1/15/08 Edition -- The New AISLE SEAT BLOG Is Also Live

January Chill Edition
Warner Serves Up a PEANUTS DVD Treat
Plus: 3:10 TO YUMA, New Criterions & More

The battle for supremacy between the two high-definition DVD formats seemed to come to an end last week when Warner Bros exclusively jumped on-board the Blu Ray bandwagon, abandoning the HD-DVD format which they had been part of since the format’s inception. While Warner refuted rumors that they had been given some compensation for their move -- stating that sales numbers showed a clear preference for Blu Ray in the minds of consumers -- it was nevertheless a somewhat inexplicable decision given their previous “dual format” strategy and the amount of HD-DVD standalone players that were sold in the last two months of 2007. More than that, sales numbers of both formats continue to be sluggish, and one of the top high-definition titles -- “Planet Earth” -- which Warner released actually sold more units on HD-DVD than Blu-Ray!

There’s no question, though, that Blu-Ray is now in good shape -- at least in terms of its relationship with HD-DVD. Without Warner -- one of the only studios that has really embraced high-definition video and produced outstanding supplemental packages for both formats -- HD-DVD will struggle to survive, which is a shame since the format has certain elements that Blu-Ray is only just beginning to iron out (like internet connectivity), and was able to be priced considerably under Blu-Ray in terms of both hardware and software...all the while providing as outstanding a viewing experience as its more expensive brethren. Indeed, had this been a “format war” waged on an even playing field with the same titles available in both formats, HD-DVD would have won on price and performance alone.

Yet with Warner onboard, and seemingly no response from Toshiba’s HD-DVD camp, Blu-Ray is poised to capture the HD-based optical wars, though one wonders what the long road ahead will have in store for the format. Blu-Ray hardware remains prohibitively more expensive (the PS3 is still priced at $399 and the best BD standalone, the Panasonic BD30, runs over that), and is likely to remain well over the level that HD-DVD players were discounted at this past year. More over, without any competition from HD-DVD, it’s unlikely that there will be any incentive to run the sorts of consumer-friendly sales we saw in 2007. Software prices are likely to remain at their current levels and while one can see hardware prices somewhere in the $200-$300 range for lower-end Blu-Ray machines, we’re a long way from seeing the “magic price point” that the masses will find appealing.

It’s the latter aspect that has to trouble BD backers as we move ahead, and it would be the same situation had HD-DVD been the “victor” here. Mainstream consumers have expressed little interest in either format in relation to standard DVD, while some analysts feel the future lies with digital delivery (downloads, video-on-demand) for HD content -- and that consumers who were so reluctant to jump onboard regular DVD years ago after years of VHS will feel the need to change formats again...especially when the difference between DVD and high-definition DVD isn’t the leap that VHS to DVD was.

It’s something we’ll be keeping an eye on in the months ahead, and rest assured we’ll cover it all -- no matter what format we happen to be reviewing!

New From Criterion

Among the new additions to the Criterion Collection this month are an Agnes Varda box-set and an edition of Lindsay Anderson’s “This Sporting Life.”

4 BY AGNES VARDA offers a quartet of Varda’s mest renowned works, including “La Pointe Courte” (1954, 80 mins.), “Cleo From 5 to 7" (1961, 89 mins.), “Le Bonheur” (1964, 80 mins.), and “Vagabond” (1985, 105 mins.). Extras are abundant, from three other shorts Varda produced between 1958 and 1961, documentaries on the production of each film, extensive interviews, trailers, archival footage of Varda discussing her career in a French television program, and a foreword from the director prior to each film. Transfers are in their original 1.66 widescreen aspect ratios (except for “La Pointe Courte,” which is presented in full-frame), making this a must for French cinema aficionados and Varda devotees most especially.

Anderson’s 1963 debut film, THIS SPORTING LIFE (134 mins.) is rightly regarded as one of the greatest British films of the ‘60s, starring Richard Harris as a rugby player who falls for a widower (Rachel Roberts) in working class Yorkshire. Taut performances, a strong sense of time and place mark this appropriately gloomy early work from Anderson, which Criterion is newly issuing on DVD in a double-disc set offering a commentary track from Anderson historian Paul Ryan and screenwriter David Storey, plus a 2004 BBC Scotland documentary on Anderson, an interview with Anderson’s first producer Lois Sutcliffe Smith, Anderson’s documentary short “Meet the Pioneers” (1948) and a 1952 short “Wakefield Express,” concerning the town that served as the setting for the film; and Anderson’s final film, “Is That All There Is,” from 1993. The 1.66 transfer is strong and the package strongly recommended.

Finally there’s Swedish filmmaker Alf Sjoberg’s MISS JULIE (1951, 90 mins.), an adaptation of August Strindberg’s 1888 play about a businessman’s daughter who crosses classes when she gets involved with his servant. Censored in the U.S. due to its mature content at the time, Criterion’s restored DVD offers a video essay from historian Peter Cowie, an archival interview with Sjoberg, a 2006 documentary about the play, the trailer, and additional essays and notes.

New This Week

BE MY VALENTINE, CHARLIE BROWN (***, 75 mins. total, 1967-77; Warner): After many years with Paramount, the beloved Peanuts franchise has moved to Warner Home Video for a new series of DVDs, starting this week with a remastered presentation of "Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown," along with one of the first Charlie Brown specials -- 1967's "You're In Love, Charlie Brown" -- and the 1977 effort "It's Your First Kiss, Charlie Brown."

While the three specials offered here are identical to the roster included on the prior Paramount DVD, Warner’s effort is a huge improvement in every way. Colors are not only a little warmer, but the transfer is sharper and much clearer; when I placed the older Paramount DVD on for a comparison, it was immediately apparent how much more satisfying the Warner remastering is. Now, that doesn’t mean there still aren’t some issues with the original animation (and Warner thankfully hasn’t applied too much noise reduction to smooth over the image, either), but the result is a transfer that’s been freshly restored instead of looking like it’s been derived from an older video master by comparison. The sound, also, seems much more vibrant than its predecessor as well.

As far as the content goes, "It's Your First Kiss, Charlie Brown" was one of the first specials I actually recall seeing as a young child. Watching it again on DVD, I can see why some Peanuts purists objected to the story, which focuses on Charlie Brown escorting the "little red-headed girl" to a dance following a big school football game. While there are some laughs here, Charles M. Schulz's story actually gives the red-headed girl a name (Heather) and shows her on-screen -- thus losing some of the mystery behind Charlie Brown's lifelong crush, but still resulting in a pleasant enough special. The music by Ed Bogas and Judy Munsen, alas, lacks the magic of Vince Guaraldi, but works well enough in the concluding moments.

"Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown" is a cute, though not especially memorable, 1975 effort with Charlie Brown watching in angst as his classmates trade cards and tokens on Valentine's Day. Vince Guaraldi's score – one of his last -- is pleasant, but the big surprise on the DVD is the inclusion of "You're In Love, Charlie Brown," one of the earlier Peanuts specials and, in some ways, one of the best. Essentially a collection of skits linked together through CB's attempts at communicating with the red-headed girl before summer vacation, this is a smart and poignant episode, marked by one of Guaraldi's best scores for all the Peanuts shows.

Another benefit to Warner’s involvement is that Peanuts fans can look forward to extras on these new discs. The Valentine’s DVD only includes one featurette, “Unlucky in Love: An Unrequited Love Story,” but it’s a keeper: a 15-minute segment featuring interviews with producers Lee Mendelson and Phil Roman, Charles Schultz’s wife Jean, son Craig, and various cartoonists, all recounting the honesty of Schultz’s story and where this particular special fits within the Peanuts legacy.

It’s a fitting tribute on a superb disc, one that nicely kicks off Warner’s line of Peanuts DVDs. Next up: “It’s the Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown,” due out roughly a month from now.

New on Blu-Ray and DVD

3:10 TO YUMA: Blu-Ray and DVD (***, 122 mins., 2007, R; Lionsgate): Rock-solid adaptation of the Elmore Leonard sagebrush saga, previously brought to the screen in the 1957 Glenn Ford-Van Heflin rendition. Director James Mangold’s version pits Christian Bale as the staunchly moral rancher who joins a group of his fellow townspeople in escorting outlaw Russell Crowe to justice in the form of a train to the state prison. Gorgeous cinematography -- which looks spectacular on Blu-Ray -- is the film’s strongest asset, along with the performances of both Bale and particularly Crowe, who has a field day as the charismatic, conniving “bad guy.” That said, the film still feels a bit on the long side, with a disappointing climax putting the damper on what might have been a classic genre entry. Still worth watching, though, particularly in high-definition, where Lionsgate’s 1080p transfer is utterly marvelous. Every aspect of the scenery is breathtakingly rendered on Blu-Ray, along with a strong uncompressed 7.1 PCM soundtrack that captures Marco Beltrami’s score -- one which has a few noticeably “Goldsmith-ian” flourishes at various points. Supplements are ample across both Blu-Ray and standard DVD, including commentary from Mangold, deleted scenes, Making Of featurettes, a segment on the music and interactive HD menus.

GOOD LUCK CHUCK: Blu-Ray and DVD (**½, 101 mins., 2007, Unrated; Lionsgate): Not-bad raunchy comedy with Dane Cook as a bachelor who meets and falls for gorgeous Jessica Alba – who has more than a small streak of bad luck going for herself. The requisite gross-out humor is partially off-set here by game performances from Cook and Alba, making “Good Luck, Chuck” a bit more than typical Farrelly Brothers fare. Lionsgate’s DVD looks fine, the Blu-Ray release is even more impressive (as is the 7.1 PCM audio), with both releases offering commentary from Cook and director Mark Helfrich, deleted and/or alternate scenes, music montages, and seven Making Of featurettes.

WAR: Blu-Ray and DVD (*½, 103 mins., 2007, R; Lionsgate): Tepid thriller wastes the talents of Jason Statham (as an FBI agent) and Jet Li (the assassin he’s after) in a slow-moving production that barely clicks into gear other than a few set-pieces in the second half. Lionsgate’s DVD presentation is fine and the Blu Ray disc even better, offering a 7.1 PCM soundtrack and extras including a scoring featurette with composer Brian Tyler, a gag reel, deleted scenes, Making Of featurettes and both a visual and audio commentary from the writers and directors.

MAN ON FIRE: Blu-Ray (*, 146 mins., 2004, R; Fox): Typically over-directed Tony Scott mess, an adaptation of an A.J. Quinnell novel first brought to the screen (to equally disastrous results) in a 1987 film with Scott Glenn, Brooke Adams, Danny Aiello, and Joe Pesci.

Following a rash of kidnappings, Denzel Washington plays an ex-mercenary hired by parents Marc Anthony and Radha Mitchell to watch over their precocious little girl (Dakota Fanning) in Mexico City. Despite Washington's best efforts, Fanning is kidnapped by a group of thugs tied to Anthony's prior dealings, and Denzel quickly turns Rambo in a one-man assault at getting her back.

You'd think someone might have learned from the original "Man On Fire" and not bothered producing another rendition of its source, but director Tony Scott and writer Brian Helgeland apparently thought their film would have improved upon its predecessor. After a watchable, if overlong, first hour, though, the 2004 "Man On Fire" becomes an utter disaster, totally wasting the talents of its cast in an ugly, endless vigilante saga that's the most self-indulgent yet of Scott's works. No matter what scene you're watching, Scott cuts away to another shot, inserts a special effect, throws subtitles on the screen (even when the characters are speaking English!), zooms in, zooms out, or cuts to something else altogether. The result is a mind-numbingly restless and unpleasant film that made moderate box-office bucks solely on Washington's reputation.

On the supplemental side the Blu Ray disc rolls snake eyes: incredible with 50GB’s of space they couldn’t even include the commentaries from the single-disc DVD, much less all the extras from the 2-disc Special Edition! The crisp AVC-encoded transfer and DTS-MA audio are potent, though, for those who care for the film.

New on HD-DVD

WHITE NOISE (**, 98 mins., 2005, PG-13; Universal)
WHITE NOISE 2 (**, 99 mins., 2007, PG-13; Universal): Both “White Noise” and its new direct-to-video sequel hit HD-DVD last week courtesy of Universal.

The original, moderately successful 2005 theatrical release stars Michael Keaton as a grieving widower who turns to investigator Ian McNeice in order to use EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomena) to contact his late wife.

“White Noise” stars off as a compelling piece with a strong performance by Keaton holding it together, but eventually flies off the tracks and culminates in an absurd conclusion that leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

“White Noise 2" is an in-name-only sequel with Nathan Fillion as a guy who loses his family but gains the ability to see an aura around people who are about to die. Despite fine work from Fillion and Kate Sackhoff, this Patrick Lussier-directed sequel (released theatrically in certain international territories) is a convoluted mess that shares little in common with its predecessor outside of another botched ending that negates what little suspense was generated before it.

Both movies look superb on HD-DVD in their VC-1 encoded transfers, and are each supported by active Dolby TrueHD soundtracks. Extras include a good amount of extras on “White Noise 2,” including deleted scenes and several featurettes in HD, while extras on the original “White Noise” are recycled from the prior Special Edition DVD and are comprised of deleted scenes, commentary, and “Do It Yourself” EVP featurettes.

THE PIANIST: HD-DVD (***½, 150 mins., 2003, R; Universal): Pianist-composer Wladyslaw Szpilman’s harrowing chronicle of his survival in the war-torn Warsaw ghetto during the Holocaust was brilliantly brought to the screen by director Roman Polanski, with Ronald Harwood adapting Szpilman’s autobiography. Adrien Brody’s Oscar-winning performance is outstanding, and the haunting visuals of the film are brought perfectly to HD-DVD by Universal. The VC-1 encoded transfer is impressive and the Dolby TrueHD audio equally potent, with fine extras ported over from the prior Special Edition, including a documentary on the film’s production and extensive cast and crew interviews.

MOBSTERS: HD-DVD (*½, 104 mins., 1991, R; Universal): Incredibly stilted, boring attempt to mix a chronicle of famous ‘20s gangsters with a youth formula established by “Young Guns” flopped at the box-office back in 1991 and hasn’t improved with time, either. Christian Slater IS Lucky Luciano (go figure) with Patrick Dempsey as Meyer Lansky, Richard Grieco as Bugsy Siegel and Costas Mandylor (he of the career that went nowhere) as Frank Costello in this slow-moving mob drama with cameos turned in by Michael Gambon, Anthony Quinn and F. Murray Abraham. Richard Sylbert’s production design is top-notch but there’s little here to recommend, not even with a fine VC-1 encoded transfer and Dolby TrueHD audio.

New on DVD

DEATH SENTENCE (*½, 106 and 111 mins., R and Unrated; Fox): Unpleasant, if skillfully executed, revenge thriller based on a ‘70s novel by Brian Garfield, author of “Death Wish.” Kevin Bacon gives a good performance as a father who takes the law into his own hands after his teen son is slain in a gang robbery; things get even worse once the thugs follow Bacon back home, resulting in yet another attack on his dwindling family. “Death Sentence” starts out fine, becomes reasonably compelling in its mid-section (with a terrific garage chase sequence, executed in one long take, by director James Wan), but then the wheels fall out from under during the picture’s latter stages, which turn pretentious and culminate in an unsatisfying, predictably blood-drenched climax. The movie’s conflicting messages are messy enough, but adding further insult to injury is John Goodman’s complete miscasting as one of the thugs’ fathers, a role that rates as the nadir of his career output. A (deserved) box-office casualty from last summer, Fox has released “Death Sentence” in a good looking 16:9 transfer with 5.1 audio, with short behind-the-scenes featurettes, a “Life After Film School” segment with Kevin Bacon, and both the R-rated theatrical cut and its extended Unrated version included on the single-platter release.

JOHN FRANKENHEIMER COLLECTION (MGM/Fox): Four-disc box-set offers previously-released versions of “Ronin,” “The Manchurian Candidate,” “The Train” and “The Young Savages.”

SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT (85 mins., 1986, R; MGM/Fox): Spike Lee’s first film -- following a young woman (Tracy Camila Johns) who chooses between Redmond Hicks, John Canada Terrell and Spike Lee himself -- hits DVD in a 1.66 transfer with mono sound from MGM. Extras are not on-hand for this particular “joint.”

IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT: 40th Anniversary Edition (***½, 110 mins., 1967; MGM/Fox): New Special Edition of Sidney Poitier-Rod Steiger classic offers a commentary with director Norman Jewison, Steiger, Lee Grant and cinematographer Haskell Wexler; a “Movie-Making in the ‘60s” featurette and two other segments, including one on the score by Quincy Jones; the original trailer; and a 16:9 (1.85) transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital audio.

NEXT TIME: The latest reviews and more news! Until then, don't forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards, check out the newly relaunched Aisle Seat Blog, and direct any emails to our email address. Cheers Everyone!

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