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The Aisle Seat Goes Back to THE FINAL FRONTIER

Is the Newest Star Trek Special Edition DVD Worth the Trip?

Plus: SHOGUN, BLACK SUNDAY and more debut on disc!

By Andy Dursin

I can only imagine that, if William Shatner's STAR TREK V: THE FINAL FRONTIER happened to be the main topic of contention on a college debate team, whoever is selected to defend the movie would have a far greater challenge on their hands than the side that simply has to attack it.

This is a movie, after all, that's been the punching bag out of some 10 Star Trek big- screen features. Until last year's "Star Trek Nemesis," it was the least successful of the Star Trek films, and even now, it's reviled in many circles as being the silliest, least significant effort of the entire series.

The detractors can still produce a viable argument as to why they dislike the film, but I guess I have to plead guilty: even though it's certainly a little rough around the edges, I like this movie. Not only is the picture not entirely deserving of its bad rep, I'd also gladly sit through "The Final Frontier" again than any of the stuffy "Next Generation" features (with the sole exception of "Star Trek First Contact").

Following on the massive mainstream success of "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home" (1986), producer Harve Bennett and director William Shatner had a tough task at hand. Although Shatner concocted a story about the Enterprise crew heading out to the far reaches of the galaxy in an attempt to find God -- a relatively heavy story for a Star Trek film -- it's clear that the studio wanted to retain the colorful humor that proved so successful in "The Voyage Home." Having to mix the humorous with the deep subject matter clearly wasn't going to be easy, and indeed, writer David Loughery's final screenplay shows the difficulty in striking the right balance the filmmakers faced.

Loughery's story follows Spock's renegade half-brother, Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill), and his crusade to find "Shaka-Ri," the supposedly-mythical Garden of Eden in the deep reaches of space. In order to cross the "Great Barrier," Sybok steals the Enterprise from Kirk, Spock and McCoy, who are seen taking a vacation at Yosemite in the movie's opening moments. The meaning of family, the topic of false prophets, and even the nature of religion's existence in the known universe are interspersed by a few comical gags and a subplot involving a freewheeling Klingon commander.

The somewhat rambling nature of the story, plus Shatner's relative inexperience behind the camera (clearly, Bill was no Leonard Nimoy), resulted in a movie that, at least, is nowhere near as polished as its predecessors. The gags range from slapstick (yep, Scotty walking into a beam) to silly, while there are subplots -- from Sybok's hostages to the Klingon angle -- that never really pay off. Laurence Luckinbill's colorful performance would have been more effective on the stage (where the actor was most at home) than on- screen, where he seems just a little over-the-top throughout (Shatner should have had him take it down a notch or two).

Sure, "The Final Frontier" has its issues, but not all of them were director Shatner's fault, as the movie was almost fatally sabotaged by Bran Ferren's visual effects. Since ILM was occupied with work on multiple movies for the summer of 1989 ("Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" and "The Abyss" for starters), the decision was made to go with Ferren and his company to provide the F/X. As documented in Shatner's "Star Trek: Movie Memories" book and elsewhere, Ferren had a decent budget at his disposal but completely failed to deliver the necessary goods -- most of his effects entail the Enterprise flying through pools of oil that look like run-off you'd routinely find on the side of a highway. Shatner's originally conceived ending -- involving Kirk running from monstrous creations from hell -- also bit the dust, since executives refused to spend the money needed on his admittedly elaborate climax. What results in the finished film seems hurried and incomplete, but the powers-at-be opted to deep-six any re-shoots, not wanting to spend additional time or money on their tent pole June release. With all of those problems, then, it's no surprise that "The Final Frontier" didn't live up to its financial expectations.

That said, STAR TREK V is a movie that does have some wonderful moments in it -- namely, the scenes involving Kirk, Spock and McCoy. While many fans either love or hate the "row, row, row your boat" sequence, I find it to be one of the quietest and more poignant scenes in all the Trek movies. With the supporting cast relegated back to its supporting nature, Shatner and Loughery at least enable the classic trio of heroes to take the stage in scenes that have as much to do with their relationship as friends and, indeed, family as they do with the plot. And sure, the Sybok plot is a bit goofy, but there are also some terrific moments when the gang does probe some of the mysteries of the universe and the human heart -- especially when Kirk, Spock, and McCoy are confronted by Sybok with their own past pain.

The Yosemite scenes are terrifically shot by Andrew Laszlo, and rounding out the action is Jerry Goldsmith's score. With Goldsmith's triumphant "Motion Picture" theme returning for the first time since TMP (along with a reprisal of his Klingon Theme), the composer serves up a beautiful, stirring score that ranks right up there with the best of the entire series: it's majestic and moving, clearly an inspired effort for Goldsmith and still one of my favorites of the late '80s.

THE FINAL FRONTIER is not a classic Star Trek film, but it's nevertheless an ambitious one that's hard not to admire simply because of what Shatner and Co. were attempting here. The massive nature of the story -- does God exist, and if so, where? -- is balanced by small, intimate scenes with Kirk, Spock and McCoy, and it's that very aspect that I find compelling and entertaining in spite of the film's problems.

Paramount's double-disc Special Edition of the film (**1/2, 107 mins., 1989, PG) is out next week and offers a bounty of special features fans will love, though like the movie, these extras aren't nearly as compelling as the goodies on the four DVDs that preceded it.

Although Shatner has previously ranted about the trouble he encountered in post- production, he's markedly quiet about that aspect of the movie in his audio commentary. Recorded with his daughter Liz (who wrote "William Shatner's Personal Account of the Making of Star Trek V," a book that still sits on my shelf), this is a disappointing talk that's dominated by a lot of dead air. More often than not, Liz prompts her father to discuss various subjects, but Shatner seems unwilling to open up on the juicier aspects of making the film (perhaps a concession to getting this DVD out there in the first place), and what they DO talk about has been discussed elsewhere in greater detail.

Following through on that letdown, the on-screen text commentary by the normally reliable "Star Trek Encyclopedia" authors (Michael and Denise Okuda) is likewise tempered in its criticism of the movie. There are the typical nuggets of information about the production, but also a lot more talk about what makes the series so successful: in other words, it's more generalized and less revealing than their past efforts, and also a disappointment.

Not all is lost, though, on the DVD, as a collection of documentaries can be found on the second disc. These include a solid overview of the production, "The Journey," sporting new interviews with Shatner, Loughery, and Harve Bennett. While the tone of the piece is not especially candid, at least there's some discussion of what went wrong behind-the- scenes, though the speakers seem overly concerned about not burning any bridges (does Bran Ferren have dirt on them?).

Additional documentaries include a profile of the two actors who essayed the Klingons (cute, but not necessarily worth 13 minutes); an excellent profile of veteran Trek production designer Herman Zimmerman; an amusing 15-minute interview with Shatner culled from the shooting of the film; a fluffy look at Trek's pro-environmental messages; and a terrifically amusing pitch by Bennett to the Paramount sales team (from 1989) about marketing the sequel.

Most interesting to fans, and the most revealing element of the DVD, are the make-up tests of the "Rockman" Shatner wanted to include at the end of the movie. Though Shatner shoots down the suit that was constructed, I didn't think it looked that bad in the footage screened here, though because the studio only allotted enough money for one suit to be made (Shatner needed a dozen in order to shoot his original climax), it was never used.

Additional make-up tests, special effect mock-ups, stills, storyboards, trailers and TV spots, and a wonderfully vintage press conference (from mid-December, 1988) round out the disc, along with four brief deleted scenes. Running under a total time of five minutes, these are culled from a workprint and are basically extensions of scenes in the finished film.

Paramount has done a fine job remastering "The Final Frontier" on DVD. There's a new 16:9 enhanced widescreen transfer that's apparently a big improvement from the earlier DVD release (I can only compare it to my old laserdisc, which is excessively soft and grainy by comparison), while the 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack fares marvelously in conveying Goldsmith's rousing score.

All in all, this is a nice Special Edition worth a purchase for Star Trek fans -- especially for the superior transfer. Though the supplements aren't as in-depth or candid as I hoped they would be, the effects test footage and the more vintage extras (the press conference, Shatner's original interview) make it, overall, a worthwhile trip back to a "Final Frontier" that's fun in spite of its flaws. Check it out.


Also New From Paramount

The success of "Roots" changed the landscape of television. For starters, networks began searching out properties that could become the next big TV mini-series. Shows like "The Winds of War" and "North and South" would become mammoth hits in the early to mid '80s, and none came as well-received or successful as NBC and Paramount's 1980 undertaking of James Clavell's SHOGUN (***1/2, 547 mins., 1980).

A bestselling novel based loosely on actual events, Clavell's book was an international bestseller, but laid dormant for years as it passed from one producer to another before being made. Directors and writers came and went, as did actors: Sean Connery, Albert Finney, and Roger Moore were all viewed as viable candidates for the production, which at first was intended to be a theatrical film.

After "Roots" hit the big time, though, the property headed for the small screen, where NBC and Paramount teamed up with Toho Studios and other Japanese production houses to film the massive project. Shot entirely in Japan for nearly a half a year, SHOGUN was produced and written by Eric Bercovici from Clavell's novel, and directed capably by Jerry London. While the crew faced countless technical challenges (Toho wasn't as technically proficient as Hollywood), they ended up capturing a remarkable tale that would be embraced by the masses.

Clavell's tale of a stranded British sailor (Richard Chamberlain) in 17th century Japan -- who falls in love with a geisha and becomes involved in the land's internal political and military struggles -- may not be a household name these days, yet when it aired over 20 years ago, SHOGUN was nothing short of a phenomenon. NBC recorded some of its highest ratings to date when the mini-series aired, with the show garnering increasing word-of-mouth and growing ratings as it progressed through its separate episodes. The program became such a blockbuster that its creators firmly believe that its popularity enabled the spread of Japanese culture into the American mainstream, from restaurants to sushi bars which are commonplace in our society today.

The show itself is still highly entertaining, if a bit leisurely told. Extremely faithful to its source, SHOGUN is an epic adventure and a historical travelogue of feudal Japan. Chamberlain serves as our guide, learning about the customs of the land while serving up both action (as his character, John Blackthorne, seeks to become the first foreign Samurai) and ample doses of soap opera (his relationship with one of warlord Toshiro Mifune's geishas) along the way.

It's beautifully shot and acted with a terrific cast, most notably John Rhys-Davies as Rodrigues (a Spanish sailor who works for Mifune's Toranga), who resembles Sallah in more ways than one. Musically, Maurice Jarre was tapped to score the mini-series, though this isn't one of Jarre's more inspired efforts: recorded with what sounds like a small orchestra, it's functional but little more, and definitely a bit disappointing under the circumstances (Jarre would more memorably score the disastrous movie version of Clavell's TAI-PAN several years later).

Paramount's superb box-set offers five DVDs filled with the complete, unedited contents of the broadcast mini-series, plus a bonus DVD of extras. The full-frame transfers are exceptionally colorful and pristine -- it's doubtful the show ever looked so good on the air in 1980. The original mono sound has been effectively remixed to 5.1, giving a nice stereophonic presence to the soundtrack, which -- as the filmmakers point out in the DVD documentary -- had to be painstakingly re-assembled once the crew returned to the United States (Toho wasn't equipped to pack both sound and picture together when shipping the movie overseas).

The DVD supplements include a terrific documentary overview of the production, sporting new interviews with London, Bercovici, Chamberlain, Rhys-Davies and others. It's a fascinating look into the production of the show, with candid observations and revealing anecdotes about the obstacles the cast and crew faced during production. I would have liked some insight into the feature-movie version that was released in Japan (and on video in the US), yet little is divulged -- and there's no mention of Jarre's music, either. Still, it's a fine program that runs over an hour all told, and the DVD also includes three historical featurettes and brief commentary from director Jerry London on select scenes (all included on the supplemental disc).

Perfect for DVD viewing, it's great to see SHOGUN back in circulation, and in such a fine presentation as well.


Also New On DVD

BLACK SUNDAY. 1977, 143 mins., R, Paramount, Available October 14th. ANDY'S RATING: ***. CAST: Robert Shaw, Bruce Dern, Marthe Keller, Fritz Weaver, Bekim Fehmiu. COMPOSER: John Williams. SCRIPT: Ernest Lehman, Kenneth Ross, Ivan Moffat from the novel by Thomas Harris. DIRECTOR: John Frankenheimer. DVD TECHNICAL SPECS: 5.1 Dolby Digital (stereo remix), original mono sound, 2.35 Widescreen.

DVD debut of John Frankenheimer's suspenseful (if slightly overlong) 1977 thriller delivers the goods for fans who have been eagerly awaiting the movie's digital debut. Based on the novel by Thomas Harris (best known for "Silence of the Lambs"), BLACK SUNDAY is sometimes erroneously grouped into the '70s disaster genre, and often confused with the terrible Charlton Heston flick "Two Minute Warning." While that picture focused on sniper attacks at a football game, "Black Sunday" sports a plot by terrorists Bruce Dern and Marthe Keller to crash a blimp filled with a deadly gas into the Super Bowl. Robert Shaw plays the Israeli commando who uncovers the plot and comes to America to prevent it from happening, in a marvelously entertaining picture that has very little in common with most of the all-star Irwin Allen spectacles being cranked out at that time.

For starters, "Black Sunday" benefits enormously from Frankenheimer's no-frills, realistic direction: the movie has moments of violent action alternating with a documentary-like approach to the story. None of the movie feels overly programmed or dated (save for the finale's poor special effects), with the director's fresh approach separating it from similarly-themed junk like "Two Minute Warning." [Sorry, Andy, but I have to step in for a moment here to defend "Two Minute Warning". It may not be "Black Sunday," but it's still a worthwhile thriller and a fascinating mix of Universal Studios cheese and 70s movie bleakness. If nothing else, the pairing of Charlton Heston as the cautious policeman and John Cassavetes as the gung ho SWAT officer is worth a look--SB] The performances are equally no-nonsense (Dern is appropriately deranged in a low-key manner), and John Williams' score becomes a major asset as the film progresses to its memorable climax, which was mostly shot at the Orange Bowl during Super Bowl X. Paramount has done an exceptional job remastering "Black Sunday" for DVD.

The widescreen transfer is appropriately framed in the original Panavision aspect ratio, and looks markedly fresh considering the movie's age. Even the weak special effects sequences look crisp and clear, devoid of the grain we usually associate with films of this age. Even better is that the original, cramped mono soundtrack has been remixed for 5.1 stereo surround, giving Williams' (still sadly unreleased) score far more life than previously heard before. No special features are on-hand, but this is one of the better library titles I've seen remastered on DVD lately, and for a certainly deserving movie as well.


Aisle Seat Capsules

THAT WAS THEN -- THIS IS NOW (***, 1985, 101 mins., R; Paramount, available October 14): Countless adaptations of S.E. Hinton's young-adult novels sprung up in the early '80s. From Francis Ford Coppola's overblown-but-entertaining "The Outsiders" (due out next year in an expanded Director's Cut) and overblown-and-unsatisfying "Rumble Fish" to the low-key Disney release "Tex," it seemed that every few months brought about another Hinton movie, often with hot young actors about to break into the big-time. THAT WAS THEN -- THIS IS NOW was one of the last of the Hinton adaptations, and though it's more dated than its predecessors in terms of its then- contemporary '80s setting, this is easily one of the better teen movies of its time. Credit is due to star Emilio Estevez, who also wrote this effective drama about wild kids Craig Sheffer and Estevez, and the trouble they have growing up on the street. Sheffer is able to cope with adulthood, but his adopted bro Estevez has more difficulty doing so -- and that contrast ends up setting up the conflict between the two. Co-starring a young Kim Delaney, this is an effective and satisfying work from director Christopher Cain, worthy of a look on DVD (keep an eye out for Morgan Freeman in a supporting role). Paramount's 1.85 transfer is superb, and the 5.1 sound filled with typically '80s, bass- heavy rock tracks.


FROM JUSTIN TO KELLY (*1/2, 81 mins., 2003, PG; Fox): The "American Idol" phenomenon might have catapulted Kelly Clarkson to the top of the charts and set up this past season's runner-up Clay Aiken to do the same this fall, but that success didn't carry over to the big screen. Not that it should have come as any shock, since this bare-bones musical-comedy was rushed into production to capitalize on the building "Idol" success -- but before a workable script or soundtrack was in place. The result is an utterly bizarre "film" (if you can even call it that) that doesn't have enough of a story or developed characters to qualify as a legit movie. The "plot" has America's singing sweetheart Clarkson as a girl looking for love on spring break, and the talent-challenged Justin Guarini (the runner-up to Clarkson) as the guy she falls in love with. The laughs are non- existent and the songs completely forgettable -- it's like watching a three-minute music video stretched to 81 minutes. Even musical fans will feel let down by the movie, which Fox has released on DVD with several extended scenes (they don't help), featurettes, deleted scenes, and commentary from Clarkson, Guarini, and director Robert Iscove, who must have had orders to helm the picture with a point-shoot-move-on-to-the-next-scene mentality. The DVD does at least look sunny (in full-frame and 1.85 transfers), and includes a bass-pounding 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack. I'd dread a future cinematic teaming of Clay Aiken and Ruben Studdard, yet I can't say that it'd be any worse than this one. [My own fantasy is that they'd make "From Ruben to Clay" and keep the exact same script as "Justin to Kelly," changing only the names. I guarantee it would be a classic that people would talk about for years to come--SB]


NEXT WEEK: Two words: INDIANA JONES!! Plus RUDY Deluxe Edition, THE ITALIAN JOB and much more! Send all emails to dursina@att.net and we'll catch you then. Cheers!


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