8/30/05 Edition

Late Summer DVD Bash!

From Sturges To Universal's Legacy DVDs, a Round-Up of Upcoming Must-Haves!
Plus: T.J. HOOKER, SAHARA, STITCH 2 and More!

As I wrote last week, September is shaping up to be an especially huge month for DVD releases. Whether you’re an aficionado of classic cinema or recent movies new to disc, there’s something for everyone on the horizon as August winds up.

On September 6th, Universal issues the first three installments in their new “Legacy Series” DVDs. Housed in sleek cardboard packages, laserphiles are urged to check out each of these important two-disc releases, even if some of the supplemental material is somewhat light on two of them.

Top of the list is the Legacy edition of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (****, 129 mins.), Robert Mulligan’s celebrated 1962 cinematic adaptation of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.

Needless to say, the movie itself needs little introduction. Gregory Peck’s Oscar-winning, marvelous performance as crusading attorney Atticus Finch grounds this memorable, all-time classic film, which manages to capture Lee’s prose (courtesy of Horton Foote’s script) and still become a living, breathing film all its own. Peck’s performance, the remarkable work of young Mary Badham as his feisty daughter Scout (who narrates the film as a remembrance of her childhood), the haunting cinematography of Russell Harlan, and the spellbinding, gorgeous score by Elmer Bernstein all culminate in one of the cinema’s greatest achievements.

Universal’s new DVD edition is an improvement on their earlier, superb 1998 release. The 1.85 print has been newly mastered for 16:9 televisions, and the black-and-white transfer looks even better than it did seven years ago. On the audio side, Universal has a slew of soundtrack options on-hand: both the original mono mix and new, 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital stereo tracks, which add a fresh dimension to Bernstein’s original score. The dialogue, though, sometimes seems a bit “airy” on the 5.1 tracks, so most viewers may prefer to stick to the original mono for that very reason.

While the original ‘98 DVD was sold as a “Collector’s Edition,” the Legacy Series edition is a considerable upgrade, highlighted by Barbara Kopple’s feature-length documentary “A Conversation With Gregory Peck.” This 1999 look at Peck’s travels across the globe during his one-man tour (engaging in Q&A sessions with audiences) is a revealing portrait of an actor and a family man, as distinguished and classy off-screen as he was on it. Filled with numerous insights into Peck’s life, this is a truly special feature that’s a perfect compliment to Charles Kiselyak’s “Fearful Symmetry,” a compelling, flavorful examination of the impact of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” wisely reprised from the original DVD.

Other special features include a 1999 Today Show interview with Mary Badham; Peck’s Oscar acceptance speech; a segment from Peck’s AFI Lifetime Achievement award; lobby cards with a note from Harper Lee; the original trailer and Mulligan and Pakula’s 1998 commentary track.

There are so many DVDs out there now that it can be difficult to choose which ones to rent or buy. Here, though, there’s no debate: “To Kill a Mockingbird” is such an outstanding film that it belongs in every movie fan’s library, and Universal’s new Legacy edition is rich with special features that enhance its standing as an all-time classic. Unquestionably recommended!

The other Legacy Series discs lack as much supplemental content, though their respective presentations are likewise appreciable upgrades on their previous DVD editions.

George Roy Hill’s 1973 Oscar winner, THE STING (****, 129 mins., PG), is also back on DVD, this time with 16:9 enhancement, DTS and Dolby Digital stereo tracks, and a new documentary recounting the development and success of David S. Ward’s original story on the silver screen.

New interviews with Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Charles Durning, the late Ray Walston, David S. Ward and Marvin Hamlisch highlight the hour-long documentary from Charles Kiselyak, which is split into three separate segments (“The Perfect Script,” “Making a Masterpiece,” and “The Legacy”).

Especially interesting is how Ward initially balked at director Hill’s suggestion of using Scott Joplin’s ragtime music on the soundtrack. When he worried that the film’s 1920s setting was too late for ragtime, Hill told Ward that about five people in the audience would even notice, much less care. There are also comments by Redford about why he wanted Hill to direct the film (instead of Ward, who Redford felt was too inexperienced at the time), the movie’s development and widespread acclaim (and massive box-office receipts) after it was released.

The documentary is housed on the second platter along with the theatrical trailer, making for the second, must-have Universal Legacy release for another bona-fide cinema classic.

Last among the Legacy sets is a new two-disc edition of Michael Cimino’s THE DEER HUNTER (***, 182 mins., 1978, R), another Oscar-winner that, over time, has become somewhat less significant in terms of its place in Hollywood history. The latter is due to the sheer amount of Vietnam-themed films released in the decades since Cimino’s highly-regarded -- though at times painfully overlong -- film was released.

While Studio Canal’s Region 2 DVD offers a commentary from Cimino himself and several featurettes, Universal’s Legacy Edition -- disappointingly -- offers only a new commentary from Vilmos Zsigmond and film journalist Bob Fisher, along with about 12 minutes of deleted scenes culled from a workprint. There are no documentary featurettes or interviews to be found here, which ranks as a major letdown given that the European DVD offers plenty in the way of supplements. Certainly the second disc -- which only includes the deleted outtakes and trailers -- had plenty of room for more content.

Where Universal’s new DVD has a distinct advantage on its brethren is in its new 2.35 transfer, which shows a bit of edge-enhancement here and there but otherwise is clean and appreciably remastered (and superior to any previous DVD edition of the film). The 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack is potent, though the lack of a DTS track comes as a notable omission.

New Special Editions From Paramount

Paramount is also getting into the act on September 6th with three new catalog titles of interest.

Amy Heckerling’s delightful 1995 teen comedy CLUELESS (***½, 97 mins., PG-13) is just as bubbly and colorful as it was a decade ago (can it be that long?).

Alicia Silverstone’s star-making performance is just one of the numerous pleasures to be found in Heckerling’s casual application of Jane Austen’s “Emma” to the Beverly Hills high school scene circa 1995. The movie’s often hilarious script and energetic tone is infectious, and superb supporting performances from Paul Rudd, Brittany Murphy, Donald Faison, Wallace Shawn, Jeremy Sisto and Dan Hedaya make for a movie that’s just as much fun now as it was back then.

Paramount’s “Whatever! Edition” serves up a brand-new 16:9 transfer that’s sunnier and more satisfying than the original DVD, plus a rollicking 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack. I’ve always enjoyed David Kitay’s unreleased score for “Clueless,” which thankfully gives the movie a “timeless” feel that off-sets its copious modern rock songs -- the only elements that truly date the movie.

New supplements are on-hand as well: a multi-part featurette includes new interviews with the cast and crew, basically everyone EXCEPT Silverstone. Even Brittany Murphy shows up, and she’s busier than Alicia these days, so what gives?

Outside of that minor disappointment, this is otherwise an engaging look back on the movie’s creation (Heckerling originally developed the project as a TV series, which it ironically became AFTER the film was released), sporting all sorts of interviews and fun anecdotes. Basically, it shows that Heckerling knew exactly what she wanted with “Clueless,” and the result is clearly (along with “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”) her most satisfying film (and as a developed story, it might just be better as well).

Two vintage films also hit DVD for the first time on September 6th from Paramount: the little-seen musical western RED GARTERS (***, 1954, 90 mins.) and Preston Sturges’ classic THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN’S CREEK (***½, 1944, 98 mins.).

Sturges’ film needs less of an introduction than “Red Garters”; this manic 1944 war comedy was years ahead of its time, following the misadventures of saucy Betty Hutton, who wakes up after a dance with local soldiers to find out she’s married -- and subsequently pregnant! Fortunately for Hutton, all-around good guy Eddie Bracken is there to offer some support in this crazy, often uproarious Sturges farce, which is unanimously regarded as one of his finest.

Paramount’s first-ever DVD of this comedy classic offers an excellent full-screen transfer that’s as fresh as you’ll ever see this 1944 favorite, and the studio has even included two new featurettes. “Preston Sturges and the Miracle of Morgan’s Creek” and “Censorship: Morgan’s Creek Vs. The Production Code” offer interviews with Sturges’ widow, Sandy, plus the late Eddie Bracken and several journalists, reflecting on the film’s production and its run-ins with the Hayes Commission at the time.

“Red Garters” is basically a forgotten film that’s nevertheless a must-view for musical fans. This surreal 1954 musical isn’t exactly “Seven Brides For Seven Brothers,” but it’s a fun, irrelevant western spoof, starring Rosemary Clooney as a saloon gal and Jack Carson as her main squeeze.

What makes “Red Garters” stand out isn’t its plot or its nice (albeit forgettable) songs by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans: director George Marshall shot the movie on bare-bones sets with cardboard backdrops, all bathed in warm primary colors. Even more stagy than, say, “Lil Abner,” the movie looks and feels like nothing else you’ve ever seen, which had to have been one reason for its indifferent public reception at the time. To add insult to injury, Michael Fessier’s script apparently went over the heads of some viewers as well (necessitating a text crawl before the film, explicitly stating that the movie is a spoof!).

A pleasant enough romp, “Red Garters” is good, old-fashioned fun, and Paramount’s DVD presents this seldom-screened film in an excellent full-screen transfer that does justice to the strong Technicolor cues of Arthur E. Arling’s cinematography. The mono sound also holds up nicely.

New TV on DVD

The Fox network has had a tough time over the years finding success with one-hour dramatic series.

Only in the last few years has Fox successfully cultivated a show to feed off the blockbuster success of “American Idol”: first with the highly entertaining Kiefer Sutherland thriller “24,” then again last year with HOUSE, M.D. (2005, 16 hrs.)

Part “Quincy,” part “C.S.I.” with a dash of “E.R.” thrown in for good measure, “House” is an engaging, energetic program that recycles portions from other shows and serves up a predictable yet satisfying blend of doctor-drama, soap opera and detective series. Hugh Laurie is terrific as the title character: the typically gruff, irascible veteran M.D. who leads a team of more idealistic young doctors in investigating some of the more baffling medical cases that end up at their hospital.

The interplay between Laurie and his younger cast, including Jennifer Morrison, Omar Epps and Jesse Spencer is typical of the medical mumbo-jumbo you see on “E.R.,” but with the personalities of the cast cranked up a bit. Robert Sean Leonard is also on-hand as one of Laurie’s colleagues, while Lisa Edelstein does as well as she can in the relatively thankless role of House’s hospital supervisor.

Co-produced by Bryan Singer, “House”’s scripts can, admittedly, often be ludicrous. A patient will enter House’s care, and House and his team will -- as the formula goes -- mostly fail to properly diagnose the problem. Only after entering into other possibilities (and seemingly every problem in the book) will the truth be revealed.

It’s a pattern that nevertheless makes for entertaining television, mainly because the performances make the stories -- as outlandish as they can be -- compelling to watch. In many ways “House” is very much like its lead protagonist: tired and worn, yet with enough style to cover over its lack of substance.

Universal’s three-disc box set contains all 22 first-season episodes of HOUSE in excellent 1.78 widescreen transfers with one major problem: they’re NOT enhanced for 16:9 televisions. It’s a strange, disappointing choice that may cause this to be a dealbreaker for some viewers. The 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, meanwhile, is superb, making for a decent but (at least for 16:9 TV owners) moderately disappointing presentation of the series’ first season.

Aficionados of William Shatner are urged to run -- much like its often sprinting hero -- to Sony’s Complete First and Second Seasons of T.J. HOOKER (1982-83, 1338 mins.; Sony), which includes 27 episodes from the series’ First and Second seasons on the ABC airwaves.

Launched as a TV-movie with different cast members (including David “Al” Hedison and Richard “Poltergeist” Lawson), this amiable, comic-book cop show was a lot more “ChiPS” than “Hill Street Blues.”

While the latter earned critical kudos for its comparatively honest depiction of life in the precinct, “T.J. Hooker” is nothing but an unabashed ‘80s prime-time slice of escapism. Shatner is at his best as the title hero: a recently divorced, dedicated-to-the-job detective who breaks in a new partner (Adrien Zmed) on the mean streets of L.A.

Hooker isn’t, of course, your by-the-book cop -- he’s your typical break-the-rules ‘80s TV hero, who will stop at nothing to take down local scum, whether it’s a pair of hoodlums in the pilot, or a bible-touting, mentally impaired nutcase in the series’ second episode.

“T.J. Hooker” has some great chase sequences (Shatner looks surprisingly spry here), including the indelible moment in the second episode when T.J. leaps off a ledge, onto a school bus being commandeered by a psycho holding both a TV reporter and a group of nuns hostage. It’s over-the-top but damn good stuff just the same!

While you’ve just got to love some of Bill’s dramatic gestures and pauses, he’s also surprisingly good as T.J. The show works in a strong human element between T.J.’s relationship with his young daughters (one of whom is played by Nicole Eggert) and his marriage to his job, which takes its toll on his home life. There are even numerous references to Vietnam and other wars, and how combat can influence both battle-scarred cops like Hooker and Romano, his new partner (played by the overly charismatic Adrian Zmed).

After debuting as a mid-season replacement in the spring of ‘82, the series mixed it up a bit in its second season on CBS. Heather Locklear joined the show as cop Stacey Sheridan, while former “Moondoogie” James Darren was added to the cast as her partner in the fall of ‘82. The series ultimately fell into a formulaic TV pattern, but it’s still highly entertaining for both its good AND dated elements, and what more can you say about Mark Snow’s theme song, which is used incessantly throughout each and every episode? Also, Leonard Nimoy joins The Shat on the memorable episode “Vengeance Is Mine,” essaying a fellow cop who wants payback after his daughter is raped.

Sony’s six-disc box-set again shows why the studio is one of the best in the business at presenting TV series on DVD. Though the rarely-seen, 90-minute pilot seems to have been battered over the years (showing some discoloration and graininess in the print), the regular episodes look crisp and colorful. Some 24 vintage TV promos are included on the sixth disc, making for a must-have release for all Shatner addicts!

New on DVD

LILO & STITCH 2 (***, 2005). 68 mins., G, Disney. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: “Origin of Stitch” short; Music Video; Experiment Profiler game; 1.78 Widescreen, 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital sound.

Easily the best of Disney’s numerous made-for-video sequels, “Lilo & Stitch 2" admirably carries on the engaging, heartwarming story begun in the box-office smash of 2002.

This time out, little Lilo prepares to enter Hawaii’s local hula contest while sister Nani tries to juggle taking care of her young sibling and extraterrestrial pals Jumba and Gantu. Meanwhile, our furry blue pal Stitch is enjoying himself all the while, at least until his crazy, manic “alien” side begins to rear its crazy shenanigans once again -- threatening to turn Lilo’s life upside down at the worst possible time.

With beautiful animation recalling the appealing, colorful hues of the original film, “Lilo & Stitch 2" is a definite cut-above the usual made-for-the-small-screen Disney production. More elaborate and entertaining than “Stitch: The Movie!” (which served as little more than a primer for ABC’s Saturday morning “Lilo & Stitch” cartoon), this thoughtful sequel offers several heartwarming lessons for kids and an appealing story that will prove highly satisfying for all fans of its predecessor.

Most of the original voice talent was brought back, from “Stitch” vocalist Chris Sanders to Tia Carrere, David Ogden Stiers and Jason Scott Lee. Curiously, there’s no notice on the packaging that the currently in-demand Dakota Fanning took over the vocal chores for Lilo from Daveigh Chase, yet there’s no mistaking Fanning’s work here (if anything she’s even better than her predecessor).

The soundtrack is also a lot of fun, with Joel McNeely’s lovely underscore working hand-in-hand with a vibrant assortment of Hawaiian tunes and Elvis Presley classics.

Disney’s DVD offers an appropriately warm 1.78 widescreen transfer. The 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital soundtracks are just fine, and extras are limited to an interactive game for kids, a five-minute short showing “The Origin of Stitch,” and a music video of the wonderful “Hawaiian Rollercoaster Ride,” albeit in a teeny-bopper pop rendition by the group Jump5.

Though not as charming and entertaining on the whole as its predecessor, “Lilo & Stitch 2" is nevertheless quality family entertainment that proves small-screen fare can be beautifully animated and highly effective -- provided, of course, that it’s been done with great care. Happily, that’s the case here, and all Stitch fans are urged to check it out. Aloha!

SAHARA (*½, 2005). 123 mins., PG-13, Paramount. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Two commentary tracks; Deleted Scenes; Three Featurettes; 2.35 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Best-selling author Clive Cussler hasn’t exactly had a strong track record when it comes to the big screen. His novel “Raise The Titanic” was a terrific read, but the movie remains one of the all-time notorious box-office flops (though the film itself isn’t as bad as its reputation would lead you to believe. John Barry’s beautiful score and excellent miniature effects are two of the 1980 film’s positive assets).

Over 20 years later, Cussler -- obviously snake bit by the failure of “Titanic” – opted to try bringing his hero, Dirk Pitt, to the silver screen again and sold the rights to his novel “Sahara.”
Independently produced and distributed through Paramount, this expensive adventure epic stars Matthew McConaughey as Pitt, Penelope Cruz as a World Heath Organization doctor investing a plague, and Steve Zahn and William H. Macy (in the role of Admiral Sandecker, played by Jason Robards in “Raise The Titanic”) as two members of Dirk’s supporting cast. The crew run into an insane dictator and a plot for world domination in North Africa, and only Dirk’s skills in deep-sea salvage and all-around athletic prowess can prevent an impending catastrophe from occurring.

With four credited screenwriters, it’s pretty clear that “Sahara” had a bumpy ride through production, and the finished film does little to reverse the disparaging comments Cussler himself made about the movie prior to its release.

Saddled with a sluggish pace and a sloppy script that’s never involving, “Sahara” is pretty much a dud right from the word “go.” Director Breck Eisner is unsuccessful at bringing the thinly-drawn script together, with the performances failing to elevate the clunky plot. Chief among the problems is Steve Zahn as Dirk’s sidekick -- he’s nearly as unfunny as Kevin O’Connor’s would-be comic relief in “The Mummy,” though Zahn’s material here may be even more desperate. McConaughey and Cruz, meanwhile, attempt to drum up some sparks, but it’s a losing battle in a lifeless movie that seems utterly interminable at the two-hour mark.

Paramount’s DVD does offer a great-looking 2.35 transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound. The latter offers a satisfying score by Clint Mansell whenever it’s able to contribute -- more often, though, the filmmakers favor a blaring, obnoxious assortment of “classic rock” tracks that grate on the nerves nearly as much as the film itself. Extras include three featurettes, a handful of deleted scenes, and two commentary tracks: one with McConaughey, the other with Eisner.

LAYER CAKE (**½, 2004). 106 mins., R, Sony. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Commentary; Two Alternate Endings and Deleted Scenes; Featurette; Q&A With Daniel Craig and Matthew Vaughn; 2.40 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

British gangster import offers an impressive performance from star Daniel Craig (still rumored to be a leading contender for 007) and ample visual style from director Matthew Vaughn.

Craig plays a savvy drug dealer asked to do one last score from his employer, but finds out his task (moving a million doses of Ecstasy) is more than he bargained for once its real owner finds out Craig’s stash is his stolen goods.

Vaughn, a co-producer on “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels,” made his directorial debut with “Layer Cake,” which does have all the predictable trappings of the genre: wisecracking thieves, ample doses of violence, and a wild story. What saves it from being just another gangster flick is the movie’s style and Craig’s performance, which gives the film a sardonic, sarcastic touch.

Sony’s Special Edition DVD offers a crisp 2.40 transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, sporting a musical score by Lisa Gerrard and Ilan Eshkeri. Special features are also in abundance, with comments from Vaughn and writer J.J. Connolly (who adapted his novel for the screen), two alternate endings (reportedly shot at the insistence of the studio), numerous deleted scenes, a Making Of featurette and a Q&A interview with Vaughn and Craig. Well worth a rental for fans of the genre.

Buena Vista Capsules

WRITTEN IN BLOOD (2002, 95 mins., R; Dimension): Modestly budgeted thriller made when star Michael T. Weiss was all the rage on “The Pretender.” Weiss plays a cop who tries to help out fellow detective Peter Coyote, framed for the murder of his wife and her lover. Cute Maureen Flannigan is a bit of a lightweight here as the femme fatale (and Coyote’s daughter) who might be to blame. John Terlesky’s film arrives on DVD on September 6th with a 16:9 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

HAVEN (2001, 190 mins., PG-13; Miramax): American/Canadian TV mini-series stars Natasha Richardson as Ruth Gerber, an American writer who valiantly escorts 1,000 Jews from concentration camps in Europe to a settlement in upstate New York. Strong performances from Richardson, Colm Feore, Henry Czerny, Sheila McCarthy, William L. Petersen, Hal Holbrook, and Anne Bancroft help this somewhat pedestrian treatment of a remarkable true story. Miramax’s DVD offers the full three-hour mini-series with 16:9 widescreen and 2.0 Dolby Stereo sound.

PARIS IS BURNING (1990, 76 mins., R; Miramax): No, this definitely isn’t “Is Paris Burning?” with Kirk Douglas. This 1990 documentary exposes New York City’s Drag Queen scene, and finally arrives on DVD for all aficionados of Jennie Livingston’s film. Miramax’s DVD includes a commentary by Livingston and never-before-seen outtakes, in addition to a standard full-screen transfer and Dolby Digital mono sound.

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