10/15/08 Edition -- The AISLE SEAT BLOG Is Also Live

Aisle Seat Halloween Treats
Plus: Shyamalan's Horrid HAPPENING

This Halloween is shaping up to be a tasty one for high-definition enthusiasts, thanks to a number of exciting new Blu-Ray releases.

Leading the way is Fox’s four-disc THE OMEN COLLECTION, sporting the original chronicles of Damien Thorn, aka the Anti-Christ, as well as John Moore’s okay 2006 remake (at least it’s a better inclusion than the horrid TV movie “Omen IV: The Awakening,” which thankfully has been left out of this anthology).

In spite of its flaws, the original OMEN (***, 111 mins., 1976, R; Fox) and its sequels form a trilogy that’s a rarity in the horror genre: glossy “A-list” studio productions with outstanding Jerry Goldsmith scores, effective Panavision cinematography, and a compelling story line that runs through all three pictures. The pay off may not be worth the wait, and some narrative opportunities are fumbled in the sequels, but with Goldsmith’s symphony of horror carrying the viewer through effortlessly, it’s still an annual viewing experience for this critic around this time of year.

Concerning director Richard Donner’s 1976 original, it's still hard to believe Gregory Peck and Lee Remick attached themselves to such a piece of pulp-horror nonsense, but the picture is so well-made -- expertly directed by Donner, atmospherically shot by Gilbert Taylor -- that it remains something of a genre favorite, if not a classic. The widescreen images and use of music are quite unsettling, even if the film's satanic-oriented plot has been copied so often by now that the picture has lost some of its original punch. Goldsmith's soundtrack, which certainly established itself as a bona-fide masterpiece of genre music, does wonders for the film, which moves at a steady pace, accentuating psychological horror almost as much as it does the outright apocalyptic elements in David Seltzer's screenplay.

The AVC-encoded HD transfer in Fox’s Blu-Ray disc (the only of the original "Omen" films to get a standalone release outside the box-set) is superb, adding a layer of sharpness and clarity to the cinematography we haven’t seen since its original theatrical release. Some grain remains, and the print isn’t blemish-free, but it’s certainly a huge upgrade on the standard-definition release and fans will appreciate the additional detail only the Blu-Ray affords. On the audio side, the DTS Master Audio track is comprised of the remixed 5.1 track from the last DVD release, and sounds superior to the original mono mix, which is also included here for purists.

For extras, Fox has wisely culled together all the extras from a number of prior DVD editions, sweetening the pot by including a new commentary from Nick Redman, Lem Dobbs and Jeff Bond, and restoring Jerry Goldsmith’s isolated score in 5.1 along the way (note that the late '90s laserdisc also offered a stereophonic isolated score track as well, though the Blu-Ray's 5.1 mix comes from superior elements, producer Mike Matessino tells me).

Redman, Dobbs and Bond offer an interesting account of the film’s production, with plenty of attention given to Goldsmith’s Oscar-winning score and how it functions so brilliantly in the movie. Two other commentaries have been reprieved from earlier DVDs, including a 2006 talk with Richard Donner and screenwriter (and, obviously, “Omen” fan) Brian Helgeland, as well as an earlier (and often hilarious) discussion with Donner and editor Stuart Baird. Donner and Helgeland’s talk covers some of the same terrain as the Baird-Donner commentary, though it’s amusing how Donner has some variations on the same anecdotes he discussed previously (then again, the movie WAS produced over 30 years ago!). While all three tracks will be of interest for fans, the Donner-Baird discussion is the most consistently engaging of the bunch, while more production detail is relayed in the Redman-moderated 2008 track, which is exclusive to the Blu-Ray platter.

Additional extras include the hugely entertaining, feature-length AMC documentary “The Omen Legacy,” which Image released in its own DVD back in 2001 (with a vintage “Damien: Omen II” featurette still exclusive to that disc), plus Donner’s introductions from preceding releases, a “Bonus View” picture-in-picture track mainly comprised of rehashed interviews from other featurettes and “The Omen Legacy,” and a brief talk with filmmaker Wes Craven discussing his fondness for the picture.

Also on-hand is the 45-minute “666: The Omen Revealed” documentary, plus lengthy interviews with Jerry Goldsmith and David Seltzer, along with a deleted scene that was added to the 2006 DVD platter. That sequence -- showing Mrs. Blaylock’s original demise -- is presented in rough workprint form and offers commentary by Donner and Baird as well.

Goldsmith’s interview segments include the composer’s views on how Donner wanted the sequence where Damien panics outside the church to echo the throbbing, primal sound of John Williams's "Jaws" theme; about winning his Oscar (calling himself "familiar with losing"); how his wife Carol came to sang "The Piper Dreams," and about working within the confines of the film's stringent budget. In fact, the producers coughed up an additional $25,000 to hire Goldsmith at the time, since he was initially outside the realm of the picture’s then-miniscule studio budget! (The film cost $2 million without the composer's services).

During the other documentary materials, it’s also interesting to hear how Donner stripped a good deal of the overtly horrific elements out of the picture (he and Baird talk about how they cut out Billie Whitelaw's extended fight with Gregory Peck from the final cut because it was too excessive), and one of the biggest revelations comes when they talk about the movie's original ending -- where Peck, Remick, and Damien are dead, ending the film on an ambiguous note and asking the audience to question if Peck wasn't simply insane.

Alan Ladd, Jr. (who seemed to add a good deal of his own input into now-classic '70s films like this and a little movie that followed called "Star Wars"), then-bigwig at Fox, asked Donner if Damien couldn't be alive at the end of the movie, and the filmmakers agreed to shoot the now-famous final sequence, where the demonic little tyke smiles at the camera while holding the President's hand at his adopted parents' funeral. The disparity between Donner wanting the film to be a psychological thriller and Seltzer’s original intent of creating a supernatural horror movie comes through quite clearly here, both in the finished product and the various extras housed on this essential Blu-Ray release.

Both DAMIEN OMEN II (**½, 107 mins., 1978, R) and THE FINAL CONFLICT (**½, 108 mins., 1981, R) continued to chart Damien’s apocalyptic rise, first as a young teen unaware initially of his heritage, and later -- as portrayed by Sam Neill in “The Final Conflict” -- a political prodigy newly appointed U.S. ambassador to England.

The AVC-encoded transfers on the sequels are superior to “The Omen” only in that the elements appear to be in healthier condition; “The Final Conflict” in particular looks exceptionally good here. As with before, DTS Master Audio sound is the default listening option, offering a pleasing, if not quite enveloping, sound stage for Goldsmith’s marvelous soundtracks, which only improve as the series progresses in their thematic depth and dramatic effectiveness. Each film also offers previously-available commentary tracks (from producer Harvey Bernhard on “Damien” and director Graham Baker on “The Final Conflict”) plus trailers.

Bernhard’s commentary on the 1978 sequel “Damien: Omen II” does go into some detail about the sequel’s woes, including the early firing of Mike Hodges -- whom the producer blames for taking too much time filming establishing shots -- and the general problems involving the rather pedestrian screenplay of the first “Omen” follow-up.

“Damien” isn’t a bad movie by any means, but it is a disappointing one considering the potential of the project. Damien’s growth and understanding of his demonic background could have made for a richly dramatic and eerie tale, but the resulting film is rather simplistic and by-the-numbers, playing out like a rehash of its predecessor. There are still many elements about the movie that are worth recommending: Goldsmith’s score, Gil Taylor and Bill Butler’s cinematography, and several crackerjack death sequences (gotta love Lew Ayres’ demise!) make the movie entertaining in spite of its near constant predictability.

Though “The Omen” was initially slated to chart Damien’s life in four installments (note Leo McKern’s line about the “four faces” of the Anti-Christ early in “Omen II”), declining box-office revenues on “Damien: Omen II” cut the series down to a trilogy, which was concluded in 1981's “The Final Conflict.”

Regarded by most viewers as the weakest entry of the three films, “The Final Conflict” is a problematic movie still worthy of re-evaluation: Sam Neill’s performance as the adult Thorn, the vivid photography of Phil Meheux and Robert Paynter, and another outstanding Goldsmith score -- for many his finest of the series and one of his strongest of the 1980s -- make the finale an interesting variant on its predecessors. There’s more of a mature, apocalyptic tone to the film, and several marvelous moments -- namely, the terrific, wordless opening, underscored only with Goldsmith’s accompaniment -- help to compensate for the tepid, anti-climactic finale, which works only because of the music...and for Damien meeting his demise at long last.

Director Graham Baker’s DVD commentary is, at best, weak -- Baker has little to say about the movie and the result is one of the least satisfying and sporadic commentaries I’ve ever heard on DVD. (If you’re looking for more substantial supplements on the sequels, you can find them in “The Omen Legacy” documentary, which includes a wealth of interviews and production detail on the entire series).

Fox has rounded out the set with a reprisal of the THE OMEN (**½, 110 mins., 2006, R) remake’s previously available Blu-Ray disc.

This straightforward re-do from director John Moore (“Behind Enemy Lines”) met with moderate box-office results in June of 2006. Here, Liev Schrieber and Julia Stiles are the not-so fun couple who find out too late that their child Damien isn’t really their son and really IS the Anti-Christ.

I had mixed feelings while watching the 2006 “Omen.” On the one hand, the film is reasonably well-produced and Moore adds a few visual twists (namely, a number of nightmarish dream sequences) that truly surprise since they’re unexpected. Sadly, the film otherwise is so bland, banging all the same notes as the original but with less style and inferior production values. Whatever deviations are made from David Seltzer’s original script (an additional death sequence at the beginning; less of a reliance on biblical prophecy) are also ill-advised and Stiles seems far too young to carry off her part.

The Blu-Ray edition contains a commentary track, a few extended scenes and an alternate ending that’s not a whole lot different than what ended up in the final cut. Of the few Making Of featurettes, there’s a fairly lengthy look at Marco Beltrami’s music, while the MPEG-2 transfer is fine and DTS Master Audio sound rounds out the disc.

Overall, Beltrami’s score sums up the whole movie: it’s perfectly serviceable, but it doesn’t hold a candle to Goldsmith’s original ‘76 soundtrack, primarily because there’s no memorable thematic material in it. The rest of the new “Omen” basically conveys a similar sentiment -- there’s nothing “wrong” with the film per se, but why watch a John Moore version of this story when you can see Richard Donner’s rendition...and with Gregory Peck and Lee Remick in place of Schrieber and Stiles. As I mentioned before, though, at least it’s superior to “The Omen IV”!

Overall, this is a terrific Blu-Ray box-set marred only by its packaging: the feeble cardboard box is awfully slender to house a four-disc release like this, with the individual discs being attached -- barely -- by a single sticky “spindle holder” on the center of each pane. In other words, there’s no hard casing here at all, making this a perfect candidate for being crushed en route to your home. Needless to say a release of this caliber deserves better.

Brilliantly scored by Jerry Goldsmith, memorably shot by Matthew F. Leonetti and backed by a script -- credited to Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais and Mark Victor -- that features an identifiable, likeable family at its core, POLTERGEIST (****, 114 mins., 1982, PG; Warner) has lost little of its appeal since its original 1982 release.

This Spielberg-produced, Tobe Hooper “directed” tale of a suburban family (father Craig T. Nelson, mom JoBeth Williams, and kids Heather O’Rourke, Oliver Robbins and Dominique Dunne) haunted by spirits in their California home has its “shock” moments, but also an effective depiction of an otherworldly “other side” that few supernatural films have so successfully evoked -- even with all the technical advancements that have occurred in genre films since its original release. The story, a variant on the old “Twilight Zone” episode “Little Girl Lost,” has moments of humor and warmth interspersed at various points, as well as suspense and “roller coaster” like thrills provided by superb ILM special effects and a pace that never flags throughout its 114-minute running time. At its core, though, are the natural performances of Nelson, Williams, and the young cast members, who come off as real people and make you care about their plight throughout.

After being available only in a weak 1998 DVD from MGM, Warner Home Video issued a 25th Anniversary Edition last year with remastered visuals. Regrettably, while Warner’s restored and remastered new Blu-Ray platter does boast a vivid new HD transfer (VC-1 encoded) with eye-popping colors and an enveloping Dolby TrueHD soundtrack that provides an effective soundstage for Goldsmith’s classic score, the disc -- like its standard-def predecessor -- comes up empty when it comes to meaningful extras.

Shockingly, not even the trailer is included here -- in fact, there’s nothing at all related to the movie itself in the entire package. No Making Of featurette (remember the vintage 1982 segment, seen on TCM and the 1994 laserdisc, that showed Spielberg instructing actors and establishing camera angles while credited director Hooper stood by, silently, on the sidelines?), no discussion about its production...the lone supplement is a simplistic, two-part featurette on real-life paranormal investigators that’s nowhere near as entertaining as your average “Ghost Hunters” episode on the Sci-Fi Channel.

All of this is perhaps unsurprising -- the issue over the creative involvement of writer-producer Spielberg and the debated contributions of Hooper has been hotly contested even prior to the film’s theatrical release in June of 1982 (check Aint It Cool News for a 2007 interview with Zelda “Tangina” Rubinstein, who implies that Tobe Hooper was basically under the influence and states that Spielberg handled directing chores on all six days of her shooting).

Yet after all this time, it’s disappointing Warner couldn’t have assembled a package that danced around the sensitive elements and given us as thorough a history of the film’s production as possible -- along with some deleted scenes and, at the least, its original advertising materials. Considering the studio’s outstanding track record with special editions, you'd have to assume that long-standing "controversy" between Spielberg and Hooper was undoubtedly the reason for this disc's lack of content. And it's a shame, because “Poltergeist” -- still a perfect mix of thrills, chills, humor, and warm, likeable characters a quarter-century after its debut -- deserves more.

That said, the movie has never looked nor sounded better, and Warner has housed the disc in another of their terrific “Digipack” hard-bound book cases featuring color stills and production notes. It’s a nice looking package and a dynamic presentation of the movie that, even in spite of its lack of extras, should satisfy all “Poltergeist” fans.

CARRIE (***, 98 mins., 1976, R; MGM/Fox): Brian DePalma's visceral take on Stephen King's novel is well-remembered for its blood-bath climax, as well as its interesting cast of young, future stars, from Sissy Spacek to John Travolta. As a movie, “Carrie” relies heavily on big shock moments, chronicling how a tortured teen with ESP (and a religious fanatic mom played by Piper Laurie) comes to take revenge on her classmates' repugnant behavior. Nancy Allen, Amy Irving, and William Katt are among the faces you'll spot in the terrific ensemble, which was assembled concurrently with the casting call for "Star Wars"! Like a lot of DePalma's early work, there are countless Hitchcock homages in both the movie and Pino Donaggio's score, but the movie is still one of the filmmaker's better films all around. “Carrie” set the standard for countless genre "revenge" films that followed, and it still poignantly taps into timeless themes of teenage alienation and acceptance, the gore notwithstanding.

MGM’s Blu-Ray edition of “Carrie” resembles an early format release with its MPEG-2 encoded transfer and lack of extras save for a trailer. The single-layer 25gb platter also includes a decent DTS Master Audio soundtrack, and while the transfer is attractive enough (particularly given the movie’s soft focus photography and the age of the source elements), it’s a disappointment that the documentaries produced for the 2001 DVD Special Edition weren’t retained here.

THE AMITYVILLE HORROR (**½, 119 mins., 1979, R; MGM/Fox): Never regarded as a classic, even of the cult variety, the original “Amityville Horror” nevertheless became one of the biggest independent hits of all-time. Produced by Samuel Z. Arkoff’s American-International Pictures, the pulpy adaptation of Jay Anson’s supposed “true story” of the infamous haunted house provides plenty of cheap thrills and a few unintentional yucks to go along with it.

James Brolin and Margot Kidder essay George and Kathy Lutz, who move into the quiet Long Island community of Amityville. Unbeknownst to them, their new home was previously occupied by a family that was slain by their teenage son in a series of brutal shootings. Whether or not the teenager was driven mad by the house (or something in it), the Lutzes soon find themselves being barraged by a variety of haunted house cliches: slime flowing out of toilets, glowing eyes in the upstairs bedroom, invisible play pals of their young children telling them secrets, and George being taken over by some kind of entity from another dimension. Even a local priest (Rod Steiger) fails to clean the house of its inherent evil after giving it the old Father Merrin try.

Directed by Stuart Rosenberg, “The Amityville Horror” is standard but competent ‘late 70s horror. The performances are solid but the movie has that “plastic” kind of look so many films of its era do. It’s like watching an “Eight Is Enough” episode crossed with “The Exorcist.” More effective is Lalo Schifrin’s score, which unfortunately was copied in so many other genre films (and used in even more trailers) that it’s then-unique mix of child chorus and creepy orchestral arrangements also seems well-worn.

MGM’s Blu-Ray edition of “The Amityville Horror,” like “Carrie” above, contains no special features of any kind -- a disappointment given that the 2005 Special Edition DVD of the film offered documentaries, a commentary from paranormal expert Dr. Hans Holzer, and additional History Channel specials on the “Amityville” house itself. All of these extras have been excised from the single-layer 25gb Blu-Ray release in favor of a decent, but not spectacular, AVC-encoded transfer of the movie with DTS Master Audio sound. Visually there’s more depth to the picture than the prior DVD, but the film’s plastic cinematography can only be enhanced so much, while the sound is equally modest in its effectiveness.

YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (****, 105 mins., 1974, PG; Fox): Mel Brooks’ classic comedy hits Blu-Ray in a marvelous release from Fox that, fortunately, doesn’t cut any corners when it comes to special features. The movie itself remains a marvelous entertainment, a spoof of and homage to the Universal Golden Age monster efforts, with pitch-perfect performances from Gene Wilder, Peter Boyle, Marty Feldman, Cloris Leachman, Teri Garr, Madeline Kahn and Kenneth Mars. Fox’s 50gb Blu-Ray edition includes extras cobbled together from prior releases plus some new goodies, from Brooks’ commentary track to a Making Of documentary and trivia track, interviews with John Morris and vintage conversations with Feldman, Leachman and others, plus outtakes, deleted scenes, photo galleries, Morris' isolated score and other extras. The AVC encoded B&W transfer is excellent and the DTS Master Audio sound just potent enough in doing justice to Morris’ beautiful, haunting original score.

THE HAPPENING (*½, 90 mins., 2008, R; Fox): Unintentionally funny, mind-blowingly static “apocalyptic thriller” from writer-director M. Night Shyamalan fails on the level of serious drama but works if you view it as a competition between stars Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel as to who gives the worse performance.

A PG-rated story “jacked up” to R-rated proportions by its studio for the sake of garnering additional box-office dollars, “The Happening” starts off with New York City residents killing themselves, and each other, with no rhyme or reason. Thinking that terrorists have dumped a chemical into the air causing the tragedies, Philadelphia high school teacher Wahlberg (really?) finds wife Deschanel and tries to get out of the city. There they attempt to navigate with other survivors in a rural landscape where nothing is certain -- except for the hot-dog munching guy they meet who tells them plants are behind it all. And no, I’m not kidding!

Any movie that includes a scene where Mark Wahlberg apologies to a plant and asks its permission to “go to the bathroom” is ripe for ribbing, and “The Happening” is a total disaster from the second it starts. Shyamalan’s penchant for minimalist performances only enhances the comedy inherent in the picture’s completely awkward delivery, depicted no more effectively than in the performances of Wahlberg and Deschanel.

In fact, the typically cute and appealing Deschanel is so awful here that you’d think she was in an Ed Wood movie -- her reactions are so at odds with what’s going on that you basically feel her performance was shaped by the director screaming “Zooey, laugh!” “Zooey, act scared!” “Zooey, cry!” in a completely random fashion. Certainly the way in which the film is edited does little to dispel that notion.

No more effective is Wahlberg in the least convincing performance by an actor in the role of an educator you are ever likely to see. Like Deschanel, Wahlberg’s awkward facial expressions and reaction shots almost seem like they’re better suited to an episode of “Mr. Belvedere” than a drama supposedly about the end of the world.

“The Happening” is total and complete misfire on every conceivable level, but thankfully it’s so...well...wrong, for lack of a better term, that it crosses the threshold from the realm of merely boring (like “Lady in the Water”) into unintentional yuck territory. If you’re in the mood and have enough friends over to join in the fun, this is certainly one of the livelier films Shyamalan has made -- even if it’s for all the wrong reasons.

Fox’s Blu-Ray disc includes a solid, but not spectacular, AVC-encoded transfer with 5.1 DTS Master Audio sound. Ample extras include a wealth of deleted scenes with Shyamalan introductions, Making Of featurettes, a gag reel (and I thought the whole movie was a gag reel!) and a digital copy of the movie for portable media players.

SWEENEY TODD (***½, 116 mins., 2007, R; Dreamworks): Finally out on Blu-Ray domestically, this spellbinding adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim musical from director Tim Burton is highly entertaining, if a bit more graphic and less humorous than its source material.

Johnny Depp is superb as the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, who returns to his grimy London home to seek vengeance on the magistrate (Alan Rickman) who imprisoned him, taking his wife and young daughter in the process. Helena Bonham Carter is the unhinged Mrs. Lovett, whose floundering pie shop proves to give Todd -- the former Benjamin Barker -- a “unique” means of disposing of those who stand in his way.

With a few musical exceptions (the opening and closing “Ballad of Sweeney Todd” has been reduced to an orchestral overture), the film is faithful to the show and stylishly assembled with the creative input of Burton’s creative team (cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, production designer Dante Ferretti, costume designer Colleen Atwood). Depp’s singing voice matches the intensity of his performance, and he’s well complimented by Bonham Carter, even if her performance is more psychotic than prior stage renderings by Angela Lansbury among others. The supporting cast is likewise exceptional, with Rickman turning in strong work as the villainous Judge, Timothy Spall as his cohort, and Sacha Baron Cohen in a highly amusing turn as the fraudulent hairdresser Adolfo Pirelli.

The subject matter is perfect for Burton’s cinematic sensibilities, though it’s somewhat surprising that the show’s black humor has been toned down while the violence and gore have been raised up several notches. Some of the latter is due to the very nature of the cinematic medium, yet I couldn’t help but think a less graphic interpretation wouldn’t have served the picture more effectively, as the gore can be off-putting to mainstream audiences (and likely might’ve been the reason for the film’s somewhat disappointing box-office in-take).

That said, “Sweeney Todd” is still a symphony of great filmmaking and one of the finest cinematic musicals to come our way in many years.

Dreamworks’ Blu-Ray disc, distributed by Paramount, has been eagerly awaited by the movie’s fans since its release last year and does not disappoint. The VC-1 encoded transfer is superb and the Dolby TrueHD is forceful when called upon. Extras (in HD) are ample, including a number of featurettes examining the production from its origins, with copious interviews with Sondheim, Burton, and the stars on-hand. The trailer and a look at the actual historical events that formed the basis for the Todd legend round out the package.

Fans should note that Warner Home Video issued the film on Blu-Ray overseas last spring in a nearly identical package, save for a pair of supplements (Depp & Burton “Moviefone Unscripted” and the original trailer) which are exclusive to the U.S. Blu-Ray platter.

THE INCREDIBLE HULK (***, 113 mins., 2008, PG-13; Universal): Interesting “re-boot” of the Marvel Comics character comes across as a sequel to an origin movie that was never made!

Pretending that Ang Lee’s interesting but bonkers “Hulk” movie never happened, director Louis Leterrier’s colorful comic-book saga brings us a kinder, more identifiable Bruce Banner in the form of Edward Norton. Intentionally channeling the Bill Bixby series more than its predecessor, this “Hulk” finds Banner on the run in South America, still trying to find a cure for his transformations into the Big Green One. Circumstances, of course, get in the way, with the military -- including General Ross (William Hurt) -- in hot pursuit of Banner, going so far as to send a newly Gamma-infused soldier (Tim Roth) into the fray in order to stop the Hulk from causing further damage. Banner, meanwhile, seeks help from old love Betty Ross (Liv Tyler), who hasn’t spoken to her military dad since Banner’s accident, as well as a scientist (Tim Blake Nelson) who hopes to provide a serum to help our hero at least control his transformations.

Loaded with effects and chase sequences, this “Incredible Hulk” is a lot more faithful in spirit and execution to the Marvel comics -- as well as the old CBS series -- than its predecessor, no question. In-jokes and references for fans abound, from a quote of Joe Harnell’s series theme to Lou Ferringo’s cameo and vocal performances of the Hulk’s dialogue as well (there’s no mistaking Big Lou’s “Hulk SMASH!” line). The Zak Penn script (which Norton rewrote, though without final credit) doesn’t aim to be anything other than a basic, straight-ahead action movie, but the set-pieces are well-executed and the final brawl between the Hulk and the Abomination -- with splendid Rhythm & Hues effects -- is something that kids and comic book fans ought to find perfectly satisfying.

The performances are all fine, and although one wishes there was more of a human element to this “Hulk” (something that Norton lamented was lost in Marvel’s final cut, and could possibly be rectified by a future DVD down the line), it’s still an entertaining fantasy that finally does the Incredible one justice on the big screen.

Universal’s 50gb Blu-Ray edition, out next week, doesn’t contain the rumored longer cut of the movie, but does offer a spectacular 1080p HD transfer with rock-solid DTS Master Audio sound. Numerous extras include an odd alternate opening (in HD) plus picture-in-picture goodies, Making Of featurettes, commentary from Leterrier and Tim Roth, and 43 minutes of deleted scenes (albeit in standard-def).

HALLOWEEN (**, 121 mins., 2007, Unrated; Dimension/Genius): Rob Zombie’s graphic “reworking” of John Carpenter’s seminal 1978 horror classic is a little better than the franchise’s last few sequels, though that’s faint praise given how low the series has fallen since the days of Donald Pleasance and Jamie Lee Curtis.

Zombie here tries to tap into the psychological, white-trash origins of masked killer Michael Myers, who as a kid enjoyed torturing animals before slaying most of his family. As you might expect, those revelations aren’t especially shocking, the film not especially scary, and the performances all just kind of bland (even Malcolm McDowell’s Doc Loomis seems muted, lacking the unhinged vivacity of Pleasance’s performance). Tyler Bates’ score reuses John Carpenter’s classic theme but for the most part “Halloween” 2007 shows how more is less, especially when compared to the relative subtlety of the original.

Dimension’s double-disc Blu-Ray edition of Zombie’s “Halloween” includes a four-plus hour (!) documentary on the production of the film by the director, comprising all of the second platter. The film itself is presented in its 121-minute Unrated cut with loads of extras including deleted scenes, an alternate ending, the trailer, interviews, screen tests, and additional Blu-Ray Live functions. The 1080p transfer is excellent, as is the Dolby TrueHD audio.

DIARY OF THE DEAD (**½, 96 mins., 2007, R; Dimension/Genius): George Romero’s latest attempt at resurrecting his zombie franchise is an interesting, if minor, retelling of his original tale, this time capturing the horrific rise of the undead through the lens of college students with a camera. As usual, social commentary is thrown into the mix, though despite the thoughtfulness (relatively speaking) of “Diary of the Dead,” the film’s thrills and novelty factor aren’t exactly fresh these days. Genius’ Blu-Ray edition offers a fine 1080p transfer with Dolby TrueHD audio and extras including commentary from Romero, a feature-length doc on the film’s production, outtakes and other goodies.

ZOMBIE STRIPPERS (*½, 94 mins., 2008, Unrated; Sony): Witless comedy from writer-director Jay Lee finds Jenna Jameson as a stripper (talk about typecasting!) who turns into a zombie. Rather than close his club down, though, owner Robert Englund opts to keep his ghoulish attraction going...and going! A few laughs can’t compensate for a threadbare production with brainless gags and not really enough gore to satisfy hard-core horror fanatics. Sony’s Unrated Blu-Ray disc includes a format-exclusive trivia track and gory scenes not shown in theaters (did this movie actually play in theaters?) plus behind-the-scenes featurettes, other deleted scenes and commentary with the cast and director.

Terrors in Standard Definition

ALFRED HITCHCOCK: THE PREMIERE COLLECTION (Fox/MGM): It’s been a fantastic month to be a fan of Alfred Hitchcock. Between last week’s double-disc “Legacy Special Edition” releases of “Psycho,” “Rear Window” and “Vertigo” from Universal and now MGM and Fox’s lavish eight-disc “Premiere Collection,” Hitch fans have plenty to celebrate.

A perfect compliment to the already-available Warner and Universal Hitchcock box-sets, this beautifully assembled package (retailing between $80-$100 in most outlets) features all-new Special Editions of some of Hitchcock’s early British works, licensed through Grenada International, as well as his first American efforts for David O. Selznick and RKO.

Bound in a terrific, hardbound spiral “notebook” with colorful packaging and booklet notes, the set offers the following:

-The 1927 silent THE LODGER: A STORY OF THE LONDON FOG, sporting commentary with historian Patrick McGilligan, a retrospective featurette on its production, a 1940 radio play adaptation directed by Hitchcock, plus audio extracts from interviews the director conducted with Peter Bogdanovich and Francois Trauffaut. The restored B&W transfer is as satisfying as one would hope, while two different soundtracks are on-hand: a 1999 score by Ashley Irwin (in 5.0 Dolby Digital) as well as a 1997 score by composer Paul Zaza (“A Christmas Story”) in mono.

-1936's SABOTAGE with Sylvia Sydney and Oscar Homolka, offering commentary with historian Leonard Leff; more of the Bogdanovich-Hitchcock interviews; a crisp B&W remastered transfer and a still gallery.

-YOUNG AND INNOCENT (1937) with commentary from critics Stephen Rebello and Bill Krohn; an isolated music and effects track; more director interviews with Bogdanovich and Truffaut; a restoration comparison; and a fine B&W transfer in its original British (83-minute) version (the U.S. version was trimmed upon its original release).

-The director’s classic REBECCA (1940), Hitchcock’s first American film produced by David O. Selznick, a memorable adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s novel with Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier. Previously available in a fantastic, out-of-print Criterion release, MGM and Fox’s new DVD includes a fresh commentary track with Richard Schickel, a Making Of featurette, a profile on Du Maurier, screen tests, radio plays, the trailer, an isolated music and effects track, and still galleries. Note that while many of the extras were included on the Criterion release (which offered even more supplements than are on-hand here), the B&W transfer isn’t quite as satisfying, exhibiting a bit more grain and artifacting than the discontinued Criterion set.

-Hitchcock’s 1944 adaptation of John Steinbeck’s LIFEBOAT for 20th Century Fox, here offered with commentary by critic Drew Casper and a Making Of featurette, plus a still gallery.

-Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck in another memorable Hitchcock-Selznick production, 1945's SPELLBOUND, featuring a new commentary with historians Thomas Schatz and Charles Ramirez Berg; featurettes on the production and the dream sequence created by Salvador Dalli; a 1948 radio adaptation; and the trailer. Once again, though the B&W transfer is pleasing on its own terms, the out-of-print Criterion release is a tad more satisfying.

-The 1946 classic NOTORIOUS with Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, featuring two different audio commentaries (one by historian Rick Jewell, another with Drew Casper), Making Of featurettes; a 1948 radio play adaptation; another isolated music and effects track, still galleries and other extras. The B&W transfer is fine but once again, when compared to the discontinued Criterion edition, does not quite compare as favorably.

-1947's THE PARADINE CASE with Gregory Peck, Ann Todd, Charles Laughton and Charles Coburn, presented in a crisp B&W transfer with commentaries from Stephen Rebello and Bill Krohn; an isolated music and effects track; a 1949 radio play with Joseph Cotten; the original trailer; and other goodies.

Note that all of the respective documentaries include new interviews with Hitchcock’s granddaughter Mary Stone plus Peter Bogdanovich and critics like Rudy Behlmer, and are presented in 16:9 widescreen. Overall this set is a must for all Hitchcock aficionados, even though die-hards who have retained the Criterion editions of “Rebecca,” “Notorious” and “Spellbound” are advised to hang on to them for their slightly superior transfers and additional extras.

HAMMER FILMS: ICONS OF HORROR (Sony): Excellent assembly of four Hammer entries from the Columbia catalog hit DVD at long last stateside. Included in the unholy quartet are the Peter Cushing-led “The Gorgon”; the first “Mummy” sequel “The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb,” presented in full Hammerscope; the so-so “The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll,” likewise offered here in anamorphic widescreen; and the strange mystery “Scream of Fear” starring Susan Strasberg, which is less a horror effort than it is a decent psychological thriller. The films all appear to be in good condition for their age in this two-disc set, each platter housing two features. Regrettably, unlike Sony’s prior “Icons of Adventure” Hammer release, supplements here are limited to the original trailers. Still, the attractive price and packaging make this a fun ride for Hammer enthusiasts.

MAUSOLEUM/BLOOD SONG: Exploitation Cinema Double Feature (BCI): Engaging pair of early ‘80s drive-in B movies is highlighted by the gleefully bad “Blood Song,” offering Frankie Avalon -- going against type -- as a bloodthirsty killer and “Jaws 2" and “Angel” ingenue Donna Wilkes as the young woman who shares a blood transfusion with him. Gore and laughs in this half-hearted self-parody are complimented by BCI’s inclusion of the memorable Bobbie Bresee-Marjoe Gortner offering “Masuoleum,” topped off with a commentary by Bresee herself! BCI’s anamorphic (16:9) transfer on “Mauseoleum” is excellent while “Blood Song” includes a decent full-screen presentation with no extras. Recommended for nostalgic Halloween fun!

JOY RIDE 2 (**, 91 mins., 2008, Unrated; Fox): Not-bad small-screen sequel to the entertaining sleeper “Joy Ride” finds killer trucker “Rusty Nail” again chasing down helpless young people en route to Vegas. Director Louis Morneau and writers James Robert Johnston and Bennett Yellin have done little here but rehash John Dahl’s original movie, but the film is fairly well-executed as direct-to-video efforts go, and offers the regulation “Unrated” gore for the gross-out crowd. Fox’s DVD includes a fine 16:9 (1.85) transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, two Making Of featurettes and a storyboard comparison reel.

Also on Blu-Ray

ROMANCING THE STONE (***, 106 mins., 1984, PG; Fox)
JEWEL OF THE NILE (***, 106 mins., 1985, PG; Fox)

Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner’s palpable chemistry turned these highly entertaining romantic adventures into certifiable box-office hits for Twentieth Century Fox during the mid ‘80s.

Both 1984's “Romancing the Stone” (directed by Robert Zemeckis prior to “Back to the Future”) and its entertaining 1985 follow-up “Jewel of the Nile” offer engaging performances from both Turner and Douglas, with Danny DeVito as the comic relief, in a pair of “Raiders”-inspired larks with an accent on romance. Each film has its own merits (Alan Silvestri’s score for “Romancing the Stone” is quite enjoyable and the scope cinematography is superb in each), and both pictures basically grossed the same amount at the box-office.

Fox has treated both films to superb Blu-Ray packages: each film looks flat-out gorgeous in new AVC-encoded transfers, while DTS Master Audio tracks -- limited in their fidelity -- are also on-hand. Featurettes culled from the 2006 Special Edition DVDs offer recent comments from Douglas, Turner, and DeVito, while an ample amount of deleted scenes are included on each disc. Additional featurettes examine the work of the late Diane Thomas, who wrote the original picture, while “Nile” director Lewis Teague discusses his work in the sequel’s commentary track. Trailers round out the separate 50gb Blu-Ray releases. Recommended!

SHREK THE THIRD (**, 87 mins., 2007, PG; Dreamworks/Paramount): Gorgeous animation and a spectacular high-definition transfer (new to Blu-Ray) can only partially enhance this tepid third entry in Dreamworks’ fractured-fairly tale series. This time out, Shrek and friends venture across the kingdom to find a successor to the throne, while Fiona back home gets ready to deliver her first child. The laughs are less frequent and the story more labored in “Shrek the Third,” which trots out the requisite pop tunes (“Live and Let Die” is used for the king’s funeral!) and visual gags, but ends up missing the mark more than nailing it. Still, young kids ought to enjoy the shenanigans and the animation is simply outstanding: the AVC-encoded 1080p Blu-Ray transfer, which was available on HD-DVD last year, is as impressive as any I’ve seen in either format, while the Dolby TrueHD “lossless” sound does have more of a kick than the HD-DVD’s Dolby Digital Plus mix. Extras include numerous short featurettes and asides for kids, including a Blu-Ray exclusive trivia track, customizable menus and “The World of Shrek.”

MADAGASCAR (**½, 86 mins., 2005, PG; Dreamworks/Paramount): Cute Dreamworks effort, a 2005 box-office hit, follows four animals from the Central Park Zoo who find the “real” jungle of Madagascar not quite as much fun after they end up shipwrecked. The usual in-jokes and film parodies -- the kind that separate Dreamworks fare from Pixar’s (and as such date these films more than their genre brethren) --  make for an enjoyable enough 85 minutes, though kids will take to the colorful animation more than adults. Dreamworks’ Blu-Ray platter includes a format-exclusive pop-up trivia track and numerous games in HD. The 1080p transfer is top-notch and a rollicking Dolby TrueHD soundtrack rounds out the fun.

WHEN WE LEFT EARTH: THE NASA MISSIONS (258 mins., 2008; Discovery/Image): Outstanding documentary series narrated by Gary Sinise profiles the 50th Anniversary of NASA and recounts all the missions, misfires, tragedies and triumphs of our country's push into outer space.

This real-life "Right Stuff" is packed with marvelous interviews and archival footage from the NASA vaults, some of which has never been seen -- and none of which has been viewed in the kind of outstanding high-definition detail that Discovery's Blu-Ray box-set affords. The four-platter, six-episode set -- which begins with the earliest days of astronaut recruiting and traces NASA's work through the Hubble telescope debacle -- offers vivid HD transfers and Dolby Digital soundtracks, as well as a number of compelling extras, from bonus NASA film highlights to astronaut interviews, individual mission clips, and five full-length additional NASA movies (on the bonus fourth disc).

Needless to say this is a rich, involving and enormously rewarding series that ought to recapture one's interest in the space program, remembering its infancy and examining the challenges it faces ahead.

Coming from Criterion

Costa-Gavras’ taut, compelling 1982 film MISSING (***, 122 mins., 1982, PG) tells the true story of Charles Horman, an American journalist/filmmaker who became a political prisoner during a 1973 coup in Chile. His father (Jack Lemmon) and wife (Sissy Spacek) try and find answers to his disappearance but run up against red tape and government bureaucracy in a pitch-perfect and brilliantly acted “message” movie with superb work from both leads and a haunting Vangelis score.

Criterion’s double-disc edition of the movie (which is available separately as a no-frills, single disc package from Universal) includes a newly restored 16:9 (1.85) transfer with mono sound and the trailer; brand-new video interviews with Costa-Gavras, Joyce Horman (Charles Horman’s widow), producers Edward and Mildred Lewis and Sean Daniel; 1982 vintage interviews with the director, Lemmon, Ed Horman (Charles’ father) and Joyce Horman; a video interview with author Peter Kornbluh, an authority on the 1973 Chile coup and the Horman case; and highlights from the 2002 “Charles Horman Truth Project” honoring the film with interviews with Spacek and co-stars John Shea and Melanie Mayron.

Extensive booklet notes include essays and the U.S. State Department’s official response to the picture.

Also New & Coming on DVD

QUARK: THE COMPLETE SERIES (1977, Sony): Richard Benjamin starred in this short-lived NBC series which attempted to do for the blossoming sci-fi genre of the ‘70s what “Get Smart” did for the espionage world back in the ‘60s. And with “Get Smart”’s Buck Henry on-board, expectations were high that “Quark” would become more than just another of the decade’s fads.

As it turns out, “Quark” -- which premiered as a one-shot pilot in May of 1977 before returning as a mid-season replacement the following year -- would never reach the comedic heights of its creator’s esteemed predecessor, yet it’s still an amusing romp with Benjamin leading a fine supporting cast (Conrad Janis, Tim Thomerson, Tricia and Cyb Barnstable, Richard Kelton, and Alan Caillou among them) in a scattershot yet amiable series that’s developed a cult following among sci-fi fans over the years.

Sony’s DVD seems to include uncut episodes (at least there are no disclaimers about edits) with clear mono soundtracks. Extra features include “minisodes” from “I Dream of Jeannie” and “Island of Horrors.”

ULTRAMAN: THE COMPLETE SERIES (880 mins., BCI): Colorful, goofy, supremely memorable Japanese TV series which aired in syndication in the U.S. during the ‘70s and ‘80s is back on DVD in a mammoth, nicely packaged release from BCI. If you have any fond memories of watching “Ultraman” growing up then you’ll get a big kick out of BCI’s complete “Ultraman” series box-set which offers the original episodes in both English and Japanese – viewers will note, though, that no matter which language track you select, the shows will drop into Japanese with English subs at times during sequences which were cut during American broadcasts. Extras include U.S. opening credits, interviews with the original American dubbing team, episode guide booklets, collectible cards, and a Kajiu encyclopedia (sharp-eyed viewers will notice some very recognizable monster suits during some of the fight sequences!).

GAME SHOW MOMENTS GONE BANANAS (2005, BCI): Extremely funny short-run series, which aired initially on VH1 and was hosted by the always droll Ben Stein, arrives on DVD courtesy of BCI. “Game Show Moments Gone Bananas” does exactly what its title implies: present a stream of clips, many hilarious ones, from shows ranging from “The Price is Right” to “Password,” from the ‘50s through the present. The way in which the clips are edited only magnifies the fun. BCI’s single-disc DVD set offers no extras but game show fans are urged to check it out.

GIRLFRIENDS: Season 5 (2004-05, aprx. 7 hours; CBS/Paramount): Fifth season of the long-running WB comedic drama includes all 22 episodes from its 2004-05 campaign, including “L.A. Bound,” “The Rabbit Died,” “A Mile in Her Loubus,” “The J-Spot,” “Maybe Baby,” “Too Big For Her Britches,” “The Mother of All Episodes,” “When Hearts Attac,” “Who’s Your Daddy,” “Porn to Write,” “All the Creatures Were Stirring,” “P.D.A.-D.O.A.,” “All in a Panic,” “Great Sexpectations,” “The Way We Were,” “See J-Spot Run,” “Good News, Bad News,” “Kids Say the Darndest Things,” “Finn-ished,” “The Bridges of Fresno County,” “Wedding on the Rocks,” and the fifth-season finale, “...With a Twist.” Full-screen transfers and 5.1 stereo soundtracks are all excellent across the board, though the usual disclaimer remains about possible edits from their original broadcast versions.

CARLOS MENCIA: PERFORMANCE ENHANCED (66 mins., 2008, Unrated; Paramount): The popular comedian returns with another Comedy Central special, this time touching upon topical subjects ranging from gays in the military to his trip to Iraq. Over 20 minutes of bonus footage has been included on this hour-plus DVD, with special features including Mencia’s appearance on an episode of “MTV Cribs” and a bonus segment from the “Mind of Mencia” series.

NEXT TIME: The fifth and final season of THE INCREDIBLE HULK! Until then, don't forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards, check out the Aisle Seat Blog, and direct any emails to our email address.  Cheers everyone!

Get Firefox!

Copyright 1997-2008 All Reviews, Site and Design by Andre Dursin