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Revisiting THE WRATH OF KHAN

A Review of the Special Edition DVD

Plus: SPEED Deluxe Edition, RESIDENT EVIL, and The Mail Bag!

An Aisle Seat Entry
By Andy Dursin

Can you believe it was 20 years ago this summer that STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN was released?

Undoubtedly the reason why Star Trek is still alive and kicking in the 21st century, THE WRATH OF KHAN traded in the evocative visuals and stilted story of "The Motion Picture" for a more exciting, action-packed, and far more human tale that -- as director Nicholas Meyer explains in his new DVD commentary -- touches upon old age, death, heroism, tragedy and triumph.

The movie needs no introduction for most viewers, except to say that it was the film that really got the cinematic series going, providing a strong, character-oriented story with terrific special effects, a sweeping score by James Horner (that placed him on the map), a swift pace, and a phenomenal performance by Ricardo Montalban that remains a highlight of the sci-fi/fantasy genre, even two decades following its release.

No matter how many times I see STAR TREK II (****, 116 mins., 1982, PG; Paramount, available August 6), I always get a huge charge out of Montalban's performance as Khan, the vengeance-seeking bad guy who was banished by Captain Kirk back in an episode of the old TV series, "Space Seed." Unlike so many cardboard movie villains, Montalban brings this deranged and yet oddly sympathetic villain totally, completely to life, providing Kirk and the Star Trek universe itself with their most formidable nemesis (I still don't believe that the Borg matches him, if only because there's nothing more chilling than a villain every bit as human as his heroic counterpart). The scenes in which he spars with Kirk are charged with so much emotion that I often find myself re-running them because they're so marvelously executed in terms of writing, direction, and -- of course -- performance.

The most amazing thing about the movie -- which I watched again over the weekend in Paramount's new Special Edition DVD -- is that Khan and Kirk never meet on-screen. Credited screenwriter Jack B. Sowards had written a confrontation between the two prior to one of the story's magnificent space battles, but it was dropped over budgetary concerns. A shame, because while KHAN works splendidly as is, it would have been fascinating to see Montalban and Bill Shatner go at it man-to-man!

When Paramount released their first, movie-only DVD of "The Wrath of Khan" two years ago, I wrote at that time that "I'm sure someday we will see Special Editions of [all] the original TREK movies."

That time has (happily) come to pass, following last year's terrific package of "The Motion Picture" and "The Search For Spock" now tentatively set for October. THE WRATH OF KHAN's two-disc edition isn't as comprehensive a package as the one produced for "The Motion Picture," but it's still more than satisfactory.

First, Meyer has included his 116-minute "Director's Edition" of the film, which is basically identical to the one ABC broadcast in their initial TV showings back in the '80s. It restores the Peter Preston bits and various lines of dialogue here and there (most notably an added exchange between McCoy and Spock over the Genesis Project), along with one alternate take (when Carol Marcus debates with her staff prior to the Reliant's arrival). The additions are all good ones, though I've never felt that the tone of the film was radically changed one way or another by their restoration.

For Special Features, the supplements on WRATH OF KHAN are interesting but, if you're a fan of the film, are admittedly going to come across as somewhat disappointing. There are few revelations here that most fans likely didn't know already, and the lack of additional deleted scenes is regrettable.

First, on the positive side, there's a terrific commentary track from Nick Meyer that features all kinds of trivia and information that Trekkies are going to love. Certainly he covers the production of the film in far greater detail than the 30-minute documentary, which offers interviews with Meyer, Harve Bennett, Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and Montalban, but is often tedious and dry, marred by close-ups of the participants staring directly into the camera. After a few minutes, viewers may find themselves looking away from the screen while Bennett's eyes are permanently transfixed on them!

Meyer's commentary is fascinating when he talks about working with Bill Shatner (who he says delivered better takes the more he did them) and Montalban ("less is more"), as well as coping with the film's modest budget. He rarely ruffles any feathers, never talking about Jack B. Soward's sole credit on the script, or talking at length about his complaints over the ending that was changed without his consent, but aside from moments of self- congratulation, Meyer's talk is candid and quite interesting.

The documentary program, though, is surprisingly superficial, covering many stories we've heard before but in greater detail elsewhere (such as the ending, which Shatner provided a far better account of in his "Star Trek Movie Memories" tome). There's no discussion of the casting of Kirstie Alley or Merritt Butrick (or anyone else, for that matter), no talk about other deleted scenes, of which there are many. It's still an acceptable presentation for viewers new to THE WRATH OF KHAN, but certainly isn't as comprehensive or detailed as I would have liked it to be.

Separate featurettes examine the production design and ILM's work on the film. This fascinating latter segment includes interviews with the ILM staffers who wisely decided to have the FX on the film fall somewhere between the evocative visual design of THE MOTION PICTURE and the simpler effects of the original series.

An even longer featurette profiles a pair of authors who recently wrote Khan-inspired books, which is OK for real die-hards (if not blatantly self-promotional), but why not use this space to include other deleted scenes -- such as Kirk and Spock's exchange about Saavik's half-Romulan nature, the would-be romance between Saavik and David (which I assume had to have been partially shot), and other alternate takes from the TV version. They exist, so why not include these sequences for fans, which surely would have been the most revealing segment of the DVD itself?

Other extras include storyboards, the same trailer that was on the original DVD, and a terrific text (caption) commentary by Michael Okuda that's superior to his earlier effort on the TMP Special Edition package (which moved so quickly it was hard to keep up with). For viewers unaware of the changes to this edition, Okuda does an excellent job noting the alternations, as well as which FX shots originated from TMP stock footage or new work by ILM. Rounding out the disc are some ten minutes of promotional interviews with Shatner, Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, and Montalban shot in 1982, shortly before the film's release.

Visually, I compared the new disc to the original DVD release and was hard-pressed to discern major differences between the two. If anything, the new 2.35 transfer is a mite less grainy and more consistent in terms of colors, but I thought the original release was perfectly acceptable and found this transfer pretty much identical to it. The 5.1 soundtrack seems to be exactly the same as the older DVD release; it could have used a full-fledged digital remix, but it's certainly passable considering the age of the picture.

Overall, this is a solid DVD edition that will leave some fans wanting more -- something that another release down the road some day will hopefully rectify (a hopeful prognostication, yet again!).


New and Noteworthy

RESIDENT EVIL (**, 101 mins., 2002, R; Columbia): A scantily clad Milla Jovovich and zombies running amok proves to be a decent cinematic combination in this so-so adaptation of the Capcom videogame series, which garnered nearly $40 million in domestic box-office and earned its director an apparent crack at the long-in-development "Aliens Vs. Predator" flick in the process.

An evil corporation working on a top-secret and deadly virus sends a team of military types -- including amnesiac agent Milla Jovovich -- to clean up the mess after the plague breaks out of containment, turning an entire building into foul, blood-sucking zombies.

Paul Anderson (of "Soldier" and "Mortal Kombat" infamy, not the "Magnolia" guy) directed this U.S.-German co-production, which boasts generic characters and situations, along with a cliché-ridden script. If you've seen "Night of the Living Dead," "Aliens" or Anderson's "Event Horizon," you have some idea how nearly every scene in this predictable horror flick plays out.

Still, despite the thinness of the material and a mind-numbing, overbearing rock score by Marco Beltrami and Marilyn Manson (which was so loud in theaters I had my hands over my ears for nearly the entire duration of the film), RESIDENT EVIL works on a mindless, trashy level. Jovovich packing heat and shooting the heads off zombie workers, zombie dogs, and a -- well -- whatever the heck that monstrosity is at the end, is all kind of entertaining, particularly on DVD where you can lower the volume at your leisure.

Columbia's DVD is advertised as a Special Edition, featuring commentary tracks from Anderson and the cast (including Jovovich), a handful of featurettes, trailers, and a music video, but apparently there's a double-disc edition due out sometime in the near future that will boast deleted scenes, an alternate ending, and plenty more supplements than are contained here.

With that in mind, Columbia's DVD comes recommended for die-hard fans, with the 1.85 transfer looking good and the 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack dominated by bass. Casual viewers may want to give this one a rental spin and hold off for the more elaborate edition down the road.


SPEED: DELUXE EDITION (***, 115 mins., 1994, R; Fox)
SPEED 2: CRUISE CONTROL (**, 125 mins., 1997, PG-13; Fox)

One of the top action films of the '90s has been given lavish Special Edition treatment by Fox in a new 2-DVD release.

Back in 1994, few ever expected a film from a former cinematographer and a star whose greatest accomplishment was "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure" to achieve blockbuster status, but SPEED did just that. Graham Yost's script took a simple scenario - what happens when a bomb is equipped to go off on a bus if its speed goes under 50 MPH -- and gave it a workout in a movie that managed to push all the right buttons, from Reeves' competent performance and Dennis Hopper's batty villain to Sandra Bullock's star-making turn as a passenger who reluctantly takes over the reigns driving the vehicle. This "adrenaline rush" pushed its two leads into superstardom and made director Jan DeBont an "A list" auteur, at least for a while, remaining a favorite of action fans who are going to love this new release.

Fox's original DVD was one of several released very early on in the format's history. Like the "Die Hard" series, the studio has gone back, performed a THX remastering of the 2.35 frame and 5.1 soundtrack, and come up with a superb new disc. This is a flawless looking transfer that bests the old DVD in every conceivable way, while the 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital soundtracks likewise show a little more oomph in the process.

For supplements, you've got 'em. Separate commentary tracks include director Jan DeBont, and writer Yost and producer Mark Gordon. These are surprisingly candid and appreciably more informative than your typical DVD talk-a-thon, which fans will undoubtedly find compelling.

Disc Two boasts a bounty full of supplements: five extended scenes, a new "On Location" featurette, separate featurettes on the stunts, visual effects, the "Metrorail crash," and four interactive multi-angle stunt comparisons. There are also multi-angle storyboard-to-film comparisons, promotional interviews done with the stars at the time, the original HBO Special, trailers, TV spots, still galleries, and even the full-length script.

The new edition of "Speed" has also resulted in Fox's remastered release of the lamentable 1997 sequel SPEED 2: CRUISE CONTROL.

Not the worst movie in Hollywood history but a textbook example of why certain sequels don't need to be made, SPEED 2 finds Bullock reprising her original role and Jason Patric providing a stiff fill-in for Keanu, who understandably (and wisely) ducked out of this needless follow-up.

Set this time aboard a cruise ship destined for disaster (couldn't they think of an object that moved faster than The Love Boat?), SPEED 2 is water-logged and pedestrian pretty much all the way. DeBont opted to forgo "Godzilla" for this tired, misguided effort, which coasts along much of the time solely on Bullock's charisma, though she pretty much confirmed the fact that she's no action superstar based on her performance here.

However, just when you think the ship is permanently adrift, SPEED 2 gets bailed out by Willem Dafoe's laughably over-the-top bad guy (the scene with the leeches is a semi-classic) and the slam-bang special effects finale, which glosses over the obvious loss of life on land for a huge disaster spectacle climax. SPEED 2 likely should never have left port, but at least it's an engaging, colorful mess just the same.

Fox's DVD likewise corrects the mediocre old DVD release with an all-new 16:9, THX 2.35 transfer. The DTS and Dolby Digital soundtracks are also superb, while a handful of trailers and the original HBO Making Of special compliment a superior presentation recommended mostly for Bullock fans and Dafoe die-hards.


SHALLOW HAL (**1/2, 113 mins., 2001, PG-13; Fox): The Farrelly Brothers' recent producing efforts didn't exactly light up the box-office (what, you don't remember "Say It Isn't So" and "Osmosis Jones"?), but SHALLOW HAL is an agreeable enough concoction following the wake of those two disasters.

Jack Black, who was hilarious in the recent "Orange County," fares fairly well as a straightforward leading man whose run-in with self-help guru Tony Robbins results in the swingin' single guy seeing only the interior beauty of the women he meets. This causes some difficulty when he falls for a 300-pound bachlorette, played by Gwyneth Paltrow in both a fat suit and as the dreamy physical object of Black's desire.

The laughs in the Farrelly Bros.-Sean Moynihan script are fairly obvious, but the movie is good-natured enough that much of it works sufficiently, and the PG-13 rating thankfully dials down the bathroom humor of the Farrellys' last couple of cinematic miscues. On the downside, the movie is -- like much of the filmmakers' previous work -- quite overlong and the dramatic situations stilted and superficial. It's a mixed bag, but at least it's better than "Me, Myself and Irene."

Fox's DVD includes a good 1.85 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, along with a plethora of special features: audio commentary from the Farrellys, 11 deleted scenes with optional commentary, HBO and Comedy Central specials, music videos, featurettes on the make-up and effects, and the original trailer.


KUNG POW: ENTER THE FIST (*, 81 mins., 2002, PG-13; Fox): I'm not sure whoever thought this digital exercise in spoofery was funny, but whoever they are must have a different standard of comedy than the rest of us.

Writer-producer-director-star Steve Oedekerk's made-for-video "Thumb" parodies apparently have gained him some kind of cult following, but a little of his act goes a long, long way in KUNG POW: ENTER THE FIST, a misbegotten parody that's part "What's Up Tiger Lilly?" and part "Zelig" only in description -- definitely NOT execution.

Oedekerk took a '70s Hong Kong kung fu movie ("Tiger and Crane Fists") and decided to re-dub the entire movie, along with inserting himself in it as the star. The result is a lumbering, seemingly endless 80-minute disaster that's amusing for all of about 30 seconds. Don't we already know that kung fu movies are silly? Hasn't Oedekerk seen "A Fistful of Yen" from KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE? Obvious cliches are skewered, but they've already been spoofed to greater effect in countless other films over the years - - to say nothing of Jackie Chan's own tongue-in-cheek efforts.

Fox's DVD includes 2.35 and Dolby Digital soundtracks, and a vast array of special features: 20 alternate or deleted scenes (!); visual effects comparisons, trailers and promo spots, the original Hong Kong soundtrack and its dubbed English version, Oedekerk's commentary and an equally funny "Books on Tape" version. KUNG POW may be amusing for undemanding seven year olds but should be avoided at all costs by everyone else.


Elvis Lives!

The year is 1968. The tag line says "The King Of Rock" meets "The Queen of Comedy." If it was 2002, who the heck knows which individuals that would pertain to. Back then, however, it meant Elvis Presley and Mary Tyler Moore, who joined forces for the unholy pairing that was CHANGE OF HABIT (**, 1968, 90 mins.; Universal).

This dated, "mod" musical-comedy stars Moore as a social worker who leads an outreach program in the inner city, but harbors a deep, dark secret (she's a nun, dammit!); Elvis unconvincingly plays a local M.D. who falls for Moore but finds his usual easy- going charm curtailed by Moore's somewhat unsteady devotion for the Lord. So what's the King to do? Just grab his guitar and croon the non-hits "Rubberneckin'," "Have A Happy," "Let Us Pray" and "Change of Habit," of course!

This later Elvis effort was an obvious attempt at moving away from the completely frivolous Presley film formula and into a light-hearted but more "socially conscious" story. Despite the noble intentions, CHANGE OF HABIT is just as silly as the more unabashedly stupid Elvis musicals, but not quite as much fun. True, there are laughs to be found (many of the unintentional variety) in the non-chemistry established between the two stars, as well as the groan-inducing ambiguous finale -- making CHANGE OF HABIT worth a view for aficionados of camp or devotees of the King.

Universal's DVD contains a colorful 1.85 transfer and decent 2.0 mono soundtrack. The original trailer (highly amusing in the way that only late '60s trailers can be) is included along with production notes and bios.

The studio has also released a lengthy new documentary feature, ELVIS: HIS BEST FRIEND REMEMBERS (2002, 130 mins, Unrated; Universal), which features recollections by Elvis friend and confidant "Diamond" Joe Esposito. Lots and lots of newsreel footage, clips, interviews and photos compliment a fascinating journey into the Elvis phenomenon from an individual who knew him personally, and Terry Moloney's production does a superb job analyzing the man as much as it does the myth.

The two-hour plus program, presented in full-frame with a modest 2.0 stereo track, also includes separate featurettes as Special Features. Definitely worth a rental, if not a purchase, for Elvis fans.


TV Kideo

K-9: P.I. (2002, 95 mins., PG-13; Universal): The parade of made-for-video sequels continues with this above-average follow-up to the original 1989 canine comedy starring Jim Belushi. Unlike a lot of small-screen sequels, this moderately engaging entry brings the original star back: Belushi's Tom Dooley is once again paired with that crazy canine Jerry Lee. This time, though, a botched robbery attempt -- just days from Dooley's latest attempt at retirement -- result in the cop losing his badge and having to clear his name with the help of his canine pal. K-9 P.I. certainly isn't anything out of the ordinary, but it's better done than most made-for-TV sequels, with Belushi giving an amiable performance and the action scenes handled adequately by director Richard J. Lewis. As with the original film, however, there's some sexually-oriented, PG-13 humor that may make parents wince at showing the film to kids, though for young teens the picture is certainly acceptable. Universal's DVD offers a strong 1.85 soundtrack and both 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital soundtracks, along with a brief Making Of featurette.


BUTT-UGLY MARTIANS (2002, 66, 70, and 70 mins., Unrated): Nickelodeon scored a major hit with the enjoyable "Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius" feature (now a weekly TV series) last winter, and has tapped again into the kid sci-fi genre for this appealing juvenile production focusing on a trio of wacky Martians who decide Earth isn't so bad after all. With their canine robotic Dog (a definite Jimmy Neutron influence), the three aliens try to stop their former boss, Emperor Bog, from invading the planet, while hanging out with their human pals and producing music videos. Hey, this IS a Nickelodeon series we're talking about -- you know, for kids! Universal has released three volumes of episodes (three episodes on each), with colorful full-frame transfers and Dolby Surround soundtracks, plus DVD-ROM game demos for kids, who ought to get a charge out of this animated effort.


Mail Bag

From Robert Knaus:

I'm soooooo glad to finally meet someone who appreciates Top Secret! at the grossly underrated gem that it is. You've GOT to like a movie that stages a barroom brawl *underwater*, or plays an entire sequence in reverse, with the backwards dialogue presented with "English" subtitles! And the songs are a blast, too ("Skeet Surfin'" is a classic), not to mention Maurice Jarre's fun score (where's the CD?). "Hey, you dropped your phony dog poo!"

How 'bout a Varese CD Club release of both the songs and the score. Bob Townson, are you listening??

From Greg Bryant:
[Re: viewers not being all that interested in DVD commentaries]. I have to agree. I have little interest in hearing Joe Director or Fred Actor talk about their triumph in bringing Sequel Number Four to the screen. How boring.

On the other hand, hearing Francis Ford Coppola talk about The Conversation, or Godfather I / II; Speilberg talk about Jaws or (if it were only available), Welles talking about Citizen Kane really is a worthwhile use of the commentary.

Even hearing Chuck Heston talk about Ben-Hur is probably not a bad thing, though would think hearing William Wyler talk about it would be far more interesting and enlightening.

From Jean-Michel Cavrois:
Hi Andy,
Before starting, I want to compliment you on the piece you wrote for FSM about the LEGEND DVD. It's quite honest and complete, and it very well explains why the wait has been so long ! But with the mutilated european version still existing on a Region 2 DVD, I'm starting to think that this jewel will never exist here. Of course, I "illegaly" purchased the Region 1 DVD (Eh, don't tell anyone!), and, although I was quite able to understand Ridley's great commentary, I curiously found his mumbling difficult on the documentary : did he come back from his dentist or what?

You will find it curious, but for me, the greater loss of this edition is David Bennent's original track, with his german accent. It would have been a great homage to the Germanic tradition of tales which LEGEND reevokes with brilliance, even if Jerry Goldsmith does a great job in doing that!
 
I have a few comments to make about Jeunet's AMELIE. DELICATESSEN and THE CITY OF LOST CHILDREN were co-directed with Marc Caro, who is the real "dark side" of these movies. Jeunet's inspiration comes from the French tradition of the réalisme poétique, represented by the talents of Marcel Carné, Jacques Prévert, Julien Duvivier... It's an optimistic stylisation and idealisation of the world according to the main characters' thoughts, personality and emotion. Caro has a darker, post-apocalyptic inspiration, and, as Jeunet explained in multiple interviews, Caro couldn't work with him on AMELIE because their conceptions of the cinema couldn't get together in order to tell that story. And so, with AMELIE, Jeunet really emerges as an auteur (On ALIEN RESURRECTION, although he infused a creepy sexual dimension to the beast, he was just a director for hire), and most French critics didn't understand the unrealistic parti- pris of Jeunet, someone even called him a "fascist" because of the nostalgic aspects of the movie ("Things were better before!") and its tendency to avoid the reality of the French social background. It's not understand that AMELIE is pure cinema, and that the world it presents exists only through the characters who live in it. When I saw it for the first time, in an overcrowded theatre (and with lots, lots of children!), you could hear and feel the pure joy it created on all the audience without cheesy sentimentalism and easy tricks, but with invention and honesty. By the way, the travelling dwarf episode is my favorite highlight!
 
But last week, I was in Montmartre, and the place was overcrowded by fans searching for Amélie. Couldn't even drink my beer in peace. Damn you, Jeunet!

Jean-Michel, sorry about the suds, and thanks for the LEGEND article comments (if anyone is still looking for it online, it's in the magazine -- so go buy it, dammit!). As far as David Bennett goes, Scott says that he tried to find his original audio track and restore his voice -- and that the decision to reloop the character was a poor one. Alas, they couldn't find it, which is one of the few disappointments associated with the Director's Cut DVD we have here in America.

Speaking of that, I still can't believe the amount of viewers online who prefer the bastardized American cut to the Restored Director's Edition with Goldsmith's score. All it goes to show is that the pandering to the MTV market apparently was a wise one -- to some degree -- on the part of Universal at the time, unfortunately.

From David Coscina:

Dragonheart was one of the most deplorable films I've ever seen. My initial idea was to write an article comparing the music from that film to Dragonslayer- thank God Lukas suggested that I just focus on the latter because I would have been able to write volumes about Dragonheart's hideous premise and execution (a talking dragon????? pulease).
 
Reign of Fire wasn't a masterpiece but it was written with a solemn tone and attempted to focus on the characters. If anything, Bowman was a little too literal in depicting a post- apocalyptic England since most of the characters were devoid of emotion (which would result from such terrible living conditions and the constant threat of being incinerated). Had a little more time been taken to further develope the dragon's origin and had there been a little more flair in the direction, it would have been far more entertaining. But, all things considered, I enjoyed this film far more than Spielberg's safe and soulless Minority Report.

NEXT WEEK: Andy covers SIGNS, plus DINOTOPIA and more on DVD! Send all comments to dursina@att.net and we'll catch you then. Excelsior!

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