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Aisle Seat Re-Issue DVD Edition

Are New Special Editions Worth the Upgrade?
Plus: SMALLVILLE flies onto DVD

By Andy Dursin

The TV-on-DVD parade continues this week with the first season box set of SMALLVILLE (***1/2, 922 mins., 2001-02, Warner), which -- as it readies its third season on the air -- has to rank as one of the most successful super-hero TV series ever produced.

I've been an avid fan of The WB teen Superman program ever since its debut, but the show has grown by leaps and bounds from its beginnings into an engaging character drama -- with a dash of comic book heroism, of course -- that offers a fresh take on the Man of Steel.

Some of you undoubtedly may have caught the show during its first-season infancy, back when it resembled a "Freak of the Week" program with Smallville students and/or residents stumbling into Kryptonite and turning into villains each episode -- and quickly wrote it off. Judging by very early episodes like "Hothead" (with ex-Wonder Years dad Dan Lauria as a football coach who turns into a telekinetic nut a la "Carrie"), you wouldn't have been totally wrong to tune out.

Doing so, though, ultimately proved to be a mistake, since the program quickly corrected itself, focused in on its lead characters (Tom Welling's sensitive Clark Kent, Kristin Kreuk's Lana Lang, and Annette O'Toole and John Schneider as Clark's parents), and initiated a Superman mythology all its own. Furthermore, freed from the unrelenting sarcasm and narcissism of teen angst shows like "Dawson's Creek," SMALLVILLE managed to develop a likable set of young protagonists with unpredictable personalities -- Michael Rosenbaum's charismatic Lex Luthor is a prime example -- in establishing its own identity in the Man of Steel franchise.

Warner's massive six-disc DVD set -- nicely packaged with episode notes, chapter stops, and brief commentary from creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar -- includes all 21 episodes from the first season. Again, if you get a bit antsy during the early shows, stay with it -- your patience will be rewarded by the time "Hourglass" and "Rogue" (episodes 6 and 9, respectively) bring the central plot to the forefront.

The widescreen transfers are immaculate, and likely will far surpass your initial experience of watching the episodes on the tube. The 2.0 Dolby Stereo soundtracks are also elaborate given the TV confines, sporting excellent scores by Mark Snow and appropriate contemporary rock tracks that, more often than not, perfectly fit the action.

Supplements aren't bountiful, but what's here will be of major interest to fans: deleted scenes from the Pilot and first episode ("Metamorphosis") are included, along with a commentary track from the creators and director David Nutter on the pilot and "Metamorphosis" (note that these features were previously available on the Canadian/overseas DVD of the "Smallville" pilot). Additional extras include brief TV promo spots from the WB, an interactive map of Smallville, and DVD-ROM material.

It's no secret that Warner Bros. has long been trying -- to no avail -- to resurrect, and reinvent, the Superman franchise for the big-screen. After abortive attempts over the years with the involvement of Tim Burton and Nicolas Cage to Brett Rattner, pre- production on the new Superman movie seems to have ground to a halt.

If the studio was smart, they'd wait until SMALLVILLE completes its run and launch the program -- with Tom Welling and Rosenbaum -- onto the big screen as the next Superman series. If nothing else, it'd be fully deserved for a program that has rightly staked its place in the annals of Superman history.


Special Edition DVD Re-Issues: Are They Really "Special"?

It seems as if there are a handful of DVD titles that go out of print each month. All of a sudden, these previously-available discs become coveted "collector's items" on online auction sites -- though in many cases, said discontinued titles have been given the ax simply because a superior version is coming down the road.

That's been the case with several new Special Edition DVD releases, including the Brian DePalma remake of SCARFACE (***, 170 mins., R, 1983, Universal).

The Al Pacino-Michelle Pfeiffer crime thriller was previously issued during the early days of the DVD format in a single-disc edition that reprised all of the contents from the deluxe "Signature Collection" laserdisc. Along with the supplements, though, came a dreary, weak transfer, which wasn't optimized to take advantage of the superior DVD format (it actually rehashed the laserdisc's transfer, which actually wasn't up to the standards of the LD medium, either).

Universal withdrew the disc some time ago, making the earlier DVD a collectible item -- one that's utterly worthless now with the 2-disc ANNIVERSARY EDITION that streets next week from the studio.

This fully remastered edition is a huge improvement on all previous video releases of this flawed but entertaining '80s cult classic, both in the sound and visual departments. The 2.35 widescreen presentation is far more colorful, cleaner, and crisper than the previous DVD/LD release. Some grain is apparent at certain points, but when compared to the earlier discs, this is a huge upgrade from a visceral standpoint. The sound, meanwhile, has been remixed for 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital, and gives the various effects and Giorgio Moroder's score a bass-heavy boost the earlier DVD didn't have.

Even better is that (almost) all of the supplements from the earlier DVD have been reprised, along with the inclusion of fresh interviews. Laurent Bouzereau's fine documentary is complimented by deleted scenes and a montage of clips from the movie's censored TV prints, while a new 22-minute featurette looks at the movie's strong influence on the hip-hop community (an "Inspired By the Movie" hip-hop "Scarface" album has just been released). It's a great package with one major omission: none of the original trailers or marketing materials have been included.

Overall, though, if you're a big fan of the movie and were disappointed by the presentation on the earlier DVD and laserdisc editions, "Scarface" is well worth the upgrade.


Also worth a re-purchase for that very reason is the Deluxe "Superbit" Presentation of David Lean's classic LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (****, 227 mins., 1962, Columbia TriStar).

Like all Superbit editions, the DVD lacks any supplemental features, devoting the entire space on the disc to a high-bit rate transfer and additional soundtracks, including a new DTS mix.

Unlike Columbia's 2001 DVD release of "Lawrence," though, the Superbit transfer is derived from a newly-restored version compiled by producers Robert A. Harris and Jim Painten -- one that corrects some of the flaws from the previous DVD, enhancing the overall picture quality.

It's an appreciable improvement from the previous disc: colors are stronger and the image brighter, while the 5.1 DTS soundtrack is more potent and powerful than the earlier 5.1 Dolby Digital mix. FSM readers will also note that an error in the earlier DVD's 5.1 soundtrack (an inadvertently looped segment of Maurice Jarre's score, heard when Lawrence stages a rally on top of a train) has been corrected by Harris for this Superbit release.

Fans will undoubtedly want to own both DVD editions from Columbia, since the earlier Limited Edition package includes a bevy of supplements, while the superior presentation is included in the Superbit edition.


Aficionados of the Coen Brothers should be on the lookout for MGM's new Special Edition of their hit FARGO (***1/2, 98 mins., 1996, R; out next week), starring Frances McDormand in her Oscar-winning role as a pregnant Minnesota police chief investigating a kidnapping/murder gone awry.

The movie is one of my favorite Coen films (along with "The Big Lebowski"), mainly because of its mix of humor and mayhem, strong dialogue and fantastic performances from McDormand, William H. Macy and Steve Buscemi. It's a funny, incisive piece that ranks right up there with the Coens' finest work (thankfully the proposed TV version, starring "Soprano" wife Edie Falco, was rejected, though you can still find the pilot being broadcast on the Trio Channel).

Previously available from Polygram in a no-frills DVD package (reissued by MGM a few years ago), the new Special Edition offers a new though not especially comprehensive documentary, "Minnesota Nice," highlighted by recent interviews with the Coens, McDormand, and Macy. The brothers prefer not to give audio commentaries, so the spotlight is here given to cinematographer Roger Deakins, who gives an occasionally interesting talk about the production of the film. A pop-up trivia track is also included, along with an advertising gallery, a segment from the "Charlie Rose Show" that aired prior to the release of the movie, trailers, and TV spots.

Visually, the transfer is a tad superior to the earlier Polygram DVD, and the 5.1 sound gives a bit of added depth to Carter Burwell's haunting score.


Aisle Seat DVD Picks of the Week

BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM. 112 mins., 2002, PG-13, Fox, available Sept. 30. ANDY'S RATING: ***1/2. CAST: Parminder Nagra, Keira Knightley, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Andupam Kher, Archie Panjabi, Shaznay Lewis, Frank Harper, Juliet Stevenson. COMPOSER: Craig Pruess. SCRIPT: Gurinder Chandha, Guljit Bindra, Paul Mayeda Berges. DIRECTOR: Gurinder Chandha. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Commentary, 10 deleted/extended scenes, Making Of featurette, international trailers, director-hosted "cooking" segment, music video and outtakes. TECHNICAL SPECS: 1.85 Widescreen (separate full-frame version is also available), 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

The British box-office smash that became a bona-fide sleeper hit in the U.S. (raking in over $30 million domestically), BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM proved that -- even if soccer isn't the cultural phenomenon here that it is everywhere else -- its story of culture clashes, personal dreams, and family relationships is truly universal.

Parminder Nagra is wonderful as an Indian girl in London whose deft "footie" moves draw the attention of female soccer player Keira Knightley (the female lead from "Pirates of the Caribbean," and just as appealing here). Soon Nagra is out on the field, cutting it like her idol -- British superstar David Beckham -- but her family disapproves of her actions, wanting her to instead act like a proper Indian girl and go to university. Complications ensue even further once Nagra falls for the Irish coach of their team (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), and the day of the team's final game coincides with the wedding of Nagra's older sister.

Director-co-writer Gurinder Chandha has created an enormously appealing, winning film that should appeal to just about everyone. The performances of Nagra, Knightley, and Rhys Meyers compliment the already well-drawn characters in the script, while strong supporting work is turned in by a superb supporting cast, especially Juliet Stevenson as Knightley's long-suffering mother. There are laughs, colorful situations, a dash of romance and a lot of emotion poured into the film, but none of it is phony or feels overly programmed.

In some ways, the film reminded me of the appeal of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" -- celebrating an ethnic culture without stereotypically looking down on it -- though the characters and situations in BECKHAM feel more real and less sitcom-ish. In any event, don't miss this terrific and highly entertaining film, as good as its advance billing and international success promised.

Fox's DVD offers a fine 1.85 widescreen transfer that seems a bit tightly matted but otherwise is strong. The 5.1 soundtrack is filled with both traditional and Indian pop tunes, while a collection of solid special features round out the disc: commentary from the director, 10 deleted/extended scenes, a featurette "Who Wants to Cook Aloo Gobi?" with the director and "The Aunties," a Making Of segment, music video, outtakes, and a pair of international trailers.


SCROOGE. 114 mins., 1970, G, Paramount. ANDY'S RATING: ****. CAST: Albert Finney, Alec Guinness, Kenneth More, Dame Edith Evans, Laurence Naismith, Michael Medwin, David Collings, Anton Rodgers, Suzanne Neve. COMPOSER: Leslie Bricusse, supervised by Ian Fraser. SCRIPT: Leslie Bricusse. DIRECTOR: Ronald Neame. DVD TECHNICAL SPECS: 2.35 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

If you grew up watching this holiday favorite on local TV like I did, then there's little I can add about how magical SCROOGE is.

Leslie Bricusse's 1970 musical adaptation of "A Christmas Carol" is -- along with the Alastair Sim and Muppets versions -- my favorite adaptation of the Dickens classic. There's vivid Panavision cinematography from Oswald Morris; evocative production design by Terence Marsh; a tuneful score by Bricusse (including "December the 25th" and "Thank You Very Much"); and wonderful performances from Albert Finney as Scrooge, Alec Guinness as Marley, and Kenneth More and Edith Evans as two of the ghosts Ebeneezer encounters on that fateful Christmas Eve.

Few presentations of the story convey such a creepy atmosphere as well: the scenes prior to Scrooge's meeting with Marley look and feel like a legitimate ghost story, while the movie's superb special effects (particularly for their time) lend an able assist to the great cast and festive tone.

Paramount has done a phenomenal job translating SCROOGE to DVD. The studio has retained the original Overture and Exit Music (in full 5.1) on menu screens prior to and immediately following the film. The 2.35 widescreen transfer is the best- looking presentation of the movie I've ever seen (previous video versions were dark, scanned and cropped, except for Fox's mid '90s laserdisc issue, which was softer than the DVD), while the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound does full justice to Bricusse's score and Ian Fraser's stirring arrangements.

Although the disc is devoid of any extras, the price and presentation make this highly recommended, and a must for the upcoming holiday season!


New on DVD

GAS FOOD LODGING. 101 mins., 1991, R, Columbia TriStar. ANDY'S RATING: ***. CAST: Brooke Adams, Ione Skye, Fairuza Balk, Robert Knepper, Donovan Leitch, James Brolin. COMPOSER: J Mascis. SCRIPT: Allison Anders from the novel by Richard Peck. DIRECTOR: Allison Anders. DVD TECHNICAL SPECS: 1.85 Widescreen, 2.0 Dolby Surround.

Single mom Brooke Adams struggles to raise teen daughters Ione Skye (the tramp) and Fairuza Balk (the good girl) in a dusty, isolated New Mexico town, in director-writer Allison Anders' vivid adaptation of Richard Peck's novel.

The performances of the three leads -- especially Balk as the younger sister, who loves foreign films and dreams of better days ahead -- anchor this gritty and involving drama, which signaled Anders as a talent to watch during the early '90s. While her work since hasn't lived up to the potential she displayed in this film, GAS FOOD LODGING still holds up as a memorable study of three people trying to make it in the world, any way they know how.

Columbia TriStar's DVD offers a 1.85 anamorphic widescreen transfer, which looks well-composed throughout. Since the movie was a low-budget effort, the picture appears soft in places, though this only adds to the gritty realism of the story. The Dolby Surround soundtrack isn't anything out of the ordinary, sporting a moody score by J Mascis.


HOLES. 117 mins., 2003, PG, Disney. ANDY'S RATING: **1/2. CAST: Shia LaBeouf, Sigourney Weaver, Jon Voight, Tim Blake Nelson, Patricia Arquette, Henry Winkler. COMPOSER: Joel McNeely. SCRIPT: Louis Sachar, based on his novel. DIRECTOR: Andrew Davis. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Six deleted scenes, gag reel, two commentary tracks (cast and crew), On Set featurette, music video, Making Of featurette. TECHNICAL SPECS: 1.85 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Oddball, almost indescribable Disney release about young Stanley Yelnats, who's sent away to a juvenile facility, Camp Green Lake, where he and his peers are forced to dig holes in the middle of a barren desert. The warden (Sigourney Weaver) and her cohorts (Jon Voight, Tim Blake Nelson) seem to know more about what's happening than they let on, though as the film progresses, the story of Stanley's checkered family history -- involving crazy curses and missed opportunities -- unfolds, gradually revealing the mystery at-hand.

A hit among its age group last spring, HOLES is based on a bestselling novel by Louis Sachar, who adapted his work for the big screen. The performances by the young cast (especially Shia LaBeouf as Stanley) are excellent, though some of the scenery- chewing work by Voight and Nelson gets a bit tiresome. Speaking of which, HOLES was directed by "Fugitive" vet Andrew Davis, and while the movie is certainly entertaining, it's also needlessly overlong, padded to the two hour mark with too many trivial scenes that could have been left on the cutting room floor. On the whole, though, the movie's magical moments shine through (especially the flashback scenes with Patricia Arquette), and Joel McNeely's moving, understated score easily ranks as one of his best. HOLES is definitely worth a look for older children and teenagers. (One word of warning for parents, though: some of the subject matter is a bit heavy, so take the PG rating into account if you have very young kids in your viewing audience).

Disney's DVD offers a 1.85 widescreen transfer that captures the dusty tone of Stephen St. John's cinematography. The 5.1 Dolby Digital sound is superb, while special features include a commentary track by the author and director, plus a wackier cast track provided by the youthful stars. Making Of segments, six deleted scenes, and a music video round out the package.


Family Finds: New Discs From Disney & Columbia

When I was a kid, I played with all kinds of things: Star Wars figures, G.I. Joe playsets, the Shogun Warriors, and even a Lego set or two. These days Lego isn't as much about the classic construction sets as it is about "Bionicle," which can be best described (from my admittedly limited expertise on this subject) as Lego-meets-the-Transformers.

Apparently a worldwide phenomenon among kids, Bionicle has spun off into a good- looking though convoluted movie, BIONICLE: MASK OF LIGHT (**1/2, 74 mins., 2003, PG; Miramax), which attempts to establish a mythology for the figures and playsets kids and Lego fans will recognize.

The result is an impressively-mounted CGI film following the exploits of two young "Matorans" who stumble upon a legendary mask of light belonging to a "Toa," a powerful good-guy who could help the Matorans in their struggle against the evil Rahkshi.

If it sounds complicated, trust me, it is. You'd better be a fan of the Bionicle franchise to fully understand the characters and scenario posed by the 74-minute feature, which feels at times like "The Dark Crystal," just with lots of little robots running around and indulging in some occasional extreme sports action.

Still, if you've got kids who like the characters, they'll undoubtedly enjoy the action- packed special effects and fast-moving plot, which has just surfaced from Miramax on DVD with a stellar 1.78 transfer and potent DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks. Extras include a commentary track, brief deleted scenes, and -- for those who have yet to be initiated into the saga -- an "enhanced viewing mode" that provides back story while the film is on-going.


Two efforts from a kinder, gentler (if arguably tackier) period in family entertainment have also been newly issued by Disney: ESCAPE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN (***, 97 mins., 1975, G, Disney) and RETURN FROM WITCH MOUNTAIN (**1/2, 94 mins., 1978, G, Disney).

These live-action efforts are above-par for the Ron Miller tenure at Disney, offering fun sci-fi/fantasy stories for kids about psychic teens Tony (Ike Eisenmann) and Tia Malone (Kim Richards). The duo's power is exploited by evil billionaire Ray Milland in the original film, with the Malone twins on the run from danger when help arrives in the form of kindly camper Eddie Albert. Later, some otherworldly stuff begins to happen, though if you haven't seen the movie (or can't remember it), I won't spoil it for you.

Johnny Mandel scored the original film, while Lalo Schifrin took over musical duties on the sequel, RETURN FROM WITCH MOUNTAIN, which is more conventional and slightly less magical than its predecessor. Director John Hough was brought back to direct the action, which this time offers criminal masterminds Christopher Lee and Bette Davis attempting to recruit Tony's power for their own nefarious purposes.

It's more formulaic than the original, but still entertaining considering its target audience, and Disney's DVDs offer excellent special features on both discs. Audio commentaries with Eisenmann, Richards, and Hough are included on each film, along with revealing, new "Making Of" segments featuring recent interviews with the cast and crew. Bonus cartoons and shorter featurettes culled from the Disney Channel are also on-hand, while the 1.75 THX-approved widescreen transfers look very good. The sound has also been remixed for 5.1 Dolby Digital, making these the definitive presentations of both WITCH MOUNTAIN efforts.


Disney has also released a good-looking, full-frame edition of the charming 1988 feature THE BRAVE LITTLE TOASTER (***, 90 mins., G, Disney), which remains one of the most entertaining animated films of its day (back before Menken & Ashman became mainstays at the studio).

Yes, it's a musical adventure about a toaster, vacuum, electric blanket, lamp and radio that join forces to find their former owner, but under the circumstances, the movie works just splendidly. The voices are amusing, the songs are decent, David Newman's score is superb -- Disney was certainly wise to pick up the independently-produced feature, which ended up spawning a pair of sequels (including, I kid you not, "The Brave Little Toaster Goes to Mars" with the voice of DeForest Kelley!).

The DVD offers a decent full-frame transfer that seems a little banged up than most animated Disney offerings on DVD, but few should mind. The 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack fares better, and a "Making Of" segment profiles the success of the original film and the production of the two, late '90s sequels.


Finally, Columbia has dusted off an entertaining movie for young teenagers, THE BABYSITTERS CLUB (**1/2, 1995, 92 mins, PG; Columbia TriStar), an adaptation of the successful Scholastic book series.

Schuyler Fisk (Sissy Spacek's daughter), Rachael Leigh Cook, and Larisa Oleynik are a few of the familiar faces who appear in this cute tale of a club of babysitters (go figure!), their tween romances, dealings with business associates (including Ellen Burstyn), and discovery of long lost fathers (Peter Horton from "Thirtysomething," whose co-star on that series, Melanie Mayron, directed this film).

The movie isn't anything out of the ordinary, but it's good fun for its target demographic just the same. That same audience shouldn't mind that Columbia's DVD is full frame, seeming a little cramped at times on the sides but passable overall. The 5.1 Dolby Digital sound is more accomplished, sporting a bouncy collection of pop tracks and a David Michael Frank score.


NEXT WEEK: The Mail Bag returns, I promise (hay fever took down this week's edition). Direct all comments to dursina@att.net and we'll catch you then. Excelsior!


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