8/22/06 Edition

'70s and '80s Aisle Seat Flashback
Plus: Criterion's Latest; a John Hughes Redux; Fox Film Noir and More!

Last week I took in a revival of the Stephen Schwartz musical “Pippin” at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut. As a Goodspeed subscriber I’ve seen my share of obscure musicals (as well as some classic revivals), but none compared to this downright bizarre tale of Charlemagne’s castoff son, which was a popular early ‘70s show directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse.

Despite a terrific selection of songs, the show was dated beyond belief: the incomprehensible plot, mixture of genres, and heavy-handed direction that only heightened the risque costumes and story line (I’m guessing even more graphic than Fosse’s original rendition, since the William Katt-Ben Vereen early ‘80s tour -- which made it to DVD -- isn’t nearly as raunchy) made for one of the strangest evenings I’ve ever encountered in a theater. Strange, unsatisfying, and yet also audacious in a manner that few shows today, at least, would ever attempt to be.

The early ‘70s were a time of great experimentation, as well as inspiration, in the arts. Yet although not every film was a “Chinatown”, not every musical a “Man of La Mancha,” many not-entirely-satisfying works of the decade often hold merit when viewed against today’s artistic output -- “Pippin” included.

Take LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH (***, 88 mins., PG-13; Paramount), a supernatural/psychological thriller that’s gained a small cult following since its 1971 release.

Next week’s DVD bow will mark the first chance many viewers will have had to catch this slow-moving, wholly strange and yet somehow spellbinding tale of one woman’s sanity and possible supernatural occurrences, set against a creepy, late summer New England countryside (it appears as if the picture was shot in rural Connecticut).

Zohra Lampert (who played George C. Scott’s wife in William Peter Blatty’s supremely under-rated “Exorcist III”) stars as Jessica, a woman who travels to a remote country house with her husband (Barton Hayman) and friend (Kevin O’Connor) after being recently released from a mental institution. Soon, Jessica hears voices in her head and questions the identity of a young girl (Gretchen Corbett, who would later star in “The Rockford Files”) whom the trio find living in the house.

John Hancock (“Bang the Drum Slowly”) directed this trippy mood piece, which absolutely feels like the kind of film you’d find in the early ‘70s -- and for the most part that’s a compliment. The cinematography and direction establish an authentic atmosphere that supports the somewhat thin Norman Jonas-Ralph Rose screenplay, and the performances -- especially Lampert -- are consistently on-target.

The film stresses restraint instead of full-out shocks, and ends with a hugely ambiguous finale that barely skims the surface of answering the questions it raises. Yet even with its offbeat ending, “Let’s Scare Jessica...” is an eclectic thriller that lives up to its reputation as a unique genre piece of its time.

Paramount’s DVD includes a sensational 16:9 (1.85) transfer that looks incredibly vibrant and well-composed. The mono sound is decent, offering an eclectic score by Orville Stoeber that only detracts from the picture during its goofy, bombastic synthesizer passages. No extras are included.

By decade’s end the Hollywood Blockbuster culture had been firmly established and sequels began to be produced to films that never required them. Case in point: BEYOND THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (*½, 114 mins., 1979, PG; Warner).

Producer-director Irwin Allen’s fortunes had sank following the disaster (in more ways than one) of “The Swarm” but production on this unnecessary sequel to the 1972 hit continued undaunted.

“Swarm” alumnus Michael Caine even opted to cash another Allen paycheck here as the captain of the tug boat Jenny, who -- along with crew mates Karl Malden and Sally Field -- attempt to salvage parts of the Poseidon (hours after the original movie ended) before it sinks to the bottom. En route they run into nefarious Telly Savalas with an agenda of his own, and a new roster of survivors (Peter Boyle, Jack Warden, Shirley Knight, Shirley Jones, Veronica Hamel, Angela Cartwright, Mark Harmon, and Slim Pickins) who are trying to survive their own “Morning After” and get out of this cardboard retread of the far superior original.

With ample amounts of stock footage and interminable scenes of actors slowly making their way up and down ladders, “Beyond the Poseidon Adventure” was reviled by critics and quickly became a box-office bomb upon release.

Watching the movie now in Warner’s DVD (out this week), it’s shocking to see how thread-bare the film actually is: with production values that appear only a bit more elaborate than an old “Star Trek” episode (when the ship shakes, you almost expect Shatner or Nimoy to fall in the frame!), “Beyond...” is incomprehensibly bad from every angle.

Not only is the dialogue in Nelson Gidding’s script hideous (is this the same man who wrote “The Haunting”?) and the performances equally overboard (Caine is at his hilarious best in his late 70s/early 80s “Shouting Mode”), but the ineptitude extends to the music as well. The opening strains of Jerry Fielding’s music sound like they should have accompanied one of Samuel Z. Arkoff’s sword-and-sandal imports from the ‘60s, and the rest of the composer’s shockingly poor score comes off like library music -- seldom matching what it accompanies on-screen.

Warner’s DVD is a top-notch affair, with a gorgeous 16:9 (2.35) transfer enhancing every nook and cranny of the cut-rate production. The 1.0 Dolby Digital mono sound is okay (there’s only so much you can do for the music), and both the original trailer and a full, half-hour vintage Making Of (complete with amusing cast and crew interviews) round out a highly entertaining bargain DVD. (Sadly, none of the deleted scenes that were restored to the ABC network TV broadcasts were included here, but we’ll give Warner a mulligan on that one).

New & Upcoming From Criterion

Upcoming releases from the Criterion Collection include several newly remastered versions of fan-favorite titles that have long been a part of the label’s canon.

Top of the list is Akira Kurosawa’s cinematic masterwork SEVEN SAMURAI (****, 207 mins., 1954), which remains one of the most sumptuous pieces of movie-making created in any corner of the globe.

Criterion’s upcoming three-DVD edition, available September 5th, isn’t just a reprinting of their prior release, but rather a whole new package with a superbly crisp, remastered high-definition transfer; improved English subtitles; and a remixed Dolby Surround 2.0 soundtrack that’s been carefully executed.

Fresh supplements are likewise in abundance, including a scholarly commentary with Tony Rayns, Donald Richie and others, as well as another talk with Japanese film expert Michael Jeck that’s been carried over from the original DVD. Posters, production stills, and trailers are also on-hand, along with a 50-minute documentary on “Seven Samurai” from the Japan “Toho Masterworks” series “Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create” (portions of this program appeared on previous Criterion Kurosawa discs).

With the movie spread to two platters, the bulk of the extras are housed on the third DVD, highlighted by “My Life In Cinema,” a two-hour Directors Guild of Japan production that includes a conversation between Kurosawa and Nagisa Oshima; a new documentary, “Origins and Influences,” examining the samurai traditions and films that impacted Kurosawa’s work; and, as always with Criterion, a jam-packed booklet offering retrospective essays from Sidney Lumet, Kenneth Turan, Peter Cowie and others.

Also on September 5th comes a reprinting of Terry Gilliam’s troubled but acclaimed sci-fi fantasy BRAZIL (***, 142 mins., 1985, R), a film that -- for me at least -- is still more compelling for its extensively documented behind-the-scenes turmoil than the movie itself, which remains a highly uneven, occasionally brilliant and just as often frustrating viewing experience.

Criterion’s previous DVD box-set is as spectacular as ever in terms of its through account of the production, Gilliam’s run-ins with Universal studio brass, and even its inclusion of the “Love Conquers All” TV version the distributor ultimately produced for syndicated TV.

Bearing that in mind, Criterion’s new “Brazil” is nothing more than a repackaging of the previous DVD with one major change: the film itself has been remastered for 16:9 (1.78) televisions, having been restored and supervised by Gilliam himself.

The movie looks substantially improved in comparison to Criterion’s original DVD, and for those who already own the 3-DVD box set, the studio has kept you in mind by also offering a single-disc release containing only the new 16:9 transfer with Gilliam’s original commentary (I still don’t understand why Gilliam didn’t just include the “cloud credits” from the U.S. version which he admits his preference for in the commentary -- something that hasn’t been rectified in this edition).

Two other Criterion titles have been freshly remastered with additional supplements, joining a pair of movies new to the Collection in the next couple of weeks:

PLAY TIME (1967, ***½, 124 mins., available September 5th): Jacques Tati’s wonderful Monseiur Hulot comedy returns to DVD with a brand-new 16:9 transfer; a video introduction from Terry Jones and selected commentary by historian Philip Kemp; the alternate international soundtrack; documentaries, vintage interviews footage and more. A beautifully composed comic observation from Tati, just as relevant today as it was in 1967.

AMARCORD (1973, ***½, 123 mins., available September 5th): One of Federico Fellini’s most beloved works receives a much-needed 16:9 remastered transfer in another new Criterion edition of one of their original Collection titles. A deleted scene; commentary from historians Peter Brunette and Frank Burke; new subtitles; a fresh, 45-minute documentary, “Fellini’s Homecoming,” examines the relationship between Fellini and his hometown; audio interviews, a restoration comparison, and an extensive collection of essays rounds out an essential package for Fellini lovers.

SEDUCED AND ABANDONED (1964, **½, 117 mins., available August 29th): Wacky tale from “Divorce Italian Style” director Pietro Germi is a dated but curious comic confection that Italian cinema lovers may warm to more than newcomers. Criterion’s DVD, out next week, includes a new, high-definition transfer; recent video interviews with writers and film scholars; interviews with actors Stefania Sandrelli and Lando Buzzanca; Sandrelli’s screen test; the trailer; and an improved English subtitle translation.

KICKING AND SCREAMING (1995, ***, 96 mins., available this week): Insightful, intelligent comedy from writer-director Noah Baumbach is, indeed, a “Gen-X” (oh the horror!) tale of young college grads trying, and struggling, to move into the next stage of adulthood. The ensemble cast (which includes Josh Hamilton, Chris Eigeman, Parker Posey, Olivia D’Abo and Eric Stoltz) is wonderful in this under-rated, highly recommended comic-drama that Criterion has newly released on DVD. Special features include new interviews, deleted scenes, the trailer and other goodies.

‘80s Special Editions!

PRETTY IN PINK (***½, 96 mins., 1986, PG-13; Paramount)
SOME KIND OF WONDERFUL (***, 94 mins., 1987, PG-13; Paramount)

Two of John Hughes’ more memorable teen efforts return to DVD in a pair of top-notch Paramount Special Editions this week.

Hughes wrote and produced the 1986 Molly Ringwald hit “Pretty in Pink,” which remains a bona-fide teen classic of its kind. Ringwald is at her finest as an artsy “poor” girl caught in a triangle between her friend (Jon Cryer) and a good, rich kid from another social universe (Andrew McCarthy). James Spader, meanwhile, memorably essays McCarthy’s would-be best friend, with “adult” support from Harry Dean Stanton as Ringwald’s father and a rockin’ soundtrack sprinkled with original score by Michael Gore.

“Pretty In Pink”’s new “Everything’s Duckie Edition” (named after Cryer’s character) offers a good amount of fresh supplemental content, including a five-part Making Of featurette. Director Howard Deutch, Ringwald, Cryer, McCarthy, and producer Lauren Shuler-Donner appear in both new and vintage interview segments recounting their work on the still-popular film, with Deutch discussing the use of music (he initially wanted more instrumental score; Hughes preferred songs) and the film’s initial ending. Note that this infamous, original ending isn’t screened intact, but rather discussed at length and backed with videotaped set footage of its filming -- something that may disappoint “Pretty in Pink” fans hoping to finally see Cryer get the girl (he gets Kristy Swanson instead, which as it turns out wasn’t a bad consolation prize!).

Hughes followed up the success of “Pink” by offering “Some Kind of Wonderful” to Ringwald, which she declined and thus ended the duo’s profitable, three-film collaboration. The resulting movie was something of a pre-production mess as well, with Martha Coolidge ultimately dropping out as director (apparently after shooting had already started) along with Kim Delaney and Kyle MacLachlan, who were cast alongside Eric Stoltz in the Hughes written-and-produced vehicle.

According to reports, “Pink”’s Howard Deutch promptly took over and re-cast Lea Thompson in the Delaney role and Craig Sheffer in MacLachlan’s part, and had Hughes’ original script reworked.

The finished product bears no evidence of the troubles, however -- “Some Kind of Wonderful” does recycle elements from previous Hughes pictures (notably the romantic triangle of “Pretty In Pink”), but works because of the conviction of the performances. Stoltz and Thompson are both excellent (keep in mind this was a “Back to the Future” reunion for the duo, since Stoltz originally had Michael J. Fox’s role before being dumped), but it’s Mary Stuart Masterson -- as the cute tomboy musician in love with Stoltz -- who makes the drama work. Masterson is simply terrific and John Ashton (as Stoltz’s father) and Elias Koteas (as a crazed high school classmate) lend additional support in the ensemble cast.

Paramount’s Special Edition DVD also sports a new, multi-part Making Of featurette that only skims the surface of the movie’s turbulent pre-production (Thompson notes that the script was changed and Deutch admits he was the second director on the film), focusing instead on its shooting and final release. Deutch, Masterson, Stoltz, and Thompson are all on-hand to give their recollections, while additional vintage footage includes Kevin Bacon interviewing Hughes (likely while they were on the set of “She’s Having a Baby”).

Both DVDs include solid 16:9 (1.85) transfers and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks. Highly recommended for any high school movie aficionado!

ROMANCING THE STONE (***, 106 mins., 1984, PG; Fox)
JEWEL OF THE NILE (***, 106 mins., 1985, PG; Fox)

Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner’s palpable chemistry turned these highly entertaining romantic adventures into certifiable box-office hits for Twentieth Century Fox.

Both 1984's “Romancing the Stone” (directed by Robert Zemeckis prior to “Back to the Future”) and its entertaining 1985 follow-up “Jewel of the Nile” offer engaging performances from both Turner and Douglas, with Danny DeVito as the comic relief, in a pair of “Raiders”-inspired larks with an accent on romance.

Each film has its own merits (Alan Silvestri’s score for “Romancing the Stone” is quite enjoyable and the scope cinematography is superb in each), and both pictures basically grossed the same amount at the box-office.

This week, Fox has -- at last -- given these superior escapist entertainments the DVD presentations each has deserved. Both pictures have been treated to excellent, new 16:9 (2.35) transfers with 2.0 (“Stone”) and 4.0 (“Nile”) Dolby Surround tracks and a collection of extras: new featurettes offer recent comments from Douglas, Turner, and DeVito, while an ample amount of deleted scenes are included on each disc. Additional featurettes examine the work of the late Diane Thomas, who wrote the original, while “Nile” director Lewis Teague discusses his work in a “Nile” commentary track

Additional liner notes (a rarity for Fox) compliment these superior packages, released to coincide with the DVD debut of Douglas’ recent starrer “The Sentinel” on disc this week.

Also New From Fox

FOX FILM NOIR (available August 29): Three more vintage film noir favorites mark Fox’s catalog titles for the month of August.

1946's SHOCK offers Vincent Price as a nefarious shrink who’s also a murderer in an entertaining programmer with a moody David Buttolph score; Henry Hathaway’s 1951 drama FOURTEEN HOURS marked the first appearance of one “Grace P. Kelly” and is also a pretty solid yarn of suicidal Richard Basehart teetering on the edge of an NYC hotel ledge, contemplating his life, and backed by both a superb supporting cast (Paul Douglas, Barbara Bel Geddes, Debra Paget, Agnes Moorehead, Howard Da Silva and others) and a fine Alfred Newman score; and VICKI, a 1953 remake of “I Wake Up Screaming” with Jean Peters as a slain NYC model and Richard Boone as the tough cop viewing her sister (Jeanne Crain) among others as a possible suspect. Leigh Harlaine’s atmospheric score is one of the positive attributes of this entertaining noir, which also sports Aaron Spelling in an acting role, years before he built his TV empire!

As with many of their prior Film Noir DVDs, Fox has assembled several supplemental features on each DVD, including commentaries from film historians, trailers, and numerous galleries (particularly on “Vicki”). The black-and-white, full-screen transfers are all solid across the board and both 2.0 stereo and mono soundtracks comprise the robust audio offerings.

JUST MY LUCK (**, 2006, 103 mins., PG-13; Fox): Mediocre vehicle for Lindsay Lohan offers the tabloid-ridden young starlet as a NYC girl whose good luck crosses paths with “bad luck magnet” Jake (the bland Chris Pine). Donald Petrie’s fluffy teen comedy lacks any sort of veteran support and basically feels like an elongated Disney Channel movie; Lohan looks a bit frail as well in a movie that could have used a dose of energy in front of and behind the camera. Fox’s DVD includes both full-screen and 16:9 widescreen (1.85) transfers with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound; deleted/extended scenes and two behind-the-scenes featurettes (featuring footage of the band McFly) comprise the supplemental side of things.

NEXT TIME: A Pre-Labor Day Extravaganza with GOJIRA and More! 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!

Get Firefox!

Copyright 1997-2006 All Reviews, Site and Design by Andy Dursin