The laser videodisc, coming into its own as a special and important aspect of home entertainment, marked some major advances in the year just past. More electronics firms introduced their own brands of videodisc players, and, at the same time, more manufacturers began producing for consumers an increasing flow of high-fidelity laserdiscs of movies, pop music, concerts and dance.
A look back at some of the year's highlights provides a short list of the technical and artistic achievements posted in 1990. Among them:- Martin Scorsese, now on his way to an Academy Award nomination for his direction of "GoodFellas" in 1990, also enjoyed a big year on videodisc. A prominent advocate of film preservation, Scorsese had two of his movies, "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull," flawlessly transferred to laserdisc by the Criterion Collection. Both works were packaged in elaborate special editions, priced at $99.95 and $124.95, respectively, that provided insightful narration by Scorsese on the making of the film, as well as a wealth of supplementary material.
For "Raging Bull," the gritty biography of former middleweight champion Jake LaMotta, for example, it is possible to see actual footage of a LaMotta bout side by side with Scorsese's tightened, heightened version of the same fight, plus an analysis of the story boards illustrating the way each fight was mapped out for the film.
The most staggering array of special features, however, came in Criterion's release of Steven Spielberg's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" ($124.95). This edition enabled the viewer to re-create both the original and "special" editions of Spielberg's 1977 science fiction film, and provided a virtual encyclopedia of up-to-the-minute laser technology in the supplementary material of interviews and film clips provided at the end of the movie.
Warner Home Video made its contribution to a banner laserdisc year with the release of "The James Dean Collection" ($119.92), marking the 35th anniversary of the young actor's death. The five-disc package included letterboxed versions of "East of Eden" and "Rebel Without a Cause."
Director Vincente Minnelli was another movie master who received excellent treatment of his films on laserdisc, thanks to the growing practice of letterboxing movies that had been shot in a wide-screen format.
For the first time in a video format, it was possible to see on the MGM/UA releases the sweeping Cinemascope compositions and vivid colors that were meticulously created in "Lust for Life" ($39.98), the heated, fictionalized biography of Vincent Van Gogh that Minnelli directed in 1956. And with "Gigi" ($34.98), in addition to the stunning restoration of the 1958 Oscar-winning musical's wide-screen decor, there was especially splendid stereophonic sound, which dynamically projected the lush orchestrations made for the ebullient songs fashioned by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe.
Letterboxing also served well the distinctive, operatic Westerns produced in the 1960s by director Sergio Leone, another maestro of the wide screen. "A Fistful of Dollars" ($39.98), the first of the "spaghetti Westerns" made with Clint Eastwood as their star, and "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" ($39.98), the third and final work of Leone's Eastwood Westerns, were released by MGM/UA uncut and in their original wide-screen format, greatly enhancing their power and beauty.
The laserdisc movement produced several excellent releases of films made in the silent era. Of these, the supreme example was "The General" (Image Entertainment, $49.95), transferred to disc from an original nitrate print of Buster Keaton's marvelous silent comedy about a brave little engineer in the Civil War.
The new edition had the benefit of a bright new score by composer Carl Davis and a picture so crisp and clear that it appeared as if the 1926 film's spectacular action sequences had been filmed just yesterday.
Other treats of the year included the immaculate letterbox edition of "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" (Touchstone, $39.95), a similarly sleek copy of Woody Allen's "Annie Hall" (Criterion, $49.95), and a near-pristine transfer of director Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life" (Republic Pictures, $34.95), which, among all the many versions available on disc and tape, emerged as the finest copy of the Christmastime classic.VIDEO QUESTION
Q: I know there are plenty of books that tell what movies are on tape, but how can I find out which are also on laserdisc?
A: There are an estimated 5,000 movies and other programs on laserdisc. One good reference book is called Laser Video File, published twice a year and included in the box with some new laserdisc players. It can be ordered from Laser Video File, Box 828, Westwood, NJ 07675. The cost is $3.50. - Andy Wickstrom (Knight-Ridder)