5/20/08 Edition -- The AISLE SEAT BLOG Is Also Live

Legend Unveils Paramount DVDs
Cult Classics, Rarities Hit Disc For the First Time
Plus: THE INVADERS, SEMI-PRO and more!

Movie buffs looking for a healthy dose of catalog titles from the late ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s have reason to rejoice thanks to a whole new batch of vintage DVDs from the Paramount library.

Restoration firm Legend Films is the independent label behind these new discs, which not only include a healthy dose of cult classics but several bona-fide rarities that have been out of circulation for years -- including a few making their home video debuts altogether.    All are presented in 16:9 widescreen on single-layer discs, and include the following:

SERIAL (***½, 92 mins., 1980, R): One of my favorite comedies of the ‘80s, this extremely funny adaptation of Cyra McFadden’s satirical novel stars Martin Mull as a SoCal “everyman” who watches in horror as sexual freedom, “open” relationships, drugs and new age mysticism infringe on his daily existence -- first among his friends and now his family, including bored wife Tuesday Weld and their teen daughter.

Rich Eustis and Michael Elias adapted McFadden’s novel, which sitcom veteran Bill Persky helmed as an amusing indictment of the “Me” generation, sprinkled with memorable performances: Mull is a riot in unquestionably his finest lead role, while Weld, Sally Kellerman, Peter Bonerz, Bill Macy, Tom Smothers (as the “reverend Spike”) and even Christopher Lee (Mull’s boss – who turns out to be a gay weekend biker!) lend strong support.

Even if the social and cultural mores the film parodies are mostly products of their time, the movie’s central conceit -- of a modern man with old-fashioned sensibilities trying to remain sane in the modern world -- still rings true, and “Serial” offers a particularly hilarious climax that puts the perfect cap on the fun.

The 16:9 (1.78) transfer on “Serial” is as crisp as one would hope, while the mono sound is perfectly fine as well. Lalo Schifrin’s score is one of his most pleasant, with the infectious, melodic title tune (“A Changing World”) featuring Norman Gimbel lyrics and a vocal performance by Michael McAllister.

MANDINGO (**, 1975, 111 mins., R): Much-ballyhooed, controversial adaptation of the Jack Kirkland novel might sound like an “A-list” production on paper, with producer Dino DeLaurentiis, director Richard Fleischer, composer Maurice Jarre and a solid cast (including James Mason, Perry King, and Susan George) on-board. Yet the big surprise is how “Mandingo” -- the story of a slave named Mede (the un-emotive Ken Norton) who fights by day and romances a frustrated slave owner’s wife by night -- resembles more of an exploitation film of its era, with flat cinematography and a pulpy, cheap plot derived from what would be the first in a long series of novels. Only one sequel -- the even-worse 1976 flop “Drum” -- would be released (by a different studio, United Artists), but the harsh reaction to “Mandingo” would last for years: this raunchy and offensive DeLaurentiis production has been seldom screened in the U.S., with Legend’s DVD offering a superb 16:9 (1.78) transfer from a print that seems a bit worn at times with speckles and dirt, but is, in general, quite satisfying. Jarre’s score (one of the best things in the film), meanwhile, does what it can to enhance the melodramatic happenings (scripted by Norman Wexler), but it’s a typical mid ‘70s mono mix that often sounds tinny. Buffs should also note this Region 1 release marks the first uncut presentation of the film’s theatrical print on DVD, as most overseas versions reportedly contained a full-screen version with alternate coverage of the picture’s copious nude scenes.
THE POSSESSION OF JOEL DELANEY (**½, 106 mins., 1972, R): Interesting, if somewhat indifferently directed, pre-“Exorcist” tale of a young man (Perry King) who becomes possessed by a slain Puerto Rican murderer and the attempts by his older, divorced sister (Shirley MacLaine) to save him. This ITC-produced film, shot on location in New York City, is fairly straightforward and doesn’t offer much in the way of stylistic cinematic touches in its adaptation of Ramona Stewart’s novel, but that no-frills approach does add a degree of realism to the picture. Once the film goes nutty in its final third (King forces his young niece to eat dog food and for his family members to strip naked), horror fans will feel like they’ve had their fix, even though the picture takes a bit of time getting to its destination. Joe Raposo (of “Sesame Street” fame) composed the low-key, effective dramatic score, while Legend’s 16:9 (1.78) transfer is quite satisfying, having been culled from the finest-surviving elements with acceptable mono sound.   

HURRICANE (**, 120 mins., 1979, PG): Expensive, notorious box-office bomb from producer Dino DeLaurentiis was set to be directed by Roman Polanski until he pleaded guilty to statutory rape and left the U.S., never to return. He was unquestionably better off filming “Tess” anyway instead of this overblown period remake of the 1930's John Ford-Dorothy Lamour epic, starring Mia Farrow as the sheltered daughter of military father Jason Robards, placed in charge of governing the South Seas island of Bora Bora. In spite of her father’s objections, Farrow falls for the local Samoan chief (Dayton Ka’ne), but they all get washed away in an effects-filled climax. “Hurricane,” directed by Jan Troell and scripted by frequent DeLaurentiis collaborator Lorenzo Semple, Jr., shoots blanks on the romance and dialogue department but -- here restored to its original Todd A-O scope proportions -- is at least easy to look at, with gorgeous cinematography by Sven Nykvist and a beautiful score by Nino Rota, who died before the film was released. Legend’s 16:9 (2.35) transfer is excellent, but the sound -- despite carrying a Dolby Stereo logo on the back jacket -- is in mono only. An amusing theatrical trailer, which tries to sell the picture as a typical ‘70s disaster film, rounds out the disc.

KING OF THE GYPSIES (***, 112 mins., 1978, R): Another Dino DeLaurentiis production, “King of the Gypsies” is Frank Pierson’s 1978 adaptation of Peter Maas’ book, focusing on gypsies in the modern world. Eric Roberts stars as a young man who receives the title of King from his grandfather (Sterling Hayden), passing over his frustrated father (Judd Hirsch) in the process. A marvelous cast -- including Susan Sarandon, Brooke Shields, Annette O’Toole, Annie Potts, and Shelley Winters -- makes this a taut and compelling film with superb cinematography again from Sven Nykvist. Legend’s DVD offers a strong 16:9 (1.78) transfer with mono sound.

THE OPTIMISTS (***, 111 mins., 1973, PG): Little-seen early ‘70s movie affords Peter Sellers one of his strongest dramatic roles as a street performer who befriends a pair of kids from the wrong side of the tracks and tries to set them on the right path. A bit slow-going at times but sincerely acted, with songs provided by Lionel Bart; Anthony Simmons directed and co-wrote the picture from his own novel. The 16:9 (1.78) transfer is excellent in spite of the print’s age, and the mono sound is just fine.

THE SKULL (***, 83 mins., 1965): Terrific period horror piece marked a major success for Milton Subotsky’s Amicus Productions, an adaptation of a Robert Bloch story starring Peter Cushing as a doctor who purchases a skull belonging to the Marquis de Sarde. “Guest star” Christopher Lee shows up as a fellow doctor who tries to talk Cushing out of his latest pick-up, but soon the supernatural preys upon Cushing’s psyche and begins floating around -- with some visible wires holding it together! Freddie Francis’ direction and constant use of the wide Techniscope frame make this a good deal of fun for horror buffs, with Legend’s 16:9 (2.35) transfer perfectly capturing the dimensions of the picture’s original exhibition. The trailer is also on-hand.

STUDENT BODIES (**, 86 mins., 1981, R): ‘80s cable staple hits DVD for the first time -- a horror parody with a few scattered laughs that plays out like a standard teen slasher movie with a lunatic named “The Breather” on the loose, preying upon young couples. Mickey Rose wrote and directed this reportedly troubled (producer Michael Ritchie had his name removed from the credits) and uneven comedy that presaged “Scream” by nearly 20 years; while no great shakes, for nostalgic viewers who grew up on the movie, it’s still fun to see it back in circulation at long last. Legend’s 16:9 (1.78) transfer looks crisp and an amusing theatrical trailer compiles most of the movie’s funniest gags.

FRENCH POSTCARDS (**½, 95 mins., 1979, PG): Cute romantic-comedy fluff from the “American Graffiti” writing duo of Gloria Katz (who produced) and Willard Huyck (who directed) follows a group of American students (including a young Debra Winger) as they trek through France. Lee Holdridge’s breezy score, engaging performances and authentic locales make this an appealing slice of escapism that Legend has presented in a fine 16:9 (1.78) widescreen transfer with mono sound.

JEKYLL & HYDE: TOGETHER AGAIN (**½, 87 mins., 1982, R): Absolutely bonkers, raunchy comedy with Mark Blankfield as Henry Jekyll, whose split personality turns him into a crazy “macho man” in a ribald farce produced by Joel Silver and directed by comedy guru Jerry Belson. Blankfield is amusing and the lovely Bess Armstrong is on-hand to lend support in this early ‘80s cult comedy favorite, being brought to DVD here for the first time in a fine 16:9 (1.78) transfer with mono sound. And you have to love the last shot of Robert Louis Stevenson rolling in his grave!   

THE BUSY BODY (**½, 102 mins., 1966): All-star cast mugs their way through this typical ‘60s comedic romp from producer-director William Castle, an adaptation of Donald Westlake’s novel by screenwriter Ben Starr. Sid Caesar plays a mob carrier charged with recovering a fortune in loot hidden in a corpse’s suit; Anne Baxter, Robert Ryan, Kay Medford, Richard Pryor, and a succession of “guest bodies” (Dom DeLuise, Bill Dana, Godfrey Cambridge, Marty Ingels and George Jessell) pop up in a watchable, if dated, slice of ‘60s escapism, complimented by a tuneful score by the great Vic Mizzy. Legend’s 16:9 (2.35) transfer is excellent.

WON TON TON, THE DOG WHO SAVED HOLLYWOOD (**, 92 mins., 1976, PG): Box-office disappointment tries to be a Bogdonavich-inspired period comedy with a pooch following Madeline Kahn to Hollywood, where he becomes an improbable movie star. Michael Winner’s career became a losing one thanks to flops like this, but it’s an okay, if not particularly funny, romp with a nice Neal Hefti score and a huge array of stars (Bruce Dern, Art Carney, Phil Silvers, Teri Garr, Ron Leibman) and cameos (Milton Berle, Edgar Bergen, Robert Alda, John Carradine) that read like a who’s-who of Golden Age cinema. For that reason alone the film remains watchable, while Legend’s 16:9 (1.78) DVD offers a fine transfer and mono soundtrack.

Legend Films is currently selling the above and other selected titles through their website (www.legendfilms.com) for $14.99 each, as well as at certain Target locales. Major online vendors such as Amazon will begin selling these throughout June and July, with one batch of sci-fi/fantasy titles (including “The Sender” and “Phase IV”) exclusively to be sold at Best Buy sometime this summer. Well worth checking out!

New TV on DVD

One of the series I’ve received a significant amount of queries about over the years is Quinn Martin’s THE INVADERS.

This nifty, action-packed sci-fi series stars Roy Thinnes as David Vincent, an architect who, while driving late one night near an abandoned diner, sees a flying saucer. The next morning David finds that the cover-up has already begun: the diner’s sign has already been replaced, a seemingly ordinary couple camping in their RV says they saw nothing wrong, and the police believe that David must have suffered a concussion or dream. David, though, is certain of what he saw, and a return to the scene of the incident reveals that extraterrestrial invaders are indeed here...and trying to take over the world!       

Although “The Invaders” only lasted two seasons, fans fondly recall this late ‘60s blast of sci-fi adventure and Cold War-styled paranoia. With its no-nonsense performances, narration and typical Martin structure (“Act One,” etc.), “The Invaders” is hugely entertaining even today, a post-“Body Snatchers”, pre-“V” genre yarn that has at last made it to DVD.

Paramount’s Season 1 set of “The Invaders” looks, for the most part, satisfying: the shows don’t appear to be in pristine condition, with some of the elements appearing aged, but the colors are at least vibrant enough. The studio has also gone the extra mile to include some extras, including an extended version of the show’s pilot (with a different ending) and brief introductions from Thinnes before each episode. Highly recommended!

Also new from CBS/Paramount is the Complete Fourth Season of MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (1969-70, aprx. 22 hrs), featuring Peter Graves, Greg Morris and Peter Lupus being joined by master magician Paris -- played by Leonard Nimoy!

The seven-disc set offers remastered full-screen transfers, 5.1 Dolby Digital and mono soundtracks, and 26 episodes including “The Code,” “The Numbers Game,” “The Controllers” (Parts 1 and 2), “Fool’s Gold,” “Commandante,” “Mastermind,” “Robot,” “The Double Circle,” “Brothers,” “Time Bomb,” “The Amnesiac,” “The Falcon” (Parts 1, 2 and 3), “Submarine,” “Chico,” “Gitano,” “Phantoms,” “Terror,” “Lover’s Knot,” “Orpheus,” “The Crane,” “Death Squad,” “The Choice,” and “The Martyr.” As with Paramount’s prior box-sets the remastered picture and sound is exceptionally crisp, and a disclaimer about possible edits is included on the back package.

CBS is also set to release Vol. 2 of GUNSMOKE’s second season (1957, aprx. 7 hours), featuring the “back” 19 episodes from the series’ sophomore frame in their original full-screen, black-and-white transfers, complete with seven original sponsor spots with cast members.

Also new on Blu-Ray and DVD

SEMI-PRO (**½, 100 mins., 2008, R; New Line): Fitfully amusing Will Ferrell comedy is a bit of an odd hybrid between a typical Ferrell vehicle and a generic “underdog” sports movie.

Ferrell plays a player/owner of a low-rent pro basketball franchise back in the days when the NBA had some competition on its hand from other leagues -- most of whom are facing bankruptcy. In fact, Ferrell’s team, the Flint Tropics, is about to be folded when he decides to get some help from a former star (Woody Harrelson), but our hero has as much interest in off-court partying as he does trying to win games.

Scot Armstrong’s script walks the fine line between a no-brain comedy and a formulaic sports picture, and for the most part, succeeds in crafting a fun, if uneven, salute to the ABA and other ‘70s cultural relics. Ferrell garners some laughs and Harrelson is likeable enough in one of his larger lead roles in some time, but the big surprise is how tame the movie is: outside of a couple of raunchy laughs this could’ve well been a PG-13 film for younger viewers, and in fact might’ve played better if it had been (the movie’s disappointing box-office receipts seem to confirm that the R rating killed it commercially).

New Line’s double-disc Blu-Ray set sports a gorgeous AVC-encoded 1080p transfer with DTS-MA 7.1 audio and a load of special features, including a longer, unrated cut of the movie; deleted and alternate scenes; numerous featurettes; a music video of Ferrell’s hilarious song “Love Me Sexy”; trailers and web-enabled bonus features. No classic, but not bad for a night’s rental either.

UNTRACEBALE (*½, 101 mins., 2008, R; Sony): Maybe I’m just getting older but any movie that opens with a kitten being slain really rubs me the wrong way right from the start. Gregory Hoblit’s “Untraceable” is a well-executed serial killer movie that can never shake the fact that it’s really just another serial killer movie -- this despite the presence of Diane Lane as an FBI agent investigating a killer who does his slaughters live, on the web, for everyone to see. As much a product of today’s “Saw”-inspired “torture porn” thrillers as anything else, “Untraceable” is unsettling and disturbing, and reasonably well-done for the kind of film it is -- I’ve frankly just had enough of these kinds of films, and find them anything but entertaining or worthwhile. Sony’s Blu-Ray disc does look potent with its flawless AVC-encoded transfer and Dolby TrueHD audio, sporting an atmospheric score by Christopher Young. Extras include commentary from Gregory Hoblit, producer Hawk Koch and production designer Paul Eads, plus four featurettes and a Blu-Ray exclusive picture-in-picture function that offers background information on the film, storyboards and interviews while the picture is running.       

MTV: ANIMATION SHOW Volume 3 (103 mins., 2008; Paramount): Mike Judge and Don Hertzfeldt present this latest assembly of the 2007 “Animation Show” theatrical tour, offering a generous sampling of award-winning and acclaimed shorts from around the world by Bill Plympton, Joanna Quinn, Chris Harding, PES and others. An eclectic compilation that die-hard animation fans should enjoy, with Paramount’s single-disc DVD including an interview with Gaelle Denis, a conversation with Max Hattler, text interviews with the artists and more.

MAT HOFFMAN’S TRIBUTE TO EVEL KNIEVEL (47 mins., 2008; Paramount): “Jackass” star Johnny Knoxville joins BMX master Mat Hoffman for a stunt-filled tribute to the late, great Evel Knievel. Travis Pastrana, Scott Palmer, Trigger Gumm and others join in the 45-minute fun, which ought to appeal to stunt lovers of all ages. Paramount’s DVD includes a good amount of extras, including interview comments about Knievel, a photo gallery and other supplements.

NEXT TIME: Fox's WWII Blu-Rays and more! Until then, don't forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards, check out the newly relaunched Aisle Seat Blog, and direct any emails to our email address.  Cheers everyone!

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