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
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
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
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):
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
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.
month’s most notable new release from the label is a
double-feature re-issue of Akira Surosawa’s tremendous samurai
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
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.),
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!
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):
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
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
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
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):
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.