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Zap! Into the Nineties : STATE OF THE ART FOR FILMS

<i> Jack Mathews, film editor of The Times, assesses the software situation in the laser-disc market and offers tips for starting a home movie library</i>

The overriding consideration for anyone about to start a collection of laser disc movies should be simply this: Are these movies you want to keep forever and see often?

Watching movies on video disc vastly enhances the experience at home, so, logically, the first 10 movies you buy on disc should be the 10 you enjoy most anywhere.

But logic is easily jostled when you hit the video shop and see what’s actually available.

The truth is, I can watch any of my top 10 movies on videotape and be content. It is those video releases that feature extraordinary visual detail, mind-altering sound tracks or supplementary material about the making of the movie that take full advantage of laser technology.

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“RoboCop” is not a great movie, but slip a disc of it into your laser player, turn the sound up and it’ll slap you around like a cheap cologne. “The Magnificent Ambersons” is far from Orson Welles’ greatest film, but the Criterion Collection version provides so much detail about RKO’s plundering of it that one viewing will qualify you for a studio job where you might get the opportunity to ruin somebody else’s work.

Things are happening fast in the video software industry, and soon, hopefully, everyone will follow the lead of Voyager’s Criterion series in making films available in full width and with historical addenda. Some studios--20th Century Fox and MCA/Universal--have already begun to issue letter-boxed versions of wide-screen films on disc.

For the time being, Criterion is the leader in the field and for those who want everything the market has to offer, they have the list. Here are 10 video films, nine from Criterion, for the new collector to consider:

1. “Singin’ in the Rain.” Criterion. Ron Haver, the film curator for Los Angeles County Museum of Art, narrates this pristine transfer of the 1952 MGM musical starring Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds. That is, Haver narrates on the second audio track, if you’re interested. And you should be. The film has a rich store of trivia, providing such details as who was dubbing who in the singing scenes (at one point, Reynolds dubbed Jean Hagen; at another, Hagen dubbed Reynolds dubbing Hagen) and the fact that O’Connor was wearing padding when he did his famous “Make ‘em Laugh” dance.

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2. “The Wizard of Oz.” Criterion. The supplementary material includes stills from a 1903 stage version of “Oz,” footage from the 1925 silent film and the “If I Only Had a Brain” musical number that was cut from the released version. There is also a second track audio essay by Ron Haver.

3. “The Adventures of Robin Hood.” Criterion. The 1938 swashbuckling adventure takes on new life in this exquisite film-to-disc transfer of one of the most overlooked early Technicolor films. The film stars Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland; the disc stars, on a second audio track, an excellent essay by Rudy Behlmer, plus clips from the 1922 Douglas Fairbanks silent film and an assortment of Robin Hood mementos.

4. “Casablanca.” Criterion. While Ted Turner was painting a version of this romantic classic for his cable outlets, Criterion was transferring a perfect print to disc and enhancing it with a Ron Haver essay discussing the controversial authorship of the screenplay, plus excerpts from the “Lux Radio Broadcast” of “Casablanca” that starred the voices of Alan Ladd and Hedy Lamarr, notes from producer Hal Wallis and, for curiosity value only, 1942 newsreel footage of the real Casablanca (the movie was shot in Culver City).

5. “West Side Story.” Criterion. The transfer from film to disc was supervised by the film’s co-director Robert Wise, so the images are about as good as they can get, and it has a dazzling Dolby digital surround-sound audio track. Supplementary material includes a director’s scrapbook, casting and production notes, color story boards and footage from the 1961 premiere.

6. “Swing Time.” Criterion. Arguably the best of the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers dancing love stories, this one features Astaire’s classic Bojangles shadow dance and the couple’s airy “Pick Yourself Up” number in a dance school ballroom. There’s an enlightening audio essay by Astaire authority John Mueller, and a lengthy Bojangles Robinson dance number from the 1935 “Hooray for Love.” Follow Astaire and Rogers through one of their numbers with the perfect laser stop action and you still won’t catch them out of step.

7. “Blade Runner.” Criterion. Remember the dopey Raymond Chandler-style narrative that Harrison Ford was asked to provide for this futuristic thriller? With the dazzling imagery on your set and the sounds coming out of your four speakers (yeah, you really have to upgrade to surround sound, too), you’ll be concentrating so hard on not falling out of your chair that you won’t even notice the plot holes.

8. “Citizen Kane.” Criterion. Most people will never see Orson Welles’ 1941 masterpiece anywhere but on television, where both the subtle and dramatic shadowing are often lost. But laser disc projects them to stunning effect. This version includes an audio track and a vast assortment of supplementary material, including the offbeat theatrical trailer Welles created to introduce his then unknown cast.

9. “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Criterion. A must for laser collectors, the Stanley Kubrick existential outer-space classic comes on disc with a huge store of footnotes, including “2001" author Arthur C. Clarke’s views on space, the making of the film and a montage of actual NASA footage.

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10. “Die Hard.” 20th Century Fox. This film won’t make you smarter, but with laser, it’s an E ticket ride through your living room. The film is letter-boxed, as are all the post-1959 Criterion films and many of the new ones from Fox and MCA/Universal, and the wide-screen images are breathtaking even on the small screen.

* SOUND BARRIER:

Pop music critic Robert Hilburn finds that laser discs are the most exciting thing since compact discs. Page 68.


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