6/20/06 Andy's Wedding Edition!

June Wrap: Criterions & More
Dennis Muren's EQUINOX Unleashed on DVD
Plus: Fox's New OMEN Special Edition, SUPERBOY and Disney's EIGHT BELOW!

Long before he won Oscars and helped change the landscape of visual effects working for George Lucas, Dennis Muren was an avowed monster-lover and aspiring filmmaker. His one “home movie” turned out to be an elaborate and affectionate tale perfect for Famous Monsters of Filmland (and his childhood idol, Forrest J Ackerman), entitled EQUINOX (1967, 71 mins., Not Rated; Criterion).

This 1967 chronicle of a group of teens who pick up an ancient tome -- that turns out to be a portal to another universe -- and promptly unleash a hellspawn of creatures is straightforward, crudely-made in terms of performance and narrative (it’s basically an expensive home movie, after all), but still an affectionate, minor fantasy that “old school” Creature Feature fans ought to enjoy.

Featuring solid stop-motion work by David Allen and Jim Danforth, “Equinox” has gained somewhat of a cult following over the years, though mainly through the Jack H. Harris-produced “re-edit” of the movie. Produced three years after Muren’s own 71-minute version, Harris brought director Jack Woods in to film new footage involving the same principal actors (now several years older) and add a bit more explicit sex ‘n violence to the film.

Criterion’s new, double-disc edition of “Equinox” gives viewers their first opportunity at watching both versions, each in restored, full-screen transfers that are as good as any cut of the movie will ever look. Understandably, the film’s minuscule budget and humble origins mean there are splices and other problems inherent in the prints -- especially during Muren’s version, which even seems to originate from a videotaped copy in one spot. Yet, most fans will overlook these limitations since, in a way, they only add to the vintage, nostalgic feel of both versions.

Commentary from Muren and Mark McGee, along with effects master Jim Danforth, is highly entertaining on the 71-minute cut, while Harris and Woods somewhat pretentiously -- and amusingly -- discuss their more “commercial” edition during their 85-minute assembly (no offense to either “showman,” but it almost seems as if the two re-invented the wheel by their spicing up Muren’s little home movie!).

Extras include Muren tributes from George Lucas and Ray Harryhausen in the booklet notes; an on-screen intro from Ackerman before the movie; and a full second disc of extras highlighting Allen’s wonderful stop-motion work. There’s no question his effects are the most entertaining element of either version of “Equinox,” and Criterion has rounded up test footage, deleted scenes, outtakes, plus a short fairy tale (“The Magic Treasure”) and even a Kong Volkswagen commercial Allen produced, along with preliminary footage from the latter. Interviews with Muren and stars Barbara Hewitt, James Duron, and Frank Bonner (billed as Frank Boers, Jr. in a pre-WKRP performance) are also on-hand, along with a short 1972 movie “Zorgon” with most of the “Equinox” crew, plus extensive still and trailer galleries.

For film scholars and genre fans, Muren’s “Equinox” is an intriguing exercise that illustrates what imagination and ambition can do in spite of budgetary limitations, showing the future, pioneering F/X genius at work -- and play -- years before his Oscar-winning success.

D.A. Pennebaker’s seminal concert film MONTEREY POP (1968, 79 mins., Criterion) also receives a new high-definition, full-screen transfer from Criterion, giving this snapshot of one memorable Summer of Love weekend its finest presentation on disc to date. More over, the DVD sports a newly remixed 5.1 soundtrack from engineer Eddie Kramer, available in both DTS and Dolby Digital flavors, which adds immeasurably to the performances of varied artists like the Mamas and the Papas, the Who, Simon and Garfunkel, Jefferson Airplane, Ravi Shankar and others. Commentary from Pennebaker and festival producer/music guru Lou Adler -- as well as new video interviews with the duo -- enriches the supplemental content, while additional extras include vintage audio interviews; radio spots and the trailer; a Monterey Pop scrapbook and a photo essay from Elaine Mayes.

In conjunction with the “Monterey Pop” single disc edition is Pennebaker’s companion piece, JIMI PLAYS MONTEREY (49 mins.) and SHAKE! OTIS AT MONTEREY (19 mins.), which sport performances from Jimi Hendrix and Otis Redding in concert at the legendary musical event. Commentaries by music critics Peter Guralnick and Charles Shaar Murray accompany the two respective segments, which are likewise offered in new full-screen, high-definition restored transfers with 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital soundtracks Additional interviews and an essay from David Fricke round out this short, but sweet, release.

Flying High: Warner’s New SUPER DVDs

To compliment next week’s release of “Superman Returns,” Warner Home Video has issued a handful of Man of Steel-related DVDs, including the Fourth Season of “Lois & Clark,” the Third Season of the small-screen George Reeves “Superman,” the second volume of the “Justice League,” and the final volume from the “Superman: Animated Series.”

Three other new releases pay tribute as well, highlighted by the Complete First Season of the syndicated, Alexander and Ilya Salkind-produced SUPERBOY (1988-89, 26 episodes, 558 mins., Warner).

This long-running though somewhat troubled series (the leads changed a couple of times over the course of its four years) hasn’t dated all that well: its soft, taped appearance looks like many genre shows from the late ‘80s (“War of the Worlds” in particular), with marginal special effects and quick, over-and-done-with plots. Adding insult to injury is that the show never had a huge fanbase to begin with: a lawsuit between Warner Bros. and Alexander Salkind kept “Superboy” off the air for many years, making this DVD release its first availability in some time.

Despite the ‘80s fashions and blaring Kevin Kiner music, there’s still a good deal of fun to be found in Warner’s four-disc set, which compiles all 26 episodes from the half-hour series’ freshman year. Basically what “Smallville” might have been like had it been produced in 1988 by John Hughes, this colorful, lightweight show does offer an appealing performance from John Haymes Newton (later replaced by Gerard Christopher) as a college-age Clark Kent who battles evil while attending journalism school in Florida. Stacy Haiduk is Lana Lang, Scott Wells is a lightweight Lex Luthor (Wells would depart the series after its first season), while Jim Calvert offers up comic relief as Clark’s pal T.J. White (a role exclusive to this season). Even a young Joaquin Phoenix (under his old name, Leif) pops up as a juvenile Clark in the episode “Little Hercules”!

“Superboy” eventually settled into a more comfortable rhythm during its subsequent years, with plots a bit more dramatic than most of what you’ll see in these 26 episodes. Nevertheless, the series is an interesting curio for Superman fans, who may find themselves either enjoying or despising this slice of late ‘80s, syndicated TV escapism.

Warner’s DVD includes full-screen transfers that are likely as satisfying as the series could ever appear. Many viewers complained about the grainy transfers of Paramount’s “War of the Worlds” series when it debuted on DVD last year, but as you’ll see with “Superboy,” that soft, somewhat ugly image wasn’t exclusive to that show -- many series in the late ‘80s, not shot on film, have a similar appearance, as evidenced by “Superboy.” The stereo soundtracks fare better, and Warner has also included a handful of supplements: commentaries by Haymes Newton and Ilya Salkind are on-hand for several episodes, while a screen test and a Making Of featurette include interviews with Calvert and Haiduk among others.

It’s an enjoyable package of a show most folks have forgotten about over the years, in an acceptable presentation with engaging supplements as well. Recommended!

Two animated, single-disc offerings are also new this week from Warner: the full-length animated SUPERMAN: BRAINIAC ATTACKS (2006, 75 mins.) is an unfortunately disappointing continuation from the superior Bruce Timm-produced “Superman: Animated Series.” Though this Duane Capizzi-Curt Geda tale reunites some several alumnus from its predecessor (including Tim Daly and Dana Delany providing voices for the leads), the 75-minute offering is unmemorable and best suited for kids, seldom displaying the sharp dialogue and dramatic development its predecessor boasted, with inferior animation as well. The full-screen transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound are both acceptable but fans are sure to be let down by the feature itself.

At least KRYPTO: THE SUPERDOG (2005, 110 mins.; Warner) doesn’t pretend to be anything more than a kid-friendly cartoon, with Superman’s puppy having been sent into outer space ahead of Krypton’s demise, eventually landing on Earth years after Kal-El arrived on the scene. Now adopted by a young boy named Kevin, Krypto uses his super powers to take on more domestic issues and villains like a super-powered flea and a giant caterpillar.

“Krypto” doesn’t take itself seriously at all and kids ought to enjoy the often amusing cartoon, which Warner has included here in a single-disc DVD containing five episodes from the Cartoon Network series. An unaired promo to the series and an interactive guided tour of Krypto’s ship comprise the supplements while a full-screen transfer and 2.0 Dolby Digital surround round out the presentation.

New Horrors: Damien’s Back...Again

The recent remake of THE OMEN -- which has met with moderate box-office receipts since opening on the 6th -- has lead to a new, 2-disc Special Edition of the original 1976 film (***, 111 mins., R; Fox).

The original Fox DVD had an ample amount of extras, but this fresh re-packaging adds even more extras for Damien Thorn fans.

A new commentary with director Richard Donner and screenwriter (and, obviously, “Omen” fan) Brian Helgeland is the principal new attraction on Disc 1, which also ports over the previous (and often hilarious) discussion with Donner and editor Stuart Baird. Donner and Helgeland’s talk covers some of the same terrain as the older disc’s commentary, though it’s amusing how Donner has some variations on the same anecdotes he discussed previously (then again, the movie WAS produced over 30 years ago!). At any rate, it’s a nice addition to the set and another plus for “Omen” buffs.

The second disc adds the superb AMC documentary “The Omen Legacy,” which Image released in its own DVD back in 2001 (with a vintage “Damien: Omen II” featurette still exclusive to that disc), plus a recent, brief interview with filmmaker Wes Craven discussing his fondness for the picture.

Thankfully, all of the supplements from the original DVD have been reprised -- from the 45-minute “666: The Omen Revealed” documentary to lengthy interviews with Jerry Goldsmith and David Seltzer -- with a deleted scene that SHOULD have been included on the previous DVD shown here for the first time. That sequence -- showing Mrs. Blaylock’s original demise and an extended dog attack -- is presented in rough workprint form and offers commentary by Donner and Baird as well.

It would have been nice to see that infamous, original ending where Damien doesn’t survive, but the addition of the Donner-Helgeland commentary and the deleted scene -- plus “The Omen Legacy” for those who don’t own that respective DVD -- makes this a solid purchase, with the 16:9 widescreen transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound both on-par with the previous release. Recommended!

UNDERWORLD: EVOLUTION (**½, 106 mins., 2006, R; Sony): Continuation of the vampires vs. werewolves saga begun in 2003's surprise hit offers more of the same -- which isn’t necessarily a bad thing if you found the original sufficiently engaging. Kate Beckinsale again looks radiant as the vampire warrior Selene, who along with vamp-wolf hybrid Scott Speedman attempts to track down the history of her race and the betrayal by those she was once faithful to. Director Len Wiseman amps up the action and pacing in this lean, stylish assemblage of effects and over-stuffed genre lore, making it a recommended view for fans of the original, though the plot remains deadly serious and grows increasingly silly as it goes along (and along similar lines, if you found the first film loud and obnoxious, you’re likely to have the same view of this sequel). Sony’s single-disc Special Edition DVD includes a good amount of featurettes, including commentary and even a look at the music (a portion of which is devoted to Marco Beltrami’s orchestral score), but the lack of deleted scenes -- particularly in lieu of the movie’s economical running time -- seems to indicate a longer Director’s Cut will follow in the near future. Sony’s DVD otherwise offers a superlative 2.40 (16:9) transfer with raucous 5.1 Dolby digital sound.

Animation & More From Disney

EIGHT BELOW (***½, 120 mins., 2006, PG; Disney): Robust, superb American variation on the 1983 Japanese film “Nankyoku Monogatari” (aka “Antarctica”) became one of this year’s sleeper hits, grossing over $80 million and receiving all sorts of rave reviews in the process. Director Frank Marshall has staged that rare Disney “family” film that adults can enjoy as much as children, with a group of sled dogs left to fend for themselves after being stranded in the Arctic. Paul Walker might receive top billing but it’s the performances of the dogs themselves that really makes “Eight Below” so compelling, with top-notch technical assists provided by cinematographer Don Burgess and composer Mark Isham. Unlike so many of today’s over-edited, CGI-filled pictures, Marshall is content to let the story breathe and rely on old-fashioned drama to carry his 120-minute work to the finish line, where the picture serves up a moving and satisfying close. Disney’s DVD offers a pair of commentary tracks with Marshall and cast and crew members, plus deleted scenes and a Making Of featurette. The 16:9 (2.40) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack are both outstanding. Highly recommended!

LEROY & STITCH (2006, 73 mins., G; Disney): New direct-to-video sequel puts an apparent conclusion on the entire “Lilo & Stitch” series, with Stitch’s evil twin Leroy coming to Earth after having been created by Dr. Hamsterviel and bringing his own army of clones along with him. The story and animation are roughly on-par with the Disney Channel animated series, meaning this is acceptable family viewing, though not quite on the level of the last year’s excellent, made-for-video Stitch effort (“Lilo & Stitch 2: Stitch Has a Glitch”). Disney’s DVD includes a bonus episode from the animated series and an interactive game for kids. The “family friendly” 16:9 (1.78) widescreen transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound are both top-notch.

LADY AND THE TRAMP II: SCAMP’S ADVENTURE (2001, 70 mins., G; Disney): Cute, if forgettable small-screen 2001 follow-up to one of Disney’s ‘50s classics makes its way to DVD for the second time (following its original 2001 out-of-print debut). This time Disney has included a good-looking 16:9 (1.66) transfer with both DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks, while a Making Of featurette and interactive games round out the supplemental side of things.

COW BELLES (2006, 90 mins., Disney): Tween pop favorites Alyson and Amanda Michalka (Aly & AJ) make their cinematic debuts in this Disney Channel movie about a pair of spoiled sisters who find out what real life is all about on their fam’s dairy farm. An alternate ending, Making Of featurettes and music videos are offered in this bouncy Disney DVD, which also boasts a full-screen transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

NEXT TIME: ULTRAVIOLET, Midnight Movies Return, and the BLACK HAWK DOWN Extended Cut! 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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