Aisle Seat Valentine's Edition

Andy Covers New '80s Catalog DVDs
Plus: Do You Still Believe in MIRACLEs?
By Andy Dursin

As much as I try and keep up with the weekly deluge of new DVD releases, a few titles inevitably slip through the cracks. Often times these can be catalog titles -- older movies just making their debut on DVD, or perhaps being re-issued for the first time in a while. I thought this week would be the perfect time to focus in on a few of these discs, which come from a diverse backdrop of genres.

Disney has recently re-issued a handful of live-action titles they had cast off to Anchor Bay a few years ago. These include RETURN TO OZ and one of my personal favorites, MIDNIGHT MADNESS. While review copies of these titles were not available, my sources tell me these are simply straight re-issues of the older Anchor Bay discs, albeit with spiffy new packaging. (Incidentally, while I'm at it, if you're a fan of '70s Disney live-action flicks -- say, THE BLACK HOLE -- you'd better track down those DVDs immediately. Nearly all of the Anchor Bay-released Disney DVDs are out-of-print, and until the studio confirms a re-issue of these pictures on their own label, they're going to fetch a pretty penny among collectors for some time to come).

This isn't the case, though, with Fox's new DVD of the underrated Arnold Schwarzenegger action-fest RAW DEAL (**1/2, 106 mins., R; Fox).

The 1986 DeLaurentiis Entertainment Group release had never been treated right on video: even back in the halcyon days of laserdisc, Lumivision released an ugly-looking letterboxed LD. That was followed by a very early, 1998 Anchor Bay DVD that was derived from the same source materials. The result? Unquestionably one of the ugliest DVD transfers of all-time, with compression artifacts and other issues plaguing the disc, which has been out of print on this side of the Atlantic for some time.

Fear not, Arnold fans: somehow, Fox acquired the rights to the movie, and last week the new DVD flew in under the radar with little fanfare. Too bad, since the DVD boasts an immeasurably improved new 16:9 transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound -- a gigantic upgrade on the old Anchor Bay release.

Sure, "Raw Deal" may not be classic Arnold, but it's a nevertheless entertaining flick with some distinguished personnel behind it -- cinematographer Alex Thomson, film editor Anne V. Coates, and director John Irvin among them. Forget about the obvious North Carolina locales and "Music Design by Cinemascore" and you're likely to enjoy this formulaic but fun action-revenge flick, especially now that you can see the original widescreen dimensions clearly for the first time on video.

Another catalog title that arrived with scant fanfare last week was the DVD premiere of Bob Rafelson's sexy 1987 thriller BLACK WIDOW (***, 101 mins., R; Fox).

Released pretty much at the tail end of Debra Winger's commercial viability, this slick slice of noir stars Winger as an FBI agent on the trail of a wealthy widower (Theresa Russell) who seems to have a knack for picking out husbands who die shortly thereafter -- leaving her with their fortunes. "Guest stars" Dennis Hopper and Nicol Williamson are just two of her victims, which leads Winger to Hawaii where Russell is about to prey on her latest target (Sami Frey).

Some complained at the time of the film's release that it didn't go far enough in dissecting the relationship between Winger and Russell, but "Black Widow" is nevertheless a stylish and well-acted piece of commercial film making. Conrad Hall's cinematography is the perfect compliment to a movie that boasts a compelling script (by Ron Bass) and an effective, low key score by Michael Small.

Fox's DVD offers both 1.85 and full-screen transfers with a nicely textured Dolby Surround soundtrack. Extras include the original trailer and several TV spots. My only carp is the bland, boring cover art, which was used in place of the movie's original, stylish one-sheet poster.

If bad '80s horror is your thing, you can do much worse than to check out the guilty- pleasure effort THE KISS (**, 98 mins., 1988, R; Columbia TriStar).

Made at the height of star Meredith Salenger's popularity (right after "Natty Gann" and during her "Dream a Little Dream"/"Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon" phase), this unintentionally funny horror opus was produced and directed by the team of Pen Densham and John Watson.

A few years later, the duo would be involved with box-office hits like "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" and "Backdraft," but this initial offering from their "Trilogy Film Productions" is a hoot for all the wrong reasons.

Salenger plays an Albany, N.Y. teen whose mysterious aunt (Joanna Pacula) appears out of nowhere -- along with a succession of grizzly deaths done so often in the wake of our favorite anti-Christ, Damien Thorn. It turns out that Pacula inherited a strange curse as a child in the Congo, which basically means she has some kind of serpent-monster inside her that needs both blood AND a younger family member to carry on the tradition of blood, guts, and '80s gore.

There's little surprising or scary about "The Kiss," but seeing Salenger run around screaming -- complete with a synth-heavy score from J. Peter Robinson -- was enough to bring back some fond memories of renting the VHS and taking a few time outs from playing "Super Mario Bros. 2" on my NES for this reviewer.

Columbia TriStar's DVD is '80s horror done right on disc: the 16:9 enhanced transfer looks great and the Dolby Surround stereo is likewise fine. Alas, no extras are included aside from trailers for other Columbia horror movies.

Finally, from horror of the creepy-crawly kind to horror of the comedic variety, we come to Paramount's recent release of the 1984 Dudley Moore vehicle BEST DEFENSE (*1/2, 94 mins., R; Paramount).

This forgettable war comedy was one of several mid-'80s releases to deal with crazy military shenanigans (the likewise-forgettable James Garner-C. Thomas Howell flick "Tank" being this film's counterpart from 1984), and is best remembered for boasting the unusual credit billing "Strategic Guest Star: Eddie Murphy" above the title.

Murphy's appearance is fleeting in this Gloria Katz-Willard Huyuck production, which signaled both the beginning of the end for Murphy's box-office Midas touch, and the harbinger of things to come for the filmmakers: "Howard the Duck" would follow just a couple of years later (though, in reality, it's a much better movie than "Best Defense").

Moore plays a government engineer who builds a war machine coveted by the KGB -- and is subsequently tested out by you-know-who. Kate Capshaw appears (likely as a favor to her "Temple of Doom" scribes Huyuck and Katz) along with Helen Shaver in token female roles in a very dated yet watchable comedy that boasts a Mancini-like Patrick Williams score and only a few minor laughs during its 94 minute running time.

Paramount's DVD looks fine in 1.85 and includes a mono soundtrack. No extras are included.

Aisle Seat DVD Pick of the Week

With Valentine's Day coming up this weekend, it wouldn't be proper of me to not recommend a title ideally suited for the occasion (and whatever you do, DON'T rent the godawful, so-bad-it's-bad horror movie "Valentine," which ranks as one of the most hideous films of the last decade).

Paramount's latest Peanuts DVD certainly should fit the bill: A CHARLIE BROWN VALENTINE (***, 2002, 74 mins. total; Paramount), which includes a recent animated special along with a pair of vintage cartoons.

The former is the disc's main attraction: an engaging 2002 collection of Charles M. Schulz vignettes, related to Valentine's Day with Charlie Brown hunting after the little girl with the red hair and Snoopy tossing out his own cards for the event.

A lot of the recent specials haven't captured the atmosphere and essence of the Schulz strips and the early Bill Melendez-Lee Mendelson cartoons, which makes "A Charlie Brown Valentine" especially recommendable. The Korean-drawn animation is nicely- detailed and fluid, while David Benoit's score does a beautiful job incorporating a handful of original Vince Guaraldi tracks, giving the whole program a casual, nostalgic feel.

The two specials that round out the disc are both fun if not especially memorable: 1973's "There's No Time For Love, Charlie Brown" is a funny, amusing show with the gang mistaking a supermarket for a museum during a field trip (it also includes a goofy Guaraldi score). "Someday You'll Find Her, Charlie Brown," from 1981, is not one of my favorite Peanuts specials, boasting a saccharine Ed Bogas-Judy Munsen score (with a particularly depressing musical ballad sung near the end) and a notable lack of laughs, as Charlie Brown pursues a girl he sees on TV, only to lose her to Linus' affections.

It's nevertheless another essential disc for Peanuts fans, who will enjoy the colorful, full- frame DVD transfers (the source materials vary from pristine to somewhat grainy on the older shows). Extras include trailers for other Peanuts DVDs, the next of which -- "Lucy Must Be Traded, Charlie Brown" -- will be available just in time for the start of the baseball season.

New In Theaters

MIRACLE (**1/2): Though we all share a common love of film and obviously movie music at Film Score Monthly, each of us has other interests that have nothing to do with the industry.

Case in point: I am a sports fanatic, and, specifically, a hockey fan. I've grown up watching college hockey and spent several years covering games in the Hockey East conference for US College Hockey Online (do a Google search under my name and you'll even find a recap I wrote of a PC-Brown "Mayor's Cup" skirmish from a few years back).

I've interviewed great coaches like Jack Parker and Jerry York, been outside locker rooms with guys like Mike Eruzione and Jim Craig -- two key members of the 1980 Gold Medal-winning USA Hockey Team.

I mention my familiarity and love of the game because as much as I wanted to like the new Disney release "Miracle," there are too many problems in the picture to fully recommend it. This is a workmanlike, routine film not so much about the group of college kids who rose up to beat the USSR in what has been widely acknowledged as the most dramatic American sporting event of the 20th century, but rather focuses on the man -- the late coach Herb Brooks -- who brought them there.

That leaves Kurt Russell to carry the show as the uncompromising Brooks, who brings a collection of young men together with rigid practices and tactics one would think are just a little bit insane, all in an effort to beat the unbeatable Soviets and capture the Gold at the 1980 Lake Placid games.

It's the kind of story that should make for a marvelous movie, but unfortunately "Miracle" isn't it. Both Eric Guggenheim's script and Gavin O'Connor's direction lack the spark to make the material come alive, compounded by what appears to have been a budget better suited for a made-for-TV film.

Scenes involving Brooks and his wife (Patricia Clarkson) don't ring true, while major international events that occurred during the period -- the gas shortage, the Iranian hostage crisis -- are sloppily thrown in an effort to tell the audience that things weren't so good for us back in the late '70s. (These are many of the exact same clips used in HBO and ESPN documentaries on the team from years past -- both of which were more effective and emotional in chronicling the team than this film).

But what's most frustrating about the way in which the story is told is that none of the players on the team are developed at all. You get no sense of the individuals and their interactions with one another -- something even the 1981 made-for-TV film "Miracle On Ice" (with Karl Malden as Brooks) was able to do fairly well.

It's a real disappointment that ends up making the Olympic team itself -- a collection of heroes, great players from both eastern and western hockey -- into a faceless crowd, one player virtually indistinguishable from the next. If someone walked into the theater without knowing who Mike Eruzione was, for example, they'd have absolutely no idea what his accomplishments were on the team after watching the film. I kept wondering who Dave Silk was supposed to be, where Davey Christian was, etc. etc.

It also doesn't help that the movie never feels "real." What separates great sports movies from the rest of the pack is authenticity, and here "Miracle" comes up short. Films like "Rudy" and "Hoosiers" gave you a strong sense of time and place, using actual locations in an effort to realistically re-stage events.

In this day and age, there should be no reason why the actual venues where the Olympic games were played weren't used -- or at least CGI mock-ups of them. Here, though, it's painfully obvious one or two rinks in British Columbia were used in place of all the real locations -- resulting in claustrophobically staged hockey scenes that give you no sense of speed or the intensity of the game itself. That the crowds contain modern-day stand-ins (and cardboard cut-outs) is also inexcusable for a movie like this.

I could go on -- especially about Mark Isham's bland, boring score (also a deficit) -- but I think by now I've raked "Miracle" over the coals enough. While Russell's performance is commendable and the movie likely satisfying for viewers who know little about the sport or the team, it comes up short on several levels. Perhaps if filmmakers with a vision for capturing a moment that meant so much to this nation were given a more workable budget to put the film together, "Miracle" could have soared.

As it is, it's ironic that -- for a movie that's supposed to be about teamwork -- that "Miracle" concentrates on one individual instead. That's something I doubt Herb Brooks himself would have wanted to see. (PG, 136 mins.)

Aisle Seat Mail Bag

From Andrew Shepherd:

Regarding Super 35 original photography composed for optical (or digital intermediate) conversion to 2.35 anamorphic theatrical release prints being rematted to 1.85 for DVD release, you are largely correct that such a technique can generally be utilized to preserve the full-frame width of the original aspect ratio while providing additional frame height for 4:3 or 16:9 television viewing, as most Super 35 is shot w/ a hard-matte at 1.66/1.78/1.85 or even open-matte. Additionally, 1.78/1.85 far more efficiently & effectively suits itself to 16:9 anamorphic video transfer, particularly for display on 16:9 screens or 4:3 screens w/ vertical raster compression. However, liberalizing the vertical framing of Super 35 for DVD issue is not entirely w/o caveat:
* The Super 35 original photography must not have used a 2.35 hard-matte in camera.
* Not all Super 35 photography uses a vertically-centered safe-area. Some Super 35 is referred to as "common-headroom" or "top-extraction" Super 35. In such cases, there is no additional headroom w/in the frame, as the 2.35 composition & extraction comes against the topline of the Academy silent frame. If the aspect ratio is loosened vertically for DVD, all additional image will be footroom, possibly resulting in an imbalanced composition.
* All FX shots must have been rendered vertically to the desired video aspect ratio, not only to the 2.35 theatrical aspect ratio, otherwise a slight pan & scan will have to be used to extract the 1.78/1.85 window from the affected 2.35 FX scenes. The same is true, perhaps even more so, of open-matte 1.85 Academy sound frame (i.e. 1.85 "flat") being transferred to video at 1.33. Any FX shots not fully rendered to 1.33 will have to be selectively panned & scanned for the 1.33 window while the non-FX open-matte photography can be transferred intact.
* Finally, 2.35 just looks aesthetically, dare I say, more cinematically pleasing.
As a still photographer who shoots primarily 6x6, a square medium-format, I most certainly do appreciate the judicious use of matting &/or cropping or lack thereof. But, even more so, I recognize the artistic importance & power of previsualization. Thus, if I were a DP, I would not want some director, who likely may not be facile w/ photography, mucking w/ my finely tuned 2.35 compositions in video post, largely for the benefit of the unwashed masses among whom many still cannot seem to wrap their brains around the concept of letterboxing, that less can actually be more - physically &/or aesthetically, that it is okay for the "piture" to not always occupy every single square inch of available video screen.
All that being said, and while we may disagree, I applaud the fact that you even broach the topic of Super 35 theatrical versus video aspect ratio and do so in a knowledgeable manner.

Andrew, thanks for the email, and I do understand your POV and would agree with many of your thoughts. As I'm sure you'd agree, I just think it boils down to what particular project it happens to be. James Cameron's THE ABYSS and TRUE LIES were shot in Super 35 and happen to have been as much composed for 1.33 as 2.35. If you don't believe me, read his liner notes that were included in the full-frame LaserDisc box-set of THE ABYSS, where he clearly states the movie is "as valid" in 1.33 as 2.35.

You can't say that any DP using Super 35 is composing ONLY for 2.35. Sometimes it may well be the case, but at other times he/she may be using both aspect ratios equally. Like anything else, it depends on the project.

From Tim Burden:

Dear Andy,

Greetings! I'm sure you have covered this before, but I must have missed it. Why did Universal pull its special edition release of Duel on DVD? Contractual reasons or because of Mr Spielberg not being happy with the disc?

I needed to do a little research on this -- which unfortunately didn't turned up anything. Basically, all I've been able to find out is that the DVD is finished, Amazon shipped a few copies out to customers back in December, and for no apparent reason Universal delayed it -- again!

The bottom line is -- we'll see it. For real. Soon. Hopefully!


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