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
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.
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
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
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.
"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
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
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.
More Halloween Haunts
One would’ve hoped that the 25th Anniversary of POLTERGEIST (****, 1982, 114 mins., PG; Warner)
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
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
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
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):
(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):
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):
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
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).
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):
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.
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
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
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
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):
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.
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
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
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):
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):
so the acclaimed, massively popular, endlessly quotable HBO crime drama
came to an end this
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):
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
AMERICAN GANGSTER: Season 1 (2006, 180 mins.; Paramount):
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):
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.
TIME: TRANSFORMERS Hits HD-DVD at last! Until
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