I got a CD-ROM drive a couple of months ago. It's pretty neat, but I don't use it much. I mean, some of the discs are glories to behold, but I don't use them, not on a daily, this-thing-is-part-of-my-life basis. Not yet, anyway. I figure I'm the audience the CD-ROM industry has to win over if it wants to appeal to anybody other than boltheads who really have to shoot aliens or play Frodo every day of their stunted lives.
One batch of CD-ROMs that could change that are the video guides-discs that provide plot synopses, reviews, filmographies, and multimedia gimmicks such as film clips and soundtracks. How ironic: The technology that may eventually kill off the videotape industry is for now benignly helping you decide which tapes to watch. For the meantime, let's just spin some of these babies and separate the useful ones from the shovelware.
Top of the class is Cinemania '94, for two simple reasons: It's designed well, and it's a class act (a third reason: A Mac version will finally be available in May). The interface-the on-screen road map that leads you from section to section-feels undweeby; best of all, everything's hooked up to everything else. You can navigate around the database of almost 20,000 films by genre, cast, director, Oscars, and so forth, or go over to the ''Multimedia Gallery'' and watch classic-film clips, listen to snippets of dialogue or musical scores, or check out photos of the famous and the obscure.
But what makes this the ticket for serious movie fans is the high quality of the commentary. Cinemania lets you access reviews from Leonard Maltin's Movie and Video Guide (peppy, trustworthy), Pauline Kael's 5001 Nights at the Movies (slangy, highbrow), Roger Ebert's Video Home Companion (thoughtful, pomp-ous), and Baseline's Motion Picture Guide (faceless, detailed)-not to mention biographical entries from Ephraim Katz's Film Encyclopedia. Come to think of it, rummaging around in this CD-ROM is more entertaining than a lot of movies.
If you're a casual videophile who just wants ideas on what to rent, Movie- Select may be more your speed. The cookie-cutter plot outlines give no flavor to the 44,000 video titles covered, and the film-clip section offers only trailers of recent Paramount hits like, uh, Coneheads. But there's an interactive section that recommends movies based on ones you already like, and the results, while predictable, aren't half bad. (Then again, one of my coworkers entered the manly GoodFellas, Glengarry Glen Ross, and Reservoir Dogs and ended up with a list that included The Way We Were, Mary of Scotland, and The Boys in the Band. Maybe the CD-ROM knows something he doesn't.)
VideoHound Multimedia, an option that falls between the above two, is a well-intentioned CD-ROM that just misses the mark. Like Cinemania, it cross-references titles by a number of useful categories (such as MPAA rating and laserdisc availability). But the kludgy interface requires you to punch up separate screens to view a given film's plot synopsis, credits, and reviews-Cinemania gets almost everything on one screen-and the biography section is taken from the current Who's Who in Hollywood, so you can read about Johnny Depp but not Humphrey Bogart, Ron Howard but not Alfred Hitchcock. Still, the minds behind this package know and love movies, so you could do worse.
You could buy MegaMovie Guide, although giving your money to strangers on the street would have the same effect. Astonishingly cynical, this package brags about covering 60,000 titles, which sounds great until you realize that many of the entries aren't just duplicates but triplicates and quadruplicates-in several languages. Need three reviews of Key Largo-one of the black-and-white version, one of the colorized version, and one written in Spanish? Need two reviews of Dances With Wolves, one of which says it's 90 minutes long? How about a bio of Richard Burton that neglects to mention he's dead? Or a ''Greatest Hits of the 90s'' section that includes Regarding Henry? How about clips of ''classic'' movies like The Big Trees? The instruction booklet doesn't acknowledge where this mongrel of a database comes from, but if my CD-ROM drive had any taste, it would have spit the disc across the room. Maybe the next generation of machines should be sleaze-resistant. Cinemania: A MovieSelect: B- Videohound Multimedia: B Megamovie Guide: F