11/13/07 Edition -- The New AISLE SEAT BLOG Is Now Live & Relaunched!

Mid-November Wrap-up
New HD-DVD & Blu Ray Discs Reviewed
Plus: The Latest From Criterion & HEARTS OF DARKNESS

With lots of big discs about to hit stores this week (“Close Encounters” on DVD and Blu Ray) and next (the first season of “Star Trek” on HD-DVD), this is a good time to get caught up on some of November’s more recent releases on DVD, as well as the competing high-definition formats.

Speaking of which, with “Black Friday” (aka the Friday after Thanksgiving that’s also the biggest shopping day of the year) looming, consumers interested in HD-DVD may want to be on the lookout for player deals. Walmart and Best Buy recently offered Toshiba’s fine HD-DVD A2 player at a ridiculously low $99 for a limited time, resulting in the sale of some 90,000-plus units in the process during that span.

It’s likely that similar deals will be in the cards the next week, so keep an eye out and also check my blog -- plus the Aisle Seat Message Boards -- for any late breaking details.

New in High Definition

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE: HD-DVD (***½, 129 mins., 2005, PG; Focus/Universal): Jane Austen’s novel has been captured on film and television numerous times over the years, but perhaps never so eloquently as Joe Wright’s acclaimed and vividly shot 2005 adaptation.

Some Austen purists carped at changes director Wright and screenwriter Deborah Moggach made to its source, but those without a preconception of the material will likely be enchanted by this splendid production. Keira Knightley here stars as Lizzie Bennet, one of five daughters attracted to the rich, “unpleasant” Mr. Darcy (Matthew Macfadyen) in late 18th century England. Their sparring eventually leads to romance over a period of time that also finds Lizzie’s sister (Rosamund Pike) initially turned down by Darcy’s friend, while an old acquaintance of Darcy’s -- Mr. Wickum -- turns up and runs away with a younger Bennet sister (Jena Malone), much to the dismay of their parents (played wonderfully by Donald Sutherland and Brenda Blethyn).

One of the wonderful things about “Pride and Prejudice” is that Wright’s film comes alive visually, far more than a typical, static Merchant and Ivory piece: filling the widescreen frame with details, deftly utilizing the superb work of cinematographer Roman Osin and the sublime score by Dario Marianelli (making amends for his brittle score for “The Brothers Grimm”), Wright accentuates the thoughts and feelings of Austen’s characters perfectly. Watching the sun rise at the beginning of the movie, and again when Lizzie and Darcy finally merge at the end of the piece, is a joy that only enhances the work of the performances and the strength of the story itself.

In regards to the acting, Knightley and Macfadyen build up some serious chemistry together, as one might anticipate, and supporting performances from Pike, Malone, Sutherland, Blethyn and Tom Hollander (as Mr. Collins, Lizzie’s would-be suitor) are likewise strong across the board.

“Pride and Prejudice” may not have received a Best Picture nomination but this was one of 2005's finest films, likely to satisfy most Austen devotees and especially newcomers to the material, who are likely to embrace this adaptation lovingly with open arms. Don’t miss it.

Universal’s new HD-DVD edition of the movie is a beauty. The VC-1 encoded, 1080p transfer vividly reproduces the film’s visuals, while the Dolby TrueHD sound prominently displays Marianelli’s introspective score -- as such it is a major upgrade on the poorly mixed DTS and Dolby tracks from the standard-definition DVD. Extras culled from that prior release include a commentary track by Wright and several Making Of featurettes, including an HBO First Look special.

I NOW PRONOUNCE YOU CHUCK AND LARRY: HD-DVD (**, 2007, 116 mins., PG-13; Universal): Awfully tired comic vehicle -- which still grossed over $100 million thanks to laugh-deprived audiences last summer -- offers Adam Sandler and Kevin James as NYC firefighters who pretend they’re gay...all for the sake of collecting a pension. Sandler looks particularly long in the tooth in this Dennis Dugan-directed farce, which not only strains credibility but rolls snake eyes in the comedy department: the script may be co-credited to Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor (“Election”), but Sandler reportedly performed his own re-writes, which may account for the movie’s strained, shrill tone. Either way the patently-offensive “Chuck and Larry” isn’t funny, in any capacity. Universal’s HD-DVD edition includes numerous featurettes, deleted scenes, a strong VC-1 encoded 1080p transfer, and Dolby TrueHD sound. The disc is a “Combo” release with the standard-definition version on the flip side.

MASTERS OF HORROR: SEASON 1 Volume 3: Blu Ray (169 mins., Anchor Bay): Latest HD edition of the inconsistent Showtime horror anthology offers three episodes from “Masters of Horror”’s first season: the Don Coscarelli-directed “Incident On and Off a Mountain Road,” with Bree Turner and Ethan Embry; Larry Cohen’s “Pick Me Up,” most notable for starring the criminally under-utilized Fairuza Balk; and Tobe Hooper’s “Dance of the Dead,” based on a Richard Matheson story, starring Robert Englund and offering a score by Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins. The 1080i HD transfers are all solid, as are the PCM and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack offerings, while extras include multiple commentaries from the filmmakers.

RATATOUILLE: Blu Ray (***, 111 mins., 2007, G; Disney): Animator-director Brad Bird’s “Ratatouille” didn’t quite break through to “Cars” or “Incredibles”-like box-office numbers, but truth be told, the feature -- the newest from Bird and Pixar Animation Studios -- is a good deal more satisfying than most of Pixar’s more recent efforts. Outstanding character design and appropriate Parisian flavor make this tale of an unlikely alliance between a rat named Remy and a restaurant bus boy named Linguini a tasty treat with rich comic timing, perhaps not as moving as other Disney-Pixar offerings but still satisfying for both kids and adults alike.

Disney’s Blu Ray disc includes a spectacular 1080p transfer with beautiful textures and warm colors. The uncompressed PCM sound is superb, while all the extras from the standard DVD are here -- deleted scenes, a new animated short with Remy and Emile, the theatrically-released “Lifted” short, and a featurette with Bird and chef Thomas Keller. Exclusive to the Blu Ray release are an interactive game and more elaborate menus.

Criterion: November Releases

A double-disc edition of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic THE LADY VANISHES (***½, 96 mins., 1938) highlights Criterion’s slate of new DVD releases for November.

With a new, digitally restored transfer superior to the label’s prior DVD edition of the film, Criterion here also includes a number of new supplements, including the 1941 feature “Crook’s Tour,” starring Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne reprising Charters and Caldicott (one of several movies they appeared in after “The Lady Vanishes”); excerpts from Francois Truffaut’s 1962 audio interview with Hitchcock; a video essay, “Mystery Train,” about the picture from scholar Leonard Leff; a stills gallery; and Bruce Eder’s original commentary from prior editions.

Akira Kurosawa’s DRUNKEN ANGEL (1948, 98 mins.) has also been newly dusted off from the Criterion Collection. This early “noir” from the great Japanese filmmaker stars Toshiro Mifune and boasts a number of excellent special features, including commentary from author Donald Richie; a 31-minute documentary on the film’s production culled from the “It’s Wonderful to Create” Toho series on Kurosawa; a video piece on Kurosawa’s run-ins with Japanese censors in creating his late ‘40s masterwork; an extensive collection of essays and liner notes.

SAWDUST AND TINSEL (1953, 92 mins.), an early work from Ingmar Bergman, also hits DVD this month from Criterion. This pre-“Seventh Seal” effort from Bergman will be worth an examination from scholars and fans of the auteur, the DVD offering a new digital transfer with five minutes previously edited from U.S. prints; a commentary from Peter Cowie; a 2003 introduction by the director; and additional essays.

Last but not least is Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s epic 15-hour television series BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ (1980, 940 mins), a massive tale of an ex-con trying to navigate through Weimar-era Germany. This eagerly-awaited box-set preserves the complete Fassbinder epic in full-screen with numerous extras, including two documentaries (one on the film, the other on its restoration); interviews; and a complete book on its production, offering comments from filmmaker Tom Tykwer (“Run Lola Run”), Fassbinder and others. A unique viewing experience that foreign cinema fans ought to savor.

New & Coming Soon From Paramount

HEARTS OF DARKNESS: A FILMMAKER’S APOCALYPSE (***½, 1991, 96 mins., R; Paramount): Classic documentary account of the making of “Apocalypse Now,” rich with production footage and candid interviews, finally hits DVD in a Special Edition next week from Paramount.

Eleanor Coppola shot miles of footage during the turbulent production of her husband Francis’ 1979 epic, which Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper fashioned into an acclaimed 1991 documentary feature. While some thought Coppola’s personal reservations about the project were the reason for the delay in seeing “Hearts of Darkness” on DVD, the title has at last arrived on disc in a 2-disc set from Coppola’s own Zoetrope Studios, complete with a new commentary track by Francis and Eleanor Coppola and a second disc of extras.

Included in the latter is “Coda: Thirty Years Later,” a 62-minute profile of Coppola helming his latest opus, “Youth Without Youth,” on-location in Romania. It’s a nice companion to “Hearts of Darkness,” which ought to rank as essential viewing for any cinephile, regardless of your opinion of “Apocalypse Now” itself. Technically the full-screen transfer and 2.0 Dolby Surround track are both perfectly acceptable.

CSI: SEASON 7 (2006-07, 17 hrs., Paramount): The writers strike getting you down? Not caught up on TV on DVD? Paramount has some answers this month, beginning with the complete Season 7 of CBS’ top-rated crime drama “CSI.” Featuring all 24 episodes from the most recent season of the William Petersen-Marg Helgenberger series in solid 16:9 (1.78) transfers and 5.1 Dolby Digital audio, Paramount’s DVD box also includes a decent assortment of special features, including seven audio commentaries and numerous Making Of featurettes.

MELROSE PLACE: SEASON 3 (1994-95, 24 hrs., Paramount): Fox ordered some 30 (!) episodes of this “90210" spin-off back in 1994, following the more grown-up misadventures of a group of attractive young people dating, cheating, and generally causing a raucous in the sexiest cul-de-sac seen on network TV since the heyday of “Knots Landing.” Paramount’s DVD box set preserves the complete third season of “Melrose Place” in good-looking full-screen transfers, stereo sound, and a few bonus featurettes.

CHRISTMAS IN SOUTH PARK (1997-2004, 154 mins., Paramount): Comprehensive selection of holiday-themed episodes from “South Park” includes the perennial favorite “Mr. Hankey’s Christmas Classics,” offering a robust array of musical numbers and some of the only references to the “Star Wars Holiday Special” you’ll ever see. Raunchy belly laughs just in time for the holiday season.

NEXT TIME: STAR TREK! CLOSE ENCOUNTERS! 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!

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