"Special edition" laser discs aren't always that special.
Many of them simply offer creative packaging and marketing aping VHS releases of the same films. The laser discs are, of course, vastly superior to the VHS editions, offering better audio and crisp widescreen video in carefully executed digital and/or THX transfers. But special disc editions may ignore the true possibilities inherent in the laser format.
All of this makes bottom-line sense, but spells missed opportunities. Failure to offer in-depth analog commentaries by premier contemporary directors probably means we won't soon be offered those films on laser with the kinds of tracks that significantly enhance the laser moviewatching experience.
But that doesn't mean these laser discs don't provide exceptional movie experiences.
Two recent high-quality, high-ticket releases of Oscar-laden dramas offer cases in point: a "Schindler's List" "Limited-Edition Collector's Boxed Set" (MCA/ Universal Home Video, $140) and a "Widescreen Expanded Edition" of "Dances With Wolves," (Orion/ Image Entertainment, $125).
Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List," which dominated the Academy Awards for 1993 motion pictures, comes in a nonconforming size, numbered boxed set. The superb THX sound and THX black-and-white picture are arguably more powerful in the intimate confines of your living room than in the theater. The horrific subject matter--Nazi party member Oskar Schindler saving some 1,100 Jews from the gas chamber--is even more eloquent on the small screen, emphasizing the fine performances by Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes and others.
And there is plenty of reading material accompanying the two CLV discs: Thomas Keneally's bestseller on which the film was based along with a handsome picture booklet of scenes from the harrowing, inspiring film. But essentially all that we get about the movie from director Spielberg is a "special introduction": seven sentences explaining why he made the movie. There is also a CD soundtrack, which features John Williams conducting the music he composed for the film with violin solos by Itzhak Perlman.
The entire package is encased in a sumptuous black fabric-covered box with embossed gold lettering, but ironically, the least well packaged of all is the film itself. The two discs lie next to each other in paper enclosures, not in separate cardboard sleeves. A silly production error in an otherwise impeccable presentation.
Kevin Costner's "Dances With Wolves" comes in an almost equally pretentious package, deep brown more befitting its Native American West subject matter and time frame. It too comes with a host of extras: a set of six lobby cards, the John Barry soundtrack, and a book, "Dances With Wolves: The Illustrated Story of the Epic Film." The book includes commentaries by star-director-co-producer Costner, co-producer Jim Wilson and screenwriter Michael Blake, just the kind of material that would have been well-served on an audio analog track. That would be using laser, not Gutenberg technology.
What makes this special edition of the 1990 "Dances" particularly worthwhile, however, is the footage withheld from the theatrical release. Reinserted in this edition, the excised material brings the film to nearly four hours, with scenes that enhance much of what was abbreviated in the three-hour theatrical release. If you liked the film, you'll love the longer version. If you didn't, the new material won't add to your viewing pleasure.
What "Dances With Wolves" desperately needs--and where the laser could distinguish itself from the collector's video edition--is an analog director's track. Costner's passion for this film, his analysis of its coming into being and his personal insights into its making are sorely missed on an audio track. We want to hear, as we watch, what difficulties he encountered scene by scene as both director and actor, how tough it was to get the film made, how he finally got it done, how he solved problems, how he might do things differently.
Also missing are more details of chapter stops that indicate where scenes have been expanded and added. Without an audio track explaining what was put back in and why, viewers' memories are hard-pressed to re-create the film they saw in theaters in their mind's eye.
The "Clint Eastwood Dirty Harry Collection" ($125) from Warner Home Video makes no pretension of being anything more than a boxed set of some of Eastwood's most popular films. It comes with a handsome six-page folder with chapter stops, but not pictures from every film, just a couple of tight close-ups of Eastwood. The films: "Dirty Harry" (1971), "Magnum Force" (1973), "The Enforcer" (1976), "Sudden Impact" (1983), "The Dead Pool," 1988). Also offered a 59-minute documentary: "Clint Eastwood: The Man From Malpaso."
If you're an Eastwood fan, you won't really complain that nothing special is added to the films. Just sit back and watch Dirty Harry do his worst in sound that puts you in the middle of each film and video that leaves little to the imagination.