THE DVD SHELF: Restored "Godfather"; TV's "Pushing Daisies"; Disney's "Beauty"

News   THE DVD SHELF: Restored "Godfather"; TV's "Pushing Daisies"; Disney's "Beauty" This month we screen the grandly-restored five-DVD "Godfather: The Coppola Restoration"; the expanded new 50th Anniversary DVD of Disney's "Sleeping Beauty"; plus a quirky new TV series.
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There was a time, and not so long ago, when "an offer you can't refuse" might be something as innocuous as chocolate or vanilla, menthol or filter tip, or coffee, tea or me. This changed, and how, with the 1969 publication of Mario Puzo's novel "The Godfather," and even moreso with Francis Ford Coppola's 1972 film version. An invitation to purchase The Godfather: The Coppola Restoration [Paramount] — including "The Godfather," "The Godfather Part II" and "The Godfather Part III," along with a trunk load of extras — is not an offer you can't refuse, exactly; but if you haven't watched the first two installments recently, you might well want to do so. What you get are what are generally considered to be two of the best films of modern times, and in a cleaned up and dusted off condition that makes the prior video and DVD releases look faded and forlorn. These films needed restoring; by putting Mr. Coppola in charge, the work has been done to the high standards that he apparently demands.

The first film of the series was an immense blockbuster, and deservedly so. The second movie, which came along two years later, broke tradition by calling itself simply "The Godfather Part II." What kind of a sequel doesn't take a new title? Wouldn't unsophisticated moviegoers think that they'd already seen it, perhaps expecting that it was merely an expanded edition of the first? Well, it worked out okay, which is the reason why we have so many numbered sequels nowadays. Part II might not be quite as special as the original, but it's close enough. What's more, the latter joined the former as winner of the Best Picture Oscar, which is the only time a sequel has won; Part II also doubled the Oscar total, taking six statuettes to the original's three. And "The Godfather Part III," which came along in 1990? Well, you can't win 'em all. The final film was more manufactured than inspired, a business proposition rather than an artistic statement. Still, coming from Coppola and featuring three key members of the earlier films supplemented by some crusty newcomers, the last of the trio makes a watchable finale.

But take yourself back to 1972. Think of walking into a new, big budget motion picture and being presented with the virtually unknown trio of Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, and Diane Keaton. They weren't unknown, exactly. Pacino, in fact, already had a Tony Award (which didn't count for much in big-budget Hollywood), as best featured actor for Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie? (Among the Tony nominees Pacino beat out in 1969 was Richard Castellano, who also created one of the memorable roles — Pete Clemenza, the roly-poly caporegime — in "The Godfather." Also losing the Tony that year, over in the featured actress category, was Ms. Keaton.)

The nominal star of "The Godfather" was decidedly from the old school: Marlon Brando, whose excesses by that point made him almost unemployable. (Coppola had to fight the studio to get Marlon.) Brando had limited screen time in the film, but his was a dominating presence; enough to earn him the Best Actor Oscar. But it is not Brando to whom we're riveted. Sitting watching the first two "Godfather" films, we see Pacino and Robert De Niro (who played Brando's role as a young man in the second film, winning an Oscar of his own in the process). Consider the impact these two have had on the cinema of the last 35 years, and then marvel at the freshness of these early performances. The above-mentioned actors are joined by Talia Shire (sister of Coppola, then-wife of David Shire), John Casale, Abe Vigoda, and Sterling Hayden in "The Godfather." The second film brings in two Actors Studio colleagues of Pacino with riveting performances, teacher Lee Strasberg and actor/playwright Michael V. Gazzo (author of A Hatful of Rain). Both received featured Oscar noms, losing to De Niro. Part III brings in even more top notch actors, including Eli Wallach and Joe Mantegna.

Coppola provided a DVD's worth of extras for the 2001 release of the three-film set. He has now provided a second bonus DVD for the "Coppola Restoration." While many of the DVD re-releases that come along are content to scrape together whatever bonuses they can scrape together, Mr. Coppola has clearly stepped back into his "Godfather" frame of mind for this one. The older bonuses are interesting, and the 2008 features even moreso, making this five-DVD box of more than casual note. Although the growth of Al Pacino — the bright young stage actor of 1972, transformed into the iconic movie star of 1990 — provides more than enough reason to sit down and watch all three parts of "The Godfather."

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If network television has not been favoring us with much to keep our interest of late, they do turn out an occasional series that captures our attention. Such is the case with Pushing Daisies [Warner], which premiered last October but was cut short by the Writers Guild strike. They wound up with a nine-episode season, and are now merrily embarking on their second. "Pushing Daisies" is of interest to theatre fans due to transplanted Broadwayites Kristin Chenoweth, Jim Dale and Swoosie Kurtz. The leading players are Lee Pace and Anna Friel, both of whom are attractive and effective and do an expert job with their unconventional roles; but didn't you tune in, in the first place, to see what Kristin and Swoosie were up to? What one found, pretty much immediately, was that creator/writer/producer Bryan Fuller has a weird and delectable sense of fantasy. The daisies that are being pushed are the kind that appear once you are six feet under them; Fuller's world is one where death is just the beginning of life's mystery, or at least the mystery of that week's episode. The writing, the characters, the design and the humor all fall somewhere between "Blue Velvet" and "Twin Peaks," which is a pretty effective neighborhood for viewers with a healthy (or unhealthy) sense of humor and an advanced sense of the macabre.

Ms. Chenoweth, who from time to time can be a little too much for some tastes, is in fine form here: feisty, impossible and self-puncturing. She gets to act her little villainous heart out and sing, too; it's that kind of world that Mr. Miller has created. Ms. Kurtz, as a retired synchronized swimmer with an eyepatch, is as always arresting; she has only to blink with her one good eye (does the one good eye change from time to time?) to steal attention. She is paired with Ellen Greene, a singer who has occasionally trod the Broadway boards (most notably as the legendary Rachael Lily Rosenbloom, whose eponymous musical closed during previews back in 1973 and was quite a sight to see) and is better known for her chores at the Little Shop of Horrors. Kurtz and Greene make a wacky pair, all right, while Chenoweth and Greene provide a musical comedy presence. Jim Dale is on hand, too, as the ever-present narrator.

Mr. Fuller's outlandish little world is infectiously irresistible and quite juicy. The first season, nine episodes on three DVDs, is accompanied by one bonus, "Pie Time – Time for Pie," which is described as a "Delicious Interactive Featurette with Flavorful, Fresh-Baked Pie Slices as Your Entrée and Cast/Creative Team Members Dishing Forkfuls of Series Secrets." It's that kind of sensibility over at The Pie Hole, the central setting for "Pushing Daisies," and a wacky world it is that Mr. Fuller has created.

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Disney's policy of reissuing, withdrawing, and re-reissuing their classic animated movies provides a natural marketing incentive to continually upgrade their wares. In preparing their 50th Anniversary Platinum Edition DVD of Sleeping Beauty [Disney], they have gone back to the original materials and really reconstructed things. As far as I understand, which is not very far, the preparation of the Blu-Ray edition caused them not only to clean up things but expand the shots. Details on the side of the frames, which were cropped out of the film as it was presented in 1959 and issued on prior VHS and DVD releases, are now restored. Disney claims, accurately so, that you are now seeing more of "Sleeping Beauty" than ever before. This applies both to the regular DVD as well as the Blu-Ray Edition. This makes an immense difference to eager fans of the film, who no doubt already have "Sleeping Beauty" on video, laser, DVD and who knows what other media. Watching the new release, I am surprised to realize that I haven't seen the thing — at all — since it originally opened when I was a child of six. I have seen plenty of Disney over the years, but this is one that I have somehow missed. I report, further, that it is pretty good.

"Sleeping Beauty" seems to be something of a variation on "Snow White," one of the finest of the Disney group, crossed with a wee bit of "The Wizard of Oz." Which makes for an entertaining mix.

The heroine is slightly on the bland side, perhaps, but she isn't given much to do. The stars of the movie, entertainment-wise, are a trio of middle-aged sprites called Flora, Fauna and Merryweather. (If Disney ever gets around to a stage "Sleeping Beauty," and I'm not suggesting that they do, they need only cast Elaine Stritch, Barbara Cook, and Bea Arthur in the roles and they'll have their biggest crowdpleaser since The Lion King.) These old gals — the screen ones, not Elaine, Barbara and Bea — provide enough humor, for the adults in the audience as well as the kids, to make the thing a delightful 75 minutes.

What "Sleeping Beauty" doesn't have, compared to many of the other animated features in the stable, is a score that stands on its own. George Bruns effectively adapted tunes from Tchaikowsky's ballet for use as underscoring and the occasional song. A couple of real songwriters, Sammy Fain (who wrote songs for Disney's "Alice in Wonderland" and "Peter Pan") and Jack Lawrence, provided the big ballad, "Once Upon a Dream," which is similarly drawn from old Peter Ilyich. But the music is mostly incidental, unlike in such favorites as "Snow White" and "Pinocchio."

Bonus features are many, with Disney providing a second DVD's worth as is their habit. Included are an alternate opening; deleted songs; a "Making of 'Sleeping Beauty'" feature; a "Once Upon a Dream" music video (performed by Emily Osment of "Hannah Montana"); a virtual tour of the "Sleeping Beauty" castle; and even an enchanted dance game, in which those furry forest creatures will teach you, too, how to dance.

(Steven Suskin is author of "Second Act Trouble," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)