1/8/08 Edition -- The New AISLE SEAT BLOG Is Also Live

The 1st Of '08 Edition
ZODIAC Director's Cut Reviewed
Plus: SUNSHINE, SHOOT 'EM UP and More!

NEWS UPDATE: Warner Home Video stunned observers by announcing their intention to only support the Blu-Ray format prior to this year's CES. In a press release Warner said they will only back both high-definition DVD formats until May (somewhat of an odd decision) before turning their attention only to Blu-Ray and not HD-DVD. For more on the subject or to post comments, be sure to visit the official Aisle Seat Message Boards.

Happy New Year everyone! While the cold bears down on us in New England, the studios are back from their holiday slumber (at least compared to their usual weekly slates) with a good amount of discs headed our way this month.

At the top of the list for many cinephiles will be Criterion’s long-awaited edition of Cornel Wilde’s jungle adventure THE NAKED PREY (***, 96 mins., 1966).

Wilde, who -- much like Mel Gibson -- made the transition from leading man to actor/filmmaker during the later stages of his career, produced arguably his finest film with this rugged outdoor variant on “The Most Dangerous Game.” Wilde’s unnamed protagonist (he’s billed “as a Man” in the credits!) is an ivory hunter whose safari captured by a group of tribesmen in 19th century Africa. While his colleagues are tortured and killed, Wilde is released...but as the prey for a hunting party that takes him across both lush and difficult African terrain in a desperate attempt to stay alive.

There’s not much plot or dialogue in “The Naked Prey,” which bears a striking resemblance to Gibson’s “Apocalypto” in several areas: the central plot is quite similar to the second half of Gibson’s Mayan epic, while both filmmakers vividly capture the rough surroundings that their respective protagonists utilize to stay one step ahead of their pursuers. It’s possible Gibson was directly influenced by “The Naked Prey,” both in a narrative and visual sense, which is interesting as Gibson’s own career path seems to be following a similar line as Wilde’s.

“The Naked Prey” has been on fans’ DVD wish-lists for years, and Criterion has at last given us a superlative package. The widescreen cinematography is beautifully replicated in a newly restored 16:9 (2.35) transfer, while commentary from scholar Stephen Prince discusses the film’s production. Original soundtrack cues created by Wilde and ethnomusicologist Andrew Tracy while on location in South Africa are also on-hand in the supplement, along with the trailer and a reading of “John Colter’s Escape” performed by Paul Giamatti (in fact, the film was originally envisioned as an adaptation of the trapper’s real-life escape from Blackfoot Indians). A 1970 interview with Wilde and an essay from critic Michael Atkinson round out a disc that ranks as one of 2008's first essential releases. Highly recommended!

New on HD-DVD

ZODIAC: Director’s Cut HD-DVD (***½, 162 mins., 2007, R; Paramount): David Fincher's latest film is an absorbing, taut adaptation of Robert Graysmith's book, a chronicle of his own pursuit into finding the Zodiac killer who claimed the lives of several Bay Area victims in the late '60s.

In Fincher's ensemble piece (adapted by James Vanderbilt from Graysmith's tome), Jake Gyllenhaal plays Graysmith, a cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle who becomes fascinated with the case as it plays out around him. Graysmith is essentially the viewer's point of reference into this period tale, as we watch the divorced single father and editor Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.) work with their peers when the "Zodiac" instigates communications with the paper after the killings pick up in frequency and visibility. Meanwhile, the criminal investigation is headed by San Francisco detective David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), whose precinct becomes involved after the serial killer's final slaying occurs within the city limits.

Opening with the vintage Paramount logo, "Zodiac" is layered with the atmosphere of the time, from rock standards on the soundtrack to authentic production design by Donald Graham Burt and moody cinematography by Harris Savides. The film lacks the overly-stylized (some would say "pretentious") appearance of some of Fincher's early works, but the benefit is a more mature and realistic work from its auteur, who concentrates not so much on the killings or the motives or even its psychological impact but rather the investigation -- both from the police's angle and Graysmith's dogged, unflinching homework, which comes into play during the film's second half.

The movie was criticized as not having an ending (since the investigation itself never uncovered the killer), but it's a satisfying ride back into a time when police departments didn't have fax machines and when local -- and not national -- media could play such a prominent role in an investigation such as they did here. The performances are all on-target, from Gyllenhaal to Ruffalo, while excellent support is turned in by Anthony Edwards as Ruffalo's partner and Brian Cox as Bay Area attorney Melvin Belli.

"Zodiac" is a film that's hard to take your eyes off, and Paramount's transfer is a razor-sharp, highly satisfying 16:9 (2.35) presentation that looks ideal, capturing every menacing and well-composed moment of the widescreen frame. The 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack is likewise intelligently composed with sound effects and David Shire's unobtrusive (though also relatively thankless) score.

The new 2-disc HD-DVD and DVD versions offer 5 additional minutes of footage re-cut into the film, along with a gorgeous HD transfer for high-def enthusiasts on the HD-DVD side (a robust Dolby Digital Plus soundtrack is offered on the audio end).

Extras include commentary from Fincher, a group commentary with Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr., Brad Fischer, James Vanderbilt and James Ellroy; and a number of featurettes (in HD as well) including a documentary from David Prior focusing the actual investigation, visual effects, and on-set look at the production.

In spite of its disappointing box-office returns, “Zodiac” is an absorbing and compelling film that, if anything, only improves on repeat viewing. Highly recommended, especially for HD-DVD owners.

EASTERN PROMISES: HD-DVD (***, 101 mins., 2007, R; Universal): Another taut, tense thriller from director David Cronenberg, following a British midwife (Naomi Watts) in Russia who crosses paths with the local mob, including crime boss Viggo Mortensen, after a young girl dies while in her hospital’s care. On the mark performances and an involving pace make “Eastern Promises” a strong companion piece to Cronenberg’s last effort, “A History of Violence” -- it may not be the most emotional or compelling ride, but it’s a rock-solid, well-executed contemporary thriller across the board. Universal’s HD-DVD edition looks spectacular, offering a dynamic 1080p transfer, preserving the fine cinematography of veteran Peter Suschitzky. Howard Shore’s score also comes across well in the disc’s Dolby TrueHD soundtrack, while a pair of extras include two featurettes (in HD) examining the production.

THE KINGDOM: HD-DVD (**½, 110 mins., 2007, R; Universal): Overblown, but nevertheless quite watchable, action piece from director Peter Berg follows a group of FBI agents (including Jamie Foxx and Jennifer Garner) sent to Saudi Arabia to track down a terrorist before his next strike. Though Matthew Michael Carnahan’s script holds some contemporary and social relevance, “The Kingdom” is big, loud action filmmaking for the most part, nearly resembling a “Call of Duty” video game in its frantic sequences late in the picture. The film doesn’t entirely connect but there’s enough in the way of thrills and explosions here to keep most fans satisfied, while the performances do their best to make an impression inbetween the carnage. Universal’s HD-DVD presentation offers a dynamic 1080p, VC-1 encoded transfer with Dolby Digital Plus sound (as good as the TrueHD sound of “Eastern Promises,” if not superior) with deleted scenes (in HD) and numerous featurettes, along with commentary from Berg.

TIMECOP: HD-DVD (***, 93 mins., 1994, R; Universal): One of the few Jean-Claude Van Damme films that crossed over into mainstream success, “Timecop” has weathered the years fairly well, and ranks as being a good deal more entertaining than I recall. Peter Hyams’ adaptation of the Dark Horse comic book is a slickly-produced action piece with Van Damme a time-trekking cop in pursuit of a psychotic senator (Ron Silver) trying to buy the presidency by jumping around the space/time matrix. Aside from a few time-tripping moments early on, “Timecop” never fulfills the great potential of its premise, but excepting some ‘90s mullets and goofy-looking cars (whoever thought autos in the future would look like “Battlestar Galactica” ships, anyway?), the film holds up as a well-executed formula sci-fi piece with some nifty action scenes and a couple of amusing one-liners. Universal’s no-frills HD-DVD edition sports a crisp and highly satisfying new VC-1 encoded transfer with Dolby Digital Plus sound. The mix isn’t anything dynamic but offers enough explosions and effects to fill your surround system, along with an underrated score by Mark Isham.

CAT PEOPLE: HD-DVD (**½, 117 mins., 1982, R; Universal): Paul Schrader’s oddball “erotic fantasy” from ‘82 is a bizarre remake of the highly-regarded 1942 Val Lewton production. There are, unsurprisingly, few resemblances between that RKO chiller and Schrader’s graphic take on the material, with Natassia Kinski learning that she’s one of the infamous “cat people” upon arriving in New Orleans to visit brother Malcolm McDowell. Kinski’s physical beauty is the main lure to “Cat People,” which moves along at a sluggish pace and offers a few graphic shocks along with a poky early ‘80s synth score by Giorgio Moroder that doesn’t help matters either. Still, the film is at least captivating visually, with John Bailey’s cinematography and Ferdinando Scarfiotti’s production design functioning memorably during the film’s “tribal” flashback sequences. Universal’s HD-DVD offers a superb new VC-1 encoded transfer with Dolby TrueHD audio and all of the excellent extras from the film’s last DVD special edition, including a commentary track with Schrader, a candid interview with Schrader on its production, production photos, an interview with Robert Wise (who co-directed “Curse of the Cat People” for Lewton), the original trailer and other extras.

New on Blu-Ray

SUNSHINE: Blu-Ray (**½, 107 mins., 2007, R; Fox): Danny Boyle’s “science fact” piece aims to be more existential than the likes of, say, “Event Horizon,” but despite some terrific visuals, “Sunshine” ends up being little more than a slightly more cerebral rendition of other, familiar genre works.

In the not-too-distant future (2057 to be exact), the sun is about to flame out, leaving mankind for dead. A crew of eight (including Cillian Murphy, Rose Bryne, Chris Evans, and Michelle Yeoh) heads out on a last-ditch attempt at re-igniting the sun with a nuclear weapon, but circumstances dictate that their ship rendevous with an earlier, failed vessel en route...resulting in the discovery of their doomed crew and a few things going awry -- of course -- in the process.

Boyle has fashioned a visually interesting piece but “Sunshine” feels awfully stilted during its first hour, particularly in lieu of a few erratic performances. Still, it’s still a solidly-crafted sci-fi tale until the movie turns awfully “Event Horizon” and “Supernova”-ish in its final third. At that point, Boyle and writer Alex Garland bring in a device that’s intended to make the piece suspenseful (or quasi-existential) but comes off as cliched and only clutters the previously “realistic” atmosphere before the film gets back on-track for a satisfying conclusion.

In spite of its problems, “Sunshine”’s visuals are impressive enough to warrant a recommendation, especially on Blu-Ray where Fox has delivered a superior AVC-encoded transfer with DTS-MA sound. The movie looks spectacular and the HD presentation plays right into the film’s strong suit. Extras are also copious, from deleted scenes, two commentaries (including one by Dr. Brian Cox from the University of Manchester, discussing the plausibility of the film’s science), two short films by Boyle, the trailer, and an “enhanced viewing mode” with mini-featurettes, available for Blu-Ray players that can handle picture-in-picture content (those who cannot access those functions during the film can still do so separately in the film’s Special Features menu).

SHOOT ‘EM UP: Blu-Ray (**½, 86 mins., 2007, R; New Line): Noisy, brainless assault on the senses from writer-director Michael Davis offers Clive Owen, Monica Bellucci and Paul Giamatti in a comic-book succession of chases, explosions and violence. That said “Shoot ‘Em Up” is somewhat amusing in a no-brain manner, with the film going so far over the top as to resemble a live-action cartoon. New Line’s DVD and Blu-Ray offerings look exceptional, particularly the latter, with its VC-1 encoded transfer and TrueHD audio options. Ample extras spread across both platforms include deleted scenes, commentary, original animatics and more.

CON-AIR: Blu-Ray (**½, 115 mins., 1998, R; Buena Vista)
THE ROCK: Blu-Ray (**, 136 mins., 1996, R; Buena Vista): A pair of Jerry Bruckheimer’s ‘90s action blockbusters hit Blu Ray after several announced (and then abandoned) 2007 dates, both in spiffy new 1080p transfers and uncompressed PCM audio.

“The Rock” has never been one of my favorites: a loud, noisy piece that does offer Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage working to take down ex-general Ed Harris, who’s taken control of Alcatraz. Loads of set pieces and the worst of Michael Bay’s herky-jerky camerawork and editing make this one a chore to sit through, but fans will be delighted with the Blu Ray presentation: the sound and transfer are both tremendous, and even better, most of the Criterion Collection DVD supplements have been ported over, including outtakes, commentary, trailers, TV spots and numerous featurettes.

Only marginally better is “Con Air,” a ridiculous excuse for Cage, John Cusack and John Malkovich to cash big checks and fly around in slo-mo to the bombastic Trevor Rabin-Mark Mancina score, which often resembles the kind of music you hear in a Bud Lite commercial. Still, this 1998 hit is fun for action fans who don’t mind the stereotypical Bruckheimer touch, and will appreciate Buena Vista’s Blu Ray disc, housing the 115-minute theatrical cut (a 122-minute extended version is on DVD) with the trailer and two Making Of featurettes on the supplemental side. The transfer looks exceptional and the uncompressed PCM audio -- just as it is with “The Rock” -- is marvelous.

New & Coming Soon on DVD

WHEN HARRY MET SALLY... (***, 1989, 95 mins., R; MGM/Fox): New Special Edition of the 1989 romantic comedy staple with Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan offers seven new Making Of featurettes, recounting the production of the Nora Ephron-Rob Reiner film. Commentary from Reiner, Ephron and Cyrstal, plus seven deleted scenes and the trailer round out the disc, which features a new 16:9 (1.85) transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

SAVING SARAH CAIN (103 mins., 2007, PG; Fox): Earnest, made-for-video family drama about a harried Portland, Oregon newspaper columnist who becomes the legal guardian for her late sister’s children -- all of whom are Amish. Michael Landon Jr. has specialized in heartwarming, religious-accented video fare of late, and “Saving Sarah Cain” is another well-intentioned, quite watchable production that Fox brings to DVD next week in a fine 16:9 (1.78) widescreen transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound and extras including deleted scenes and a Making Of featurette. Mark McKenzie’s score is also quite pleasant, in keeping with the family-friendly production

THE RICHIES, Season 1 (2007, 628 mins.; Fox): F/X original series with Minnie Driver and Eddie Izzard as the head of a family of con artists hits DVD this week. Fox’s four-disc box-set includes commentaries, a gag reel and “webisodes,” plus 16:9 (1.78) transfers and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks.

Also From Fox: The “Girls” are back in the Third Season of E!’s entertaining reality series THE GIRLS NEXT DOOR (2007, 330 mins., Fox), following around Hef’s Holly, Bridget and Kendra through 14 episodes and an hour-long retrospective show. A lot more fun than you might imagine, Fox’s three-disc set sports commentary and deleted scenes, along with full-screen transfers and 2.0 stereo sound...that Nicole Richie-Paris Hilton reality show, THE SIMPLE LIFE, came to a close with the fifth and final season of the series, focusing on the would-be dynamic duo at a camp. Those who still care will find that Fox’s DVD (2007, 220 mins.) offers a plain-jane presentation on one double-sided disc preserving the last 10 episodes of the series.

OSWALD’S GHOST (90 mins., 2008; PBS/Paramount): Robert Stone offers a searing, compelling new portrait of Lee Harvey Oswald’s involvement in the JFK assassination, featuring new interviews and never-before-seen archival material.

GUNSMOKE, Season 1 Vol. 1 (1956-57, aprx. 9 hours; Paramount): James Arness and the gang are back in Paramount’s latest DVD set from the long, long, long-running TV western, here featuring the first-half of its second season (1956-57) episodes with bonus sponsor spots.

SABRINA, THE TEENAGE WITCH: Season 3 (1998-99, aprx. 9 hours; Paramount): Melissa Joan Hart coasted for many years as the lead in this engaging enough sitcom. Season three of the series on DVD offers 25 episodes in fine full-screen transfers and 2.0 stereo sound.

DRAGONLANCE: Dragons of Autumn Twilight (90 mins., 2008, PG-13; Paramount): Animated “Dungeons & Dragons” tale (adapted from the reportedly popular book) hits DVD in an acceptable 16:9 transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound and extras including test animation and character design galleries. This adequately-animated effort ought to please fantasy buffs and D&D die-hards, with voices performed by Kiefer Sutherland, Lucy Lawless, Michael Rosenbaum and Michelle Trachtenberg among others.

Also New From Paramount: More hilarity from Felix and Oscar are on-tap in the complete Third Season of THE ODD COUPLE (1972-73, aprx. 10 hours), offering all 23 of the long-running sitcom’s season-three episodes in good-looking transfers. No extras are on-tap this time, however...Steve McGarrett and the gang are also back in the complete Third Season of HAWAII FIVE-0 (1970-71, aprx. 20 hours, Paramount), containing 24 episodes in vibrant full-screen transfers and mono sound. Extras are limited to episode promos.

GOLDEN DOOR (2006, 118 mins., PG-13; Buena Vista): Italian romance involving an Englishwoman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and a Sicilian peasant (Vincenzo Amato) en route to Ellis Island makes for an intriguing DVD “presented” by Martin Scorsese. Buena Vista’s DVD includes an introduction from the director, a Making Of featurette, the original Italian 5.1 audio track and a fine 16:9 (2.35) transfer.

EAGLE VS. SHARK (88 mins., 2007, R; Buena Vista): Wacky indie comedy about a waitress who meets another nutty eccentric forms the basis for an unusual romantic comedy from writer-director Taika Waititi. Miramax’s DVD is a full-blown special edition with deleted scenes, outtakes, commentary and more, plus a 16:9 (1.85) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

TWO AND A HALF MEN: Season 2 (2004-05, 511 mins., Warner): Second season of the massively popular CBS sitcom with Jon Cryer and Charlie Sheen hits DVD in a four-disc collection from Warner. Sporting all 24 episodes from the program’s sophomore frame in excellent 16:9 transfers and 2.0 stereo, this is a recommended purchase for series fans, the box-set also offering a gag reel and two featurettes.

NEXT TIME: 3:10 TO YUMA Saddles Up on DVD! Until then, don't forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards, check out the newly relaunched Aisle Seat Blog, and direct any emails to our email address. Cheers Everyone!

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