11/16/10 Edition Twitter: THEAISLESEATCOM
November Rundown Edition
Plus: THE SOUND OF MUSIC, Blu-Rays & DVDs Reviewed!

One of the great WWII documentaries, if not the “definitive” of them all – Thames Television’s massive, 26-part THE WORLD AT WAR – has been released on Blu-Ray in a terrific package from History/A&E sporting an expensive, meticulous high-def restoration and all the bonus supplements one would anticipate.

Narrated by Laurence Olivier, offering spectacular archival footage and interviews with survivors, politicians and both Allied and Axis leaders, superbly scored by Carl Davis and masterfully edited, “The World at War” is brilliant history and great drama at the same time. The program, commissioned in 1969 but not broadcast until 1973-74 due to the length of time it took to produce, unfolds at a clip that’s just right for viewers to dissect its information and insight, and the way each episode is assembled, one constantly feels the urge to keep going, regardless of their familiarity with the material.

Fremantle Media began its restoration of “The World at War” some time ago. In order to make the project more sellable to international TV markets, not just Blu-Ray, the producers opted to re-configure the original 4:3 aspect ratio of the program to 16:9. This practice is one that most of us typically frown upon (and with good reason), yet in the case of “The World at War,” since the footage being screened is from news reels and archival materials that didn’t have “artistry” so much as practicality involved in their original framing, this might be a compromise that’s not as disappointing as one would anticipate.

More over, great care was taken with the transfers: this isn’t a situation where someone took the 4:3 frame, resized it to 16:9 and called it a day. Each frame was overseen so that shots were best positioned for the widescreen format, with some subtle panning of the image occurring only when needed, and particularly during the use of maps. About the only time the 16:9 ratio seems noticeably tight is during the then-contemporary interviews, where foreheads are sometimes cropped. Otherwise, this is an impressive HD transfer, with its restored presentation offering an appreciable gain in clarity over all prior releases.

On the audio end, both an uncompressed (2-channel) PCM option and a stereo-remixed 5.1 DTS Master Audio track are on-hand. The 5.1 stereo mix is impressively handled, with directional effects and Carl Davis’ score coming across quite effectively, though there are times when Olivier’s narration is mixed lower than it should have been.

Special features include a restoration featurette (showing viewers just how much work went into this release), episode synopses, all the later “spin-off” documentaries (produced with leftover footage from the series and narrated by Eric Porter) and extra interviews you’d anticipate.

Though the price is high, and the aspect ratio prone to controversy, “The World at War” is one of my favorite Blu-Ray releases of the year to date, and comes strongly recommended.

If “The World at War” piques your interest in WWII-era films, Sony and Fox, respectively, have delivered two tremendous catalog titles on Blu-Ray over the last couple of weeks.

David Lean’s THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI (****, 162 mins., 1957, PG) is one of the quintessential WWII films, a brilliant adaptation of Peirre Boulle’s novel from screenwriters Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson that was unforgettably brought to the screen by Lean and producer Sam Spielgel in Columbia’s 1957 release. A winner of seven Oscars, “River Kwai” is, alongside Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia,” a quintessential “epic” that’s grounded in the human dimension of its characters, from Alec Guinness’ Col. Nicholson to William Holden’s American POW and likewise outstanding performances provided by Jack Hawkins, Sessue Hayakawa, James Donald, and Geoffrey Horne among others.

Sony performed a meticulous restoration on “River Kwai,” utilizing a 4K digital process to clean up the original negative. The results are impressive, with strong detail and brilliant colors, with whatever shortcomings there are in the image being a result of the source materials and not the transfer itself. DTS Master Audio sound, meanwhile, is provided from a newly engineered stereo mix, though a good deal of the audio originates from the front channels with only the occasional stereophonic thrust coming from Malcolm Arnold’s score or sound effects.

For the Blu-Ray (which Sony has housed in a hardbound Digibook with a DVD copy of the film on-hand for good measure), a few new supplements have been added including a vintage clip of Holden and Guinness on “The Steve Allen Show,” along with archival audio of Holden narrating the premiere night of the picture. A picture-in-graphics pop-up track is also on-hand, offering historical insight and comparisons with Boulle’s novel. Other extras are culled from the prior DVD Special Edition including John Milius’ thoughts on the picture, a documentary, trailers and a few other archival featurettes.

Another Golden Age classic, THE SOUND OF MUSIC (****, 174 mins., 1965, G), likewise requires little introduction as it hits Blu-Ray this month from Fox.

Robert Wise’s 1965 blockbuster here receives a AVC-encoded 1080p makeover with DTS Master Audio sound that’s stunning in both departments; the film visually looks vibrant and is crisply delivered (without an excess of digital noise reduction), while the stereo sound is enveloping in its DTS-HD mix. Fox has delivered the goods on numerous releases this year and “The Sound of Music” falls right in line with their recent “Alien” box-set as a textbook example of treating a catalog title right on Blu-Ray.

All the extras you’d anticipate are on-hand here, most of them carried over from the prior 2005 DVD. These holdovers include an introduction from Julie Andrews; a commentary by Andrews, Christopher Plummer, and other cast members; the addition of a karaoke “Singalong” subtitle track; numerous featurettes including the retrospective documentary “My Favorite Things: Julie Andrews Remembers,” a reminiscence with Andrews and Plummer, an A&E Biography special on the Von Trapps, Mia Farrow’s screen test, trailers, and TV spots.

The Blu-Ray adds “Your Favorite Things,” an “all-new immersive viewing experience” with a trivia track, on-screen lyrics, behind the scenes photos and other anecdotes showing up on-screen at various points. There’s also a new “Interactive Backlot Tour” with brand-new featurettes ranging from an examination of the real-life Von Trapps to a profile of the stage show, a virtual map of the Austrian shooting locales, and a standard def DVD copy of the film that completes the package.

More Aisle Seat Picks of the Week

KEN FOLLETT - THE PILLARS OF THE EARTH Blu-Ray (428 mins., 2010; Sony): One of Ken Follett’s best books became a stirring, well-acted mini-series co-produced by Ridley and Tony Scott earlier this year.

This eight-part mini-series, originally broadcast in the U.S. on the Starz channel and produced in Canada, offers Ian McShane as the villainous Bishop Waleran Bigod, whose ambitions during England’s Anarchy period are tested when a mason (Rufus Sewell) decides to erect a glorious cathedral.

Matthew MacFadyen, Eddie Redmayne, Hayley Atwell, and Donald Sutherland co-star in this impressively mounted production, scripted by John Pielmeier from Follett’s novel and directed (all eight parts) by Sergio Mimica-Gezzan. There’s plenty of sex, blood and political intrigue to satisfy any basic-cable viewer, as well as aficionados of Follett’s novel, and Sony’s Blu-Ray superbly delivers the production’s 1080p cinematography.

The AVC encoded transfers are all top-notch as you’d anticipate, while DTS Master Audio sound includes an appropriately brooding score by Trevor Morris. Extra features include a behind-the-scenes look at the production. Recommended!

DEADWOOD - The Complete Series Blu-Ray (36 hours, 2004-06; HBO): David Milch’s HBO series receives the Blu-Ray treatment in the form of a massive, beautifully packaged 13-disc set including all 36 episodes from “Deadwood” in good-looking 1080p transfers, backed by DTS Master Audio soundtracks.

Fans of the series will love the high-def treatment the series receives here, with more than four hours of extra features including Milch discussing the series’ (not entirely well-received) ending; a historical featurette; Q&A with the cast and creative team; and other extras culled from the prior, standalone season sets.

Overall, while I wasn’t a huge fan of the series, HBO has done the Blu-Ray format proud once again with an excellent high-def package, similar to “The Pacific” in its content and presentation. Recommended for “Deadwood”-heads everywhere.

V: The Complete First Season Blu-Ray (2010; Warner): So far, recent TV remakes haven't been nearly as much of a "sure thing" as their producers would like. Not even prior long-running series like "Hawaii Five-O" and "90210" have been able to recreate their magic in their new incarnations, while genre favorite "V" has come back to TV in the form of a competent yet mostly uninspired rendering.

This new version of Kenneth Johnson's still-relevant 1983 mini-series (which continues to hold up superbly as the years go by) condenses all the drama of the first two "V" mini-series into a mere couple of hours, introducing its lead characters and hurriedly advancing a number of plot threads, from the Visitors' arrival to a resistance movement spearheaded by "sleeper cell" aliens and FBI agent Elizabeth Mitchell. The performances and casting of the series -- from Morris Chestnut's good-guy visitor to Joel Gretsch as a conflicted priest, Scott Wolf as a TV anchorman and Laura Vandervoort as the daughter of V leader Anna (Moreena Baccarin) -- is mostly top-notch, yet the scripts and overall tone quite uneven. Despite only moderate ratings, "V" was renewed for a second season (due to start shortly on ABC) but one imagines that unless major improvements are quickly implemented, its return will be short-lived.

Warner Home Video's Blu-Ray of "V" looks the part at least. The 1080p transfers and DTS-MA soundtracks are excellent, while slim extras include one audio commentary and several behind the scenes featurettes, plus deleted scenes.

AVATAR Extended Edition Blu-Ray (**½, 162 mins., PG-13; Fox): “Avatar”’s second Blu-Ray appearance offers all the bells and whistles missing from its first, bare-bones disc release earlier this year.

Most audiences devoured Cameron’s expensive sci-fi blockbuster, but truth be told, I found it just as disappointing the second time around as I did upon initial viewing. Visually the film sets another landmark in terms of special effects and CGI imagery; narratively it’s a simplistic, pretentious comic book recalling dozens of other movies Cameron liberally “borrows” from throughout this lengthy, yet narratively undernourished, sci-fi adventure.

The writer-director’s long-awaited follow-up to “Titanic” is easily (not counting “Piranha II: The Spawning”) his weakest film, following a paralyzed marine named Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) in the future who joins an expedition to a gorgeous green planet named Pandora, one backed by an evil corporation (sound familiar?) using the military as its pawns (no, Bill Paxton isn’t around to shout “Game Over, Man!”). With the help of scientist Sigourney Weaver, Jake bonds with the genetically engineered body of one of Pandora’s indigenous people, the Na’vi, and is able to transplant his mind into the towering blue form of his Na’vi alter-ego. At first, Jake infiltrates the Na’vi with the goal of understanding their ways and culture, and falls in the process for one of their female warriors (“performed” by Zoe Saldana). After being  indoctrinated into the clan, Jake is brought back into his former human world where an evil military colonel (Stephen Lang) and his corporate counterpart (Giovanni Ribisi, trying to mimic Paul Reiser from “Aliens”) inform him that since the Na’vi are sitting on a gold mine of a substance that the company needs, Jake had better get the Na’vi to relocate or else suffer a “shock and awe” display of military prowess. If you’ve seen “A Man Called Horse” or “Dances With Wolves” there’s no reason for me to tell you where it goes from here...

“Avatar” is breathtakingly designed with gorgeously textured and rendered backdrops that make Pandora truly come to life; this is a world populated with interesting creatures and plant life, so detailed that one can easily see where Cameron spent his money. And no surprise, it makes for a dynamic looking and sounding Blu-Ray with a reference-worthy 1080p, AVC-encoded transfer (in Cameron’s preferred 1.78 ratio; curiously I saw the film screened at both 1.78 and 2.35 in the same theater complex last year!) and fantastically layered DTS Master Audio soundtrack.

Fox’s new Collector’s Edition, out this week, includes three versions of the film (a new 3-hour extended cut with an alternate opening; the theatrical version; and its “Special Edition” late summer re-issue), over 45 minutes of additional deleted scenes, and over eight hours of bonus materials. These are highlighted by the feature-length doc “Capturing Avatar” as well as 17 separate featurettes including a look at James Horner’s score.

Overall, “Avatar” enthusiasts are sure to be thrilled with the supplemental content produced here, which matches the outstanding transfer and soundtrack from its prior BD edition.

More Catalog Titles on Blu-Ray

OCEAN’S 11 Blu-Ray (**½, 127 mins., 1960; Warner): The irresistible casting of Rat-Packers Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford is pretty much the only reason to sit through the overlong “Ocean’s 11,” which was later remade (and improved upon) by Steven Soderbergh in a newer version that was just as “cool” in its contemporary casting but a bit more interesting on the plot side. Lewis Milestone’s original 1960 version coasts along on the goodwill of its cast, and also offers an enjoyable twist ending, but getting there becomes something of a chore as the original “Ocean’s” starts slow (really slow) as the boys plot to knock over multiple casino vaults and mine the riches on the Vegas strip. Angie Dickinson, Henry Silva, Cesar Romero and “guest stars” Red Skelton and George Raft co-star in a film that sounds more fun than it really is, but one that still has an enduring curiosity value.

Warner’s Blu-Ray release of “Ocean’s 11" looks fairly clean in its VC-1 encoded presentation, though the movie comes off as rather drab in its appearance to begin with. The DTS Master Audio sound is limited in its stereophonic effectiveness, while extras include commentary from Frank Sinatra, Jr. and Angie Dickinson, along with a brief clip of Angie on the Tonight Show with Frank hosting (filling in for Johnny Carson), along with the trailer and an interactive “Vegas Then and Now” map.

MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY Blu-Ray (***½, 132 mins., 1935; Warner): The 1962 MGM production of “Mutiny on the Bounty” made it to HD-DVD a few years back, but the studio’s first cinematic rendering of the legendary story – the 1935 version with Charles Laughton as Captain Bligh and Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian – ends up being the first “Bounty” to make it to Blu-Ray.

Warner’s Special Edition of the 1935 Oscar-winner looks healthier than the HD transfer of “King Kong” a few weeks ago, thanks to source materials that seem to have better weathered the test of time (not to mention far fewer special effects!). Laughton is terrific as Bligh in director Frank Lloyd’s version, which doesn’t offer a whole lot in the way of extras on Blu-Ray (just a 1935 short on Pitcairn Island, an Oscar newsreel, and trailers for this and the 1962 version), but still comes highly recommended for all Golden Age aficionados just the same.

CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG Blu-Ray (**½, 145 mins., 1968, G; MGM/Fox): Time has been kind to Albert R. Broccoli’s bloated 1968 production of Ian Fleming children’s book, scripted by Roald Dahl and director Ken Hughes, and starring Dick Van Dyke, Sally Ann Howes, Benny Hill and “Goldfinger” himself, Gert Frobe, in a painfully overlong – though at least likeable – kids musical fantasy. Not only has the film seen a rise in popularity over the years, but a recent stage musicalization was fairly successful and now Fox has brought the United Artists release to Blu-Ray in a wonderful AVC-encoded 1080p transfer that’s nearly as yummy as “The Sound of Music” in its preservation of the film’s original 70mm appearance. Extra features include a number of featurettes and interviews, including the Sherman Brothers’ song demos, plus a nicely mixed DTS Master Audio soundtrack, and a copy of the standard-def DVD as well.

Criterion: November Releases

The outstanding and the reprehensible characterize Criterion’s November slate of titles.

Leading off is a title many movie buffs have long coveted from Criterion: Charles Laughton’s classic NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (****, 93 mins., 1955), an oft-imitated, still invigorating picture that, at long last, here receives the deluxe treatment it has always cried out for.

Laughton and screenwriter James Agee’s adaptation of a 1953 book finds Robert Mitchum as a wolf in sheep’s clothing who dons the outfit of a man of the cloth and marries widow Shelley Winters after he hears her jailbird husband disclose the whereabouts of some stolen loot while both serve time in the big house.

The movie is a lyrical, beautifully filmed thriller, one that was subsequently ripped off in countless movies all the way up to Martin Scorsese's disappointing take on “Cape Fear.” Laughton's film -- his only feature -- is a classic all the way, with Mitchum pursuing Winters and her two (smarter) children, and Lillian Gish as the matron of an orphanage who tries valiantly to protect them.

The cinematography, direction, and performances of the cast (particularly Mitchum) create a spellbinding picture that's every bit as fresh today as it was in 1955, and Criterion’s Blu-Ray release is every bit as marvelous as can be hoped for.

Criterion's typically comprehensive set of extras goes above and beyond this time out. The supplements include an insightful commentary featuring second-unit director Terry Sanders, film critic F. X. Feeney, archivist Robert Gitt, and our friend Preston Neal Jones; Gitt's spellbinding “Charles Laughton Directs ‘The Night of the Hunter’” boasts over two hours of outtakes and behind-the-scenes extras, and is presented on the set's second disc; a new documentary featuring interviews with producer Paul Gregory, Sanders, Feeney, Jones, and author Jeffrey Couchman; an interview with Laughton biographer Simon Callow; an “Ed Sullivan Show” clip with the cast performing a deleted scene from the film; an episode from the BBC series “Moving Pictures”; an archival interview with cinematographer Stanley Cortez; a gallery of sketches by author Davis Grubb, author of the source novel; a conversation between Gitt and film critic Leonard Maltin about “Charles Laughton Directs”; the trailer; and a vivid AVC-encoded 1080p transfer and uncompressed PCM soundtrack, each more impressive than the picture's recent airings on MGM-HD.

With the added supplements and a terrific new transfer, it’s easier now to appreciate “Night of the Hunter” than ever before. This is great cinema and Criterion’s Blu-Ray release ought to go a long way to staking the film’s claim as one of the finest of its time.

Another classic -- Charlie Chaplin's MODERN TIMES (****, 87 mins., 1936) -- also arrives on Blu-Ray this month. Offering an unbelievably crisp AVC encoded, 2K-resolution digital transfer produced in collaboration with the Cineteca di Bologna, this final appearance of the Little Tramp is a cinematic masterpiece, and has been enhanced here by not just a remarkable restoration but also an abundance of supplements.

A new, fascinating commentary from Chaplin biographer David Robinson leads things off, while two visual essays by Chaplin historians also put the film into proper persective; Ben Burtt and Craig Barron look at the film's visual and sound effects; two cut sequences are screened; a 1933 home movie by Alistair Cooke is presented; Chaplin's "The Rink" two-reeler is included; three trailers; additional interviews and liner notes make for a marvelous release of an all-time masterwork.

Also new from Criterion is a deluxe edition of Lars von Trier’s controversial ANTICHRIST (108 mins., 2009), with Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg as grieving parents who retreat to a secluded cabin only to encounter a number of horrors from the environment surrounding them and, ultimately, each other.

“Antichrist” is not an easy film to watch and has been hailed as alternatively a masterpiece or a freak show by a wide spectrum of critics. There’s no denying von Trier’s talent from his previous works like “The Kingdom,” but I did find this picture outrageous and unsettling, disturbing and not valid as a form of entertainment – yet those very aspects are what its admirers seem to appreciate about it. I hate to say “you be the judge,” but I can’t say, for me, I want to watch any of this film again – some, however, may feel differently.
Evidently enough of the latter will since Criterion has rolled out the deluxe treatment for “Antichrist.” In addition to a HD digital master supervised by the director, the Blu-Ray also includes commentary with von Trier and Murray Smith; video interviews with the stars; seven video pieces that profile the production; a documentary on the film’s world premiere; trailers; a superb DTS Master Audio soundtrack and booklet notes from frequent Criterion contributor Ian Christie.

New From Universal

SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD Blu-Ray and DVD (***½, 113 mins., 2010, PG-13; Universal): Edgar Wright’s brilliant visceral adaptation of the Bryan Lee O’Malley graphic novels is a virtual love letter to video games, particularly of the Nintendo era, starting off with its “8-bit” sound arrangement of the Universal Pictures fanfare.

Truth be told I’m not a huge aficionado of Michael Cera, but he’s alright here as the title character – a 22 year-old who meets the girl of his dreams (the lovely Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and has to literally “battle” a succession of her former boyfriends (including ex-super hero stars Chris Evans and Brandon Routh) en route to her heart.

With all kinds of references to games of the last 25 years, “Scott Pilgrim” feels like an in-joke at times, so for older viewers or those who aren’t into gaming, the movie might feel like an ordeal. For others who grew up playing “The Legend of Zelda” or “Street Fighter,” it’s a treat, inventively filmed and entertaining to a fault; about the only criticism I have is that it’s a bit overlong, but that’s hardly a reason to press the reset button on one of this year’s most enjoyable films.

Universal’s Blu-Ray of “Scott Pilgrim” looks dazzling. The 1080p transfer and DTS Master Audio soundtrack are both terrific; extras include deleted scenes, commentaries, bloopers, visual effects footage, music videos, and plenty more behind-the-scenes content. The DVD offers most of the same extras along with a 16:9 transfer and 5.1 soundtrack.

THE BIONIC WOMAN Season 1 DVD (10 hrs., 1976-77; Universal): Lindsay Wagner’s Jaime Summers was one of the iconic TV heroines back in the ‘70s, and with “The Six Million Dollar Man” finally being released on DVD, it’s no surprise that Universal has taken the opportunity to release the complete first season of “The Bionic Woman” on DVD for the first time in the U.S.

Good-looking full-screen transfers and a solid assortment of extras include no less than five “crossover” episodes with the Lee Majors series, plus commentaries, a gag reel, and a new “Bionic Beginnings” retrospective featurette. Debuting in January of 1976 as a mid-season replacement, “The Bionic Woman”’s 13-episode first season run included the two-part “Welcome Home Jaime,” “Angel of Mercy,” “A Thing of the Past,” “Claws,” “The Deadly Missiles,” “Bionic Beauty,” “Jaime’s Mother,” “Winning is Everything,” “Canyon of Death,” “Fly Jaime,” “The Jailing of Jaime,” “Mirror Image,” and “The Ghost Hunter.”

New & Upcoming From Shout Factory

A number of new Roger Corman titles are on the docket from Shout! this month. Here’s a rundown:

NOT OF THIS EARTH DVD (81 mins., 1988, R): Enjoyably silly 1988 remake of Corman’s earlier “Not of this Earth” offers porn superstar Traci Lords in the first of her “legit” roles, starring in Beverly Garland’s old part as a private nurse hired by an outer-space stranger who’s trying to figure out if Earth is worth moving to. Jim Wynorski recycles a fair amount of vintage stock footage but incorporates a knowing sense of humor in this decent Corman production, which hits DVD with commentary from the director and Traci Lords; an older DVD commentary with the director; a recent interview with Lords; the trailer; and a solid 16:9 (1.78) transfer with mono sound.

THE EVIL/TWICE DEAD DVD (89/85 mins., 1978-88, R): Agreeable haunted house double-feature pairs the somewhat goofy 1978 Richard Crenna-Joanna Pettet spooker “The Evil” (sporting an overwrought supporting turn from Victor Buono as the title character) with the watchable but glum 1988 direct-to-vid affair “Twice Dead,” with a family running afoul of a haunted abode and some street hooligans outside it (co-starring “Todd Bridges as Pete”!). Both movies look fine in their new 16:9 (1.78) transfers while extras include fresh audio commentaries, trailers and a new interview with the lovely Jill Whitlow, the “Night of the Creeps”’ heroine who stars in “Twice Dead” and discusses her career in a pleasant conversation.

BIG BAD MAMA/BIG BAD MAMA II DVD (82/84 mins., 1976-87, R): Angie Dickinson stars as Wilma “Big Bad Mama” McClatchie in these two low-budget Corman productions. The original 1976 “Mama” is the superior of the duo, offering Angie and Tom Skerritt as bank robbers who team up with gambler William Shatner (in a particularly terrible toupee) to kidnap a millionaire’s daughter; the belated 1987 sequel, co-starring Robert Culp and Bruce Glover, offers Angie once more trying to bilk funds from a corrupt politician. Crisp new 16:9 transfers, commentaries from directors Steve Carver (BBM1) and Jim Wynorski (BBM2), a retrospective look back at the making of the original, trailers, an interview with Glover, and extras carried over from the older Corman DVDs (including Leonard Maltin’s Corman conversations) comprise the double-feature DVD, which hits stores early in December.

CRAZY MAMA/THE LADY IN RED DVD (81/93 mins., 1976-79; R): Pamela Sue Martin struts her stuff in “The Lady in Red” as Polly Franklin, John Dilinger’s doll and subject of this surprisingly good 1979 Roger Corman production. In addition to offering a solid cast (Robert Conrad as Dillinger, Louise Fletcher and Christopher Lloyd as well), Lewis Teague’s film also sports a John Sayles script and a very early score by James Horner. In Shout’s double-feature DVD, the film is paired with Jonathan Demme’s enjoyable 1976 effort “Crazy Mama,” with Cloris Leachman, Ann Sothern and Linda Purl taking to a crime spree en route to the family home in Arkansas. The wacky supporting cast includes “Happy Days”’ Donny Most plus Jim Backus (!) too, which only adds to the fun. Shout’s disc sports commentary with Demme and Corman (on “Crazy Mama”), plus two different commentaries on “The Lady in Red” (one with Sayles and producer Julie Corman; another with Teague and Robert Forster), plus trailers, new 16:9 transfers and mono soundtracks.

CANNIBAL GIRLS DVD (84 mins., 1972, R): Eugene Levy with an afro and handle-bar moustache? Andrea Martin as his main squeeze, who get away from their everyday lives for a romantic getaway at a bed-and-breakfast with...cannibal girls residing nearby? All in a movie from director Ivan Reitman? Yep, believe it or not, “Cannibal Girls” is the movie, and Shout!’s DVD of this early ‘70s Canadian cult favorite offers a special edition presentation of the film boasting a 16:9 transfer, new interviews with Reitman, writer Daniel Goldberg and Levy, along with original radio spots, the trailer, and an alternate audio track spotlighting “The Warning Bell,” which was used in theatrical screenings to give a heads-up to viewers that something gory was about to be glimpsed. Bizarre, and not that much fun, but worth seeing for curious viewers.

Also out from Shout Factory this month is Season 5 of THE FACTS OF LIFE (aprx. 10 hours, 1983-84).

The fifth season of the long-running NBC sitcom shook things up a bit by having Mrs. Garrett move out of Eastland’s School For Girls and into her own “Edna’s Edibles” gourmet food shop. The shenanigans also enabled the girls to move in off-campus, and engage in more craziness in and out of the classroom.

Shout’s four-disc DVD set sports good-looking broadcast-length transfers of the original 26 fifth-season episodes, along with episode synopses. Shows include “Brave New World” parts 1 &2, “Gamma Gamma,” “Just My Bill,” “What Price Glory,” “Halloween,” “Advanced Placement,” “Dancin’ as Fast as I can,” “Small But Dangerous,” “Store Games,” “The Second Time Around,” “The Christmas Show,” “The Chain Letter,” “Next Door,” “Crossing the Line,” “All or Nothing,” “A Death in the Family,” “Big Fish/Little Fish,” “Star at Langley,” “Dream Marriage,” “Mother and Daughter,” “All By Herself,” “Seems Like Old Times,” “Joint Custody,” and “The Way We Were” parts 1 & 2.

Hopefully more “Facts” seasons will be lined up from Shout! in the next year.

New From Acorn

Our friends at Acorn Entertainment have a whole line of new DVDs and even a few Blu-Rays amongst their new releases this autumn. Here’s a look:

ON THE ROAD WITH CHARLES KURALT Set 3 DVD (294 mins.): Some of my favorite DVDs this past year have been Acorn’s retrospective releases of Charles Kuralt’s wonderfully nostalgic “On the Road” segments. Culled from the CBS news archives, these home-spun Americana profiles of people and places a bit off the beaten path were re-edited for the Travel Channel some years back, but the edits are minor and the various vignettes chosen offer a nice mix of personality profiles, history and folksy charm.

Set 3 of the series again offers 14 episodes of “On the Road” in its Travel Channel form, with each program including 3-5 segments. For special features, this set not only includes updated “On the Road” addendums about the respective people profiled in the various segments, but also an hour-long interview with Isadore Bleckman, Kurault’s long-time cameraman, along with a biography of Kuralt. Highly recommended!

SLINGS AND ARROWS The Complete Collection Blu-Ray (aprx. 14 hours): A dysfunctional Shakespearean theater troupe is profiled in this offbeat Canadian series starring Paul Gross (formerly of the cult favorite Canuck import “Due South”) as the director of the New Burbage Theatre Festival. Run-ins with his leading lady (Martha Burns), the ghost of his former boss (Stephen Ouimette) and guest star appearances from fellow Canadian actors Rachel McAdams, Colm Feore and Sarah Polley spice up this unusual series which Acorn brings to Blu-Ray in the form of a 6-disc BD box-set.

In addition to 1080p transfers (though viewers should note that Season 1 is an upconvert), DTS Master Audio soundtracks are on-hand along with three episode commentaries; a behind-the-scenes-featurette; cast/crew interviews; bloopers; deleted scenes; song lyrics and more. A robust effort from Acorn!

POIROT: MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS Blu-Ray (93 mins., 2010): David Suchet returns as Detective Hercule Poirot in this latest adaptation of Agatha Christie’s classic mystery novel. Previously released on DVD earlier this year by Acorn, this Blu-Ray trumps the prior release with a better-defined, satisfying 1080p HD transfer, complete with a nicely textured if mostly low-key (as you’d anticipate) DTS Master Audio soundtrack, along with several extras. The latter include Suchet hosting a tour of the Orient Express and its history, along with “120 Years with Agatha Christie,” a list of Poirot books and cast filmographies.

20th CENTURY WITH MIKE WALLACE: POLITICS AND PRESIDENTS DVD (10 episodes, 470 mins., Acorn): Remember the days when The History Channel showed actual historical documentaries and not just episodes of “Pawn Stars” and other new reality series? This terrific anthology from Acorn is a throwback to the channel’s earlier programming, offering 10 episodes from the series “20th Century With Mike Wallace.” There’s nothing flashy about this series – it’s straight-ahead, meat-and-potatoes history (in this case, centered on presidents and politics from the McCarthy era through Bill Clinton) culled from the CBS news archives, offering archival reports and interviews as they were originally broadcast with added insight from experts and Wallace’s no-nonsense narration. It’s refreshingly old-fashioned and to the point, and very well done for history buffs.

Acorn’s box-set sports satisfying (given the age of the materials being utilized) full-screen transfers with a bonus 16-page viewer’s guide and updates on the Presidents after their time in office had expired.

Also New on Blu-Ray and DVD

A CHRISTMAS CAROL Blu-Ray (***, 96 mins., 2009, PG; Disney): I’m still not sold on Robert Zemeckis’ love for the motion-capture CGI cinema he’s embraced of late, but his efficient, sturdy rendering of “A Christmas Carol” is at least a superior production to his past efforts: the disappointing “Beowulf” and the static “Polar Express.”

Jim Carrey is rendered here as Scrooge with Gary Oldman in multiple parts, as are prior Zemeckis collaborators like Bob Hoskins and Robin Wright Penn, as well as Colin Firth as our miser’s nephew. Zemeckis himself penned the script, and his take is a faithful one to Dickens, utilizing the colorful widescreen frame to pack in a good amount of detail and atmosphere. It’s all capped by a pleasant Alan Silvestri score and a few sequences that were tailor-made for 3-D, which the film was exhibited in last year (there’s also a 3-D Blu-Ray version available separately for those with 3-D TVs and players).

Watching some of the behind-the-scenes supplements included in Disney’s Blu-Ray/DVD combo package, though, I’m again stumped as to what Zemeckis loves about this filmmaking process, outside of the obvious lack of physical production required in its mounting. Zemeckis again boasts about how Jim Carrey’s facial movements were all articulated by computers – but why not actually see Carrey’s performance altogether instead of a digital rendering where we’ve never sure if it’s the actor’s craft or animators responsible for what we’re watching? The character models are well detailed and yet they still are no replacement for actual actors – even the Muppets were far more articulate in their adaptation of this story than Zemeckis’ computerized players. More over, there are so many outstanding renditions of this classic story out there that I’m not sure where this particular Disney production is going to rank in most viewers’ home libraries.

That said, Disney’s Blu-Ray is tremendously packaged, with its all-digital AVC encoded 1080p transfer and DTS Master Audio soundtrack. Extra features include a slew of picture-in-picture goodies with Zemeckis’ narration, some deleted scenes, an interactive Christmas calendar, featurette and a standard DVD bundled within.

THE SEARCH FOR SANTA PAWS Blu-Ray/DVD Combo (**½, 88 mins., 2010, G; Disney): Robert Vince, the kid-centric video entrepreneur who instigated the “Air Bud” series, is back with a follow-up to last year’s successful “Santa Buddies.” The overbearingly cute “Santa Paws” finds Santa and his canine buddy Paws heading to NYC where St. Nick loses his memory, forcing our four-legged hero and assorted pals of both the human and animal variety to convince everyone of his true identity. Not many surprises and a bit syrupy at times, “Santa Paws” is nevertheless a likeable enough addition to the ever-growing library of holiday kid movies, and Disney’s Blu-Ray serves up a bright AVC-encoded 1080p transfer with DTS Master Audio sound. Extras include deleted scenes, an animated pop-up book feature, music video and a copy of the DVD.

ELF Collector’s Edition Blu-Ray (**½, 95 mins., 2003, PG; Warner): Released just in time for the holidays (and to coincide with the debut of Broadway’s “Elf: The Musical,” and no I’m not kidding!), Warner has lined up a deluxe edition of “Elf.” This cute, appealing but somewhat under-developed 2003 comedy stars Will Ferrell as the North Pole's only human elf, "Buddy." Wanting to meet his real dad (an under-written role for James Caan), Buddy ventures to the big city where he tries to spread Christmas cheer and falls for cute department store clerk Zooey Deschanel.

Jon Favreau's movie has its heart in the right place and generates a few big laughs, but as gentle a fantasy as "Elf" is, the final result just never really gels. The comedy is hit-or-miss and while there are sme neat references to Rankin-Bass animated specials mixed in (along with Bob Newhart as the Head Elf and Buddy’s adoptive father), the picture doesn’t hit on all cylinders when it comes to the “domestic” drama of our big elf’s human family. Still, at least it’s better than numerous other holiday misfires (“Fred Klaus,” “Deck the Halls,” etc.) lurking out there at this time of year.

Warner’s Collector’s set offers the same Blu-Ray disc from a year ago, sporting commentaries from the filmmakers, a few deleted/alternate scenes, plenty of Behind the Scenes segments, interactive games for kids, and a breezy Dolby TrueHD soundtrack sporting a fine John Debney score. The VC-1 encoded transfer is also just fine.

New extras in the collectible holiday tin include an “Elf” CD soundtrack sampler, a holiday stocking, gift tags and a magnetic picture frame. For fans of the movie (and I realize there are a growing amount of them out there) who might have missed the prior Blu-Ray, this elaborately packaged release comes recommended.   

RAMONA AND BEEZUS Blu-Ray/DVD (**, 103 mins., 2010, G; Fox): Beverly Cleary’s beloved children’s books hit the screen belatedly in this mediocre Fox/Walden Media co-production, with Joey King as Ramona and Selena Gomez as her older sister Beezus. Elizabeth Allen’s film is nicely shot by John Bailey but the story feels so formula that it loses the uniqueness of its source material and comes across as just another time-waster for little kids. Fox’s Blu-Ray includes a fine AVC encoded transfer, DTS Master Audio sound (sporting a nice Mark Mothersbaugh score), and extras including a gag reel, deleted scenes, numerous featurettes, a DVD and a digital copy also included within. 

THE LIGHTKEEPERS Blu-Ray (*½, 97 mins., 2010, PG; Image): I love living in New England, going to the beach, lighthouses, and numerous films starring Richard Dreyfuss. Thus, I ought to be the right audience for “The Lightkeepers,” a well-intentioned new film from director Daniel Adams, who previously helmed “The Golden Boys” – a story set in Cape Cod circa 1905 about three old sailors who court a single woman. Here, he’s graduated to telling us a story set in Cape Cod circa 1912 about an old sailor who courts a single woman who moves in next door to his lighthouse.

While Adams is now forever established as the king of Cape Cod movies set in the early 20th century, he also shows himself to be something less of a master cinematic craftsman with the often embarrassing “Lightkeepers.” Richard Dreyfuss stars in Adams’ own script as the cantankerous old lighthouse keeper whose life is – of course – turned upside down when a British sailor (Tom Wisdom) washes ashore and offers him life lessons that come in handy once Blythe Danner and her young associate (Maggie Gummer, Meryl Streep’s daughter) move into the neighborhood.

Dreyfuss’ hysterical accent is so overboard that there are times it’s impossible to comprehend what he’s saying, but it really doesn’t matter since Adams’ screenplay is so hopelessly stilted and contrived that every step of its story line can be seen coming from miles away. The other performances fare somewhat more respectably than Dreyfuss, but “The Lightkeepers” is unfortunate proof that bad movies don’t require $200 million budgets to be awful.

Image’s Blu-Ray looks mighty fine with its AVC encoded 1080p transfer. The DTS Master Audio soundtrack includes an overbearing score by Pinar Toprak that tries to sell the film’s would-be poignant moments but ultimately pushes it further into saccharine glop.

SONDHEIM! THE BIRTHDAY CONCERT (***, 116 mins., 2010; Image): Excellent concert which originally aired on PBS offers nearly two hours of highlights from Sondheim favorites, performed by a vast number of musical veterans from Joanna Gleason to George Hearn, Patti Lupone, Audra McDonald, Donna Murphy, Mandy Patinkin, Elaine Stritch and Bernadette Peters among others. Paul Gemignani conducts the New York Philharmonic while David Hyde Pierce hosts, introducing segments from “West Side Story,” “Do I Hear a Waltz?,” “Hot Spot,” “Sweeney Todd,” “Into the Woods,” “Merrily We Roll Along,” “Sunday in the Park with George,” “Saturday Night,” “Follies,” “Company,” and “A Little Night Music,” while even Sondheim’s “Theme From ‘Reds’” is included. Wonderfully engineered DTS Master Audio sound and uncompressed PCM audio offerings are available alongside liner notes from Lonny Price.

THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ALICE CREED Blu-Ray (**, 100 mins., 2009, R; Anchor Bay): Well-performed yet obvious British kidnapping thriller follows two men (Eddie Marsan, Martin Compston) who kidnap the daughter (Gemma Arterton) of a millionaire for ransom. J Blakeson wrote and directed “Alice Creed,” which does offer a vivid style and believable performances (and Arterton is always easy on the eyes), yet the story is telegraphed and offers no surprises at all. Anchor Bay’s Blu-Ray looks nice in its AVC encoded 1080p transfer, the Dolby TrueHD audio is also rock-solid, while extras include outtakes, deleted scenes with optional filmmaker commentary, and a storyboard featurette.

HUNT TO KILL Blu-Ray and DVD (97 mins., 2010, R; Anchor Bay): “Stone Cold” Steve Austin headlines this direct-to-video offering about a U.S. border patrol agent who’ll stop at nothing to retrieve his kidnapped daughter from a group of thugs in the wilds of Montana. Anchor Bay’s DVD and Blu-Ray offerings of “Hunt to Kill” include widescreen transfers, 5.1 audio (TrueHD on the BD side), and extras including commentary with director Keoni Waxman and actor Michael Eklund, plus a behind-the-scenes featurette.

DAMNED BY DAWN Blu-Ray (*½, 84 mins., 2010, R; Image): Blah Australian horror import stars Renee Willner as a young woman who visits her ailing grandmother in a quaint farming community Down Under and soon runs afoul of a spirit coming to claim her soul. Image’s packaging attempts to liken “Damned by Dawn” with “The Evil Dead” but it’s a losing comparison on every front. The company’s Blu-Ray sports a 1080p AVC encoded transfer, DTS Master Audio sound, two commentaries, a documentary and the trailer.

SALON KITTY Blu-Ray (133 mins., 1976, Unrated; Blue Underground): Before the makers of “Caligula” (now there’s a line that makes you want to rush out and buy this disc!) indulged themselves in that unmitigated cinematic disaster, director Tinto Brass helmed this raunchy and at-times nearly unwatchable 1976 WWII soft-core porn offering.

Helmut Berger stars as an SS officer who seeks to convert a brothel into a full-fledged spy operation so he can blackmail various officials; Teresa Ann Savoy plays one of the “specially selected” prostitutes who blows the lid on his scheme, but not before engaging in all kinds of “tricks,” in this infamous ‘70s production that was designed by, of all people, James Bond vet Ken Adam!

Silly in places and not quite as “perverted” as its reputation might lead you to believe, “Salon Kitty” is nevertheless a relic of its era that likely should have remained buried. The performances are a wide mix of the decent (Berger) to the wretched (Savoy), while animal cruelty and the general level of violence in the film is deplorable. I’m sure there are some exploitation fans who might get a kick out of “Salon Kitty” but I can’t say I’m one of them.

As always, Blue Underground’s Blu-Ray provides a better forum for the picture than it deserves, from its AVC-encoded 1080p transfer of Brass’ director’s cut to DTS HD mono sound and extras including interviews with Brass, Adam, two trailers and radio spots.    

Also New From History/A&E

ANCIENT ALIENS Season 1 Blu-Ray (aprx. 8 hours;, 2009-10; History/NewVideo): Ever since Erich von Daniken profiled extraterrestrials having visited earth in his late ‘60s bestseller “Chariots of the Gods,” scientists have spent years examining cave drawings, Peru landing strips, ancient Indian texts and other unexplained phenomena that von Daniken provided as evidence to “alien astronaut” visitations on Earth in centuries past. This new History Channel series, based on an earlier documentary from the station, does an excellent job updating and expanding upon the author’s theories, and was produced in cooperation with the author, who also appears in this five-part program. Excellent 1080p transers and DTS Master 2.0 audio soundtracks comprise the release, which also includes the 2009 doc “Ancient Aliens” which served as the inspiration for this release.

GANGLAND Season 6 Blu-Ray (aprx. 9 hours, 2009-10; History/New Video): Gang life in America is the subject of this History Channel series, which profiles both rural and metropolitan gangs with interviews, revealing footage and historian interviews all included. The sixth season of the series chronicles gang life from locations as diverse as Atlanta, San Diego, Detroit and Oklahoma City, with History’s 3-disc BD set boasting 2.0 DTS Master soundtracks and extra footage, plus 1080p transfers.

HUMAN WEAPON Season 1 Blu-Ray (aprx. 13 hours; 2007; History): MMA master Jason Chambers and football player Bill Duff train in 16 different kinds of combat in this 2007 History series, just making it to Blu-Ray this month. The 1080i transfers and DTS Master 2.0 soundtracks are all perfectly acceptable.       


I AM DVD (89 mins., 2010, PG-13; Fox): John Ward’s independent “religious” film seeks to examine how the Ten Commandments are viewed in modern society. A well-meaning low-budget film that Fox has brought to DVD this month, “I Am” includes a 16:9 (1.78) widescreen transfer, 5.1 audio and a Katharine McPhee music video.

THE TRIAL DVD (101 mins., 2010, PG-13; Fox): Matthew Modine plays a lawyer who has lost faith in himself and takes the case of a young man facing the death penalty in this decent “faith-based” film from Fox, co-starring Robert Forster and Bob Gunton. Fox’s DVD includes a 16:9 (1.78) transfer, 5.1 audio, and commentary from director Gary Wheeler, writer Robert Whitlow and producer Mark Freiburger.

CHER: THE FILM COLLECTION (MGM/Fox): Six-disc box-set features a broad overview of Cher's cinematic output, from early Sonny-efforts "Good Times" and "Chastity" to "Silkwood," the sublime "Moonstruck," "Mermaids," and "Tea with Mussolini," which was to have been her "retirement" appearance (of course she's coming back in the upcoming "Burlesque," which was this DVD set was timed to coincide with). The DVDs are the same as their prior released MGM packages.

THE WINNING SEASON DVD (105 mins., 2009, PG-13; Lionsgate): Sam Rockwell seems like an odd choice to top-line a “feel good” sports movie – perhaps one reason this independent production failed to find a distributor. Rockwell plays a disgruntled guy who becomes the coach of a girls high-school team in James C. Strouse’s 2009 film, which co-stars Emma Roberts, Rooney Mara, and Rob Corddry and hits DVD this month from Lionsgate in a no-frills disc sporting a 16:9 transfer, 5.1 soundtrack and the trailer.

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