10/9/07 Edition -- The New AISLE SEAT BLOG Is Now Live & Relaunched!

Verhoeven's Thriller Back on DVD & Blu Ray
Plus: Special Interest Titles, JINGLE ALL THE WAY and More

Another economy-sized column this week while we take one last trip to the beach here in New England (it’s been a great September and October, no question!) and watch the Red Sox continue on the post-season baseball path.

If the new TV season and other viewing choices (like sports) aren’t taking up all of your time, some fresh releases on DVD and the two high-definition optical formats should provide some interest this week.

New on Blu Ray

HOLLOW MAN: Blu Ray [Director’s Cut] (**½, 118 mins., 2000, R; Sony): Paul Verhoeven's last excursion into sci-fi/fantasy was this slickly-made, albeit claustrophobic, modern update of "The Invisible Man," with a cardboard script and dialogue off-setting whatever attempts “Hollow Man” makes to be more than just a special effects show.

Kevin Bacon plays the title character -- a cocky, arrogant scientist who decides to use himself as a human guinea pig for invisible experimentation. Soon enough the formula works, and Bacon goes batty, escaping from his lab of scientific cohorts (including Elisabeth Shue and several performers best known for their work on TV shows, like Joey "The Single Guy" Slotnick and J.J. Abrams staple Greg Grunberg) and generally causing minor inconveniences for an unsuspecting populace, including murder and an apparent rape.

Though several sequences are polished and the movie's fiery climax is fun if not totally derivative, “Hollow Man” is ultimately undone by a pedestrian script, filled with poor dialogue and badly-drawn protagonists. Bacon and Shue are as good as can be expected, but the stars of the movie are the copious special effects and Verhoeven's set-pieces, which don't click anywhere near as well as they did in his previous outing, the underrated and hilarious “Starship Troopers” (still awaiting a Blu Ray release in the U.S.). Part of the problem is the film's look: shot mostly on one set, the movie has a closed-in feeling that only accentuates how thin the main material is.

Jerry Goldsmith's score works just fine (ranking as one of his more effective later works), and even though the movie isn't quite as bad as its reviews would have you believe, there's just something hollow about the lack of drama in “Hollow Man” that no amount of technical wizardry can overcome.

Sony’s Blu Ray release, out next week, offers a generally vibrant 1080p HD transfer with only a few sequences here and there displaying MPEG artificating. For the most part the detail is crisp and the colors warm, while uncompressed PCM 5.1 sound offers a wide soundstage for the music and sound effects.

The movie (also available on standard-definition DVD) is presented in a new “Director’s Cut” running five minutes longer than the theatrical cut, which disappointingly means both Verhoeven’s commentary and Goldsmith’s isolated score/commentary track have been dropped from the previous, theatrical-cut DVD edition. Three featurettes, at least, have been carried over (including a HBO “Making Of” featurette).

HOSTEL: Director’s Cut (*½, 94 mins., 2005, Unrated; Sony): Eli Roth's sadistic thriller hits Blu Ray again, this time in an extras-packed Director’s Cut that’s markedly different than the previous BD release I reviewed over the summer. The movie isn't my cup of tea but fans will enjoy seeing every disgusting torture sequence in high-definition and booming audio, presented here with Dolby TrueHD audio (no PCM, surprisingly enough), a handful of commentary tracks, a new Director’s Cut ending, featurettes on set design, editing and music, interviews and much more. (Available Oct. 23)

 Interest on HD-DVD & Blu Ray

Richard J. Casey at R&B Films has issued a pair of “special interest” titles in both HD-DVD and Blu Ray that sport the highest bit-rate video transfers and audio encodes seen in the two formats to date.

Both the recent NATURE’S JOURNEY and the 1985 large-format feature CHRONOS boast some of the sharpest, most impressive high-definition images I’ve seen on my high-definition set, each making for ideal demo material in the process.

“Chronos” is a title many may be familiar with: one of the earliest Imax-screened features boasting a montage of images shot around the globe without any dialogue. Michael Stearns’ music carries us on the journey while director-photographer Ron Fricke (editor of Godfrey Reggio’s acclaimed, similarly-themed visual odyssey “Koyaanisqatsi”) combines a succession of vivid images -- from city scapes to ancient monuments in a variety of cinematographic processes (including time-lapse) -- that will linger long in the mind and the soul.

R&B Films’ HD-DVD and Blu Ray releases both offer superb MPEG-2 transfers from the original 65mm elements along with DTS-HD 96/24 soundtracks (as well as Dolby Digital Plus and PCM options as well). Extras include a commentary from Fricke, Stearns, and other crew members, while annotations and an animated globe give viewers additional information about the picture’s locations via optional on-screen prompts that run during the film. Highly recommended!

Stearns’ music also accompanies the 67-minute “Nature’s Journey,” a collection of images compiled by director John Banks with outstanding colors. It’s a moody montage of visuals sprinkled with some FX enhancements and another new age-y score by Stearns that makes for pleasant demo material and visual wallpaper if nothing else.

R&B Films’ HD-DVD is encoded at a robust 26 mpbs and the Blu Ray release at 37 mbps (both VC-1 encoded transfers), but both offered comparable, and spectacular, colors and images, while 96/24 DTS-HD Master Audio compliments the audio presentation. For viewers wanting to use the disc as a backdrop during a party, there are environmental/seasonal loops available as well.

R&B Films provides additional background information on both features in their booklet notes, and for anyone searching for something to show off their HDTVs without resorting to the usual “demo” sequences from action-oriented films, both “Chronos” and “Nauture’s Journey” are well worth tracking down. Here’s hoping R&B can deliver more satisfying product along these lines in the future.

Also New & Coming Soon on DVD

Paramount is poised to issue a jam-packed Special Edition DVD of TRANSFORMERS on October 16th, but we’ll save our Aisle Seat review of the Michael Bay blockbuster to coincide with the HD-DVD release, which we hadn’t yet received as of this writing.

In the meantime, Paramount has several other new discs of note this month:

A MIGHTY HEART: DVD and 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 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 DVD includes a fine 16:9 (2.35) transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital audio, a Making Of segment with cast/crew interviews, and public service announcements. Editor’s Note: Paramount’s HD-DVD edition is due out on October 16th and we’ll edit this review to incorporate details on that release as soon as it arrives.

MEDIUM: Season 3 (2006-07, 16 hrs., Paramount): Patricia Arquette’s grounded performance as psychic Allison Dubois -- who aids the police in a weekly array of police procedurals -- has carried this NBC series through three solid seasons with a fourth about to get underway. Paramount’s six-disc box-set includes all 21 episodes from “Medium”’s third season in excellent 16:9 (1.78) transfers with 5.1 audio, commentaries, gag reel, featurettes, and a segment with Arquette’s brother David, who guest-directed one of the third-season episodes.

THE HOUSE WITHOUT A CHRISTMAS TREE (1972, 75 mins., Paramount): Highly-regarded early ‘70s television drama with Jason Robards and Mildred Natwick reaches DVD in a no-frills presentation, the full-screen transfer reproducing the original videotape source as well as can be expected.

HOAX (***, 2007, 115 mins., R.; Miramax/Buena Vista): Often hilarious satire with a razor-sharp script (credit William Wheeler for his screenplay and Lasse Hallstrom for his on-target direction) stars Richard Gere as Clifford Irving, who perpetrated one of the great hoaxes of the 20th century after he convinced McGraw-Hill that he was authorized to author Howard Hughes’ autobiography. Excellent period atmosphere, terrific work from Gere and a fine supporting cast (including Alfred Molina, Marcia Gay Harden, Hope Davis, Julie Delpy and Stanley Tucci) make “Hoax” a treat that Buena Vista has brought to DVD in a fine Special Edition. Included in the supplements are commentary from Hallstrom and Wheeler, a second commentary with the producers, deleted and extended scenes, a Making Of featurette, and an interview with “60 Minutes”’ Mike Wallace. The 16:9 (1.85) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound are both excellent.

New From Fox

JINGLE ALL THE WAY: Family Fun Edition [Director’s Cut] (**½, 94 mins. [Extended] and 89 mins. [Theatrical], 1996, PG; Fox): I’m not entirely sure if viewers have been clamoring for an extended version of this passable 1996 holiday comedy, which at one point was supposed to pit star Arnold Schwarzenegger (starring in his last comedic leading role) and Joe Pesci, but this Chris Columbus production ended up with comedian Sinbad in Pesci’s role instead. It’s still an enjoyable enough lark, with Phil Hartman, Jim Belushi and Robert Conrad offering decent support and a spirited soundtrack boasting a fine David Newman score. Fox’s new 16:9 (1.85) transfer is superb, as is the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, and additional extras include set-top games and three featurettes. Viewers should note Fox’s packaging is incorrect, as the Extended version (which aired on ABC) runs about five minutes longer than the theatrical cut -- not the “Over 20 minutes” tag indicated on the packaging (which erroneously lists the running time at 122 minutes as well). Note also that the original theatrical cut is included as a viewing option.

THAT ‘70s SHOW: Season 7 (2004-05, 25 Episodes; Fox): Penultimate season of the long-running Fox sitcom says goodbye to Ashton Kutcher (at least as a regular) as it follows the gang through another year of comedic shenanigans. Fox’s four-disc DVD set includes all 25 seventh-season episodes with selected commentaries, promo spots, three featurettes, full-screen transfers and 2.0 Dolby Surround soundtracks.

CIVIC DUTY (2007, 94 mins., R; Fox): Peter Krause stars as a New Yorker who loses his job in the wake of 9/11 and believes a terrorist plot is being hatched after an Islamic grad student moves in next door. Krause gives a good performance but “Civic Duty” is a bit over-directed by Jeff Renfroe and stumbles upon its way to a predictable climax. Fox’s DVD includes a 1.78 (16:9) transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

NEXT TIME: Criterion Restores DAYS OF HEAVEN! Until then, don't forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards, check out the newly relaunched Aisle Seat Blog, and direct any emails to our new email address. Cheers everyone!

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