10/23/07 Edition -- The New AISLE SEAT BLOG Is Now Live & Relaunched!

Bay's Blockbuster Makes For Silly Sci-Fi Fun

Last summer’s “big three” sequels all managed to gross essentially the same amount (in excess of $300+ million) at the U.S. box-office -- a feat no other film has equaled this year outside of the gargantuan, live-action adaptation of ‘80s toy-line action figures TRANSFORMERS (***, 2007, 142 mins., PG-13).

Produced by Steven Spielberg and directed (in a somewhat less chaotic fashion than usual) by Michael Bay, “Transformers” is a whizz-bang sci-fi epic that brings the Hasbro characters into present-day “real life.” The Roberto Orci-Alex Kurtman script follows the struggle between “good” extraterrestrial robot beings the Autobots and their evil counterparts, the Decepticons, as they bring their galactic battle to Earth. To be precise, both factions are seeking the whereabouts of the vile Deception leader Megatron, who was discovered in ice nearly a century ago by the great-grandfather of American teenager Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf).

Sam proves to be our Everyman as he meets all the Transformers, including their leader Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen, reprising his work from the beloved ‘80s cartoon version), and tries to help the Autobots’ cause while matching wits with federal agents (including a cartoony John Turturro) and a tough army captain (Josh Duhamel) following the action from the Middle East.

Impressive special effects from ILM are the main reason to watch “Transformers,” with the robot design and animation being positively jaw-dropping -- especially in Paramount’s high-definition HD-DVD release. In addition to the overall “believability” factor (as convincing as giant robots could ever be), the animators managed to maintain the original Transformers look from the toys and ‘80s TV series in a way that won’t disappoint long-time fans.

Bay, predictably, keeps the action moving along, but unlike some of his past works, also does a decent job establishing the characters and keeping the humor at a “family friendly” level. This isn’t a movie to be taken seriously, but it’s good fun for no-brain summer thrills, stylishly made and, appropriately, “assembled.” LaBeouf, meanwhile, acquits himself nicely against the all the bombast, with a satisfying ending leaving the door open wide enough for inevitable future sequels (unsurprisingly, one is already in pre-production).

Paramount’s two-disc DVD edition is certainly strong, but it’s no match for the amazing picture and sound afforded by the double-disc HD-DVD set. The VC-1 encoded 1080p transfer is reference-quality nearly throughout, and “Transformers” is exactly the kind of film you’d anticipate would reap the benefits of high definition: marvelously detailed and almost flawless, it ranks with the best transfers in either HD optical format to date. The Dolby Digital Plus sound isn’t uncompressed but it still packs a mighty wallop, with detailed sound effects, healthy bass and plenty of explosions as you would anticipate.

Supplements likewise satisfy: a commentary from Bay and picture-in-picture “Hdi” (trivia, etc.) content adorn Disc 1, while Disc 2 boasts a strong number of featurettes, including interviews with Bay, Spielberg, and the production team, all discussing how they brought “Transformers” to life. There’s also an “easter egg” that buffs will want to check out: an HD trailer for next summer’s eagerly-awaited film version of “Iron Man,” which appears after the end credits for the film have concluded.

Coming from Paramount next week is the four-disc HD-DVD edition of THE JACK RYAN COLLECTION, which erroneously lists each of the four films in the Tom Clancy series as being “Special Collector’s Editions” (with commentaries and featurettes) yet -- much like Sony’s  new “Spider-Man” 1 and 2 Blu Ray discs -- are actually bereft of any extras whatsoever.

It’s the lone disappointment in an otherwise satisfying technical package that offers crisp and satisfying new VC-1 encoded HD transfers and often outstanding Dolby TrueHD audio.

The first and finest of the series is John McTiernan’s 1990 blockbuster THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER (***½, 135 mins., PG-13), offering Sean Connery as Russian submarine captain Marko Ramius, wanting to defect to American waters and Alec Baldwin as CIA analyst Jack Ryan, understanding Ramius’ motives and trying to prevent a nuclear catastrophe from occurring once his superiors (as well as Ramius’ Russian counterparts) conclude that the “Red October” has actually been sent to attack the U.S.

An amazing supporting cast (Tim Curry, Peter Firth, Scott Glenn, James Earl Jones, Jeffrey Jones, Sam Neill, Joss Ackland, Stellan Skarsgard, and Richard Jordan) ably supports Connery (in one of his finest roles) and Baldwin, who fills the shoes of Clancy’s hero more appropriately than either of his successors (the too-old Harrison Ford and overly bland Ben Affleck) in the following three Jack Ryan pictures.

Graced with atmospheric cinematography from Jan DeBont and a stirring Basil Poledouris score, “The Hunt For Red October” is taut and enormously entertaining studio filmmaking, and Paramount’s HD-DVD edition finally does justice to the film’s visuals. Since much of the film was shot in tight, dark confines, the movie’s cinematography has always proven difficult to adapt to the home video medium. Fortunately the studio’s new HD transfer does unquestionably the finest job to date of translating DeBont and McTiernan’s visuals outside a theater, the movie here looking as sharp as possible with new details emerging in the shadows throughout. There are still some sequences that seem overly “soft” yet it’s entirely possible these sorts of issues had to do with how the movie was originally photographed.

Even more satisfying is the Dolby TrueHD audio. Beautifully mastered with spectacular sound effects and a broad stage for Poledouris’ music, the soundtrack is magnificent and rates as the disc’s strongest asset.

A variety of issues circumvented Baldwin from continuing on as Jack Ryan, but Paramount did manage to land Harrison Ford to carry on the role in two glossy, Phillip Noyce-directed sequels: 1992's PATRIOT GAMES (***, 116 mins., R) and 1994's CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER (**½, 141 mins., PG-13).

I admit that I’m in the minority on the Ford films, finding the atmospheric and suspenseful “Patriot Games” superior to the longer and less effective “Clear and Present Danger,” though one could attribute the latter’s stronger box-office gross (the highest of the series) to its PG-13 rating, whereas “Patriot Games” was saddled with an R (mainly due to Polly Walker’s nude scene).

“Patriot Games”’ more straightforward story and manageable running time makes it the superior of the Ford films for me at least, finding Ryan an international hero after thwarting a terrorist attack on a member of Britian’s Royal Family. After returning home to the U.S., though, with wife (Anne Archer) and daughter (Thora Birch) in tow, Ryan finds himself being hunted by the same IRA splinter group, led by Patrick Bergin, whose brother died in the film’s opening moments.

Top notch action scenes (including an ending that was re-shot late in the game) make this sequel to “Red October” a flawed but still entertaining ride, while the bigger-isn’t-always-better “Clear and Present Danger” feels like the work of too many cooks in the kitchen by comparison.

Marred by some tough-to-swallow plot developments and uneven writing (the script is attributed to Donald Stewart, Steven Zaillian and John Milius, each seeming to offer their own political bent and the film deviating from Clancy’s original story significantly) make “Clear and Present” a sometimes-preachy affair, particularly whenever Ryan combats a fuddy-duddy President (played with a heavy hand by Donald Moffat).

Both movies again offer excellent Dolby TrueHD soundtracks on HD-DVD, with James Horner filling in for Poledouris somewhat unevenly on the two sequels (his dreary, if atmospheric, score for “Patriot Games” heavily recycles “Aliens” while his thematically stronger “Clear and Present Danger” is a stark departure from its predecessor). The VC-1 encoded transfers show a hint of grain at times but are for the most part quite satisfying, particularly “Patriot Games” with Donald McAlpine’s top-notch cinematography looking better than ever in high-definition.

The turbulent production of “Clear and Present Danger” -- in particular its constant re-writes -- lead Harrison Ford to depart the series in spite of its robust financial in-take, and producer Mace Neufeld to take a few years off before oddly “re-booting” the series with a younger Jack Ryan in the present day.

That resulting picture, 2002's generally under-rated THE SUM OF ALL FEARS (***, 123 mins., PG-13) is quite good, after you get past its strange connection with the previous films and aside from the fact that Ben Affleck's bland Jack Ryan is the least interesting figure in the film.

Director Phil Alden Robinson's slick adaptation still provides solid entertainment, with the Paul Attanasio-Daniel Pyne scrip concerning a dormant nuclear weapon being sold to a shady individual in Damascus whose clients plan on using it to lead America and Russia into a war with one another. To save the day comes CIA analyst Jack Ryan (Affleck), here just starting out under the guidance of director Cobb (Morgan Freeman). If you sound confused, you should be, as the movie is a semi-prequel with a young Jack Ryan, yet set in the present day with its own set of characters. “The Sum of all Fears” in some ways resembles past Clancy pictures, but its central story line ends up playing out like “Black Sunday” by way of “WarGames,” with both sides ultimately on the offensive until Ryan can convince them that war isn't a game worth playing.

The film boasts a multitude of characters and events that eventually intersect, with solid performances from Freeman, James Cromwell as the President, Alan Bates and Colm Feore as the film's antagonists (standard-issue European neo-nazis substituting for the book's Middle Eastern bad guys -- something that would have been more realistic yet not politically correct, apparently), and Liev Schrieber as a CIA operative.

Schrieber's role -- the same one Willem Dafoe essayed in “Clear and Present Danger” -- and performance are so interesting, in fact, that they turn Affleck's cardboard hero into the film's weakest element. Just like in "Pearl Harbor," the actor is totally out of his element, lacking the conviction and believability this kind of material demands. While watching Affleck struggle to convey Ryan's contrasting inexperience and heroic qualities (not to mention the complete lack of chemistry between him and Bridget Moynahan in the Anne Archer role), I kept thinking that any moment he was going to lurch into a wisecrack like he was in a Kevin Smith film. Affleck's strength is clearly in lightweight, comedic kinds of parts, and trying to take him seriously in a role that Baldwin and Ford previously filled is an incredible stretch that the film never overcomes.

In fact, Affleck is likely the reason why the Jack Ryan franchise ended (for the time being) with this movie: in spite of strong box-office receipts, the series went into another hiatus, foregoing the possibility of future sequels with its new star.

That said, nearly everything else in “The Sum of All Fears” reeks of class, from the widescreen cinematography to Jerry Goldsmith's hauntingly elegiac score -- one of the maestro's finest late works. This is a strong score superior to many of his efforts from the era and more than substitutes for Horner's outings from its predecessors. (There is, however, one moment when Goldsmith's horns seem like they're trumpeting the arrival of Rambo, and when set to slow-motion photography of Affleck running through a flame-ravaged street, come off as a bit much).

Robinson, though, deserves credit for a making a thought-provoking thriller that at least exhibits some intelligence at a time when too many summer blockbusters have nothing on their minds at all. Despite its flaws and weak central performance, “The Sum of All Fears” is worth viewing for that alone.

Paramount’s HD-DVD looks the best of the four films, the AVC-1 encoded transfer appearing well-detailed and the Dolby TrueHD sound again packing an appropriate wallop when called upon.

EDITOR’S NOTE: After I finished this week’s column Paramount sent out a press release, saying that the “Jack Ryan Collection” would be delayed due to “typographical errors” on the packaging. Sounds like the discs won’t be repressed but merely complimented by packaging that omits any mention of supplements. While some fans will be disappointed by that decision, the strong transfers and soundtracks still makes this a recommended purchase for HD-DVD owners, whenever the new sets are ready for release.

FACE/OFF: Collector’s Edition HD-DVD (****, 140 mins., 1997, R; Paramount): It’s taken a long while, but Paramount has finally done justice to John Woo’s “Face/Off” in a new 10th Anniversary HD-DVD edition.

This tremendously entertaining thriller remains one of the best post-1990 action films, with its recipe for success comprising a number of ingredients: take an intriguing premise, two big stars, a fistful of standout action sequences, and one of the most talented genre filmmakers around -- then combine them with a smart screenplay that's as clever with its character-interplay as it is with ingenious, breathtaking set-scenes.

Nicolas Cage proves the better of his counterpart as both the film’s villain and -- after exchanging identities -- its hero, outdueling John Travolta's solid but not as demanding work as the bad guy in the good guy's body. (In contrast, Cage has the harder scenes, illustrating the hero's dilemma in living with the villain's identity). Joan Allen is superb as the hero's wife, with terrific supporting performances including Gina Gershon, Alessandro Nivola, and Dominique Swain. Additional kudos go out to Mike Werb and Michael Collorary for their sharp script, John Woo (of course) on his finest American work to date, and an excellent score by John Powell (replacing Mark Isham at the last minute) which represents some of his most satisfying output as well.

Paramount’s HD-DVD (out next week) is a double-disc set offering terrific 6.1 DTS and 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus soundtracks with a splendid new VC-1 encoded 1080p transfer that’s exceptional across the board. Extras include commentaries from Woo and the writers; seven deleted scenes with optional commentary, including a wisely excised end coda; the trailer; and both a new Making Of with interviews with most of the principals (sans Travolta and Cage) plus a featurette on Woo’s career...all in HD as well.

Highly recommended!

TV on DVD Capsules

CSI: MIAMI Season 5 (2006-07, 18 hours, Paramount): Season five of the original (and most popular) “CSI” spin-off hits DVD next week in a new box-set including five commentary tracks, 5.1 audio, 16:9 (1.78) widescreen transfers, and numerous featurettes. Also on-hand is a bonus demo of the “CSI” PC video game.

WINGS: Season 5 (1993-94, aprx. 9 hours, Paramount): Zany ensemble NBC sitcom returns to DVD in a four-disc set preserving all 24 fifth-season episodes from the long-running series. Paramount’s DVD offers a disclaimer about potential network edits but looks and sounds just fine.

OCTOBER ROAD: Season 1 (2007, 260 mins., Buena Vista): Critically-lambasted but moderately successful small-town ABC drama about a young author who pens a book about his youth and returns home to face his friends and family. “October Road” is a pleasant but unremarkable night-time soap that Buena Vista will soon release on DVD in a two-disc set featuring its complete first season in fine 16:9 (1.78) widescreen transfers and 5.1 audio with deleted scenes, bloopers, a Making Of featurette, and look at the soon-to-start second season.

SCRUBS: Season 6 (2006-07, 522 mins., Buena Vista): A few weeks ago “Family Guy” had a hilarious gag about “Scrubs”’ visual-joke formula and how it’s still the “best show you’re not watching” -- a line we’ve been hearing for the better part of this decade! About to start its seventh and final season, it’s incredible how long “Scrubs” has been on the air without making any sort of impact in its always-tepid ratings, but fans will enjoy this collection from its sixth season with full-screen transfers, 5.1 Dolby Digital audio, deleted scenes and interviews.

New From Paramount on DVD

CHINATOWN (****, 1974, 130 mins., R; Paramount)
THE TWO JAKES (***, 1990, 137 mins., R; Paramount): New Collector’s Edition packages of Roman Polanski’s classic “Chinatown” and its belated 1990 sequel “The Two Jakes” include excellent new retrospective documentaries.

Recent interviews with Polanski, star Jack Nicholson (whose role as private eye Jake Gittes ranks as one of his best performances), and writer Robert Towne adorn the hour-long look at “Chinatown,” split into four different segments and packed with insight into the creation of the 1974 film noir masterpiece. Polanski discusses his issues working in Hollywood while all involved mention how the original score (by Philip Lambro) was universally disliked and tossed just days before the film’s release -- leading to Jerry Goldsmith’s phenomenal “rush job” that became one of the composer’s greatest works.

Problematic in its convoluted plotting but still highly watchable (who’s going to complain about a film offering both Meg Tilly and Madeline Stowe looking better than ever?), Nicholson’s sequel “The Two Jakes” includes a 20-minute discussion with the star/director, who talks about the movie’s inherent issues (including his own shortcomings as a filmmaker) but also its generally overlooked aspects.

The original trailers are also on-hand for both titles, in addition to crisp new 16:9 (2.35 on “Chinatown”; 1.85 on “Jakes”) transfers and what appear to be fresh 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks (“Chinatown” also includes a “restored mono” track). Highly recommended! (Available Nov. 6)

THE ADVENTURES OF YOUNG INDIANA JONES, Volume 1 (1992-1997, aprx. 11 hours, Paramount): George Lucas’ ambitious “edu-tainment” series tried to mix the Saturday Matinee thrills of his big-screen Indiana Jones adventures with “After-School Special” styled historical lessons, but audiences quickly disappeared after the series’ original 1992 ABC premiere -- so much that four episodes were never broadcast during its second (and final) season on the air.

“The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles” was a series that I always wanted to like -- with its top-notch production values (Lucas utilized a team that would later be brought back for his “Star Wars” prequels) and outstanding scores (by Laurence Rosenthal and Joel McNeely), it’s still one of the most expensive, and classiest, series to ever air on broadcast television. Yet it’s also often unrelentingly talky and tedious -- each episode (featuring either Cory Carrier as a pre-teen Indy or Sean Patrick Flanery as an older Jones) focuses on Indy’s historical run-ins with legendary people or incidents, but outside of his French sidekick Remy (Ronny Coutteure), the show lacks compelling character development. And despite directorial outings from the likes of Simon Wincer, Mike Newell, Joe Johnston and Nicolas Roeg, the scripts are rarely engaging, adhering to a workmanlike formula that’s likely to bore kids and adults alike.

The pacing problems were one reason why the series was re-edited for video in the late ‘90s. Lucasfilm took the various broadcast episodes and several made-for-cable films (which aired on the Family Channel) and chronologically combined them into two-hour movie blocks -- in the process they also cut the elder, 93-year-old Indiana Jones (played by George Hall), whose bookends originally adorned most episodes, out of the series altogether (I remember that the ABC broadcast of the first episode introduced Hall as Indy, walking around a modern-day museum -- footage nowhere to be found in these episodes). They also added new material to the beginning of what’s now the “first” episode, “My First Adventure,” and likely made other alterations as well.

Since it’s been years since I watched the program I can’t even begin to comment on any music alterations, but fans of the series ought to remember if nothing else that this DVD edition of “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles” -- or “The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones” as it’s been re-christened -- is similar to past video releases and does NOT present the series as it was originally broadcast, even though it probably makes more sense to view the series in a chronological order as opposed to how the episodes were originally produced.

Paramount’s 12-disc DVD anthology of the first “Volume” from the series, then, preserves the first seven, two-hour “movie” installments of the series (roughly one-third of its duration) in excellent full-screen transfers and 2.0 Dolby Stereo soundtracks. These include the episodes “My First Adventure” (Egypt/Tangiers, 1908), “Passion For Life” (British East Africa/Paris, 1909), “The Perils of Cupid” (Vienna/Florence, 1909), “Travels With Father” (Russia, Athens, 1910), and “Journey of Radiance” (Benares/China, 1910), all with Carrier as the pre-teen Indy; and “Spring Break Adventure” (Princeton/Mexico, 1916) and “Love’s Sweet Song” (Ireland/London, 1916) starring Flanery as the “older young” Indy. For information on which episodes have been cobbled together from how they originally aired on TV, I recommend checking out The Inner Mind’s Young Indiana Jones info page.

Lucasfilm announced a DVD edition of the series some time ago, but delayed its release due to the production of a massive amount of supplemental materials -- all specially-produced documentaries on the various historical events portrayed in the respective episodes, offering comments from authors, historians and other experts. The company obviously went to great pains to enhance the various episodes by including an enormous amount of extra features, which in total nearly equal the running time of the series content itself!

Even though the show itself still isn’t as fun and involving as you’d hope it would be, die-hard fans and parents of history-obsessed pre-teens might find the supplements to be of sufficient value alone.

New on DVD & Blu Ray

MEET THE ROBINSONS (**½, 2007, 95 mins., G; Disney): Cute but over-stuffed Disney animated feature at least boasts a heartwarming story and a pleasant soundtrack (including one of Danny Elfman’s finest scores in quite some time). This in-house Disney computer-generated animated feature focuses on a young, orphaned inventor named Lewis whose attempts to find his real-life mother culminate in him zipping off into the future where he meets an eccentric (Jetsons-like) clan, a dastardly villain, plus a pet T-rex and singing frogs. It’s all frenetically paced and packed with too many gags, which is particularly disappointing since the film’s premise is appealing and there’s plenty of imagination on-hand -- just too much of it, ultimately. Visually, gorgeous animation adorns “Meet the Robinsons,” which looks just fine on DVD but boasts the finest, most flawless Blu Ray transfer I’ve yet seen in 1080p. There are no artifacts of any kind and the colors are absolutely stunning throughout -- if you need a reference-quality Blu Ray disc to test your HDTV, look no further than “Meet the Robinsons.” Special features include deleted scenes, music videos, commentary, a 5.1 effects track, numerous featurettes and uncompressed PCM 5.1 audio. Despite its hyper-active pacing “Meet the Robinsons” is fairly charming and kids ought to warm to it, while adults can appreciate the spectacular visuals, if nothing else, on DVD and especially Blu Ray.

SCARY MOVIE: Blu Ray (**, 2002, 95 mins., R; Buena Vista): There are times when it’s hard to fathom why critics often react like they do to certain movies. Case in point was this wildly overpraised spoof of “Scream” (itself a spoof!) and every teen horror movie of the late ‘90s, which has a few scattershot laughs but ultimately runs out of gas well before the end. Maybe there was a lot of high-quality food out at the Disney press junket that might explain the positive notices this ultimately tiresome, mind-numbingly raunchy comedy received when it first opened? (later to spawn three equally bad sequels).

Like a sketch comedy segment stretched out to feature length, Keenan Ivory Wayans's gross-out comedy has about 20 minutes of good material, and spends much of its time calling attention to horror movie cliches (themselves outlined, in great detail, in every one of the “Scream” films), often believing that it's far funnier than it really is. There are a few laughs here, but since the advertisements gave most of them away, what you're left with is a movie that's so raunchy, profane, and also disgusting (with some truly obscene, and unfunny, visual gags) that its excesses leave you drenched in gutter-humor mentality.

Buena Vista’s Blu Ray release of the original “Scary Movie” includes an acceptable 1080p transfer with uncompressed 5.1 PCM audio and a number of extras (deleted scenes, making of featurette, the trailer) recycled from its prior standard-definition DVD counterpart.

More Halloween Terrors!

RETURN TO HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL: HD-DVD (**, 2007, 81 mins., Unrated; Warner): As direct-to-video sequels go this follow-up to one of the more watchable Dark Castle Entertainment efforts isn’t entirely bad, mainly due to the HD-DVD version’s “Choose Your Own Adventure”-like interactive elements: while watching the film you can choose (via optional on-screen menu prompts) the direction of the story in some touted 96 different “possibilities.” The latter is undoubtedly more fun than watching the film straight out, with its standard-issue shocks and gore. Warner’s HD-DVD edition (also on Blu Ray) features additional scenes, featurettes, a VC-1 encoded 1080p transfer and Dolby Digital Plus audio.

THE INITIATION OF SARAH (2006, 90 mins., MGM/Fox): Watchable but bland remake of the ‘70s TV-film stars Mika Boorem and Summer Glau as the sorority sisters being recruited by a couple of different fraternities (including one presided over by Jennifer Tilly) for their supernatural abilities. Fox’s DVD includes a 16:9 (1.78) transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

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