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American Graffiti

American Graffiti," "The Apostle," and "John Carpenter's The Thing"

Very special editions...

Universal Pictures has done a beautiful job of exploiting the DVD format to its best advantage. With its "Collectors Edition" releases, a trio of which are reviewed here, the studio has pulled out all stops, offering not only the feature film, but enough extras to satisfy students of the motion picture arts.

One thing to watch for, however. If you don't like "letterboxing," the translation of widescreen movies to the square TV screen, you'll be disappointed with all three of the movies reviewed here: Universal offers them only in widescreen versions rather than letting you choose widescreen or pan and scan. If we had our druthers, we'd opt for widescreen every time, but since DVD gives the opportunity to include both versions on the same disc, we'd have preferred to see Universal offer everyone their format of choice.

American Graffiti

American Graffiti was George Lucas' first hit masterpiece. Just like its successor, "Star Wars," the Oscar-nominated classic came out of nowhere when it was released and managed not only to capture the hearts of critics and moviegoers alike, but also to bring the studio more cash than it could possibly have dreamed. 

American Graffiti is the tale of two high school grads (Ron Howard and Richard Dreyfuss) on their last night at home before heading off to college. Howard has his life clearly in focus, while Dreyfuss is waffling about whether or not he's even going to leave. Over the course of the night, we get a funny and nostalgic look at cruising, coming to terms with some major life decisions, and the general teen culture of 1962, what might be termed the end of an era of "American innocence" on the eve of Vietnam and the 60's "counterculture."

Graffiti deserved its praise. George Lucas perfectly captures the flavour of the era, in a charming and witty film that almost makes you feel as if you're actually there.

American Graffiti benefits a lot from this "Collectors Edition" treatment. Firstly, the the film's soundtrack has been remixed into Dolby Digital, and remixed very well indeed. Most of the sound still comes from the centre front channel, but there's a lot of atmosphere wrapping around you now in your viewing room, further pulling you into the onscreen action. It's a subtle touch, but it works well.

The film itself has been given Lucas' THX treatment, which means they've bent over backwards to ensure the picture and sound are first rate - and they are. Graffiti was a pretty low budget movie to start with, but George Lucas gave us the best he could under the circumstances, and now his company has given us the best audio and video quality we can expect to date. Images are sharp and clean, though as one might expect from a film shot virtually entirely at night, it's a bit dark in places.

Then there are the extras. Besides the usual theatrical trailer, Universal has included a full length documentary on the making of the film - a terrific feature that includes interviews with most of the cast and crew, as well as George Lucas himself and producer Francis Ford Coppola. Like the film itself, the documentary is charming, with funny insights as those involved in the film's creation reminisce about their experiences.   There are also production photographs included on the disk.

A legitimate American Classic, American Grafitti is a must see DVD.

John Carpenter's "The Thing"John Carpenter's "The Thing"

One of the scariest movies ever made, John Carpenter's "remake" of the 1951 Howard Hawks sci-fi thriller has also received a nice boost during its metamorphosis to the DVD format.

Widely reviled upon its initial release to theatres for its graphic makeup effects, Carpenter's Thing went on to become somewhat of a cult favourite. And those makeup effects, pulled off with incredible imagination by Rob Bottin, can indeed cause the weak of heart to lose their lunches. However, like Starship Troopers, the film got a bad rap from those who couldn't see beyond the visuals.

The Thing details the discovery, initially by Norwegians and then by Americans, of an alien creature whose spaceship crashed in Antarctica some 100,000 years ago. The creature survives by assimilating its victims and then imitating them - it can and will take any shape (hence the makeup effects) and therefore hides among the scientific outpost's crew until it can find the time and opportunity to strike. It's survival of the fittest, and it becomes painfully evident as the film unfolds that it ain't the humans who are the fittest!

Based on the short story "Who Goes There" by John W. Campbell, the Carpenter version is far more faithful to the written piece than was Hawks' version. Carpenter's "Thing" is a tale of claustrophobic paranoia, as the men (there are no women in the film), isolated in their compound by an Antarctic winter storm, discover the threat and try to eliminate it, all while realizing that some among them probably aren't what they appear to be (but which ones are they?).

If you've only seen the movie on pan and scan videocassette, you may find yourself amazed at how much more closed in the movie feels in its widescreen glory. And the DVD's picture and sound (the latter of which is remixed into Dolby Digital) are, as expected, first rate.

The extras are also outstanding. There's the trailer, a set of outtakes from the film, behind the scenes photographs, storyboards and concept art, an annoted production archive, and some stop motion footage that was cut from the final film. There's also a hilarious running commentary on a separate audio track that features director Carpenter and Kurt Russell closeted in some screening room, sharing their memories of the production. These guys go back a long way and are obviously good friends - and Russell sounds like he's having a really good time during the recording session.

And of course there's also a full length documentary on the making of the film, featuring cast and crew, and it's a must see for fans of this science fiction film classic. We're pleased as punch at the treatment given to this often overlooked masterpiece.

The ApostleThe Apostle

The Apostle is not just a Robert Duvall movie, it's a Robert Duvall tour de force. The veteran actor served as executive producer, writer, and director of this Oscar-nominated film, and his hand shows.

"Apostle" is about a beloved Southern US preacher forced to flee his relatively peaceful life after being driven batty by his wife's infidelity. Duvall's Sonny loses it at his kid's baseball game and pounds his wife's lover upside the head with a baseball bat.  On the lam from the authorities, he makes his way to the little town of Bayou Boutte where, rather than hiding out and living quietly, he finds himself driven to found a new church from which he can continue his ministry.

His congregation grows and his church starts to become a success, but are the police still trying to track him down for his crime?

Also starring Farrah Fawcett as Sonny's wife, June Carter Cash and Miranda Richardson, with a cameo by Billy Bob Thornton, The Apostle was crtically acclaimed upon its theatrical release - and we agree with the assessment of Duvall's performance. Duvall, the actor, disappears and we believe he's Sonny, the character, all through this movie.

Unfortunately, other than Duvall's superb performance, and the more-than-credible performances of the other actors, there isn't a lot to recommend this movie (except for the extra DVD goodies included on the disc, of course, which will be of interest to fans of the film and film students/aficionados). What plot there is meanders along at a very leisurely pace, and the story itself doesn't really go anywhere. While it's interesting to watch Sonny in action, not a lot else happens here.

Okay, so you don't need action and special effects to make a good movie, but you need a good story, and The Apostle's almost like a documentary in that there isn't a lot of conflict once you get past Sonny's 'crime of passion.' And, to us, the most interesting dramas are generally about conflict, or coming of age. Here, Sonny runs away from the conflict until the very end (as opposed to, say, Bogart in "Casablanca" - who initially runs but then turns around and grabs his destiny - and others' - with both hands), and there isn't much personal growth or coming of age because he picks right up in Bayou Boutte where he left off before the baseball bat battering.

Subjective review aside, as a DVD incarnation Universal Studios has given The Apostle the full treatment. Not only are the picture and sound of the calibre to which we've become accustomed with DVD's (with a few exceptions, unfortunately, like Disney's "Tron"), this Collectors Edition is in widescreen, Dolby Digital and its use of dual data layers allows all the goodies to be put on one side of the disc - which is as it should be.

And goodies are in abundance. Not only is there a generous printed liner supplement (bravo!), but you get a running commentary by Robert Duvall (and who better than the auteur to give you a play by play?). There's also a featurette documentary ("The Journey of the Apostle") on the making of the film, which features behind the scenes footage and appearances by Duvall, Fawcett, producer Rob Carliner, and John Beasley (Reverend Blackwell).

So while we may quibble with The Apostle as a movie, as a DVD release it's first rate.

We love it when studios include extras with their video releases - though we must also note that if you're renting the disc you might not have time to get through everything unless you want to be hit with a late charge! Still, kudos to Universal for the care and the value they offer with these Collectors Series editions. If you like any of the three films reviewed here, you'll be pleased as punch with their translation to the superb DVD format.


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Updated May 13, 2006