENGE OF THE NERDS II ($24.98) and PORKY'S/PORKY'S II: THE NEXT DAY ($24.98) will provide plenty of nostalgia.

As far as the films go, obviously the force is strong with the initial films in the two respective series. PORKY'S is a riotous comedy that remains funnier than any of the recent attempts to top its raunchy material, but PORKY'S II lacks the magic.

The original NERDS, meanwhile, seems like an AFI All-Time classic compared to NERDS IN PARADISE, but both represent mindless teenage fun with sporadic laughs. Be warned, though -- if you grew up watching either film and found them hilarious in your youth, you may not feel the same this time around. Dial down your expectations a notch and you ought to be OK.

All four films are featured in anamorphic widescreen 1.85 transfers, plus their original mono tracks or "newly enhanced" 2.0 Dolby remixes (only NERDS II was actually recorded in stereo). Trailers accompany all of the movies, and for $24.98, you can't beat the price.


Superman News

As we reported last week (and has been announced all over the net), Warner Home Video is set to finally release the long-awaited DVD of Superman on May 1st. The news has obviously excited all kinds of Super- fans, including myself, who have been wearing out our old letterboxed laserdiscs for the better part of the last decade.

However, don't get too excited yet. While the DVD is sure to be worth a purchase and include all kinds of extras (including some kind of music-related track with alternate scoring), early reviews coming in from viewers who have seen a preview VHS cassette of the movie have been troubling to an extreme -- especially if you care about the movie's soundtrack, both John Williams' classic score and the film's overall sound design.

According to some reports that have run on Aint it Cool News and the Superman Cinema website, the movie has not just been remixed for this new edition; some sound effects have been newly RECORDED for it, and these viewers have found the new effects both distracting and disappointing, since they're not what they've been hearing for the better part of the last 23 years.

From the "Main Titles" (when the credits go whooshing by) to the effect when the three villains are imprisoned in the Phantom Zone, new effects have apparently replaced those memorable tones which were originally created.

Reportedly, this has come at some expense to Williams' score, which these viewers have said is mixed lower and, in the case of the "Fortress of Solitude," is almost impossible to hear at the end of the sequence altogether! One reader said the rousing opening notes of the Superman theme are now mixed underneath a bombastic, loud new sound effect that entirely ruins the dramatic potency of the moment.

The new version of the movie is reported to be a 151-minute new edit created by director Richard Donner, adding only eight out of some 45 minutes that have been restored to the various TV versions of the film. (It seems unlikely the other deleted scenes will be included in the disc at all, but we'll know more about that, obviously, when we're closer to the May release date).

Viewers have found some of the added footage not only incredibly trivial (most of it is), but in a few spots Williams' music is altered to accommodate the new scenes -- just as it was in the extended TV airings. For example, Williams' music is dropped altogether for several seconds in two scenes where the score previously flowed uninterrupted to fit the action (i.e. when Clark leaves home for create the Fortress of Solitude, and earlier when Jor-El first imprisons the Phantom Zone villains). However, it is the new soundtrack effects that have troubled most viewers.

While I want to stress we have yet to see this new edition of the film -- and add that last year's overhauled JAWS stereo soundtrack was quite good, much better than early reviews would have it-- these "preview" reviews seem to be fairly legit, in that they identify specific sections of the film that have been changed by Donner, and seem to be written by folks that love the movie.

Hopefully the DVD will turn out to be better than what's been reported so far -- but the fact that Warner kiboshed placing the original theatrical cut on the DVD should be enough warning to viewers NOT to get rid of your laserdiscs of the original version, since it seems that cut is not what you will be seeing (or hearing) on the DVD.


NEXT TIMEÖAnchor Bay goes Agatha Christie, plus reader comments and reaction. As always, send your emails into dursina@att.net and we'll catch you next time! Cheers everyone!


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