4/11/06 Edition

A Comprehensive Welles DVD Premiere!
Criterion's MR. ARKADIN ranks as one of 2006's finest
Plus: NARNIA, Fox, Paramount & Buena Vista Wrap-up

One of the many pleasures associated with reviewing a Criterion Collection title always been that one can appreciate their presentation and supplemental materials, even if the film they accompany isn’t in tune with your personal tastes.

This week is an ideal example, because I’ve never been an admirer of Orson Welles’ MR. ARKADIN (aka CONFIDENTIAL REPORT), the auteur’s highly troubled 1955 production about a reclusive billionaire (shades of Kane) who hires an American smuggler (Robert Arden) to investigate his past. While the movie shows signs of Welles’ trademark cinematic style, the movie was severely compromised by budgetary issues, a myriad of actors from around the globe (some of whom are atrociously dubbed), and worst of all, legal problems involving ownership and editorial control. Subsequently, Welles never completed the movie, and while there are over a handful of different cuts around the globe, none of them are fully representative of the director’s vision.

Criterion’s superlative three-disc DVD box set, THE COMPLETE MR. ARKADIN, embraces the movie’s shortcomings, praises its positive attributes, and most of all, preserves Welles’ initial intentions as best they can be. Working from an impressive new restoration by Stefan Drossler and Claude Bertemes that includes all footage from the various versions, the “Comprehensive Version” (105 minutes) debuts here on DVD alongside the “Corinth” print (reportedly the earliest English version of the movie, running 99 minutes) as well as the Warner Bros.-released “Confidential Report” (98 minutes), which Francois Thomas notes has the most cohesive soundtrack of all three versions, being the best representation of composer Paul Misraki’s original music (which Thomas says Misraki composed without having read the script or viewed the movie at all).

All three versions include a different chronology of the movie’s frantic narrative elements, making for must-viewing for Welles aficionados and film students. In fact, Criterion’s package lends itself easily to study, with a marvelous booklet covering the picture’s turbulent production; commentary by Welles scholars Jonathan Rosenbaum and James Naremore; an interview with Simon Callow that includes an audio conversation with Robert Arden; alternate scenes and rushes (including scenes shot for the Spanish version with a different actress in one of the lead roles); a stills gallery; three half-hour episodes of “The Lives of Harry Lime,” a radio program on which the movie is based, also including an interview with producer Harry Alan Towers; and a new documentary, “On the Comprehensive Version,” offering comments from Bertemes and Drossler, along with Welles confident, director Peter Bogdanovich.

The transfers on the three versions vary depending on the elements being utilized, but suffice to say this is the one presentation of “Mr. Arkadin” that comes the closest to what Welles’ initial conception. As Stefan Drossler notes in the booklet, despite there being several different versions of the movie out there, “there is no final state -- only butchered versions with confused editing.”

Criterion’s new cut does, however, best approximate what the filmmaker intended, and together with the enlightening, fascinating supplemental content, gives more clues to the puzzle that is “Mr. Arkadin” than any prior version of the movie. In fact, the whole package fulfills the inherent potential of the digital medium to instruct as well as entertain, and ranks as the year’s finest DVD presentation to date...whether Welles’ cinematic stew is your cup or tea or not.

Recently Released on DVD

THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe (***½, 2005). 135 mins., PG, Disney. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: 2-Disc Special Edition includes Commentary Tracks; Documentary Materials; Bloopers; 16:9 (2.35) Widescreen, 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital sound.

Spectacular adaptation of the C.S. Lewis children’s classic hits all the right dramatic beats, thanks to surprising direction by Andrew Adamson that perfectly balances the fantasy’s more spectacular moments with surprisingly sensitive and quiet passages.

Certainly the remarkable performances of the four youngsters (Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes, William Moseley and Anna Popplewell) who portray the Pevensie children go a long way in making this adventure one that adults can enjoy as much as children. Lewis’s beloved story follows the siblings as they’re whisked away, out of WWII London, to the countryside where they improbably find a fantasy world in the closet of an old professor (Jim Broadbent). There, an evil queen (Tilda Swinton) battles for control of Narnia with the sensitive, sage lion king Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson), who believes that the Pevensie children are the fulfillment of an ages-old prophecy meant to restore goodness to the land.

When the movie was released last December, much was predictably made of the Christian allegory Lewis included in his original text, and it’s gratifying to see it retained in a day and age when religious elements of any faith (outside of a negative connotation) are usually eliminated from mainstream Hollywood product. Nevertheless, the overtones are either there for further discussion or one can overlook them entirely, since the film does an excellent job keeping said aspects as an integral part of the story, neither playing them up nor taking away from their significance.

What impressed me the most about “Narnia” wasn’t its epic battle scenes (of which there are a good amount in the final half-hour) but rather how beautifully Adamson sets the story up. Young Lucy’s first arrival in Narnia is enchantingly handled in an old-fashioned manner -- no thunderous music, no ADD-accented, MTV-styled editing, and no CGI monsters flying into every corner of the frame. Instead, Adamson lets the moment play out poignantly, and delicately, the snow falling gently from the sky, letting the moment breathe and capturing Lewis’ prose splendidly. Similarly quiet, introspective moments occur at times, with the movie actually taking the time to develop its characters in a deliberate but effective way far removed from most of today’s over-styled and hyper-edited entertainment.

“Narnia,” then, is a delight, a wondrous adventure with impressive cinematography and production design (kudos to director of photography Donald M. McAlpine and designer Roger Ford), enchanting characters and a compelling story that viewers of all ages should delight to. Only the nondescript score by Harry Gregson-Williams fails to match the level of quality “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe” has going for it on most every level.

Disney’s two-disc Special Edition DVD offers commentary from Adamson, Mark Johnson and Roger Ford (over the phone!) in addition to a secondary track with Adamson and the young stars of the movie. Bloopers, trailers, two conceptual art postcards, and a full second disc of behind-the-scenes materials give both kids and older viewers plenty of enlightening facts about the production, though the set is as notable for what it doesn’t include (deleted scenes? trailers?) as for what it does. In regards to the cut sequences, one can see an Extended Version rolling around at the same time “Prince Caspian” roars into theaters in 2007. Bank on it!

New From Paramount

STAR TREK Fan Collective: Time Travel (2006 Compilation, 1967-2001; 644 minutes). Full-Screen, 5.1 Dolby Digital and 2.0 Surround; Text Commentaries.

Paramount’s latest compilation of fan-ballot winning episodes from the “Star Trek” series offers a total of 11 episodes culled from the Original Series (“Tomorrow Is Yesterday” and “The City on The Edge of Forever”), The Next Generation (“Yesterday’s Enterprise,” “Cause And Effect,” “Time’s Arrow” parts one and two, and “All Good Things”), Deep Space Nine (“Trials And Tribble-ations”) and Voyager (“Year of Hell” parts one and two and “Endgame”).

As with Paramount’s previous “Borg” compilation, the episodes represent a strong cross-section of shows from the respective series, though it’s disappointing to see one show (“Endgame”) having been repeated from the “Borg” set...couldn’t a different episode, even an inferior one, been included to cover the redundancy? (Sadly, there will be more of the same in the upcoming “Q” set, which will include a second appearance of  “All Good Things”).

That said, this is still a satisfying stand-alone release for Trek fans trying to save their budgets (and shelf space) from collecting all the various series sets, and Paramount has included three new text commentaries from Denise and Michael Okuda on “Tomorrow Is Yesterday,” “Yesterday’s Enterprise” and “Little Green Men.” Transfers are all in crisp full-screen with 5.1/2.0 Dolby Surround, identical to their presentations on the respective series box sets.

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: Special Edition (**½, 1996) 110 mins., PG-13, Paramount. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: New featurettes; Trailers; TV spots; 16:9 (2.35) Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

It’s been ten years (has it really been that long?) since the release of Tom Cruise’s first “Mission: Impossible” adventure, and time has been kind in retrospect to this outing, which received primarily mixed reviews upon its initial release.

True, female lead Emmanuelle Beart looked great but thankfully refrained from pursuing American work after her failed effort here (director Brian DePalma apparently cut the love scene with her and Cruise), and the movie’s script by David Koepp and Robert Towne isn’t entirely cohesive. Nevertheless, there are plenty of individual set-pieces (including the rousing tunnel climax), excellent scope cinematography by Stephen H. Burum, and a superb Danny Elfman score to warrant a fresh viewing, and the supporting performances of slimy Henry Czerny (whatever happened to him?) and Jean Reno give the movie some juice...in fact, it’s been so long that I completely forgot about Cruise’s brief reunion with his “Outsiders” pal Emilio Estevez at the start! It may not have the self-indulgent (but more stylish) look John Woo brought to the guilty-pleasure “Mission Impossible 2,” but the original “M:I” has weathered the years better than you might have thought.

Paramount’s new Special Edition DVD is sadly a disappointment, comprised of two trailers, a ticket to the upcoming M:I3, and newly-edited, brief featurettes primarily culled from EPK materials from the time of M:I and M:I2's release, featuring only a fluffy look behind the scenes. There are even not one but two Tom Cruise clip montages recounting his career, as well as his MTV Awards “Lifetime Achievement” acceptance speech from a year ago...but nothing in the way of deleted scenes or meaningful supplemental content. The 16:9 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound may be an improvement on the studio’s previous DVD effort, but as I don’t have a copy I can’t weigh in on that aspect.

Fox April Report Card: Box Sets & More

LAUREL AND HARDY COLLECTION (Fox): Fox’s new DVD box set offers three of the comedic duo’s ‘40s starring efforts for the studio, each with fresh supplemental content. 1941's “Great Guns,” 1943's “Jitterbugs” and 1944's “The Big Noise” all include remastered transfers and commentary from expert Randy Skretevdt, along with vintage Movietone News reels, trailers, and a new documentary, “The Revenge of the Sons of the Desert,” contained in “The Big Noise.” Needless to say this package is a must for all Laurel and Hardy fans, with the promise of more L&H Fox DVDs to follow should the package sell to expectations.

ROBERT ALTMAN COLLECTION (Fox): Three Robert Altman efforts from his up-and-down post-“Nashville” phase hit DVD for the first time: 1978's ensemble satire “A Wedding,” the 1979 romantic comedy “A Perfect Couple,” and the bizarre, unsatisfying 1979 sci-fi drama “Quintet,” which are joined here by another release of “M*A*S*H” in this four-film anthology box from Fox. Three new Making Of featurettes accompany the pictures, all presented in 16:9 transfers with 2.0 Dolby Stereo sound. “A Perfect Couple” turns out to be the most satisfying release of the trio, with warm performances by Paul Dooley and Marta Helfin, with “A Wedding” best left for Altman devotees and the less said, the better about the Paul Newman turkey “Quintet,” with a story line as cold as the picture’s frosty, post-Ice Age setting.

AMERICAN DAD: Volume One (2005, 13 Episodes, 284 mins., Fox): Seth MacFarlane produced this companion piece to his popular animated series “Family Guy,” but the results are a bit spottier in this tale of a CIA agent with a funky (and Griffin-esque) family and rocky home life. While the series has the same off-the-wall humor and obscure pop references as “Family Guy,” the writing simply isn’t as consistent, with some hilarious moments followed at times by long stretches where yucks are few and far between. Even the characters feel like the Griffin family “remixed,” though there are a few choice moments here and there that will make “American Dad” at least worth a rental. Fox’s excellent three-disc set offers full-screen transfers, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, numerous featurettes and commentary tracks.

THE BOB NEWHART SHOW: The Complete Third Season (1974-75, 24 Episodes, 610 mins., Fox): Dr. Robert Hartley again takes on a succession of patients and analyzes his own life in this stellar third-season of the classic “Bob Newhart Show.” Fox’s DVD offers three episode commentary tracks with Newhart (joined on two shows by co-star Peter Bonerz) and a new Making Of featurette, making this the best of the TBNS DVD sets the studio has released to date. Now, if we could only get them to start releasing Bob’s ‘80s series on DVD...

REMINGTON STEELE: Season Three (1984-85, 22 Episodes, 1071 mins., Fox): The palpable chemistry between sleuthing couple Stephanie Zimbalist and Pierce Brosnan reaches its apex in the highly entertaining third season of “Remington Steele.” Fox’s DVD includes three commentary tracks involving co-creator Michael Gleason, Zimbalist and co-star Doris Roberts plus two new Making Of featurettes, satisfying full-screen transfers and Dolby Stereo sound.

IN LIVING COLOR: The Complete Season Five (1993-94, 26 Episodes, 209 mins., Fox): Fifth and final go-around for the Keenan Ivory Wayans-created series comes to DVD in a three-disc box set from Fox, including all 26 episodes from the show’s final year with Jim Carrey, Jamie Foxx, David Alan Grier and company putting the final touches on a solid five-season run for the sketch comedy series.

REBA: Complete Season Three (2003-04, 22 Episodes, 496 mins., Fox): I’m not going to pretend that I’m a regular viewer of “Reba,” which flies under the radar on the WB network (soon to be “CW”) and has for the better part of the last five years. Suffice to say that fans ought to enjoy this three-disc assortment of the sitcom’s third season, offering five commentary tracks by the cast and crew and a pair of behind-the-scenes featurettes.

WOMAN THOU ART LOOSED (2004, 101 mins., Not Rated, Fox): Extended edition of the acclaimed religious film starring Bishop Jakes, who here helps a troubled young woman (Kimberly Elise) regain her spiritual and personal footing in life. Fox’s DVD includes extended clips of Jakes sermonizing, two featurettes, 1.66 (non-anamorphic) widescreen and 2.0 Dolby Surround stereo. Another religious-themed pic just in time for Easter is THE HIDING PLACE (1975, 146 mins., PG, Fox), starring Julie Harris in the true story of Corrie ten Boom, whose family helped Jews survive through WWII. This genuinely moving and well-made picture was a theatrical release from Billy Graham’s World Wide Pictures and comes strongly recommended. Fox’s DVD includes a 1.78 (16:9) widescreen transfer and 2.0 Dolby Stereo.

MERCENARY FOR HIRE (2005, 91 mins., R, Fox): Steven Seagal stars in this rip-off of “The Transporter” from Millennium Films. Better than some of Steve’s lesser, more recent direct-to-video efforts (“The Patriot” immediately comes to mind on that front) but there’s little else of note here other than 91 minutes of C-grade, direct-to-video fare for undiscriminating action fans. Fox’s DVD offers both full-screen and 16:9 (1.85) transfers with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound and a Making Of featurette.

BRATZ: GENIE MAGIC (2006, 72 mins., Fox): The heroines from the apparently-popular kids series run into a teenage genie before all kinds of chaos ensues in this feature-length spin-off of the children’s program. Colorful animation ought to please its intended audience, with Fox’s DVD including a full-screen transfer and a bonus episode (“Pet Show”) from the series.

Also New From Buena Vista

CLASSIC CARTOON FAVORITES, Best Pals [Volumes 10-12] (55-57 mins. Each, Disney): New single-disc cartoon releases from Disney celebrate supporting series favorites Minnie in Volume 10 (offering the shorts “First Aiders,” “Bath Day,” “Pluto and the Gopher,” “Figaro and Frankie,” “Mickey’s Rival,” “The Nifty Nenties,” “Pluto’s Sweater” and “Mickey’s Delayed Date”), Daisy Duck in Volume 11 (“Mr. Duck Steps Out,” “Cured Duck,” Donald’s Double Trouble,” “Sleepy Time Donald,” “Crazy Over Daisy,” “Donald’s Dream Voice,” “Donald’s Crime” and “Donald’s Diary”), and Pluto in Volume 12 (“Pluto’s Housewarming,” “Pluto and the Armadillo,” “Cat Nap Pluto,” “Pluto’s Party,” “Pluto, Junior,” “Pluto’s Fledgling,” “Plutopia,” and “Pueblo Pluto”). Each disc offers an hour’s worth of vintage Disney animation for young viewers, and as with previous “Classic Cartoon Favorites” releases is touted as being available for a limited time only.

POOH’S GRAND ADVENTURE: The Search For Christopher Robin (***, 1997, 76 mins., G, Disney): Excellent 1997 made-for-video Disney release hits DVD for the first time, as Pooh and the gang hunt for Christopher Robin, who our pals believe to be kidnapped (he’s actually in school!). Poignant and a bit slow but nevertheless one of the better Pooh tales, which would lead into a series of feature follow-ups both on the big-screen and produced directly for the home video market. Disney’s DVD includes a 1.66 (16:9) transfer that looks ideal in addition to a 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack and the Oscar-winning classic short “Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day” as a bonus.

LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE (2004, 255 mins., Disney): Solid adaptation of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s autobiographical books attempts to adhere more closely to its source than the revered Michael Landon series from the ‘70s, though even here, several changes were made from its source. That said, this good-looking TV mini-series ought to provide ample entertainment for family audiences, with strong production values, solid performances from Cameron Bancroft and Erin Cottrell, and nice cinematography by Robin Loewen. John Cameron’s score is a bit much at times, but otherwise this “Little House” is highly satisfying. Disney’s DVD offers a straight 16:9 transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound and no supplemental features.

AN UNFINISHED LIFE (***, 2005, 108 mins., PG-13; Miramax/Buena Vista): Little-seen, long-delayed drama from director Lasse Hallstrom (who encountered similar trouble with his last effort, “The Shipping News”) stars Robert Redford as a quiet Wyoming man who has to confront his past when his daughter-in-law (Jennifer Lopez), whom he blames for the death of his son, returns to his ranch with her child in tow. Morgan Freeman, Josh Lucas, and Damian Lewis offer strong support to this low-key and well-acted tale, effectively handled by Hallstrom. The Miramax/Buena Vista DVD includes commentary, a Making Of featurette, stills gallery, and a look at the training of Bart the Bear, who makes his (sadly) final screen appearance in “An Unfinished Life.”

THE GREATEST GAME EVER PLAYED (***, 2005, 121 mins., PG; Disney): Appealing, if slow-moving, adaptation of Mark Frost’s book (scripted by the author and former “Twin Peaks” co-creator) about amateur golfer Francis Ouimet (Shia LeBeouf), who challenges rival Harry Vardon (Stephen Dillane) for the U.S. Open title. Between this and the under-rated (and equally little-seen) “Bobby Jones: A Stroke of Genius,” last year wasn’t a good one for golf movies, but this Bill Paxton-directed film boasts excellent cinematography by Shane Hurlbut, appealing performances and a strong sense of time and place. Disney’s Special Edition DVD includes two commentaries by Paxton and Frost, respectively, numerous featurettes and information on the real Ouimet’s 1920 triumph. The 1.85 (16:9) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack are each top-notch.

DEEP BLUE (2003, 91 mins., G; Miramax/Buena Vista): The makers of the acclaimed BBC mini-series “The Blue Planet” return to provide more remarkable footage of underwater life in this shorter feature installment (apparently using footage shot for “The Blue Planet”), once again scored with majestic music from George Fenton. Miramax/Disney’s package offers an intentional “March of the Penguins”-esque front cover, 16:9 widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, and a Making Of featurette.

SPYMATE (84 mins., 2005, PG; Keystone/Buena Vista): The makers of “Air Bud” have returned to their ways of humiliating animals as only they can with this would-be wacky tale of a primate named Minkey who has to save Emma Roberts (Julia’s niece) from the clutches of evil scientist Richard Kind. Silly shenanigans that only the most undemanding child will enjoy, “Spymate” is only noteworthy in that it provided a sad, final role for the late Pat Morita. Keystone’s DVD offers a 16:9 transfer, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, and a Making Of featurette.

New From Tartan

PRAY (**½, 82 mins., 2005, Not Rated; Tartan): A few weeks ago I had to endure the grizzly, unpleasant Japanese import “Marebito,” and was thinking this latest offering from Tartan Extreme would be just another run-of-the-mill horror outing from our friends overseas. After all, the cover art shows another pasty white spirit with long dark hair, and the packaging seems to indicate a movie along similar lines.

Now for the good news: “Pray” is a surprisingly more “alive,” twisty psychological thriller as opposed to another run-of-the-kill Jap-horror fest. Director Yuchi Sato’s film follows a couple who kidnap a little girl and hold her for ransom cash, only to find out the girl is, indeed, dead...what happens from there is best left unsaid, though the ending is odd to the say the least.

Thankfully, the journey is creepy but a lot more energetic than the usual “Grudge”/”Ring”-type of thriller so prevalent overseas, and Tartan’s DVD proves to be a recommended view for horror enthusiasts. A Making Of featurette, the original trailer, and subtitled interviews round out the supplemental side, while the movie is presented in a satisfying 16:9 enhanced transfer with 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital sound. Different, and surprisingly so than what you might expect.

Also New & Noteworthy

BASIC INSTINCT: Ultimate Edition (**½, 1992, 128 mins., Unrated; Lionsgate): Another DVD go-around for the Michael Douglas-Sharon Stone potboiler from ‘92 exposes the problems of Paul Verhoeven’s movie...simply, it’s all style and not a heck of a lot of substance, with Jerry Goldsmith’s sensationally moody score and Jan De Bont’s glossy cinematography covering over the holes in Joe Eszterhas’ script. Lionsgate’s new “Ultimate Edition” DVD reprises most of the supplements from their 2002 DVD (the “Blonde Poison” documentary, screen tests, the featurette on the TV version), omits the feminist critic commentary, retains the original Verhoeven/DeBont DVD track, and includes some brief new introductory comments and an interview with Sharon Stone. “Basic Instinct 2" might have bombed big-time, but at least the original is back on disc, in a satisfying presentation for those who might have bypassed its previous DVD incarnations. Guilty pleasure amusement all the way...

NEXT TIME: BLUE THUNDER Special Edition and more from Sony! Don't forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards, direct any emails to the link above and we'll catch you then. Cheers everyone!

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