1/24/06 Edition

Paramount & Criterion Wrap!


David Lynch’s “Dune” might have been a flop when first released to theaters at Christmas time in ‘84, but the movie has gained a sizeable cult following over the years since its initial performance. A multitude of “Dune” laserdisc and DVD releases have popped up all over the globe, some offering just the standard theatrical release version, with others boasting the expanded, three-hour Universal TV version (made without Lynch’s involvement) and a myriad of unique supplements.

Next week Universal releases the first-ever "Extended Edition" of DUNE (**½, 137 mins., PG-13) on video in North America, featuring 16:9 transfers of both Lynch’s 137-minute theatrical cut and Universal’s own, 177-minute “Extended” TV Version that was initially broadcast in syndication in the early ‘90s.

Fans hoping for Lynch to re-edit his adaptation of Frank Herbert’s mammoth novel may be disappointed that the director has expressed little interest in revisiting this work, apparently preferring instead to let his own Director’s Cut -- the theatrical version -- speak for itself.

That being said, Universal’s debut of the TV version here in full 2.35 widescreen will prove to be a must-see for “Dune” aficionados, who will be able to view the 40 or so extra minutes in their original aspect ratio for the first time. Granted, the TV version has numerous flaws of its own -- namely, a ponderous opening “Prologue” with matte paintings intended to clarify the film’s set-up and some odd edits throughout -- but it does convey a glimpse of what a full, longer “Dune” might have been. The longer edit also offers additional sequences of character development and plot exposition, along with one or two unintentionally amusing moments. My favorite among the latter occurs when one of the pilots holding Paul and Jessica hostage lapses from his looped American accent into his native Mexican dialect when speaking the added line “I’d like to have some fun before we kill her!” (Thanks to pal Trevor Willsmer for pointing that out to me years ago).

Universal’s DVD also sports several new featurettes, including “Deleted Dune,” with fresh comments from producer Raffaella De Laurentiis, who clears up some of the misconceptions about the rumored “four-hour cut” of Lynch’s film. Apparently, Lynch screened a four-hour, rough assembly of the picture, but long before post-production had begun and effects inserted. She also mentions that Lynch reworked Paul’s “Water of Life” sequence to compensate for the removal of a long section of film, knowing full well that the movie would be pared down.

In addition, there are some 15 minutes of never-before-seen deleted sequences, most culled off a workprint, with production audio only: these include the knife fight between Paul and Jamis (Judd Omen); a longer introduction to the movie with Virginia Madsen's Princess; what appears to be an alternate introduction to the Bene Gesserit sisterhood, with what possibly could be Lynch's voice heard off-camera (I'll leave that to the experts);
and two extensions to the film’s conclusion, one showing the fate of servant Thufir Hawat and the other setting up Paul’s marriage to Princess Irulan (only the latter sequences are fully scored, leaving one to suspect that they were jettisoned at the last minute).

Three other featurettes (totaling about 20-30 minutes) are also on-hand, including “Designing Dune,” “Dune FX,” “Dune Models,” and “Dune Wardrobe,” including comments from De Laurentiis, production designer Anthony Masters, costume designer Bob Ringwood and others. A photo gallery and production notes round out the supplements.

Visually, the 16:9 transfers seem to be in reasonably good condition (at least as solid as Universal’s previous DVD, and the Region 2 UK Special Edition Sanctuary released a while back), and the 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks are impressive on both versions. Though the set lacks a DTS track Universal touted in preliminary notices, there’s little to complain about in regards to the Dolby tracks that ARE present. (Viewers may note that the Expanded Version’s prologue was originally shot for a TV aspect ratio, and as such was matted here to 2.35 from 4:3. Outside of that, the Expanded Version’s ratio is in a proper 2.35 frame).

Unless Universal is one day willing to spend major money to complete post-production on the surviving rough footage of “Dune” -- and do so without the involvement of David Lynch -- I’m not sure we’ll ever see a more complete package than this “Extended Edition.” It’s true there’s no trailer, or audio commentary, and the supplements are not particularly exhaustive. Yet at the same time, Universal’s presentation of the extended TV cut in widescreen greatly enhances the restored sequences from the film -- presented here for the first time in their original Todd-AO frame -- and, for that reason alone, pegs this DVD as an essential purchase for any fan of Lynch’s 1984 opus.

New From Paramount

Now that movies have all kinds of auxiliary outlets in which to recoup their budgets, it’s no surprise to see stars taking chances on smaller-scale dramas one might have classified years ago as “independent.” As John Landis said in my interview with the director last year, “independent” today doesn’t mean produced outside the studio system so much as it means adult-oriented.

Two of Paramount’s DVD releases this month embody that sentiment: the John Singleton-produced urban drama HUSTLE & FLOW (***, 115 mins., 2005, R), and the bizarre, little-seen psychological character study ASYLUM (**½, 99 mins., 2005, R).

“Hustle & Flow” was released to theaters nationwide, and respectable box-office, last summer. Terrence Howard gives an eye-opening performance in Craig Brewer’s film as Djay -- a pimp to “properties” Taryn Manning and Taraji Hensen, who begins to wonder if there’s life beyond his daily existence in Memphis, Tennessee. With a dream of becoming a rapper, Howard lays down some tracks with old friend Anthony Anderson, with the intention of convincing a local rapper-turned-superstar (Ludacris) that he’s got the goods to break out of the neighborhood.

Writer-director Brewer has fashioned a gritty, enthralling character piece with flashes of violence, moments of humor, and a dynamite performance by Howard, creating a believable, multi-faceted protagonist you want to see break out of his world. The supporting performances by Anderson, Manning, D.J. Qualls, Elise Neal and Paula Jai Parker add to the authenticity and entertainment. Recommended!

Paramount’s DVD includes commentary by Brewer, three featurettes, six promotional spots, a 1.85 widescreen transfer (enhanced for 16:9 TVs) and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

From the present-day streets of Memphis to the British suburbs we come to “Asylum,” director David Mackenzie’s odd melodramatic thriller that saw little distribution last year.

Natasha Richardson and husband Hugh Bonneville move to a psychiatric ward outside London, where Bonneville has been appointed superintendent. It’s not long after Richardson meets in-house doctor Ian McKellen that she meets an ex-con (Martin Csokas) who does chores around the facility. Despite the fact that he’s being rehabilitated for the murder of his wife, Richardson falls for his intense, brooding personality, and begins a torrid affair that will tragically affect her and her family.

Patrick Marber and Chrysanthy Balis adapted Patrick McGrath’s novel of forbidden lust and sexual repression with heavy psychological overtones. The end result, thanks mainly to the cast and Giles Nuttgens’ scope cinematography, is certainly watchable, but it’s a curious picture with cold, creepy characters that one only feels comfortable watching from arm’s length.

Paramount’s DVD offers an excellent 2.35 transfer with 5.1 and 2.0 Dolby Digital soundtracks. We haven’t heard a whole lot from composer Mark Mancina recently, and his score works moderately well with the picture. No supplements are included.

New Paramount TV on DVD

GUNSMOKE: 50th Anniversary Edition, Volume 1 (1955-1964, 9 hrs., Paramount) and Volume 2 (1964-1974, 10 hrs., Paramount): One of the longest-running series in television history hits DVD in these two box set compilations from Paramount. Though some fans may typically scoff at “Best Of” anthologies, the fact is that the sagebrush saga “Gunsmoke” ran for nearly 20 years on the Paramount airwaves, and it’s unlikely there would be enough takers (even among die-hard tube aficionados) to consume nearly two dozen individual season sets. Thus, Paramount has done the next-best thing by including an ample dose of the best this classic series has to offer on DVD: Volume 1 features 17 episodes from the first nine seasons of the show
(1955-1964), while Volume 2 offers 12 episodes from the series’ later, mostly-color years (1965-1974). According to Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh’s essential “Complete Directory to Prime Time Network TV Shows,” “Gunsmoke” suffered a gradual ratings decline throughout the ‘60s, but became a hit once again after CBS moved it to Mondays at 10pm for the fall of 1967 -- where it would remain a mainstay through the ‘70s. The DVD also boasts some extras, including introductions from star James Arness, blooper and gag reels on each volume, numerous commentaries (from Arness, Dennis Weaver, Bruce Dern, Buck Taylor, Ed Asner, George Kennedy, Angie Dickinson, Barbara Eden and Adam West), Emmy Award footage, network promos, memories from the “Westerns Channel” broadcasts, and more. The transfers appear to be in satisfying condition, making this a highly recommended purchase for “Gunsmoke” fans.

HAVE GUN WILL TRAVEL: The Complete Third Season (1959-1960, 14 hrs., Paramount): Another seminal western series returns to DVD in a six-disc box-set from Paramount. Richard Boone starred in “Have Gun Will Travel” as the classic hero Paladin, the educated jack-of-all-trades who sometimes served as a gunslinger, at others an Old West detective or bounty hunter (dependant on the assignment), throughout the seven years the series aired on CBS, Saturdays at 9:30pm. While the DVD edition doesn’t include any supplements outside of some text extras (production notes, behind-the-scenes information), the full-screen, black-and-white transfers are in very solid shape considering their age. The half-hour episodes move at a brisk clip (there are 39 of them in the third season!), making it easy to see why viewers made “Have Gun Will Travel” one of the highest-rated shows of its day (third all around in 1959-60, with only “Gunsmoke” and NBC’s “Wagon Train” ahead of it).

VIVA LA BAM: Complete Seasons 4 and 5 (Paramount, 2005, 233 mins., Not Rated): “Jackass” alumnus Bam Magera spun-off in his own show for MTV -- a ribald collection of pranks and stunts along the lines of “Jackass” but with (dare I say?) more of a hometown, “family” feel. Here, Magera and his friends and family stage a group of pranks like borrowing cars, taking a trip to Europe, meeting Billy Idol, and generally acting like a group of inspired fools. Like “Jackass,” a little of this goes a long way, but fans will enjoy Paramount’s three-disc set compiling the final seasons of “Viva La Bam,” with deleted scenes, commentary with Bam and the cast, full-screen transfers and Dolby Digital sound.

New From PBS Home Video (Distributed by Paramount)

JOHN & ABIGAIL ADAMS: American Experience (2005, 120 mins.)
BEN FRANKLIN (2002, 210 mins.)
FDR: American Experience (1994, 250 mins.)
ELEANOR ROOSEVELT: American Experience (2000, 150 mins.)

Four excellent, full-length documentaries/docu-dramas mark the latest offerings from PBS Home Video.

Tales of America’s forefathers and first families are on-hand in the two-hour, recent WGBH/American Experience production “John & Abigail Adams,” as well as the 2002 Twin Cities Public Television co-production “Benjamin Franklin.”

The former uses newly shot footage with actors portraying Adams, his wife, and Thomas Jefferson, but (as one might anticipate from PBS) refrains from being an outright dramatization of America’s first “power couple,” with ample insight from historians and authors about the Adams’s legacy. The 210-minute Ben Franklin documentary, meanwhile, utilizes even more dramatic footage (with Tony winner Richard Easton as Franklin) in a three-part examination of Franklin’s achievements from his beginnings in early 1700's Philadelphia to playing a leading role in the creation of the United States of America. The widescreen transfers on both programs are satisfying, the stereo sound nicely handled, and the Franklin disc also includes a Making Of program and additional outtakes.

The FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt documentaries, meanwhile, are also culled from WGBH’s American Experience series, and offer rich, introspective programs that outstandingly detail the lives of the Roosevelts, each offering an abundance of authentic footage, insights from historians, interviews, and newly filmed material. Each program is presented here in full-screen format and stereo sound, and offer hours of information vital for any lover of American history. Highly recommended!

Family Finds: New Nickelodeon & Nick Jr. Titles

DORA THE EXPLORER: Save The Day! (2006, 98 mins., Paramount): The highly popular children’s heroine is back on DVD in this single-disc compilation, offering four episodes from the top-rated Nick Jr. series (“Dora And Diego To The Rescue,” “Swiper The Explorer,” “Boots’s Cuddly Dinosaur,” and “Roberto The Robot”). The series includes colorful animation, a bit of culture, and plenty of entertainment for young children, with superb full-screen transfers and Dolby Digital sound.

THE BACKYARDIGANS: POLKA PALACE PARTY (2006, 99 mins., Paramount): Another high-rated show among the young set, “The Backyardians” receive a similar treatment on DVD, sporting four episodes from the series (one of which makes its debut here): “Polka Palace Party,” “High Tea,” “The Heart of the Jungle,” and “Viking Voyage.” Its intended target audience ought to find ample fun among the four shows, which are presented in full-screen format with Dolby Digital sound. A bonus “Hold Tight” music video rounds out the presentation.

DRAKE & JOSH: GO HOLLYWOOD, THE MOVIE (2006, 123 mins., Paramount): The teen set has made Nickelodeon’s “Drake & Josh” a highly popular program for its target audience, with the high schoolers here making for Los Angeles after their younger sister ends up on a plane to LaLaLand. This feature-length tele-film arrives on DVD with a pair of bonus shows (“Helen’s Surgery,” “Mindy’s Back”), bloopers and a music video. The full-screen transfer and Dolby Digital sound are both fine.

AVATAR, THE LAST AIRBENDER: Book 1, Water Volume 1 (2006, 95 mins., Paramount): New Nickelodeon-imported anime series comes to DVD sporting the initial four episodes from Book 1, Volume 1: “The Boy in the Iceberg,” “The Avatar Returns,” “The Southern Air Temple,” and “The Warriors of Kyoshi.” A bonus “Behind-the-Scenes Kung Fu” featurette is included alongside the full-screen transfers and Dolby Digital stereo sound, which sport traditional anime-styled design but stories a bit less frenetic and more family-oriented than most of the genre works seen on this side of the Atlantic.

More Family Finds: New From Buena Vista

FUNNY FACTORY WITH MICKEY, Vol. 1 (2006, 61 mins., Disney)
FUNNY FACTORY WITH DONALD, Vol. 2 (2006, 54 mins., Disney)
The latest Disney single-disc compilations include classic animated shorts aimed at young viewers (as opposed to the box-set tins intended for adult collectors). “Funny Factory With Mickey” offers seven full-length classic Mouse shorts (“Mickey And The Seal,” “Mr. Mouse Takes A Trip,” “Moose Hunters,” “Mickey’s Parrot,” “The Pointer,” “Magician Mickey,” “Tugboat Mickey,” And “R’coon Dawg”). The second volume, “Funny Factory With Donald,” also sports seven shorts (“Canvas Back Duck,” “Donald’s Cousin Gus,” “Daddy Duck,” “Window Cleaners,” “Self Control,” “Contrary Condor,” and “Donald’s Golf Game”). Though there are some classics here, the short duration makes these best left for small children, with Disney’s low-price a reflection of their brief but sweet content.

Criterion January: Bergman and Kurosawa

Two new titles join The Criterion Collection this month.

Ingmar Bergman’s THE VIRGIN SPRING (1960, 89 mins.) is one of the auteur’s most renowned and celebrated films: a tale of vengeance in medieval Sweden where a young virgin is raped and murdered on her way to church. The men responsible for her death later seek food and shelter from her parents, who ultimately discover the nature of their crimes and enact revenge.

Haunting and eloquently filmed, this 89-minute meditation on religion, forgiveness and redemption is regarded as one of Bergman’s more accessible works. The picture’s straightforward plot enables the director to craft a dark, intermittently moving tale with plenty for scholars to dissect.

Criterion’s black-and-white, 1:33 transfer appears in solid condition with new commentary from Bergman expert Birgitta Steene. Ang Lee provides an introduction to the film, while recent interviews with actresses Gunnel Lindblom and Birgitta Pettersson are also on-hand. Criterion has also included an audio tape of a 1975 AFI seminar with Bergman, an optional English dubbed soundtrack, and a 28-page booklet with essays from Pete Cowie and Ulla Isaksson, a letter from Bergman on the picture’s rape scene, and the text of the medieval ballad on which the story is based.

Criterion’s other noteworthy new release this month is THE BAD SLEEP WELL (***, 1963, 150 mins.), Akira Kurosawa’s interesting variation on themes from “Hamlet,” starring Toshiro Mifune as a businessman climbing the ladder of corporate Japan, who finds out that the father of his new bride is responsible for his own father’s murder.

Impressively shot in scope, this long but fascinating film offers terrific performances from the cast but none more praiseworthy than Mifune, displaying his range here as the tragic protagonist at the heart of this contemporary noir with a dose of Shakespeare thrown in for good measure. The movie is a bit overlong and is paced on the leisurely side, but Kurosawa scholars will find much to savor in the 1963 production.

Criterion’s new DVD includes a remastered 2.35 transfer with improved English subtitles, as well as a 14-page booklet and a 40-minute extract from the “Akira Kurosawa: It’s Wonderful To Create” documentary, centering on “The Bad Sleep Well.” Recommended viewing.

New TV on DVD From Geneon

THE JUDY GARLAND SHOW Featuring Tony Bennett and Steve Lawrence (1963, 100 mins.)
THE JUDY GARLAND SHOW Featuring Peggy Lee and Ethel Merman (1964, 100 mins)

Judy Garland’s weekly CBS series suffered through a turbulent single season on the air, with the show’s format changing several times, along with the behind-the-scenes personnel responsible for it. The end result was a major disappointment for the network, but one still highly sought by Garland fans.

Geneon’s two volume, single-disc DVD releases offer four shows from the series’ brief run: Episodes 5 and 6 offer guest stars Tony Bennett and Dick Shawn, along with Steve Lawrence and June Allyson. These early shows also co-star Jerry Van Dyke, who was a regular until the first group of producers (and the show’s format) changed midway through the year.

The other volume contains Episodes 13 and 16, which mix up the format with more sketches and, overall, a lighter tone. Episode 13 offers Peggy Lee and Jack Carter, with Episode 16 featuring Garland and Ethel Merman, plus comic Shelley Berman and dancer-choreographer Peter Gennaro. This episode (minus Van Dyke) includes Garland performing “Battle Hymn of the Republic” just a few weeks after JFK’s assassination.

Geneon’s DVD includes both a remixed 5.1 soundtrack in addition to the original mono tracks, plus outtakes and commentary (on the Bennett/Lawrence disc). Affordable and superbly-packaged, these discs are a must for Garland aficionados, splendidly preserving one of the noteworthy star-driven disappointments in TV history.

New From Dreamworks

RED EYE (***, 2005). 85 mins., PG-13, Dreamworks. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Commentary by Wes Craven; Outtakes, bloopers, two Making Of featurettes; 2.40 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Rachel McAdams and Cillian Murphy make for an attractive, appealing pair of young passengers on a delayed flight from Texas to Florida. The only hitch? McAdams’ job at a posh Miami hotel has something to do with Murphy’s presence on-board, not to mention the fact that the Homeland Security director is about to arrive there just as their plane hits the ground...

“Red Eye” might have aspirations of being a more intelligent kind of thriller, and for a while it is, with Carl Ellsworth’s script offering amusing dialogue between McAdams’ heroine and Murphy’s devil-in-disguise bad guy. Director Wes Craven expertly paces this little B-movie with not a wasted minute, but the film ultimately turns into a routine chase picture -- one that’s well-executed, admittedly -- with a silly ending that’s difficult to take seriously. Not that it ultimately matters, since “Red Eye” is plenty of fun for what it is, and frankly I could watch McAdams in any project and come away at least partially satisfied (after all, I did manage to give a fairly decent review to even one of her first Hollywood pictures -- the innocuous Rob Schneider comedy “The Hot Chick” -- a couple of years ago!).

Dreamworks’ DVD looks great in 2.40 Widescreen and sports an active 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack. Supplements aren’t bountiful but will still provide some insight for fans, including a commentary by Craven and other members of the crew, an outtake/blooper reel, and two standard Making Of featurettes.

Recommended for a dark, stormy winter’s night with plenty of popcorn on-hand.

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