Wednesday, March 14, 2007

GRAND THEFT AUTO

Disney/Buena Vista has really dropped the ball when it comes to their handling of the Roger Corman film library. They acquired the movies last year with some industry fanfare, assuring Corman and his fans that the company was uniquely positioned to handle the DVDs better than any other studio. Well, a year later, the releases have slowed to a trickle, they continue to offer the titles in an unmatted, full-frame format, and seem determined to give each title the ugliest, most misleading cover art imaginable.

Case in point: Ron Howard’s 1977 directorial debut, the light-hearted car crash comedy GRAND THEFT AUTO, which has been packaged as a FAST AND THE FURIOUS clone and labeled as a "Tricked Out Edition." Sigh.

In 1976, actor Ron Howard, who was then starring in the hit sitcom HAPPY DAYS, played the lead in a low-budget, rural car chase movie for Roger Corman entitled EAT MY DUST. The movie was hugely successful on the drive-in circuit, and Corman wanted an immediate follow-up in the same vein. Howard was agreeable – but only if Corman allowed him to direct the movie as well. Corman agreed. Immediately, Ron and his father, veteran character actor Rance Howard, began to put together the script for a fast-paced, funny car chase flick they called GRAND THEFT AUTO.

Here’s the plot: young Sam (Howard) and Paula (Nancy Morgan) are madly in love and want to get married. Unfortunately, Paula’s wealthy parents object – they intend for her to marry rich, spoiled Bigby Powers (Barry Cahill) instead. Paula’s the headstrong type though, and after storming out of her parents’ house, she and Sam steal the family’s Rolls Royce and head for Las Vegas to elope. Paula’s father puts a $25,000 bounty on his daughter, and soon the two young lovers find themselves chased by a motley assortment of pursuers – including amateur bounty hunters, inept private eyes, various cops, an ambitious radio DJ in a helicopter, and Paula’s spurned fiancĂ©.

Of course the plot is just there to link the car stunts together, and it works marvelously. In fact, it’s great fun, with plenty of well-staged car crashes, comedic appearances by Ron’s whole family (or, at least, father Rance and brother Clint) and HAPPY DAYS mom Marion Ross, and even a little bit of pointed media satire.

The Buena Vista DVD presents the film in an unmatted, non-anamorphic full-frame 1.33:1 transfer that makes a mockery of Gary Graver’s fine cinematography, leaving far too much image information on the top and bottom of the screen. Picture quality is good, but there’s a bit of dirt and debris that probably could have been digitally cleaned up, if anyone had cared enough to do so. The audio’s been given a decent 5.1 Dolby Digital remix, and it sounds fine.

As for the "Tricked Out" extras, there’s a documentary called "A Family Affair" which is essentially an on-camera interview with Rance Howard and son Clint. Director/star Ron, however, is mysteriously and disappointingly absent. There’s a short introduction to the film by Roger Corman, and the amusing original theatrical trailer.

The best extra, though, is the audio commentary by Corman and Ron Howard, who clearly has fond and vivid memories of his directorial debut. Corman doesn’t contribute a whole lot to the discussion, but the two clearly are enjoying hanging out and watching the movie again, and they’re obviously proud of the film.

And they should be. It’s unassuming, funny, and damned entertaining. I recommend picking it up, even with Disney’s stupid packaging and substandard transfer.

BUY: Grand Theft Auto (Tricked Out Edition)