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Aisle Seat Independence Day Edition

Milius epic, BIG WEDNESDAY, Arrives on DVD
Plus: BUFFY SEASON 2, ORANGE COUNTY, and Harryhausen import news!

By Andy Dursin

Ray Harryhausen fans have found Columbia's Harryhausen Collection DVDs to be more or less satisfying on the whole. Sure, the studio reprises the exact same supplements on each disc, and the varying aspect ratios have been the basis for controversy, but generally, the studio has shown a respect for these vintage sci-fi fantasies that few others would in Hollywood.

That doesn't mean some Harryhausen efforts haven't been neglected along the way: many are still waiting for MYSTERIOUS ISLAND and EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS among others to hit DVD. The good news is that these pictures ARE coming out on DVD -- the bad news is that they're part of three lavish (and expensive) Japanese box-sets that each include a limited-edition figurine.

Box set 1 contains the three Sinbad films (already available in the U.S.) with a figurine of Cyclops from "Seventh Voyage of Sinbad." Box set 2 contains a figurine of the Ymir from "20 Million Miles To Earth," along with the films "Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers" (unavailable in the U.S.), "20 Million Miles" and "Jason and the Argonauts" (both available domestically). Box set 3 may be of the most interest to fans, since it contains the unreleased-on-DVD films "Mysterious Island" and "It Came From Beneath The Sea," a figurine of Kali from "7th Voyage Of Sinbad," and the already-available "First Men In The Moon" and "Three Worlds of Gulliver."

All the figures (crafted by artist Ryu Oyama) are exclusive to the box-sets, and the individual titles aren't going to be sold separately. While the price tag on the titles is high ($129 U.S.), each box set is limited to 5,000 copies and will surely be of interest to die-hard Harryhausen fans. For more information or to place an order, I highly recommend CD Japan's website, which offers standard prices but superior shipping and service. No word on whether or not Columbia will be releasing the currently-unavailable Harryhausen titles on DVD in the near future.


New On DVD

BIG WEDNESDAY (***1/2, 119 mins., 1978, PG; Warner, $19.98; Available July 7): In "Skywalking," Dale Pollock's biography of George Lucas, a joke is made of the fact that Lucas swapped "points" with friend and fellow filmmaker John Milius prior to "Star Wars" being released. In exchange for a point on "Star Wars," Milius gave Lucas a point on his big surfing epic, BIG WEDNESDAY. As Lucas pointed out, it wasn't a fair exchange, especially after Milius' 1978 film bombed at the box-office!

Rarely screened on television, my first viewing of BIG WEDNESDAY was on laserdisc in the early '90s. Due to the film's reputation and relative obscurity, I wasn't expecting much, but much to my surprise, I loved Milius' larger-than-life tale of three surfer friends (Gary Busey, Jan-Michael Vincent, and William Katt) who grow up between the turbulent years of 1962-1974. Along the way, the trio grow apart, attempt to dodge Vietnam, try to find love (some more successfully than others), but still share a common love for the wind and waves that the ocean provides.

The movie is chock full of Milius trademarks -- lots of offbeat humor, excessive yet hysterical sequences (specifically a raucous party sequence early on), and pseudo- mythic narration -- all of it set to one of Basil Poledouris' most outstanding scores. The performances of all three leads are appealing and the film handles its "passage-of-time" formula better than you might expect, splitting the film into four separate acts set during the 12-year period.

The personal aspect of the story is balanced with outstanding surfing cinematography by Greg MacGillivray, culminating in a sensational climax that's worth the price of the disc alone. Bruce Surtees' Panavision cinematography, meanwhile, captures all of the action, perfectly reflecting Milius' sprawling vision in widescreen.

Warner's DVD of BIG WEDNESDAY -- due out next week -- offers a colorful and blemish-free 2.35 transfer, enhanced for 16:9 televisions. This is a superior presentation than the laserdisc, and the 2.0 Dolby Stereo soundtrack is certainly more satisfying than most two-channel DVD tracks you'll listen to.

For special features, the original trailer (no wonder the movie bombed!) and a new commentary track from Milius are included. While Milius typically has a lot to say in general, he's surprisingly restrained here and long gaps of silence follow throughout the film. In fact, at the end of the movie, he admits he didn't have much to offer because the film is so personal, he couldn't find the words to comment on it. Clearly, though, he's proud of the picture despite its initially poor reception, and Warner's excellent DVD will provide a new arena for BIG WEDNESDAY to gain a long-overdue following.

Highly recommended!


BUFFY, THE VAMPIRE SLAYER Season 2 Box Set (Fox, $69.98): This past season was the weakest for the long-running series starring Sarah Michelle Gellar and company. Still, seven seasons before seams begin to show is a good run for any TV series, much less one that was based on a mediocre big-screen film that tanked at the box-office!

BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER's second season (1997-98) marked its first full year on the air, and in some ways, it represents the series as a whole at its best. Season 2 introduced Spike (James Marsters) and Drusilla (Juliet Landau) as principal villains; played up the romance between Buffy and Angel (David Boreanaz); offered the return of fellow slayer Kendra (who should have been retained on the program); and kept the perfect balance of horror and humor that drew lauds from critics and garnered viewers in equal measure.

Among some of the specific highlights involved in the second season: John Ritter's memorable guest appearance as Ted, Buffy's mom's new romantic beau, who's harboring just a little robotic secret; Giles' tragic relationship with Miss Calendar; the arrival of Oz (Seth Green) and his blossoming relationship with Willow; and how Angel's one moment of pure happiness soon causes havoc for the rest of the cast.

Fox's six-disc box-set of Season 2 includes brief interviews with series creator/producer-writer Joss Whedon and features commentary tracks on several individual episodes. Whedon himself contributes an interesting chat during "Innocence" while another series veteran -- director David Greenwalt -- handles a similar discussion on the otherwise forgettable episode "Reptile Boy." Writer Marti Noxon, meanwhile, gives her own two cents on the two-part episode "What's My Line?" A handful of TV spots and storyboard/still galleries are also included, but most fans will find the package's three featurettes to be the most revealing. One 15-minute segment gives the viewer a tour of the set, while another half-hour special looks at the various villains and beasties Buffy has battled over the years. The supplemental section is rounded out by a 15-minute look at the make-up effects.

For transfers, the picture on Season 2 varies from flawless to grainy -- much the same way the Season 1 box set did. However, I would once again conclude that this was not a problem with the DVD mastering but rather the shows themselves, which were not produced on an extraordinary budget and sometimes show evidence of that.

If you're new to the BUFFY universe, Season 2 is quite simply the show at its best. While the program certainly started off impressively in its inaugural, mid-season run, Whedon and Co. hit their stride with their first full season in late 1997. For Buffy fans, it's also evidence of how energetic and excellent the program once was -- offering a freshness and optimism the show is reportedly trying to recapture for this upcoming season.


ORANGE COUNTY (***, 82 mins., 2002, PG-13; Paramount, $29.98): High school senior Colin Hanks wants so badly to get into Stanford and become a writer that he doesn't let an admissions snafu stand in his way. With stoner brother Jack Back and girlfriend Schuyler Fisk alongside, Hanks drives from his home in Orange County to Stanford in an attempt to convince the admissions office -- including dean Harold Ramis -- that he deserves another chance.

Mike White's ribald teen comedy sounds awfully routine from its premise, but this Jake Kasdan-directed romp is surprisingly fresh and funny from beginning to end. Hanks' quest to break out of his California town and find a mysterious author and Stanford professor (an unbilled Kevin Kline) who influenced his own writing offers an amusing comic journey filled with memorable supporting parts: Catherine O'Hara and John Lithgow as the teen's goofy, divorced parents; Lily Tomlin as an obnoxious high school counselor; Chevy Chase as the principal; and Black in a hysterical role as the pothead, older sibling whom Hanks takes care of.

White's script offers wry comic observations about high school, college admissions offices, inter-family relationships, and teen movies in general, while Kasdan handles the whole affair in a brisk (82 minutes!) fashion that doesn't overstay its welcome. The entire cast is amiable and ORANGE COUNTY is a terrific little comedy well worth a look on video.

Paramount's DVD offers a top-notch technical presentation (1.85 transfer, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound) and an excellent commentary track from White and Kasdan (who sounds exactly like his well-known director father). Four brief deleted scenes are included, culled from a workprint, while the original trailer and some 15 "interstitials" (TV and film spots) round out a nice package for a movie you might have passed on in theaters.


GOSFORD PARK (****, 138 mins., 2001, R; Universal, $26.98): I'm not the world's biggest Robert Altman fan, but it's hard to argue that GOSFORD PARK wasn't one of his best films -- or certainly one of the finest films of 2001.

Equal parts "Upstairs, Downstairs" and an Agatha Christie murder-mystery, this fascinating film is a beautifully acted and exquisitely-written period piece with marvelously drawn characters and sumptuous performances. Chief among the film's pleasures is watching the outstanding cast at work (particularly Helen Mirren, Maggie Smith, Alan Bates, Ryan Philippe, Emily Watson, and Derek Jacobi among many others),and soaking up the film's gorgeous visuals. The sets by Stephen Altman, Andrew Dunn cinematography, and Patrick Doyle score all combine to create a detailed and glossy recreation of a time and place that one can revisit over and over on DVD.

Universal's DVD presentation is as polished as the film itself. The 2.35 transfer is flawless, perfectly rendering the stylized look of Dunn and Altman's visual eye. The 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack is also excellent, while special features include Altman's commentary, another track with Oscar-winning screenwriter Julian Fellowes, a handful of interesting deleted scenes, a Making Of featurette, a segment on the film's authenticity, and a revealing Q&A session with the filmmakers and cast.

Like the film, it's a classy presentation of a delectable film that only improves on repeat viewing.


SPY GAME (***, 127 mins., 2001, R; Universal, $26.98): Brad Pitt is an American agent who's about to be executed in China; Robert Redford is his CIA operative-mentor who has to get him out in Tony Scott's entertaining thriller that only met with modest success at the box-office last winter.

SPY GAME offers both star chemistry and a tense plot, well-executed by Scott from the Michael Frost Beckner-David Arata script. True, the movie has some predictable, formulaic script elements (like an in-house CIA conspiracy to see Pitt get knocked off, and Redford's impending retirement), but more often than not, Scott sustains a suspenseful tone from beginning to end. The Dan Mindel cinematography is gritty while Harry Gregson-Williams' Zimmer-ish score functions well within the confines of the film. For the supporting cast, Catherine McCormack makes a modest impression as the token female lead, but it's Pitt and Redford's show all the way, and the two keep you watching through the story's twists and turns.

Universal's DVD is clearly one of the year's best discs when it comes to supplementary material. An interactive feature dubbed "Clandestine OPS" is available during the film, allowing you to gain access to featurettes and other behind-the-scenes anecdotes when prompted by an on-screen icon. Deleted scenes (including an alternate ending) are also present, along with commentary tracks from both Scott and the producing team, storyboards, trailers, and other extras.

Available in both full-frame and widescreen formats, make sure you choose the 2.35 widescreen version to avoid constant panning-and-scanning; the 5.1 Dolby Digital and DTS soundtracks are both superb.


BLACK KNIGHT (**1/2, 95 mins., 2001, PG-13; Fox, $27.98): Martin Lawrence goes Medieval -- with mixed results -- in last fall's box-office under-achiever that nevertheless receives a passing grade due to a decent quotient of laughs. As a maintenance worker who improbably warps into the dark ages, Lawrence provides the standard contemporary gags in contrast to the straight-laced, 14th century English world he ends up in. As a part of a surprisingly strong supporting cast, Tom Wilkinson ("The Patriot," "In The Bedroom") somehow manages to maintain his composure, offering solid support to the oh-so-predictable proceedings.

Gil Junger ("Ten Things I Hate About You") directed this typical fish-out-of- water tale, which visually and otherwise resembles what would have happened if "Army Of Darkness" starred Lawrence instead of Bruce Campbell, and lacked any visual effects. The result is a somewhat uninspired romp that still gets by on Lawrence's charisma, as well as a full recreation of the period by production designer Leslie Dilley, who somehow constructed all of the sets in North Carolina!

Fox's DVD is a solid Special Edition, offering 2.35 widescreen and a 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack (Randy Edelman's OK score comes off as something of a disappointment). Extra features include separate commentary tracks by Junger and Lawrence, a slew of deleted scenes, trailers, multiple featurettes (including a look at Paula Abdul's choreography), outtakes, storyboards, and more.


BEHIND ENEMY LINES (*1/2, 107 mins., 2001, PG-13; Fox, $27.98): Rah-rah patriotic tale of a fighter pilot (Owen Wilson) shot down over Bosnia during a routine reconnaissance mission became a modest box-office hit last Thanksgiving, even though it offers some of the most obnoxious direction and poor special effects to grace a big-studio release in recent memory.

Wilson is fine as the hot-shot veteran who ends up being rescued by his combative superior officer (Gene Hackman), but the movie is pedestrian in every conceivable aspect, right down to miniature special effects that look like they might have been at home in a Godzilla movie back in the '60s. Hackman's presence, meanwhile, reminded me of a similarly-themed military rescue film he starred in -- the enjoyable Vietnam picture "Bat 21" with Danny Glover -- which is, in every way, a superior film than BEHIND ENEMY LINES.

Much of the problem here can be attributed to the film's awkward visual style: director John Moore utilizes herky-jerky camera movement and self-conscious editing rhythms to the point of distraction, in an obvious effort to disguise the film's extremely modest budget. It all adds up to a piece of forgettable, uninspired action filmmaking that will only entertain the most die-hard fan of TOP GUN-like military thrills.

Fox's DVD looks great (2.35 widescreen) and sounds even better (5.1 DTS/Dolby Digital), and offers some solid special features: commentary tracks, deleted scenes (including alternative opening and closing titles), extended sequences, behind-the-scenes featurettes, and trailers.


TV Kideo

JIMMY NEUTRON: BOY GENIUS (**1/2, 82 mins., 2001, G; Paramount, $19.98): Nickelodeon movies are being cranked out at an alarming rate, though to date, only a few of them have proven to be watchable for viewers over the age of six. Fortunately, this well-drawn, computer-generated feature is a charming sci-fi fantasy for kids, with enough technical razzle-dazzle and in-jokes to satisfy adults as well.

Jimmy Neutron IS the strapping boy genius whose crazy inventions come in handy when a pair of nefarious aliens (voiced by Patrick Stewart and Martin Short) decide to crash planet Earth and abduct all adults for use as sacrifices. While this initially sits well with the parent-free kids, Jimmy ultimately decides to lead a youth uprising against the extraterrestrial oppressors, resulting in space battles and the creation of more nutty gadgets -- like the use of carnival apparatus as spaceships!

John A. Davis and Steve Oedekerk co-wrote, produced, and directed this affair, which should be a big hit with kids on video (the movie raked in $80 million in theaters last winter, too). The film's writing isn't on the level of recent successes like "Shrek" or "Lilo and Stitch," but it's inoffensive and occasionally inspired, and certainly will captivate the imaginations of young viewers.

Paramount's DVD offers both 1.85 widescreen and full-frame transfers (something other studios should take a look at when releasing "children's" films!), along with an active 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack, containing a mostly routine score by John Debney. Promotional spots, music videos, trailers, and a fluffy "Making Of" featurette round out the package, along with DVD-ROM games aimed specifically at children.


MAX KEEBLE'S BIG MOVE (**, 86 mins., 2002, PG; Disney, $19.98): Wacky live- action Disney shenanigans reminded me of the forgettable non-animated programmers I watched growing up that didn't star Herbie the Love Bug (i.e. "The North Avenue Irregulars," "The Boatniks," etc.).

The Jonathan Bernstein-Mark Blackwell-James Greer-David Watts script actually offers a fairly fresh premise: pushed-around seventh grader Max (Alex D. Linz) gets word from his folks that he's moving out of state and into a new school district. Now free to live his school life without consequence, Max spends what he believes will be his final days by righting numerous wrongs, wreaking havoc and taking back his class from tyrannical bullies. Unfortunately for him, however, his family's move is kiboshed and you can guess what happens when it turns out that Max's stay at school is just a little permanent than first imagined.

The story is fun but the execution by director Tim Hill accentuates the least interesting elements of the picture (i.e. slapstick gags), relegating this to kids-only status. Still, most (undemanding) younger viewers should have a good time with it, and Disney's DVD offers a THX-approved full-frame transfer, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, and several special features -- including audio commentary, deleted scenes, and a bunch of kid- friendly interactive games.


NEXT WEEK: A look at FIRESTARTER 2, HART'S WAR, and more! Send all emails to dursina@att.net and have a great 4th of July for those in the U.S.A. Excelsior!


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