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Paramount's COP Trilogy on DVD

Plus: Valentine's DVDs and more!

An Aisle Seat Entry By Andy Dursin

While some of us look at the '80s as a time of decadence and materialism, others view the decade as a free-wheeling, feel-good time in which action-blockbusters with loud soundtracks ruled the box-office. You could argue that the senseless violence inherent in some of these flicks paved the way for the mind-numbing lack of respect for human life seen in so many terrible genre films in the '90s, but in the '80s, it was OK to shoot people and rock to the strains of a Harold Faltermeyer score as long as you looked good doing it.

Paramount's recent release of the Eddie Murphy BEVERLY HILLS COP series on DVD represents the formula at both its best and its worst, starting with the now-classic 1984 film being a prime example of the '80s action-comedy blueprint at its best, following it through to its loud, disappointing 1987 sequel and belated 1994 third installment, which bombed at the box-office but actually was overlooked.

What most people don't remember about BEVERLY HILLS COP (***1/2, 1984, 105 mins., $24.98, R) is that the movie wasn't just originally conceived as a Sylvester Stallone project, it was also CAST with the "Italian Stallion" in mind.

The straightforward story of a Detroit cop who travels to Beverly Hills to seek out the men responsible for the death of a friend still feels like it could have been a Stallone vehicle, with its blaring shoot-outs and action sequences, though fortunately enough, Eddie Murphy's presence meant the comedic elements were accentuated just enough to find the right balance between gags and guns.

The slick cinematography, interplay between BH cops Judge Reinhold and John Ashton (both terrific), and chart-topping soundtrack -- featuring the well-known Harold Faltermeyer score and hit songs by Glenn Frey, Patti Labelle, and the Pointer Sisters -- all combined to make BEVERLY HILLS COP a blockbuster hit, sending Murphy on his way into super-stardom as a leading man and spawning a pair of sequels that failed to reach the heights of the original, either comedically or financially.

The DVD is not only a gas for the film itself (presented in a 1.85 transfer with 5.1 sound), but also for its extras: the 30-minute documentary is revealing and filled with tasty anecdotes, featuring new interviews with Judge Reinhold, Lisa Eilbacher (whose character was originally the love interest for Stallone), John Ashton, producer Jerry Bruckheimer, director Martin Brest, and writers Danilo Branch and Daniel Petrie, Jr. This is a surprisingly frank and fun featurette that looks at the oft-discussed production of the film, from its original conception as a Pacino/Eastwood cop thriller, to a more comedic vehicle for Mickey Rourke and -- later -- Stallone, through to its final resting place as Murphy's biggest big-screen success.

Separate featurettes look at the casting and music (though Faltermeyer is nowhere to be seen), with Brest also contributing an informative audio commentary track, though at times he seems to be pausing to watch the film.

The extras are similarly interesting on BEVERLY HILLS COP II (**, 1987, 102 mins., $24.98, R), which is reason enough to purchase the DVD for fans, even if the movie remains as lifeless as it was when originally released during the summer of '87 (when it still became a huge hit).

This loud rehash is by-the-numbers all the way, from the worn-out Larry Ferguson-Warren Skaaren script, to Tony Scott's slick but overbearing direction, which blows the action up for Panavision dimensions, but leaves out the charm of the original at every turn.

Murphy is here back in Beverly to investigate a ring of gun smugglers (including Jurgen Prochnow and Brigitte Nielsen), but while token reprisals of Ashton, Reinhold, and Ronny Cox's characters offer goodwill to the audience, the movie is perfect evidence that bigger certainly isn't better.

Paramount's DVD once again offers a 30-minute documentary, with Reinhold's comments again being the most interesting of the lot, while Tony Scott appears to offer a never-before-seen deleted sequence. The original featurette and music video for the forgettable Oscar nominated song "Shakedown" are also included.

Technically, the 2.35 transfer is solid, as is the 5.1 soundtrack. It's the loudest and slickest-looking of all three COP pictures, bearing the most obvious trademarks of its producers in the series.

With Simpson/Bruckheimer out of the picture, several years passed before BEVERLY HILLS COP III (***, 1994, 104 mins., $24.98, R) would become a reality, but upon its release in May of '94, Part III was met with only modest box-office returns and generally lukewarm reviews.

Still, COP III is a major improvement on the second installment, with director John Landis returning to the somewhat lower-key proportions of the original, accentuating comedy as much as action as Murphy's Axel Foley reteams with Judge Reinhold's Billy Rosewood to take down a counterfeiting ring that's been established in the midst of a beloved amusement park.

Steve E. DeSouza's amusing script takes aim at Disney World and in some ways is better suited to Murphy's talents than either of the other COP pictures, though there's still a "been there, done that" feel to the action (and where's John Ashton? Hector Elizondo is a suitable replacement, but still, it's just not the same). Luckily, some bright cameos (including George Lucas, Joe Dante, John Singleton, and Ray Harryhausen) provide in-jokes for film buffs, while Bronson Pinchot happily reprises his memorable bit as "Serge" from the original film.

COP III again offers a razor-sharp 1.85 DVD transfer and 5.1 soundtrack, plus another solid half-hour documentary and the original trailer. It should be noted that Murphy appears only briefly in each of the supplemental programs, in material that looks like it was culled from press junket interviews for other projects.

All three DVDs are available for $24.98 or together in a box-set for $74.98.

Last-Minute Valentine's Day DVD Suggestions!

GROUNDHOG DAY: SPECIAL EDITION (****, 1993, 101 mins., $24.98, Columbia, PG): One of Bill Murray's best vehicles remains one of the funniest romantic-comedies of the '90s, offering big laughs and a poignant message (not unlike "A Christmas Carol in February") in addition to its innovative and clever time-paradox premise.

Murray plays a TV weatherman who becomes bound in time to relive Groundhog Day over and over and over again, with his producer Andie MacDowell and cameraman Chris Elliott attempting each time to understand just what's ticking off the irascible tube personality. Soon Murray's Phil Connors goes from frustration to acquiring God-like powers by living the day through repetition and bewildering the small-town residents with his vast knowledge of every individual's life.

Director Harold Ramis, reteaming with his "Ghostbusters" co-star, keeps the action moving, mixing laughs and sentiment perfectly, and constantly putting spins on the ingenious Danny Rubin premise. It's an undeniably entertaining brew that represents some of the best work of its cast and crew, with a great Murray performance and a catchy George Fenton score adding to the fun.

Previously released as a no-frills DVD, Columbia's new Special Edition release offers inviting supplemental features, most notably a terrific audio commentary track by Ramis and a 30-minute documentary that takes time out to discuss the development of the script and the production of the film (shot in a small Illinois town substituting for rural Pa.). While Murray doesn't appear, Andie MacDowell and the hilarious Stephen Tobolowsky do pop up to talk about their work on the film.

Visually, the 1.85 transfer is solid, while the 5.1 soundtrack is a significant step up from the basic 2.0 Dolby Surround (which sounds incredibly pinched here). The original trailer and filmographies are also included on this highly recommended disc.

COUSINS (***, 1989, 113 mins., $26.98, Paramount, PG-13): I've never been a big fan of Joel Schumacher's films. His "Batman" efforts, John Grisham adaptations, and other popcorn fare often come off as all style and little substance, but his 1989 effort COUSINS is a charming romantic-comedy that remains one of the few pictures of the filmmaker that I've genuinely liked.

An Americanized adaptation of the French favorite "Cousin, Cousine," Ted Danson and Isabella Rosselini play cousins-in-law who meet during a family wedding and proceed to bond, forming a relationship despite being attached to their respective significant-others (William Petersen, Sean Young). Lloyd Bridges essays the elder member of one family clan in this delightful and often very funny comedy, scripted by Stephen Metcalfe and photographed by Ralf Bode.

Of particular note is Angelo Badalamenti's score, one of the few "mainstream" Hollywood comedies the David Lynch collaborator worked on in the late '80s ("Christmas Vacation" was the other). Badalamenti's melodic soundtrack is a definite asset to the film, underscoring several scenes with comical, Henry Mancini-like cues, and others with a delicate, poignant theme that blossoms into a waltz over the end credits. It's a shame Badalamenti hasn't received more opportunities to show this side of his work, often preferring instead to write pulsating, "edgy" scores for the darker world of Lynch among others.

Paramount's 1.85 transfer is solid, and the 5.1 surround as good as to be expected in this kind of film. There are no extras aside from the usual chapter denotations.

SABRINA (***1/2, 1995, 135 mins., $26.98, Paramount, PG): While not the box-office blockbuster some predicted it would be, Sydney Pollack's elegant remake of Billy Wilder's original is a low-key, thoroughly satisfying fairy tale with a relaxed Harrison Ford in the Humphrey Bogart role and a luminous Julia Ormond in Audrey Hepburn's title part from the 1954 classic.

 The Billy Wilder-Samuel Taylor-Ernest Lehman story has been modernized by Barbara Benedek and David Rayfiel, but basically remains intact: a chaufffeur's daughter (Ormond) falls for the younger brother (Greg Kinnear, in his dramatic debut) of a wealthy businessman (Ford), only to find the elder sibling attempting to woo her so one of his business deals won't go sour.

Class is one of those words that you hesitate to use when describing a film, but every facet of SABRINA's production is top-flight all the way around: John Williams' lovely score, Guiseppe Rotunno's cinematography (with locations varying from Martha's Vineyard to Paris), and Brian Morris' production design are stylish and sophisticated, while the wonderful performances never hit a sour note.

The movie is leisurely paced and restrained, with Pollack's tasteful direction making this one of the few remakes of a Hollywood favorite from yesteryear that's worthy of its predecessor.

Paramount's DVD offers a fine 1.85 transfer, 5.1 and 2.0 Dolby soundtracks, and a theatrical trailer on the supplemental side.

FALLING IN LOVE (**1/2, 1986, 106 mins., $26.98, Paramount, PG-13): The star power of Robert DeNiro and Meryl Streep wasn't quite enough to turn this forgettable though still highly watchable 1986 soap opera into a box-office hit, but it's still interesting years after the fact for its (post-"Deer Hunter") teaming of two of the most acclaimed performers of the last several decades.

DeNiro and Streep play a pair of total strangers who meet up and fall in love, only to confess to one another that -- yes, you guessed it -- they're both already married. Michael Cristofer's script is fairly obvious, but Streep and DeNiro do their best to flesh out the dramatics, and director Ulu Grosbard tries to jazz up the action by using a strong supporting cast, including Harvey Keitel, George Martin, Dianne Weist, and Jane Kaczmarek. Dave Grusin's tender score is another plus, as is the vivid location filming.

Paramount's 1.85 DVD looks sharp, while the English mono soundtrack isn't anything spectacular. There are no extras on the disc.

YOU LIGHT UP MY LIFE (** 1/2, 1977, 90 mins., $24.98, Columbia TriStar, PG): The Oscar nominations are just days away, and while I just loved that Sting number from "Kate and Leopold" that copped the Golden Globe (accent on the sarcasm), it's unlikely that any of this year's "Best Song" nominees will re-capture the glory of syrupy, sappy winning ballads from years past.

You know them, you still hear them on FM as you flip around the dial -- hits like "Through the Eyes of Love" from "Ice Castles," "Up Where We Belong" from "An Officer and a Gentleman," and YOU LIGHT UP MY LIFE, the title track from Joseph Brooks' otherwise forgettable 1977 tale of an aspiring singer/actress whose rise to fame and fortune is plagued with problems.

A week ago I covered a more recent attempt at stardom-gone-wrong, but at least YOU LIGHT UP MY LIFE is far better than Mariah Carey's "Glitter," even if that's faint praise indeed.

Didi Conn (David Shire's wife) stars as the daughter of a Vaudeville comedian who opts to forgo the comedic potential of her career and focus on becoming a serious actress and songwriter. While it never helps to have connections, Conn's path to the big time features major bumps on the road, including an affair with a director who gave Conn a part in his latest effort.

Despite the sentimentality and melodramatic trappings inherent in Brooks' script, YOU LIGHT UP MY LIFE still works as a solid soaper thanks to the performances of Conn and Joe Silver, and of course, the memorable theme music, which writer/producer/director Brooks ALSO composed! It deservedly copped an Oscar while the movie itself has faded into relative obscurity.

Still, Columbia's DVD will rectify that situation for nostalgia buffs, offering a decent 1.85 transfer and an OK mono soundtrack. While the movie is matted, a full-frame transfer is also available, but that's it in the way of extras on this affordable release.

Also New on DVD

THE GLASS HOUSE (**, 2001, 107 mins., $26.98, Columbia TriStar, PG-13): I'm all for a good teen thriller, but while this slick Wesley Strick-scripted effort offers a more angst-ridden alternative to "I Know What You Did Last Summer," it's all gloss and no substance just the same.

Leelee Sobieski nabs a plum part here as a teen whose parents are killed in a car accident, and along with brother Trevor Morgan is put into the care of seemingly loving family friends Diane Lane and Stellan Skarsgard.

However, the surrogate parents start out on the wrong note by forcing underachiever Leelee into switching schools and ditching her friends, and then make matters worse by showing their respective penchants for drugs and adultery right in front of the kids, recipients of a rather large inheritance.

While Sobieski's brother is quickly won over by a purchase of a Nintendo 64 (this WAS shot a couple of years ago), Leelee snoops around and realizes Skarsgard is reeling from shady business dealings, and begins to suspect that her parents' death may not be an accident after all.

Though nicely shot and capably scored by Christopher Young, THE GLASS HOUSE offers no surprises and is rather slackly handled, even as teen thrillers go. Director Daniel Sackheim handles the movie in a formulaic fashion with leisurely pacing, recalling many of the "Fatal Attraction" rip-offs of the early '90s but without any of the trashy moments that made tasty turkeys like "The Crush" so much fun.

While the performances will keep you watching for a while (Chris Noth puts in a cameo as Leelee's good uncle from Chicago), it runs out of steam as it nears the climax, with a by-the-numbers finish completely negating what little suspense came before.

Columbia's DVD offers great-looking 2.35 and full-frame transfers, an active 5.1 soundtrack, commentary from the filmmakers, one deleted scene, interviews, the trailer, and production notes.

WHEN STRANGERS APPEAR (* 1/2, 2001, 102 mins., $26.98, Columbia TriStar, R): Writer-director Scott Reynolds has managed to gain a cult following on the indie circuit, something that you'll likely be baffled by after watching this "Pulp Fiction"-esque thriller that fires an increasing amount of blanks as its pre-ordained violent finish approaches.

Radha Mitchell stars as a small-town diner owner whose life takes a few turns towards the bizarre when stranger Barry Watson (on a hiatus from hit WB family show and personal guilty pleasure "Seventh Heaven") appears, nursing a wound and warning of three psychotic surfers on his trail. Is Watson telling the truth, or are his wounds self-inflicted? Can you be sure that Kevin Anderson's brief flirtation with fame are finished when he appears in a direct-to-video thriller like this?

Although sporting a workable visual scheme (shot in 2.35 widescreen) and game performances, director Reynolds' plot feels forced right from the get-go, with the requisite shocks and pseudo-hip dialogue feeling awfully familiar.

The 2.35 and full-frame transfers from Columbia are both excellent while the 5.1 soundtrack is effective as well. The original trailer and filmographies are it on the supplemental side.

VANDREAD (2000, 100 mins., $24.98, Pioneer, PG-13): Craziness reigns in this strange anime effort (but is there any other kind?) that finds the male inhabitants of planet Tarak fighting the villainous women of the planet Mejale for control of the galaxy, only to have to join forces to combat a despicable villain that threatens their entire existence.

Pioneer has been releasing a steady stream of Japanese animation over the last few months on DVD (recent titles have included the colorful 12-episode anthology "Adventures of Mini-Goddess," the family-friendly "Sherlock Hound," and the dark, gritty effort "The Soultaker"), and VANDREAD is a decent compromise between the completely goofy insanity of the most outlandish anime I've seen, and an action-outerspace adventure of the "Star Blazers" variety (believe me, it's no "Star Blazers," but it's one of the few comparisons I can draw given my limited knowledge of this genre).

I'm not the world's biggest anime expert, so perhaps someone out there can give me a better read as to how VANDREAD actually is -- but as far as Pioneer's DVD goes, the presentation is excellent: the letterboxed transfer is decent, the bilingual English dubbed and original Japanese language tracks are present, and bonus extras include a promo video and design gallery. Four episodes are included on the disc, which is likely going to be a worth a look -- as all the Pioneer efforts are -- for anime fans.

NEXT WEEK: Is "Rat Race" worth a look? New Disney releases, several '70s faves, plus any of your questions which can be emailed to Excelsior!

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