1/25/11 Edition Twitter: THEAISLESEATCOM
Winter Thriller Edition
LET ME IN Haunts Blu-Ray
Plus: Disney's Original ALICE, RED and More!

LET ME IN, the American remake of the 2008 Swedish horror import “Let the Right One In,” failed to find an audience at the box-office last fall, which came as a bit of a surprise since the film received mostly positive reviews and writer-director Matt Reeves closely followed the blueprint of Tomas Alfredson’s original version in his adaptation. Yet a closer examination of “Let Me In” shows that, despite pressing the same narrative buttons, Reeves missed the subtle nuances of Alfredson’s picture, ultimately turning what was an oddly romantic chiller into a more overtly graphic, less ambiguous American “horror movie” that manages to lose all the charms of its predecessor.

Once again adapting John Ajvide Lindqvist’s original novel, “Let Me In” stars Kodi Smit-McPhee as an alienated young boy, living in early ‘80s New Mexico, who quickly gravitates towards the arrival of a young girl (Chloe Grace Moretz) and an older man (Richard Jenkins) next door. As anyone who has seen the original movie knows, Jenkins isn’t her father – he’s a confidant with a penchant for carrying out cold-blooded murder – and Moretz isn’t just a little girl, but rather a vampire moving from town to town to supply her urges and stay alive.

Reeves reprises many of the set-pieces from the Swedish “Let the Right One In” and follows the story closely, yet while Alfredson’s version was leisurely-paced and subtle, “Let Me In” plays itself out with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Every element of the source material comes across far more explicitly here – from Smit-McPhee’s creepy obsession with violence to all of the murders and even the torture the young protagonist receives from his classmates – which naturally makes for a more straightforward film but also a more unpleasant one (it also ruins the effectiveness of the picture’s climactic swimming pool set-piece, since Reeves has already amped up the violence in the material long before it happens). Meanwhile, Reeves’ alterations to the material like Smit-McPhee’s mother being a practicing Catholic seem heavy-handed, while the period setting ultimately seems completely pointless as well.

One of the elements that made Alfredson’s version so captivating for me was how the picture mixed horror with an fairy-tale type of tone, its young protagonists evolving with one another and all of it produced with a beautiful, naturalistic visual style. Reeves, on the other hand, leaves no door open for ambiguity, from the enhanced (and unneeded) visual effects to the clearly unambiguous ending and one of the most obtrusive musical scores I’ve heard in years that completely sums up the differences between the two versions. While “Let the Right One In” offered a superbly designed mix of sound effects and mostly low-key music, Michael Giacchino’s brooding, incessant score for the U.S. version tips you off that something is about to happen from miles away. In fact I can’t think of a film more over-scored than this one in recent memory.

Anchor Bay brings “Let Me In” to Blu-Ray on February 1st in a fine AVC encoded 1080p transfer that looks like real film through and through. The Dolby TrueHD soundtrack is filled with detail along with the overbearing soundtrack, while extras include commentary, several behind-the-scenes featurettes, trailers, a poster gallery and deleted scenes. The BD comes bundled with a digital copy, while the standard DVD includes the same extras plus a 16:9 (2.35) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound (**, 115 mins., 2010, R; Anchor Bay).

Also New on Blu-Ray   

ALICE IN WONDERLAND 40th Anniversary Blu-Ray/DVD (***, 75 mins., 1951, G; Disney): Not one of the most beloved of the Disney classics yet a solid production just the same, Disney's 1951 "Alice in Wonderland" has arrived on Blu-Ray in a typically colorful package from the studio, offering a well-detailed new HD transfer on the Blu-Ray side and a few exclusive BD extras to boot.
The movie remains something of a cold fish compared to other Disney efforts, mainly due to its brief running time and over-abundance of songs. Subsequently, you can't really identify with Alice as you can with other Disney heroines -- the movie seems intent on moving from one point to the next, a tactic that results in an efficient yet not especially memorable adaptation of Lewis Carroll's book. Nevertheless, several of the numbers are superb and the animation is colorful and beautifully designed at every turn -- elements enhanced in Disney's fantastic new high-def transfer, boasting strong colors that never bleed and a nice 5.1 DTS Master Audio “Disney Enhanced” remixed soundtrack (as with most Disney discs, the original mono soundtrack is also included for purists).

This 40th Anniversary Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack offers a few Blu-Ray exclusive extras, including Disney’s Color TV introduction from 1959; reference footage; and interactive extras like the “Companion’s Guide to Wonderland” along with a DisneyView “enhanced viewing mode” and an interactive game, aimed at the little ones. Adults will be more interested in the extras ported over from the prior DVD, including a recently-discovered deleted song ("I'm Odd"), a fluffy featurette on how one rejected song worked its way into "Peter Pan," original song demos, and plenty of vintage TV material.
TAKERS Blu-Ray and DVD (**, 107 mins., 2010, PG-13; Sony): Surprise box-office hit from last August opened with little fanfare and received mostly mixed reviews, yet generated a fair amount of dollars for Sony’s Screen Gems label. Truth be told, however, “Takers” is pretty blah from start to finish, dominated by cheap-looking digital-HD cinematography that seems even more deficient on Blu-Ray.

John Luessenhop’s caper-film follows a group of thieves on their latest conquest (Paul Walker, Idris Elba, Chris Brown, Hayden Christensen) while a cop (Matt Dillon) and his partner (Jay Hernandez) follow in pursuit. “Takers” does start off fairly well but the fun evaporates the further along it moves, culminating in a tired, pretentious climax.

Sony’s Blu-Ray likely presents “Takers” as best it can be presented, yet there’s no escaping the picture’s shoddy-looking HD cinematography, which does not make for a satisfying visceral presentation. DTS Master Sound is on-hand along with light extras comprised of a cast/filmmaker commentary, music video, and BD-exclusive behind-the-scenes featurettes. The standard DVD lacks the latter segments, but does offer a 16:9 (2.35) transfer with 5.1 audio.

RED Blu-Ray (***, 111 mins., 2010, PG-13; Summit): Hugely entertaining sleeper hit from last fall offers Bruce Willis as a retired CIA operative who recruits fellow agents who’ve since hung it up (Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich and Helen Mirren) after a hit squad arrives to assassinate him.

This free-wheeling adaptation of a short-lived DC Comics series is simply a lot of fun, from the laid-back and engaging performances of the terrific cast (fine support is turned in by Mary-Louise Parker as Willis’ reluctant traveling companion, along with Brian Cox, Julian McMahon, Richard Dreyfuss, James Remar and Ernest Borgnine) to the crisp, effectively-executed action sequences courtesy of director Robert Schwentke. Jon and Erich Hoeber’s script strikes the right balance between over-the-top action and comedy, with the film generating some big laughs at times inbetween the explosions. Overall “Red” is just terrific escapist entertainment, and the best film of its type since “True Lies” (which fans are still eagerly anticipating a Blu-Ray release hopefully in the not-too-distant future).

Summit’s Blu-Ray package boasts a marvelous AVC encoded 1080p transfer with rollicking DTS Master Audio sound, deleted/extended scenes, commentary (with retired CIA field officer Robert Baer), and many extras included in an interactive function that pops up during the film.

QUIET DAYS IN CLICHY Blu-Ray ( 91 mins., 1970; Blue Underground): Henry Miller’s long-banned novel came to the screen in the form of this 1970 underground film which had a difficult time finding an American release after the government declared it to be obscene. It’s certainly an offbeat film, but one that seems at least somewhat tame by today’s standards, as it follows an American writer (Paul Valjean) and his French buddy (Wayne Rodda) through the streets of Paris where they take up a group of sexual conquests (mostly hookers).

Director Jens Jorgan Thorsen’s adaptation of Miller’s 1956 novel is most definitely eclectic, utilizing still photos and occasional text captions from Miller’s novel to highlight the stark B&W cinematography. There’s not much plot – just lots of sex and the occasional philosophizing, which makes “Quiet Days in Clichy” an offbeat exercise worth a view for those with appropriately eclectic sensibilities.

Blue Underground’s Blu-Ray offers an HD version of their DVD restoration of the film, which looks nicely composed here with good detail.  Mono audio is as satisfying as one would hope given the modest nature of the production, while extras include two interviews with Miller’s editor/publisher Barney Rosset and an interview with musician Country Joe McDonald, who scored the film.

New From Warner Home Video

PLEASANTVILLE Blu-Ray (**, 124 mins., 1998, PG-13; New Line/Warner)
YOU’VE GOT MAIL Blu-Ray (***, 119 mins., 1998, PG; Warner)

A pair of comedies arrives on Blu-Ray in plenty of time for Valentine’s Day from Warner Home Video.

Gary Ross's impressive-looking but uneven 1998 film “Pleasantville” is a film that possesses a single idea – that the world of picture-perfect, '50s TV sitcom nirvana is just a facade, a dream that doesn't really exist. Those picket fences and happy fathers who come home to their Stepford Wife-prepared meals and deliriously chirpy kids are nothing but a sham, since perfection is something that exists solely in the mind of the individual. What may be ideal for you may be someone else's nightmare.

Great, point taken. Now what? That's the problem with Ross’ film, a visually stimulating but otherwise empty exercise in ‘50s drama-edy that is never as insightful, much less dramatic or emotional, as it wants to be, and dooms itself with a funeral-like pace and a repetitious theme that ultimately offers mixed messages and a definite lack of dramatic substance.

The cast does what they can to work with material that ultimately seems poorly defined: Toby Maguire stars as a young, nerdish teen who ends up being literally zapped into the black-and-white world of "Pleasantville," a '50s “Leave it to Beaver” or “Ozzie & Harriet” clone, with his rebellious sister Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon, in a role that grows less important as the movie rolls along). Their TV parents are played by William H. Macy and Joan Allen, and as you would guess, they're repressed robots who live in separate beds and know nothing of the true pleasures of the real world. Which, of course, applies to everyone in Pleasantville, where milkmen appear like clockwork every morning, schools never address anything outside the parameters of the town, and you can count on a milkshake and a hamburger down at the Malt Shop run by reliable Jeff Daniels.

The teens find themselves living within the show's guidelines, yet soon find themselves breaking out of it. The promiscuous Jen decides to fool around with a clean-cut high schooler (an early performance by Paul Walker) in the backseat at Lover's Lane, and thereby introduces splashes of color and real feeling into the black-and-white town. One by one, the townspeople find themselves turning into real people by discovering "reality," as designated by their color (or lack of it). Soon, most everyone decides to break out of their shells, from Allen's gradually awakening housewife to Daniels, who decides he's better off painting than grilling burgers, though ultimately all at the cost of introducing hatred and contempt in the form of "anti-colored" laws enacted by mayor J.T. Walsh, who doesn't like the way folks are acting.

Ross, making his directorial debut here, obviously had a strong sense of visual design in mind when he wrote “Pleasantville.” There are countless striking images of primary colors set against the mundane background, making for a few scenes in the movie that really soar. Maguire gives a terrific performance that anchors the movie, and Randy Newman's subdued score reaches for emotion without becoming too maudlin – for me, it’s one of Newman’s finest film scores.

Unfortunately, preachy and heavy-handed is what “Pleasantville” itself ultimately becomes, not to mention meandering and dull. The opening scenes of Witherspoon and Maguire in the town cry out for laughs, and yet the situation is never once exploited to its comic potential. They are, after all, supposed to be living in a sitcom world, but there's hardly anything amusing about the predicaments they find themselves in, or the behavior of most of the residents. One early scene shows Maguire effortlessly shooting one successful foul shot after another in the gymnasium, but this sequence is quickly forgotten about and the film settles into a routine series of "awakening" sequences showing the black-and-white kids turning to color, the backdrops, and so forth.

Even more curious is how Ross tends to lose his focus as the film goes along, hammering home the same message time after time, and utterly losing control of the movie by the end, where “Pleasantville” builds up to a climax that is neither interesting or emotional. Villain J.T. Walsh's contempt for the "coloreds" is poorly developed and the scenes of "gang violence" are almost embarrassing to behold, so cliched and thinly defined in Ross's script that they feel like an afterthought, as if a climax of this nature had to be inserted simply because the formula dictated it.

Much of “Pleasantville” just sits there and creaks along at a snail's pace, rarely delving into the emotional relationships of the characters or the comic possibilities of the situation, and rams the same idea home over and over, like a broken record. After 125 minutes, we get the picture, regardless of how visually striking it may be.

Warner’s Blu-Ray disc offers an appropriately pleasant Blu-Ray transfer that’s an appreciable upgrade from the DVD. DTS Master Audio sound is fairly low-key, and all the extras from the prior DVD have been brought over, including Ross’ commentary, Newman’s isolated score with commentary, Fiona Apple’s bizarre music video for “Across the Universe” (directed by soon-to-be-famous auteur Paul Thomas Anderson), a production design featurette and the trailer.

Far more formulaic entertainment is on-hand in Nora Ephron’s “You’ve Got Mail,” the reteaming of “Sleepless in Seattle” (as well as “Joe Versus the Volcano”) stars Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.

Ephron’s 1998 reworking of “The Shop Around the Corner” is a standard-issue, but enjoyable enough, comedy that today seems a bit dated for its array of America Online references (the film was made during Time Warner’s turbulent relationship with AOL), but nevertheless gets the job done due to the chemistry between the stars and a fine supporting cast (Parker Posey, Jean Stapleton, Steve Zahn, Greg Kinnear, and even Dave Chappelle!).

All the extras from the DVD are reprised here (commentary, isolated music track, trailer, featurettes) along with a satisfying AVC encoded 1080p transfer and DTS Master soundtrack. As a nice bonus, the original Ernest Lubitsch “Shop Around the Corner” is included on a standard DVD within the package.

RONALD REAGAN CENTENNIAL COLLECTION DVD (Warner): Golden Age fans would do well to check out Warner’s outstanding anthology of Ronald Reagan’s film career, including his appearances in the Bette Davis classic “Dark Victory,” unforgettable sports bio-pic “Knute Rockne, All-American,” the epic “Kings Row,” war-time vehicles “Desperate Journey” and “The Hasty Heart,” Irving Berlin musical “This is the Army,” and a pair of teamings with matinee idol Doris Day in “Storm Warning” and “The Winning Team.” Each disc offers a remastered full-screen transfer plus extras including historian commentaries and assorted “Warner Night at the Movies” goodies (vintage newsreels, cartoons, short subjects and more).

TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN DVD (**½, 107 mins., 1962; Warner Archive): Kirk Douglas and Edward G. Robinson headlined this 1962 Vincente Minnelli film, an uneven MGM CinemaScope production that reassembled most of the key creative team behind another (and far superior) Hollywood soap opera, “The Bad and the Beautiful” (Douglas, Minelli, screenwriter Charles Schnee, composer David Raksin and producer John Houseman among them).

Here, Douglas essays a former screen idol who heads to Rome after being let out of a sanitarium to take part in an American film being shot by Robinson’s equally has-been director. Robinson, though, takes ill, leading Douglas to take over in a movie that offers gloriously melodramatic happenings, overblown dialogue, and a great cast also including Cyd Charisse, George Hamilton, Daliah Lavi and Claire Trevor among them. It’s definitely not a classic but fans of the stars are likely to forgive the picture’s shortcomings and savor its redeeming features, which include Douglas’ scenery-chewing lead performance and a lovely turn from Davi as the Italian actress he falls for.
Warner Archive brings “Two Weeks in Another Town” to DVD this month for the first time as an exclusive Archive title. Available only through their website, the movie has been remastered and looks splendid in its original 2.40 (16:9) glory, though the mono soundtrack doesn’t seem to do the visuals justice. The original trailer is also included.

New From Lionsgate

HIGHLANDER 2-Film Set Blu-Ray (Lionsgate): Double-Feature pairing of Lionsgate’s recent “Highlander” and “Highlander 2" Blu-Ray editions includes both discs in a convenient package. For complete coverage of the two releases, check out my original reviews of both platters from last October here.

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE - THE BEST OF CHRIS FARLEY DVD (106 mins., Lionsgate): Two more compilations from the Saturday Night Live archives (another sad reminder of how far the show has fallen) include plenty of memorable sketches. The Belushi disc includes a mix of comedy and, of course, musical numbers, from vintage Blues Brothers bits to the show’s classic Star Trek spoof, Samurai Night Fever, and “Don’t Look Back in Anger.” Chris Farley naturally wasn’t any Belushi, but even his antics (mostly confined to “crazy fat guy” pratfalls) are more amusing than new SNL, with some of his more memorable skits contained in Lionsgate’s 106-minute disc. Both DVDs also contain a few extras including additional sketches; Farley’s original screen test; dress sketches and more.

Also New on DVD

VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA Season 4, Vol. 2 DVD (1967-68, 663 mins.; Fox): TV on DVD releases from some major labels, regrettably, seem to be winding down, making this final release from Irwin Allen’s beloved ‘60s sci-fi series one that fans ought to be thankful for. Fox’s three-disc set includes the final 13 episodes from “Voyage”’s run, along with the original unaired pilot episode as well as the broadcast pilot with vintage TV commercials. Episodes on the remastered set include “The Return of Blackbeard,” “Terrible Leprechaun,” “Lobsterman,” “Nightmare,” “Abominable Snowman,” “Secret of the Deep,” “Man-Beast,” “Savage Jungle,” “Flaming Ice,” “Attack!,” “Edge of Doom,” “Death Clock,” and “No Way Back.”

ERICH SEGAL’S ONLY LOVE DVD (174 mins., 1998; Vivendi): While some of us continue to lament the disappearance of network TV mini-series from the airwaves, Vivendi Entertainment brings to DVD a terrific 1998 CBS soaper, “Only Love,” based on the Erich Segal novel. A luminous Marisa Tomei as well as “Lifeforce”’s Mathilda May (clothes fully on this time) star as the two women in surgeon Rob Morrow’s life – Tomei essays his wife, while May portrays his former love who’s also suffering (naturally) from a terminal illness. Some effective location shooting and a good cast make this tearjerker one to savor for romantics everywhere as we approach Valentine’s Day. Vivendi’s single-disc DVD includes a full-screen transfer plus stereo sound, offering a plesant score by John Morris.

Also coming soon from Vivendi is the 1997 TV film “Clover,” with Elizabeth McGovern as a southern woman who marries a black man (Ernie Hudson) and ends up caring for his daughter in an adaptation of Dori Sanders’ novel. Vivendi’s no-frills DVD includes a full-screen transfer and stereo soundtrack.

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