Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The case for Alien 3

There was no way Alien 3 could win. Not only was it the long-time-coming sequel to one of the most popular and revered movies of its genre, but it fed fans an early peak at a potential dream storyline, only to jerk them the other way with a more familiar, financially prudent one. Despite being an Alien/Aliens fanboy, I resisted seeing 3 for years -- and when I did I kind of enjoyed it. This feeling was enhanced recently when I watched the 2005 re-cut of the film, which puts it closer to director David Fincher's original vision before Fox stepped in. While 3 certainly is not in the same league as its predecessors (and miles away from the coloring book bird shit of Resurrection), it's also a movie that when set on its own and regarded individually is actually very enjoyable. But the movie, even in the new cut, does have some problems -- which I'll get to, but first a look back at the impossible expectations facing 3.

In the years leading up to 3, the Alien fan fervor was continually stoked by the high quality comic book and novel series by Dark Horse that took up the franchise and offered inventive stories and sometimes stunning illustrations. My experience was with Book 2 and Earth War, both of which had their own unique graphic style and followed similar storylines of large scale alien wars on Earth and beyond, with tons of action, lots of blood and new twists to the Alien universe. The overriding theme with all of the Alien comic books and novels was a lot of aliens, and possibly a conflict on Earth.

So you can imagine the response from the original teaser trailer, which was little more than a voice-over of 'They say in space no one can hear you scream -- on Earth, everyone can hear you scream.' Fantastic, Aliens on Earth! This trailer must have been made at the earliest of stages of 3's production, because even before the reported 30 drafts of the script -- the original never included Earth (Wikipedia's Alien 3 entry speaks of an early script where Hicks and Bishop are the main characters, and another where Ripley lands on a wooded planet inhabited by farmers). Further complicating the promised 'on Earth' premise is that the movie's title in that teaser was still 'Alien 3,' not 'Aliens 3' or 'More Aliens' -- indicating a singular nature of the enemy that ended up in the finished product. It seems unlikely that there would have ever been a concept centered around just one alien on Earth -- because the whole point of 'Alien' and 'Alien 3' was the lack of weapons (maybe it would have taken place in a mine? on a boat?).

3's critical and commercial meltdown upon release was exacerbated by a 'what could have been?' sentiment started by that original teaser. Instead of Ripley fighting through hordes of Aliens as she made her way up the Statue of Liberty to be picked up by Bishop at the torch (why not?), we have a movie where the title villain doesn't really make an appearance until it's halfway over. Worse yet, Ripley was dead, realistically ending any hopes for a make-good sequel.

Over the years, the stories from behind the scenes of 3 have made it a sort of modern day Mr. Arcadin or Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid in terms of studio interference. After seeing the theatrical cut, Fincher essentially disowned the movie -- a gutsy statement for a first-time director -- and refused to participate in any of the DVD extras for Alien Quadrilogy (though he reportedly did do interviews for the DVD, where he blasted Fox -- and they were subsequently cut out by the studio). Despite Fincher's non-participation, the lavish set does include an extended cut of the film, which makes it more enjoyable but does not erase all of its problems.

Watching the new cut, I couldn't help but imagine how interesting 3 would have been if it wasn't part of the Alien universe. So much of the first half is dependent on the prison colony not knowing who Ripley is or what her secrets are -- if this was a standalone movie and the viewers were getting filled in along with the prisoners, it wouldn't make the first half feel so slow. The slow first half gets the best treatment in the new cut: the alien emerges from a cow instead of a dog (much more realistic -- in the original cut the dog pretty much explodes, leaving an alien in its place), there's a great little shot of a prisoner finding a dead face-hugger (presumably one that impregnates the host with a queen alien) and a few scenes enhance the character development (the best is a frightening attempt at raping Ripley by a group of prisoners, showing that they're just as dangerous as the alien).

Not until the plot development of The Company coming to retrieve the alien and Ripley, and the prisoners banding together to kill the alien do things really start to pick up and develop into a nice thriller. Lacking even the flamethrowers of Alien, the characters have to get creative to survive, and I would put these scenes among the best of the series. Perhaps the greatest (and most overlooked) strength of 3 is the acting by the first-rate cast. Charles Dutton hasn't gotten too many quality roles, and you could argue that this is his best -- possibly channeling his own prison experience. Charles Dance, Paul McGann and the great Pete Postlethwaite are all great character actors who are allowed to work without much of a leash. And of course the photography and production design we've since come to expect from Fincher is always on display in 3, presenting a dark labrynth of despair and disrepair.

The biggest problem with 3 is the alien itself -- both in how it is presented and what its role is. I used to enjoy the creature effects in 3, but that was when I saw it on VHS and it seems like the new DVD transfer really exposes the effects' problems. For the first time we really get a good look at the full alien (this was impossible with the predecessors since puppets were used), but it just never looks real. More troublesome is the creature's role in the film -- it never really gains that aura of menace and evil like the lone beast in Alien. Despite the theat of The Company's arrival, there just never seems to be a serious urgency in killing the alien -- maybe because Ripley is the only character we really care about, and she's going to die anyway from what's inside her.

The 2005 cut enhances 3, which remains an interesting scifi sequel, and an entertaining study in the studio process. I have to also mention perhaps the single-biggest change of the new cut: when Ripley dies, we don't see a fully-mature queen alien bursting out of her chest -- this always struck me as odd, since it went against everything in the previous films and helped end the movie on a frustrating note.

Friday, January 26, 2007


[A note about this series: As a child, The Oregonian's entertainment magazine A&E was something I looked forward to every week, not only for movie reviews by Shawn Levy, but for their weekly Film Freak. Each week, the paper would profile someone on their movie tastes -- it was usually someone in the local entertainment field, but sometimes it was a baker, or city official or a nobody. I was always praying that the Film Freak would somehow pluck me out of Madeleine Elementary for a quick interview. Little things like that were cherished in the pre-Internet age. I'm hoping Friday Screen Tests will inspire similar enthusiasm -- each week, a new blogger or critic. I've been planning this for awhile and have a good corps of my favorite writers onboard with me. Enjoy.]

I first found Andy Horbal's No More Marriages! via his supremely overwhelming and thought provoking Film Criticism Blog-a-thon -- which ended up being so wonderfully vast, that it probably deserves a disclaimer at the top warning readers what they're getting into. Andy's posts have a way of stirring conversation that only adds to his editorial (this poll generated 277 comments), and it doesn't hurt that he usually uses a series of excellent screen grabs to illustrate his points. Andy also keeps a handy running post of monthly links, pointing readers toward the furthest reaches of pop culture and beyond.

NO MORE MARRIAGES?: The unique title of Andy's blog is perhaps a reference to the movie that inspired its creation a year ago this month: Brokeback Mountain.

THAT'S A WRAP!: 'I saw The Mummy in high school and I left the theater saying to my friends, "Bloody hell! I could make a better film than that!" I think I started looking at film schools the next day...'

ONE AND DONE: The phrase 'what is your favorite movie?' rankles some of us in its bitter singularity: how can you choose just one? Andy's final answer is at the ready: Playtime. It's a good time to be a fan of the Tati classic, as it recently received the treatment by Criterion.

SEVEN DAYS WITHOUT A MOVIE MAKES ONE WEAK!: 'I get all itchy if a day goes by without a movie...'

NO SUMMERTIME BLUES: 'I disliked the first Spider-Man a great deal and I had no reason to believe the sequel would be much better, but I quickly realized that I was watching perhaps the single best summer special effects spectacular ever. A movie like this is a mixed blessing: every summer since I've found myself ponying up $8 for movies like The Island and Superman Returns just in case...'

SOMETIMES THEY COME BACK AGAIN: 'LSD + Night of the Living Dead = A lifetime of looking over your shoulder...'

ONE CRITIC'S GARBAGE: 'My negative responses to film are as interesting to me as my positive responses, so I end up spending as much time re-watching and thinking about "bad" movies as I do "good" ones. Because, the thing is, if I'm watching the film, then someone liked it enough to spend money on it. Someone expected other people to like it. So where's the discrepancy, right? Is there something wrong with me? I'll give you a representative selection of a "bad" movie that fascinates me: Rocky IV. I disagree with just about every decision made in the making of that film, but I love it. That movie is America...'

STRIKE UP THE FLUX CAPACITOR: Seeing The Passion of Joan of Arc during its original theatrical run must have been a lot like being struck by lightning...

LIFE AS HE KNOWS IT: '"Wake up woodchuck chuckers, it's... Groundhog Day!" The most life-affirming movie ever made. Ever.'

Contact DVD Panache if you are interested in contributing to Friday Screen Test.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Three forgotten femme fatales

My recent viewings have given me three of my favorite femme fatale characters and actresses that rarely get the notoriety they deserve. The first has long been a favorite of mine, while the other two have only recently perked my interest

Billie Jean (Helen Slater in The Legend of Billie Jean)

When the best teen movies of the 80s are spoken of, the works of Hughes, Spielberg, The Cories, as well as the usual suspects of The Goonies, Adventures in Babysitting and maybe a few good slashers are frequently the topic. My top five in this category will include some combination of the previous, but also a largely forgotten gem that is not even on DVD: The Legend of Billie Jean.

Released in 1985 as a vehicle for Helen Slater, a Pat Benetar single, some kid named Christian Slater and as much teen angst and injustice you can serve up in 96 minutes, Billie Jean is pure entertainment for anyone seeking to relive those seemingly carefree years. Filling the movie's one-sheet and most of its scenes is Slater, whose unique beauty was perhaps never put to better use as a striking young girl who walks the line between innocence and heartbreaker. Alongside Slater is the blond (!) and barely recognizable Christian Slater (no relation), as well as Dean Stockwell and an early role by Yeardley Smith (who was 21 at the time but looks no older than 11). Behind this respectable 80s talent is Benatar's "Invincible," which must have been viewed by the studio as the movie's trump card (chords from it are played throughout, and the song itself is played at length no less than twice).

One of the more endearing qualities of Billie Jean is that the central prop is a top of the line Honda scooter (God those were cool), belonging to the Billie's brother Binx (Slater). After a milkshake skirmish at a local Sonic with spoiled ruffians, said bullies steal and trash the scooter, leading Billie to seek reparations from Head Bully's bully dad. Predictably, Bully Dad wants more than Billie's gratitude in exchange for the repair money. Confusion and youthful stupidity in Bully Dad's store lead to our gang being framed for armed robbery -- and they go on the run. Worse yet, no scooter repair money!

Though on the run from the law, Billie becomes a sort of folk hero for teens across the country. Getting inspiration from a Joan of Arc movie, Billie sheds her golden locks and continues to stick it to the grown man -- eventually growing into a Pied Piper-like figure with the nation's youth. Did I mention that every character speaks with exaggerated south Texas accents? That Yeardley Smith is the comic relief? That there's a getaway scene involving marbles? That Peter Coyote has a significant role!?!

It's all here, and so much more. The action really picks up when Billie uses her newfound media celebrity to save a child from his abusive father and ultimately get sweet revenge on Bully Dad and adults everywhere in a scene that must have sold millions of "Invincible" singles. It's a little sad to realize that of all the actors in the movie, Christian Slater had the best career, while Helen Slater's presence and looks couldn't help her get another meaningful onscreen role again -- perhaps unfairly blamed for the dreadful failure of Supergirl, when she played the title role.

Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins in Gun Crazy)

Oh how I love the alternate title for this movie: Deadly is the Female. Goddamn that rocks, and really seems to fit better in regards to the story and the movie's message. As the sex bomb with the six shooters Annie Laurie Starr, Peggy Cummins has one of the most memorable and jaw-dropping sexy entrances in all of cinema. After being introduced by her carnie manager, Starr struts out firing a pair of revolvers, wearing skin tight pants with holsters resting on her hips. As she goes about her trick shooting act (which includes shooting targets through her legs), she treats the men in the audience (as well as the viewers) to a view of her behind that must have been considered scandalous in 1950. You have to understand: Cummins is absolutely poured into these pants and with the look on her face throughout the shooting exhibition is simply the definition of a vamp.

Gun Crazy has more to offer than just Cummins, giving us the story of reformed bad boy Bart Tare, fresh off a tour in the military and committed to a straight life after once being a delinquent youth obsessed with guns. Those good intentions go astray with the sight of Starr one night at a carnival. Tare is invited onstage to best Starr's crack eye and the result is a ferocious display of sexuality in the form of dueling pistols and wills. Starr's display consumes Tare, and two quickly are a pair. But a carnie salary does not satisfy Starr, and she soon convinces Tare to rob a bank with her. The bank heist is presented in a breathtaking one-shot scene filmed from the back seat of their getaway car, and the deadly pair are soon on their way across the country picking up loot wherever they can. Yes, deadly is the female who can put such an honest boy up to no good.

Gun Crazy was a fun surprise, packaged in Warner's Film Noir Classic Collection -- though I would hesitate to classify it as film noir. Yes, the subject of a woman turning a man to crime smells somewhat of noir, but outside of that it looks and plays a lot like the better crime movies of the era (think White Heat or The Public Enemy). Still, DVD Savant provides a commentary track (credited as a film noir expert), and I'll defer to his knowledge.

Marnie Edgar ('Tippi' Hedren in Marnie)

Though she's not commonly mentioned as one of film's timeless beauties, something about Tippi Hedren is intoxicating to me. She has such a flawless -- possibly girlish -- face, and that rare way of barely moving her lips (hardly ever smiling) that I've also noticed with Scarlett Johanson. I can see why she was a Hitchcock girl, her odd but beautiful qualities are similar to Kim Novak's -- who has a somewhat masculine face, and also uses stone emotions. When paired with Sean Connery in Marnie, it's all eye candy.

In The Birds, Hedren isn't given too much to do save for screaming -- but as the mysterious, venomous Marnie, she is clearly in her element. Panned upon its release, Marnie holds up well as an absolutely gorgeous movie with sexual themes similar to what Hitchcock presented in Notorious. It's a wordy movie and I'll try to describe the plot with few of them: Marnie has many aliases and has left many trusting men poor in her stealing wake, until she meets Mark (Connery) who catches on to her game. Mark forces Marnie to marry him, lest he reveal her crimes -- but he is not so much concerned with having a comely wife as he is aroused by her cunning nature and obsessed with figuring her out.

In Notorious, power-wielding Carey Grant grappled with being a pseudo cuckold while gives us Connery playing a man who has created a pleasant domination-submission scenario with a woman who is used to having the upper hand. In both movies, the men are in unchartered sexual territory and struggle with how far they want to take it. But with Marnie, it's tough to find much sympathy for either character, unlike Notorious. The characters are unlikable and seem to have little consequences for their actions. Still, it's a gorgeous movie with a great Herrman score (his last for Hitchcock).

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

"Does Anybody Remember Laughter?"

The bar has been lowered. Not only for Hollywood and the moviegoing public, but the general creative direction of comedies. If you know what I speak of, you have no doubt seen the trailer for Epic Movie, which appears to take the obscenely unoriginal attempts at satire of the Scary Movie saga into unseen levels of unfunny.

What the HELL is this thing?

Before we get into the real horror of the matter, let's look at what it's following. I steered as far away from Scary Movie 4 after seeing its predecessor, which was the biggest bomb attempt at comedy I had seen since Saving Silverman. Not only did Scary Movie 3 look like a straight-to-Comedy Central production, it just wasn't funny. At all. The only mildly funny gag in the whole movie wasn't even an attempt at satire, it was the somewhat-clever 'rats vs. mice' bit. The only reason I gave '3' a try is that I actually liked the second one, which I felt was even superior to the original. The problem with '3' was that in the process of handing the directing reins from Keenan Ivory Wayans to David Zucker, the movies dropped their clever gags and writing and somehow discovered that it's funny simply to pop in references from recent movies and pop culture. The problem with this is that when seen even a year after its release (if not during its theatrical run), the movie feels achingly dated -- which makes the unfunny jokes even more painful.

So here we are at 'Epic Movie,' which drops the theme of skewering horror movies and goes after any recent blockbusters. Let's see, that will mean we'll get a homosexual Superman, an excuse for a bunch of drug jokes in Narnia, maybe some homosexual Pirates of the Caribbean and . . . some drug jokes from 'Willie Wonka'? Is that it? Oh wait, seems we also get some poignant skewering of 'Davinci Code' in the form of an albino character (albino humor!) and also some Mexican/homosexual humor care of Nacho Libre. Brilliant.

The sad thing is, this movie will make money (if you don't believe me, 'Night at the Museum' is already long past the $150 million mark) and this tragic trend of hit non-comedies will continue. If you really want to ruin your day, take a look at some of the comments on the movie's MySpace page, here's a few snippets of agony:

'yo, i can't w8 4 dis movie 2 com out, i'm gonna go c it on da day it does'

'cant wait to c this movie ... "omg a talking beaver*girl kicks beaver*" ... lol'

'this movie will trully kick ass'

'EPIC MOVIE OPENS IN 17 DAYS!!! This movie is going to kick serious *bleep*!!! Word to the CRAACKEN!!!'

It's just depressing that these kind of movies represent the state of satire filmmaking today. Zucker cut his teeth with some of the best of the genre in 'Airplane!' 'Top Secret!' and the like, but those movies were based around well-executed goofball comedy inside a shell of takeoffs on recent subjects (and even then, they were generalizations of genres, not the exact characters). If the misguided youth of today is this excited for 'Epic Movie,' will they ever know what it is like to laugh at something that is actually funny? If a girl kicking a beaver makes them laugh, what then when they see This is Spinal Tap or The Big Lebowski?

Most confusing is that a couple members of Christopher Guest's Comedy Troupe (Jennifer Coolidge, Fred Willard) -- talented actors who know what comedy should be -- are apparently willing to grit their teeth through a few days on set in exchange for another month at Atlantis.

I can't remember ever wanting a movie to fail as much as I do with 'Epic Movie.' It represents laziness and a collective disinterest in quality filmmaking.

Note: Extra large kudos to readers who know which 1970s concert movie this post's title is taken from.

Friday, January 05, 2007

'Thr3e' is a z3ro

You may have seen previews for the mystery/thriller Thr3e on the Sci-Fi channel recently, and perhaps were slightly surprised that you were watching a trailer for a theatrical movie and not a straight-to-video release. But after seeing 'Thr3e' (opening toda in select markets) via a screener disc recently, what jumped out to me is that the previews do not tout its one selling point: as being a Christian mystery thriller.

Based on the popular Ted Dekker novel of the same name, 'Thr3e' is distributed by Fox Faith -- a new Christian wing of Twentieth Century Fox -- and on paper would appear to be a viable attempt at getting a mostly clean Hey-People-This-Isn't-7th Heaven! Christian movie into the mainstream. Why? The book (which I have not read) has a plot that's pretty much ready-to-film, even though it borrows heavily from many other better movies ('Saw,' 'Se7en'). Wait Adam -- you're saying a Christian movie could resemble 'Saw' or 'Se7en'? That's exactly its problem, in trying to cater to more mainstream movie fans, 'Thr3e' is ultimately a failure as both a straight-up thriller and a Christian movie.

The story follows Kevin Parsons -- a young seminary student who is very good at looking sullen -- who suddenly finds himself tormented by a villain who uses a voice-altering device and a bunch of vintage mini reel-to-reel players to ensnare his victims in easily-escapable traps and puzzles. The villain desperately wants Kevin to confess his sin (as we are frequently told), lest his bland bomb-laden puzzles continue to unspectacularly explode 'round the city. Luckily Kevin has childhood friend Samantha at his side -- who took an interest in his emotion-free existence at an early age -- and a female detective who was once a target of a similar villain.

The Christian hook outside of Kevin being a seminary student is that there are cursory biblical references in the villain's puzzles -- and a desperate attempt to develop a theme of good vs. evil within man. If you're looking to take your family to a Christian movie, the preceding is really all you get -- oh wait, there is a priest character at the end who issues a weightless proclamation that we must put our trust in God, but you've probably heard that line before. Like the trailers airing, 'Thr3e' contains no Christian message, unless you count the fact that it's a 'Se7en' clone made without gore or harsh language.

So people looking for a Christian movie will be disappointed, but so will the handful of folks who get lured in via the non-Christian Sci-Fi Channel trailers. This is your by-the-numbers thriller where people dash from one dark corner of a city to another, featuring haggard-looking cops in trench coats and manufactured suspense under the constant drone of the villain's digitally-altered voice through a cell phone. The puzzle-killer aspect of the movie would seem to be a chance for success, but one dreadfully dull sequence illustrates how this device fails: a friend of Kevin is found with a bomb strapped to him and the words 'wages of sin' written on his fore head -- in a frantic race against time, Kevin remembers where in the bible these words are spoken, and uses the verse and chapter numbers to stop the bomb. Why would a killer go to that much trouble when he's up against a seminary student? What's more, there's never any sense of danger because the bombs left by the killer never really do any harm because of how poor the movie's pyrotechnics are. Example: characters run away from a refrigerator right as it explodes in a fireball, but when they return to it five seconds later, the blast has only mildly scalded the inside of the appliance.

The answer to many of the movie's confounding lack of excitement can be found in the 'twist' ending taken straight from the book. Looking back, it would seem that a twist of this sort could be an ace-in-the-pocket of 'Thr3e' -- like 'Signs' or 'The Village' -- but it ends up being terribly unsatisfying and almost completely unblievable. What starts out with the intentions of a theme on confession and good vs. evil ends up being an ancient plot device that relies on a stereotypical view of the mentally ill that I thought Hollywood buried for good in the 1970s. Any 'Amen' you may say at the end for its alleged Christian message will only be for the sight of the closing credits.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

List Me Deadly

We find ourselves in a new year, and yet I still have not posted a year end list of sorts. Well since I'm late to the party, I think I'll go in a different direction. My new release viewing this year was dreadfully low, so this post will focus on my favorite DVDs of 2006.

Best Box Set
1. The John Ford-John Wayne Film Collection
This was one set that made me jump out of my chair after reading about the early specs, and I still consider it one of my best purchases of the year and a very cherished cornerstone of my collection. What sets this set apart from others is the sheer value of it: for a little more than the price of buying the new editions of 'The Searchers' and 'Stagecoach' (included) you also get SIX OTHER MOVIES. And these are no throwaway titles (though it's admittedly hard for me to get excited about The Long Voyage Home), they're some of the best ever produced by this duo.

2. Superman: Ultimate Collector's Edition
From the You Wanted the Best You Got the Best shelf comes this gargantuan chunk of superfan bliss. The 'Superman' collection is similar to the above set in value, but gets knocked down a peg due to the famously questionable quality of (at least, depending on who you ask) two of the including movies. Even the most hard core Superman fans would admit that they could live without III and IV, but neither are without their merits (e.g. Brick Vision and Robot Hag). In addition to generously upgraded DVDs of all five movies, you also get the new Donner Version of II, the theatrical version of The Movie, old Superman cartoons, a huge documentary and even a chance to send away for 27x40 posters of each movie (I could do without five Superman posters, but have always had a spot in my heart for the 'Quest for Peace' poster).

3. Preston Sturges: The Filmmaker Collection
This is the rare set that lets you explore the given works of a genre or director nearly completely. From the brilliant comedic director's golden era (1941-44) we get everything but The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, all packaged in a pretty attractive price. I'm sure there's plenty of fans out there like me who have heard all the praises of Sturges, but have yet to really penetrate his work (in my case, Sullivan's Travels is my lone voyage), and this set solves that problem nicely.

4. Controversial Classics Collection
A somewhat steep price is the only knock on this set, which has a nice blend of well-known classics and forgotten wonders. The beauty of this collection is that all of the movies contained were all genuinely controversial in their own way: Bad Day at Black Rock (see it!) was the first film to touch on post-WWII American-Asian hostilities, The Blackboard Jungle's violence and tension is still shocking today in some respects (not the least of which is Glen Ford's explosive performance), while A Face in the Crowd was an early examination of the power and influence wielded by the media.

5. Bogie & Bacall -- The Signature Collection
A great example of how a box set can bat 1.000 without being huge or luxurious. For a low price you simply get four genuinely excellent movies including at least two (for me it's The Big Sleep and Key Largo) that can be considered among the best ever made. This set does not offer heaps of extras, but it also has exactly zero fat on it and is a great value (gotta love the name, too).

Best Re-Issues
1. The Maltese Falcon
Like many of Bogart's movies (*cough* 'Casablanca' *cough*), this classic was in serious need of a re-issue, as it does not deserve bare-bones treatment. The resulting treatment was more than anyone could have expected, which was highlighted by the inclusion of two previous film versions of the story and also three radio adaptations. The other extras -- a new transfer, feature-length documentary, commentary and even a blooper reel -- combined to make this DVD one of the rare instances when a major studio's release is on par with what Criterion would have done.

2. The Searchers
Available on its own or in the aforementioned Ford-Wayne set, Warner Bros. celebrated this timeless movie's 50th anniversary in style. The handsome packaging foreshadowed the lavish treatment of the film inside: a stunning transfer, three wonderful featurettes, an informative commentary by the always entertaining Peter Bogdanovich (his track on 'Citizen Kane' is another good one) and an introduction by Patrick Wayne are just starters, as you also get a large assortment of lobby cards, on-set correspondance and even a 1956 comic book adaptation of the movie. The latter is a treat for 'Searchers' fans, as it was printed in the early days of the comic book code era, and as such there were significant liberties taken with the movie's storyline to omit graphic content.

3. Forbidden Planet
Another 50th anniversary edition, the classic sci-fi triumph's rich colors and amazing special effects can finally be seen as they should. Highlighting the generous extras is a spinoff movie starring Robby the Robot and the mildly disappointing but well-meaning TCM documentary 'Watch the Skies.' I was lucky enough to receive the Ultimate Collector's Edition of this for Christmas, which comes in a large tin and includes lobby cards and a Robby the Robot figurine, and let me tell you: if you're expecting to open up the tin and find a like-sized robot, you'll be disappointed (its size is even misrepresented on the official picture of the set, but at least you get a nice-sized tin). Read DVD Savant's take on the movie for his typically-engrossing analysis.

4. Brazil: The Criterion Collection
Another in Criterion's applauded effort of re-upgrading movies. In Brazil's case, it was one of the first movies to be overflowing with extras, first on laserdisc and later as one of the first huge efforts on DVD. This new version gives the movie a much needed anamorphic upgrade, and also adds a single-disc incarnation for those who don't need multiple cuts of the movie or want to pay twice as much. The extras are still eye popping, with the short 'Love Conquers All' cut dropped on America and the proper 146-minute Gilliam edit. DVD Journal regards the previous version as the best DVD ever made, and this only makes it better.

5. Seven Samurai: The Criterion Collection
Perhaps a more impressive Criterion re-issue was their new three-disc 'Seven Samurai.' The Kurosawa classic put Criterion on the mainstream map for unmatched DVD quality and was their top-seller for a long time. Not only does the new version one-up the original's lauded transfer, but also adds two more discs full of extras including exhaustive documentaries (such as a two hour Kurosawa conversation produced by the Director's Guild of Japan) as well as a booklet packed with essays.

Best of the Best
Saturday Night Live: The Complete First Season
In another huge DVD year, this release probably made the most waves just for what it represented. Definitely no stranger to DVD, Lorne Michaels and company upped the ante by committing to what they have been dared by fans to do from the beginning: give us everything. And it's all here: every uncut episode and even the musical guests. To me, the biggest whopper of this idea is imagining down the road when we have thirty-some seasons for sale, and the inevitable BOX SET TO END ALL BOX SETS featuring EVERY season with somewhere in the neighborhood of 200+ discs! What this also signals is the strength of the DVD format, because I doubt that NBC would release six or so SNL seasons on DVD, then commit to Blue Ray or HD-DVD and leave DVD in the cold. If this is a true commitment, it's one that will span years.

Dazed and Confused: The Criterion Collection
This was a personal slam dunk, that feeling you get when Criterion chooses one of 'your' movies that you never thought would have gotten the treatment, and boy did it get it: appropriately outrageous cover art, a Linklater commentary, documentaries and a booklet full of high-quality essays. This is just a loving tribute to a great movie that means a lot to plenty of people, and has even managed to increase my love for it (best example: Linklater clues us in on the scene with Carl's mom pulling the shotgun being his tribute to the similar scene in 'Night of the Hunter').

Essential Art House - Fifty Years of Janus Films
I'm not exactly recommending this one -- I'm not sure I would even want it if I had the means -- but it's reassuring to know that something like this exists (sort of how the Pagani Zonda deserves to be worshipped, even if it really has no place in the world). I think of this as the Galactus of DVD -- Criterion saying 'you call that a knife, this is a knife' and promptly pulling out a MOAB bomb. For the low low MSRP of $850, you get a 50 disc phonebook of a set includes 50 films and a 200 page book that will provide equal wonder and horror for anyone in your home.

Best Trends
1. Movies within movies
I noticed this one last year when the Wizard of Oz three disc set included long-forgotten silent treatments of the classic story, and you're seeing it more often now, as evidenced by a few of the above. I love seeing extras like this that break from the mold.

2. Slim-line box sets
It seems that the days of box sets the size of a phone book are coming to an end, as studios are starting to catch on to the idea of using slim-line (or slim-pack, whatever you call the very thin packages) holders inside sets to reduce their girth. Not only does it look better, but it makes everything much easier to handle without wear and tear.

3. More economical 'discing'
Like the above, the days of DVDs having two discs just for the hell of it seem to be dead too. The worst example of this for me was the old double-disc version of 'Big Trouble in Little China,' which put the full screen version on one disc and the widescreen on the other, despite the fact that there were few extras to take up space. It seems that since prices of DVDs are getting lower and lower, manufacturers are more apt to keep them low by keeping everything on one disc.

Best of 2007?
Bicycle Thieves: The Criterion Collection
Another Criterion that will hit home with me, Bicycle Thieves is one of the best movies you will ever see and is very deserving of some world class DVD treatment. Though it's set in post WWII Italy, this is simply a timeless movie about life that has indescribable highs and lows of genuine emotion. Haven't heard any specs on this one yet, but I'm sure it will be top notch.

Long-rumored Eyes Wide Shut special edition
There have been rumors practically since its theatrical release about a definitive director's cut of 'Eyes Wide Shut,' and there's some 'truthy' information about its future being bounced around lately. Initially this focused on the controversial decision to digitally mask some of the more graphic elements of the orgy scene, but now the most anticipated feature of the DVD would be an anamorphic widescreen transfer. Kubrick's more recent movies are presented in open matte full screen at his famous request, reportedly believing that full screen looked better on televisions -- and he obviously did not live to see the day of widescreen TVs. The most recent 'Eyes Wide Shut' DVD is presented in the actual aspect ratio it was filmed in (it was matted on the top and bottom for its theatrical run), but it's frustrating to watch on a widescreen TV and the picture itself could use a remastering.

Tom Goes to the Mayor: The Complete Series
It's a small triumph that this short-lived, much-loved [adult swim] series is coming to DVD, but it's a minor miracle that it's all going to be on one three disc collection. If you missed Tom's original run, it was a strangely animated and even stranger written show, that was always bizarre and hilarious. Its crude underground origins are similar to South Park's, and I hope it enjoys more popularity on DVD.

Night of the Comet/Solarbabies
Just announced from MGM, a pair of 80s scifi movies that had long languished in the Night of the Creeps/Monster Squad level of digital non-existance. I'm very familiar with Solarbabies, one of those movies that you could always count on HBO to show way too many times in the late 80s. Combining a little of a Mad Max-like apocalypse future with teen angst and some roller skates -- 'Solarbabies' is pure magic. I've seen bits and pieces of 'Night of the Comet' -- a tale of valley girls trying to save the world after a large scale disaster, and it'll be tough to keep me away from this one.

Criterion's Eclipse series

A very exciting announcement from Criterion has been their decision to start a new line devoted to forgotten/cult films, which will be offered at an affordable (around $15) price. The only movies on the Eclipse line so far is a collection of Ingmar Bergman's earliest efforts, but you know there's going to be an announcement or two down the road that will really blow your socks off.