Aisle Seat Pre-March Madness Edition!


March is just a week away, and for the majority of American sports fans, the end of February means one thing: the coming of March Madness.

The sights, the sounds, and the tension of playoff basketball on the high school and collegiate levels make the month of March an annual rite for players and fans alike. Few sporting events bring the excitement and tension of the NCAA post-season, and from small towns to major cities across the land, high school basketball packs in fans from large auditoriums to small gymnasiums.

It’s the perfect time for MGM to release the long-overdue, first-ever Special Edition package of the 1987 classic HOOSIERS (****, 114 mins., PG), rightly regarded by many as The Greatest Sports Film Ever Made.

Beautifully and authentically shot on location in Indiana, backed by a loving script accurate to time and place, and superbly performed by Gene Hackman, Barbara Hershey, Dennis Hopper and a cast of unknowns, “Hoosiers” tells a fictionalized account of a real event: the small Indiana town of Milan’s improbable 1954 run to the coveted State Championship, where they won the title game in dramatic fashion over Muncie. It’s a win that anyone associated with Indiana basketball (or high school basketball anywhere) still talk about, a veritable “Rocky” tale that cynics would decry as a cliche had it not actually happened.

Writer Angelo Pizzo and director David Anspaugh (who would later collaborate to produce another outstanding, true-life sports story, “Rudy,” in 1993) changed some of the names and added various dramatic elements in its central characters – from Hackman’s hardened new coach to Hopper’s alcoholic player parent and Hershey’s disapproving teacher – but the core of the Milan story remained intact. More over, the duo opted to shoot the film on-location during the fall, in venues where the “Hickory Huskers” might well have played during the early ‘50s. They even staged the film’s climactic game in Indianapolis’ Butler Field House, where the actual 1954 game did, in fact, occur – complete with real fans watching an expert re-enactment of the game’s conclusion.

Everything about the movie, from Fred Murphy’s cinematography down to Jerry Goldsmith’s marvelous score, rings true. Few sports films capture the moment and the feeling of importance to a community that “Hoosiers” does, and one needn’t be a basketball aficionado to mine the picture’s rich treasures.

“Hoosiers” has been released so many times on video by different labels that it’s not surprising that it’s never really been given the treatment it’s deserved.

Originally released on video tape and disc by HBO, then by Vestron because of legal battles between Hemdale (which produced the film) and Orion (which released it), the DVD saga of this outstanding 1986 basketball story was likewise similar.

LIVE Home Video (now Lions Gate) released HOOSIERS on DVD in 1997 but discontinued the disc because the rights somehow reverted back to Orion, which itself had been acquired by MGM. LIVE pulled their DVD after several months of circulation, and MGM released their own DVD in 2000 that had a disappointing transfer and muddled 5.1 Dolby Digital track both inferior to the earlier LIVE DVD.

MGM’s newly remastered, two-disc presentation (due out next week, but serves as this week’s Aisle Seat DVD Pick of the Week) isn’t perfect either – there’s a bit of edge-enhancement here and there – but it’s basically on par with the LIVE release and also has the added benefit of being enhanced for 16:9 televisions. The 5.1 Dolby Digital track is still relatively weak: there’s little bass and less surround activity than the 2.0 Dolby Surround track from the LIVE disc, but it’s acceptable, and seems to have been improved at least from MGM’s previous DVD.

Where MGM’s disc shines is in its special features. As you might anticipate, the commentary by Angelo Pizzo and David Anspaugh is a revelation for any “Hoosiers” fan. The duo discuss working on location (they passed up an offer to shoot the film in Canada for more money), casting mostly inexperienced young actors, and details on where the movie was shot.

A half-hour documentary, “Hoosier History: The Truth Behind The Legend,” is a superb look at the real Milan high school team, Pizzo’s adaptation, and the production of the film. Pizzo, Anspaugh, Hackman and Hopper are on-hand, along with surviving members of the Milan team, and even current Indiana Pacers like Reggie Miller and coach Rick Carlisle. It’s a nice primer on the story behind the film and includes footage of the actual 1954 game which is also (unbelievably) included in its entirety from the University of Indiana archives. The footage is rough but watchable (gotta love those days before shot clocks!) and includes radio play-by-play, though sadly, this archival treasure fades out as soon as the game is over (one can only assume what the celebration was like!).

A full half-hour of deleted scenes are also fascinating. More than your usual DVD filler, these scenes are interesting asides to the main film, though one can see why most were excised. Pizzo and Anspaugh are on-hand to give comments on why each sequence was cut, with several scenes better detailing the relationship between Hackman’s Norman Dale and Hershey’s Myra Fleener. Having seen “Hoosiers” dozens of times since its national release in the early months of 1987, I found these scenes to be intriguing in their relation to the plot and how the filmmakers shaped their work. MGM has rounded out this essential release with the original trailer.

In all, this is a spectacular and much-deserved Special Edition for a fabulous film that’s become an annual tradition for many viewers. Highly, highly recommended!

Also Coming Next Week

EXORCIST: THE BEGINNING (**½, 2004). 113 mins., R, Warner Home Video. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Director Commentary, Trailer, Featurette; 2.35 Widescreen, 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital sound.

Forget the bad press, most of which came from people who didn’t even see the film, and try to block out memories of the 1973 original. If you can, you may be pleasantly surprised by this hastily-shot but compelling prequel to “The Exorcist,” which was cursed by production woes resulting in no less than two completely different films having been shot over a span of a year by two very different directors (first Paul Schrader, then Renny Harlin).

Granted, the released “Exorcist: The Beginning” isn’t without some flaws, including bad CGI that was directly a result of the film having been rushed into theaters. Director Harlin's action background also results in a less-than-subtle film that feels more like a horror/action hybrid than a pure supernatural chiller, but the finished film does boast a number of positive attributes, namely a  superb performance by Stellan Skarsgard.

Skarsgard’s Father Merrin is a tortured soul trying to rediscover his faith and place in the world, and does so while he takes on the vile demon Pazzuzu for the first time in late ‘40s Africa. His performance anchors an uneven but generally satisfying film boasting several well-executed sequences and a few effective references to the original classic built into the script. Also commendable is an effective plot twist near the end and Harlin's opening prologue, the last shot of which is deftly reprised at the end.

The movie does have some goofy moments, including a climax that's awkwardly shot, but the visuals courtesy of cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and a better-than-expected score by Trevor Rabin make for a movie that's nowhere near the embarrassment some claimed that it is.

Warner Bros’ DVD, available next week, includes a commentary track by Harlin that stresses his film’s rushed development (it was completed in 42 days) and isn’t afraid to point out the picture’s weaknesses (including the CGI). As with all of Harlin’s previous DVD/laserdisc commentaries, the director eloquently speaks about the picture’s objectives and the work of his production team, while obviously steering clear of any discussion of Schrader’s film (Harlin only mentions his orders were to deliver a more “suspenseful” work). The effective theatrical trailer is included along with a very brief Making Of featurette.

Visually, the 2.35 transfer is excellent, and Warner has done a commendable job including a dynamic DTS mix that surpasses the 5.1 Dolby Digital track also included on the DVD. Recommended, in spite of the film’s shortcomings.

Also New and Recommended This Week

NAUSICAA OF THE VALLEY OF THE WIND (***, 117 mins., PG, 1986)
THE CAT RETURNS (**1/2, 75 mins., G, 1992)
PORCO ROSSO (***, 93 mins., PG, 1995; Disney, all available this week)

Disney has taken great care to “get it right” in their new 2-disc Special Editions of Japanese animator-filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki’s works, and it’s doubtful that Studio Ghibli will be disappointed by the results.

His 1984 effort “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind,” the odd 1992 work “Porco Rosso,” and his 2002 production “The Cat Returns” (directed by Hiroyuki Morita) have each been treated to newly-recorded English dialogue tracks, with the original Japanese language versions also being available (with subtitles).

The THX transfers on each film (all in 1.85, 16:9 enhanced widescreen) are superb, the Dolby Digital tracks nicely repesent Joe Hisaishi’s works (on “Porco Rosso” and “Nausicaa”), and Miyazaki’s original storyboards have been included on each release. Also available is a featurette on the vocal stylings of the new English tracks, offering interviews with talents like Patrick Stewart and Uma Thurman (“Nausicaa”), Michael Keaton and Brad Garrett (“Porco Rosso”), and Anne Hathaway and Cary Elwes (“The Cat Returns”).

The films themselves are a mixed bag: Miyazaki’s early “Nausicaa” is a fan favorite despite its relatively simplistic animation. “Porco Rosso,” meanwhile, is a decidedly offbeat, short Miyazaki work, while the low-key, childlike “Cat Returns” was only produced by Miyazaki, and as such doesn’t hold some of the magic of other Studio Ghibli films. Nevertheless, fans will likely be thrilled by the respectful presentation that Disney has given to all three films, with the promise of more Ghibli productions to follow.

TAXI (**, 97 mins., 2004, PG-13; Fox): Ugh. What more is there to say about this misguided, unfunny Americanization of Luc Besson’s highly successful French action-comedies? Queen Latifah and Jimmy Fallon attempt a forced chemistry, but the Robert Ben Garant-Thomas Lennon-Jim Kouf script gives them so little to work with that it’s hardly their fault. Only a few modestly successful action scenes bring this long-planned remake to life. Fox’s DVD offers deleted scenes, an optional extended version of the film, commentary from director Tim Story and a pair of featurettes. The 2.35 transfer is decent and the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound is just what you’d expect.

DONNIE DARKO: THE DIRECTOR’S CUT (**, 132 mins., 2004 release, R; Fox): Cult movie fans have turned Richard Kelly’s indie fave into a full-blown phenomenon, though my viewing of the “Director’s Cut” only confirmed my suspicions of the theatrical version: namely, what’s the deal? This intentionally weird jigsaw puzzle of a film – complete with ‘80s pop tunes and a giant rabbit – gives you so little to go on that it’s not even up to sub-Lynchian standards, but some critics have already proclaimed it a masterpiece so judge for yourself. Fox’s two-disc Special Edition includes the longer version of the film, commentary from Kelly and Kevin Smith, a production diary, additional featurettes and more. The 2.35 widescreen transfer is excellent and the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound likewise solid.

GARFIELD: TRAVEL ADVENTURES (66 mins., Fox, 2005 release): Fox’s latest compilation of Garfield’s CBS prime-time specials includes three engaging offerings for Garfield fans and kids of all ages: the 1984 Emmy-winner “Garfield in the Rough,” the silly but fun 1986 “Garfield in Paradise,” and the zany 1987 “Garfield Goes Hollywood.” All three efforts are in satisfactory condition but do show the imperfections of the animation, though most fans won’t mind. More “Garfield” is due out soon with a third volume of “Garfield & Friends” and another disc of prime-time specials sometime this spring.

NEXT WEEK: THE BRADY BUNCH arribves on DVD! Don't forget to say Aloha on the Message Boards, direct any emails to the link above and we'll catch you then. Cheers!

NEXT WEEK: More comments and reviews! Don't forget to say Aloha on the Message Boards, direct any emails to the link above and we'll catch you then. Cheers!