Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: Stand by Me: Special Edition (1986)
Studio Line: Columbia TriStar

Four adolescent boys come of age in this Stephen King story. When a young boy is reported missing, they find his body and learn about themselves along the way.

Director: Rob Reiner
Cast: Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, Jerry O'Connell, Kiefer Sutherland
Academy Awards: Nominated for Best Screenplay, 1987.
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9, standard 1.33:1; audio English Digital Mono, French, Spanish & Portuguese Digital Mono; subtitles English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, Thai; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 28 chapters; 88 min.; rated R; $29.95; street date 8/29/00.
Supplements: Director Rob Reiner Audio Commentary; "Walking The Tracks: The Summer Of Stand By Me" Making-Of Featurette with New Interviews with Stephen King; Isolated Music Score; Music Video "Stand By Me"; Theatrical Trailer; Talent Files; Production Notes.
Purchase: DVD | Music soundtrack - Various Artists

Picture/Sound/Extras: B+/B-/B-

"Coming of age" movies are a dime a dozen because the format seems so simple. Hey, everybody had a childhood, so why not dream up a story based on yours? That premise inspires tons of films and books, but unfortunately few of these ring true; most fall into the crass and cheesy category.

Rob Reiner's 1986 hit Stand By Me is one of the few that essentially gets it right. It's a little unusual in that most of these sorts of films tend to deal with later adolescence and sexual matters; late teen years dominate the field, mostly because those give the filmmakers an excuse to feature some nudity ala Porky's. However, SBM shows a group of four 12-year-old boys who are making the transition between childhood and adolescence and it nicely translates the highs and lows of that period.

Adapted from a story by Stephen King, SBM shows the kids as they attempt to find a dead body; a youngster has disappeared but they have some apparently good information about the whereabouts of the corpse. With dreams of accolades in their heads, these four set out on a trek to get to the body first.

Of course, the dead kid is just a "McGuffin" - although the film seems to be concerned with the corpse, it's really just an excuse to gets these kids in soul-searching mode at this crucial time in their lives. The film takes place immediately prior to the start of seventh grade, an event that apparently spells doom for the tight foursome since they won't be in all the same classes any longer. SBM takes these factors and combines them into the action we witness during the boys' two-day hike to find the dead youngster.

While parts of the movie seem a little forced, as we find a little too many events that trigger the kids' "hot buttons" - only one of the four doesn't have a scene in which they get to do the "serious emotions" thing - I still felt it balanced some serious topics with the inherent frivolity and silliness of that age. Since the movie takes place in 1959, clearly the references are dated, but the tone hasn't aged a day; boys still act in the same goofy and crude ways all these years later, and Reiner aptly captures that mood.

Though the film lacks much of a plot, the interaction between the four principals seems strong enough to keep it moving at a solid pace. A few moments seem tacked on and somewhat gratuitous; for example, the "pie eating contest" story told by Gordy (Wil Wheaton) is entertaining but I thought it disrupted the flow of the piece. However, most of the events appear to serve the story and they advance it well.

All four of the leads - Wheaton, River Phoenix, Jerry O'Connell and Corey Feldman - provide very solid performances. Frankly, I can't say that any of them stand out, though O'Connell seems the most engaging; perhaps this is because his role is the slightest of the four and he functions mainly as comic relief. In any case, he does so winningly and makes an underwritten part more fun and compelling than it should be.

In that regard, I felt SBM could have used more depth. The relationships the kids have with their families are examined to a degree but not with any thoroughness, and I still found it tough to tell what made the boys tick. In some ways, this lack of exploration works well; the movie felt like it had too many "strong emotions" scenes anyway. However, I couldn't help but wonder about the familial dynamics a bit more and I wish they'd receive greater examination.

Nonetheless, I like Stand By Me. It doesn't qualify as Reiner's best work - he'll never approach This Is Spinal Tap - but it let him start a move from pure comedies to more subtle, human material. Frankly, I'm not sure that was a positive change, since so many of his later films have been pretty bad - The Story Of Us, anyone? - but SBM creates a generally positive piece that offers a nice look at an interesting time in boys' lives.

The DVD:

Stand By Me appears in its original theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Although the picture presents a few minor flaws, for the most part it looks pretty terrific.

Sharpness seems uniformly crisp and clear, with almost no instances of softness to be found. Moiré effects and jagged edges also didn't rear their ugly heads for most of the film, and I witnessed only minor artifacts from the anamorphic downconversion on my 4X3 TV. The print itself showed mild grain at times and I also saw occasional speckles and white blotches, but these didn't seem significant.

SBM maintains a subdued palette, but the colors appeared accurate and neatly saturated, without any signs of fading, bleeding or noise. Black levels were dark and rich, and shadow detail seemed clear and lacked any excessive heaviness to obscure parts of the image in low-light situations. Only the mild print flaws kept this picture from earning at least an "A-", as the movie presents a very solid image.

Also good is the monaural soundtrack of SBM, though I felt it necessary to deduct some points due to the fact it only offered one channel; mono sound is extremely unusual for such a recent movie. Nonetheless, the quality of the audio seemed very strong. Dialogue appeared natural and distinct, with no concerns related to intelligibility or edginess. Effects are crisp and clear and lack any distortion. Music only appears sporadically during the film and maintains a quiet presence most of the time but the songs seemed smooth and well-reproduced. I didn't feel comfortable offering SBM anything higher than a "B-" simply because of the monaural nature of the sound, but rest assured that the audio seems clear and clean throughout the film.

SBM packs in a few nice supplements. First up is an audio commentary from director Rob Reiner. I've heard a few of these tracks from Reiner and found them to be fairly dry; his remarks during Criterion's treatment of This Is Spinal Tap were decent but his discussion of The Story of Us was almost as dull as the movie itself. Unfortunately, SBM does nothing to alter my impressions of Reiner's commentary style; this is another drab track. The piece features quite a few long pauses, and when Reiner speaks, it's usually to tell us that what we're seeing on screen was influenced by his childhood. That may sound good, as one might expect some interesting insights into his youth, and Reiner indeed provides a few compelling nuggets about his early life. However, the vast majority of the time he simply states that "My friends and I used to do that all the time" and provides no greater depth. I got the point very quickly and this made the commentary as a whole something of a drag.

Another audio feature appears as well: we get an isolated track with just the music on it. Since SBM features such a modest score and mostly offers songs from the era, I didn't think this program was all that valuable, and the fact the music plays in mono doesn't help. In any case, it's a decent addition for those who like such things.

Next up is a newly-created "featurette" about SBM. Titled "Walking the Tracks: The Summer of SBM", this -minute program offers interviews with Reiner, King, and actors Richard Dreyfuss, Wil Wheaton, Corey Feldman, Jerry O'Connell, and Kiefer Sutherland plus some film clips and a few production shots. It's a very solid documentary that offers a terrific look at the creation of the film. Even though Reiner repeats a lot of the material stated in his commentary, he seems more compelling within this tightly-edited environment, and the additional perspectives are invaluable. It's a coherent and taut show that added to my enjoyment of the film.

We get a music video for "Stand By Me" by Ben E. King. This clip features movie shots plus vintage performance footage of King intercut with some old photos of the singer and new (as of 1986) lip-synch material with him. The latter also includes Phoenix and Wheaton who participate in the performance to a minor degree. It's not a bad little piece.

A few minor extras round out the disc. There are the usual uninformative "Talent Files" that appear on most Columbia-Tristar DVDs; these include extremely rudimentary details about Reiner, King, Wheaton, Phoenix, Feldman, Sutherland and O'Connell. "Bonus Trailers" features promos for The Karate Kid and Fly Away Home, but no ad for SBM appears. "Soundtrack" provides a static screenshot that tells us the soundtrack is available from Atlantic Records. Finally, the DVD's booklet includes some brief but informative production notes.

Stand By Me isn't perfect, but I thought it offered a nice look at an interesting time of life. The film is well-acted and rings true. The DVD provides very strong picture, modest but accurate sound, and a few good supplements. It's a solid movie that would make a nice addition to your collection.

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