DVD Reviews - JFK, The Arrival, The Witches of Eastwick, Mars Attacks

      Date posted: November 3, 1997

The Arrival
David Twomey (director) Live Entertainment
Widescreen & Pan & Scan; Dolby Digital 5.1 in English & French
115 Minutes

The Arrival      I first encountered this DVD a year ago (has the format really been out this long?) at the London Audio show in the Linn/Runco room, shown in line-quadrupled double-projector glory with the Linn AV 5103 processing the sound. Right from the opening red flower, I was hooked, and by the time the bathtub scene was over, I had to have this disc.

     It’s truly a tale for paranoids (though in this I plead innocence: nobody’s out to get me, they’ve already got me!) about aliens whose knees bend the other way to help them leap tall buildings in a single bound and all look alike because they use the same hispanic face for their earthly guise (I’m not making this up!). Charlie Sheen plays the crazed paranoic SETI watcher who discovers their plot to terraform the earth to be hospitable to the aliens after they kill all of us.

     Killed in a most hideous manner by a gaggle of Mexican tarantulas is the female geologist (Lindsay Crouse) who discovers a field of wildflowers in Antarctica at the film’s beginning. If The Player has the longest continuous panned scene in movie history, The Arrival has the longest pullback at its opening, as the camera withdraws to reveal the ice around the verdant field, the continent of Antarctica, and the earth itself from the perspective of space. Obviously the scene wasn’t shot from a NASA rocket or a spy satellite, but is due to computer-enhanced special effects.The bathtub scene takes place in the same sleazy Mexican hotel where Lindsay Crouse gets stung. Our justifiably paranoid hero is relaxing in the bathtub taking his phone messages from home when he notices rather a lot of water coming through the ceiling. Just after he hangs up the phone, the ceiling starts to fall apart, and through it comes hurtling another bathtub; he rolls out just in the nick of time to watch horrified as the tub goes through his floor. Looking down, he sees an also-naked woman cowering on her sink looking at the hole in her floor; looking up, he sees another Mexican with the same face as his cab driver and a few people he’s known in the U.S. turning off the taps and then fleeing. He gets dressed quickly and gives chase only to have him leap a building. Now, you’re saying, “What idiot in his right mind would watch a movie like this even once?” You figure it out. The picture in both scenes and throughout the film is superb, detailed and crisp and beautiful in its shades of colour; the cinematography is superb. But so is the sound, one of the best atmospheric mixes I’ve ever heard, the foley so well done that everything, from dripping water to the closing of a pair of goggles, sounds completely natural. There are also some remarkable special effects as the final battles are waged with the aliens.

This movie appears to have bombed at the box office (they say that Charlie Sheen’s sexual peccadillos [peccadilli?] have hurt his screen career), but it definitely has a life in DVD land, and I quite often use it as a demo to show friends what DVD has to offer. Get a life (albeit a paranoid one) and buy this disc.

Mars Attacks!
Tim Burton (director) Warner Home Video
Widescreen & Pan & Scan; English & French Dolby Digital 5.1;
Spanish Dolby Surround
106 Minutes

Mars Attacksl      From the director who made the first Batman feature (also a very collectable DVD), Tim Burton, this film is made for DVD. The transfer is superb, with vivid colour, lots of detail, and zowie special effects. Like The Arrival and Independence Day, Mars Attacks is about the earth being invaded, but this one’s a send-up, with a galaxy of stars, including Jack Nicholson as the president and a Vegas gambler, Pierce Brosnan in a hilariously over-the-top performance as the peace-loving presidential advisor, Martin Short as his publicity hack, Glenn Close as the first lady, and so on. Sarah Jessica Parker, Michael J. Fox, Danny deVito and Tom Jones also star, the latter playing himself and singing It’s Not Unusual in Vegas.

     The most memorable scene is the one in which the aliens land, and state in their language, “We come in peace.” Their talk consists only of “ack, ack, ack” repeated, and is translated by a crude invention with an built-in analog tape recorder (surely a film in-joke in an age when TASCAM DA-88s have almost completely replaced the 35mm-film analog recorders in the post-production facilities). A happy hippie releases a dove, which enrages the small large-headed toothy alien leader, who pulls a raygun out of his crimson robe and shoots (actually fries) the bird in flight. As the large crowd who’ve come to see their landing looks on in horror, the aliens all pull out rayguns and roast everything and everyone in sight, including Michael J. Fox, who is a TV reporter; It’s all quite gruesomely hilarious. Boy, this Tim Burton guy has a pretty sick sense of humour; I guess that’s why he also made Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands.

     I don’t know that this film did all that well in theatres, but it’s a great watch in this superb transfer, with wraparound surround sound, and some wild special effects. And, do you know what saves civilization as we know it? Well, I don’t think it’s giving away the plot to reveal that in this warped Burtonesque universe, it’s country music, specifically Slim Whitman, singing, “When I’m calling you-oo-oo…” Now, aren’t you just dying to see this film?

Oliver Stone (director) Warner Home Video
Widescreen only on 2 sides; Dolby Digital 5.1
206 Minutes

     The controversy surrounding this film at its theatre release surprised me. Is there anyone in the world who doesn’t believe that Kennedy was killed by a conspiracy? Evidence has clearly shown so, with an elaborate plot uncovered involving many of JFK’s enemies in the Mafia and among Cuban exiles. The clear involvement of the CIA and several crime families, not to forget the military-industrial complex, has been well documented since Jim Garrison was harried out of office and personally pilloried. All Oliver Stone did was bring much of this together in something of a grab-all fashion, making more sense of it than anyone previously had. It’s a major feat, and this very long film is a riveting watch. If we talk about long scenes, as above, we have to mention the extraordinary cameo by Donald Sutherland as a CIA defector who outlines the whole plot and its execution (pardon the pun) to a mis-cast Kevin Costner as Jim Garrison (why is it that Costner has been repeatedly mis-cast: Robin Hood also comes to mind).

     Costner doesn’t manage to sink the movie, which is enlivened by superb character performances by Tommy Lee Jones as Clay Shaw/Bertram, and Joe Pesci as a profoundly profane David Ferrie. Kevin Bacon, who is extremely good as an astronaut in the more recent Appollo 13, here very convincingly plays a bisexual male prostitute, while Sissy Spacek is terrific as the patient long-suffering Mrs. Garrison.

     The soundtrack is identified on the screen-scroll on my Pioneer Elite DVL-90 as “Dolby Digital 2 Channel”, but on the DVD box just as Dolby Digital; when I switched to Pro Logic on my Technics SH-AC300, the sound was notably less distinct from the rear. And ambient sound was much more vivid in AC-3, so I’m convinced it’s a discrete soundtrack, even without the evidence of socko special effects. It’s very good, as is picture quality in a quite extreme anamorphic letterbox. This is a disc for big-screen TVs only, I think. Because of the length, there is no pan & scan side, both sides taken up with the movie, the first of this type I’d encountered. This DVD also pointed up an irony of the DVL-90 and DVD: though it happily flips sides automatically with laserdiscs, it does not do so with DVDs like this one, so I had to remove the disc and turn it over. This seems to be a quirk of this software-driven format. Someone at the DVD production level should have a little think about this, and about a few other DVD ergonomic oddities that I’ll discuss in other reviews.

The Witches of Eastwick
George Miller (director) Warner Home Video
Widescreen and Pan & Scan; Dolby Digital 5.1 English, Dolby Surround French;
118 Minutes

The Witches of Eastwick      Witches is a film of a novella by John Updike that I enjoyed years ago, and wondered if the movie could match it. It did, and should have made director George Miller a household name. The film got good reviews, and with Jack Nicholson playing a devil who seduces Cher, Susan Sarandon, and Michelle Pfeiffer, does tend to hold one’s interest. Issued in LD with matrix surround, it here has 5.1 discrete surround, and the movie really makes the best of it. Particular standouts are the storms at beginning and when the witches put their curse on their devil, and also the scene in which Nicholson falls asleep at a concert and snores from the back row; here you are seated well in front of him.

     Picture quality is also demonstration quality, with a subtlety of hue and shading that the laserdisc lacked. Since the film is so seasonal, and tied to weather and its manipulation, this is an important aspect of its charm. The performances are all first rate, Nicholson’s one of the best of his great career, ranking with Five Easy Pieces, One Flew Over The Cookoo’s Nest, The Shining and Wolf. Get this disc.

Andrew Marshall

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