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Aisle Seat SKEET SURFIN' Edition

TOP SECRET, BETTER OFF DEAD, DRAGONFLY and more on DVD!

By Andy Dursin

Last week the Video Software Dealers Association released the results of a poll they conducted to find out which DVD special features were most popular with consumers.

The public responded by saying that Deleted Scenes were their most favorite supplement (64%), followed by behind-the-scenes documentaries (44%), interviews with the cast (35.4%), and interactive features (33.8%). Commentary tracks ranked fifth (33.6%), followed by trailers (26%) and storyboards (20.8%).

While VSDA reps were apparently surprised by the results, I wasn't. After all, deleted scenes often give viewers an alternate look at the film they've just watched. While many times you can understand why the scenes were cut, it's always fun to second guess the director or editor -- or studio executive -- who decided to trim the footage.

I also wasn't surprised that viewers seemed indifferent to commentary tracks. Most of the commentaries we routinely hear on DVD are from casts or directors talking BEFORE the film they're discussing is even released. Often times, this means their comments are tempered -- dry and often dull. They'll praise the efforts of their cast and crew, and rarely be critical of something that either went wrong during production or in the editing room. It's like they're still on the PR tour.

The best commentary tracks on laser and DVD have often been discussions recorded years AFTER a film's original release. With a period of time separating a director from his or her work, the filmmaker is generally far more candid and objective -- and the commentary much more interesting as a result.

There are always exceptions to the rule, of course, but by and large the truly enlightening commentary track is few and far between in comparison to the ones that we typically find on DVD.


New on DVD

The Z-A-Z crew of Jim Abrahams, David and Jerry Zucker arrived on the mainstream Hollywood scene thanks to the big success of "Airplane!" in 1980. Following the failed launch of TV's "Police Squad!", the trio took a few years off before returning with their next manic big-screen comedy: TOP SECRET! (****, 90 mins., 1984, PG; Paramount).

Val Kilmer, making his big-screen lead debut, plays American pop sensation Nick Rivers. At the top of the charts with hits like "Skeet Surfin'" and "Straighten the Rug," Nick is invited to East Germany, becoming a cultural ambassador in the process. Along the way, he gets caught up in spy Hilary Flammond's attempts to find her lost father, who has been recruited to create a top secret bomb that could be the difference between winning and losing the war (yes, this is 1984 we're talking about here).

This dual parody of Elvis films and WWII epics found few takers at the box-office, turning out to be a flop in the hotly contested summer of '84. I did see the movie twice at the time, and when I was a senior in high school, even made it the main attraction in my "Arts Week" workshop class under the auspices of a "B-Movie Festival" (hey, it beat balloon art and gravestone rubbing!).

TOP SECRET! is the kind of movie that you'll either find hysterically funny or sit there wondering what the point is. For me, though, this picture represents the comic talents of the Z-A-Z crew at their peak: the movie moves so quickly, throwing in references to pop music, '50s movies, and modern entertainment in equal measure, that there are times I can't stop laughing at it. It's more ridiculous and sillier than "Airplane!" (if that was possible), but in expanding the genre parodies to include even obscurer references and jokes (the "Blue Lagoon" take-off is an all-time classic), the Zuckers and Abrahams made a zesty comic concoction that I still believe is their best all-around work.

Kilmer is fine in the lead (if he seems stiff, it only accentuates the comedy), and because TOP SECRET! was shot entirely in England, it benefited from some great actors appearing in supporting parts, including Peter Cushing, Michael Gough, and Omar Sharif among others. Musically, the Elvis parody songs are perfect and Maurice Jarre's straight- faced original score hits all of the right notes.

Paramount's DVD offers a group commentary with the Z-A-Z boys, producers Jon Davison and Hunt Lowry, and moderator Fred Rubin, and it's filled with amusing anecdotes (including the hilarious tale of Sharif's would-be dinner with the filmmakers). There are times, though, when the filmmakers seem somewhat embarrassed by the finished product, noting its box-office failure and how unfunny stretches of it are. However, you have to take some of those comments with a grain of salt, since it's coming from individuals who have recently directed bombs like "Rat Race" and "Jane Austin's Mafia!", and might have perhaps lost touch with their comedic sensibilities altogether!

The 1.85 transfer is acceptable (it's not pristine but it's OK), while the 5.1 remixed sound is surprisingly robust. There are also four alternate versions of existing scenes that fans will want a look at, plus storyboards and the original trailer.

I've been waiting for this disc for a long while, so I'm happy to report TOP SECRET! has been well-treated on DVD and is an essential purchase for fans.


Another all-time cult classic has reached DVD: Savage Steve Holland's high school comedy BETTER OFF DEAD (***1/2, 97 mins., 1985, PG; Paramount), which I recall being released not once but twice locally in Rhode Island during the spring of 1985. The first time was a trial run before its eventual nationwide roll-out, which boasted a different ad campaign (this happened again for no apparent reason years later with "The Lawnmower Man," which opened three weeks ahead of time in the Ocean State than it did around the rest of the nation!).

John Cusack netted his first lead role here as Lane Meyer, a typical high schooler who loses the girl of his dreams to an obnoxious jock -- and spends the rest of his life trying to summon the will to go on. Naturally, he does, winning the affection of a beautiful French exchange student trapped with an insane family next door, and attempting to beat the pretty boy ski team captain at his own game.

The plot may sound familiar but Holland -- who wrote and directed the film -- throws in absurdist humor, stop-motion animation, and knowingly satirizes high school in one memorable scene after another. My favorite sequence comes when Cusack is called upon to answer a geometry question in Vincent Schiavelli's class, filled with suck-up geeks who laugh at the teacher's every move (it definitely wasn't hard for me to identify with the young protagonist in this scene -- it's something you've had to have lived through to understand!). Curtis Armstrong is hysterical as Cusack's wacky best friend, Diane Franklin is ideal as the cute French girl, while David Ogden Stiers is great as Cusack's befuddled dad -- the sequences with Cusack and Stiers reacting to mom Kim Darby's Christmas presents is yet another gem in a film filled with smart observations and big laughs.

Paramount's disc of BETTER OFF DEAD marks their inaugural DVD release from the CBS Films library. After a long association with Fox (remember the glory days of CBS/Fox Video?), the CBS brand name is back in the Paramount/Viacom fold, and while the 1.85 transfer on BETTER OFF DEAD is grainy and soft in places, it's still the best I've ever seen the movie look on video. The 2.0 Dolby Stereo sound is quite modest, but so was the original mix to begin with.

The disc has no supplements at all, but a lot of us will be satisfied with this DVD just the same. Still, it'd be great to see Special Editions of BETTER OFF DEAD, its semi-sequel ONE CRAZY SUMMER (another great teen comedy), and the otherwise forgettable third film in Holland's quasi-trilogy, HOW I GOT INTO COLLEGE, some day. In the meantime, at least BETTER OFF DEAD fans have a quality DVD copy of the movie to enjoy over and over again!


Going even further back in time -- and before the Z-A-Z team hit gold with "Airplane!" -- the disaster genre was skewered in the uneven though often amusing 1976 parody THE BIG BUS (**1/2, 88 mins., 1976, PG; Paramount).

Falling somewhere between one of Mel Brooks' more mediocre parodies (i.e. "History of the World Part I") and a Z-A-Z farce, THE BIG BUS chronicles the unsurprisingly wacky events that transpire during the inaugural launch of a nuclear-powered bus on a non-stop run from New York to Denver. Bus driver Joe Bologna, designer Stockard Channing, and a wacky cast of passengers (Ruth Gordon, Richard Mulligan, Sally Kellerman among them) attempt to stay on-course even as Jose Ferrer hatches a plan to blow it up and insane Lynn Redgrave tries to have intercourse with every passenger on it!

Numerous period references abound (from the Bicentennial to the Andes mountain plane crash cannibalism), but the biggest laughs come during an early barroom brawl, with Bologna and co-star John Beck using -- I kid you not -- half-broken milk cartons as weapons! It's a funny scene in a movie that offers sporadic laughs, though truth be told, the Z-A-Z films and Brooks handled this kind of material better elsewhere.

Still, THE BIG BUS is a pleasant ride and a fine DVD, with Paramount's 2.35 transfer capturing the entire Panavision frame. On the audio side, David Shire's score is terrific, and there's an effective 5.1 Dolby Digital remixed soundtrack to spotlight it (the original mono track is also included).


Finally, a seemingly forgotten film in Ron Howard's career has also surfaced in a widescreen Paramount DVD: the highly entertaining 1986 comedy GUNG HO (***, 112 mins., 1986, PG-13; Paramount). Michael Keaton stars a small-town guy who's able to convince a Japanese automobile company to re-open his struggling Midwestern town's plant. The company agrees to do so, though with a decidedly Oriental flavor that the American workers have a tough time adapting to.

The Lowell Ganz-Babaloo Mandel script mixes the usual culture clash and fish-out-of- water genres to effective, if predictable, effect. Making one of his three appearances in a Howard film, Keaton utilizes his laid back charm in the lead role, though GUNG HO is actually stolen by Gedde Watanabe and Sab Shimono as two of the imported Japanese firm's workers. John Turturro, George Wendt, and Ron's brother Clint comprise three of the disgruntled American workers, while Mimi Rogers and one of my favorite unsung '80s actresses, Michelle Johnson, appear in relatively thankless female roles.

Although a box-office success (later spawning a short-lived ABC series starring Scott Bakula and several original cast members), GUNG HO has never been treated particularly well on video. Despite being shot in Panavision, the movie was never released in its original aspect ratio on laserdisc, with Paramount's new DVD marking the first time that the film has been seen in its original scope dimensions since its theatrical release.

Curiously, though, the DVD transfer here is framed more like 2:1 than 2.35:1, and the print itself doesn't seem to be in the best shape, dominated by washed-out colors. The 5.1 surround track is fine, highlighting a handful of '80s tunes and an early score from Thomas Newman.

The disc is bereft of supplements, which will be a disappointment to fans who otherwise will be happy to have a fresh chance to see GUNG HO again on the small screen, at least in better -- though still imperfect -- shape than it's been before.


Recent and Upcoming

DRAGONFLY (**1/2, 105 mins., PG-13, 2002; Universal; Available July 30): Kevin Costner's streak of box-office under-achievers continued with this supernatural "Sixth Sense" wannabe from the director of "Patch Adams."

Now, as bad as that might sound, DRAGONFLY isn't a total misfire -- its biggest crime is generally being mediocre, though if you manage to sit through the film, your patience will be rewarded with a satisfying ending that thankfully isn't as predictable as you might have thought.

Costner plays a doctor whose Red Cross-volunteer wife dies in a tragic bus accident in Venezuela. Soon after, Costner begins to hear and see signs that maybe she's still floating around this plain of existence: her former child patients claim to have spoken to her in Costner's Chicago hospital; her pet parrot announces her return to the house, even though she's been dead for over a year; and Costner himself sees signs all over their house that she hasn't really left.

The Brandon Camp-Mike Thompson story was reworked by "Omen" scribe David Seltzer, but the ersatz scares have been placed at a minimum and Costner's grief over his spouse's death played up -- much to the film's benefit. Director Tom Shadyac certainly isn't a master storyteller or a visual stylist, with scenes of Costner creeping around his house being almost as scary as a "Banana Splits" rerun on Cartoon Network, but DRAGONFLY ultimately works because of its final third, which veers off in a direction that at least differentiates itself from the "Sixth Sense," "Ghost," and other supernatural efforts its first half is clearly influenced by.

Kathy Bates, Linda Hunt, and Joe Morton lend able support to Costner, with John Debney's above-average score making DRAGONFLY into what should be a serviceable view for genre fans.

Universal's DVD contains a razor-sharp 2.35 transfer and highly active DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks. Special features include eight minutes of deleted scenes (many of which consist of Costner seeing the ghost of his late wife) culled from a workprint, commentary with director Shadyac, a Making Of featurette, cast and filmmaker bios, the trailer, and author Betty Eadie relating her own near-death experience. It's a nice collection of extras for a watchable film superior to most of Costner's recent big-screen output (which doesn't necessarily say much, of course).


AMELIE (***1/2, 122 mins., 2001, R; Miramax): French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jeunet abandoned his nightmarish visions from "The City of Lost Children" and "Alien: Resurrection" for a kinder, gentler fantasy that smashed box-office records in its home country and garnered critical acclaim around the world.

The delightful Audrey Tautou plays Amelie, a shy Parisian waitress who stumbles upon a toy box left by a young boy living in her apartment some forty years before. Amelie subsequently decides to play guardian angel for a day: she tracks down the now- grown boy and sees if the box itself still holds any significance to him. If it does, she'll remain a doo-gooder, a crusader for good (Jeunet even has Amelie play Zorro for a brief second or two) and justice in a dream-like Paris where anything is possible.

Jeunet's fantastical visions are back -- photos and lampshades that momentarily come to life and offer their own commentary on the action -- but this time he's substituted the dark (literally and figuratively) edge of his previous work for a more upbeat but no less eclectic filmmaking approach. From its opening, offbeat scenes of young Amelie growing up to the satisfying conclusion, AMELIE is a light and airy -- and visually beautiful -- film that boasts one alternately hilarious or heartwarming scene after another. Tautou's charming performance sustains the tone for the Jeunet-Guillaume Laurant script to operate on, with excellent performances turned in by a terrific cast.

Viscerally, AMELIE offers a evocative visual design courtesy of Jeunet, production designer Jean-Marc Deschamps, Aline Bonetto's sets, and director of photography Bruno Delbonnel. Similar to what the Coen Brothers did on "O Brother, Where Art Thou," Jeunet and Delbonnel used computer color-correction to give the movie green hues and strong primary colors in post-production. The look and feel of the film resemble a modern fairy tale come to life, and for that alone AMELIE is highly recommended.

If there's any quibble I have with the film, it's that the second half tends to drag a bit, losing some of the momentum established during the opening hour. Still, AMELIE is one of those rare foreign films that captivates international (and American) audiences every few years, with a unique atmosphere and story to enthrall young and old alike. (Speaking of that, the film's completely unnecessary R rating -- for a comical, 10-second montage of couples having sex -- shows everything that's wrong with the ratings system in the United States).

Already released around the world in various, deluxe edition DVD packages, AMELIE has received similar treatment in the U.S. Miramax's release is a two-disc special edition package containing audio commentary (in both English and French) by Jeunet, a handful of featurettes spotlighting everything from cast auditions to how the picture's look was achieved, two lengthy interviews with the director, a Q&A session with the cast, storyboards, production stills, trailers and TV spots for both domestic and international releases, and more. The 2.35 transfer (with English subtitles below the letterboxed portion of the transfer) is impeccable and the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound also noteworthy, sporting an involved sound design, complimented by Yann Tiersen's flavorful score.
 


MEAN MACHINE (**1/2, 99 mins., 2002, R; Paramount): British remake of "The Longest Yard" is a formulaic but amusing comedy, starring Vinnie Jones as a former football (soccer to us Americans) star who ends up in the slammer after being involved in a betting scandal.

And, just like the '70s Burt Reynolds football (American style) classic, Jones is placed in charge of a team of inmates -- cutthroats, murderers, con artists, and thieves -- out to take on the prison guards in a nice little game of soccer, orchestrated by conniving warden David Hemmings.

"Snatch" director Guy Ritchie produced this easy-going, amiable comedy that follows the original film fairly faithfully, adding its own British flavor and humor along the way. Its main problem is that the Charlie Fletcher-Chris Baker-Andrew Bay script offers few surprises and a lot of stock characters, though Jones nicely underplays the lead role and the climactic soccer game works even if you know the pre-determined result. Director Barry Skolnick does his best but seems to have been confined by a modest budget, as MEAN MACHINE often resembles a TV movie in its look and execution.

Paramount's DVD of this comedy -- which received scant distribution in the U.S. -- contains a colorful 1.85 transfer and two soundtracks: the original UK mix in 5.1, along with a slightly modified American 5.1 track, featuring re-looped dialogue in a few scenes for those unaccustomed to the heavy English accents.


CROSSROADS (*, 93 mins., 2002, PG-13; Paramount): After Mariah Carey's box-office career crashed with a thud thanks to last year's infamous "Glitter," I expected pop princess Britney Spears to fare just a bit better with the teen road adventure CROSSROADS.

Imagine my surprise when this overwrought melodrama turned out to be more competent but actually less fun than the Mariah bomb (at least "Glitter" had a gaggle of unintended laughs). "Crossroads" pretty much flatlines after an insipid opening and plays itself out over the next 90 minutes with a minimum of energy and a maximum of bathos.

The Britster unconvincingly plays a geeky, graduating high school valedictorian who decides to pack up her stuff and hit the road with two former childhood friends: pregnant Taryn Manning, who wants to travel to L.A. to compete in a music contest, and stuffy Zoe Saldana, who'd like to see her dead-beat fiancee on the west coast. Tagging along for the trip is Anson Mount, the generic tough-guy-with-a-heart-of-gold, who harbors a dark secret and some hidden affection for Britney, who herself is on the run from a domineering father (Dan Aykroyd, clearly off his "Blues Brothers 2000" slimfast diet) and on the hunt for the mother she never knew.

Spears' performance is appropriately perky but too often she seems to be self- consciously "acting!" (as Jon Lovitz used to say on Saturday Night Live). Director Tamra Davis gets the movie over and done with by the 90 minute mark, but the improbable nature of the Shonda Rhimes script -- populated by unappealing characters and entirely cliched dramatic situations -- only increases as the film progresses, culminating in a groaner of an ending with Britney performing her non-classic "I'm Not A Girl*Not Yet A Woman" before the credits roll. Ugh! Even as silly teen movies go, CROSSROADS is a downer, nowhere near as entertaining or savvy as other efforts from the MTV Films stable (the terrific "Orange County" in particular), recommended only for obsessive Britney fans.

Paramount does deserve kudos for releasing a solid Collector's Edition DVD clearly accentuating the Britney-friendly Special Features. There are music videos (including an interactive editing workshop), Sing-Along "karaoke"-like tracks, behind- the-scenes featurettes (the best of which shows Saldana at the movie's premiere), TV spots, trailers, deleted scenes, plus audio commentary with the director and writer. There's even a "Pop Up Video" like feature where Britney suddenly appears on your screen, relaying a very brief anecdote about working on the film. I actually watched the film with this feature turned on (after all, you won't be missing much not listening to the movie's dialogue), but she talks for all of five minutes total during the entire picture. The 1.85 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound are both superb.


Vintage DVD: Groovy Spies!

With the third Austin Powers movie just days away, Fox has released four '60s spy flicks on DVD to coincide with the event. After all, the Mike Myers films have been as influenced by the groovy look and mood of '60s spoofs as much as the James Bond series itself.

Naturally, some of these particular films have held up better than others, though for $15 retail, these widescreen DVDs (all with 16:9 enhancement) are perfectly attractive releases for movie buffs.

The best of the batch are, unsurprisingly, OUR MAN FLINT and IN LIKE FLINT -- the two James Coburn comedic adventures which were quite popular in their day and remain entertaining due to their tongue-in-cheek scripts, colorful Cinemascope photography, and infectious Jerry Goldsmith scores.

OUR MAN FLINT (***) launched the two-film series in 1965, the same year that the James Bond phenomenon launched into the stratosphere after the release of the mega- budget, lavish "Thunderball." Clearly an attempt at creating an American James Bond -- but with the accent on spoof -- FLINT flew thanks to Coburn's casual, suave performance in the lead, and abundant female eye candy served up by villainess Gila Golan in this outing and a bevy of beautiful women in numerous scenes. Lee J. Cobb is the perfect Flint foil as his disgruntled boss, while Goldsmith's tuneful brassy soundtrack backed up the shenanigans perfectly.


Flint returned for another successful go-around in 1967's IN LIKE FLINT (***), which is more unabashedly silly than its predecessor and arguably -- at least for me -- more entertaining. Here, Flint has to infiltrate a group of evil (and, of course, beautiful) women who have kidnapped the President and brainwashed unsuspecting young females by using salon hairdryers! The picture is naturally ludicrous and makes even less of an attempt at being halfway "serious" than the original, and yet it's just as colorful and Coburn has a ball once again. As for Jerry Goldsmith's score, what more can I say than it's my all-time favorite swinging '60s spy score, complete with the immortal classic song "Your Zowie Face," sporting Leslie Bricusse lyrics. It's the kind of tune that you won't mind staying in your head for days (and believe me, it will!).

Both FLINT films have strong, colorful 2.35 transfers (enhanced for 16:9) with decent mono soundtracks. Both prints are in very good condition, which naturally enhances the visual fun at every turn. Extras are limited to theatrical trailers, but for $15 (and less in some online venues), they're a steal.


In comparison to the Flint films, the other two Fox '60s entries come off as more dated and nowhere near as much fun.

Raquel Welch gazers are urged to check out the 1967 sky-diving spy comedy FATHOM (**), but aside from a Maurice Binder title sequence, there's little else of note in this tedious programmer. Welch plays an ex-dental hygienist-turned-skydiver (yes!) whose newest mission sends her to Spain where Tony Franciosa is suspected of carrying a hijacked bomb. There are some laughs here -- like there are in virtually any script (unintended or not) by Lorenzo Semple, Jr. -- but the direction by another vet of TV's "Batman," Leslie H. Martinson, is awfully sluggish, eliciting more yawns than yucks. If it wasn't for Welch's shapely figure, FATHOM would be a real chore to sit through. Fox's DVD offers an okay 2.35 transfer -- the print isn't in the same shape as the "Flint" films, looking a little washed out at times, but it's certainly acceptable.


Speaking of chores to sit through, the rarely-discussed 1966 release MODESTY BLAISE (**) plays out like a spoof without any jokes. Overlong (at 119 minutes) and under- written, this British would-be parody stars Monica Vitti as the title anti-heroine: a jewel thief recruited by the government to stop a diamond heist. Terence Stamp plays her faithful sidekick, and there are supporting appearances turned in by numerous English character actors (Harry Andrews, Dirk Bogarde), but there's a reason why MODESTY BLAISE has never really been regarded as even a minor cult classic: it's deadly dull and rarely funny. Director Joseph Losey seems to have completely missed the comedic potential of the material, resulting in a lumbering mess that quickly wears out its welcome. In fact, John Dankforth's score is about the only decent thing in the entire film (he also scored FATHOM). The DVD transfer is a hair short of 1.85 and the print isn't as clean as the other Fox titles, but for a movie that hardly ever plays on TV, it's acceptable. (There are also no trailers on this disc, though the "Modesty Blaise" ad can be seen on the other Fox titles)


NEXT WEEK: SPEED Special Edition, RESIDENT EVIL, along with Elvis in CHANGE OF HABIT! (Yes, I kid you not). Send all emails to dursina@att.net Have a great week and we'll see you in seven!


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