There are weeks that go by with few noteworthy DVDs to write about, and then there are times when it seems that studios conspire to burn a hole in your wallet by releasing a slew of exciting titles on the same day. This week is one of those, with some exciting re- issues and Special Editions to compliment a few new movies that are actually worth watching--
OPEN RANGE (***1/2, 2003). 138 mins., R, Touchstone/Buena Vista. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Audio commentary, Making Of with scoring segment, storyboards, 2.35 Widescreen, 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital sound.
Kevin Costner's triumphant return to the western genre is an easy-going, standard sagebrush saga, aided immeasurably by colorful dialogue, excellent cinematography, and amiable performances by its two leads.
Costner plays Jim, a free range cattle herder who works for knowing veteran Boss (Robert Duvall). The two cowboys know their place in the world is coming to an end, but still stand up for what they believe is right after they run into a dastardly Irish rancher (Michael Gambon) who attacks one of their men (Abraham Benrubi). A brief fight ensues, but it's just the beginning of a prolonged, tragic confrontation that sees Gambon's web of corruption extend to the border town where Duvall and Costner find themselves.
"Open Range" is a welcome return to a romantic, old-fashioned western where the good guys and bad guys are clearly defined. Duvall is an affable old coot who's seen it all, and he's perfectly balanced by Costner as a conflicted gunslinger who feels regret over the things he's done. Add in a lovely single frontier woman (Annette Bening) whose brother is the town doctor, and you have the ideal recipe for a traditional romance, a series of shoot-outs, and another glimpse of a way of life fading into the American sunset.
Costner directed the movie from a script by Craig Storper, which walks the fine line of romanticizing the old west -- in lieu of blooming American "civilization" -- and illustrating its harsh reality, especially towards the end. Though Costner conveys a certain sadness for the loss of wide open spaces and life on the range, the movie also draws a contrast in conveying that there was a price to pay for the violence and tragedy that the way of life sometimes carried with it. It's an interesting concept that works in Costner's superb production, which includes a strong score by the late Michael Kamen and terrific cinematography of the Alberta plains by James Muro.
Touchstone's 2-disc Special Edition includes a solid hour-long documentary on the making of the picture, featuring voice-over narration by Costner. It's more introspective and revealing than most DVD documentaries, and includes footage of Michael Kamen recording the score in Prague. Tellingly, Costner frets about the direction of the music and tries to be as "hands on" as he can (watching this, it's no wonder that he went through multiple composers on several pictures he's been involved with). Other extras include a feature-length commentary from the star-director, a storyboarding featurette, a superb 2.35 transfer and an excellent DTS 5.1 soundtrack, which easily trumps the Dolby 5.1 mix also included on the disc.
Side note: the movie was based on a novel by Lauren Paine, which for some curious reason is only mentioned at the tail end of the movie's concluding credit roll.
Nicholas Meyer returned to co-write and direct this final voyage of the original Enterprise crew, and while "The Undiscovered Country" received a wealth of positive reviews when it was initially released, it still comes across -- at least in my eyes -- as an efficient yet somewhat uninspired adventure that's generally entertaining and only a bit pretentious.
This time out, Captain Kirk, Spock and the gang are tabbed for one last mission: to escort a Klingon emissary to a Federation meeting where a peace treaty is to be signed. Of course, something goes seriously awry when the ambassador is assassinated and civility in the galaxy is threatened by the possibility of a full-blown war. It's up to Kirk, Spock and McCoy -- who are convicted for his murder and imprisoned on a snowy planet on the fringes of the universe -- to save the day and stabilize the situation.
Working with a modest budget, Meyer -- who directed "Star Trek II" and co- wrote "Star Trek IV" -- does a good job exploiting his strong suit (clever dialogue) and creating a plot that's more Agatha Christie-like than the usual Trek adventure. Christopher Plummer does a superb job chewing up the scenery as the heavy, but I wish the movie had given the original cast more of a proper send-off than this story gives them.
Certainly "The Undiscovered Country" is fine for what it is, but it doesn't aspire to be seemingly anything more than a better-than-average, more elaborate episode of the show itself. The movie's now-dated political allegory -- with the Klingons obviously representing the Russians in the waning days of the Cold War -- is obvious and Meyer's use of Shakesperean quotes seems heavy-handed, especially for a Star Trek film. More over, there's no real sense of closure at the end of the movie, no real goodbye for a crew that had made its way through three TV seasons and some six features (I don't count a series of on-screen signatures as being a sufficient end). Other disappointments are Cliff Eidelman's overly brooding score (which tries too hard to be different), and a few weak supporting performances (Kim Cattrall's turn as the Vulcan-who-would-be-Saavik is especially underwhelming).
On the other hand, the old favorites -- from Shatner to Nimoy and DeForest Kelly -- are all relaxed and fit right into their classic parts, while the effects by ILM make up for the Bran Ferren disaster on "Star Trek V." It's just a shame the series couldn't have kept on going instead of handing over the reigns to the "Next Generation" cast, which have produced a succession of mostly mediocre films to date.
Paramount's 2-disc Collector's Edition DVD is priced right ($20 retail; lower at most outlets) and includes a bevy of bonus features, from Meyer's commentary to a near half-hour Making Of segment sporting interviews with all the major participants. Denise and Michael Okuda's text commentary isn't as detailed as their first few efforts in the series, but it's still a nice compliment to watching the movie, which is presented here in a 1.85 transfer that captures the entire Super 35 frame.
Though there's been some controversy on the usual internet boards about the aspect ratio, the disc transfer is perfect. In theaters, the film was matted to 2.35, but the decision to release the DVD at 1.85 -- made by Nicholas Meyer himself -- to preserve the whole area that was filmed is a sound one, as the picture looks extremely well-composed throughout. (Subsequently, you're not losing any picture information on the sides, but rather gaining information at the top and bottom that were simply masked out in the 2.35 transfer). I wish most Super 35 films were presented this way on DVD, and only the most crazed "Original Aspect Ratio (OAR)" purist will complain about it.
In addition to the "Making Of" proper, there are a handful of shorter (5-10 mins.) featurettes that look at the development of the story, the production, and the final day of shooting. A longer 15-minute segment nicely pays tribute to DeForest Kelley, and there's a short prop tour available for interested fans. Original trailers and storyboards round out a fine DVD that should satisfy all Trek fans, who will soon be looking ahead to the next Paramount disc: a Collector's Edition of "Star Trek: Generations," with its multiple endings and deleted scenes (or at least we hope so!). Maybe that film will become fully watchable in the not-so-distant future.
Terry Gilliam's biggest U.S. box-office hit (and still one of his most satisfying films) gets a much-needed remastering courtesy of the good folks at Anchor Bay. Though "Time Bandits" had been released on DVD several years ago both by Anchor Bay and Criterion (the latter with audio commentary), the transfers on the respective discs were the same: a mere translating of the previous laserdisc master to the DVD medium. This resulted in a disappointing widescreen edition that didn't do justice to the film -- something that's now been rectified by Anchor Bay's 2-disc "Divimax" edition. The new high-definition, 16:9 transfer is sharper, more balanced and satisfying than any previous release of Gilliam's film. Although the movie was made on a modest budget, Gilliam did a superb job making "Time Bandits" appear like a multi-million Hollywood epic, and only this new DVD does full justice to the picture's accomplished visual design.
Anchor Bay has also included a few new supplements to accompany the remastered transfer: "The Directors: The Films of Terry Gilliam" ran on Encore a few years ago, and it's a nicely balanced portrait of the filmmaker, with comments from many stars who worked with the director; a newer interview with Gilliam and co-writer/fellow Python member Michael Palin; trailers; and the original script as a DVD-ROM extra. The only disappointment with the DVD comes in the overly "airy" 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack, which notably lacks any bass. For whatever reason, the 2.0 Dolby Surround mix (also included on the DVD) will make your subwoofer work harder than the 5.1 mix, and is generally more satisfying.
PLANET OF THE APES: 35th Anniversary Edition (****, 1968), Available February 3rd. 112 mins., G, Fox. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Commentary by Jerry Goldsmith; commentary by John Chambers, Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowall; Full-length "Behind the Planet of the Apes" documentary; featurettes, trailers; text commentary; 2.35 Widescreen (16:9 enhanced), 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital sound.
Two-disc re-issue of the original and best film in the "Planet of the Apes" series boasts a newly enhanced 16:9 transfer and a few new supplements, including a commentary track by Jerry Goldsmith.
Goldsmith is on-hand to talk about his experience working with Franklin F. Schaffner, utilizing early synthesizers and divulging some of the tricks he employed to create the movie's unusual soundscape. The composer is candid about his relationship with the filmmaker and the strengths and weaknesses of the movie, including the decision to play the climactic twist ending without music (Goldsmith says that Charlton Heston was a bit over the top by himself, and didn't need any score to accompany him!). Note that this is a commentary track and NOT an isolated score with composer comments -- I'm not sure if the early news about this DVD was incorrect or not, but anyone anticipating an isolated score should be aware that there isn't one here.
For other new supplements, Fox's 35th Anniversary Edition adds a strong text commentary track (filled with excellent ancedotes), and a secondary audio commentary with Kim Hunter, John Chambers, and the late Roddy McDowall, which obviously was cobbled together from old interviews. While this might have been a good idea, the track is so sporadic in nature that you might think someone made a mistake in the editing department (long stretches of time go by with no commentary at all).
Far better is the inclusion, on the second disc, of the outstanding "Behind the Planet of the Apes" two-hour documentary. This is the same documentary that AMC produced for the Apes' 30th Anniversary a few years ago, but it's still the best single program made about the creation of the series. Also on the supplemental disc are a handful of vintage featurettes and trailers, from a NATO reel to even brief footage of Don Taylor and J. Lee Thompson directing the third and fourth entries in the series, respectively. Nearly 20 minutes of Roddy McDowall's home movies are also included, and the transfer on these materials is surprisingly pristine.
While a few of these featurettes and the documentary were previously released by Image in their excellent 2-disc "Behind the Planet of the Apes" DVD set (which also contained an unedited, two-hour interview with McDowall that's worth the price of that release alone), Fox has upped the ante of this "Apes" DVD by remastering the film itself in 16:9 and including 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital soundtracks. Those with huge plasma TVs may see a striking difference between this DVD and the previous release, though truth be told they looked comparable on my standard TV set, with the new transfer appearing slightly more colorful. The soundtracks also sound identical -- DTS doesn't do a whole lot to increase the fidelity of late '60s theatrical sound.
Nevertheless, the addition of the text anecdotes, Goldsmith's
and a few new featurettes will make this "Apes" edition a definite
for fans, while the inclusion of the two-hour documentary makes this,
the definitive DVD release of the 1968 sci-fi classic to date.
RADIO (**1/2, 2003). 109 mins., PG, Columbia TriStar. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Director commentary; deleted scenes; Making Of featurettes; 1.85 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.
Earnest, well-meaning and sincerely performed tale of a handicapped man (Cuba Gooding Jr.) who aids a South Carolina high school's athletic program, thanks in large part to the efforts of a good-hearted, uncompromising coach (Ed Harris).
Mike Tollin's film was a sleeper hit in theaters last fall, and certainly has its heart in the right place. Gooding is terrific as usual in a demanding part, while Harris gives a typically strong performance and Debra Winger appears in an adequate supporting turn as his wife. They're all superb, which makes Mike Rich's heavy-handed script doubly disappointing. Instead of developing the relationship between "Radio," the coach, and the surrounding community, Rich's script goes for a repetitive melodramatic structure -- Radio inspires the kids, something bad happens, Coach bails him out -- and throws in a ridiculous antagonist in a pencil-pushing school board member investigating whether Radio should be "assisting" the sports teams and attending classes.
It's a pedestrian script that puts a damper on an otherwise first-class production, from Don Burgess' atmospheric cinematography to James Horner's somewhat overly- bombastic score. "Radio" is a "nice" movie that's suitable for all ages, and is an inspiring story that shines through the picture's problems.
Columbia TriStar's DVD features an excellent 1.85 transfer with 5.1
Dolby Digital sound. Horner's score is "Field of Dreams"-ish right from
the start and isn't one of the composer's stronger efforts, but it
works overtime (if not too hard) to back the drama. Extras include a
track by the director, deleted scenes, Making Of featurettes and
UPTOWN GIRLS (**, 2003). 92 mins., PG-13, MGM. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Deleted Scenes, Making Of featurette, music video, trailer, video stills gallery; 1.85 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.
Brittany Murphy is a rocker teen who needs to scrounge up some funds. Her solution is to take charge of a precocious nine-year-old (Dakota Fanning) whose mom (Heather Locklear) predictably doesn't have time for her daughter. The two forge a bond and help each other get over their respective issues -- namely, their isolation and loneliness -- in director Boaz Yakin's disjointed comedy-drama, which can't seem to figure out if it's a teen movie, a kid movie, a soaper, or portions of all three.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that no fewer than four screenwriters worked on this would-be charming fantasy, which takes place in New York and benefits from on-location cinematography by Michael Ballhaus. Unfortunately, neither can compensate for the picture's workmanlike and pedestrian script, which veers from comedy to drama and isn't especially successful in either category. More over, both of the lead characters come across as "movie people" instead of real ones: Murphy seems to be straining to convey the tormented nature of her role, while Fanning's moppet is predictably too intelligent for her years. (The movie's pet pig is more appealing than either character).
MGM's DVD offers a colorful 1.85 transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound. Extras here include deleted scenes, a fluffy Making Of segment, a music video and video stills gallery, plus the original trailer.