10/22/08 Edition -- The AISLE SEAT BLOG Is Also Live

Bond on Blu-Ray
MGM issues the First VIntage 007s in HD
Plus: Warner's Gangsters & Looney Tunes

A couple of years ago MGM released a brand new set of James Bond “Ultimate Collection” DVDs featuring magnificent, restored transfers from Lowry Digital -- the firm best known for their outstanding work on so many of the DVD medium’s finest transfers (from “Citizen Kane” to the Special Editions of “Star Wars”). Lowry performed a painstaking, frame-by frame restoration of the entire series for those new DVDs -- the results of which were mostly so breathtaking that it was like seeing the classic Bonds for the very first time.

If you thought those DVDs were impressive, wait until you feast your eyes on MGM’s first high-definition Blu-Ray packages of six 007 classics, all arriving on Blu-Ray this week.

Included in the group are the inaugural James Bond film, DR. NO (****, 1962, 110 mins.), which has never looked better than it does here; the second Bond adventure, FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE (***½, 1963, 111 mins.), also starring Sean Connery; the lavish 1965 THUNDERBALL (***, 1965, 125 mins.), which marked 007's first foray into widescreen; two of Roger Moore’s best, LIVE AND LET DIE (***, 1973, 122 mins.) and FOR YOUR EYES ONLY (***, 1981, 128 mins.); and one of the better (faint praise as that may be) Pierce Brosnan outings, 2002's DIE ANOTHER DAY (**½, 2002, 127 mins.), which offers a well-developed villain and numerous references to past 007 classics before it collapses with a typically -- for the series -- weak climax.

Though “For Your Eyes Only” would not function properly in my particular Blu-Ray player (paging the firmware update department!) and “Live and Let Die” was not included in the press mailing we received, the other Bonds offer absolutely spectacular AVC encoded transfers that will be a sight for sore eyes for 007 aficionados. From the blue Jamaican sky in the opening moments of “Dr. No” I was blown away by the level of detail and crispness in the transfers here, even more than the standard-definition DVDs from 2006. For those of us, in particular, who grew up on the classic Bonds via ABC’s network TV broadcasts or CBS/Fox video cassettes, watching early Connery classics like “Dr. No,” “From Russia” and “Thunderball” here in HD is just phenomenal, and reason enough to invest in a Blu-Ray player alone.

On the audio side, DTS Master Audio tracks are available on each film and are a bit more potent than the excellent DTS mixes from the 2006 DVDs, while each film’s original, respective audio tracks (mono on “Dr.No,” “From Russia,” “Thunderball” and “Live & Let Die”; stereo on “For Your Eyes Only) have been retained here in Dolby Digital 2.0 as well.

Extras are copious and essentially mirror the Ultimate Edition DVDs (in fact I couldn’t find a major omission between those sets and the Blu-Ray discs), be it multiple commentary tracks, deleted scenes, TV specials, a slew of trailers and TV spots for each picture, music videos and other goodies (oddly, though, “Die Another Day” doesn’t contain any trailers or TV spots, just like its prior DVD edition).

In all this is certainly a rousing start for vintage Bond on Blu-Ray, and here’s hoping the next wave meets with equal success in 2009.

Also out this week is a new Collector’s Edition of the 1967 CASINO ROYALE (**½, 137 mins., Fox/MGM), complete with a superb Making Of documentary and commentary track from Bond authorities Steven Jay Rubin and John Cork.

One of two 007 properties that Albert R. Broccoli and Eon Productions didn't control (Kevin McClory's “Thunderball”/”Never Say Never Again” being the other), "Casino Royale" was a mammoth spy spoof engineered by producer Charles K. Feldman and released right around the same time that "You Only Lived Twice" was continuing the "official" Bond series.

Feldman assembled a huge collection of stars (Peter Sellers, David Niven, Ursula Andress, Woody Allen, Orson Welles, Daliah Lavi, William Holden, and Deborah Kerr among them) and nearly as many directors (Val Guest, John Huston, Ken Hughes, Robert Parrish, and Joe McGrath) in an attempt to capitalize on the world's fervent Bond-mania and skewer the suddenly red-hot spy genre at the same time.

Alas, with so many cooks in the kitchen, the ‘67 “Casino” turned out to be a complete mess of a film, with an almost completely incoherent plot sprinkled with only sporadic laughs. After top-billed Sellers abruptly quit the picture (taking his huge salary and cut of the gross along with him), original helmer McGrath left as well, sending Feldman’s “Guest Directors” off to put a more psychedelic spin on what was originally just a straight “James Bond comedy” as McGrath put it.

The mix of styles and lack of story are obvious at every turn. In fact, there are times, even after repeated viewings of this gargantuan epic, when it seems as if each director shot seemingly random footage, all of which was assembled as coherently as it could have been in the editing room by Val Guest. If you've never seen the film before, you may want to have some kind of plot summary on-hand, since there are major plot developments that are either briefly referred to or missing altogether (particularly when Sellers is driving away from the casino, only to be abruptly imprisoned with no explanation whatsoever!).

It's a rambling wreck, no doubt about it, but despite that, “Casino Royale” remains a favorite of many viewers for a couple of reasons: it's got that cast, it has a very, very loose connection with Ian Fleming's legacy (did I say it was a loose connection?), but most of all, it has one of the most memorable soundtracks arguably ever recorded in the history of modern cinema.

Burt Bacharach's tuneful, infectious score -- featuring Dusty Springfield's "The Look Of Love" and the title track with Herb Alpert's playful brass -- carries this lumbering picture to the point of being watchable, and since it's one of my all-time favorites, I knocked the film rating up an entire star simply because of its presence.

“Casino Royale” may be the very definition of a "curiosity item," with its dated fashions, look and atmosphere, but make no mistake: there are people who love the film for that very reason (and it certainly was more of an influence on the Austin Powers series than the actual 007 films).

Danjaq and MGM acquired “Casino Royale” from Columbia Pictures a few years back and originally released a DVD edition in 2002 with a new transfer, a conversation with Val Guest and one other important extra of note: the long-lost "Casino Royale" made-for-TV effort from the '50s, starring a very American "Jimmy Bond" (played by Barry Newman) taking on Peter Lorre. That first-ever filming of Fleming's character has long been a part of Bond lore, and MGM offered it on the first “Casino” disc....but, for whatever reason, it’s not here in this new “Collector’s Edition” release.

Aside from that omission, the new DVD includes an excellent Making Of (split into five parts, running about an hour) with comments from Joe McGrath, Val Guest, Jacqueline Bissett, Daliah Lavi, Woody Allen’s manager Jack Rollins and others, all reflecting on the movie’s chaotic shoot, Sellers’ odd behavior and eventual split from the project in midstream (as well as his dislike for Orson Welles, though -- no surprise here -- the feeling was mutual from Welles’ side!). It’s one of the more compelling DVD docs you’ll see, while a fine commentary from Bond experts Rubin and Cork also puts the film into proper perspective. The transfer (16:9, 2.35) and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack are both stronger than the prior DVD release, with the original mono sound also on-hand.

Overall, the new special features make this DVD an invaluable release for James Bond fans, even if you happen to loathe everything about "Casino Royale" except Bacharach's classic score.

New on DVD

Golden Age fans also have cause for celebration this week as Warner rolls out a pair of highly-anticipated DVD box-sets in their “Gangsters” and “Looney Tunes Golden Collection” franchises.

The sixth edition of the LOONEY TUNES GOLDEN COLLECTION (413 mins., Warner) is bittersweet, however, in that the studio is ending their annual retrospective of classic WB animated shorts with this box-set -- though animation guru Jerry Beck has told fans there will be plenty of classic Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies releases coming, albeit in a different format, in 2009 and beyond.

In the meantime, Volume 6 gives fans plenty of nostalgic entertainment, with each disc again having its own theme and focus.

Disc One offers a general selection of “Looney Tunes All Stars,” including “Hare Trigger” (with commentary by filmmaker Greg Ford), “To Duck...or Not to Duck,” “Birth of a Nation” (commentary by animator Mark Kausler), “My Little Duckaroo,” “Crowing Pains,” “Raw! Raw! Roster!” (with an alternate music only track), “Heaven Scent,” “My Favorite Duck” (commentary by Jerry Beck), “Jumpin’ Jupiter” (music-only audio track), “Satan’s Waitin’,” “Hook, Line and Sinker,” “Bear Feat,” “Dog Gone South,” “A Ham in a Role,” and “Often and Orphan.” Extras include four bonus shorts (“Boyhood Daze” also with a music only track, “Hipperty Hopper,” “Rabbit Rampage” also with a music only track, and “Sniffles Takes a Trip”) and a pair of Looney Tunes network TV specials (“Bugs Bunny in King Arthur’s Court” and “Daffy Duck’s Easter Egg-Citement”).

WWII era shorts permeate Disc Two’s “Patriotic Pals,” with shorts as varied as “Herr Meets Hare” (commentary from Greg Ford), “Russian Rhapsody” (commentary by Mark Kausler), “Daffy the Commando,” “Bosko the Doughboy” (more Bosko shorts are on-hand in Disc 3), “Rookie Revue,” “The Draft Horse” (commentary by Greg Ford), “Wacky Blackout,” “The Ducktators,” “The Weakly Reporter,” “Fifth Column Mouse” (commentary by Jerry Beck), “Meet John Doughboy,” “Hollywood Canine Canteen,” “By Word of Mouse,” “Heir Conditioned,” and “Yankee Dood It” (music only track). Extras include five different Friz Freleng MGM shorts (“The Captain’s Christmas,” “A Day at the Beach,” “Mama’s New Hat,” “Poultry Pirates,” and “Seal Skinners”) and three bonus cartoons (“Confusions of a Nutzy Spy,” The Fighting 69½ th” and “Hop and Go”).

“Bosko, Buddy and Merrie Melodies” comprises Disc Three with “Congo Jazz,” “Smile, Darn Ya, Smile!”, “The Booze Hangs High,” “One More Time,” “Bosko’s Picture Show,” “You Don’t Know What You’re Doin!”, “We’re in the Money,” “Ride Him, Bosko!”, “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” (commentary by Jerry Beck), “Bosko in Person,” “The Dish Ran Away with the Spoon”, “Buddy’s Day Out, “Buddy’s Beer Garden, “Buddy’s Circus,” and “A Cartoonist’s Nightmare” (commentary by Jerry Beck). Extras on this platter include a “World of Leon Schlesinger” featurette gallery paying tribute to the Merrie Melodies producer, with an introduction from Jerry Beck and Martha Sigall, the title sequence from “Haunted Gold,” “Crying For the Carolines” and a “Schlesinger Productions Christmas Party” with commentary from Beck and Sigall. Four bonus shorts (“How Do I Know It’s Sunday,” “I Like Mountain Music,” “I Love a Parade” and “Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence”) round out the disc.

Fan-requested shorts (“Assorted Nuts & One Shots”) completes the collection, with “Horton Hatches the Egg,” “Lights Fantastic,” “Fresh Airedale” (commentary from Greg Ford), “Chow Hound,” “The Oily American,” “It’s Hummer time,” “Rocket-bye Baby,” “Goo Goo Goliath,” “Wild Wife,” “Much Ado About Nutting,” “The Hole Idea” (commentary from Mark Kausler plus a music only track), “Now Hear This,” “Martian Through Georgia” (music only track), “Page Miss Glory,” and “Norman Normal.” Extras include the documentary “Mel Blanc: The Man of a Thousand Voices” and four bonus shorts (“Bartholomew Versus the Wheel,” “Punch Truck” with a music and effects track, “Sleepy Time Possum” and “Wild Wild World,” also with a music only track).

As with all prior “Golden Collection” anthologies the colorful packaging accentuates the era and gives Looney Tunes fans another essential release to add to the libraries. Hopefully Warner has more treats in store in the future, though it’s disappointing to see this series, at least for now, come to a close.

Still going strong, meanwhile, is Volume 4 of Warner’s outstanding, vintage GANGSTERS COLLECTION, which here assembles five Golden Age features from the studio, four of which star the great Edward G. Robinson.

As a fan of pre-code features 1933's THE LITTLE GIANT offers most of the excitement here, with E.G. as bootlegger Bugs Ahearn, who mixes it up with the Santa Barbara wealthy in this amusing 1933 First National-Vitaphone picture co-starring Mary Astor and Helen Vinson. Extras include commentary from historians Daniel Bubbeo and John McCarty, plus a “Warner Night at the Movies” assortment of 1933 short subjects, cartoons, trailers and a vintage newsreel (I used to love those VHS “Night at the Movies” Warner assembled years ago, including “PT-109.”)

Robinson and Bette Davis teamed up with Humphrey Bogart in 1937's KID GALAHAD with Robinson as a racketeer and boxing promoter while Bogart essays his competitor in a memorable tale of “the sweet science” and gangland melodrama from director Michael Curtiz -- the first of six collaborations between the filmmaker and Bogart. Extras here include commentary from historians Art Simon and Robert Sklar and a 1937 “Warner Night at the Movies” with a newsreel, comedy short and three different classic cartoons.

Robinson and Bogart again toplined 1938's THE AMAZING DR. CLITTERHOUSE, with E.G. as a psychiatrist who opts to join a gang of jewel thieves to study their physical and mental states. A smart mix of crime drama and memorable characters, with a John Wexley-John Huston script (based on a stage play by Barre Lyndon), “The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse” co-stars Claire Trevor, Donald Crisp and Gale Page, and arrives on DVD with commentary from historians Drew Casper and Richard Jewell, a “Warner Night at the Movies” 1938 assembly of trailers, shorts and newsreels, and two radio plays with Robinson.

Bogart, George Raft, Jane Bryan, William Holden, Flora Robson and Paul Kelly make for a spectacular cast in the 1939 potboiler INVISIBLE STRIPES, with Raft as an-ex con trying to play it straight for the sake of his younger brother (Holden), only to turn to fellow criminal Bogart for help after struggling back in the civilian world. This interesting character study includes commentary from historians Alain Silver and James Ursini plus another “Warner Night at the Movies” assemblage of 1939 trailers, newsreels, musical shorts, a cartoon, and even a historical Technicolor short “The Monroe Doctrine.”

Rounding out the package is the highly amusing 1942 Edward G. Robinson-led comedy-drama LARCENY, INC., with Robinson starring as an ex-con who tries to run a dog track with pals Broderick Crawford and Edward Brophy. Along with Jane Wyman, the trio open a shop in the hopes of tunneling into the bank next door in this fun adaptation of Laura and S.J. Perelman’s Broadway play, co-starring Jack Carson and a young Anthony Quinn. Warner’s DVD includes commentary from historians Haden Guest and Dana Polan, plus one last “Warner Night at the Movies” compilation of shorts from 1942.

All transfers have been freshly remastered in their original black-and-white, 1.33 aspect ratios, while a bonus sixth disc includes the feature-length documentary “Public Enemies,” offering a strong retrospective on the genre, its pre-code roots, censorship and enduring legacy with copious film clips and historian interviews. Four different bonus animated shorts round out the documentary disc, which is presented in 16:9 widescreen. Highly recommended!

New on Blu-Ray

RUDY (****, 114 mins., 1993, PG; Sony): One of the great sports movies ever made, “Rudy” reunited the production team from another genre classic -- "Hoosiers" -- in telling the real-life story of a young man who wants desperately to play football for Notre Dame, and makes up in heart and determination what he lacks in talent and academic prowess.

Sean Astin is marvelous as Rudy Ruettiger in director David Anspaugh's 1993 film, which never hits a wrong note and feels authentic at every turn. Shot on location at Notre Dame and other Indiana locales, “Rudy” is as much about hard work and perseverance off the field as it is success on it. Therein, of course, lies the great tale of Rudy's story: after working his tail off to even get into N.D., he never played at all until the last play of his final game at Notre Dame, when he improbably sacked the opposing quarterback and was carried off the field by his teammates -- a feat that never happened before or since at the school.

The sensitive and moving script by Angelo Pizzo is marvelously acted by Astin, Ned Beatty as Rudy's dad, Robert Prosky as a sympathetic priest, Jon Favreau as his college tutor, and especially Charles S. Dutton as a field manager at Notre Dame Stadium. Technically, the movie just feels right, complimented by Oliver Wood's cinematography and Jerry Goldsmith's perfectly nuanced score -- ranging from quiet, introspective moments to rousing dramatic flourishes. Even if you’re a humbug on the Fighting Irish itself, “Rudy” is an undeniably satisfying and inspirational film that has weathered the years splendidly.

Sony’s Blu-Ray disc looks spectacular and finely detailed, the AVC transfer appearing like real film as opposed to a glossy, “noise reduction” plagued presentation. The Dolby TrueHD audio is satisfying when called upon though the extras disappoint in that Goldsmith’s isolated score track has been dropped from the Blu-Ray platter, though other extras (the brief featurette on the actual Rudy, a vintage Making Of, and interview with Sean Astin) are reprieved from the prior DVD release.

UNIVERSAL SOLDIER (**½, 1992, 102 mins., R; Lionsgate): Blu-Ray edition of the entertaining 1992 Roland Emmerich sci-fi actioner, best known for its teaming of Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren as robotized soldiers, killed in Vietnam, who are brought back to life as unstoppable super-combatants. With a better-than-average supporting cast (Ally Walker, Jerry Orbach), this dumb but entertaining B-actioner offers plenty of entertainment value for its target audience, with well-executed action sequences and a fisticuff-laden finale.

Lion's Gate Blu-Ray edition of “Universal Soldier” offers a well-rendered, new HD transfer with DTS Master Audio sound and extras from the last Special Edition DVD, including commentary from Emmerich and Dean Devlin, two Making Of featurettes, recent interviews with Van Damme and Lundgren, plus an alternate ending and Blu-Ray exclusive trivia track. Worth it for fans.

MONSTER’S BALL (***, 113 mins., 2001, R; Lionsgate): Halle Berry’s Oscar winning performance is the cornerstone of Marc Forster’s 2001 drama starring Billy Bob Thornton as a prison guard who has an affair with the wife (Berry) of a man he’s watching on Death Row. Heath Ledger, Mos Def, Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs and Peter Boyle lend strong support to Milo Addica and Will Rokos’ emotionally charged screenplay, which hits Blu-Ray in a features-packed release from Lionsgate. The longer version (113 minutes) of the film is included in a vibrant AVC encoded transfer with DTS Master Audio sound along with commentary from the director and writers; deleted scenes; cast and crew interviews; the trailer; Making Of featurettes; and a look at Asche and Spencer’s original music.

BEETLEJUICE (***, 92 mins., 1988, PG; Warner): No-frills Blu-Ray edition of Tim Burton’s 1988 afterlife comedy offers up a fine VC-1 encoded transfer, deftly preserving the film’s colorful visuals and even odder characters, and a robust -- if not always well-utilized -- Dolby TrueHD soundtrack, featuring a boisterous and memorable Danny Elfman score. Though billed as a 20th Anniversary release, the disc is short on any meaningful extras, though Elfman’s isolated score has been retained (contrary to its omission on the packaging) as a listening option. Three episodes of the “Beetlejuice” animated cartoon are also on-hand, plus the trailer and a soundtrack sampler CD featuring a few cuts of Elfman’s score and Harry Belafonte’s “Banana Boat Song.”


THE INCREDIBLE HULK: Season 5 (1981-82, aprx. 6 hours; Universal): The big green guy’s long run on the CBS airwaves came to an inglorious end thanks to a strike-shortened/network-abbreviated Season 5.

In fact, it’s a wonder that there even was a Season 5 to begin with, since these seven episodes exist mainly because producer Ken Johnson opted to film an additional group of shows at the close of the series’ fourth season in lieu of a looming union strike. These “inbetween” episodes would also constitute the show’s 5th and final season since CBS canceled the series during the strike and refused to let Johnson bring the series back as a mid-season replacement and properly conclude the saga of David Banner.

Thus, these entertaining if routine final episodes (“The Phenom,” “Two Godmothers,” “Veteran,” “Sanctuary,” “Triangle,” “Slaves” and “A Minor Problem”) were the last of the beloved series to be produced, and were aired at irregular intervals during the 1981-82 season. Johnson, sadly, never got a chance to conclude the series, though Bixby himself would return -- along with Ferrigno -- for three NBC TV movies: “The Incredible Hulk Returns” (1987, a backdoor pilot for Thor), “Trial of the Incredible Hulk” (1989, a backdoor pilot for Daredevil), and the disappointing “Death of the Incredible Hullk” in 1990, which played out differently (and more downbeat) than Johnson would’ve liked.

Universal’s two-disc Season 5 set of the series offers these last episodes of “The Incredible Hulk” in fine full-screen transfers and 2.0 mono soundtracks. Extras include a featurette with Johnson and several of the show’s writers reflecting on the end of the series and how they would’ve liked to have finished it, plus an amusing gag reel with some hilarious Bixby gaffes that fans will love.

YOU’RE NOT ELECTED, CHARLIE BROWN (1972, 25 mins.; Warner): Just in time for election day comes this entertaining 1972 special starring the Peanuts gang, here paired with the 2006 -- and previously unreleased -- special “He’s a Bully, Charlie Brown.”

“You’re Not Elected” finds good ol’ C.B. backing pal Linus for class President, and trying to keep his blanking-sucking buddy from sabotaging his campaign by referring to the Great Pumpkin! A typically engaging Vince Guaraldi score and a charming Charles Schultz script makes this one of the better Peanuts specials of the ‘70s, backed here by another fine remastered transfer from Warner Home Video that surpasses the prior Paramount DVD’s presentation.

Another 15-minute Making Of retrospective includes comments from Bill Melendez, Jeannie Schultz and others, reflecting on the show’s origins and legacy, while the last Peanuts network special, “He’s a Bully, Charlie Brown,” makes its DVD debut with this release. It’s not one of the greatest Charlie Brown stories but it’s a nice inclusion on a disc that should appeal to all Peanuts fans.

THE UNIT Season 3 (484 mins., 2007; Fox): Season three for one of CBS’ better network dramas from executive producers Shawn Ryan (“The Shield”) and David Mamet again follows a Delta Force-inspired unit as they take on the war on terror through 11 strike-shortened episodes. Included in Fox’s latest box-set are “Pandemonium” Parts 1 and 2, “Always Kiss Them Goodbye,” “Every Step You Take,” “Inside Out,” “M.Ps,” “Five Brothers,” “Play 16,” “Binary Explosion,” “Gone Missing” and “Side Angle Side.” 16:9 (1.78) transfers and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks adorn the three-disc set, which also includes a smattering of commentaries, deleted scenes and a “Writers’ Roundtable” featurette. Highly recommended for series fans.

NEXT TIME: THE UNIVERSE in High Definition. Until then, don't forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards, check out the Aisle Seat Blog, and direct any emails to our email address.  Cheers everyone!

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