10/16/07 Edition -- The New AISLE SEAT BLOG Is Now Live & Relaunched!

October HD Mania Continues

While fans eagerly anticipate the promised long-version of Terrence Malick’s “The New World,” the Criterion Collection next week celebrates the release of one of Malick’s finest: the 1978 period drama DAYS OF HEAVEN (****, 95 mins., PG; Criterion).

Richard Gere, Brooke Adams and Linda Manz (“The Wanderers”) play a trio of midwesterners  who head to Texas at the turn of the century to work harvesting wheat on Sam Shepherd’s farm. After the harvest is done, they find that Shepherd is dying -- a fate that convinces Gere to push his girlfriend (Adams, masquerading as his sister) into marrying him for his inheritance.

While all the performances feel authentic, the real star of the movie is cinematographer Nestor Almendros (with an assist from Haskell Wexler), who fills the movie’s gorgeous landscapes with perfectly-hued “magic hour” lighting and nuanced textures. Like any Malick film “Days of Heaven” is packed with indelible images, an objective (and at times detached) feel, and an enveloping sound design -- the rich soundtrack comprised of Ennio Morricone’s original score, quotes from Saint-Saens and directional effects ranks as one of the most effective Dolby Digital soundtracks you’ll hear for a film of its era.

Though Paramount issued a fine, movie-only DVD some years back, Criterion’s new Special Edition of “Days of Heaven” will prove to be an essential purchase for admirers of the picture.

On-camera interviews include a new conversation with Wexler, who discusses how he took over for Almendros (who departed due to prior commitments) and worked diligently to remain consistent with his footage, as well as camera operator John Bailey, soon to be a fine D.P. in his own right. Sam Shepherd is also interviewed in a 12-minute discussion on the film from 2002, while Richard Gere participates in a recently recorded audio conversation (set against a montage of still images and footage from the movie) that runs nearly 20 minutes.

Last but certainly not least is a group commentary track, including art director Jack Fisk, editor Billy Weber, costume designer Patricia Norris, and casting director Dianne Crittenden, all of whom discuss Malick’s creative process and the production of the picture.

Visually, the 16:9 (1.85) transfer is mostly exceptional, though one can only wonder what an eventual HD release will resemble, as occasional artifacting can be seen in some of the wider shots. The all-new 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack is, again, just spectacular, boasting a broad and effective audio pallet that compliments the visuals throughout.

While there have been many superb DVDs this year, Criterion’s “Days of Heaven” ranks as one of the best -- a superb single-disc release celebrating one of the finest films of the 1970s. Unquestionably recommended!

Also new from Criterion this month is a double-disc Special Edition of John Huston’s UNDER THE VOLCANO (***, 1984, 112 mins., PG), sporting a fabulous performance by Albert Finney as a British consul living -- and drinking -- in a small Mexican town during WWII. Alex North’s terrific score is one of the key assets in this late Huston piece, a little slow and meandering at times but always fascinating to watch for Finney’s performance alone.

Criterion’s package includes commentaries, the trailer, a new interview with co-star Jacqueline Bisset, an hour-long look at the production of the film from 1984, an archival audio interview with Huston, and an Oscar-nominated 1976 documentary on author Malcolm Lowry, whose “unadaptable” novel formed the basis for Huston’s work.

Finally there’s BREATHLESS (***½, 1960, 90 mins.), Jean-Luc Godard’s highly-stylized, French new-wave classic that helped change the face of international cinema.

This new Special Edition of a previously-issued Criterion favorite includes a fresh transfer approved by cinematographer Raoul Coutard; archival audio interviews with Godard and stars Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg, and Jean-Pierre Melville; the French trailer; video interviews and essays; an 80-minute French documentary on the production of the film; a 1959 Godard short with Belmondo, “Charlotte et son Jules,”’ and an extensive collection of liner notes and other supplementary materials.

Flying onto Blu Ray: New & Upcoming

It’s typical that just as I’m about to put the finishing touches on an Aisle Seat column, a flood of new and eagerly anticipated discs arrives from the West Coast. It’s usually a frustrating (and often routine!) occurrence but this week it’s easier to work through since one of the releases ranks as of the most awaited of the entire year.

Coming on October 30th from Sony is a release that ought to be one of the crown jewels in the Blu Ray format: the SPIDER-MAN HIGH DEFINITION TRILOGY. The Blu Ray box-set bundles the original “Spider-Man,” “Spider-Man 2,” and new double-disc set of “Spider-Man 3" in one convenient package -- one that will prove essential for Spidey fans with Blu Ray players as only the latter will be available separately (for now) outside this release.

Why "Spider-Man" has remained an enduring character -- and why so many people found themselves identifying with Peter Parker over the years -- is simple: of all the super-heroes, Spider-Man is arguably the most "human" of them all. Yes, he has super powers, but his real-life problems are ones all young people have: trying to fit in and grow up, earn the respect of one's peers, and become a responsible adult. Spider-Man's sense of humor and Peter Parker's maturation are simply easier to identify with than Superman's hang-ups or Batman's psychological issues. By comparison, Spidey’s problems are at least ones most of us can relate to on a daily basis.

Those elements were wonderfully captured by director Sam Raimi in his trilogy, starting with the original 2001 hit SPIDER-MAN (***½, 121 mins., 2002, PG-13), which is filled with eye-popping, colorful action and appealing characters. It's aided immeasurably by one of the more perfectly assembled ensembles to ever grace a comic-book flick cast (with the possible exception of a certain movie starring The Man Of Steel) as well.

For a detailed synopsis of the film you’re welcome to read my original review, but in terms of the Blu Ray release Sony has served up a strong visual package -- a robust MPEG-4 transfer with Dolby TrueHD sound. The movie looks and sounds spectacular with only a bit of softness and grain, capturing the vivid cinematography and raucous sound design for the most part splendidly.

Regrettably, no extras are on-hand of any kind, which is the unfortunately the same situation as the Blu Ray edition of SPIDER-MAN 2 (****, 128 mins., 2004, PG-13).

In terms of the sequel itself, whether it's the fully-developed characters, more laid back tone, the added dashes of humor and warmth, or the sheer fact that “Spider-Man 2" has a genuine story to compliment its dazzling action scenes, the bottom line is that this first Spidey sequel is a sensational follow-up that's not only superior to its predecessor but also one of the great genre entertainments in memory.

Not that the original "Spider-Man" isn't a terrific example of comic-book filmmaking, but Raimi's follow-up is even more satisfying. Thanks to a terrific screenplay by two-time Oscar winner Alvin Sargent that goes beyond the "origin story" confines of the original, "Spider-Man 2" is one of the rare sequels that improves upon its predecessor, perfectly capturing the essence of both the comic book's wild action and the very human story of Peter Parker at its core.

For more on the film check out my original 2004 review of the sequel here. As far as the Blu Ray release is concerned, Sony has again served up a superlative AVC-encoded MPEG-4 transfer that looks even better than its predecessor, while a top-notch Dolby Digital TrueHD track compliments the audio end.

While supplements are again scant, the disc does allow you to choose between the sequel’s theatrical version and the recent “2.1" extended edition via seamless branching.

Rounding out the box-set is SPIDER-MAN 3 (***, 140 mins., 2007, PG-13), the third and weakest entry in the series that’s still on-track to ranking as the highest-grossing film of 2007.

Though this bloated and occasionally uneven sequel certainly has its share of problems (Peter Parker crying over a break-up?), the movie isn’t as bad as its reputation among fans would lead one to indicate, with some exciting set-pieces, a nicely understated performance from Thomas Haden Church as the Sandman, and some eclectic Raimi humor making for a film that, on balance, is entertaining if nothing else. For my original, in-depth review of the movie, click here.

Sony’s Blu Ray release of “Spidey 3" (available outside the box-set as well) is a 2-disc Special Edition sporting a flawless AVC-encoded MPEG-4 transfer with uncompressed 5.1 PCM and Dolby TrueHD sound. This is the best-looking film of the batch in terms of its BD release while extras (yes!) include two commentaries (one from Sam Raimi, another with assorted crew members including producers Laura Ziskin and Avi Arad), bloopers, a music video, still galleries, several featurettes, and a full slate of trailers and TV spots.

For Blu Ray and Spider-Man fans this anticipated release comes with a strong recommendation, in spite of the lack of extra features on the first two films.

New on HD-DVD

BBC Video re-enters the high-definition arena this week with a pair of top-flight new discs.

The 1986 Merchant-Ivory favorite A ROOM WITH A VIEW (***½, 117 mins., PG) leads the way: a gorgeous, low-key adaptation of E.M. Forster’s novel starring Helena Bonham Carter as a young Englishwoman, on vacation in Florence with her aunt (Maggie Smith), who meets an eccentric young man (Julian Sands) who promptly falls in love with her. Romantic and sometimes comedic predicaments ensue once she returns home and becomes engaged to her more socially accepted but reserved suitor (Daniel Day Lewis).

Brilliant performances from the leads as well as Denholm Elliott, Judi Dench, Simon Callow, Rupert Graves and Rosemary Leach make this sumptuously photographed romantic-comedy of manners and class conflicts one of Merchant-Ivory’s best-loved films, and BBC Video’s HD-DVD version is simply sublime: the 1080p VC-1 encoded transfer is exceptionally strong, offering warm colors and just the slightest display of cinematic grain at times, while the DTS-HD sound provides a similarly satisfying soundscape for the film’s soundtrack.

Excellent special features also abound, from a commentary including director James Ivory, the late producer Ismail Merchant, Simon Callow and cinematographer Tony Pierce-Roberts, plus a BBC report on the film’s breakthrough success in America, archival interviews with Day Lewis and Callow, a photo gallery, and tributes to Forster and Merchant-Ivory as well.

Also newly released from BBC is the gorgeous documentary GALAPAGOS (2006, 150 mins.), which provides a straightforward look at the islands off the coast of South America through spectacular HD imagery.

Tilda Swinton’s narration never gets in the way during this BBC/National Geographic Channel (US) production, which ought to please nature enthusiasts as well as anyone with an HD-DVD or Blu Ray player. BBC’s release earlier this year of “Planet Earth” has proven to be one of the top sellers in both formats, and “Galapagos” ought to reach a similar plateau thanks to its rich, colorful photography which shows off the clear benefits of HD-based optical video throughout. The Dolby Digital Plus sound is perfectly acceptable as well.

Highly recommended!

More Halloween Haunts

One would’ve hoped that the 25th Anniversary of POLTERGEIST (****, 1982, 114 mins., PG; Warner) would have resulted in a Special Edition DVD that celebrated the original release of the seminal Steven Spielberg-produced ghost story that’s haunted a whole generation of viewers.

Regrettably, while Warner’s restored and remastered new DVD (available last week) does boast a fresh 16:9 transfer superior to the original 1998 MGM edition and -- even more impressively -- an enveloping 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack that provides an effective soundstage for Jerry Goldsmith’s classic score, the disc comes up empty when it comes to meaningful extras.

Shockingly, not even the trailer is included on the DVD -- 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 Tobe 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 recent 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.

Meanwhile, fully deserving of a place on the Golden Age horror fan’s mantle is Fox’s three-disc FOX HORROR CLASSICS box-set featuring John Brahm’s film noir favorites THE LODGER (***½, 1944, 84 mins.), HANGOVER SQUARE (***, 1945, 77 mins.) and THE UNDYING MONSTER (**½, 1943, 62 mins.).

The Laird Cregar-starring vehicles “The Lodger” (a remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1920's silent film) and “Hangover Square” will prove to be of the most interest for fans -- both are heavy on atmosphere and offer a range of fine special features on DVD, including commentaries (from authors Alain Silver and James Ursini on “The Lodger” and Richard Schickel and Steve Haberman, separately, on “Hangover Square”), Making Of featurettes including tributes to Brahm and Cregar, and original radio productions of each story featuring Vincent Price. The weird werewolf tale “The Undying Monster” is the least of the group but might still appeal to horror fans who enjoy the Universal efforts of the same era, while transfers on all three pictures are as crisp as one could anticipate.

Audio offerings are 1.0 mono and a slightly re-channeled 2.0 stereo, making for a delectable Halloween viewing treat for old-school thriller buffs. Highly recommended!

Also New on HD-DVD

EVAN ALMIGHTY: HD-DVD (**½, 96 mins., 2007, PG; Universal): Much ballyhooed comedy-epic (a semi-sequel to “Bruce Almighty” from the same creative team) was trashed by the national media as being this generation’s “Ishtar”-- an over-budgeted studio vehicle that was doomed to failure before it even opened.

While “Evan Almighty” certainly did seem to be a case of wild studio expenditures (with a budget reportedly floating around the $175 million mark), the movie quietly managed to make back most of it theatrically, earning $100 million in the U.S. and a good amount overseas as well. The all-time Hollywood bomb most of the media hoped would materialize this past summer simply didn’t (in fact if it does well on video it may possibly come close to turning a profit).

That being said, “Evan Almighty” is now available on HD-DVD and standard DVD in a nice Special Edition package from Universal. Director Tom Shadyac’s forgettable but good-natured film -- which stars Steve Carrell reprising his role from the original and Morgan Freeman likewise doing the same as God -- is a more family-friendly affair than its Jim Carrey-toplined predecessor, and offers a few laughs and decent effects sprinkled along its path. Kids ought to get a kick out of the animal shenanigans while adults will enjoy Carrell coasting along with a fine supporting cast (“Gilmore Girls”’ Lauren Graham, John Goodman) lending able support.

Universal’s HD-DVD is packed with extras, including the studio’s patented “U-Control” picture-in-picture featurettes, deleted scenes, outtakes, amusing interviews with Carrell, an excellent 1080p VC-1 encoded transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus sound. (Also on DVD)

THE REAPING: HD-DVD/DVD Combo (*, 99 mins., 2007, R; Warner): Horrific (for all the wrong reasons) flop from Dark Castle Entertainment offers one of the all-time worst leading roles for a recent Oscar winner.

A slumming Hilary Swank sleepwalks through her role as a disbelieving scholar who heads to a sleepy Louisiana town to disprove that a succession of 10 Biblical plagues are not just occurring but are being caused by a young 12-year-old girl (Annasophia Robb).

Director Stephen Hopkins (“Predator 2,” “24") usually turns in watchable enough movies even if his scripts are subpar, but “The Reaping” rolls snake eyes on nearly every count: the Carey and Chad Hayes script is a pastiche of countless other genre films, while nearly every character is a heavy-handed stereotype (look everyone, southern Christians are baaaaaaaad!). More over, there are no scares to be found of any kind, while the requisite, awful “twist” ending puts a finishing cap on a tired waste of celluloid that will likely be left off the filmographies of most involved in its production.

Warner’s HD-DVD edition (a combo release offering the standard-definition version on the disc’s flip side) includes a crisp 1080p, VC-1 encoded transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital TrueHD sound and a short succession of Making Of featurettes. Just like the film, even John Frizzell’s bombastic score feels phoned-in. (Also on DVD and Blu Ray Disc)

CARLITO’S WAY: HD-DVD (***, 145 mins., 1993, R; Universal): Brian DePalma’s stylish, entertaining 1993 thriller works as a showcase for Al Pacino as a Puerto Rican gangster whose attempts to go straight are shot down in the New York City underworld. David Koepp’s adaptation of Edwin Torres’ novels “Carlito’s Way” and “After Hours” is mostly predictable, but DePalma picks up the slack with strong action scenes, atmospheric Stephen H. Burum cinematography, and dynamic performances from Pacino and an almost-unrecognizable Sean Penn as Carlito’s lawyer. Universal’s new HD-DVD edition includes a number of extras ported over from prior DVDs, including 10 minutes of deleted scenes, a Making Of and interview with DePalma, plus a promotional featurette, the original trailer (which effectively uses John Williams’ “Born on the Fourth of July” score), and a poster gallery. Even better is the disc’s new VC-1 encoded 1080p transfer, which captures Burum’s Panavision cinematography splendidly, while Dolby TrueHD sound compliments the audio package. Highly recommended! (Available Oct. 23)

CARLITO’S WAY: RISE TO POWER HD-DVD (**, 2005, 100 mins., R; Rogue/Universal): Mediocre prequel to the Pacino-DePalma cult favorite is respectable enough as made-for-video projects go, though that admittedly doesn’t say a whole lot. Jay Hernandez here steps into Pacino’s shoes as a young Carlito, just about to gain power in the Spanish Harlem underworld. Martin Bregman produced and recruited his son, Michael, to helm “Rise To Power,” which would have likely been dismissed as just another routine crime melodrama had it not borne an association with the original “Carlito’s Way.” Universal’s HD-DVD edition offers a satisfying VC-1 encoded 1080p transfer with Dolby TrueHD sound, deleted scenes, a gag reel, and several Making Of featurettes. (Available Oct. 23)

SEED OF CHUCKY: HD-DVD (*, 88 mins., 2004, Unrated; Universal): Putrid follow-up to Don Mancini’s horror series shows what happens when you give its writer total creative freedom. The result is an in-joke ridden, juvenile mess that’s neither funny nor horrifying, existing in some weird universe of its own as Jennifer Tilly (playing “herself”) runs afoul of Chucky, Tiffany and their offspring in Hollywood. Universal’s HD-DVD edition gives this box-office flop better treatment than it deserves with its VC-1 encoded transfer with Dolby TrueHD sound and all the extras from its original DVD (deleted scenes, commentaries, Making Of featurettes, outtakes) as well. (Available Oct. 23)

INSIDE MAN: HD-DVD (***, 129 mins., R, 2006, Universal): Highly entertaining heist-thriller from director Spike Lee offers a dose of its filmmaker’s social commentary but sticks mainly to suspense and well-defined character development. Denzel Washington is a NYC cop assigned to investigate a bank robbery being carried off by Clive Owen, yet little else is what it seems in Russell Gewitz’s cluttered but intriguing script, which also sports Jodie Foster as a mysterious administrator, Christopher Plummer as the bank branch’s CEO, and Willem Dafoe and Chiwetel Ejiofor as cops assisting Washington. Authentic atmosphere, superb performances, and a satisfying ending culminate in a solid piece of filmmaking, which ultimately became Lee’s biggest box-office hit. Universal’s HD-DVD includes commentary with Lee, over 25 minutes of deleted scenes, and two featurettes -- one examining Washington’s collaboration with Lee and another going behind-the-scenes of the production. The VC-1 encoded HD transfer is top-notch and the Dolby TrueHD sound highly effective, even if Terence Blanchard’s musical score sometimes overstates its presence.  (Available Oct. 23)

From Buena Vista on Blu Ray & DVD

THE INVISIBLE: Blu Ray (**½, 102 mins., 2007, PG-13; Buena Vista): Moody, effective teen melodrama with a semi-supernatural bent was marketed -- a bit misleadingly as well -- as a creepy “Sixth Sense”-styled thriller (no surprise coming from Spyglass Entertainment, which also produced the M. Night Shyamalan blockbuster).

David S. Goyer’s second directorial outing is at least an appreciable improvement on his freshman offering (the tepid “Blade: Trinity”), even if it’s ultimately more a tale of youthful alienation than a ghost story. Taken on its own terms, though, “The Invisible” is surprisingly effective.

Justin Chatwin plays a high school achiever and would-be aspiring writer who runs afoul of his school’s resident tough girl (Margarita Levieva), leading to his eventual beating and apparent death at her hands. Turns out, though, that Chatwin isn’t quite dead -- at least not yet -- and as he follows the police and the responsible parties around in the hours and days following his would-be murder, he finds that the hardened gang leader who left him for dead has issues of her own that he can relate to.

“The Invisible” boasts vivid cinematography from Gabriel Beristain and a serviceable Marco Beltrami score that gets a chance to flex its muscle during the movie’s concluding half-hour. A remake of a Swedish film (itself based on a novel), Goyer’s Americanization is atmospheric and always watchable, even if its various elements never quite come together. Chatwin is okay as the lead but Levieva -- while being a bit too pretty and petite to be entirely convincing -- is more impressive as a lost soul, neglected by her family, who makes a group of unfortunate decisions that ultimately lead both to tragedy and her own form of redemption. Less satisfying is Chatwin’s angst and home life with possessive mom Marcia Gay Harden (a thankless role) -- the kind of thing that, had it been handled more effectively, could’ve made “The Invisible” a legitimate sleeper.

As it is, Goyer’s tale is still worth a look -- a refreshingly different tale of adolescence that functions well enough if you aren’t expecting the edge-of-your-seat supernatural thriller that its original marketing campaign implied.

Buena Vista’s Blu Ray release offers a gorgeous 1080p encoded HD transfer with vibrant uncompressed 5.1 PCM sound. If the movie looks familiar to “Smallville” viewers, that’s because it was shot on some of the same Vancouver locales as its television counterpart, and Buena Vista’s HD transfer captures the gloomy, overcast visuals perfectly (the regular DVD’s 16:9 transfer [2.35] is also quite satisfying for standard-definition viewers).

Extras include 13 minutes of deleted scenes, including Chatwin’s meeting with an elderly hospital patient who can “see” him. This sequence was shown in the movie’s trailers but was ultimately discarded as it didn’t quite fit in with the finished film – something that irked viewers who went into “The Invisible” expecting a more explicit tale of the supernatural.

Other extras include two commentaries -- one with Goyer and writer Christine Roum, and another with writer Mick Davis -- plus a pair of music videos. (Also on DVD)

Also New on Blu Ray: Fox Returns!

THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW: Blu Ray (**½, 123 mins., 2004, PG-13; Fox): Great special effects are the saving grace of Roland Emmerich's silly sci-fi extravaganza, which poses the question of what would happen if global warming reached catastrophic levels. The answer is: dumb dialogue, splendid visuals (especially now in HD on Blu Ray), thin characterizations, and over $180 million in domestic box-office.

"The Day After Tomorrow" is competent disaster filmmaking, make no mistake: the scenes of New York City frozen over, ships parked in the metropolitan streets, and tidal waves crashing into the Statue of Liberty are impressive in scope. If only the premise by Emmerich and Jeffrey Nachimanoff made more sense (it's nearly as believable as watching one of those '50s monster movies with scientists talking jibberish), with some outrageous scenes forcing stars Dennis Quaid (as an intrepid NOAA climatologist) and Jake Gyllenhaal (as his son, stranded in NYC) to look as serious as possible in an effort to make the picture believable at least on a dramatic level. It's not, but as dumb-fun summer blockbusters go, "Day After Tomorrow" is just a notch below "Twister" on the entertainment scale, and certainly makes for a recommended HD view.

Back after nearly six months of inactivity on Blu Ray, Fox’s BD release looks simply spectacular, though truth be told the disc (like several of the others released in this batch) caused infrequent lock-ups on my first-generation Philips Blu Ray player (at least until new firmware was released at the end of last week). Otherwise, there’s no faults to be found with the AVC-encoded 1080p transfer, while 5.1 DTS MA audio packs a wallop on the soundtrack side. Numerous extras include two commentaries, deleted scenes, a “global warming trivia track” (!), the trailer, and an interactive game. 

28 DAYS LATER: Blu Ray (***, 113 mins., 2003, R; Fox)
28 WEEKS LATER: Blu Ray (**, 100 mins., 2007, R; Fox)
Danny Boyle's apocalyptic zombie thriller -- as well as its recent 2007 sequel -- both hit Blu Ray in reasonably satisfying HD presentations.

Boyle’s 2003 original “28 Days Later” isn't overwhelmingly scary or disturbing, but does boast gritty filmmaking, solid performances, and compelling characters who try and dodge flesh-eating monsters that have ravaged the world.

In a move reminiscent of John Wyndham's "Day of the Triffids," Jim, a young man who slept through the initial onslaught, wakes up in a hospital, only to find London almost entirely devoid of human existence. Instead, he finds hordes of zombies -- the result of a plague unleashed by unsuspecting animal rights activists who break into a lab conducting experiments on simians. Fortunately for Jim (Cillian Murphy), he finds company with a tough female (Naomie Harris) and a father (Brendan Gleeson) trying to keep his teen daughter alive, and soon the group sets out to find other survivors in the world.

More humanistic than past zombie films, “28 Days Later” is easily one of the more satisfying horror films made in recent years. The performances are uniformly strong and the dialogue between the characters more natural than the preachy, moralistic tone other films of this nature have contained in the wake of George Romero's "Night of the Living Dead." While things become a bit more predictable when our heroes run into a group of military nuts (with the predictable "who's more human?" angle thrown in), the film regains its footing with an optimistic ending -- finally, here's a zombie movie that actually does bother to throw some fresh twists into the mix (plus, these undead monsters move at breakneck speed, not at a languid, Karloff-ian pace).

Fox’s Blu Ray package offers a AVC-encoded HD transfer that looks as crisp as the source material allows (it was shot almost entirely on PAL digital video), while the DTS MA 5.1 sound is enveloping. Extras include a fun and informative commentary track from the filmmakers, along with a Making Of segment, deleted scenes, and no less than three alternate endings. These range from a bleaker and less satisfying end to the story, to a slightly re-arranged version of the ending that was used.

Also newly out on Blu Ray is the mediocre 2007 follow-up 28 WEEKS LATER, which stars Robert Carlyle, Rose Bryne, Catherine McCormack and Harold Perrineau (“Lost”) in a so-so zombie yarn that picks up some time after the conclusion of the original and offers a less satisfying, more melodramatic story. Despite a few effective sequences, a weak ending puts the unfortunate icing on the cake for a sequel that basically offers less of the same.

Fox’s Blu Ray release includes a AVC encoded 1080p transfer that’s better-detailed and more satisfying than its predecessor, while the 5.1 DTS MA sound offers a bit more oomph as well. Extras include commentary from director Joan Carlos Fresnadillo, deleted scenes, three featurettes and the original trailer. 

FANTASTIC FOUR: RISE OF THE SILVER SURFER Blu Ray (**½, 92 mins., 2007, PG; Fox): Agreeable enough sequel to “Fantastic Four” functions more effectively as a comic book flick for kids as opposed to a serious super-hero saga, not that there’s anything wrong with that in lieu of most of today’s stoic caped crusaders. The entire cast (Ioan Gruffudd, Jessica Alba, Chris Evans, Michael Chiklis, Julian McMahon) is back as the FF battle the Silver Surfer, who comes coasting to Earth just in time to herald the end of the world. Good effects and a quick pace make this sequel enjoyable enough, though the brief running time and scant character development keep it from being much more. Fox’s Blu Ray disc offers a gorgeous 1080p transfer with 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio sound and a solid group of extras (commentaries, deleted scenes, documentaries and games), though truth be told the disc (again) froze quite a bit on my Blu Ray player before I updated its firmware -- an apparently common occurrence for anyone who doesn’t own a Playstation 3.

Fox Blu Ray Catalog Releases

FROM HELL: Blu Ray (*** Movie, *** Blu Ray Disc; 121 mins., 2001, R; Fox): The last good Jack the Ripper yarn was a made-for-television mini-series that starred Michael Caine and copped several Emmy awards back in 1988. Though far more graphic than that particular "Jack the Ripper," “From Hell” is an ambitious and evocatively shot production that's equal parts historical speculation, tragic romance, and slasher film, though the film's convoluted screenplay ultimately manages to put a damper on the movie's dramatic impact.

Johnny Depp plays an opium-addicted detective in charge of the Ripper investigation in Victorian-era London, tracking down a rash of suspects that range from pimps preying on Whitechapel prostitutes to an individual possibly tied all the way to Buckingham Palace. Heather Graham (keeping her clothes on for one of the first times in an R-rated film, and managing to give a good performance as well) plays Mary Kelly, one of England's "unfortunates" who tries to stay alive while her lady-of-the-evening friends begin to be picked off one after another by the sadistic killer.

The Hughes Brothers ("Dead Presidents") directed this slick, gritty and viscerally arresting thriller, based on Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's graphic novel. The movie is filled with atmospheric production design -- damp and dirty sets, lushly designed interiors by Martin Childs -- all of it impressively shot by Peter Deming. Despite some obvious visual references from films like "Bram Stoker's Dracula," the fact is that, from start to finish, you can't take your eyes off “From Hell,” in spite of its dramatic deficiencies.

Chief among the troubles is a jumbled script credited to Terry Hayes and Rafael Yglesias, which ineffectively shifts the action from Graham's heroine, to Depp's would-be tragic detective, to Jack himself, during each of the movie's three acts. The trouble is that -- aside from the anticipation one has about learning of the killer's identity -- this tactic ends up disrupting the film's momentum, with neither Depp nor Graham receiving enough time for sufficient character development. Depp's drug addiction and doomed previous marriage are brought up but never elaborated upon, robbing his relationship with Graham and his sacrificial decision at the end of the dramatic power they should have had. Both actors turn in solid work, but the script itself isn't strong enough to support their talents.

That said, “From Hell” is still a highly entertaining film -- and a visual feast -- that anyone with an interest in the subject matter is urged to check out on Blu Ray, where Fox has served up a fine, if occasionally soft, new AVC-encoded transfer with 5.1 DTS-MA audio. The colors are warm and the photography well-served here in high definition, while the audio cranks out a robust, bass-heavy soundtrack at every turn.

Fox released a 2-disc “Limited” Director’s DVD Edition that’s still in print some five years after its release, with the Blu Ray disc here porting over just a few of those extras.

First off, the audio commentary track from the Hughes Brothers (which also includes co-writer Yglesias, Robbie Coltrane, and others) is mostly insightful, particularly when it discusses their well-documented run-ins with studio executives over the film's editing. Some 20 deleted scenes are included, many of them having been unfortunately cut from the final print. Kudos for whoever made the smart decision to include the specific unused material in color (any footage from the released version is in black-and-white), making it abundantly clear what material was excised. Nice job! While most of the cut scenes are interesting, one cannot say the same for the film's alternate ending (with Depp in a Shanghai opium den, looking like an extra from "Big Trouble In Little China"!), which was wisely re-shot.

A trivia track and the original trailer round out a fine disc all around.

THE FLY Blu Ray (**½ movie, ***½ Blu Ray Disc; 116 mins., R, Fox): David Cronenberg’s update and reworking of the ‘50s Fox Cinemascope creature-feature chronicles the step-by-step transformation of scientist Jeff Goldblum into a full-sized insect, his relationship with Geena Davis (who loves him despite his...shall we say increasingly “eccentric” behavior?), and futile attempts to reverse his metamorphosis.

Goldblum’s admirable performance carries the ‘86 “Fly” to a degree, but ultimately, this icky, gooey, blood-soaked effects piece represents ‘80s horror at its most excessive. As the film goes along, Cronenberg pays more attention to the physical -- rather than mental -- decline of Goldblum as he plunges into the abyss, and the audience is treated to such heartwarming moments as our protagonist’s ear falling off, vomiting on a donut, and later having his head severed in two, all in favor of a new insect noggin.

No question, “The Fly” has its fans, but today, the film comes across as an effects/make-up showpiece for Cronenberg and designer Chris Walas, who were trying to out-do the most graphic of the decade’s F/X hallmarks like “An American Werewolf In London.” The effects were undoubtedly remarkable for their time, though when viewed now, they ultimately make the movie’s tragic love story even more unbelievable than it was at the time-- it’s just hard to take Davis’ sympathy for the grotesque Goldblum seriously as his condition worsens, and worsens, and worsens.

Still, the movie has its fans, who may want to check out Fox’s high-definition Blu Ray disc for its new AVC-encoded 1080p transfer. The movie looks quite good, if predictably a bit “aged,” while the 5.1 DTS-HD sound is highly effective throughout. Unlike too many Fox Blu Ray discs, the studio has also ported over virtually all the extras from its 2-disc Special Edition DVD as well -- including the full two-hour documentary on the movie’s production!

Therefore, this packed Special Edition (which also sports deleted scenes, test footage, other featurettes, trailers, a new trivia track, and Cronenberg’s commentary) ranks as one of the finest Blu Ray discs to date -- and makes you wonder why the studio couldn’t do this regularly for ALL their Blu Ray releases (read below).

ROBOCOP: Blu Ray  (***½, *½ Blu Ray Disc; 1987, 103 mins., Unrated and R; MGM/Fox): One of the big hits of the summer of 1987 hits Blu Ray in a MPEG-2 encoded, single-layer 25GB Blu Ray release that sadly lacks any special features whatsoever.

While fans may appreciate the superior HD transfer here (which is satisfying though not flawless), the fact that it offers not one extra of any kind is just baffling -- especially when MGM just issued a superb Steelbook 2-disc DVD a month ago with all kinds of extras (both cuts of the film, new documentaries, deleted scenes and other extras). Like the “Rocky” Blu Ray release of last year, you just have to scratch your head at that decision.

EDWARD SCISSORHANDS: Blu Ray (***½, **½ Blu Ray Disc; 1990, 105 mins., PG-13; Fox): Fairly satisfying new Blu Ray release of Tim Burton’s enchanting 1990 fairy tale offers an okay, if fairly soft, MPEG-2 encoded 1080p transfer, which does a passable job preserving the varied color scheme of Burton, cinematographer Stefan Czapsky and production designer Bo Welch. The single-layer 25GB Blu Ray title also includes 4.0 DTS-HD audio plus the featurette, trailer, and Tim Burton and Danny Elfman commentaries from its last DVD edition.

Coming Soon on Blu Ray

THE COMPANY: Blu Ray (286 mins., 2007, Sony): TNT mini-series, based on Robert Littell’s book, follows the origins of the CIA from the start of the Cold War through the end of the USSR via the eyes of new Yale grad Chris O’Donnell. Solid performances from O’Donnell, Alfred Molina and Michael Keaton make this Ridley and Tony Scott production watchable, even if the pacing is erratic and director Mikael Salomon (former expert cinematographer) never shakes memories of Robert DeNiro’s “The Good Shepherd,” which recently covered similar terrain a bit more effectively (albeit with some problems of its own). Sony’s Blu Ray release is top-notch, however, sporting a terrific 1080p transfer with uncompressed 5.1 PCM sound and two Making Of featurettes. (Available Oct. 23rd, also on DVD)

New on DVD from Lionsgate

CROSSED SWORDS (***, 121 mins., 1978, PG; Lionsgate): This lavish 1978 adaptation of “The Prince and the Paper” from Alexander Salkind and company marks a reunion of several key participants in Salkind's "Three Musketeers" pictures, including cast members Oliver Reed, Raquel Welch, and Charlton Heston, plus screenwriter George Macdonald Fraser.

Directed by Richard Fleischer, “Crossed Swords” makes for perfect family entertainment (its leisurely 121-minute running time notwithstanding), with "Oliver" star Mark Lester playing dual roles in this engaging adaptation of Mark Twain's story. As you would expect with a Salkind effort, the production is top-notch, with evocative sets and costumes, superb cinematography by Jack Cardiff, and a rousing (if occasionally obnoxious) score by Maurice Jarre adding immeasurably to the fun.

Lionsgate’s DVD of “Crossed Swords” supplants Anchor Bay’s older, out-of-print disc (that was issued under the “Prince and the Pauper” title) and offers a fresh 16:9 (2.35) transfer with 2.0 mono sound. It’s been a while since I’ve seen the prior 2000 DVD release but I would have to assume that Lionsgate’s newer transfer is a sizeable upgrade, since it looks markedly fresh for the most part throughout. No extras are included (Anchor Bay’s release did include the trailer and some TV spots).

CUTTING CLASS (**½, 91 mins., 1989, Unrated; Lionsgate): Wacky high school horror-comedy from director Rospo Pallenberg (yes, John Boorman’s creative “associate” on “Excalibur”!) stars late ‘80s scream queen Jill Schoelen, Donovan Leitch (Ione Skye’s brother), Roddy McDowall, Martin Mull, and a young Brad Pitt. The tone is predictably wacky but this pre-“Scream” effort is consistently watchable throughout, right down to its memorably comic final shot! Lionsgate’s DVD includes a 16:9 (1.85) presentation of the movie’s Unrated version with 2.0 mono sound -- overall, it’s not a great transfer but it’s perfectly serviceable for a neglected direct-to-video production that still provides decent fun for buffs.

SAW III: Director’s Cut (*½, 121 mins., 2006, Unrated; Lionsgate): Lionsgate’s horror franchise has certainly cashed in at the box-office, with yet another sequel due out in just a couple of weeks. To tide fans over until then, “Saw” fanatics who enjoy (?) the series’ torture sequences will undoubtedly savor this 2-disc Unrated DVD, offering a longer cut of the film, three different audio commentaries, a trivia game, preview of “Saw IV” and more.

CAPTIVITY (*, 85 mins., 2007, Unrated; Lionsgate): If you wanted to know whatever happened to Oscar nominated director Roland Joffe (“The Killing Fields,” “The Mission”), your answer can be found with his work in this exploitive horror bomb, starring one-time “24" star Elisa Cuthbert as a model who’s been abducted by a psycho along with another guy (Daniel Gillies) who might know more than he’s leading on. A group of torture sequences later and the credits roll up in this vile piece of cinematic trash, as unpleasant as it sounds. And as far as Joffe goes, have the once-mighty ever fallen any further than this? Lionsgate’s DVD includes a 16:9 (2.35) transfer with 6.1 DTS-ES sound, 5.1 Dolby EX audio, two featurettes and deleted scenes.

New From Warner Home Video & HBO

BELIEVERS: Unrated (**, 103 mins., 2007, Unrated; Warner): The latest direct-to-vid horror pic from Warner’s “Raw Feed” label is certainly more watchable than the outfit’s prior outings, but “Believers” is still a tepid genre yarn when it’s all said and done. One-time “Blair Witch” filmmaker Daniel Myrick’s tale focuses on a cult ready to leave this plain of existence and head for another planet by drinking some special kool-aid (hey, what do you expect when Daniel Benzali plays “The Teacher”?) before the end of the world befalls us. “Believers” is too slow and talky, and hampered by meager production values, to ultimately click, but it’s certainly more satisfying than most of the horror dreck we’ve watched lately, focusing on psychological horrors as opposed to sadism. Warner’s DVD includes a commentary from Myrick and writer Julia Fair plus various featurettes, a 2.35 (16:9) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

THE SOPRANOS: Season 6, Part 2 (9 Episodes, 2007; HBO): And so the acclaimed, massively popular, endlessly quotable HBO crime drama came to an end this past.............................................................and I assume you’ve read enough jokes about how “The Sopranos” concluded by now, right? HBO’s box-set offers the final nine episodes from the series in excellent 16:9 (1.85) transfers with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, a segment on the show’s soundtrack, four commentaries with cast members Dominic Chianese, Robert Iler, Arthur Nascarella, Steven R. Schirripa and Stevie Van Zandt, and a featurette examining the making of “Christopher’s horror film” entitled “Cleaver.” Obviously recommended for all “Sopranos” fans.

WHOSE LINE IS IT ANYWAY? Uncensored, Season 1, Vol. 2 (220 mins., 1998-99, Warner): While Drew Carey takes over the hosting reigns of “The Price is Right” from Bob Barker this week, Warner Home Video has issued a new DVD package of Carey’s long-running “Whose Line is it Anyway?” series in uncensored form. Sporting some vulgar language and riffs cut from their ABC broadcasts, this release ought to appeal to Carey fanatics who don’t mind their more adult nature than what went out on broadcast TV.

New From Paramount

THE L WORD: Season 4 (2007, aprx. 11 hours; Paramount): Four-disc box-set offers all 12 episodes from the Showtime series’ fourth season. This time out Cybill Shepherd joins the cast as a “Special Guest Star” while more scandalous, melodramatic plots surrounding a group of L.A. lesbians continues the program’s trademark tawdry stories and romantic entanglements. Paramount’s DVD includes crisp 16:9 (1.78) transfers, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, “free” bonus episodes from other Showtime series “The Tudors” and “Californication,” plus “Sundance Diaries” and other extras.

NCIS: Season 4 (2006-07, aprx. 18 hours; Paramount): Popular CBS series fit the bill for older viewers once “JAG” was cancelled, and Paramount’s six-disc DVD box-set offers all 24 year-four episodes of “NCIS” in excellent 16:9 (1.85) transfers with 5.1 audio and a number of supplements. Included among the latter are selected commentaries, numerous behind-the-scenes featurettes and other goodies ideal for “NCIS” fans.

AMERICAN GANGSTER: Season 1 (2006, 180 mins.; Paramount): BET series chronicles real-life African-American gang crime in a straightforward documentary series narrated by Ving Rhames. Not to be confused with the upcoming Denzel Washington-Russell Crowe-Ridley Scott film of the same name, Paramount’s release includes the complete first season of “American Gangster” in full-screen transfers and throbbing 5.1 Dolby Digital sound (the incessant soundtrack seems a bit much at times from what I sampled of it).

CASSHERN (117 mins., 2004, Not Rated; Dreamworks): U.S. debut of the Japanese live-action anime adaptation boasts a never-before-seen “Director’s Cut” from Kazuaki Kiriya that’s actually over 20 minutes shorter than its original version. In the case of “Casshern,” that may be a good thing, as most reviews criticized this sci-fi epic’s overlong running time, though I’ll leave that for fans to decide. Dreamworks’ DVD includes an excellent 16:9 (2.35) transfer with 5.1 Japanese Dolby Digital sound and English subtitles.

A MIGHTY HEART: HD-DVD (***, 108 mins., 2007, R; Paramount): The summer isn’t usually an ideal time to release a film boasting an expressly adult subject matter, but Paramount attempted to do just that when they distributed the gut-wrenching “A Mighty Heart” in late June.

This vivid portrait of Marianne Pearl’s (Angelina Jolie) quest for answers concerning the whereabouts of her kidnapped (and later slain) journalist-husband Daniel Pearl (Dan Futterman) may be remembered at Oscar time, but the film flopped in theaters despite receiving mostly positive reviews.

Now on HD-DVD and DVD, “A Mighty Heart” has a chance to find the audience that bypassed it in theaters, though the picture isn’t without its shortcomings. Even though Michael Winterbottom’s direction is taut and Jolie’s performance admirable, I felt detached from the film in much the same way that I did while viewing “United 93.” “A Mighty Heart” effectively dissects Marianne Pearl’s attempts to find Daniel and navigate through an endless maze of political channels, yet because we all know about her husband’s tragic fate, the way in which the film unfolds comes off as predictable. The handheld camerawork is fluid, creating a pseudo-documentary approach, yet the rapid-fire editing (there’s a cut every few seconds) tends to keep you at arm’s length as well. It’s a worthwhile film, and an important one, but it’s also reserved and not entirely satisfying.

Paramount’s HD-DVD (we reviewed the standard DVD last week) is quite good, boasting a VC-1 encoded 1080p transfer with 5.1 Dolby TrueHD and Dolby Digital Plus audio. Extras are the same as the standard-def disc, meaning a Making Of segment with cast/crew interviews, and public service announcements, are on-hand.

NEXT TIME: TRANSFORMERS Hits HD-DVD at last! 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 new email address. Cheers everyone!

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