Aisle Seat Spring Training Edition


Plus: The Mail Bag and New Family Finds

By Andy Dursin

Great commentary tracks can enrich a DVD, regardless of how bad a film may happen to be. Unfortunately, in this day and age of lawsuits and industry politics, candid commentaries are becoming a relic of the past. Most commentary talks, as I've mentioned time and time again, are tepid love-fests where the director or lead actor schmoozes about how much they enjoyed working on the film and with each other -- basically cashing a check as part of the "filmmaking process."

Fortunately, three recent commentaries buck that trend, and prove to be as entertaining -- or in one case, far more enjoyable -- than watching the movie they're accompanying.

Fox's new five-disc RAQUEL WELCH COLLECTION (approx. $39) offers the DVD debut of several releases starring the sexy leading lady of the late '60s and early '70s.

Among the films making their debut in this set is the infamous 1970 disaster MYRA BRECKINRIDGE (*, 94 mins.), a would-be social satire based on Gore Vidal's similarly-controversial bestseller that turned out to be one of the most nightmarish productions ever undertaken by Twentieth Century Fox.

Rex Reed plays "Myron," a movie critic who has a sex change operation and resumes his life in the form of none other than Raquel. "Myra" then decides to take revenge on the American male (or something like that) by running a drama school owned by her uncle (John Huston), taking on a casting agent (an over-the-hill Mae West), and falling for a lovely fiancee (Farrah Fawcett) who just wants to be married and settle down.

It's a bizarre, surreal, and tiresome assembly of scenes that are so dated and/or jumbled that you can't quite be sure what Michael Sarne's film is commenting on. Strange musical numbers and clips from old Fox movies (which ultimately formed the basis for lawsuits brought by Shirley Temple and Loretta Young) are interspersed in a movie so incoherent that you'd have to assume a few folks behind the lens were on something (as it turns out, they were!).

Fox's Special Edition DVD boasts two commentary tracks -- one by Michael Sarne, who attempts to discuss what's going on in the movie, the other by Raquel Welch, who opens up by saying "John Huston -- too bad didn't DIRECT this movie!" Welch is very funny and extremely candid about the film, talking about the disastrous production, script issues, and countless problems that occurred behind the scenes. She admits her dislike for the picture, and when she tries to be diplomatic about how the film touched upon cultural-sexual issues years ahead of its time, Welch adds that she "doesn't mean to throw bouquets at it" because it doesn't deserve it. Sarne, meanwhile, takes it all in stride, ultimately admitting if you don't understand the ending (this is AFTER he's told you what happened), then perhaps the whole film should have been re-shot! (Perhaps the reported drug use during production clouded everyone's judgment).

Indeed, it's hard to imagine a turkey this large ever being produced by a major studio. Who knows why Fox didn't shut the movie down and replace Sarne, who came into the production having made one British period film of the late '60s ("Joanna"), and proved he was in over his head dealing with the haphazard script (rewritten every day) and egos of stars like Mae West, who specified that she wouldn't share a shot with Welch (and also wouldn't start working until 5pm each day).

The commentaries enrich an all-time bad movie that has been preserved here in no less than two separate versions: the original theatrical release, as well as a new "Special Edition" that restores one bleeped-bit of profanity and tints the movie's concluding scene in black-and-white (if you've never seen the film, it only adds to the confusion).

Also on the DVD are several trailers and a fascinating AMC "Backstory" episode, sporting interviews with Welch, Sarne, Rex Reed, and then-Fox executive David Brown, who admits only he and Richard Zanuck thought the movie was funny. It's an entertaining examination of a film whose reputation will undoubtedly linger on as long as bad movies continue to be cranked out.

The other four Welch vehicles in the Fox box-set include BANDOLERO! (**1/2, 1968), the entertaining Tom Mankiewicz-Peter Yates film MOTHER JUGS & SPEED (***, 1976), the previously issued FATHOM (**, 1967), and the long-awaited DVD bow of ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. (***, 1967). Unfortunately, the latter has been severely compromised by its abbreviated 91-minute running time (the overseas release ran 100 minutes) and a grainy transfer. Fans of the Hammer cave-girl epic would be far better off checking out the Region 2 Warner Home Video DVD, which sports a superior transfer of the 100-minute cut, as well as new interviews with Raquel and effects master Ray Harryhausen.

With Easter approaching, the time is perfect for a new edition of Cecil B. DeMille's epic THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (***1/2, 220 mins., 1956), which is one of those movies I've respected though have never been especially fond of.

Paramount's affordably-priced ($15 in most outlets) double-disc re-issue includes a few new supplements, most notably an outstanding, informative commentary track from author Katherine Orbison. Orbinson wrote "Written In Stone," an account of the making of the 1956 production, and gives a trivia-filled, insightful discussion on "The Ten Commandments" for all of its 220 minutes! Barely pausing to take a break, Orbison unearths all kinds of nuggets about casting, the logistics involved in filming, DeMille's mindset during production, and pays tribute to both the movie and the Golden Age of Hollywood in general.

The DVD also sports a recently-produced documentary in six parts (which, when viewed together, total just under 45 minutes). This is an enjoyable, though not especially in-depth, overview of the movie, sporting interviews with Charlton Heston and Elmer Bernstein among others. Bernstein discusses how Victor Young's illness enabled him to score the movie, while a full slate of trailers and a vintage newsreel round out the special features.

Visually, the disc reportedly includes the same transfer that was previously issued in Paramount's earlier DVD, and the 1.85 frame looks colorful and strong. Both a 5.1 Dolby Digital mix and a 2.0 Dolby Surround track are included, and each has its advantages: the 5.1 track has more surround presence, while there's more bass in the 2.0 mix.

Newly released this week -- and also sporting an excellent commentary track -- is Artisan/Republic's Special Edition of THE RUNNING MAN (***, 101 mins., 1987, R).

This Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi vehicle was previously released on DVD, back in the format's early days, in a mediocre rehash of the film's laserdisc presentation. Fans can now dispose of that release with this affordable two-disc set, which features a much-improved 16:9 widescreen transfer with 6.1 DTS and 5.1 Dolby Digital remixed soundtracks, a pair of featurettes, and two commentary tracks -- one by director Paul Michael Glaser and producer Tim Zinnemann, and another by executive producer Rob Cohen.

It's Cohen's track that should be of the most interest to movie buffs. Years before he directed films like "Dragon" and "Dragonheart," Cohen served as a production executive for Taft Entertainment Pictures, overseeing films like "The Monster Squad" and "The Running Man."

Though the Arnold vehicle was ultimately a box-office success, the movie started out as a troubled shoot that involved the participation of no fewer than three previous directors. And, unlike many commentaries, Cohen isn't afraid to pull any punches, discussing how George P. Cosmatos was removed (he wanted to rewrite the script and shoot the whole movie in a Canadian mall), how Ferdinand Fairfax was fired, and especially how Andrew Davis was let go very late in the game. Davis proved indecisive about several issues vital to the filming, and when his methods began to push the production back, Cohen let him go as well -- leading him to hire Paul Michael Glaser as a last-minute replacement. Cohen is also candid about the logistics of the movie's shooting, the picture's backstory, and the challenge involved in financing a mid '80s film from a myriad of sources.

It's a terrific commentary for a formulaic but highly entertaining action yarn that's always been a favorite of mine. "The Running Man" offers the requisite Arnold one-liners, an engaging turn by Richard Dawson, and an efficient pace. It's a superior "B-movie" that finally has been given the presentation it deserves on DVD, and with a frank commentary track that -- like "Myra Breckinridge" and "The Ten Commandments" -- reminds you how enriching supplemental features can be, when their speakers actually tell you how it was.

Aisle Seat DVD Pick of the Week

STARSKY AND HUTCH: The Complete First Season (20 hours [23 episodes], 1975-76; Columbia TriStar). DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Promo spots, interviews with David Soul and Paul Michael Glaser, behind-the-scenes featurette and segment on the new movie.

Until "CHIPS" gets a proper DVD release from Warner Home Video, the closest we're going to get to capturing the essence of '70s prime-time cop action is Columbia's terrific first-season box-set of "Starsky & Hutch."

Released to coincide with debut of the new theatrical film, this engaging, high-energy show has weathered the years better than you might expect. From David Soul's patented machismo as Hutch to Paul Michael Glaser's street-smart Starsky (not to mention Antonio Fargas' immortal informant Huggy Bear), "Starsky and Hutch" set the formula for the cop- buddy formula that would be perfected throughout the '80s in movies and TV shows everywhere. The humor and performances make the formula plots seem fresh, while the action scenes are well-done in a '70s network TV kind of way. And as far as Glaser and Soul go, they're the total embodiment of '70s cool. Face it: they've got the Gran Turino revved up, a few cute girls, Lalo Schifrin on the soundtrack, and the bad guys beaten at every turn -- could it have gotten any better for them??

The five-disc DVD box-set offers all 23 episodes from the show's first season on ABC. This includes the original "Movie of the Week" pilot episode, offering Richard Lynch, John Vernon and Michael Lerner as the bad guys in a story that runs 75 minutes. Extras aren't extensive, but do include interviews with Glaser and Soul, three featurettes, and a promotional segment on the making of the new "Starsky and Hutch" movie, which lampoons the old series but isn't as cool -- or as entertaining -- as watching the original show itself.

New Family Fare

LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION (**1/2, 92 mins., PG, 2003; Warner): I'm not sure at exactly what point Joe Dante went from making entertaining movies peppered with campy humor and in-jokes to producing campy movies filled with so many in-jokes that they detracted from the actual stories he was trying to tell. I'm guessing it occurred somewhere along the line in "Gremlins 2," which as entertaining as it was, threw out the suspense of its predecessor as it moved from one joke to the next with an over-abundance of self-parody.

Since making the underrated "Matinee," Dante hasn't directed too many movies in the last decade, and the tepid box-office performance of "Looney Tunes: Back in Action" likely won't help matters. That being said, this is an energetic farce with excellent special effects and animation, though like many of Dante's later works, there are too many instances of nudge- nudge-wink-wink for its own good.

Brendan Fraser certainly doesn't add a whole lot to his resume here as a Warner Bros. security guard whose star father (Timothy Dalton) has disappeared during production of his latest secret agent film. Teaming up with Daffy Duck -- who's just been fired from starring in a new movie with Bugs Bunny -- the duo head to Las Vegas with former studio executive Jenna Elfman and Bugs himself hot on their heels. Involved in Dalton's disappearance -- as well as the hunt for a lost diamond -- is the Acme Corporation, led by none other than villainous Steve Martin.

There are plenty of animation cameos and Dante in-jokes to go around in "Back in Action," from appearances by Kevin McCarthy and Dick Miller to a full-blown quote from Jerry Goldsmith's "Gremlins" score (which sadly is substantially more memorable than anything else in his score from this film). The movie never stops to breathe for a second during its 90-minute running time, and yet it constantly lacks a certain kind of magic: there are too many characters and too much plot for Bugs and Daffy to really come alive, while the human performers -- especially Martin -- seem to be straining to be funny. One of the great elements about "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" was that Bob Hoskins never acted as if he were in a cartoon; in this movie, we're all too aware that the setting, story, and surroundings are strictly synthetic, and as a result the picture becomes tedious.

Warner's DVD includes a picture-perfect, sharp 2.35 transfer with an active 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack. Extras include ten minutes of deleted scenes (including an alternate ending), two Making Of featurettes, and a newly produced Coyote-Road Runner cartoon that I assume played before the movie's theatrical release.

LUCY MUST BE TRADED, CHARLIE BROWN (Paramount, 1967-1992- 2003, 73 mins.): Just in time for Opening Day comes the latest Peanuts DVD release from Paramount. Once again, the studio has done a fine job pairing one of the more recently-produced specials -- last year's "Lucy Must Be Traded, Charlie Brown" -- with two older shows that also touch upon Charlie Brown's perennial losing streak as manager of the Peanuts gang's baseball team.

The 2003 production "Lucy Must Be Traded" is charming and fun, sporting an excellent score by David Benoit and an engaging storyline involving CB ditching Lucy (not because of steroids, but because she's terrible) and picking up Marcie to take her place. It's amiable and nicely drawn, and is complimented by the vintage 1966 special "Charlie Brown's All-Stars," which boasts a fine Vince Guaraldi score and was just the second Peanuts show produced for CBS. Less enjoyable is the 1992 entry "It's Spring Training, Charlie Brown," featuring an annoying electronic score by Judy Munsen and a so-so story involving a businessman who encourages CB and Co. to win by offering the prospects of new uniforms.

The colorful full-frame transfers vary from pristine ("Lucy Must Be Traded") to good ("All-Stars") and a bit soft ("It's Spring Training"). The mono soundtracks are all fine, and Paramount has promised another Peanuts DVD (the recent special "I Want a Dog For Christmas, Charlie Brown") for release at Christmas time.

LIZZIE McGUIRE Vols. 3 and 4 (Disney): Savage Steve Holland strikes again! The former '80s teen movie auteur directed many episodes of the Disney Channel staple "Lizzie McGuire," and Disney's latest DVD compilations are heavy on the Savage Steve. "Star Struck" offers five Holland episodes from the series, centering on celebrity guests (running the gamut from Aerosmith's Steven Tyler to Doris Roberts). "Totally Crushed," meanwhile, sports a pair of Holland shows and another pair helmed by "Cherry 2000" director Steve DeJarnatt, all focusing on the intricacies of tween-age dating. Each disc sports a bonus episode, colorful full-screen transfers and Dolby Digital sound.

WINNIE THE POOH: SPRINGTIME WITH ROO (Disney): Cute new video feature for kids focusing on Roo's attempts to celebrate Easter with Pooh and the gang. The 1.66 widescreen transfer is great, the songs are appealing, and like most Pooh entries, will appeal to kids and fans everywhere. Extras include interactive games for youngsters.

KIM POSSIBLE: A STITCH IN TIME (Disney): Popular Disney Channel cartoon bows on DVD in this full-length (66 minute) feature. The secret- agent spoof is arguably better than most of its Nickelodeon brethren and should be a hit with the younger set. The 1.78 transfer is great and extras include an interactive featurette and a music video.

GOOD BOY! (***, 88 mins., 2003, PG; MGM): I admit I'm a sucker for a good dog movie. Mix in a group of cute pooches voiced by celebrities that aren't too annoying, add in an adequate juvenile lead (Liam Aiken, no relation to Clay that I'm aware of), and an appealing story, and "Good Boy!" is clearly one of the more entertaining kid-features made in the last couple of years by a major studio. The plot has Aiken as the proud new owner of a dog named Hubble (voiced by Matthew Broderick), who's actually an intergalactic agent. Yes, it turns out that all dogs are really extraterrestrials here to take over the planet! It's good, clean fun that doesn't overstay its welcome at 88 minutes, boasting solid special effects and a good score by Mark Mothersbaugh. MGM's DVD offers commentary, deleted scenes, extras for kids, a bouncy Dolby Digital soundtrack, and a good-looking -- though unfortunately full-screen only -- transfer.

Newly Released Vintage Titles on DVD

BROTHER SUN, SISTER MOON (**1/2, 1972). 121 mins., PG, Paramount. DVD FEATURES: 1.85 Widescreen, Dolby Digital mono.

Franco Zeffirelli's well-meaning 1972 profile of St. Francis of Assisi stars Graham Faulkner as Francis -- a free-spirit (hippie) who shuns his family's wealth and takes to living in poverty in the beautiful fields of Umbria. There, he finds his own relationship with Christ in the Italian hills and ultimately receives a conversation with the Pope.

Though the movie's parallels to "flower children" and the era are obvious and date the picture slightly, "Brother Sun" has held up better than one might anticipate. The film is beautiful to look at, has a pleasant score by Donovan (with nice orchestral sweetening by Ken Thorne), and a story that nearly manages to shine through the meandering script. Faulkner, Judi Bowker (Princess Andromeda from "Clash of the Titans") and Alec Guinness (as Pope Innocent III) all give strong performances in a nice movie that boasts a script co-written by Zeffirelli with a host of collaborators, including Lina Wertmuller ("Swept Away").

Paramount's no-frills DVD release sports a good-looking 1.85 transfer that's a little soft and grainy, but generally looks acceptable. The mono sound isn't anything out of the ordinary, but it gets the job done.

THE SLUGGER'S WIFE (*1/2, 1985). 104 mins., PG-13, Columbia TriStar. DVD FEATURES: Full-screen format, Dolby Surround stereo.

Unsuccessful Neil Simon dramedy stars Michael O'Keefe as an Atlanta Braves slugger who falls for rising nightclub singer Rebecca DeMornay. Their torrid romance, though, takes its toll on DeMornay, who grows tired of being a baseball "wife" and wants to develop her career singing over-produced Quincy Jones ballads.

Shot on-location in Atlanta, "The Slugger's Wife" was a critically lambasted Ray Stark production that failed to take off at the box-office. Part of the reason is undoubtedly due to the lack of sparks between DeMornay (who might have been better playing off someone else) and the wooden O'Keefe, who you'd have to guess wasn't the first choice of the filmmakers. Hal Ashby directed the movie, which at least has the look of class thanks to fine cinematography by Caleb Deschanel, a fine albeit wasted supporting cast (including director Martin Ritt, Randy Quaid, and Cleavant Derricks), and a better-than-average Patrick Williams score. In the end, though, the two bickering leads are so unappealing that you don't care about them, or the story itself.

Columbia TriStar's bargain DVD package sports a colorful, good- looking full-screen presentation with a rockin' mid '80s Dolby Surround soundtrack.

Aisle Seat Mail Bag

From Bob Bryden:

Thanks Andy. It's so refreshing to read a review of THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST - minus all the hysteria and just concentrating on it's filmic value.

From Karl Scott:

Since I had the pleasure of co producing the film score I couldn't wait for the DVD. It is not wide screen and I'm not sure a wide screen version is available. The film is a direct print transfer and needed to be remastered. The special features are Dolby Pro Logic sound and full screen presentation. Overall a disappointment but better than VHS -- but not by much.


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