By Jen Chaney Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 12, 2003


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August may be the month that summer blockbusters slow down, but there's certainly no shortage of hot DVD options. This month's focus is on three selections: two recent Oscar winners,"Bowling for Columbine" and "Chicago," and a TV classic, "The Simpsons: The Complete Third Season." (If you're a "Simpsons" fan, you'll also want to check out a Q&A with Al Jean, the show's executive producer.)

"Bowling for Columbine" (R)
Release Date: Aug. 19

    Bowling for Columbine' "Bowling for Columbine" brims with extras. (United Artists)

Whether or not you agree with Michael Moore's left-of-center cinema, you have to give the filmmaker and his team credit for putting together a respectable DVD release. This double-sided single disc version of Moore's Academy Award-winning documentary contains an extensive selection of Moore interviews, during which the liberal activist expands on his opinions about guns, violence and the crassness of American culture. There's also a video scrapbook of "Columbine's" journey on the film festival and awards circuit, a commentary track and a DVD-ROM guide for teachers. In a particularly savvy move, Moore also includes a 15-minute featurette in which he talks about his Academy Award win and controversial acceptance speech. (You know, the one where he said, "Shame on you, Mr. Bush.") Like several of these features, the mini-doc provides interesting insight into Moore's motivations and ideology, and that will surely please his fans. As the director says while explaining his notorious Oscar night remarks, "I'm Michael Moore. What else was I going to do?"

Most Prescient Bonus Point: During an interview with former White House press secretary Joe Lockhart, recorded at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival weeks before the Academy Awards, Moore says, "Don't put me on the stage on the Oscar show on live TV. I think that's a big mistake. I want to take an ad out in Variety and plead with the Academy voters: 'Do not vote for this film.'" Hey, you can't say he didn't warn us.

Most Self-Serving Bonus Point: Too many filmmakers use DVD extras as an opportunity to pat themselves on the back. Moore falls victim to that tendency a few times, especially by providing a list of all the awards and critical acclaim "Bowling for Columbine" received. Mike, you won an Oscar. You don't need to convince us the movie is worth watching.

Most Creative Bonus Point: Instead of providing the usual director's track, Moore -- in keeping with his "looking out for the little guy" credo -- asks a group of receptionists, interns and production assistants to do the "Columbine" commentary. The result: a goofy, but often surprisingly entertaining take on the film. One intern talks about sorting through Moore's many baseball hats, and another boldly declares: "This is how I get my news. I get it from Chris Rock, 'The Daily Show' and Henry Rollins."

"Chicago" (PG-13)
Release Date: Aug. 19

Miramax must be holding out for a "special edition" DVD release of "Chicago." Otherwise I can't figure out why there aren't more extras on this DVD. The movie itself -- which won six Oscars, including Best Picture -- sounds and looks great, but the bonus moments are far too limited. There's a somewhat dull commentary track delivered by director Rob Marshall and screenwriter Bill Condon; the deleted Catherine Zeta-Jones/Queen Latifah number, "Class"; and a "Behind the Scenes" featurette that jams everything that might have made for good supplemental material -- rehearsal footage, a history of the play "Chicago" and information about the sets and costumes -- into 28 minutes. The "Chicago" folks should have taken a cue from "Moulin Rouge," a movie musical with a phenomenal set of DVD extras. With this release, we've gotten the basics when what "Chicago" fans surely deserve is the ol' razzle-dazzle.

Most Thrilling Bonus Point: Seeing Oscar winner Zeta-Jones belt out numbers and shimmy through her choreography during rehearsals. More, please!

Most Disappointing Bonus Point: Not seeing Golden Globe winners Renee Zellwegger and Richard Gere singing or dancing during rehearsals. Though there are short snippets of them practicing (and one of Zellwegger recording in the studio), they're not nearly enough to satisfy.

"The Simpsons: The Complete Third Season"
Release Date: Aug. 26

    'The Simpsons' America's favorite animated family shines in its third season. (Fox Home Entertainment)

This four-DVD set contains 24 crystal-clear, uncut, non-commercially interrupted episodes from one of this stellar show's best seasons. If there were no bonus materials at all, it would still be worth owning. Fortunately, there are plenty of extras, too, including commentary tracks on every episode, some of which feature the actors doing commentary for the first time; scene sketches; detailed storyboards for selected episodes; pop-up trivia; footage of the Bart Simpson float from the 1991 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and more. As great as all of this is, the mind still reels with the possibility of more extras. How about deleted scenes? Bloopers by the voice-over actors? An Easter egg, as is suggested by one of the show's producers during a commentary track, of Aerosmith recording the "Flaming Moe's" episode?

If one expects more out of "The Simpsons" DVDs, it's only because the show sets a bar higher than Marge's blue bouffant hair. In fact, I only have one major complaint about this box set and that has to do with its Easter eggs (see below). On the whole, the "Simpsons" DVDs get better with each new season. I've barely finished watching the third one, and already I can't wait to see what's done with number four.

Most VH-1-esque Bonus Point: The pop-up trivia version of the "Colonel Homer" episode, like an episode of "Pop-Up Video," is amusing and vaguely educational. It not only allows us to count the number of "d'ohs" Homer utters, it also informs us that guest star Beverly D'Angelo was once a painter for Hanna Barbera and that there is actually a country song called "Will There Be Any Yodeling in Heaven?" Who knew?

Most Confusing Bonus Point: The commentary tracks are great fun. Where else could you find out that Bruce Springsteen refused to be a "Simpsons" guest star, or that the producers had to argue with censors over the word "Bonerland"? But they can be baffling to listen to, especially when 10 people with mostly unrecognizable voices take turns speaking. (Thank God for Julie "Marge" Kavner and Yeardley "Lisa" Smith, whose identities are never in doubt.) In the future, maybe the commentary tracks could appear in a picture-in-picture format, which would allow viewers to actually see who's saying what.

Most Unnecessary Bonus Point: The Bart Simpson "Butterfinger" commercials, included on disc one, demonstrate how much of a cultural phenomenon the show had become by its third season. But how many times do any of us need to hear Bart say, "Nobody better lay a finger on my Butterfinger"? Answer: Not many. If I had a say, I'd scrap the commercials and give the fans deleted scenes instead.

Super-Secret (and Super-Frustrating) Bonus Point: Yes, there are Easter eggs hidden in this "Simpsons" box set. But it may not be so easy to find them. On disc three, for example, viewers can supposedly access seven minutes of audio outtakes; from the main menu screen, type the number "84763" and hit enter on the remote. I tried to do this multiple times with two different DVD sets -- an advance and a finalized copy, both provided by Fox -- and my four-year-old DVD player couldn't make it happen. I can only hope other viewers have better luck than I did. What makes matters worse is that the audio outtake feature is promoted (sans the Easter egg code) on the back of "The Simpsons" package, which means fans likely will get frustrated trying to find it. And all I can say to that is: "D'oh!"

Coming in September: The second season of "24" arrives on Sept. 9; a collector's edition of "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" trots into video stores Sept. 16; and "A Mighty Wind" blows through on Sept. 23.

Is there an upcoming DVD that you'd like to see reviewed in this column? Or do you have suggestions for our movie content in general? E-mail and let me know.

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