One of director Sydney Pollack's best films is undoubtedly the 1985 romantic epic "Out of Africa," which received seven Academy Awards, including best film, director and screenplay.
This week, Universal released its splendid collectors' edition DVD ($30) of the drama based on Danish writer Isak Dinesen's (Meryl Streep) account of her life on an African coffee plantation and her love affair with the British adventurer Denys Finch Hatton (Robert Redford).
This digital edition features a beautiful wide-screen transfer of the film, which was sumptuously shot by David Watkin. There are also production notes offering background information on the making of the film in Kenya and a swell 45-minute documentary called "Song of Africa" that features interviews with Pollack, Streep, Oscar-winning composer John Barry and Dinesen biographer Judith Thurman.
Streep is an absolute delight in the documentary. She admits that Pollack didn't think she was sexy enough for the role, so she dressed in a low-cut blouse complete with push-up bra when she went to meet with him. And not only is the Oscar-winning actress a marvel at accents, she's also adept at animal imitations, mimicking the noise of the two hippos she saw fighting outside her tent.
Pollack also offers interesting, intelligent insight in both the documentary and the audio commentary. He points out that there were numerous attempts to bring Dinesen's memoirs to the screen but that all were hampered by the source: The book was not a traditional memoir but instead was made up mainly of anecdotes. He and screenwriter Kurt Luedtke spent more than a year working on the script and relied a lot on Thurman for insight into their subject.
Pollack also provides commentary on his latest film, 1999's "Random Hearts" (Columbia TriStar, $25), which was also written by Luedtke. However, despite generally strong performances from Harrison Ford and Kristin Scott-Thomas (who wears a wardrobe to die for), "Random Hearts" is much ado about nothing.
Ford plays a tough Washington police detective who loses his wife in a plane crash only to discover that she'd been having an affair. Scott-Thomas plays the lover's wife, a congresswoman who is running for reelection.
The disc features a nice wide-screen transfer as well as the pan-and-scan version of the movie, the theatrical trailer, three deleted scenes, Pollack's commentary and a standard documentary, "HBO First Look: The Making of Random Hearts."
Columbia TriStar has just unveiled its fifth Frank Capra classic on DVD: the remarkable 1939 political drama, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" ($28). James Stewart received his first Oscar nomination for playing the sweet, idealistic young man who is named senator after the incumbent dies in office, only to encounter greed and corruption in the Senate.
The disc includes the transfer of the restored print, vintage advertising from the film, the theatrical trailer, a retrospective featuring Frank Capra Jr. and audio commentary by the younger Capra.
"Mr. Smith" was actually born out of tragedy. In 1938, when Capra was having a preview of his Oscar-winning "You Can't Take It With You," his 3-year-old son, Johnny, died in the hospital during routine surgery. The only way he could combat his grief was to return to work. Capra had his heart set on a film about composer Frederic Chopin, but Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia Studios, nixed it because he thought it would be too expensive.
So Capra eventually was given a short story that became the genesis of "Mr. Smith."
The younger Capra points out that his father had only Stewart in mind for Mr. Smith because he felt he was like the character. The two respected each other's talents and became lifelong friends. The director never liked to audition actors for roles. He would ask to see three or four actors for each part and then talk to them, then decide who would be best. Capra also spent time with each extra, providing insight into their characters.
Young boys are the target audience for Disney's new made-for-video animated comedy, "An Extremely Goofy Movie" ($25 for video; $30 for DVD). Little girls probably won't be intrigued by this story, which features Goofy saddened by the departure of his son Max to college. After Goofy loses his job at a toy factory, he learns he can't get a decent job without a degree. So he enrolls at the same college as "Maxie" and ends up falling in love with a librarian. There are some funny lines and scenes, but the movie lacks an overall warmth. Though Goofy is a great character, a little of him goes a long way. The DVD contains previews of upcoming Disney video releases, a Goofy trivia game, a music video and a read-along story.
Save for the standard scene selection option, Image Entertainment's digital version of the tough, gritty 1955 film noir "The Big Combo" ($25) doesn't include any special goodies. But it's still worth checking out because this Joseph Lewis-directed thriller is just plain wonderful and features super performances from Cornel Wilde and Richard Conte. Wilde plays an idealistic detective determined to bring down a criminal kingpin (Conte). David Raksin's evocative score is one of his best and John Alton supplied the atmospheric black-and-white cinematography. However, there were some minor glitches in the disc supplied for review by Image.