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Looney Tunes Edition
Warner's PLATINUM COLLECTION Brings Bugs to Blu-Ray
Plus: Echo Bridge's 4-Film Blu-Rays and More
One of the year’s most anticipated Blu-Ray releases, Warner’s LOONEY TUNES: PLATINUM COLLECTION VOL. 1 Limited Edition arrives this week and does not disappoint in terms of its content or technical presentation.

A sparkling, well-chosen assortment of 50 Merrie Melodies/Looney Tunes favorites, the three-disc Blu-Ray box offers a robust assortment of cartoons that, yes, have mostly been released before on DVD, but never in the truly outstanding, AVC encoded transfers seen here. Natural grain has been left intact, details and colors shine through like you haven’t seen before, and the cartoons (much like the “Tom & Jerry” set reviewed here last week) have been untouched with nothing censored. Audio commentaries and isolated scores are also in abundance. Here’s what’s included:

Disc 1 focuses on the principal Looney Tunes characters: Hare Tonic, Baseball Bugs, Buccaneer Bunny, The Old Grey Hare, Rabbit Hood, 8 Ball Bunny, Rabbit of Seville, and the sublime What’s Opera Doc?, all starring Bugs; The Great Piggy Bank Robbery, A Pest in the House, The Scarlet Pumpernickel, Duck Amuck, Robin Hood Daffy with Daffy Duck plus Baby Bottleneck, Kitty Kornered, Scaredy Cat and Porky Chops with Porky Pig; the vintage Old Glory; A Tale of Two Kitties and Tweetie Pie with Tweety and Sylvester; Fast and Furry-Ous and Beep Beep from the Road Runner series; Lovehorn Leghorn starring the lovable southern rooster; For Scent-Imental Reasons with Pepe Le Pew; and Speedy Gozalez’s 1955 debut. Featurettes include a look at the music of Raymond Scott (a major influence on WB cartoon composer Carl Stalling) along with an examination of how his “Powerhouse” piece was used in countless WB cartoons; a profile on the creation of What’s Opera Doc?; a featurette on Chuck Jones’ lasting legacy; and a segment on Pepe Le Pew.

Disc 2 is kicked off by six “One Shot Classics” including the immortal One Froggy Evening; The Three Little Bops; I Love to Singa; Katnip Kollege; The Dover Boys at Pimento University; and Chow Hound. Next up is “The Complete Marvin the Martian” in five classic shorts (Haredevil Hare, The Hasty Hare, Duck Dodgers, Hare-Way to the Stars, Mad as a Mars Hare); the “Complete Tasmanian Devil” (Devil May Hare, Bedevilled Rabbit, Ducking the Devil, Bill of Hare and Dr. Devil and Mr. Hare): the “Complete Witch Hazel” (Bewitched Bunny, Broom-Stick Bunny, A Witch’s Tangled Hare, A-Haunting We Will Go); the “Complete Marc Anthony” (Feed the kitty, Kiss Me Kat, Feline Frame-Up); and the “Complete Ralph Williams” (From A to Z-Z-Z-Z, Boyhood Daze). Special features on this second BD platter include a featurette on One Froggy Evening; a profile of miscellaneous “one-off” Looney Tunes shorts; and featurettes on Marvin the Martian, the Tasmanian Devil and the Ralph Phillips cartoons.

The third disc in this “Platinum Collection, Volume 1" set is a mix of bonus cartoons and behind-the-scenes content. In addition to an extensive profile of Chuck Jones (“Chuck Amuck: The Movie,” “Chuck Jones: Extremes and In-Betweens, A Life in Animation” and “Memories of Childhood”), nine “locked in the vault” cartoons includes six shorts produced for the U.S. government (Point Rationing of Foods; Hell-Bent For Election; So Much for So Little, Orange Blossoms for Violet, A Hitch in Time,  90 Day Wondering, Drafty Isn’t It?, The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics and The Bear That Wasn’t). There are also pencil tests from Jones’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” while the bonus shorts are presented in a mix of either standard-def or high-def AVC encodes.

Also on-hand here is a late ‘60s Warner cartoon “The Door” produced by Bill Cosby and a slate of bonus cartoons that were mostly animated as part of Looney Tunes TV specials and/or as a prelude to theatrical features (Fright Before Christmas, Spaced-Out-Bunny, Duck Dodgers and the Return of the 24th ½ Century, Another Froggy Evening, Marvin the Martian in the Third Dimension [produced for an Australian theme park!], Superior Duck, From Hare to Eternity, Father of the Bird and Museum Scream). As with the extra Jones shorts, these bonus cartoons are all presented in AVC encodes but are a mix of high-def and (mostly) standard-def depending on the specific short.

Warner’s limited-edition BD box-set (numbered to 360,000 copies) includes a Looney Tunes shot-glass, framed lito-cel, certificate of authenticity, and digibook packaging with a cartoon guide by animation authority Jerry Beck. The release is also available in a non-limited edition without the extra goodies, but with the same discs and associated supplemental content.

Overall this is a terrific package from Warner Home Video, offering a nice mix of shorts and supplemental content that should appeal to hard-core Looney Tunes fans and the casual viewer alike. The transfers mostly look terrific across the board and are more than a small upgrade from their prior DVD releases, with a few shorts here having never been released on DVD at all. Highly recommended!

New and Recently Released on Blu-Ray

EVIL DEAD II: 25th Anniversary Edition Blu-Ray (***, 1987, 84 mins., Unrated; Lionsgate): Sam Raimi’s fan-favorite receives its second go-round on Blu Ray this month in a Lionsgate release that’s far superior to Anchor Bay’s decent release from 2007.

The AVC encoded 1080p transfer is marked by fine detail and no excessive use of DNR and, when combined with the 5.1 DTS MA soundtrack, makes for an appreciable improvement on its BD predecessor. Even better are the new, exclusive extras highlighted by “Swalled Souls: The Making Of Evil Dead II,” an excellent feature-length documentary on the picture’s production with fresh cast/crew interviews, all presented in 1080p HD. “Cabin Fever” includes Greg Nicotero’s production videos shot on the set, while “Road to Wadesboro” takes a journey back to the location shooting with filmmaker Tony Elwood. In addition to the trailer, Lionsgate has also ported over previously-released extras from Anchor Bay’s effort, including the original commentary, the 17-minute featurette “Evil Dead II: Behind the Screams” and the half-hour “The Gore The Merrier,” plus still galleries.

With an upgrade in extras and its transfer and sound, this ought to stand as the definitive “Evil Dead II” home video release for fans of Raimi’s memorable horror – with a sizable dose of comedy – sequel.

BLUE VELVET Blu-Ray (**, 120 mins., 1986, R; MGM/Fox): David Lynch's controversial 1986 melodrama-thriller hits Blu-Ray in a gorgeous transfer with extensive supplements – all of which should appeal to the director’s devotees.

Kyle MacLahlan, following through on his confused performance in the notorious “Dune” flop with another Lynch potpourri, plays a guy home from college whose dad is in the hospital. After uncovering an ear in a nearby field, MacLahlan makes the mistake of playing a Hardy Boy and runs into an assortment of nuts as he probes the depth's of his town's seedy underbelly, including psycho Dennis Hopper, drug dealer Dean Stockwell, and their cavalcade of fun people. Turns out that hooker/night club singer Isabella Rosselini's husband and son have been kidnapped by Hopper, and are using her as bait to perform sadomasochistic acts to keep them alive. As MacLachlan heads deeper and deeper into the muck (and shuns good-girl high schooler Laura Dern in the process), he ultimately finds out his desires and voyeurism take him down a long, dark, dirty path.

Lynch's work, needless to say, is an acquired taste, and while I've enjoyed some of his films, I can't say that “Blue Velvet” qualifies as part of the latter, as I found the movie exceptionally drawn out and with a bare minimum of subtext to chew on. It's all surface gloss and flashy images, with no genuinely compelling characters, just stereotypes and freaks that you wish would be sucked into the abyss that Laura Palmer ended up in. “Blue Velvet” is one of those movies that completely polarizes viewers: some will find it too gross and sadistic while others will think that it's a masterpiece that uncovers the underworld hidden in the depths of small-town suburbia. Having already drawn my line in the sand when it comes to most of Lynch's work, I'm siding on the former side, although you have to give Lynch credit for making a movie that set a kind of standard for countless other suburbia-isn't-perfect films that have followed over the years since its release.

There are stunning scenes, good performances, and atmosphere to spare, but once “Blue Velvet” settles into detailing Hopper's antics, the movie bogs down and simply becomes dull, not to mention pointlessly disgusting as it nears the climax. Angelo Balamenti's moody score (always one of the constant assets in any Lynch project) and the excellent widescreen cinematography by Frederick Elmes lend an able assist, but once you're turned off by one of the plot points in Lynch's script, “Blue Velvet” becomes a tiresome, repetitive affair, and I'm afraid I lost interest after the movie hits the first hour mark.

In any event, hard-core Lynch-philes ought to be thrilled by MGM's new Blu-Ray release, which offers a beautiful 1080p transfer preserving Elmes and Lynch’s original JDC Scope cinematography. The DTS MA sound is also engaging, while copious extras include some 50 minutes of never-before-seen deleted footage, a 70-minute documentary on the production, additional featurette interviews, an abbreviated Siskel & Ebert review, trailers and brief outtakes.

Also new this week from MGM is a title that’s already generated a fair amount of controversy online: WEST SIDE STORY (****, 153 mins., 1961), Robert Wise’s classic filming of the Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim musical that’s been brought to Blu-Ray in a 3-disc set offering two BD high-def platters and an older standard DVD edition for good measure.

Robert Harris and other defenders of the film basically trashed the disc a few weeks back, noting that inexplicable fade-ins/outs had been applied to Saul Bass’ rightly praised Overture titles, and that the DTS MA soundtrack presented here wasn’t derived from the best elements available. Fox has already taken notice of the situation and plans on repressing the first disc to correct the editorial changes made to the Overture, something that makes recommending the disc easier to do seeing that the movie otherwise looks, on balance, quite good – with some occasional compression artifacts – in its 1080p AVC encoded transfer.

Extras include a new, 20-minute featurette profiling the movie’s dance numbers (in HD) along with HD trailers; previously-released DVD extras including a song-specific Sondheim commentary, “West Side Memories” and “A Place For Us” retrospective documentaries, storyboard-to-film comparisons, and a “music machine” offering just the song sequences.

ATLAS SHRUGGED PART 1 (97 mins., 2011, PG-13; Fox): Ayn Rand’s novel hits the screen in a well-intentioned though not always well-executed, low-budget film that played in a small number of theaters earlier this year. Fox’s Blu-Ray of this first part of “Atlas Shrugged” includes a commentary from the filmmakers and two featurettes, along with a 1080p AVC encoded 1080p transfer and 5.1 DTS MA soundtrack.

SPY KIDS: ALL THE TIME IN THE WORLD Blu-Ray/DVD/Digital Copy (**, 88 mins., 2011, PG; Anchor Bay): Robert Rodriguez’s return to the “Spy Kids” franchise wasn’t exactly something viewers had been clamoring for, since the filmmaker had basically worn out his high-grossing series of kid-fantasy flicks nearly a decade ago.

This follow-up film brings in a new couple (Jessica Alba and hubby Joel McHale) and a new pair of spy kids (Rowan Blanchard and Mason Cook) for another series of overly CGI-rendered adventures after villainous Jeremy Piven decides it’s time to take over the world. Ricky Gervais voices the gang’s dog companion and the original Spy Kids (Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara) show up in support, but it’s pretty much the same thing you’ve seen before – albeit aimed this time at a different audience of children, who didn’t flock to the movie in the same numbers as its predecessors.

Anchor Bay’s Blu-Ray combo pack offers every version of the film imaginable: a 3-D Blu-Ray makes good use of the third dimension, while a regular Blu-Ray is on-hand along with a DVD and a digital copy. In addition to DTS MA audio, the pack includes a number of extras from deleted scenes to featurettes and an interview with Rodriguez.

4-Film Blu-Ray Releases from Echo Bridge       

Echo Bridge has bundled together a number of Miramax titles as 4 film, single disc (dual layer, thankfully) Blu-Ray anthologies. Now, while some of you might instantly scoff at the notion of four features being combined on one 50gb BD platter, consider that many TV-on-DVD sets frequently bundle a half-dozen episodes on one 50gb BD release, so the issue isn’t so much the compression here but rather the quality of the elements and soundtracks, which varies.

DRACULA Set (Echo Bridge): The first of Echo Bridge’s releases combines Miramax’s “Dracula” franchise (the theatrical “Dracula 2000" and its two direct-to-video sequels) plus the unfortunate 2002 theatrical genre release “They.”

If you're in the mood for brainless horror-action, DRACULA 2000 (**, 99 mins., 2000, R) provides slick and entertaining B-movie thrills which felt more at home on video than it did in theaters (despite being “presented” by Wes Craven, this attempt to cash-in on the “Scream” franchise scared up just $33 million in domestic box-office on a not-totally slender $28 million budget).

Director Patrick Lussier and writer Joel Soisson fashioned an intriguing, albeit highly uneven picture that's part-youth horror chiller (think “Scream”), part updated Hammer horror, with fight sequences a la “Blade” and bizarre, “Greatest Story Ever Told” flashbacks (for Drac's Biblical origin) thrown in for good measure!

This time out, Drac (the far-from-intimidating Gerald Butler) is unknowingly resurrected in the present day by a group of thieves (including slumming Omar Epps and Jennifer Esposito) who break into the vaults of our old pal, professor Van Helsing (Christopher Plummer). Turns out that Van Helsing has been "guarding" the crypt of the Count in his Carfax Abbey offices in case something goes wrong -- which, predictably, it does.

Drac's new intended love is Van Helsing's daughter (the appealing Justine Waddell), who shares a deep spiritual (and chemical) connection with the head vamp through her father's blood ties with him. Now, it's up to antiquities dealer Jonny Lee Miller (another ex up-and-coming star gone wrong) to head to New Orleans and put the kibosh on old Dracula's plans before it's too late.

There are times when the filmmakers do seem to be aiming for some fresh twists on the material (at least in regards to the relationship between Dracula and Van Helsing), but they're mostly negated by incorporating too many overly-familiar elements from other films and genres. On the other hand, Lussier does a solid job in establishing a trio of vamped bombshells (including Jeri "Seven of Nine" Ryan and ‘90s pop singer Vitamin C, under her real name, Colleen Fitzpatrick), and the movie is well-paced with a few effective moments.

In the prior DVD commentary (regrettably not carried over here), one could read between the lines enough to discern that Miramax/Dimension tinkered with the concept for the film before shooting began (upping the budget and effects), and made a few decisions in post-production (such as re-cutting the film's effective opening) which made “Dracula 2000" broader and less inviting than it could have been.

In the end, “Dracula 2000" isn't scary, sexy, or suspenseful enough to rank as a superior slice of the cinematic undead, but it offers modest pleasures on the scale it was produced.

Lussier and Soisson had a smaller budget at their disposal when it came time to produce a pair of direct-to-video sequels, but both seemed far more at home in that arena than they did with the larger budgeted “Dracula 2000.” Alas, if only their conclusion to the “trilogy” was worth the wait..

DRACULA II: ASCENSION (**½, 85 mins., 2003, R) follows a group of New Orleans medical students who unwittingly resurrect Dracula (Stephen Billington) and chain him up in a drained pool filled with overhead UV lights. Among the group are pretty Diane Neal (who went onto a role on one of NBC’s “Law & Order” series), goofy good guy Jason London, and handicapped professor Craig Sheffer, who looks like he's spent too much time at Dunkin Donuts for his own good. Instead of striking Vlad down, however, they've opted to strike a deal with a shady British entrepreneur for the tune of $30 million, but that doesn't sit well with vampire hunter Jason Scott Lee, who receives orders from priest Roy Scheider (a 45-second cameo) to knock off any members of the undead he can find. (Sadly, Roy doesn't say "I know what a vampire is because I've seen one up close -- and you better do something about this one, because I don't intend to go through the hell again!").

Sure, there's a lot of talk in this competent sequel, again written by Joel Soisson and director Patrick Lussier, but when “Dracula II” settles down for some vamp action -- and Lee shows up in his best role since Bruce Lee -- the movie provides serviceable scares and a fairly involving story. Billington has little to do but look menacing, but the picture becomes more compelling as it goes along, with a cliffhanger ending serving as the springboard for “Dracula III” (which boasts Rutger Hauer as the vamp), which was shot at the same time.

Lee is good as a devout man of the cloth, as is London as an ultimately reluctant member of the med students' plan to trade in Drac for some cash.  They’re both livelier than Sheffer, who looks completely disinterested here. The few special effects, meanwhile, are fine for this material while Kevin Kliesch recycles some of Marco Beltrami's cues from the previous picture. “Dracula II” surely cost a fraction of what "Dracula 2000" did, but with more interesting characters, this is a rare lower-budget sequel that in some ways surpasses its predecessor.

Alas, the goodwill didn’t favor the concluding follow-up, DRACULA III: LEGACY (**, 90 mins., 2005, R), which sat on the shelves for nearly two years before being released.

Picking up from the end of “Ascension,” here Father Uffizi and Luke travel into the Romanian countryside where warring revolutionaries do battle for not only the good of the country but also the fate of mankind. The duo run into a British TV reporter (Alexandra Wescourt) covering the war, which only provides a superficial cover for the nefarious dealings of Dracula (a wasted Rutger Hauer), who’s bringing in lambs for the slaughter from the outer villages of Romania since the local “food supply” has been exhausted.

Patrick Lussier and Joel Soisson again co-wrote, produced and directed this final entry in their modern “Dracula” series, which coasts for a while on the solid performances of Lee and London. The duo have a surprisingly amiable chemistry together, and for a while, the change of setting and competent, B-movie thrills make “Legacy” the best of all three films.

Alas, the movie all but collapses during what ought to be its most effective part: the last half-hour, in which our heroes finally meet Dracula in a climactic showdown. In just as disappointing a performance as his minor role in “Buffy The Vampire Slayer,” Hauer gets almost nothing to do as the now-aged Count, while Diane Neal is likewise wasted in what basically amounts to a cameo reprisal of her role from “Ascension.” What’s worse, the filmmakers do a late turnaround with the Uffizi character, culminating in an a borderline farce of a conclusion that basically stabs all of the series’ fans in the back. Without giving it all away, let’s just say the conclusion is poorly developed and sure to create frustration from many genre fans.

The three films have been joined on Blu-Ray here with THEY (*½, 90 mins., 2002, R), a Wes Craven “presented” chiller about a troubled student (the bland Laura Regan) who finds out the “monsters in the closet” that chased her around when she was a child are actually real! Alas, this Robert Harmon-directed chiller, despite having creatures designed by Patrick Tatopoulos, goes absolutely nowhere, climaxing in one of the singular worst endings I’ve ever seen.

Echo Bridge’s 50gb dual-layer Blu-Ray includes all four movies in AVC encoded transfers (1080p except for “Dracula 2000" which is 1080i). The “Dracula” movies are 1.78 and look mediocre for the most part with some noise-reduction having been applied; audio is 2.0 DTS MA except for “Dracula III” which is 5.1. “They,” meanwhile, includes a good looking 1080p 2.35 transfer with 5.1 DTS MA audio – of all the features on these four-film releases, “They” has the best transfer, and is proof that even with low-bit rates, Echo Bridge’s approach isn’t totally without merit – provided the source materials look as good as they do in the case of “They.”

Here’s a look at the other 4-film Echo Bridge releases this month:

FROM DUSK TILL DAWN (**½, 108 mins., 1995, R)
FROM DUSK TILL DAWN 2: TEXAS BLOOD MONEY (*½, 88 mins., 1998, R)
FULL-TILT BOOGIE (100 mins., 1997, R): Fans of Quentin Tarantino’s 1995 blood-soaked “From Dusk Till Dawn” ought to feel fortunate that the picture has made it to Blu-Ray in a quite good 1080p (1.78) widescreen transfer that includes a full 5.1 DTS MA soundtrack. It’s on-hand here along with its first direct-to-video sequel, the lame 1998 “Texas Blood Money,” which is 1080p but again only 2.0 DTS MA, and the slightly-better prequel “The Hangman’s Daughter,” which receives a 5.1 DTS MA soundtrack. Transfers are decent across the board on these, while the disc also includes “Full-Tilt Boogie,” a lengthy documentary on the production of the original “From Dusk Till Dawn.”

CHILDREN OF THE CORN 666: ISAAC’S RETURN (82 mins., 1999, R): Miramax direct-to-video mania includes four of the endless follow-ups to “Children of the Corn,” including the lame “Urban Harvest,” the slightly-better 1996 sequel “The Gathering” (with a pre-blonde, pre-stardom Naomi Watts), the not-awful ‘Fields of Terror” (written and directed by “House” scribe Ethan Wiley), and the watchable 1999 offering “Issac’s Return,” which returns original star John Franklin to his role as “Isaac.” “Urban Harvest” has a terrible transfer that basically looks like an standard-def upconvert while the other films look decent enough in 1.78 widescreen (either 1080i or 1080p depending on the film). Audio is 2.0 DTS MA across the board.

JACKIE CHAN 4-Film Blu-Ray: Probably the least fetching of the Echo Bridge titles is this four-film set featuring four of Jackie Chan’s Hong Kong efforts, made right around the time that the action star had a North American breakthrough with the release of “Rumble in the Bronx.” On-hand here are “Operation Condor” and the excellent “Operation Condor 2: Armour of God,” albeit both presented in their cut-down American dubbed versions, as are the 1995 and 1997 releases “Project A” and “Project A2.” DTS MA 2.0 soundtracks and 1080p (1.78 cropped) transfers are also on-tap.

HELLRAISER: BLOODLINE (85 mins., 1996, R)
HELLRAISER: INFERNO (100 mins., 2000, R)
HELLRAISER: HELLSEEKER (89 mins., 2002, R)
HELLRAISER: HELLWORLD (95 mins., 2003, R): Last but not least among the Echo Bridge 4-film Miramax titles is this “Hellraiser” quadruple-bill which, outside of its 2.0 DTS MA mixes, ought to be please Pinhead devotees. The wacky “Bloodline” was the last halfway decent film in the franchise (along with the last to see a theatrical release), even if the picture was taken away from director Kevin Yagher in post-production (with Alan Smithee being used as a pseudonym). It’s offered here alongside the lame 2000 direct-to-video “Hellraiser: Inferno” with Craig Sheffer running afoul of Doug Bradley’s anti-hero; “Hellraiser; Hellseeker” with Ashley Laurence returning to her original role of Kristy; and the tepid “Hellraiser: Hellworld,” which unwisely tries to do for the franchise what “Halloween: Resurrection” also failed to do for Michael Myers, where Pinhead takes on a group of internet-addicted college students. The 1.78 transfers are perfectly acceptable and the audio tracks are 2.0 DTS MA with the exception of “Hellworld,” which is 5.1 DTS MA.

NEXT TIME: Our first seasonal round-up of holiday titles! Until then, don't forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards and direct any emails to our email address. Cheers everyone!

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