STARSHIP TROOPERS Revisited: Basil Strikes Back
A look at Columbia's new Special Editions of STARSHIP
TROOPERS and MIB
Plus: DARK BLUE WORLD, Stephen King Double Feature,
Aisle Seat World Cup Edition
By Andy Dursin
There's quite a bit to get to this week in the first part of our Aisle
Seat World Cup Edition. If you're wondering what this has to do with the
international celebration of football (soccer to us Americans) currently
going on -- well, good question. Admittedly, not much, though if you're
looking for some quality DVDs to help you stay up until the matches begin
(anywhere from 2-7:30 a.m. EST here in the U.S.!), there have been plenty
of excellent new DVDs just released to choose from.
Read on for a look at the Special Edition re-release of STARSHIP TROOPERS
and other goodies, and be sure to come back next week for Part II: Vintage
Classics (yes, THE VIKINGS will finally be covered, I promise!).
Columbia Special Editions
If you held off on purchasing some of Columbia's more popular catalog
titles like MEN IN BLACK, JERRY MAGUIRE, or STARSHIP TROOPERS on DVD because
you thought there'd be a more elaborate supplemental edition some time
down the road, your patience has been rewarded: each disc has been newly
re-issued with additional extras, with the MIB and TROOPERS discs upping
the goodies from even their past Special Edition packages. Since you're
likely familiar with all three titles (and since I've reviewed them all
in past Aisle Seat columns), here's a capsule-sized rundown on the new
STARSHIP TROOPERS (****, 130 mins., 1997, R; Columbia, $27.95):
It's become easier over the years to share one's guilt for counting STARSHIP
TROOPERS as a personal favorite. Paul Verhoeven's gleefully entertaining
1997 gung-ho sci-fi epic offers so much in the way of entertainment --
from spectacular effects and action to big satirical laughs and an attractive
(if intentionally bland) cast -- that you can easily overlook the movie's
strained attempts at being ironic. From Basil Poledouris' rousing score
down to the movie's tense finale, STARSHIP TROOPERS has always held the
potential for being a cult classic, even if its initial box-office performance
turned out to be lackluster.
One of the first DVDs that truly took advantage of the medium's potential,
1998 release offered deleted scenes, featurettes, screen tests, and
Verhoeven's commentary. This two-disc re-issue from Columbia ups the ante
with new features o'plenty, though the 30-minute documentary from Automat
Pictures disappointingly turns out to be a forum for Verhoeven's wild rants
about Nazism, totalitarianism, dictatorships, and the futuristic government
that Robert A. Heinlein's original novel contained. In short, it accentuates
everything some viewers didn't like about the film to begin with, and confirms
once again that Verhoeven can't have it both ways. While it's obvious he
wanted the film to be more seriously viewed as an ironic statement on Nazism,
at the same time, the director clearly (intentionally or not) made the
very things he was trying to undercut look appealing and attractive. (Do
the soldiers lose their humanity in staging an intergalactic war against
evil bugs? Maybe, but ultimately, who cares when you get to take Denise
Richards home with you). To confirm that Verhoeven was just a little misguided
with using the film's satirical context as a forum for his political ideology,
even screenwriter Ed Neumeier's comments frequently clash with Verhoeven's
ramblings about the political ramifications of his film on the original
commentary track (here reprised on DVD, and joined by the debut of a cast
commentary with Casper Van Dien, Dina Meyer, and Neil Patrick Harris).
Still, STARSHIP TROOPERS is best enjoyed without thinking about it too
much (don't even think about drawing a parallel between the plight of the
bugs with American Indians the way some did at the time), and just on the
level of a huge, sprawling sci-fi film that satirically mocks WWII propaganda,
works tremendously well.
For new features, FSM readers should rejoice over the addition of Basil
Poledouris' isolated score (in 5-channel Dolby Digital) with composer commentary.
Thankfully, while some of his comments begin at the tail end of a few cues,
the great majority of the music plays out as intended with no interruption
-- a godsend for those looking for some of the great material left off
the abbreviated soundtrack album. When the music isn't playing, Basil's
comments are enlightening on both his creative process and working with
Verhoeven, which doesn't seem to be all that easy, judging from some of
the anecdotes he shares here. Poledouris also hasn't been this visible
since the video biography FSM shot a few years ago (still available, by
the way, from our FSM Store): he also appears on-camera in the documentary,
eloquently talking about the project.
The DVD also offers new featurettes on the special effects, art galleries,
"scene deconstructions," special effects and storyboard comparisons, plus
the original "vintage" featurette and the assorted deleted scenes/screen
tests from the original DVD. The 1.85 transfer is pretty much on a par
with the old DVD, and the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound just as effective.
For STARSHIP TROOPERS fans, admit your affection for the film -- and
pick up the new DVD for Poledouris' isolated score if nothing else.
JERRY MAGUIRE (***1/2, 139 mins., 1996, R; Columbia,
$27.95): Cameron Crowe's insightful, funny, and at-times moving 1996 treatise
on sports agents and personal relationships remains in many ways his best
film -- certainly representative of some of the best work Tom Cruise and
Cuba Gooding, Jr. have done.
Columbia's two-DVD Special Edition improves immeasurably on its earlier
bare- bones release by adding, among other goodies, an on-screen "visual
commentary" with Crowe, Cruise, Gooding, and Renee Zellweger watching the
film with the camera pointed right at them. Cruise, adorned in shades and
a goofy hat, doesn't have a whole lot to say, but fortunately everyone
else does, and it's a chatty commentary that fans of the movie will love.
The second DVD in the set also includes never-before-seen deleted scenes,
the best of which involves a near five-minute, hysterical improvisation
by actor/comedian Jay Mohr (the other deleted scenes are quite short and
easy to see why they were left on the cutting room floor). You also get
brief rehearsal footage, shot on Crowe's camcorder, of the movie's "Show
Me The Money" routine, plus Bruce Springsteen's music video "Secret Garden,"
the original making-of featurette, trailers, a photo gallery, and a few
assorted odds and ends.
The 1.85 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack are both superlative,
and even if the supplements aren't the kind that will keep you occupied
for hours, they do prove the old axiom that quality outlasts quantity.
MEN IN BLACK (**1/2, 98 mins., 1997, PG-13; Columbia,
$24.98): With "Men In Black II" due out in a few weeks, Columbia has repackaged
their earlier 2-DVD Limited Edition of the 1997 blockbuster, basically
reprising all of that set's extras while adding new liner notes from director
Barry Sonnenfeld and a brief (we're talking VERY brief) promo for the upcoming
The original film has never been one of my particular faves, but the
combination of Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith certainly proved potent at
the box-office in '97. The film's concept is more amusing than its execution,
but at least the movie is over and done with by the 90 minute mark and
has one truly great scene (when Smith joins the ranks of the MIB in an
entrance exam that recalls the opener of the Chevy Chase/Dan Aykroyd pairing
"Spies Like Us").
Visually, the 1.85 transfer is terrific and the 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack
a lot of fun (a full-frame version is also included). As with the earlier
Limited Edition disc (still available for $15 more), there's a commentary
track by Sonnenfeld and Jones that is also included "visually" as an MST3K-like
silhouette at the bottom of the screen (a device Columbia also used on
their GHOSTBUSTERS DVD). It's a frequently engaging discussion, and is
supplemented by FX-intensive Special Features that examine the work of
the special effects-meisters, along with a look at the original Malibu
comic the film was based upon. The original documentary, trailers, art
galleries, and a handful of deleted/extended scenes (none of any particular
significance) are also included, along with a "Scene Editing Workshop"
that allows you to play film editor for a couple of minutes.
I'd say that, if you already own the earlier 2-DVD Limited Edition set,
you can bypass this MEN IN BLACK since the features are virtually identical.
On the other hand, if you missed that release and happen to be a fan of
the movie, definitely check this lower-cost alternative out as a primer
for the (hopefully superior) MIB sequel coming in early July.
New On DVD
DARK BLUE WORLD (**, 115 mins., 2001, R; Columbia TriStar, $29.98):
The little- seen follow-up from the director of "Kolya," Jan Sverak's DARK
BLUE WORLD is a well-intentioned but ultimately disappointing chronicle
of Czech pilots fighting in England during WWII.
Ondrej Vetchy plays Franta, a Czech pilot who leaves his homeland behind
after the Germans invade. Dragging pupil Karel (Krystof Hadek, in the Josh
Hartnett "Pearl Harbor" role) and his squad along with him, Franta's group
remains patient while the Brits are bombarded. When the group finally sees
combat, Franta and Karel find themselves not only fighting the Germans
but also themselves when both men fall in love with the same British woman
(Tara Fitzgerald), whose husband is off fighting the war.
Many viewers criticized "Pearl Harbor" for its use of hoary old war
movie cliches, but while I had reservations about the movie as a whole,
I found that the film recycled them to an effective degree -- the picture
was basically just an old-fashioned WWII flick updated with superior special
effects. With loftier ambitions, DARK BLUE WORLD attempts to shed light
on the precarious situation that the Czech pilots found themselves in during
the war -- in the movie's framing device, the Czechs are imprisoned in
a Communist labor camp following WWII for helping the RAF -- but despite
its historical relevance and a more somber tone, the film is every bit
as cliched as the overblown but more entertaining Michael Bay epic.
Zdenek Sverak's script includes numerous old standbys of the genre:
from the loving dog Franta leaves at home, to the girlfriend who says she'll
wait for him to return, to the film's predictably bittersweet ending. The
intriguing historical aspect of the film aside, DARK BLUE WORLD is an awfully
pedestrian story, capped by a regulation "love triangle" that's so thoroughly
unconvincing that you may find yourself reaching for the remote to bypass
it completely. The relationship between the protégé Karel
and his mentor Franta is thoroughly by-the-numbers, despite the solid work
of both actors, and their dueling affections for the stereotypical British
housewife left at home simply don't ring true.
Visually, Sverak fares well with original visual effects and recycled
footage from "The Battle of Britain" evoking the aerial dogfights, while
Vladimire Smutny's cinematography is atmospheric and effective. Unfortunately,
the fascinating history involved in DARK BLUE WORLD is compromised by a
formulaic story with simplistic characters. WWII aficionados may find the
film worth viewing for its premise alone, yet the picture never lives up
to its potential and its failure to find much of an audience internationally
is easy to comprehend.
DARK BLUE WORLD was a relatively expensive Czech production, and Columbia's
excellent DVD provides a handful of superb Special Features. Commentary
from Sverak and producer Eric Abraham sheds light on the production of
the film, while a subtitled Czech documentary on the movie's creation is
also included, with behind-the- scenes footage and interviews. A separate
featurette on the movie's visual effects is included, along with a photo
montage, the so-called "Aerial Symphony" (a brief montage of the film's
flight sequences), and both the film's American trailer and the original
Czech teaser, marked by a voice-over from the director about the film's
Visually, the 2.35 transfer is excellent and the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound
certainly acceptable -- this isn't an elaborate, power-house mix like "Pearl
Harbor," but it does its job and contains some strong surround effects,
along with a decent score by Ondrej Soukup.
The DVD's subtitles, however, prove somewhat problematic. Since the
film is in both Czech and English, one would have assumed that the movie's
subtitles would appear during the Czech passages only. Unfortunately, this
is more of a "caption" track than a subtitle track, meaning that ALL of
the dialogue (in both languages) is subtitled. Some viewers may find this
especially distracting since the English subtitles frequently appear on-screen
BEFORE the dialogue is spoken.
ALI (**1/2, 157 mins., 2001, R; Columbia, $29.98):
Michael Mann's highly anticipated chronicle of the life and times of fighter
Muhammad Ali was met with mixed critical and box-office reception last
Christmas, despite the acclaimed work of Will Smith in the title role.
Having missed the film in theaters, I was still eager to check out ALI
on DVD, but came away disappointed and bewildered by the whole approach
Mann took with this project: the movie glosses over major events, presupposes
knowledge about Ali's background and life as Cassius Clay, and plays as
if major sections of the film were trimmed or cut entirely. It's like reading
an abstract of an abridged biography.
Smith, however, does an admirable job filling the shoes of the towering,
real-life figure: he talks, walks, and conveys the physical essence of
Ali in every scene. It's an achievement that Smith was able to pull off,
and makes the picture worth viewing for his performance alone.
The movie, though, comes across as an enigma. Mann and screenwriter
Eric Roth (working from an earlier script by Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher
Wilkinson) decided to chronicle the years 1964-74, encompassing Ali's conversion
to Islam, his first heavyweight title and loss of that crown, his political
and legal troubles, and his much- discussed marital problems. His relationship
with Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles) is shown, his sparked debates with sportscaster
Howard Cosell (a miscast Jon Voight) are represented, and his travels around
the globe to Africa and elsewhere are documented -- but the problem is
that there's no point-of-view putting it all in perspective. The dialogue
conveys snippets of what Ali was all about, and how controversial he was,
but there's no editorializing, no criticizing, no commentary. Mann and
Roth fail to convey to us the importance of what we're watching -- something
that will be especially apparent to viewers who know little about Ali.
Technically, ALI is on a par with Mann's past work, meaning the widescreen
cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki, production design by John Myhre, and
sound design (featuring a heavily ethnic, often monotonous score by Lisa
Gerrard and Pieter Bourke) are all top-notch. Though the supporting performances
of Jamie Foxx, Ron Silver, and Jeffrey Wright are solid as well, neither
Voight's Cosell nor Peebles' Malcolm X convey the respective charisma both
of their real-life counterparts possessed (perhaps the one time that kind
of comparison between those two individuals will ever be made!). Despite
a glossy visual presentation and Smith's performance, ALI comes up short.
To draw an analogy to Ali's most well-known quote, the movie dances like
a butterfly but never stings like a bee.
Columbia's DVD offers a superb 2.35 transfer and throbbing 5.1 Dolby
Digital soundtrack that reflect the film's high budget and technical quality.
Likely due to the film's longish running time, the DVD is bereft of special
features (aside from trailers for "Spider-Man" and "Men In Black II"),
enabling the quality of the transfer to remain as strong as possible on
the single disc. Perhaps a more elaborate Special Edition -- and a longer
cut of the film -- will follow down the road.
SLACKERS (**, 86 mins., R, 2002; Columbia, $24.98): The recent
boom in mindless college comedies yielded one modest hit ("Van Wilder")
and a couple of box-office underachievers this past spring: the forgettable
"Sorority Boys" and SLACKERS, which does, admittedly, score a few laughs
along its raunchy way. Devon Sawa plays a smarmy charmer who manages to
scam his way through college, making as little use of his brain as possible.
Right before graduation, however, nerdy loser Jason Schwartzman ("Rushmore")
stumbles upon Sawa's plan, and blackmails Devon into helping him score
a girl. David H. Steinberg's script includes some pretty low-brow gags
(even for this sort of material), but they're balanced by some legitimately
funny moments and an engaging comic performance by Schwartzman. Dewey Nicks'
direction is also energetic and keeps things moving.
Columbia's no-frills DVD offers 1.85 and full-frame transfers, along
with a throbbing 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack. The movie, a production
of Canada's Alliance Atlantis, isn't anything special, but it managed to
somewhat surpass my low expectations just the same.
THE VILLAIN (**, 89 mins., PG, 1979; Columbia,
$19.98): Many viewers don't remember that Arnold Schwarzenegger's career
began long before CONAN -- in fact Arnold's stay in Hollywood nearly ended
before he even took the reigns of Robert E. Howard's classic creation.
Case in point is THE VILLAIN, Hal Needham's insane 1979 attempt to create
a live-action "Road Runner" cartoon with Kirk Douglas as the man in black
(Cactus Jack, the film's original title), Ann-Margret as the girl, and
Schwarzenegger as "Handsome Stranger," the good guy in white who can't
do any wrong. This spoof didn't click at the box-office, but it remains
of interest today, primarily for Schwarzenegger's leading role. While he
tries his all, Arnold exhibits little of the comic timing that he better
utilized in roles later in his career, which is one of many reasons why
the Needham-directed effort fell flat. Of course, Robert Kane's TV-like
script is another reason this sub-"Blazing Saddles" didn't work, despite
cameos by Ruth Buzzi, Paul Lynde, and a slew of western vets (Jack Elam,
Strother Martin). Still, for Arnold die-hards, this uneven dusty spoof
is worth a look.
Columbia's DVD offers a grainy but colorful full-screen transfer. Since
the movie wasn't shot in any kind of widescreen process, the framing appears
comfortable with no signs of cropping on the edges. The mono sound is also
acceptable, sporting an OK score by Bill Justis.
Stephen King Creature Double-Feature
STEPHEN KING'S SILVER BULLET (***, 94 mins., 1985, R; Paramount,
STEPHEN KING'S GRAVEYARD SHIFT (**, 88 mins., 1990, R; Paramount,
I never thought the day would come when we'd be nostalgic for the time
when each week seemingly brought a new Stephen King movie into theaters.
OK, so maybe that day hasn't come quite yet, but even so, I fondly recall
being in grade and high school when a new King adaptation -- most of them
terrible ones, at that -- would arrive at the multiplex every few months.
Paramount has unearthed a pair of '80s King flicks on DVD -- one film
being an underrated genre effort that's surprisingly decent, the other
a cheapjack but gleefully bad cash-in on the author's name from a few years
SILVER BULLET was a Dino DeLaurentiis production, first released in
1985, that had two important elements going for it: one being that King
himself provided the script, the second that Carlo Rambaldi designed the
slimy make-up effects.
The result was a movie that most branded as mediocre at the time, but
has certainly held up a lot better than most of the King thrillers-of-the-week
-- particularly now that Paramount has released the movie on DVD in its
original 2.35 JDC Scope aspect ratio, which allows us to see the full cinema
screen for the first time since '85.
An adaptation (and embellishment) of King's graphic novel "Cycle of
the Werewolf," SILVER BULLET stars Gary Busey as an alcoholic uncle to
handicapped nephew Corey Haim. Haim decides to investigate a series of
murders plaguing the formerly quaint little town he and sister Megan Follows
(of "Anne of Green Gables" fame) live in. All signs point to a werewolf,
and Haim decides to track down the killer even though everyone else thinks
he's the little boy who cried you-know-what.
The movie doesn't offer too many surprises in terms of suspense or the
identity of the culprit (it just happens that Everett McGill's name is
second on the poster), but what IS surprising is that director Daniel Attias
actually manages to develop the characters and relationships between them
in the film. Haim and Follows' brother-sister interplay is sensitively
and believably handled, as is the relationship between Haim and Busey,
who gives one of his better performances here.
Jay Chattaway's score is perfectly acceptable and while the movie runs
out of gas by the time it ends around the 90 minute mark, SILVER BULLET
is a minor guilty pleasure that's certainly easier to enjoy on DVD now
that the film isn't being heavily panned-and-scanned. Paramount's DVD offers
an at-times soft but generally satisfying 2.35 transfer and mono soundtrack
(this was back in the days when DeLaurentiis refused to ante up for stereo
when making films like this and "Conan The Barbarian"), while there are
no special features included.
After "Pet Sematary" hit it big in the late '80s, every producer in
the world scrambled for anything and everything that had King's name in
it -- hence junk like "The Lawnmower Man" and GRAVEYARD SHIFT, an independent
flick that one of King's Maine friends held the rights to, and that line
producer (and Fall River, Mass. native) Ralph S. Singleton opted to write
and direct himself for the big screen.
Acquired by Paramount in the U.S., GRAVEYARD SHIFT is a bad movie, all
right, but at least it's a good one. Bland leading man David Andrews plays
an "educated fellow" who rambles into Gates Falls, Maine and tries to find
a job at the town's textile mill. Owner Stephen Macht tells Andrews he
has room on the "graveyard shift," while conveniently NOT telling him that
mysterious deaths have begun to spring up in the mill, even while exterminator
Brad Dourif (as delirious as ever) tries to flush out rat-infested areas
believed to be the cause of the trouble. Turns out that the rodents may
not be the real culprit after all, but rather a strange, gooey bat-like
rat that lives in the tunnels under the building.
Under 90 minutes and with no pretension whatsoever, GRAVEYARD SHIFT
provides lean B-thrills and plenty of laughs thanks to the performances
of Dourif and Macht, who attempts a Maine accent (I didn't say he succeeds,
however!) and goes almost as over-the-top as Dourif does in the plum role
of the Exterminator. They're so goofy that you can't help but be bored
by everyone else in the movie, while the film's low budget results in some
pretty amusing special effects work, as well directed by Singleton as can
be expected under the circumstances.
Say whatever you'd like about the utter lack of artistry on display
here, but any movie that ends with a nondescript '90s groove set to dialogue
clips from THIS particular story can't be all bad. If you're looking for
some no-brain horror silliness to enjoy with friends, GRAVEYARD SHIFT would
perfectly fit the bill.
Paramount's DVD presentation is also quite satisfying, with a superb
1.85 transfer and surprisingly good 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack, which
features a few directional effects and the bland music of Brian Banks and
Anthony Marinelli (who replaced James Horner on "Young Guns" a couple of
NEXT WEEK: It's Aisle Seat Vintage DVD with '60s,
'70s and '80s hits from THE MANHATTAN PROJECT to THE VIKINGS, plus more
old school faves. Until then, have a great weekend and email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.