7/19/05 Edition

Aisle Seat Mid-July Madness

Plus: John Wayne Classics Appear on DVD For The First Time!

Before we dive into this week’s new releases on DVD, I just thought I’d pass along a few comments about Paramount’s upcoming August 2nd John Wayne releases THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY and ISLAND IN THE SKY.

Rarely screened over the years due to legal wrangling involving the Wayne estate and previously unavailable on video, cinephiles should plan on heading down to their nearest DVD dealer to pick up both films, which have been lovingly restored in Special Edition presentations.

“The High and The Mighty” is the better of the two pictures: a pre-“Airport” disaster film/character drama starring Wayne as a hardened pilot who has to use his wits after his routine Honolulu-San Fransisco flight goes haywire. Claire Trevor, Robert Stack, Phiul Harris, Robert Newton, and Jan Sterling co-star in William Wellman’s Warner Bros/Cinemascope classic, which previously hadn’t been released on video in any format.

For a movie that’s been languishing on the shelves, “The High and the Mighty” looks, all things considered, nothing short of remarkable here. The Cinemascope aspect ratio has been reproduced for 16:9 televisions and looks spectacular, with bold, vibrant colors and only the occasional bit of dirt or grain in the print. Dimitri Tiomkin’s Oscar-winning score -- marked by a glorious, memorable main theme -- also benefits from its 5.1 and 2.0 Dolby Digital remixing, offering a superb stereophonic soundstage for one of the composer’s most acclaimed outings.

Leonard Maltin offers a brief on-camera introduction plus an informative commentary track with William Welman, Jr. (son of the director), Karen Sharpe, Pedro Gonzales-Gonzales and Vincent Longo offering their perspective on the 1954 film, which at the time was acclaimed as one of Wayne’s best. Maltin not only knows his stuff but brings an upbeat, energetic tone to his comments, making the commentary (and his featurettes) a pleasure to soak up and enjoy.

It’s a shame it’s taken so long for the film to be dusted off, but fans will be thrilled with Paramount’s DVD package, which extends to a full second disc of special features. “The Making of The High and the Mighty” includes numerous mini-featurettes, ranging from an examination of Tiomkin’s work (including comments from composers and orchestrators like Christopher Young, Patrick Russ and Jon Burlingame) to “The Batjac Story,” “Stories From The Set,” “On Director William A. Wellman,” “Restoring a Classic,” “A Place in Film History,” “Ernest K. Gann: Adventurer, Author and Artist,” “Flying in the Fifties,” premiere footage and a full range of trailers that round out the disc.

Wayne’s 1953 effort “Island in the Sky” isn’t regarded as a classic but it’s nevertheless an exciting, satisfying tale of a army pilot (Wayne) who crashes down in Labrador and attempts to survive in the icy outdoors along with his crew. Lloyd Nolan, Walter Abel, James Arness, and Andy Devine co-star, with Fess Parker in a bit part. Like “High and the Mighty,” “Island in the Sky” was based on a book by Ernest K. Gann and adapted for the screen by the author. It’s a rugged film with a strong dramatic score by Hugo Friedhofer, and like “The High and The Mighty,” Wayne aficionados should be more than pleased with Paramount’s DVD.

The transfer is generally satisfying (perhaps a bit sharp at times) in its original full-frame B&W format, and extras again include an introduction and commentary by Leonard Maltin, here joined by James Lydon, Darryl Hickman, William Wellman, Jr. and Vincent Longo. “Dooley’s Down: Making of ‘Island in the Sky’” examines the creation of the piece, while newsreel footage, a reprisal of the Ernest K. Gann featurette, a look at Harry Carey, Jr.’s roles in the Wayne canon, the movie’s “Aerial Cinematography” (saluting the work of William Clothier) and “Flying For Uncle Sam” round out the disc, which also includes a photo gallery and a clear mono soundtrack.

Needless to say, these catalog discs (which are a steal at $15 each) will undoubtedly rank as two of the most important “Restored” DVDs of 2005. Wayne fans should rejoice, and hope that “McClintock!” and “Hondo” receive equally strong support from Paramount when they make their DVD debuts (hopefully) in the near future.

New From Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

It’s always great to see major studios unearthing relatively obscure films and, not only giving them a second chance at life on DVD, but also including special features like commentary tracks to boot.

Among the handful of recent Sony titles is TWENTY BUCKS (***, 91 mins., 1993; R), an independent movie with an A-grade cast that was actually based, in part, on a screenplay by Endre Bohem written back in the 1930s. Bohem’s son Leslie (“Taken”) reworked his father’s central concept -- a $20 bill is passed from one owner to the next, with each owner’s story told in anthology form -- for director Keva Rosenfeld and producer Karen Murphy. The result is an entertaining little “indie” movie produced with a cast that was superb at the time of its release, but is even more impressive now.

Among the characters who come in possession of the bill are Linda Hunt, as a tough, streetwise homeless woman; Brendan Fraser, about to be married to his upscale, and high maintenance, fiancee; Elisabeth Shue, as a waitress and struggling writer; and Steve Buscemi, as a petty thief about to be schooled in the ways of trickery by veteran Christopher Lloyd. As with any anthology film, some of the stories are funny, others poignant and heartbreaking, and a few more intriguing than others.

Rosenfeld and Murphy assembled a stellar cast of stars, many of whom (Shue in particular) were looking to break out of Hollywood and work in the blossoming independent cinema of the early ‘90s. The central cast is excellent, but there are plenty of familiar faces who also grace the movie in small, but crucial, supporting parts: William H. Macy, David Schwimmer, Jeremy Piven, singer Gladys Knight, Spalding Gray, David Rasche, Matt Frewer, and Shohreh Aghdashloo (“24,” “House of Sand and Fog”) among them.

“Twenty Bucks” is uneven but has its heart in the right place and certainly comes across as one of the better unsung indie films produced during its time. Sony’s DVD takes great advantage of the movie’s debut in the digital format by including not one but two commentary tracks: one from Rosenfeld, talking separately with Buscemi and Shue; and another from Rosenfeld and Karen Murphy. The track with Buscemi and Shue is particularly insightful, with Shue discussing her desire to break out of “girlfriend” roles and Buscemi revealing that he was initially reluctant to take his role for fear he’d be typecast as a criminal (which, as he wryly points out, had already happened!).

A pair of featurettes are also included, discussing the project’s gestation, casting and filming on a modest budget. Interviews with Rosenfeld, Murphy and Leslie Bohem are included in the two featurettes, which combined run over 30 minutes. Sony’s 16:9 transfer is as solid as the film will look, while the 2.0 Dolby Digital sound sports a satisfying score by David Robbins.

For its concept and cast alone, “Twenty Bucks” comes recommended, and Sony’s supplements only sweeten the deal. Recommended!

More disjointed but entertaining nonetheless is “Sledge Hammer” creator Alan Spencer’s HEXED (**½, 93 mins., 1993; R), which was sold -- and basically dismissed -- as one of several “Basic Instinct” spoofs produced during the early ‘90s (“So I Married An Ax Murderer” and “Fatal Instinct” being two of the others).

In reality, though, Spencer’s tale of a hapless hotel clerk (Arye Gross) who gets mixed up with a supermodel (Claudia Christian) with a taste for murder is a ribald black comedy with some occasionally uproarious sight gags. The influence of the Coen Brothers (at least in the film’s premise) and “Weekend at Bernie’s” can be felt throughout the film, which boasts one of my favorite bellylaughs from the era (watch out for the early scene at the hotel pool) and an inspired wrap up. In between, “Hexed” is rambling and not nearly as effective, with a bit too much story and not enough humor -- perhaps the result of a crammed 30-day production schedule on a relatively minuscule budget.

The challenges involved with shooting “Hexed” are addressed in Spencer’s hysterical and fascinating DVD commentary. If you own the “Sledge Hammer” box sets, you’re undoubtedly aware of Spencer’s amusing commentaries, and his discussion of how the studio tried to tail “Hexed” to suit a younger demographic (replacing some of his Henry Mancini and Nat King Cole soundtrack cues) is revealing and honest, not to mention hilarious.

This is one of those rare commentaries you can’t turn off, regardless of the film’s flaws, so for that reason alone I highly recommend Sony’s DVD, which also includes a few short deleted scenes, the original trailer and Making Of promo; a solid 16:9 transfer and 2.0 Dolby Surround soundtrack.

It’s unfortunate that Sony didn’t allow Spencer to restore his original soundtrack (the vintage, early ‘60s pop tunes were replaced by modern, “upbeat” rock), but this is otherwise a thoroughly satisfying DVD. Check it out for Spencer’s commentary if nothing else!

Writer-director Robert Benton followed his “Places in the Heart” success with the extremely odd, rural ‘50s Texas comedy-drama NADINE (**, 1987, 83 mins., PG-13; Sony), a movie so frivolous and forgettable that it’s a wonder the picture was ever produced to begin with.

Kim Basinger stars as an attractive young woman who gets wrapped up in shooting some “revealing” pics for local Texas photographer Jerry Stiller. After demanding that the photos be returned to her, Stiller is then murdered, making “Nadine” a suspect. In desperate need of help, she turns to estranged husband Jeff Bridges, and the duo ultimately uncover not just the truth about Stiller’s murder but also a real estate scam masterminded by local crook Rip Torn.

Benton’s cache following “Places in the Heart” had to have been the reason for “Nadine” going into production. The filmmaker recruited a talented production team (including cinematographer Nestor Almendros, production designer Paul Sylbert and composer Howard Shore) to compliment the star casting of Bridges and Basinger, but after watching “Nadine,” it’s nearly impossible to discern why all these top-grade personnel would want to make the film in the first place (Benton’s involvement aside).

Prior to watching the DVD, I hadn’t seen “Nadine” in a long while and was curious if the passage of time would make the picture any more entertaining. Unfortunately, I had the same gut reaction to it this time out that I did years ago: what, exactly, is the point? At barely 83 minutes, this is a feather-weight flick with a plot that’s not particularly interesting, a romance that’s not especially involving, and comedic elements that simply aren’t funny. The look and feel of the movie are atmospheric, but what was the point of setting the film in 1954 when the soundtrack offers several ‘80s country-rock tracks that completely spoil the mood?

Sony’s DVD sports a satisfying 1.85 transfer with a 2.0 Dolby Digital mono track. No extras are included.
Last but not least among Sony’s new titles is BEULAH LAND (1980, 281 mins., Sony), the 1980 NBC mini-series starring Leslie Ann Warren as the head of a plantation in the Civil War-era South.

Not as star-studded as the mammoth ABC productions of John Jakes’ “North and South” novels that would follow years later, “Beulah Land” is a glossy, entertaining soap opera that, at times, at least seems more sincere than the Jakes adaptations. Warren is superb and is complimented by an excellent supporting cast, including Don Johnson, Eddie Albert, Hope Lange, Jenny Agutter, Meredith Baxter (then Meredith Baxter Birney), and a fetching, young Madeline Stowe.

Allyn Ferguson’s music is engaging and while the various “trials and tribulations” from Lonnie Coleman’s books (adapted for television by Jacques Meunier) are predictable enough, “Belulah Land” is stylishly presented as TV mini-series go and offers ample entertainment -- particularly for history buffs and soap opera lovers -- over the course of its five-hour running time.

Sony’s DVD is thankfully uncut and preserves the original multi-part structure of “Belulah Land,” with separate opening and end credits for each installment. The full-screen transfers are in remarkably good shape and the mono sound is just fine considering its time. Recommended!

Aisle Seat DVD Pick of the Week

It won’t win any Oscars and Keanu Reeves’ often stiff performance isn’t an asset, but the supernatural comic-book adaptation CONSTANTINE (***, 121 mins., R, 2005; Warner Bros.) nevertheless manages to deliver a satisfying amount of glossy entertainment for genre fans.

Reeves stars as John Constantine, our chain-smoking, sarcastic hero who watches the battle of Good and Evil (and God Vs. The Devil) play out between Heaven and Hell with one exception: it isn’t supposed to crossover into our plain of existence. After performing an exorcism on a young girl (in the movie’s slam-bang opening set piece), Constantine realizes that someone from down below is hatching a plan to bring hell on Earth (even more than it is already). The plan could be possibly connected to a female cop (Rachel Weisz), who tracks down Constantine and finds out both angels and devils are everywhere -- provided you know where to look.

Fans of the DC Comics “graphic novel” cried foul over this big-budget Warner Bros. release, but if you’re like me and have never heard of the “Hell Blazer” comic, you’re likely to be entertained by this surprisingly effective mix of special effects wizardry, occasional black comedy, and religious theory.

First-time feature director Francis Lawrence, working from a script by Kevin Brodbin and Frank Cappello, thankfully never becomes overwhelmed with the movie’s occasionally spellbinding visual effects. This allows for intriguing supporting performances from the likes of Weisz, Tilda Swinton (as Gabriel, here a fallen angel of the asexual persuasion!), Djimon Hounsou as a sage witch doctor, and Peter Stormare, who appears as Satan in a climax that’s thankfully a lot more restrained than you might expect.

Warner Home Video’s DVD is out this week and sports a fabulous 2.35 widescreen transfer with a swirling, active 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack. The hodgepodge score by Brian Tyler and Klaus Badelt was reportedly the result of Tyler’s original score being dumped in numerous sequences and worked around to accommodate several songs. Subsequently, it doesn’t have the majestic or particularly sinister tone one might anticipate.

Warner’s single-disc Widescreen DVD also boasts 18 minutes of deleted scenes including a subplot involving Constantine’s affair with a female demon and an alternate ending. Optional commentary by the director is available over the excised sequences as well.

Though only a modest box-office performer in the U.S. ($75 million domestic), “Constantine” was a smash internationally, grossing over $150 million in outside markets and essentially guaranteeing a sequel in the process. For a change, this is one franchise I wouldn’t mind returning to, since “Constantine” delivers just enough action and story to compliment its visuals. Recommended!

Also New On DVD

Another cult favorite, John Waters’ CRY-BABY (**½, 92 mins., 1990, Unrated; Universal) gets the Unrated Director’s Cut treatment this week.

Waters’ 1990 film was the most expensive and elaborate studio film the filmmaker would produce (in the wake of “Hairspray” every studio wanted a crack at it), and it’s a dizzying, colorful salute to the kinds of B-grade, juvenile delinquent films Waters grew up on in the ‘50s.

Johnny Depp anchors the thread-bare plot as a greaser-rocker who falls for squeaky-clean good girl Amy Locane. Depp angers her “square” friends by bringing Locane out to his posse’s “backwoods” hang-out, singing songs and acclimating her with his tough gal-pals (including Traci Lords, Ricki Lake, and Susan Tyrell).

“Cry-Baby” boasts several toe-tapping musical numbers, energetically performed and scored, and Depp’s appealing performance helps a great deal. Like many Waters films, though, “Cry-Baby” is maddeningly uneven, with not enough plot to sustain its 92-minute running time. It’s a movie of moments that never gels into a satisfying whole, though I’m sure Waters fans will love Universal’s DVD.

For Universal’s DVD, the film has been expanded by seven minutes, with at least one song apparently restored and one glaring (but hilarious) f-bomb added into the movie (hence the well-deserved “Unrated” tag). Otherwise, the movie is still an obviously PG-13 effort as mainstream as any of Waters’ works.

Special features include additional deleted scenes (including an alternate climax that reportedly airs when “Cry-Baby” is shown on broadcast TV), commentary with Waters, and an excellent, brand-new featurette, “It Came From Baltimore,” looking back at the production with new comments from Waters, Depp, Amy Locane, Traci Lords, Ricki Lake, and numerous members of Waters’ creative team. The 1.85 transfer and 2.0 Dolby Surround sound are both satisfying.

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