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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, and more!

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 features:

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, STARSHIP TROOPERS'
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 sequel.

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 historical importance.

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.


In Brief

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, $24.98)
STEPHEN KING'S GRAVEYARD SHIFT (**, 88 mins., 1990, R; Paramount, $24.98)

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 later.

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 years before).


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 dursina@att.net.


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