8/16/05 Edition

Superlative Special Editions

Andy Welcomes New TRUMAN SHOW and WITNESS DVDs From Paramount
Plus: SIN CITY Hits DVD For The First (And Surely Not The Last!) Time

It’s remarkable how prescient screenwriter Andrew Niccol was in chronicling the breakout rise of “reality TV” with his script for “The Truman Show” nearly a decade ago.

Some seven years after the release of Peter Weir’s superlative film, “reality TV” has very nearly turned into what Niccol saw: an all-knowing media, and specifically an entertainment industry, that could possibly lower itself to the level of fabricating a “life” for an unknowing participant in its ruse...all for the sake of ratings.

Even more timely now than it was when initially released, THE TRUMAN SHOW (****, 102 mins., PG) is being re-issued next week by Paramount in a superb Special Edition with all-new extras.

Director Weir's delicious fantasy is a constant visual treat, and Jim Carrey's manic persona was modulated just enough to make him the perfect embodiment of a naive, literally sheltered man whose entire life has been fabricated for the purposes of producing a television program.

Weir's direction and Carrey's performance were justifiably praised (in spite of the fact that some audiences thought the film, at least initially, was just another Carrey comedy), but equally worth mentioning are Niccol's screenplay and several strong supporting performances.

Niccol -- who wrote the terrific “Gattaca” around the same time (a fascinating companion piece to ”Truman” due to its complimentary theme of a technological governing body controlling society) -- penned a witty, thought-provoking script that works best as a quirky fantasy centering on a man escaping from what he perceives as his reality, with satirical overtones touching upon the ever-growing media and its involvement in our own lives. At what point does the medium become the message, and where does the audience take into account the consequences of their own voyeurism? Themes like these, touched upon in Niccol's script, are what make “The Truman Show” such a relevant and interesting piece.

Yet, even interpreted as a straightforward drama of a man escaping from an unreal reality (he wants out right from the start of the movie, even before he realizes that his surrounding world is fabricated), the movie works equally well. In many ways, the film is a chronicle of overcoming fears, making your own choices, and the perseverance of an individual in an unrelenting world. In other words, it's a story that's not all that different from what often happens in “the real world.”

As Truman's wife, Laura Linney gives a tremendous performance as an actress who slowly, but surely, cracks under the pressure of Truman's growing concern about the unreality of his world, while Ed Harris strikes the perfect note between manipulative genius and insanity as Christof, the omniscient overseer of the televised realm. Carrey is wonderful in the lead, not straying quite so far as to completely immerse himself in the normalcy of his character, but the final minutes of the film remain his most effective as a dramatic actor.

As with all of Peter Weir's films, there’s much on-hand visually to admire. Peter Biziou's cinematography captured the pseudo-'50s decor and futuristic design of the bloated technological studio that Christof uses to monitor Truman, and the use of music -- from classical pieces to original works by Bulkhard Dallwitz and Philip Glass -- is effectively handled, juggling between the familiar and unreal.

“The Truman Show” remains a superb, inventive picture with more on its mind than virtually all of the films released in 2005 combined...a film that will undoubtedly be viewed years from now as one of the best films of the 1990s.

Paramount’s new Special Edition DVD offers a rich documentary on the production of the film. Featuring new interviews with Weir, producer Edward S. Feldman, co-stars Laura Linney, Ed Harris and Noah Emmerich, this is a candid and fascinating examination of how the film was produced, as well as its growing legacy. Weir and Feldman even discuss Dennis Hopper’s departure from the film (Hopper was the original Christof before being “fired”), though they don’t reference Hopper by name. Nearly 15 minutes of interesting deleted/extended sequences are shown in workprint form, while there’s a look at the visual FX in “Faux Finishing.” A photo gallery and several trailers and TV spots round out the disc. The latter shows the curious hole the studio was in at the time, trying to sell the film to Carrey’s young core audience but remain truthful about the story’s premise simultaneously. As one can see, only the later trailers give an accurate read as to what type of film “The Truman Show” is, even though they also reveal too much of the film’s plot.

The 2.35 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack are both superb, making this an essential DVD purchase. Highly recommended!

Simultaneously streeting next week is the long-awaited Special Edition of WITNESS (****, 112 mins., 1985, R; Paramount), arguably Weir’s finest picture and another movie that deserves to be ranked among the greatest films of its respective decade.

Moving, exciting, beautifully performed and written, “Witness” needs little introduction for most viewers. Its relatively simple tale of a Philadelphia cop (Harrison Ford) who has to go undercover into Amish country to protect a young boy (Lukas Haas) and his mother (Kelly McGillis) who witnessed a brutal murder was a box-office hit and multiple Oscar winner (earning nods for script and editing, plus nominations for Best Picture and several other categories).

Like all “classic” films, “Witness” has a timeless quality about it: as Weir points out in the new DVD’s documentary, he thought he was making a “light” film but, some 20 years later, the picture holds up remarkably well on every level. The romance between Ford and McGillis, the relationship McGillis has with Amish suitor Alexander Godunov, the superior performance by young Haas, and even the “thriller” angle that results in a well-executed though standard shoot-out finale makes for a dynamic piece of entertainment -- one that’s elevated by the cast, Weir’s direction, John Seale’s cinematography, and Maurice Jarre’s music into a remarkable film that’s just as fresh as it was two decades ago. (Be on the lookout for Viggo Mortensen as one of the Amish).

Paramount’s DVD includes “Between Two Worlds: The Making of ‘Witness,’” another fresh, excellent retrospective on the creation of Weir’s film. Harrison Ford, Kelly McGillis, Edward Feldman, Lukas Haas and others join Weir to recall their fond memories of producing the picture. Chief among the highlights is a teary-eyed McGillis, talking emotionally about her attempts to recapture the success of her role (mostly to no avail) in the years following the film’s release.

It’s a wonderful piece, augmented on DVD by a rather lengthy deleted scene (from the network TV broadcast , here presented in 16:9 widescreen) involving Haas, McGillis and co-star Patti LuPone, plus trailers and TV spots. The 1.85 (16:9) transfer looks a bit fresher than Paramount’s previous DVD (as memory serves), and the 5.1 and 2.0 Dolby Digital soundtracks are both satisfying.

With so many disappointing films currently out there, now is the perfect time to re-assess two of Peter Weir’s finest works, back on DVD in outstanding presentations courtesy of Paramount (and under $20 a piece). Highly, highly recommended!

Also among new offerings from Paramount is THE RED TENT (***, 1971, 121 mins., PG), which arrives on DVD next week for the first time.

This disjointed but fascinating Italian-Russian co-production hasn’t been screened a whole lot over the years, despite the presence of stars Sean Connery, Claudia Cardinale and Peter Finch.

Unlike many big-budget, all-star international productions made during the ‘60s and ‘70s, “The Red Tent” holds up well, despite a somewhat rocky opening. Director Mikheil Kalatozishvili fashioned a beautifully photographed, occasionally haunting film, examining a tragic, failed 1928 Italian expedition to the Arctic, led by explorer Umberto Nobile (Finch). International headlines, a rescue effort led by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen (Connery), and Nobile’s questionable actions form the centerpiece of “The Red Tent,” scripted by Ennio De Concini and Richard Adams, beautifully photographed by Leonid Kalashnikov, and memorably scored by Ennio Morricone.

The movie’s framing device -- with Nobile looking back on his actions, confronted by the spirits of individuals who pass judgment on his decisions -- makes for a stark contrast with the gritty drama of Nobile and his men attempting to survive in the Arctic. While it doesn’t entirely work, it nevertheless gives this film a strange, almost ethereal quality, while the central survival drama still packs a potent punch.

Paramount’s DVD offers a 1.85 (16:9) transfer that’s likely as strong as the film will ever look on video. There’s grain here and there throughout the movie, but it’s almost certainly a result of how the movie was shot and handled over the years (no surprise given its international origins). It’s still a satisfying transfer that does justice to Kalashnikov’s excellent cinematography, clearly one of the film’s strongest assets. The 5.1 and 2.0 Dolby Digital stereo soundtracks, meanwhile, fare better: Morricone’s moving score is terrific, and the movie has well-balanced stereophonic sound in both tracks.

“The Red Tent” is a satisfying historical film with a superb cast, stellar cinematography and a top-notch Morricone score. For those reasons alone (and in spite of its occasionally clumsy script), Paramount’s DVD comes as a welcome viewing experience.

Also New This Week

Snazzy visuals and a great cast almost make a trip to Frank Miller’s SIN CITY (**, 124 mins., R, 2005; Buena Vista) worth the journey...until you realize the visuals are all that Robert Rodriguez’s cinematic adaptation of Miller’s graphic novels has going for it.

In this city of sin, Bruce Willis plays a hardened cop with a heart condition out to stop a psycho from preying on young girls; Mickey Rourke is a tough, Frankenstein-like monster of a man framed for a hooker’s murder actually committed by Elijah Wood, a psycho who literally devours the souls of his victims; Brittany Murphy is a waitress with a sicko ex-boyfriend (Benicio Del Toro) and a new love (Clive Owen) who takes him down, only to find out he’s actually a cop; and Jessica Alba is the grown version of the girl Willis saves in the opening...now a good-girl stripper who gets wrapped up with a bad guy who’s a cross between a “Dick Tracy” thug and something you’d ordinarily see in one of David Lynch’s films.

This repellent exercise in pulp “graphic novel noir” nonsense is apparently a faithful-to-an-extreme cinematic representation of Miller’s graphic novels. Rodriguez, fresh off his “Spy Kids” films, recruited Miller to “co-direct” and give his creative stamp to the movie version, and, admittedly, there are times when “Sin City” truly feels as if you’re watching a veritable comic book. The endlessly pretentious narration and dialogue were ripped right out of Miller’s books, as were the highly-stylized camera angles and editing rhythms -- all coordinated by Rodriguez to accurately bring each frame of “Sin City” to the screen.

As a consequence to its faithfulness, however, there’s no dramatic tension or anything to grasp onto in “Sin City” the movie. Here’s a film packed to the gills with outrageous violence and action (toned down somewhat by having most of the blood colored white), but nothing of interest from a character or dramatic angle. The movie is all posturing -- a group of “cool” moments that will get teenage boys aroused with its explicit violence and brainless action -- but there’s no weight to the movie at all because Miller and Rodriguez didn’t make any dramatic adjustments to the material. “Sin City” looks and feels like a comic book come to life, alright, but what works dramatically on the printed page doesn’t necessarily translate to the cinematic realm, as plainly demonstrated here.

More over, there are a few goofy, unintentionally humorous moments along the way, like the climax involving the “Yellow Bastard,” or when Del Toro shares a conversation in a moving car with Owen -- a sequence that, no surprise here, was the work of “Special Guest Director” Quentin Tarantino (apparently he didn’t get enough mileage last year out of his cameos on “American Idol” or the “Muppets Wizard of Oz”).

“Sin City” is unquestionably fascinating as a visual exercise, but like so many of Rodriguez’s films, it’s empty beneath the surface. There’s no soul here, and the complete lack of identification viewers will have with any of its thinly-drawn characters (more like generic stereotypes, which I assume was Miller’s point to some degree), make it a frenetic, unsatisfying blend of razzle-dazzle filmmaking and non-existent dramatic storytelling.

Fans of the movie, though, will surely be delighted with Buena Vista’s DVD, which arrives this week in a superb 1.85 transfer with 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital sound. This is a stellar looking film, at least, and the DVD presentation is sensational -- every bit as reference-quality as one might have hoped. The soundtracks are layered with gun shots and mostly thankless scores by Rodriguez, John Debney and Graeme Revell, but the sound design is likewise impressive.

A brief featurette is the disc’s only extra, which may disappoint some viewers, but keep in mind that this is only the “first dip” on DVD for “Sin City.” No question, we’ll be seeing a more elaborate, 2-disc Special Edition down the road...perhaps as early as next year, when the inevitable sequel goes into production.

Other New Buena Vista Releases

MY NEIGHBORS THE YAMADAS (1999, 104 mins., PG; Buena Vista)
POM POKO (1994, 109 mins., PG; Buena Vista)
Isao Takahata’s enjoyable anime films are the newest additions to Buena Vista’s Studio Ghibli line.

In 1994's smash Japanese hit “Pom Poko,” a group of raccoons attempt to stave off modern development by any means necessary: including turning human! The episodic 1999 effort “My Neighbors The Yamadas,” meanwhile, is a gently comic look at a modern family, with newly re-voiced English vocals by Jim Belushi and Molly Shannon. The latter benefits from an intentionally “comic strip” design approach, as its central story is only somewhat compelling.

As with Buena Vista’s prior Studio Ghibli films, the original 5.1 Japanese audio tracks are available with optional English subtitles, in addition to the American re-dubbing, which -- like its predecessors -- aren’t half-bad. Trailers and TV spots are available on both movies, while the 16:9 transfers are both satisfying. “The Yamadas” also boasts a behind the scenes featurette, while storyboards are on-hand in “Pom Poko.”

MY LEFT FOOT (***½, 103 mins., 1989, R; Miramax)
THE GLASS SHIELD (**½, 115 mins., 1995, R; Miramax)
Remastered transfers are the primary motivation to pick up the latest releases in Miramax’s Collector’s Edition DVD packages.

Jim Sheridan’s inspiring 1989 film “My Left Foot” remains one of the finest films of its era: Daniel Day-Lewis’ outstanding performance as Christy Brown copped the actor a well-deserved Oscar for Best Actor, while his co-star, the superb Brenda Fricker, also earned an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.
The remastered 1.85 transfer and 5.1 sound (ably benefitting Elmer Bernstein’s excellent score) are a definite cut above the original DVD’s transfer. Extras, though, are on the meager side: just a pair of relatively short featurettes, “The Making of ‘My Left Foot’” and a look at “The Real Christy Brown.” One might have hoped for more (Day-Lewis and Sheridan commentary, perhaps?), but the solid transfer and low price (under $15 in most locales) should still make this an appealing pick-up for aficionados.
Meanwhile, Charles Burnett’s acclaimed indie thriller “The Glass Shield” also gets another go-around on DVD this week.
Burnett’s tale of corruption, racism, and the inter-machinations of the L.A.P.D. has an eclectic cast (Ice Cube, Richard Anderson, Bernie Casey, Elliott Gould, Michael Ironside, Lori Petty) and an involving mystery that has continued to entertain the film’s admirers since its 1995 release.
Miramax’s new DVD offers a remastered transfer in 1.85 widescreen; commentary with Burnett and composer Stephen James Taylor;  a nice featurette with Taylor displaying his craft; the original trailer, and an interview with the director.

DISNEY’S TIMELESS TALES Volumes 1 and 2 (2005 compilations, 60 mins. each; Disney): Solid, hour-long new releases compile fairy-tale themed shorts from the annals of Disney animation: Volume 1 offers vintage shorts including “The Three Little Pigs,” “Tortoise and the Hare,” “Grasshopper and the Ants,” “Pied Piper” and “The Prince and the Pauper.” Volume 2 includes “The Wind In The Willows” (excerpted from the longer, classic Disney feature “Ichabod and Mr. Toad”),”Ferdinand The Bull,” “The Country Cousin” and “Ugly Duckling.” Colorfully packaged and convenient for parents looking to throw on a pleasant DVD suitable for kids of all ages.

THAT’S SO RAVEN: DISGUISE THE LIMIT (2005 compilation, 89 mins., G; Disney)
PHIL OF THE FUTURE: GADGETS & GIZMOS (2005 compilation, 89 mins., G; Disney): A pair of Disney Channel series receive new DVD releases this week. “That’s So Raven” offers four episodes from the ever-popular DC sitcom while “Phil of the Future” sports an additional four shows for the more male-skewing, lightly sci-fi comic series (one of the episodes is an unaired segment on each disc). Each DVD includes a few extras that kids should enjoy, be it a behind-the-scenes featurette or commentary (of the visual or audio variety), colorful full-screen transfers and 5.1 Dolby Digital audio.

NEXT TIME: More discs, reviews and news! 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!