5/16/06 Edition

A Cavalcade of WWII on DVD
New PATTON, LONGEST DAY Sets and More Fox Discs Reviewed
Plus: New from CRITERION, HOLLOW MAN 2, Paramount  & Buena Vista Fresh Releases

Following their excellent new DVDs of “The Towering Inferno” and “The Poseidon Adventure,” Fox gives us three more double-disc Special Editions next week, along with a slew of WWII catalog titles all debuting on disc May 23rd.

Francis Ford Coppola’s new commentary provides some fascinating insights into Franklin J. Schaffner’s 1970 Oscar-winning triumph PATTON (****, 171 mins., 1970, PG), which makes its third appearance on DVD next week (following a two-disc, 1998 Special Edition and a stripped-down, single-disc re-issue).

Coppola penned his then-unorthodox script for the Fox biopic about General George S. Patton years before the film had been made, and a combination of powers-at-be -- including then producer David Brown and star Burt Lancaster -- shot Coppola’s screenplay down and took the later auteur off the project entirely.

It was much to Coppola’s surprise that when Schaffner eventually produced the film, most of Coppola’s screenplay remained intact -- including the now-famous, then-audacious, opening with George C. Scott’s Patton addressing his troops and the audience directly in a classic film moment. That “prologue” was initially derided by studio honchos and Lancaster as being too odd, a fact which Coppola points to today as something he was criticized for at the time, but widely celebrated later in his life.

Though writer Edmund H. North worked with Schaffner on-set, Coppola’s contribution to “Patton” was still a substantial one, giving this epic its own unique, at-times poetic feel that separates it from the hordes of standard WWII films produced over the decades. Its look into Patton’s personal make-up, his quirks and controversial decisions, its positive portrayal of his military prowess, Scott’s performance and Jerry Goldsmith’s unforgettable, seminal score place the film on a pedestal few other military films have ever matched.

Fox’s new double-disc DVD offers a sporadic but intriguing commentary and on-screen introduction from Coppola. Though there are long gaps between the filmmaker’s comments (as you may expect with a 171 minute film that he was never present on-set for), Coppola’s discussion of his script’s origins will make for fascinating listening for buffs, and the director is more than complimentary of the work of Scott, Schaffner and Goldsmith, whom he praises at various points throughout.

In addition to Coppola’s contributions, a lengthy History Channel documentary, “Patton: A Rebel Revisited,” is new to this DVD and is included alongside a recently produced 45-minute special, “Patton’s Ghost Corps,” which adds interviews with veterans and gives further historical insight. The “Making of ‘Patton’” documentary and still galleries -- accompanied by Goldsmith’s full score and an audio essay -- are reprieved from the previous two-disc DVD and laserdisc editions, while the 16:9 transfer and 5.0 Dolby Digital soundtracks are both equally satisfying.

Tons of supplements, a new 16:9 enhanced transfer and commentaries from historian Mary Corey and director Ken Annakin provide the highlights of Fox’s new double-disc edition of THE LONGEST DAY (***½, 178 mins., 1962).

Though Darryl F. Zanuck’s all-star D-Day production has been available in anamorphic widescreen overseas (albeit with only a few of the extras in this set), this release marks the movie’s first 16:9 transfer in the U.S., and the picture is in good condition, as are the 4.0 and 2.0 Dolby Stereo soundtracks. Corey and Annakin’s commentaries are superb new inclusions into the package (though Annakin’s comments are, predictably, brief), with numerous historical documentaries ranging from the AMC Backstory profile of the film to the History Channel’s excellent “History Through The Lens: Longest Day, A Salute To Courage” documentary; a vintage 1968 “D-Day Revisited” featurette with Darryl F. Zanuck; the recently-produced “A Day To Remember” featurette with real-life survivor stories; and, last but not least, Richard Zanuck’s memories of the film. The original trailer and a still photo gallery round out the package.

Needless to say this edition ranks as another must-have for WWII buffs and a substantial upgrade on Fox’s original DVD.

Fox’s third double-disc “Cinema Classics Collection” re-issue, TORA! TORA! TORA! (***, 1970, 144 mins.), includes the previous DVD’s commentary with director Richard Fleischer and historian Stuart Galbraith IV, and adds a second platter of new extras. The fresh supplements include the AMC Backstory look at the movie; the documentary “Day of Infamy” with historian interviews; no less than 10 Fox Movietone WWII news reels (which are worth the price of this release alone), the original trailer and still galleries; and the History Channel’s superb “History Through The Lens: ‘Tora! Tora! Tora!,’ A Giant Awakes.”

The studio’s May catalog titles also include a handful of other WWII films debuting on DVD for the first time (in addition to several westerns and ‘70s efforts which I’ll have covered for you next week). While these discs don’t include the various bells and whistles that the superlative Special Edition sets do above, they’re certainly of interest for WWII film buffs and worthy of rediscovery on DVD:

DECISION BEFORE DAWN (***, 1951, 119 mins., Fox): Taut, exciting film has been virtually forgotten over the years, despite having been nominated for Best Picture. Gary Merrill and Richard Basehart are American generals placed in charge of recruiting German POWs for espionage missions as the Allies begin to turn the tide in WWII; Oskar Werner is the prisoner sent behind the lines to gain information on a Panzer unit and betray his Nazi brethren in the process. No-nonsense direction from Anatole Litvak, authentic settings, a balanced portrait of the German people and strong performances make this 1951 production highly recommended. Fox’s DVD offers Movietone news reels, the original trailer, a satisfying full-screen transfer and 2.0 stereo and mono sound.

IMMORTAL SERGEANT (***, 1943, 90 mins., Fox): Decidedly old-fashioned but entertaining WWII era Fox release with Henry Fonda as a humble, initially meek Canadian soldier who finds courage in time to win the heart of the girl he left behind (Maureen O’Hara), thanks to the sergeant (Thomas Mitchell) who whips him into shape. Fox’s DVD of this John Stahl-directed, Lamar Trotti-scripted and produced effort includes a crisp black-and-white transfer and 2.0 stereo and mono sound. As old-fashioned, star-driven studio entertainment goes, “Immortal Sergeant” comes recommended.

GUNS AT BATASI (***, 1964, 103 mins., Fox): Richard Attenborough gives what’s regarded as one of his finest performances as a Regimental Sergeant Major who goes down fighting while the British military relinquishes its command over early ‘60s Africa. John Guillermin directed this 1964 Cinemascope production, which offers terrific performances from Attenborough, Jack Hawkins, Flora Robson, and Mia Farrow in her movie debut. Highly entertaining and enhanced on DVD by Fox’s excellent 16:9 transfer, 2.0 stereo and mono soundtracks, and even commentary from co-star John Leyton. A sleeper that’s well worth catching for WWII devotees.

BACK DOOR TO HELL (**, 1964, 69 mins., Fox): The eclectic casting of crooner Jimmie Rodgers with a young Jack Nicholson is the primary reason to check out this short 1964 programmer from director Monte Hellman, set in the Philippines. There’s a certain crudeness to this low-budget Fox release, but the cast makes it sufficiently interesting for WWII and Nicholson aficionados. Fox’s DVD includes a 16:9 (1.85) transfer with 2.0 stereo and mono sound.

YOU’RE IN THE NAVY NOW (**½, 1951, 92 mins., Fox): Lightweight comedy vehicle from director Henry Hathaway stars Gary Cooper, Jane Greer and Eddie Albert in a tale loosely based on the Navy’s actual experimentation with placing a steam engine in a WWII sub chaser. The movie is dated and not especially funny, but buffs may enjoy seeing a cast filled with familiar faces, including Jack Webb, Ed Begley, Lee Marvin, Harvey Lembeck, Jack Warden and Charles Buchinski, who would later become one Charles Bronson! Fox’s DVD offers a good-looking black-and-white, full-screen transfer with 2.0 stereo and mono sound, plus the original trailer as the disc’s only extra.

New Criterion Collection Offerings

A handful of titles from around the globe spotlight Criterion’s excellent DVDs for the month of May.

Francois Truffaut’s THE 400 BLOWS (1959, 99 mins.) was one of the filmmaker's first features, chronicling the life of a young Parisian youth (Jean-Pierre Léaud playing Truffaut’s alter-ego Antoine Doinel) through a turbulent childhood. Strikingly shot and edited, “The 400 Blows” is unquestionably one of the legitimate classics of French cinema and Criterion’s new DVD presents its finest presentation yet on video. The disc sports a restored high-definition transfer; commentaries from both professor Brian Stonehill and a secondary track with Truffaut’s friend Robert Lachenay; audition footage of Leaud, Patrick Auffay, and Richard Kanayan; newsreel footage of Leaud in Cannes; a television interview with Truffaut, and excerpts from a French TV program with Truffaut discussing his youth and its connection with Antoine Doinel (a character the filmmaker would return to several times throughout his career); new subtitles and the original trailer.

VIRIDIANA (1961, 91 mins., available May 23rd), meanwhile, is widely regarded as one of Luis Bunuel’s most controversial and acclaimed films, a tale of a would-be nun (Silvia Pinal) whose attempts to live a pure and idealistic life are curtailed at every turn by her uncle (Fernando Rey) and others she meets along the way. Bunuel’s anti-religious world views are in full force in the outrageous “Viridiana,” which still comes across as audacious even by the standards of modern cinema. For aficionados of the filmmaker and the picture, Criterion’s DVD offers interviews with Pinal and author Richard Porton; excerpts from a 1964 episode of “Cineastes de notre temps” on Bunuel’s early work; the U.S. trailer; a fresh subtitle translation and a new, restored hi-def transfer.

Yasujiro Ozu’s LATE SPRING (1949, 108 mins.) is likewise held as one of the Japanese director’s most acclaimed works -- an uncluttered story of marriage, a woman’s role in that institution and particularly in post-WWII Japan, as it charts the relationship between a widowed father (Chishu Ryu) who pushes his content daughter (Setsuko Hara) into a union she doesn’t need, much less want. Criterion’s two-disc offering includes commentary from Film Society of Lincoln Center director Richard Pena; a new transfer and improved English subtitles; essays from critic Michael Atkinson and Japanese cinema historian Donald Richie; and Wim Wenders’s 1985 picture “Tokyo-Ga,” a loving tribute to Ozu that scouts the locales of the filmmaker’s work and offers interviews with Ryu among others.

Lastly, Barbara Kopple’s influential, Oscar-winning documentary HARLAN COUNTY U.S.A. (1976, 104 mins., available May 23rd) might have been issued on DVD before, but never in the exhaustive presentation Criterion has given to the filmmaker’s documentary about striking Kentucky coal miners.

Kopple herself supervised the transfer and participates in a commentary with editor Nancy Baker, while never-before-seen outtakes are screened here for the first time. The DVD also includes a new documentary, “The Making of Harlan County U.S.A.,” which sports interviews with Kopple, crew members, and even the strike participants seen in the movie; additional conversations include director John Sayles and bluegrass singer-songwriter Hazel Dickens; a 2005 Sundance Film Festival panel discussion features Kopple and Roger Ebert among others; and the disc is topped off by the original trailer and essays from film scholar Paul Arthur and music journalist Jon Weisberger. Recommended!

Aisle Seat Sneak Peak

HOLLOW MAN 2 (**, 2006). 91 mins., R, Sony, available May 23rd. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Making Of featurettes; Storyboards; 16:9 (2.35) Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Joel Soisson continues to be the king of direct-to-video sequels with his script for “Hollow Man 2,” a routine but competent enough small-screen “follow-up.” Here, Christian Slater plays a soldier who undergoes the same invisibility treatment that Kevin Bacon tried out in the original, eventually turning into a crazed loon and trying to get help from the doctor (Laura Regan) who administered the serum in the first place. While Slater’s voice gets more workout than his actual body, Peter Facinelli steps in and nabs top billing as the cop assigned to protect Regan.

Predictably, “Hollow Man 2" offers standard-issue action from director Claudio Faeh and production values more along the lines of a typical episode of “CSI” as opposed to the rather elaborate F/X of its predecessor. Those problems are almost certainly a given when talking about direct-to-video sequels (there are only so many efforts like “Tremors 2,” after all), but the rest of “Hollow Man 2" is at least watchable, with a decent climax and a surprisingly competent score from Marcus Trumpp. The ending leaves the door ajar for “Hollow Man 3,” though Slater will likely be back doing voice-overs for Panasonic by the time that project happens (if it does).

Sony’s DVD includes a rock-solid 16:9 transfer (2.35 widescreen) with a strong 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack. Supplements include a brief look at the production with some behind-the-scenes F/X footage and a storyboard gallery as well.

New & Recent From Buena Vista

TALES FROM THE CRYPT Presents: RITUAL (**½, 2001, 106 mins., R; Dimension/Buena Vista): Completed in 2001 and released overseas without any "Tales From the Crypt" designation, this third feature spin-off from the cable series -- produced here in association with Miramax -- is actually a surprisingly watchable remake of the RKO Val Lewton classic “I Walked With a Zombie.” Writer Rob Cohen and director Avi Nesher have fashioned a leisurely paced zombie thriller set in Jamaica, intended initially to re-ignite Jennifer Grey’s screen career; the latter didn’t happen as “Ritual” sat on the shelves for five years before finally landing direct to DVD courtesy of Buena Vista. The movie, though, offers a few jolts, Grey looking good (plastic surgery notwithstanding), a campy performance from co-star Tim Curry, and a decent score by Shirley Walker -- incredibly making it the best of the three "Crypt" features. Dimension’s DVD includes an acceptable 16:9 transfer and 5.1 soundtrack; fans should note that the lousy Cryptkeeper segments shown here are completely independent of the film and contain their own separate credits, which is unsurprising since overseas prints of the movie didn’t contain those bookending sequences at all.

THE WARRIOR (***, 2001, 87 mins., R; Miramax/Buena Vista): Asif Kapadia’s acclaimed adventure hits DVD for the first time in the U.S. Brief but beautifully shot, Kapadia’s visuals make the straightforward but pungent storytelling a feast for the eyes and ears, with an appropriately ethnic score by Dario Marianelli supporting the excellent scope cinematography. Buena Vista’s DVD includes deleted scenes, a Making Of featurette, commentary, a 16:9 (2.35) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack.

DELICATESSEN (***, 1991, 100 mins., R; Miramax/Buena Vista): It’s been a long time coming but Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s arresting, eclectic French fantasy -- and international cult favorite -- finally arrives on DVD for the first time in the U.S. Not only that, but Buena Vista’s DVD actually has some tasty extras, including (subtitled) commentary from Jeunet, a featurette, some outtake and rehearsal footage, trailers, a 16:9 (1.85) transfer, and 2.0 Dolby Digital sound (in French with English subtitles). Not for every taste but recommended for “Delicatessen” devotees.

IT’S A SMALL WORLD OF FUN: Volumes 1 and 2 (2006 compilations, 55 mins. each, Disney): Disney’s latest low-priced, hour-long DVD compilations of their vintage animated shorts are grouped by their various settings; thus, you have everything on these two volumes from “Peter and the Wolf” (Russia) to “The Brave Little Tailor” (the UK), with “Susie, the Little Blue Coupe” (USA) and “The Flying Gauchito” (South America) thrown in for good measure. The shorts are fun but as with Disney’s “Classic Cartoon Collection” offerings, these DVDs are intended strictly for kids, not collectors, with each disc offering 6-7 shorts in full-screen transfers and 2.0 stereo sound.

New From Tartan

THE HEIRLOOM [Zhaibian] (**½, 2005, 97 mins., Not Rated; Tartan): Effective, stylishly made Taiwanese horror import rises above its predictable story framework thanks to strong direction by Leste Chen. A house with a tragic past comes to haunt the latest members of the Yang family in Dorian Li’s script, which is fairly formulaic but compensated by Chen’s sure-handed direction, ultimately making for a better-than-average genre import. Tartan’s DVD includes a subtitled crew commentary track, deleted scenes (sadly not subtitled), a Making Of featurette, English and Spanish subtitles, a 16:9 enhanced transfer, 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital sound, and the original trailer. No great shakes here (and probably not on the docket for a U.S. remake), but worth a view for fright fans just the same.

BATTLE IN HEAVEN [Batallia En El Cielo] (**, 2005, 95 mins., Unrated; Tartan): Carlos Reygadas’ Mexican psycho-thriller tries to bite off more than it can chew, following the melodramatic events of a foiled kidnapping plot and a daughter of a well-to-do Mexican general who leads a double life as a hooker. A few shocks do little to overcome a pretentious script, but perhaps foreign cinema devotees will find “Battle in Heaven”’s offbeat tone to compensate for its shortcomings. Tartan’s DVD includes an interview with Reygadas and actress Anapola Mushkadiz, the original trailer, English subs, and scenes from Reygadas’ debut film “Japon,” which Tartan has released separately.

New TV on DVD & More From Paramount

Paramount has utilized the CBS logo for their newest batch of TV on DVD box sets, highlighted by the second season of the high-rated cable series “The 4400" and debut of the long-running NBC comedy “Wings.”

Season two of THE 4400 (2005, 12 episodes, Paramount) continues, with mixed results, the cable series following its excellent debut season, charting a group of characters abducted by an unknown entity who return home after years -- sometimes decades -- away with various kinds of newfound abilities. Two government agents (the excellent Joel Gretsch and Jacqueline Mackenzie) follow the 4400 as their wealthy spiritual leader (Billy Campbell) is eventually gunned down, and a mysterious disease spreads through the returned abductees.

This USA program started off strong in 2004 but had a somewhat less successful sophomore frame, which Paramount has preserved here in a four-disc DVD box set with excellent 16:9 transfers and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks. Though the characters are well-written, representing a diverse array of protagonists from different eras (and of varying age groups as well), the central story line gets cluttered with the introduction of the disease that the 4400 are afflicted with, and the government becoming less sympathetic to their plight. I also grew a little tired of the child of couple Laura Allen and Mahershalalhashbaz Ali, who has magical powers and at times comes off like a little Damien Thorn. Where all is this is ultimately going, we’ll have to find out when the third season of “The 4400" debuts early next month on USA, though a few twists in the final episode do point to some intriguing developments ahead.

In the meantime, fans who might have missed the second season can catch up with the series in Paramount’s box set, available next week, which offers a few Making Of featurettes which, among other things, also explains the reason for Billy Campbell’s fate (he was off sailing on the Tall Ships!).

Also next week Paramount releases a four-disc set compiling the first and second seasons of WINGS (1990-91, 28 Episodes), a spin-off of “Cheers” that followed the long-running NBC comedy and eventually became a solid success in its own right.

Set on Nantucket -- a Massachusetts island near Martha’s Vineyard and likewise a tourist haven -- “Wings” starred Steven Weber and Tim Daly as brothers who unite to start a new commuter airline. Crystal Bernard is the woman who works for the duo and comes between them, while prominently-displayed Tony Shalhoub (who didn’t join the show as a regular until season three, and in fact only appears in one episode in this set!) and Thomas Haden Church spice up the comedy by essaying a cab driver and mechanic, respectively, who work for the Hacketts.

“Cheers” veterans David Angell, Peter Casey and David Lee played a major role in launching “Wings,” which debuted as a mid-season replacement series on NBC behind “Cheers” and quickly won its own fan following. The show eventually became a solid performer for the network, and since NBC renewed the series as an old reliable, “Wings” soared for some eight (!) seasons as a result -- albeit sometimes under the radar since it bounced around the broadcast schedule over the years.

Fans should be delighted by Paramount’s four-disc DVD box set, which preserves all 28 episodes from the first and second seasons of “Wings” in excellent full-screen transfers with 2.0 Dolby Stereo soundtracks. Extras aren’t on-hand this time out, but the presentation is at least solid and “Wings” fans ought to be satisfied that the series is launching on disc at last.

New Family Finds

THE CHIPMUNK ADVENTURE (***, 1987, 76 mins., G, Paramount): Robustly-animated and quite well-done feature adaptation of the beloved cartoon characters is a definite step up from the usual Saturday morning “Chipmunk” cartoons. Ross Bagdasarian, Jr. and wife Janice Karman’s feature sends Alvin, Simon and Theodore around the world on in a hot-air balloon, where they take on a pair of diamond smugglers with the help of the “Chipettes” while buddy Dave Seville is off on a trip to Europe. Randy Edelman provided one of his earliest film scores for “The Chipmunk Adventure” (following his then-recent work on “MacGyver”), and the soundtrack is bouncy and light, peppered with some rockin’ ‘80s tunes and a couple of original compositions from Edelman. In all, “The Chipmunk Adventure” is delightful and better than average, and recommended strongly for fans and family audiences. Paramount’s DVD sports a sharp, highly satisfying full-screen transfer (“digitally remastered from the original 35mm film” as the back packaging states) with an effective 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack and a few stills of original artwork as a special feature.

DOOGAL (*½, 2006, 77 mins., G; Genius Products): Ugh! This Americanization of a French animated feature is every bit as putrid as you might have heard, though then again, “Doogal”’s scary box-office grosses didn’t attract much business earlier this winter. An all-star assortment of stars from Chevy Chase and Jon Stewart to Kevin Smith and Ian McKellen provided their vocal “talents” to this absurd and charmless tale of a dog who has stop an evil sorcerer from freezing the planet. Sarcastic humor and post-“Shrek,” requisite pop-culture references abound, but most of them are anything but funny, and I’m betting that most kids will fail to find the story involving as well. Perhaps “Doogal” worked better in its native France but there’s no question this Weinstein Company-produced effort (released quickly after “Hoodwinked” in an attempt to cash in on that film’s surprising popularity) is one dog that’s better left panting on the shelves at your local video shop. Genius Products’ DVD sports both pristine 16:9 (1.85) and full-screen transfers, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, a Making Of featurette, and the domestic trailer.

NEXT TIME: THE FACTS OF LIFE on DVD! 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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