1/16/07 Edition

New Years Edition!
New Reviews from BLACK RAIN (HD) to Criterion's Latest
Plus: The Original WICKER MAN Returns, MILLION DOLLAR MYSTERY & More!

Happy New Year everyone!

2007 stands to be a pivotal one for the two high-definition DVD formats -- both of which we’ve covered here over the last few months.

Last week’s Consumer Electronics Show didn’t offer much in the way of revelations for fans of either format: Blu Ray trumpeted their upcoming titles while new, relatively more affordable HD-DVD players were announced by Toshiba. Warner Home Video, meanwhile, announced plans to release a single HD-DVD/Blu Ray “Combo” disc later in 2007 -- apparently in response to tepid sales of BOTH formats to date.

While many consumers may wait for the “format wars” to shake down (indeed, perhaps waiting for a “combo player” that can support both formats is a wise maneuver), a few new HD-DVD titles are due out this month from Paramount and Universal.

At the top of the list is one of the more noteworthy transfers I’ve seen from either format thus far: Ridley Scott’s top-notch 1989 thriller BLACK RAIN (***½, 125 mins., R; Paramount).

Paramount previously issued a Special Edition DVD of the Michael Douglas Japanese travelogue a couple of months ago, but now the studio’s HD-DVD edition hits store shelves this week in a sumptuous new 1080p presentation that blows the doors off all previous releases -- and shows how the advantages of a high-definition format can benefit a film with visual demands like “Black Rain.”

Like so many of Ridley Scott’s films, “Black Rain” offers contrasting shades of light and color, textures and shadows, making it difficult for home video to duplicate the film’s actual cinematic appearance. Previous video versions of “Black Rain” -- even the movie’s letterboxed laserdisc and initial DVD release -- were hazy and over-saturated, but now on HD-DVD, Jan DeBont’s cinematography is rendered so perfectly that there are times when you think the action is going to leap off the screen.

The colors, depth of background detail, and image clarity are simply eye-popping, doing justice to Scott’s eye for visual flair and adding what seems like a whole new layer to the movie. Visuals are a crucial part of Scott’s work as a filmmaker, and if this HD-DVD is any indication, the director’s output stands to benefit as much from high definition exhibition than any other director working today (I can’t wait to see what “Blade Runner” looks like, should an HD-DVD of the upcoming Special Edition be issued by year’s end).

Paramount’s HD-DVD also includes all the extras from the Special Edition DVD, including commentary from Scott and a multi-part Making Of offering interviews with Michael Douglas, Andy Garcia, Kate Capshaw, composer Hans Zimmer, Scott, and others (among the revelations: due to contractual obligations, Scott cut the film under two hours at one point, forcing Paramount execs to request he restore footage from a longer version since even they realized the shorter version was too much of a compromise). Produced by Laurent Bouzereau, this is the kind of comprehensive documentary one wishes we’d routinely encounter on disc, and the original trailer (in HD) puts a splendid cap on the entire package, presented here with 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus sound.

In a month that’s relatively quiet in terms of big-ticket video releases, “Black Rain” is hands down one of the best HD-DVD discs I’ve seen to date -- a feast for the eyes and hopefully a great taste of what’s to come for other Scott films in high-definition.

New Releases on DVD

THE NIGHT LISTENER (**½, 2006, 81 mins., R; Miramax/Buena Vista): Robin Williams plays a New York talk show host/author who develops a friendship with a troubled teenage boy played by Rory Culkin. Culkin has just authored a manuscript detailing his tragic past that’s been passed onto Williams by his literary agent friend (Joe Morton). Over time, though, Williams isn’t sure as to whether or not the boy and his guardian/social worker (Toni Collette) are legit, prompting the writer to head to Wisconsin to uncover the truth.

“The Night Listener” was based on a novel by San Fransisco writer Armistead Maupin, who used a real incident for the basis of his story. The resulting film -- scripted by Maupin, his ex-partner Terry Anderson, and director Patrick Stettner -- is a strange, almost unfinished-feeling character study that never takes full advantage of its intriguing premise and superb performances (Williams is remarkably restrained and Collette creepy to a tee). In spite of its eerie set-up, the movie seems as if it’s missing a third act completely and ends just when it starts to build a head of steam.

That said, “The Night Listener” is still worth a viewing: even in its current state, this is a creepy tale of deceit with dense psychological undertones and excellent performances that -- with a better and more effectively layered script -- could’ve been tremendously satisfying.

Miramax’s DVD includes one deleted scene (wisely cut from the theatrical version) introduced by the director, plus a fairly good examination of the true story that formed the basis for the film. The 16:9 (1.85) transfer is excellent and the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound effective, sporting a satisfying, low-key score by Peter Nashel. Recommended with some resevations.        

GRIDIRON GANG (***, 125 mins., 2006, PG-13; Sony): Top-notch inspirational drama (based on a true story) offers Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson the perfect opportunity to give a credible, satisfying dramatic performance. As a juvenile probation officer trying to better the lives of his detention camp charges, “The Rock” is heartfelt and believable in a story that hits all the required emotional notes but feels more genuine than most formula sports movies. Credit goes out to writer Jeff Maguire and director Phil Joanou for crafting a well-told tale based on the life of Sean Porter, who appears in end credit footage. Sony’s DVD offers deleted scenes, commentary, Making Of featurettes, a superior 16:9 (2.40) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital audio. Highly recommended!
BROKEN BRIDGES (**½, 2006, 104 mins., PG-13; Paramount): Entertaining cable-film from Country Music Televison (CMT) and Paramount gives country star Toby Keith a chance to act in this tale of a singer who returns to his small town after his brother’s death. Kelly Preston essays his former girlfriend, Burt Reynolds puts in an appearance as his father, and Willie Nelson pops up in this down-home, sincerely-made character study from director Steven Goldman. Paramount’s DVD includes Making Of segments and extensive interviews; 16:9 widescreen and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

FIDDLER ON THE ROOF: Special Edition (***½, 1971, 181 mins., G; MGM/Fox): Norman Jewison’s 1971 adaptation of the Bock-Harnick musical returns to DVD in a new, double-disc edition sporting a handful of new featurettes, including a 10-minute interview with John Williams, reflecting on his Oscar-winning underscore and song arrangements. Additional interviews with Jewison and all the extras from the previous Special Edition DVD (Topol and Jewison commentary; “Tevye’s Dream Sequence”) have been reprieved with the movie presented in 16:9 (2.35) widescreen and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound. A recommended upgrade for “Fiddler” aficionados.

COLOR OF THE CROSS (89 mins., 2006, PG-13; Fox): Jean Claude LaMarre stars, produced, directed, co-scored and co-wrote what’s touted to be the first film to portray Jesus as a black man. Sincere enough lead performances off-set uneven production values and shaky direction in this 89-minute effort from Blackchristianmovies.com, which Fox has distributed on DVD in a solid enough transfer with 16:9 (1.78) widescreen and 5.1 Dolby sound. Parents should note that, while “Color of the Cross” isn’t as explicit as Mel Gibson’s “Passion,” there are still some grizzly moments on-hand, enough to warrant a PG-13 rating.

LOVE’S ABIDING JOY (87 mins., 2006, PG; Fox): The fourth entry in author Janette Oke’s “Love Comes Softly” series of books about pioneer life on the early American prairie offers Erin Cottrell, Logan Bartholoew, and Dale Midkiff reprising their roles from director Michael Landon, Jr.’s prior installment, “Love’s Long Journey.” Fox’s DVD of this entertaining, family-friendly tale (though it IS depressing at times) includes 16:9 and full-screen transfers and 2.0 Dolby Stereo sound, the latter sporting another pleasant score by Kevin Kiner.     

THE MARINE (92 mins., 2006, Not Rated; Fox): Wrestler John Cena attempts to follow in The Rock’s footsteps in this hackneyed thriller about a Iraq veteran whose wife (Kelly Carlson) is kidnapped by nefarious jewel thief Robert Patrick. Standard-issue action in 1.85 (16:9) widescreen with Fox’s DVD offering both the theatrical cut and its Unrated video version on the same DVD along with plenty of featurettes and WWE promos. As exciting as it sounds...

UNDISPUTED II: LAST MAN STANDING (2007, 98 mins., R; New Line): Michael Jai White has taken over the old “Penitentiary” genre of prison boxing movies with this sequel to one of his direct-to-video faves. Plenty of old-school action is on-hand when a former U.S. heavyweight champ (guess who?) is framed and thrown into a cold, icy Russian prison, which houses its own version of Ivan Drago (played here by Scott Adkins). Solid action if you like this kind of thing, with New Line’s DVD offering a straight-up 16:9 (1.85) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

New Year Criterions

While some labels slow down during the month of January, Criterion is at it once again with a full line-up of sensational new titles.

This month’s most notable new release from the label is a double-feature re-issue of Akira Surosawa’s tremendous samurai classics YOJIMBO and SANJURO (1961-62, 110 and 96 mins., Criterion), starring Toshiro Mifune as Sanjuro, the wandering samurai who turns the tables on warring clans to his advantage in the original (a Dashiell Hammett reworking later remade as the Leone-Eastwood classic “A Fistful of Dollars” and Bruce Willis’ forgettable “Last Man Standing”). The sequel, meanwhile, is a bit breezier with more comedic elements, but it’s still a worthy companion to its predecessor.

Criterion’s new box-set is similar to their recent, excellent Special Edition of “The Seven Samurai”: both films have been remastered from high-definition elements and look markedly fresh in their original Tohoscope (2.35) aspect ratios, while the sound has been preserved in 3.0 Dolby Digital to simulate the original “Perspecta” simulated stereo effects (mono tracks are also available). Abundant extras include commentaries by historian Stephen Prince; documentary extracts from the “Toho Masterworks” series “Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful To Create”; new subtitles; and extensive booklet notes.

A new Criterion set that promises to be a favorite among Golden Age sci-fi fans is MONSTERS AND MADMEN, a four-disc collection of late ‘50s “B” movies that have a fairly potent rep among hard-core genre buffs.

Boris Karloff stars in two of the four entries: 1958's “The Haunted Strangler” (79 mins.) and his entertaining 1959 collaboration with co-star Christopher Lee, “Corridors of Blood” (87 mins.), with Karloff in fine form in both.

The sci-fi portion of the quadruple-header, meanwhile, includes the 72-minute, 1959 release “The Atomic Submarine” and the entertaining, if silly, 1959 effort “First Man Into Space” (1959, 77 mins.),which I had read about for years but never actually seen until this Criterion set. The latter offers a cautionary tale of an astronaut who returns home from outer space...as a bloodthirsty monster!

With the exception of “The Blob” and “Robinson Crusoe on Mars,” Criterion hasn’t released too many genre films over the years and particularly few on DVD, which makes this colorfully presented anthology so appealing for fans. An attractively designed box is complimented by digitally remastered transfers (in full-screen black-and-white), commentaries by producers Richard and Alex Gordon and historian Tom Weaver, trailers, and new video interviews with assorted cast and crew members. Recommended!

Also new from Criterion this month is Robert Bresson’s MOUCHETTE (1967, 81 mins.), the French auteur’s tragic tale of a young 14-year-old seeking solace in nature from the harsh world surrounding her. Criterion’s single-disc DVD includes a new digital transfer; commentary from Tony Rayns; a new, half-hour documentary about Bresson, “Au hasard Bresson”; the original trailer; a segment from the “cine-magazine TV series” Cinema; Jean-Luc Godard’s trailer; and an essay from Robnert Polito.

Finally there’s BORDER RADIO (1987, 83 mins.), a fairly unsatisfying early work from Allison Anders and her UCLA film school cohorts Dean Lent and Kurt Voss about a missing songwriter, a stash of cash, and the efforts of his wife, a writer, and some of his friends to find him.

“Border Radio” was a “postpunk diary” that stars Chris D. of the group Flesh Eaters as the lead, in a bizarre, black-and-white offering that almost plays like a student film (which, of course, it is to a degree). Still, if you’re a fan of the music you’ll probably enjoy Criterion’s DVD regardless, which boasts a pair of commentaries, a 2002 documentary, deleted scenes, a music video, and more. The movie was shot on a low-low budget in full-screen black-and-white, and the sound is monaural as well. For Flesh Eaters buffs only.

Recent and Upcoming From The Weinstein Company/Genius Products

SEVEN SWORDS (2005, 153 mins., Not Rated; Weinstein/Genius): Special edition of the popular 2005 Tsui Hark epic stars Donnie Yen in a “Seven Samurai” martial arts variation, properly presented here by Weinstein as part of their new “Dragon Dynasty” DVD line. Commentary from Hark and HK expert Bey Logan is on-hand, as are deleted and extended scenes, a Making Of featurette, other featurettes, interviews, trailers, 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital sound (in English and Cantonese/Mandarin) and English and Spanish subtitles.        

THE PROTECTOR (2006, U.S. [82m.] and International [108 mins.] versions, Weinstein/Genius): Tony Jaa’s athletic, “real” stunts fuel this crazy excuse for a movie (the fragmented story has something to do with Jaa protecting his village’s sacred elephants), which Weinstein has wisely released as a “Dragon Dynasty” double-disc package, sporting both the extremely short U.S. theatrical cut (only 82 minutes -- but with music by The RZA!) and the official international cut (109 minutes). Loads of extras include a deleted fight scene, a Making Of featurette, Bey Logan commentary and plenty more for all martial arts enthusiasts.

THE GATHERING (2002, 87 mins., R; Weinstein/Genius): Poor Christina Ricci can’t seem to catch a break anywhere (whatever happened to that weird-looking flick with her and Samuel L. Jackson, incidentally?). This competent but unremarkable chiller was filmed some six years ago (!) but is only now making its DVD debut in the U.S. from Weinstein -- and in a cut version at that (certain international variations run nearly 15 minutes longer). Alas, it’s doubtful extra footage would help director Brian Gilbert’s tale of a rural English village, a mysterious church, and Ricci’s backpacking American heroine. Ioan Gruffudd and Stephen Dillane co-star in a murky thriller that never really delivers the goods. Weinstein’s DVD offers up a standard 16:9 transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, the latter sporting a solid score by Anne Dudley. No extra features are on-hand.        

PREY (2006, 88 mins., Not Rated; Weinstein/Genius): Darrell James Roodt (director of “Cry, The Beloved Country”!) brings us this good-looking but standard-issue adventure of vacationers who run afoul of lions while being lost on an African game preserve. Peter Weller looks like he took the gig for the robust locales while Bridget Moynahan does enough screaming for the rest of the cast in this mediocre Anant Singh production. The Genius DVD looks solid in 16:9 widescreen and is capped by a fairly active 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack.

UNKNOWN (2005, 85 mins., Not Rated; Weinstein/Genius): Interesting little thriller about six folks who wake up imprisoned in a warehouse sounds a lot like “Saw,” but a top-notch cast (Jim Caviezel, Greg Kinnear, Barry Pepper, Jeremy Sisto, Peter Stormare, Joe Pantoliano, and Bridget Moynahan) helps put Simon Brand’s short (85 minutes) movie into the “worth a rental” category. Deleted and extended scenes are on-hand along with a 16:9 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

New From Anchor Bay

MOSAIC (72 mins., 2006, Anchor Bay)
LIGHTSPEED (88 mins., 2005, Anchor Bay): Stan “The Man” Lee has vacated Marvel and leased his name out to several independent features hoping to launch the next big super-hero. Sadly, the results of Lee’s efforts thus far have been anything BUT “super.”

The animated “Mosaic” is the comparatively better of Lee’s two new features, focusing on a young female student (voiced by Anna Paquin) who gains shapeshifting powers after a storm and a mysterious rune stone combine to work their magic. The animation is simplistic but this is a decent enough feature for young viewers, with Anchor Bay’s DVD including a nifty 16:9 transfer, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, interviews with Lee and director Roy Allen Smith, and a limited edition comic.

“Lightspeed,” meanwhile, is a total misfire -- a Sci-Fi Channel live-action premiere with Jason Connery as a secret agent who becomes a lightspeed-moving freak in order to battle a mutated terrorist named Python. Not even the presence of cute Nicole Eggert makes this fumbled vehicle work, with Anchor Bay’s bare-bones DVD offering a 1.78 (16:9) transfer and 2.0 Dolby Stereo sound. ‘Nuff said, indeed!        

MILLION DOLLAR MYSTERY (**, 1987, 94 mins., PG; Anchor Bay): One of the final releases from the DeLaurentiis Entertainment Group was this infamous comedy that also served as both a $1 million sweepstakes AND a feature-length promo for Glad trash bags! This “Mad, Mad, Mad World” variant is actually moderately entertaining in spite of its B-list cast (Rich Hall, Kevin Pollak, Eddie Deezen among them, with a cameo by Glad spokesman Tom Bosley), with Richard Fleischer’s competent direction and the widescreen scope stylings of cinematographer Jack Cardiff making this silly lark at least look good. Alas, the movie ends with mystery unsolved, though DEG’s fate was no mystery since they needed to pay out the sweepstakes winner -- at the same time failing to recoup that same sum at the box-office! Though the print looks like it was left out in the sun too long, Anchor Bay’s DVD offers a crisp 16:9 transfer and 2.0 “Ultra Stereo” sound, with a trailer included on the bonus end.

THE WICKER MAN: 2-Disc Special Edition (***, 88 mins., 1975, R; Anchor Bay): Recommended re-issue of the original “Wicker Man” Limited Edition DVD includes both the movie’s U.S. theatrical cut as well as its extended version in a new, double-disc release (albeit minus the old set's cool packaging). Commentary from Christopher Lee, Edward Woodward, and director Robin Hardy (moderated by Mark Kermode) and a documentary on the production are included on the supplemental side along with trailers, radio and TV spots. Maybe not as “classic” as its rep would lead you to believe, but fascinating nevertheless, and infinitely superior to last year’s botched Nicolas Cage remake.

Coming Soon: Documentaries & TV on DVD

JESUS CAMP (2006, 84 mins., Magnolia): Fascinating and sometimes disturbing account of an Evangelical Christian camp for kids, who display their reverence for the Lord with sometimes overly passionate zest. Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s controversial documentary tries to remain objective and certainly makes for a compelling 84 minutes. Magnolia’s DVD includes a full-screen transfer, deleted scenes, commentary, and 2.0 Dolby stereo sound.

COCAINE COWBOYS (2005, 118 mins., R; Magnolia): The true story of how Miami became the cocaine capital of the U.S. during the ‘70s and ‘80s makes for a fascinating documentary from director Billy Corben, who wisely recruited “Miami Vice” vet Jan Hammer to provide the score! Magnolia’s DVD includes deleted scenes, commentary from Corben, and other extras; the 1.78 widescreen transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound are both perfectly acceptable.

DALLAS: Complete Sixth Season (1982-83, 28 Episodes; Warner): While the big-screen version of “Dallas” continues to languish in development hell (John Travolta as J.R.??), Warner continues to release the original CBS/Lorimar series at a steady pace on disc. Season 6 of the long-running prime time soap hits DVD on January 30 with all 28 episodes uncut and intact, presented on five DVDs with a new featurette, “Power and Influence: The Dallas Legacy,” included on the supplemental side. Recommended for fans.

THE BIG VALLEY: Season Two, Volume 1 (1966, 15 Episodes; Fox): Fox’s second DVD release of the ‘60s western favorite “The Big Valley” may disappoint viewers since the studio has opted to split up the show’s second season into two separate volumes -- while charging as much for each volume as they did for the entire, complete first season! The presentation (15 episodes on three discs) is just fine but supplements are nowhere to be found, something that may have many asking why they have to pay more here for less content.

NEXT TIME: Back with more reviews, news & notes. Until then, don't forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards and direct any emails to the link above

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