10/3/06 Edition

October Universal Premieres
Plus: Sandra & Keanu Open Up THE LAKE HOUSE and More!

October is here once again my dear readers, and with its arrival come a huge array of diverse and exciting DVDs to cover. This week we introduce another new development into The Aisle Seat: HD-DVD reviews, to compliment our coverage of Disney’s Blu-Ray titles from a week ago. Also coming up shortly will be the first of two Halloween-themed columns, to get your spooky genre viewing in line for 2006. It’s going to be a busy month, so let’s (as the kids today would say) get it started!

Recently Released

THE LAKE HOUSE (**½, 2006). 98 mins., PG-13, Warner. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Additional scenes and outtakes; trailer; 16:9 (2.35) Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

This “Speed” reunion for stars Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves might have made for a very special Valentine’s Day edition of “The Twilight Zone.”

In “The Lake House,” Reeves plays the estranged son of an ailing architect (Christopher Plummer) who receives a handwritten note from Bullock, the tenant of his father’s gorgeous country home...who just happens to be living two years in the future!

If writer David Auburn’s screenplay (adapted from a 2000 Korean film entitled “Siworae”) sounds absurd to you now, just wait until you see how director Alejandro Agresti’s film plays out: Bullock and Reeves “communicate” by magically inserting letters into the mail box outside their rural Illinois lakefront home, with Reeves living in Central Bullock Time -- or, to be precise, 24 months behind.

Believe it or not, a tag line like “the two establish a bond that the boundaries of time and space can’t break!” wouldn’t be out of line with “The Lake House,” a movie that made this critic experience a variety of emotions while viewing it. Granted, the concept is outlandish, and there are numerous times in the first half-hour where my wife and I laughed out loud at some of the hokey dialogue (not helped by bland readings from Bullock and especially Reeves, who seems particularly uptight here). Yet at the same time, the movie improves as it moves along, and if you can navigate past its tough-going, initial 30 minutes and buy in even halfway to the picture’s central premise, then you might find yourself being entertained -- at the least -- by this wildly fanciful romantic drama.

Warner’s DVD is light on special features, but does offer more than a handful of outtakes and deleted scenes, plus the original trailer. The 16:9 transfer is top-notch and the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound just fine for the material, with Rachel Portman’s superb score being one of the film’s top assets.

CURIOUS GEORGE (***, 2006, 88 mins., G; Universal): With so many animated features being glib and sarcastic these days, this delightfully straightforward adaptation of H.A. and Margret Rey’s beloved “Curious George” books comes as a refreshing treat.

Originally planned as a live-action film, Universal and Imagine Entertainment wisely opted to keep “George” fully animated, retaining some of Rey’s colorful designs and paying tribute to the original stories -- at least enough so that some of the cartoony hyjinks added by writer Ken Kaufman and director Matthew O’Callaghan don’t overwhelm the relative subtlety of its source material. On the vocal end of things, Will Ferrell wisely dials it down a notch as the Man in the Yellow Hat, and veteran voice-meister Frank Welker brings a sheer, unabashed child-like quality to George, with Jack Johnson’s original songs adding immeasurably to every scene they accompany.

Universal’s DVD looks tremendous: although the overall level of animation isn’t nearly on the level of, say, a solid Disney feature, the character design and articulation are satisfying and the 16:9 (1.85) transfer colorfully appealing. The 5.1 Dolby Digital sound is likewise top-notch, and numerous featurettes, interactive games, and 15 deleted scenes are likewise on-hand.

Also New From Universal

BACKDRAFT: Anniversary Edition (**½, 138 mins., R, 1991, Universal): Though it’s just a late-night cable TV staple these days, Ron Howard’s big-budgeted 1991 chronicle of firefighters battling both blazes and family issues performed moderately well at the box-office in its day. Kurt Russell and Billy Baldwin are the brothers racing against the clock to save trapped victims from buildings having been set en fuego by a homicidal arsonist; the all-star cast also includes cameos for Robert DeNiro and Donald Sutherland, not to mention relatively thankless, token female parts essayed by Rebbeca DeMornay and a particularly miscast Jennifer Jason Leigh. The script by “Highlander” scribe Gregory Widen is a bit melodramatic and never fully believable, but the superb Mikael Salomon cinematography and rousing Hans Zimmer score can still send a shiver down your spine. Universal’s double-disc Special Edition offers an excellent, multi-part examination of the film’s creation with all-new cast and crew interviews, plus extensive deleted scenes which were largely incorporated into Universal’s expanded TV broadcasts. Howard doesn’t contribute a commentary but does appear to introduce his film, which looks quite good here in a new 16:9 (2.35) transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound. Well worth seeking out if you’re a “Backdraft” fan.

THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS: Tokyo Drift (**½, 2006, 105 mins., PG-13, Universal): Here’s a rare sequel that improves upon its immediate predecessor, at least, as a smaller budget and more obscure casting resulted in a superior product for a change. This third go-round for the “Fast and the Furious” franchise wisely starts fresh, with young American hotshot Lucas Black heading to Japan and promptly getting mixed up with the local, hot-rod ridin’ underworld there. Director Justin Lin and writer Chris Morgan have fashioned a good-looking, predictable thrill ride for teens with plenty of exciting chases (as we’ve come to expect from the series) and a throbbing Brian Tyler score. It’s nothing out of the ordinary, but it’s superior to “2Fast2Furious” and offers a surprise cameo at the end that puts a satisfying cap on the action. Universal’s sensational looking 16:9 (2.35) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound are essentially reference quality as far as standard-definition DVDs go, and extras include a commentary from Lin, the regulatory deleted scenes package and several Making Of featurettes.

FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH: HD-DVD Combo Package Edition (***½, 1982, 90 mins., R, Universal): Amy Heckerling and Cameron Crowe’s seminal comedy remains at the pinnacle of the 1980s teen movie craze. “Fast Times” was previously issued on DVD a few times, most recently in a 2004 Special Edition with copious supplements (commentary, documentary) and DTS sound, and that edition is reprieved here on one side of Universal’s HD-DVD “Combo Package” (though minus the DTS track). On the flip side -- and of more interest for fans -- is a brand-new HD-DVD edition with 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus sound (basically the same 5.1 track encoded at a substantially higher bit-rate) and a sensational high-definition DVD transfer that’s a must for fans of the movie. I’ve recently seen “Fast Times” broadcast digitally on Universal’s HD channel, and this 1080p-capable transfer is even better, offering robust colors that are often eye-popping. With Phoebe Cates never looking better than she does here coming out of the swimming pool (anyone who knows the movie is familiar with this sequence!), I can’t give this new Universal HD-DVD release a strong enough recommendation.

END OF DAYS: HD-DVD Edition (** movie, ***½ presentation; 123 mins., 1999, R, Universal): The “Governator” struck out at the box-office with this “End of the 20th Century” supernatural thriller, which has become somewhat of a guilty pleasure among fans for its outlandish action and unintentional humor. Schwarzenegger’s turn as a security guard who uncovers a plot that involves Robin Tunney bearing Satan’s child was a troubled production all the way, with director Peter Hyams coming in at the last minute to replace original helmer Marcus Nispel. The resulting film has solid special effects and loads of unintended yucks, including Arnold battling plump British character actress Miriam Margoyles (in the Billie Whitlaw “Omen” role!) and then trying to blow apart Gabriel Byrne’s Satan with a rocket launcher in the NYC subway. Somehow, this mess is now even more appealing on HD-DVD, where Universal’s 1080p-capable transfer is absolutely smashing: “End of Days” is one dark movie, and if anything, this HD-only DVD confirms that Hyams’ films may be due for a re-assessment now that there’s a format that can fully translate the filmmaker’s penchant for dim cinematography. All of the extras have been ported over from the Collector’s Edition release and the 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus sound is likewise accomplished (audiophiles should note that here’s a “TrueHD 5.1" track on-hand here as well, though since there are so few components on the market that are compatible with the format, its inclusion here merits just a “nice bonus” citation for the time being).

Capsules: New Titles from Warner, Sony and Tartan

MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL :Extraordinarily Deluxe Edition (***, 1974, 92 mins., PG, Sony): Terrific, low-priced 3-disc re-issue of the first (and for many the best) Monty Python feature is highlighted by a new 16:9 transfer in 1.66 widescreen, preserving the original top and bottom edges of the frame that were previously clipped in Sony’s prior Special Edition DVD (which was framed in 1.85). In addition, the inclusion of the original soundtrack on CD, a bonus “Spamalot” medley, and additional trivia features -- complimenting all the extras from its previous DVD bow -- make for a spectacular package for Monty Python fans, most particularly those who didn’t own the prior release and aren’t interested in the evitable Blu-Ray edition that will follow a few months down the road. Available for under $15 in many outlets, this one’s a no-brainer.

LADY VENGEANCE (***, 112 mins., 2005, R; Tartan): Korean filmmaker Park Chan-Wook’s conclusion to his “Vengeance” trilogy (following the tremendously received “Oldboy”) is a stylish and occasionally over-the-top tale of a female ex-con preparing to take revenge on the man truly responsible for the crime she was imprisoned for. Tartan’s DVD features a splendid 16:9 transfer with subtitled commentary tracks from Chan-Wook and his crew, as well as a new American discussion from scholar Richard Pena, trailers and a Making Of featurette. As with the works of Tarantino, “Lady Vengeance” isn’t for every taste but it’s an accomplished piece of filmmaking in spite of some graphic and unnecessary passages.

WHOSE LINE IS IT ANYWAY? Uncensored: Season 1, Volume 1 (1998, 110 mins., Warner): The American version of the popular British comedy series looked and sounded very much like its predecessor -- no surprise since U.S. host Drew Carey brought along most of the comics who starred in the series (Colin Mochrie, Greg Proops, Ryan Stiles, etc.) for good measure. This two-disc compilation from Warner offers the initial 10 episodes of the series uncut with additional gag reels and outtakes, some of which contain footage a bit more explicit than their original broadcast counterparts on ABC.        

THE LITTLE POLAR BEAR: THE DREAM OF FLYING (2003, 80 mins., Warner): Made-for-video animated feature continues the adventures of Hans De Beer’s polar bear Lars, who here attempts to spring some of his friends out of cages set by animal trappers. The animation and stories are perfect for little ones and Warner’s quality full-screen presentation will suit its intended audience just fine.

TOM AND JERRY TALES, Volume 1 (2006, 92 mins., Warner): The latest adventures of Tom & Jerry involve the cat and mouse attempting to (again) one-up one another in this slapstick, so-so 2005 cartoon confection. Warner’s first, single-platter DVD edition of the series offers 12 episodes in decent full-screen transfers and 2.0 Dolby Digital sound.

NEXT TIME: Dick Cavett Chats with HOLLYWOOD GREATS, DePalma's BODY DOUBLE Revisited, 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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