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Aisle Seat Vintage DVD, Part One

From THE VIKINGS to WILL PENNY, a look at vintage flicks on DVD

By Andy Dursin

Looking over the release calendar for the next few weeks, things are going to be slowing down in terms of huge, high-profile DVD releases. This, in effect, will be the "calm before the storm" when big-time discs like "Lord of the Rings" and others that will prove to be bestsellers come out in August and early fall.

In the meantime, studios are going into their back catalog and releasing vintage titles to satisfy your viewing needs. The results of their endeavors are a wide variety of films -- both old and new, classics and overlooked gems (and a few misfires that are still misfires) -- all dusted off and remastered on DVD. Here's Part One of our Aisle Seat rundown, with Part Two to follow next week.

Paramount Vintage Dramas & Westerns

WILL PENNY (***1/2, 1968, 109 mins.; Paramount, $24.98): We all love to poke fun at poor o'l Chuck Heston. The "Soylent Green" and "Planet of the Apes" imitators used to be comprised of just a few movie geeks, but now it seems every stand-up comic mixes in a Heston gesture with his standard routine.

There are, however, some classic performances by Heston that many folks tend to overlook, and his role as WILL PENNY in Tom Gries' truly excellent, wonderfully written latter-day western is understandably viewed as one of his finest. Heston plays Will, an aging cowhand who rambles along from job to job, trying to find work before winter sets in and takes its toll on his tired body. After running into young wife Joan Hackett and her young son (Gries' own real-life son, Jon) on their way west, Will is attacked by a group of thieves (including Donald Pleasance as a deranged preacher and Bruce Dern in one of his countless roles as a psycho villain) that nearly costs him his life. Fortunately, Hackett nurses Will's broken bones and falls in love with the hard-working man, who ultimately has to choose between his own needs and her future, balancing hopes and dreams with reality.

Although critics don't generally look at WILL PENNY as a "post-modern" western like "The Wild Bunch," this fine film is a realistic and honest look at a tough yet equally moral man who is torn by having to choose between his real affections for the (married) mother and son, and the reality that his own life is approaching its sunset. The movie manages to be emotional and subdued at the same time, getting mileage out of Heston and Hackett's superb performances, not to mention excellent support turned in by Lee Majors (in his first starring role), Anthony Zerbe, Ben Johnson, and Pleasance as the heavy. If there's one area where Gries' script comes off as formulaic, it's the ruthless gang of thugs lead by Pleasance and son Dern, which seems identical to so many of the PG- rated sadistic villains seen in other westerns (particularly THE COWBOYS) during the late '60s and early '70s.

Otherwise, WILL PENNY is essential western viewing, made even more memorable by Lucien Ballard's cinematography and David Raksin's superb score. Paramount's DVD is the best way to appreciate the film, having been remastered in a top- notch 1.85 transfer with better-than-average mono sound. Two new featurettes have been included as well: a retrospective look at the movie with Heston and now-grown Jon Gries among others, documenting the picture's inception and production, along with a brief look at "The Cowboys of WILL PENNY." Aside from the lack of a theatrical trailer, this is a fine package for an underrated movie well worth catching on DVD.

THE BROTHERHOOD (**1/2, 96 mins., 1968, R; Paramount, $24.98): A couple of years before Francis Ford Coppola began his own mafia saga, Kirk Douglas produced and starred in this interesting though not entirely successful 1968 mob drama. Douglas plays a member of the mafia whose hot-shot younger brother ("Airwolf" co-star Alex Cord) is attempting to make his own name with "the family." Yes, it's a sibling drama of loyalty and trust put on the line, and to which family Cord will ultimately choose when he's been tabbed to make his first killing on brother Kirk.

Lewis John Carlino's script is a fascinating contrast to "The Godfather," establishing back-stabbing characters and a "family" not unlike the one audiences and readers came to identify with in the Mario Puzo story. However, director Martin Ritt takes a leisurely approach to the material, handling the material at a pace which makes even the 96 minute running time feel prolonged. Lalo Schifrin's competent score is also of interest, though it works in more of a then-contemporary '60s kind of way as opposed to the more ethnic strains of Nino Rota's classic "Godfather" soundtrack.

Still, THE BROTHERHOOD is a decent movie in its own regard. Cord and Douglas both turn in solid work, though the comparisons with the superior mob flicks that followed are indeed inevitable and date this pre-Coppola effort as a product of its time.

Paramount's no frills DVD offers a 1.85, colorful transfer with source materials that are in surprisingly excellent condition. The mono soundtrack is also a bit more potent than the usual track one would find in a monophonic effort from the late '60s.

ATLANTIC CITY (***, 103 mins., 1981, R; Paramount, $24.98): Louis Malle's excellent, acclaimed 1981 film revitalized the career of Burt Lancaster, who turns in an outstanding performance as a bodyguard who improbably stumbles upon the opportunity to live out his wildest fantasies. John Guare's script revolves around the unlikely events that happen to Lancaster after he's left with unsold cocaine following the slaying of neighbor Susan Sarandon's estranged husband. His beauty-queen employer (Kate Reid) still wants him to look out for her, but the opportunity to get his hands on a small fortune and become the kind of big-time Atlantic City gangster whom he dreams about proves to be quite appealing to the aging Lancaster, as is the possibility of a relationship with sexy Sarandon, who also gives one of her best performances here.

While the plot may give the impression that ATLANTIC CITY is a crime thriller, under the direction of Malle, the movie is perfectly offbeat and often subtly humorous. Lancaster and Sarandon are simply terrific, and the nuances that the elder statesman Lancaster conveys in his role of the old dreamer are wonderful to behold. Guare's script is unpredictable and even the use of opera on the film's soundtrack works splendidly. Throughout, Malle juxtaposes the then-real situation of Atlantic City's renovation with Lancaster's new life, and it's just one of the many subtle touches that Malle includes in this Canadian-French co-production, which was extremely well received during its original release.

While Paramount's DVD includes only a theatrical trailer, the 1.85 image is steady and the monophonic soundtrack perfectly acceptable. If you're looking for a great little movie that doesn't receive much discussion these days, ATLANTIC CITY is well worth investing time in.

GOIN' SOUTH (**, 1978, 108 mins., PG; Paramount, $24.98): A troubled production, Jack Nicholson's GOIN' SOUTH was pretty much looked upon as a missed opportunity when it was first released in 1978. Sure enough, the years have been equally unkind to this oddball comedic-western -- written by John Herman Shaner, Al Ramrus, Charles Shyer and Alan Mandel -- that pairs Nicholson's maniacal outlaw with virginal Mary Steenburgen (her first major role), who opts to marry Nicholson's Henry Moon just as sheriff Christopher Lloyd and deputy John Belushi are about to hang him in the town square.

Now, any movie with that kind of cast is bound to be interesting (at least one would think so), but GOIN' SOUTH shoots more blanks than direct hits in both the comedic and romantic areas. Belushi and Lloyd are sorely wasted here in minor roles (perhaps both bit the cutting room floor), while Nicholson and Steenburgen's chemistry together is positively grating all the way to the "thank god it's over!" final shot. Since GOIN' SOUTH was made back in the days when you could show sexual content in a PG movie, there's even a moment when Nicholson ties Steenburgen to their bed in what amounts to rape -- the kind of scene that was apparently deemed funny back in '78 (or at least funny to the folks who made this mess). That alone should pretty much tell you all you need to know about GOIN' SOUTH.

Paramount's no-frills DVD offers an acceptable 1.85 transfer with some grainy sequences (mainly during the opening and ending credits), and a more distinguished mono mix sporting a hodge-podge score by Van Dyke Parks, Ry Cooder, and others. Unless you're a Nicholson junkie or interested in checking out GOIN' SOUTH as a curiosity item (Danny DeVito can be seen in a few shots), pass on this one.

MGM Library Titles

THE MANHATTAN PROJECT (***, 118 mins., 1986, PG-13; MGM, $14.95): Aaah, the summer of '86. I still have Fox's ad touting their slate of big sci-fi/fantasy films that were all released within a period of three short months: ALIENS, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, SPACECAMP, THE FLY, and THE MANHATTAN PROJECT, Marshall Brickman's highly entertaining "WarGames" clone that manages to promote a no-nukes message at the same time that it wants us to sympathize with its brilliant yet misguided teen protagonist who builds an atomic bomb with materials stolen from befuddled scientist John Lithgow's secret Ithaca, N.Y. lab.

Brickman, who worked with Woody Allen on several of his earlier films, walks a fine line between condemning the teen "hero" (the not-very-appealing Christopher Collet) and glorifying his actions, but THE MANHATTAN PROJECT still works because of Lithgow's sympathetic performance and a few memorable scenes (including the whiz kid's escape from an NYC science fair), not to mention Philippe Sarde's rich, melodic score, which does, admittedly, play at odds with the action in several sequences (especially when the bomb itself is constructed -- trust me, you'll know it when you see it!). It's best viewed as an escapist entertainment as opposed to a preachy, apocalyptic suspense-thriller, but fortunately Brickman incorporates enough comedic touches to make THE MANHATTAN PROJECT more than a dated slice of '80s paranoia.

MGM's DVD includes a super 1.85 transfer that is so much better than the old Image laserdisc I don't know where to begin praising it. Suffice to say, the framing is improved and the color/contrasts infinitely superior to any previous presentation of the film on video. The 2.0 Dolby Stereo soundtrack often sounds muffled, but this was a problem with the original mix and not the DVD mastering. The memorable original trailer is also included. (Brief quibble: the movie's original Gladden Entertainment logo played over sound effects of Lithgow walking up and flicking a switch before the movie began. The MGM logo is now used in its place, and those sound effects have been edited out. I know I'm probably the only person to realize that it's gone, but still, it's a minor but noticeable omission. At least the superimposed HBO/Cannon video subtitle, "The Deadly Game," has been eliminated from this version!).

UNFORGETTABLE (**1/2, 117 mins., 1996, R; MGM, $14.98): John Dahl's wacky thriller-fantasy stars Ray Liotta as a man who's had to live with the stigma that he killed his wife. Enter doctor Linda Fiorentino, whose work on a new drug enables Liotta to improbably live out the memories of other individuals at the crime scene -- all to find out the real culprit of his beloved's death. A 1996 box-office underachiever from producer Dino DeLaurentiis, this is a potentially ridiculous script that became a completely watchable thriller thanks to Dahl's standard, taut direction. Liotta and Fiorentino's performances are both solid, and the film keeps you watching right up until the end.

My only quibble with UNFORGETTABLE is that the movie was released theatrically with Nat King Cole's classic song attached to its concluding shot as the end credits rolled. Although the song remains listed in the credits, it was removed from the film's previous tape and laserdisc releases -- and is still excised here as well. Whatever the reason for its exclusion (perhaps royalty fees), having the movie conclude with that song made it just a little more surreal and satisfying, and its omission remains a regrettable one on MGM's otherwise superb DVD, which features a crisp 5.1 soundtrack, fine 1.85 and full-frame transfers, and the original trailer.

HIGH SPIRITS (**, 1988, 98 mins., PG-13; MGM, $14.98): Neil Jordan's most disliked personal work, the uneven and bizarre ghost comedy HIGH SPIRITS is a mix of the good and bad. On the plus side, there's Peter O'Toole as the owner of an Irish castle trying to lure tourists with the promises of seeing a haunted house. Also on the positive side of things there's the fetching Daryl Hannah (right at the end of her run on the "A list") and then-struggling Liam Neeson as two of the historical poltergeists. Contrasting with these elements are the annoying American tourists, lead by Steve Guttenberg (need we say more?), Beverly D'Angelo and Jennifer Tilly, who improbably end up in a mess of romantic entanglements with the ghostly housesitters.

Jordan wrote and directed this box-office bomb, whose failure he blamed on meddling studio executives who toyed around with the movie in post-production. No matter who's to blame, at least HIGH SPIRITS has a few good things going for it, in addition to a playful, energetic score by George Fenton and nice sets by the late Anton Furst ("Batman"). You'll have to be a fan of the performers (or a Jordan nut) to get much out of HIGH SPIRITS, but at least it's an interesting genre misfire.

MGM's DVD offers both 1.85 and full-frame transfers, along with a somewhat underwhelming 2.0 Dolby Stereo mix. The original British trailer (from Palace Pictures) is included instead of the American teaser (likely because Tri-Star distributed the film domestically).

BLUE VELVET: SPECIAL EDITION (**, 121 mins., 1986, R; MGM, $29.98): MGM first issued BLUE VELVET in a decent movie-only release last year, and has now made that disc useless with its solid new Special Edition re-issue. The improved 2.35 transfer was personally supervised by David Lynch himself, resulting in a crisper image complimenting the already superb 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack. For new supplements, the DVD includes a multi-part "Mysteries of Love" documentary, which balances older interview clips of Lynch with new interviews with Kyle MacLachlan, Isabella Rossellini, Laura Dern, Dennis Hopper, and co-producer Fred Caruso among others. It's easily the disc's strongest new component -- offering honest reflections and anecdotes -- and is backed by a still gallery of deleted scenes, photo galleries, the original trailer, Siskel & Ebert's original review, and a pair of (thankfully) easy-to-find "easter eggs."

For Lynch fans, the Special Edition of BLUE VELVET is a must (and check out the Aisle Seat archive for my review of the original DVD).

THE VIKINGS (***1/2, 116 mins., 1958; MGM, $14.98): Before "Conan," before "Gladiator," before sword-and-scandal epics were as bland as "The Scorpion King," there was THE VIKINGS -- Kirk Douglas' 1958 production that provides rousing, colorful entertainment with larger-than-life characters and action that enthralled a generation of kids back in its day, and can now find new viewers through MGM's excellent, low-priced DVD.

Yes, it's true that Richard Fleischer ended up directing "Conan The Destroyer" and "Red Sonja," but back when he was in his prime, he handled action classics like THE VIKINGS and "20,000 Leagues Under The Sea." VIKINGS gives you pretty much everything you could imagine from an action epic: a brutal sibling rivalry between tough Kirk Douglas and fairer half-brother Tony Curtis, both vying for the affections of princess Janet Leigh and, ultimately, the throne of England in the process. Jack Cardiff's Technirama cinematography is a must in scope and MGM's 2.35 (16:9 enhanced) DVD offers a crisp, colorful presentation of the original widescreen aspect ratio, while Mario Nascimbine's rousing score sounds as good as can be expected in its original mono recording.

Although MGM has issued THE VIKINGS as a budget title, they've still given the disc a first-class presentation, complete with a 30-minute featurette chronicling the film's production, boasting comments from director Fleischer. The original trailer is also included -- surely the most satisfying $10 purchase you'll see released this year from any studio.

THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (***, 86 mins., 1959; MGM, $14.98): A featurette interview with Christopher Lee is the main supplemental draw in this budget DVD release of the acclaimed Hammer Films adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes classic. Peter Cushing gives a valiant performance as Holmes with Andre Morrell a fine Dr. Watson; menace is ably served by Christopher Lee (of course) in this Terence Fisher-directed outing, which is predictably heavy on the atmosphere and horror elements, in keeping with the Hammer tradition.

MGM's DVD offers a straight reprise of their letterboxed laserdisc from a few years ago, meaning the 1.66 transfer is fine but not enhanced for 16:9. A theatrical trailer is included along with the Lee interview on the supplemental side -- certainly not a bad bonus for the price.

UHF (**1/2, 97 mins., 1989, PG-13; MGM, $14.98): "Weird Al" Yankovic's tenure as a leading man lasted almost as long as Prince's reign at the box-office, but UHF has remained a cult favorite due to Yankovic's fans and the simple fact that the movie is actually, surprisingly funny in spots. Yankovic is joined by Michael Richards, SNL's Victoria Jackson (one of my fave SNL performers), comic Emo Philips, and a pre- "Nanny" Fran Drescher in a plot that provides a flimsy excuse for a film (Yankovic takes over his uncle's UHF station and tries to drive up ratings by airing his own programming) but a good one for a series of sketch-comedy spoofs. The Yankovic-Jay Levey script has some amusing gags and the movie -- while obviously filled with dated references to '80s pop culture -- provides an amiable good time for 90 minutes.

MGM has treated UHF just right on DVD, with deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes footage, audio commentary (featuring Weird Al, Richards, Philips and Jackson), promo materials, Weird Al's music video, and a couple of hidden bonuses included in the mix. The 1.85 transfer and Dolby Surround soundtrack are both top-notch, making this one of the top Special Editions you're going to find at this price range, for a cult '80s hit to boot.

More Outrageous '80s Comedy

REAL GENIUS (***1/2, 106 mins., 1985, PG-13;Columbia TriStar, $24.98): The summer of 1985 saw the release of a handful of "teen sci-fi" flicks that set off a mini- genre onto itself at the box-office. You had Disney's "My Science Project," John Hughes' "Weird Science," and the memorable Val Kilmer effort REAL GENIUS all in theaters almost simultaneously.

While most viewers cared less about the Disney film (released by Anchor Bay in a decent letterboxed DVD a few years ago), there are sill devotees of the Hughes flick and even some critics who count REAL GENIUS as one of the smarter teen comedies of the '80s. Certainly it's one of the funniest, with Kilmer as an eccentric college genius recruited by William Atherton (in one of his countless smarmy villain roles from this period) to help out his scientific think tank -- only to find out that Atherton has other things on his agenda, including aiding a top-secret government defense project. (Be on the lookout for "Will Penny" kid auteur Jon Gries here as well).

Martha Coolidge's film took great advantage of the wide Panavision frame, and thankfully Columbia's otherwise-supplement free DVD (with remarkably unattractive cover art) boasts a very fine, new 2.35 transfer that's an appreciable upgrade on the old laserdisc release (which looks misframed and fuzzier by comparison). The 2.0 Surround isn't all that impressive, but it does contain a limited score by Thomas Newman that shows little evidence of the composer's potential.

Even if "teen comedy" is one of the last things to come across your mind when looking for viable viewing options, REAL GENIUS is terrific entertainment and Columbia's DVD a superb representation of the theatrical experience on video. Check it out.

NATIONAL LAMPOON'S EUROPEAN VACATION (**, 94 mins., 1985, PG-13; Warner, $19.98): It just figures that the one "Vacation" movie to actually receive good treatment on DVD is the worst film of the series. Such is the case here, as the weak 1985 second entry in the Chevy Chase saga boasts a solid 1.85 transfer and audio commentary from the star, while the superior 1983 original -- and 1989's wonderful CHRISTMAS VACATION -- are still languishing on store shelves in full-frame only, supplement-free discs crying out for remastering.

EUROPEAN VACATION finds the Griswald clan heading overseas after winning a trip on a game show -- predictable shenanigans ensue, including run-ins with Victor Lanoux and Eric Idle among others. Unfortunately, aside from one hilarious sight gag, most of this Vacation feels like a in-name-only ripoff, with particularly grating performances from Dana Hill and Jason Lively as the Griswald kids.

Amy Heckerling ("Fast Times At Ridgemont High") stepped into the director's chair here and began her career-long pattern of following a big hit with a misfire (this most recently occurred when she decided to make "Loser" as a follow-up to "Clueless"). Robert Klane ("Weekend At Bernie's") is credited with co-writing the script with series creator John Hughes, but EUROPEAN VACATION is crasser and far less amusing than any of the other "Vacation" installments, leading one to believe that Heckerling was completely calling the shots here. Fortunately, Warner Bros. gave Hughes control to not only write CHRISTMAS VACATION but also produce it, resulting in a perennial holiday classic a few years later.

Warner's DVD of EUROPEAN VACATION certainly looks good, with the 1.85 matted transfer colorful and well-composed. Chevy's audio commentary is sporadic and dry, but also more amusing than the actual film, making this DVD worth a look for series fans.

DATE WITH AN ANGEL (**, 105 mins., 1987, PG; Anchor Bay, $14.98)
SOUL MAN (**1/2, 105 mins., 1986, PG-13; Anchor Bay, $14.98)

Just the other day I visited Anchor Bay's website to see their list of upcoming titles. Where else in the world can you find a label so eclectic that their list of unrated Italian horror movies is lumped together with a litany of titles starring Thomas the Tank Engine?

In addition to recent releases like the Special Edition of "Can't Stop The Music," Anchor Bay has uncovered a pair of almost-forgotten '80s relics and remastered them in widescreen for DVD.

DATE WITH AN ANGEL was one of the final releases of Dino DeLaurentiis' own DEG Studio, and after sitting through all 105 minutes, it's easy to see why: just who in the world thought this movie would work? Granted, Tom McLoughlin's fanciful tale of an angel (Emmanuelle Beart) who falls in love with a mortal (then-soap star Michael E. Knight) -- who's engaged to a cliched, stuffy rich girl (Phoebe Cates) -- is romantic fantasy fluff, but even so, it's no surprise that the movie failed to attract an audience. It's just too soft and poorly executed, even for this kind of film.

Fortunately, Beart (who was making her "big American debut" -- and exit -- here) and Cates are both attractive enough that I was willing to give the movie a chance, and for their presence alone, DATE WITH AN ANGEL isn't a total wash. The movie was also shot in JDC Scope and the 2.35 transfer makes the movie watchable, even though Alex Thomson's cinematography is awash in ugly filters and fog. The theatrical trailer is included as an extra.

Much more entertaining is SOUL MAN, the overlong but amiable 1986 New World comedy from director Steve Miner and "Wonder Years" producers Carol Black and Neal Marlens. C. Thomas Howell -- before he entered his direct-to-video phase -- stars as a strapping young lad who gets into Harvard Law by accepting the final remaining scholarship for an African-American student. Howell, of course, isn't black, but manages to overcome this small obstacle by deftly utilizing make-up -- something that fools everyone from professor James Earl Jones to love interest Rae Dawn Chong.

In addition to Howell, Chong, and Jones, SOUL MAN gets a lot of mileage out of supporting performances from James B. Sikking, Leslie Nielsen, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Arye Gross. It's no comedy classic, but the film is certainly amusing and has held up pretty well.

Anchor Bay's DVD offers 1.85 widescreen, Dolby Surround sound, plus a pleasant audio commentary from Miner and Howell, and the original trailer and teaser -- an attractive package for $15.

NEXT WEEK: Paul Newman double-feature as THE HUSTLER and THE VERDICT bow on DVD. Plus DICK TRACY and more in the second part of our DVD Vintage Aisle Seat! Send all emails to and we'll catch you then.

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