1/20/09 Edition

January Freeze Edition
New Blu-Ray & DVD titles covered

It might only be the middle of January but I think most of us have had enough of Winter 2008-09. Between the brutal cold, ice and snow, this has already been one of those seasons that you’d often hear your parents or grandparents refer to as the kind of long-lost winter “we just don’t have anymore.” Well guess what -- make no mistake, this year, we are having winter, my dear readers (as if you needed me to point that out to you), and The Old Man seems to be particularly irritated this time out!

To help off-set the chilly conditions across most of the nation, here’s my latest rundown of the latest Blu-Ray and DVD discs, from Criterion titles to controversial titles like CALIGULA, for your viewing pleasure.

New Blu-Ray reviews

BABYLON A.D. (*½, 101 mins., 2008, Unrated; Fox): French director Mathieu Kassovitz’s second English-language film (following his hideous debut picture, the Halle Berry thriller “Gothika”) was, according to the filmmaker, ruined by interference from Twentieth Century Fox, which was one of several companies involved with this big budget, international co-production.

While it could be that Fox’s desire to trim Kassovitz’s epic down for a PG-13 rating had something to do with the failure of “Babylon A.D.,” it also could be that the movie didn’t quite work in any version -- particularly since Fox utilized partner Studio Canal’s longer, 101-minute edit of the movie for its Blu-Ray release, and it’s not much better than what ended up in theaters here to begin with.

And talk about bizarre: for those of you who always wanted to see Vin Diesel and Gerard Depardieu share screen time, this is the movie for you. Diesel plays “Toorop,” an American mercenary living in a future bombed-out Europe who’s recruited by Deparideu to bring a “package” back to the U.S. That cargo is, in fact, a young woman (Melanie Thierry) living in a secret convent and bodyguarded by Michelle Yeoh, who belongs to a popular American religious sect (not unlike scientology, though with more Christian overtones) that envisions Thierry as a miracle worker.

A few fleeting action sequences and a compelling enough first act create the false impression that “Babylon A.D.” isn’t going to turn out to be nearly as bad as its disastrous commercial and critical reception indicates, but its jumbled conclusion will have you embarrassed that you fell for its deceivingly watchable opening frames. Diesel looks fairly interested as the sole American party in a movie that has an off-kilter “international” feel with its odd cast (Charlotte Rampling also appears), mix of accents and filmmaking styles from “Blade Runner”-esque sci-fi to social commentary to all-out action and infrequent doses of special F/X. We may never know if the uneven narrative made more sense in a longer version, but what’s here culminates in an unsatisfying ending and resolution to the Thierry character, who isn’t developed nearly enough for us to care about.

Fox’s Blu-Ray disc looks a tad on the bright side, but the AVC-encoded transfer otherwise is solid. The DTS Master Audio sound throbs with a mix of loud techno tracks and score by Atli Orvarsson, while a sampling of extras includes a number of featurettes and a deleted “hummer chase” sequence which was originally screened in the U.S. theatrical version.

APPALOOSA (**½, 115 mins., 2008, R; New Line/Warner): Quite watchable but frustrating western never quite gets its act together -- a disappointment given its cast and subject matter.

Viggo Mortensen and Ed Harris plays peacekeepers in late 1800's New Mexico territory, who take on murderous Jeremy Irons and woo new-girl-in-town Renee Zellweger, in director Harris’ adaptation of Robert B. Parker’s novel. 

Well shot by veteran cinematographer Dean Semler, “Appaloosa” has all the tenants of a rousing, old-fashioned western, but the finished product comes across as something more akin to a TNT Movie of the Week than a big-screen outing. Harris’ direction brings little visual flair to the action, while the film plays out on a flat emotional plain throughout. While western fans may still find it to be a decent timekiller, the picture never captivates you -- it’s all functional but not particularly inspired, while the performances are likewise competent but far from memorable.

New Line’s Blu-Ray disc includes a satisfying VC-1 encoded transfer and Dolby TrueHD soundtrack that’s as low-key as the movie itself, plus commentary from Harris and his co-writer Robert Knott, additional scenes with optional commentary (in HD), and four Making Of featurettes.

AMUSEMENT (*½, 85 mins., 2008, R; New Line/Warner): Tepid chiller about three female friends (Katheryn Winnick, Laura Breckenridge and Jessica Lucas) who find themselves being tortured by a killer who has a grudge against all three from their childhoods. This barely-released New Line/Picturehouse production has decent production quality and even a score by Marco Beltrami going for it, but it’s pedestrian, “Saw”-like thrills for teens just desiring to see another group of young ladies being captured and assaulted. Fun! New Line’s Blu-Ray disc includes a potent 1080p HD transfer with Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio.

THE BOURNE IDENTITY (***½, 119 mins., 2002, PG-13; Universal)
THE BOURNE SUPREMACY (***, 109 mins., 2004, PG-13; Universal)
THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM (***½, 116 mins., 2007, PG-13; Universal):

Thrilling adaptations of Robert Ludlum’s bestsellers hit Blu-Ray at last in a three-disc box-set offering outstanding HD transfers and DTS Master Audio soundtracks.

In spite of pre-release troubles (some post-production tinkering, Carter Burwell’s score being axed), the original 2002 “Bourne Identity” spectacularly launched Universal’s spy franchise with Matt Damon as Ludlum’s hero, a marvelous supporting cast (Chris Cooper, Clive Owen, Brian Cox, Franka Potente), and flavorful international shooting with Oliver Wood deftly handling the cinematography chores. Director Doug Liman’s snazzy visuals helped establish “Bourne” as the decade’s preeminent spy series, besting even the James Bond pictures, which even in the new Daniel Craig era appear to be imitating Bourne instead of its predecessors.

British director Paul Greengrass took over for Liman in the successful, if overly familiar, follow-up “The Bourne Supremacy.” The first half of this 2004 sequel felt recycled, offering few surprises up until a much-needed twist at the midway point. Still, most of the movie comes across as treading water until the film's climactic car chase, which truly delivered the goods and put the movie over the top for this critic. Like its predecessor, "Bourne Supremacy" offers "old school" spy thrills -- a refreshing change of pace from the silly, CGI-laden effects pieces that the Pierce Brosnan 007 movies became.

While “Supremacy” was satisfying enough, 2007's “The Bourne Ultimatum” was even better, offering more twists on the formula established by its prior installments.

"Ultimatum" finds Jason Bourne chasing after his identity at long last, with the government in hot pursuit and few allegiances on his side. Returning director Paul Greengrass keeps the action moving along at a rapid clip with stupendous set-pieces and a story that's more straightforward and satisfying than the previous effort, with Julia Stiles finally getting more to do as this installment's female lead.

"The Bourne Ultimatum" is exciting, fast-paced and enormously entertaining, and leaves the door ajar for a fourth installment coming in the proverbial near future.

Universal released all three “Bourne” pictures on HD-DVD in solid presentations, but the studio’s new Blu-Ray versions are even more satisfying: DTS Master Audio soundtracks adorn the first two pictures for the first time here, while “Bourne Ultimatum”’s DTS Master mix is comparable to the HD-DVD’s Dolby TrueHD soundtrack. The AVC encoded transfers appear to be derived from the same masters as the HD-DVD’s VC-1 encoded counterparts, which is a good thing since the quality is pristine throughout.

Extras, naturally, abound, from a litany of extras on “Bourne Identity” (commentary, deleted scenes, all kinds of featurettes from different DVD versions of the movie) to “Bourne Supremacy” (deleted scenes, Making Of featurettes, commentary, John Powell scoring segment) and “Bourne Ultimatum” (deleted scenes, commentary), with bonus “U-Control” picture-in-picture segments also available for viewers to check out.

As satisfying an HD experience as any title released so far this year, Universal’s Blu-Ray box comes highly recommended!

KING KONG (**½, 188 mins. [theatrical] and 200 mins. [extended], 2005, PG-13; Universal): Reverential, lovingly produced and yet brutally overlong, dramatically unfocused remake of the Marian C. Cooper-RKO classic from “Lord of the Rings” auteur Peter Jackson comes across as a self-indulgent, bloated epic in spite of its myriad of technical achievements.

Make no mistake: this is a film packed with visual delights, from the authentic recreation of Depression-era NYC, to the amazing animation and “performance” of King Kong himself. Articulated to a degree by Andy Serkis (Jackson’s Gollum cohort) and marvelously rendered on-screen, this is a Kong that’s a far cry from the stilted Rick Baker suit in Dino DeLaurentiis’ 1976 remake of “King Kong” and ranks with the most awe-inspiring technological achievements that special effects wizards have produced throughout the decades.

Sadly, not everything in Jackson’s sprawling, overlong opus matches its good intentions and aesthetic qualities. This is a movie that -- even in its “short,” three-hour plus theatrical version -- plays like the kind of “Director’s Cut” studios indulge filmmakers on DVD, bulging at the seams with superfluous details and side characters with no pay-off, and scene after scene that could have been sliced in half and been every bit as effective -- if not more so for their brevity.

Since the original movie’s premise needs little introduction, it’s best to dissect the alterations Jackson and his collaborators (writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens) have applied to this version. Here, leading man Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) is a playwright suckered into one of director Carl Denham’s latest productions. Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) is a down-on-her-luck actress seeking a way out of the Depression, and finds the opportunity of a lifetime despite the suspicious motives of Denham himself. All three, and a crew led by captain Thomas Kretschmann, find themselves on Skull Island, a prehistoric environment teeming with dinosaurs, giant insects, wild natives and one giant ape named Kong...

One of the first things you’ll realize about Jackson’s “King Kong” is that -- after a marvelous beginning in an early ‘30s Big Apple -- the film chugs along at a snail’s pace. The journey to Skull Island finds Jackson spending minute after minute on extraneous side characters and details; unlike his “Lord of the Rings” adaptations, though, the source material here doesn’t beg for a three-hour treatment, with one especially infuriating subplot involving Jamie Bell’s young seaman and his older, wiser superior (Evan Parke). Their relationship doesn’t add anything to the finished film, and could have been jettisoned without any detriment to the central drama.

Over a third of the movie is over before Kong appears, and naturally there are several “jackpot” set-pieces, including a brontosaurus stampede and a chase with raptors (and later, a pair of T-Rexes) not far behind. Regrettably, the movie then stalls out again with sequences that run on too long: the “spider pit” scene in particular is especially bloated (and atrociously spotted with inappropriate music from a mostly subdued, ultimately forgettable James Newton Howard soundtrack). Eventually, Jackson gets Ann, Jack and Denham off the island and back to New York, but even there, every scene feels several beats off-measure: the icy jaunt through Central Park with Ann and Kong is cute but ought to be over in half the time, and even the final battle on top of the Empire State Building (which Jackson wisely refrains from being overly bloody) leaves you feeling like you’ve watched each and every fly-over of the bi-planes that eventually take Kong down.

Between the prolonged running time, over-reliance on side details and minor characters, what one is left with in “King Kong” is a film where the viewer ultimately has little interest in its heroes. Watts looks fetching and is effectively emotive in her encounters with the big ape, yet her scenes with Brody’s Jack are confined to the first third of the movie -- something that detracts from any real chemistry between the two. Brody himself looks as if he could have made for a perfect “everyman” kind of hero, but the script doesn’t give him nearly enough to do. Worst of all is Jack Black’s Denham: the movie clearly didn’t want to make him into the nefarious bad guy that Charles Grodin served up in the ‘76 version, and subsequently balances out some of the character’s despicable behavior with comedic elements. Yet, he’s still unhinged, and the film ultimately doesn’t come down hard enough on him: his reading of the movie’s final line rings false because it’s still Denham in this version who’s truly responsible for the tragedy of the final act.

By the time the would-be heart-tugging climax arrives, I felt more exhausted than moved by the 2005 “King Kong.” This is a reverent and beautifully-made picture that nevertheless wears you down: after all the running, shooting, shaking camera and muddled characterizations, it becomes apparent that Jackson’s movie left its heart somewhere between here and Skull Island.

Unsurprisingly, “King Kong” makes for a breathtaking Blu-Ray disc, arriving later this month in a package that’s superior to Universal’s HD-DVD edition from a few years back. While the movie visually appears identical to its HD-DVD encode, the studio has included both the original theatrical cut and an even longer Extended Edition, which adds back in about 12 minutes of footage, as well as a potent DTS Master Audio soundtrack (personally I would’ve loved to have seen Jackson produce a Director’s Cut that was actually shorter than the theatrical version).

Extras, though, are limited to Jackson’s commentary (on the Extended Edition) and a variety of U-Control picture-in-picture segments during the latter version. I’m sure many of these, if not all of them, were released previously between the multitude of DVD editions the film received, but it’s disappointing that a second disc wasn’t included here offering all the other, extensive documentaries Jackson produced for the movie’s release, the original trailers and other extras.

That disappointment aside it’s doubtful anyone will complain regarding the movie’s visual and audio presentation, which ranks with the best HD transfers I’ve seen to date.

THE EXPRESS (***, 130 mins., 2008, PG; Universal): Absorbing, well-produced chronicle of the life and times of Syracuse running back Ernie Davis, who became the first black winner of the Heisman Trophy, only to see his life tragically cut short by leukemia a short time later. Gary Fleder directed this Universal production with strong performances from Rob Brown as Davis and Dennis Quaid as Ben Schwartzwalder, the coach who guided Davis’ college career. A fine score by Mark Isham and a terrific supporting cast (Clancy Brown, Charles S. Dutton) aid this true story, which ranks as a must for all sports fans. Universal’s Blu-Ray disc includes commentary with Fleder, deleted scenes (in standard def), and several Making Of segments in HD. The AVC encoded transfer is gorgeous and DTS Master Audio sound compliments the exceptional transfer.

DEAD AND BURIED (**½, 94 mins., 1981, R; Blue Underground): James Farentino is a local sheriff in the quaint town of Potters Bluff, where its residents have an odd habit of dying...and coming back to life.

Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, fresh off the success of their script for “Alien,” wrote this uneven 1981 mix of thrills, chills and a few laughs, which turns deadly serious in its concluding moments with a “twist” most seasoned genre fans can see coming from miles away. It’s a decent thriller with a moody Joe Renzetti score but I’ve never found it to be as satisfying as its fans think it is, particularly since after one viewing one feels little need to revisit it.

Blue Underground’s Blu-Ray edition of “Dead and Buried” follows the label’s Special Edition DVD package, and offers a similar roster of excellent supplements: three commentaries (one with director Gary Sherman, another with Ronald Shusett and co-star Linda Turley, and a third talk with cinematographer Steven Poster), trailers, and three featurettes focusing on Stan Winston’s make-up effects, O’Bannon’s contribution to the script, and Robert Englund, who appears in a small role in the picture.

Visually, the HD transfer is as good as one would hope although the movie’s murky appearance doesn’t always translate well to the high definition arena. Audio options are more robust, including both DTS Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD offerings on the 50gb BD platter.

CALIGULA (* movie, ***½ extras; 156 mins., 1979, Unrated; Image): “Caligula” is repulsive, disgusting, tasteless, and shockingly made for what was supposed to have been an expensive international production, starring Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren, and Peter O’Toole in an infamous affair that was the one and only effort from Bob Guccione and Penthouse Films International, who clashed throughout with Italian filmmaker Tinto Brass (credited with principal photography) and writer Gore Vidal. One wanted porn, one wanted a lavish, self-indulgent spectacle with enormous sets, and the other some kind of historical accuracy -- in the end, what they produced was an almost-unwatchable turkey that has long endured as one of the all-time disasters in film history.

Even if the movie itself is inexplicable, Image’s Blu-Ray package of their “Imperial Edition” is an outstanding experience for movie buffs. Packed with insight into the bastardized creation of this misguided epic, Image has loaded the Blu-Ray platter with terrific commentaries: one with McDowell and Nick Redman, another with Mirren with historian Alan Jones, and a third track with Ernest Volkman, on the phone, who recalls working on the movie. The Redman-McDowell track is easily the best of all, candidly discussing where the film went so wrong behind-the-scenes, and packed with marvelous anecdotes and loads of dry, hilarious stories. It’s one of my favorite commentaries of the last few years, in fact.

Two different versions of the movie are on-hand (plus trailers and numerous deleted scenes), including the unrated original cut and a pre-release version reportedly closer to Brass’ intentions (meaning it’s even more scattershot than the unrated version); both have been beautifully remastered and look exceptionally good (particularly considering how awful a VHS rental I watched with some friends back in college appeared). The DTS Master Audio sound is likewise satisfying, while a full second disc of extras (in standard definition) include a hilarious, vintage Making Of documentary, DVD-ROM extras (including Vidal’s original script), other behind-the-scenes goodies and comments from Tinto Brass and cast members John Steiner and Lori Wagner.

It’s a train wreck on almost every level, and it’s not for the squeamish, but Image’s Blu-Ray disc is highly entertaining for reasons not related to what’s on-screen.

LAKEVIEW TERRACE: DVD and Blu-Ray (**½, 110 mins., 2008, PG-13; Sony): Moderately effective recycling of “Unlawful Entry” (one of numerous “Mad ___ From Hell” flicks released during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s) from co-writer David Loughery (“Star Trek V”) and director Neil Labute stars Samuel L. Jackson as an overzealous L.A. cop who disapproves of the relationship between interracial couple Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington, who have just moved into Jackson’s suburban neighborhood.

Will Smith produced this moderate box-office success from last fall, which finds Wilson and Washington trying to one-up Jackson’s crazy cop, but it’s mostly by-the-numbers, even if Roger Ebert (inexplicably) gave the movie four stars and, with Labute directing, the picture is well-crafted, in spite of its predictability.

Sony’s DVD edition offers up a fine 16:9 (2.35) widescreen transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack, while the Blu-Ray platter is even more impressive with its AVC encoded HD presentation and Dolby TrueHD audio. Extras spread across both platforms include deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes featurettes, and commentary from the director and cast.

OPEN SEASON 2 (76 mins., 2009, PG; Sony): Zany antics with Boog and Elliot continue in this small-screen follow-up to the 2006 box-office hit. “Talk Soup” host Joel McHale and Mike Epps substitute for Ashton Kutcher and Martin Lawrence, respectively, in this agreeable and quite well-animated production, which doesn’t overstay its welcome at 76 minutes and offers enough gags that kids should enjoy. Certainly Sony’s AVC encoded Blu-Ray transfer is gorgeous, with sumptuous colors and a fine Dolby TrueHD soundtrack, sporting an okay score from Ramin Djawadi. Extras include deleted scenes, BD Live extras and Making Of featurettes primarily aimed at the little ones.

New From Criterion

Even if it glosses over some of the more heinous crimes of Communist China, Bernardo Bertolucci's THE LAST EMPEROR (***½, 165 mins., 1987, PG-13; Criterion) is still a sweeping, captivating epic that chronicles the life and times of Emperor Pu Yi, the last reigning ruler of China, from age three in 1908 through decades of cultural and social unrest and his country's eventual evolution.

Vittorio Storaro's cinematography is outstanding, capturing images never before caught on- screen, while Bertolucci's direction takes us through the life of Yi in a manner that manages to be sympathetic and sad, epic in scope but personal in nature. "The Last Emperor" swept through the Oscars in 1988, earning nods for Storaro and Best Picture, even if many viewers have forgotten about the picture since its original release.

Criterion's Blu-Ray edition of "The Last Emperor" follows the label’s outstanding four-disc DVD edition from just over a year ago, complete with a new AVC encoded transfer culled from the same digital master. The transfer is excellent though the source materials don’t always appear to be in the most pristine condition, making it only a mildly appreciable upgrade on the DVD. On the audio end, DTS Master Audio sound proves to be a more sizable improvement from the DVD’s 2.0 stereo sound.

Some viewers may be disappointed that Criterion opted to only include the 165-minute theatrical version on Blu-Ray, and not its longer 218 minute international TV cut (Criterion’s DVD presented both versions). However, it's important to note that the 165-minute theatrical release is basically Bertolucci's preferred Director's Cut, not the expanded version. Bertolucci has said he was under contract to make a longer version of the movie for international television exhibition, but while many viewers prefer that 218-minute edit for its more developed narrative, the director believes it's overlong and detracts from the central power of the piece.

Ample supplements, reprieved from the DVD release, put the icing on the cake: commentary from Bertolucci, producer Jeremy Thomas, writer Mark Peploe and composer Ryuichi Sakamoto (who composed the odd, albeit Oscar-winning, score with David Byrne and Cong Su) is on-hand, plus an hour-long documentary about the director; video images shot by Bertolucci on-location in China; a 45-minute documentary featuring Storaro; a 50-minute examination of the production; a 66-minute BBC documentary on the film; a 30-minute interview with Bertolucci from 1989; a recent interview with David Byrne; and an interview with cultural historian Ian Baruma about the filming.

EL NORTE (***, 140 mins., 1983; Criterion) is Gregory Nava’s well-intentioned but melodramatic telling of a pair of young Guatemalan siblings who cross the border in order to better their lives in the U.S.

This 1983 film -- newly released on both DVD and Blu-Ray from Criterion -- was one of the first to shed light on the North American immigration issue, and Nava’s movie tackles it from a distinctly human prospective, with fine performances from leads Zaide Silvia Gutierrez and David Villalpando. It’s well-shot and compelling, but these days “El Norte” comes across as a bit dated, as once the duo hit San Diego everything that could go wrong for the duo does -- all the while the director hammers home political messages that are as transparent as the fact that PBS provided funding for the project. It’s still worthwhile viewing but works most successfully through Nava’s pure storytelling ability.

Criterion’s DVD offers a fine 16:9 (1.78) widescreen transfer with mono sound, while the Blu-Ray disc sports a splendid AVC encoded transfer from the same master, offering appreciable visceral upgrades and a comparable mono soundtrack. Extras on both platforms include a commentary by Nava, a newly produced Making Of video segment, a 1972 short student film by Nava, the trailer, location photographs and comments from novelist Hector Tobar and Roger Ebert’s original 1983 review.

Also out from Criterion this month is Roberto Rossellini’s 1966 work THE TAKING OF POWER BY LOUIS XIV (La Price De Pouvoir Par Louis XIV) (94 mins., 1966), in French with optional English subs; a new digital transfer (in its proper 1.33 aspect ratio); a “multimedia essay” by Rossellini biographer Tag Gallagher; a video interview with artistic adviser Jean-Dominique de La Rochefoucauld and script supervisor Michelle Podroznik; a video interview with Rossellini’s son, Renzo, a second unit director; improved English subtitles; and an essay from critic Colin MacCabe.

Finally the studio has lined up a double-disc edition of Douglas Sirk’s 1954 melodrama MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION (108 mins., Criterion) for release later this month, starring Rock Hudson as an arrogant playboy whose life-saving resuscitation claims the life of Jane Wyman’s doctor husband.

Wildly over-the-top and romantic in a way only a 1950s potboiler could be (with a bombastic Frank Skinner score), Sirk aficionados will find plenty of entertainment in this glossy soaper, which Criterion has brought to DVD in an impressive package: disc one sports a new high-def transfer (in 16:9 [2.00:1] widescreen), mono sound, commentary with historian Thomas Doherty and video interviews with directors Allison Anders and Kathryn Bigelow, along with the trailer. Disc two includes a 1991 German documentary with Sirk reflecting on his career, plus John M. Stahl’s 1935 version of “Magnificent Obsession,” presented in crisp black-and-white. Comments from critic Geoffrey O’Brien round out the package.

Also New on DVD

BRIDESHEAD REVISITED (***, 133 mins., 2008, PG-13; Miramax/Buena Vista): Massively condensed version of Evelyn Waugh’s hugely popular novel tries to shoehorn the author’s narrative into a feature-length form. The results in Julian Jarrold’s movie are likely to satisfy those who enjoy British costume dramas yet may not necessarily be familiar with Waugh’s novel, as it portrays the triangle between athiest Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode), his friend Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw) and his sister Julia (Hayley Atwell) in early ‘30s England. Adrian Johnston’s score, Jess Hall’s cinematography, and uniformly strong performances (Emma Thompson, Michael Gambon, Greta Scacchi and Patrick Malahide co-star) make the 2008 “Brideshead Revisited” worth seeing, even if it never really amounts to anything all that different than what one would anticipate. Buena Vista’s DVD includes a nice 16:9 (2.40) widescreen transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, deleted scenes, commentary and a Making Of featurette.

MARY POPPINS: 45th ANNIVERSARY EDITION (***½, 139 mins., 1964; Disney): Two-disc re-issue of the Disney classic has been timed to coincide with the opening of the upcoming “Mary Poppins” Broadway musical. In fact, a number of new special features are directly associated with the musical, including a downloadable MP3 of the song “Step In Time,” a DVD performance of the song, and a featurette on the show’s creation. Other extras include a deleted song, bonus short, and pop-up facts, all culled from prior DVD editions of the film. Visually the 16:9 (1.66) transfer seems more or less comparable to Disney’s 40th Anniversary DVD, while both 5.1 Dolby Digital and 2.0 stereo audio mixes are on-hand. Not essential if you already own the 40th Anniversary DVD, but well worth a gander otherwise.

THE SECRET OF THE MAGIC GOURD (85 mins., 2007, G; Disney): Disney co-produced Chinese import about a talking gourd who makes a precocious young boy’s wishes come true makes for fine viewing for young viewers. Colorful effects and an accessible story are on-tap in this watchable 2007 fantasy, which Disney has issued on DVD with English, Mandarin and Cantonese language tracks, a superb 16:9 (2.35) widescreen transfer, bloopers, games and activities plus other extras for young viewers.

VACANCY 2: THE FIRST CUT (*½, 86 mins., 2008, R; Sony): Direct-to-video sequel to the forgettable Luke Wilson-Kate Beckinsale horror outing “Vacancy” is actually another “prequel” wherein a group of hapless kids run afoul of a rural motel where its guests don’t come down for breakfast.

Aside from another starring lead for Aisle Seat fave Agnes Bruckner (still awaiting her “breakout” role) and the appearance of one-time “Big” co-star David Moscow, “Vacancy 2" has little going for it -- no surprise since its predecessor wasn’t very good to begin with. It’s pedestrian “horror” for the sorts of fans who have turned the “Saw” movies into box-office smashes.

Sony’s DVD edition includes a crisp 16:9 (1.85) transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, deleted scenes, commentary and two Making Of featurettes.

DEEP WINTER (96 mins., 2008, PG-13; Sony): “Extreme” sports action with skiiers Eric Lively and Kellan Lutz as buddies who want to capture an amazing descent on film in Alaska. Excellent location shooting and actual stunts performed by real-life daredevils make Mikey Hilb’s film fun for those with a taste for the material, even if the story is predictably the weakest element in it. Sony’s DVD includes a top notch 16:9 (1.85) transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

NEXT TIME: THE CHANGELING and more! Until then, don't forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards and direct any emails to our email address.  Cheers everyone!

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