10/24/06 Edition

Buena Vista Unveils More Blu-Ray
Five More Titles Enter the High-Definition Arena
Plus: GREATEST AMERICAN HERO Limited Box Set, New TV on DVD & More!

As I wrote a few weeks ago, we’re just beginning to jump into the waters of high-definition DVD, and while HD-DVD continues to have a leg up in terms of more titles being available right now, Buena Vista has done a fine job stirring interest in the slow-out-of-the-gate Blu Ray format.

The studio’s second wave of Blu Ray titles is focused on recent live-action efforts from the studio, and while the films themselves range in quality, the transfers and soundtracks ought to satisfy Blu Ray buffs across the board. Here’s a look:

-Brothers Grimm (2005, 118 mins., PG-13; ** film, ***½ presentation): While the movie might have been a bust, Buena Vista’s Blu Ray edition of Terry Gilliam’s ill-fated 2005 fantasy “Brothers Grimm” serves up a stellar 1080p high-def transfer that adeptly illustrates the benefits of HD-based DVD. Colors are stronger than the standard DVD edition, the image is crisp and clear, and the added clarity adds almost a third dimension to the picture -- while an uncompressed 5.1 Dolby Digital (48 kHz/16-bit) soundtrack likewise improves on its predecessor with fuller, warmer sound. It’s a shame the movie can’t back up the presentation, with unpleasant (and often substandard) special effects, uneven performances, and an unsatisfying script making for one of Gilliam’s weakest features. The Blu Ray disc is light on features but does retain Gilliam’s commentary and deleted scenes from the regular DVD edition.

-Dark Water (2004, 105 mins., PG-13; ** film, *** presentation): Jennifer Connelly gives a glum performance in this watered-down remake of Hideo Nakata’s superior Japanese film of the same name. Connelly stars as a divorced mom who moves with her daughter into a bleak apartment building where water drips from the ceiling and -- as is the convention with recent Japanese genre films -- is being haunted by a female spirit with long dark hair. Nakata’s original “Dark Water” was a masterful thriller loaded with atmosphere and poetic touches, but the American version accentuates a depressing, maudlin tone, and plays up the supernatural elements with standard cliches and loud, obtrusive music by Angelo Badalamenti. Connelly’s character is supposed to be going through a breakdown but she’s so stilted it’s difficult to root for her, making the film an unremarkable genre piece worth it only if you can’t find the original at your store. Buena Vista’s Blu Ray disc enhances the prior DVD presentation with a 1080p high-def transfer, but the movie is sometimes so dark and grainy that the differences are only slight, though the uncompressed 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack is a marked improvement over its original DVD counterpart. Extras include a pair of deleted scenes and an analysis of two sequences in the picture (fans should note this is the 105-minute, PG-13 rated theatrical cut, and not the unrated 109-minute version that’s also available on regular-flavored DVD).

-Glory Road (2006, 118 mins., PG; **½ movie, ***½ presentation): Well-meaning but rather standard issue sports movie -- the story of Texas Western’s 1966 NCAA championship run -- enables Jerry Bruckheimer and Disney to turn their “Remember The Titans” formula around by having a white coach (Josh Lucas) placed in charge of the nation’s first all-African American college basketball roster. Slickly-produced with the usual Bruckheimer production sheen, “Glory Road” is entertaining but ultimately fails to stand out from other, better films in its genre. Disney’s new Blu Ray release improves on the prior standard-definition DVD package by offering a vivid new 1080p transfer that takes advantage of the HD format and looks exceptionally good. The uncompressed 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack is also strong, though extras (comprised here of two commentaries and one featurette, “Surviving Practice”) are in less abundance than the prior DVD package.

-The Haunted Mansion (2003, 88 mins., PG; ** film, *** presentation): Disney’s attempts at turning their theme park attractions into big-screen features have pretty much fizzled with the exception of “Pirates of the Caribbean.” Their 2003 take on “The Haunted Mansion” is likely the most disappointing of the lot, with a disinterested Eddie Murphy taking his clan on a trip into the infamous haunted house. Disney’s Blu Ray DVD package delivers the technical goods with a 1080p transfer and full, uncompressed 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack (48 kHz/24-bit), and carries over more extras from the standard Special Edition DVD (two commentaries and a pair of featurettes) than most of the studio’s prior Blu Ray discs.

-Gone in 60 Seconds (2000, 118 mins., PG-13; ** film, **½  presentation): This mindless Nicolas Cage check-cashing venture manages to squander a game supporting cast (Robert Duvall, Angelina Jolie) in a movie that's never as exciting as you'd think it might be. What’s more, this bare-bones Blu Ray title offers none of the supplements from this Jerry Bruckheimer production’s previous DVD incarnations -- not deleted scenes nor an extended cut of the film itself. The 1080p transfer is vivid, and the uncompressed 5.1 Dolby Digital sound top-notch, but the overall package is lacking in regards to the studio’s other Blu Ray titles. Pass!

TV on DVD: A New VOYAGE And More From Anchor Bay

Much to the delight of fans everywhere, Anchor Bay has just finished up their release of THREE’S COMPANY by issuing the eighth and final year of the popular series (1983-84, 21 Episodes, 550 mins., Anchor Bay) on DVD.

By the time “Three’s Company”embarked on its final season, the previously-controversial premise of the benchmark ABC sitcom (a man living platonically with a pair of nubile females) had mostly worn off and -- as John Ritter himself lamented -- the cast found themselves recycling stories that they’d already filmed. Priscilla Barnes had become a solid fill-in for Suzanne Somers’ Chrissy Snow, but the show had run its course and, to add insult to injury, the program didn’t end particularly well. The series’ producers opted to marry off Joyce DeWitt’s Janet instead of putting her together with Ritter’s Jack (something that many fans would’ve preferred to see happen), paving the way for the short-lived spin-off series “Three’s a Crowd” with Jack hooked up with his new lady love (Mary Cadorette) and intruding father (Robert Mandan), both of whom are introduced towards the end of the series.

That decision caused major turmoil behind the scenes between the series’ supporting players and the producers, but as producer George Sunga points out in his liner notes, you’d never have known it from watching the series: even in the last group of episodes, the cast seems to be having great fun, peppering the now-formulaic scripts with the same energy that they brought to the previous seven seasons. Key to it all was, of course, Ritter, who’s now widely regarded as the male counterpart to Lucille Ball -- a gifted comedian with an uncanny, and undeniable, talent for physical comedy. Thanks primarily to his performance “Three’s Company” will live on for years, and decades, to come.

Anchor Bay should be commended for issuing all eight seasons of “Three’s Company” so quickly on DVD (quite unlike other studios, which begin to issue series on DVD and then lose interest in completing them). The four-disc set again offers unedited, original broadcast-length episodes in satisfying transfers and mono sound, with a light assortment of extras including bloopers, a Ritter featurette, and various episode highlights grouped by character. Strongly recommended for all “Three’s Company” fanatics!

For those who might have missed out on Anchor Bay’s “Greatest American Hero” box-sets, the label has issued a massive Limited Collector’s Tin of THE GREATEST AMERICAN HERO (apprx. $75).
This lavishly-produced package is limited to 20,000 numbered copies and includes all three seasons of the William Katt-Robert Culp-Connie Selleca comic fantasy in the same DVD slimcases as their individual season releases (though without their exterior, separate season boxes, which might disappoint some fans).

What differentiates this set from its predecessors, though, is in its fan-centric bonuses: a full-sized cape will enable you to dress up like Ralph Hinkley just in time for Halloween, while an iron-on transfer logo is complimented by -- yes, believe it or not -- a replica of the suit instruction manual with working lights...batteries included! It’s a fun prop replica that will delight die-hard fans of the series, while the DVDs are identical to their previous full-screen, stereo transfers (with various music replaced in numerous episodes).

New this week from Fox, meanwhile, is the first volume from the Second Season of VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA (1965, 13 Episodes, 665 mins.), Irwin Allen’s classic sci-fi fantasy series that -- in the fall of 1965 -- marked its first group of color broadcasts.

Fox’s three-disc DVD compilation includes the initial 13 episodes from that season (“Jonah and the Whale,” “Time Bomb,” “And Five Of Us Are Left,” “The Cyborg,” “Escape From Venice,” “Left Handed Man,” “Deadliest Game,” “Leviathan,” “The Peacemaker,” “The Silent Saboteurs,” “X Factor,” “The Machines Strike Back,” and “The Monster from Outer Space”) in exceptionally strong transfers and 2.0 stereo and mono sound.

While some fans might be disappointed that Fox continues to split up seasons instead of releasing bigger box-sets for vintage, hour-long series like this one, at least the studio has included a good amount of extras, including early special FX reels that Allen shot, full still galleries and more.

What’s particularly interesting among these second season episodes is that, in addition to the switch to color, the premiere episode (“Jonah and the Whale”) includes a Jerry Goldsmith score with a different opening title theme written by the composer -- one that was used in this show only, as it was quickly replaced the following week with Paul Sawtell’s original theme music. Fans can now hear Goldsmith’s efforts on DVD, along with 12 other action-packed episodes that represent this popular ‘60s series at its most entertaining.

Also New on DVD

A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION (***, 106 mins., 2006, PG-13; New Line): Offbeat and engaging collaboration between humorist-author Garrison Keillor and filmmaker Robert Altman takes a fictional look behind the scenes at Keillor’s long-running National Public Radio program, where an outstanding ensemble cast (Woody Harrelson, Tommy Lee Jones, Kevin Kline, Lindsay Lohan, John C. Reilly, Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin among others) portray the various characters on the final broadcast of “A Prairie Home Companion.” Things get a little dicey when Virginia Madsen shows up as an angel of death (?!?), but Altman’s self-indulgences are otherwise minimal in this highly entertaining, homespun yarn that captures the essence of Keillor’s radio program (if not the humor). New Line’s DVD includes extra scenes, a behind-the-scenes documentary, a fine 16:9 (1.85) transfer, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, and -- best of all -- a marvelous commentary with Altman and Kevin Kline. Good fun!

ART SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL (**½, 102 mins., 2006, R; Sony): Terry Zwigoff’s latest dark comic offering is a step back from “Bad Santa” and more like a cousin of the generally over-rated “Ghost World.”  Max Minghella plays an idealistic new art student who finds that life among the eclectic and avant garde isn’t all it’s cracked up to be; some hilarious work from John Malkovich, Anjelica Huston, Jim Broadbent and Ethan Suplee nearly makes this offbeat concoction work, but the picture is sluggishly paced and loses its energy as it throws in a curve ball during the final third. Likely worth seeing for Zwigoff devotees, but your tolerance for “Ghost World” will likely dictate your enjoyment over this indie affair. Sony’s DVD includes a sharp 1.85 (16:9) transfer, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, deleted scenes, bloopers, and two featurettes (one examining the film’s production, the other a look at its Sundance screening). Not entirely satisfying but not without its moments, either.

THE SNOWMAN (1982, 27 mins; Sony): Raymond Briggs’ classic Christmas tale became a memorable 1982 cartoon from director Dianne Jackson, producer John Coates and supervising director Jimmy Murakami. However, it’s the outstanding music of Howard Blake that really makes this annual treat a deserved perennial favorite -- so much that other movies and various commercials have used Blake’s central theme (“Walking in the Air”) over the years (including director Michael Mann, who utilized the theme in his 1983 WWII horror movie “The Keep”!). Sony’s new DVD edition includes an introduction from David Bowie and looks fine in its intended full-screen format, making it preferable to the British special edition DVD that inexplicably cropped the top and bottom of the image to suit 16:9 televisions!

THE FOX AND THE HOUND: 25th Anniversary (***, 1981, 83 mins., G; Disney): Charming early ‘80s Disney feature returns to DVD in a new Special Edition, featuring a slightly crisper transfer (again in full-screen) than its previous release and a 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack in place of its predecessor’s 2.0 Dolby Surround. Alas, the extras are on the light side, with just one featurette touching upon the movie’s unique place in the Disney canon, falling towards the end of the Ron Miller era and tapping what would be the final involvement of numerous veteran animators. At just over five minutes, though, it’s too brief and offers only quick interview fragments which seem to have been conducted some time ago. Other extras include an art gallery, two vintage Disney cartoons, several interactive games and a preview for the forthcoming, direct-to-video “Fox and the Hound 2.” Overall, this is a pleasing feature worthy of a place in your Disney collection, though it’s not much of an upgrade from the original DVD and thus comes most recommended for those who didn’t own the previous package.

POWER RANGERS MYSTIC FORCE (63 mins., 2006; Buena Vista): Feature-length (barely, at just over an hour) adventure starring the latest round of Power Rangers offers a full-screen transfer and Dolby Surround 2.0 sound. Extras include a bonus episode from another “Jetix” Disney Channel series, “Yin Yang Yo!,” plus a featurette.

NEXT TIME: Part 2 of our annual Halloween Special, with Warner's LEGENDS OF HORROR, the return of the GROOVIE GHOULIES, and More! Until then, don't forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards and direct any emails to the link above . Cheers!

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