11/18/08 Edition -- The AISLE SEAT BLOG Is Also Live

November Animation Edition
Plus: Shawshank, TV on DVD, MST3K and more

Long before some viewers discovered it on video, prior to it becoming a classic film that was embraced by the masses, Frank Darabont’s THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (****, 136 mins., 1994, R; Warner) was a little movie that almost nobody saw.

Yet for those of us who did see the movie upon its original release in September 1994, you knew immediately that Darabont -- adapting a Stephen King novella -- had produced something truly extraordinary: an absorbing, beautifully acted and masterfully told period story about the relationship between two men (Tim Robbins’ Andy Dufrense and Morgan Freeman’s “Red” Redding) in a Maine prison, their aspirations to live outside the confines of their existence and eventually break free, both spiritually and physically, from their surroundings.

Splendidly shot by Roger Deakins, designed by Terence Marsh, and scored by Thomas Newman (writing one of his finest and most memorable works), “Shawshank” is one of those rare films where every element of it clicks. Robbins and Freeman are extraordinary, while supporting roles are filled by an array of character actors, from the late James Whitmore to Bob Gunton, Bill Sadler, Clancy Brown and Gil Bellows. All of them are flawless in their articulation of Darabont’s perfectly pitched script, which culminates in one of the most satisfying endings you’ll see in any film. Now some 14 years after its initial, disappointing theatrical release, and thanks to a myriad of video releases and broadcasts on TNT, the movie is regarded almost unanimously as one of the finest films of the ‘90s, which is what some of us who watched it the first time knew all along: in every facet, “The Shawshank Redemption” is pure cinematic gold.

Warner’s eagerly awaited Blu-Ray edition of the movie, available in two weeks, basically reprises the 2-disc 10th Anniversary DVD release from 2004, right down to Drew Struzan’s gorgeous cover artwork. The new VC-1 encoded transfer does an exceptional job capturing the nuances of Deakins’ cinematography, while the Dolby TrueHD audio is likewise superb, although the mix is low-key and subdued, just like the film itself.

Special features include a commentary from Darabont, a proper Making Of retrospective packed with interviews from the cast and crew, and best of all, an enlightening talk with Robbins, Freeman and Darabont on Charlie Rose’s PBS talk show from 2004. Stills and the re-issue trailer round out the package, though it might’ve been nice to see the original trailer and some of the picture’s deleted scenes, which to date haven’t been issued on any video release.

Also New on Blu-Ray and DVD

WALL-E (***, 98 mins., 2008, G; Disney): Director Andrew Stanton and the Pixar team’s latest animated box-office smash is a delightfully simple tale of a lonely little robot -- beautifully rendered and animated -- who spurns his waste-disposal duties and sets out on an adventure across the galaxy after meeting a female robot on a dilapidated, ruined future Earth.

Pixar’s last few films have all been box-office hits though I admit I wasn’t as charmed by “Cars” or even “Ratatouille” as much as I found “Toy Story,” “Finding Nemo” and “The Incredibles” so enchanting. “Wall-E” is a movie that rests somewhere between those levels, a satisfying and at times captivating CGI feature with a heroic lead character you can’t help but love. Wall-E may be a robot but he comes across as more of an living being than most humans we see on-screen today, and his relationship with the female robot EVE provides the film with a warm-hearted center.

Though I loved Wall-E himself, I confess that I wasn't so crazy about the second half of the movie. After starting out beautifully with almost no dialogue and a succession of splendidly realized sequences, the movie turns into something much more routine in its second half, undermined further by a few too many chase scenes. The picture also feels “politically correct,” with some heavy-handed social commentary that comes off as a little much (it's fine to portray humans as fat, bloated consumers, but coming from a company that has thrived on its success through audience-driven box-office and big-chain DVD sales, it's like biting the hand that feeds you).

That aside, “Wall-E” is still big fun for kids and adults alike, and Disney has done an exceptional job treating its biggest hit of 2008 properly on both DVD and Blu-Ray.

The three-disc DVD edition includes a crisp 16:9 (2.39) transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, while the Blu-Ray (also on three discs) exhibits a striking AVC-encoded presentation on a 50GB platter. As with other animated films we’ve seen in the high definition medium (“Kung Fu Panda” below being one of them), the difference between the two formats can be seen most strikingly in this genre: the standard DVD is certainly fine but there are more details and colors on-hand in the Blu-Ray edition, so much that anyone with a high-definition set is urged to splurge for the BD release. The sound is another benefit to the Blu-Ray, with 6.1 DTS Master Audio providing an enhancement over the standard DVD’s 5.1 track.

Extras are copious on both editions, including Stanton’s commentary, the all-new short “Burn-E,” the short “Presto,”  23 minutes ofdeleted scenes, a picture-in-picture storyboarded version of “Wall-E,” four different interactive “arcade” games, and a number of featurettes examining the production. Also on-hand is a dynamic 90-minute documentary on Pixar itself that buffs should find sufficiently enlightening. Exclusive to the BD release, meanwhile, are a bonus visual commentary with Pixar filmmakers and a “Cine-Explore” Stanton commentary with additional vignettes, plus various BD Live features (which will be available this week on street date). Both versions also include a bonus digital copy of the movie for portable media players.

Though the extras are similar, most of them are in high definition on the Blu-Ray side, again giving the edge to the BD disc over the regular DVD.

KUNG FU PANDA (***, 88 mins., 2008, PG; Dreamworks/Paramount): Bright, colorful, surprisingly good Dreamworks animated feature proves to be more durable than most of the studio’s efforts thus far.

Candy-coated visuals help sell this tale of a likeable, chubby panda named Po (voiced by Jack Black) who breaks into a competition to become the world’s greatest Kung Fu Master. After rubbing elbows with the world’s martial arts experts, “The Furious Five,” Po finds out he really may be the chosen one, and with the help of Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), gains the skills he needs to take down the villainous Tai Lung (Ian McShane).

Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger are credited with the finished script on “Kung Fu Panda,” which looked like it would be just another zany, forgettable Dreamworks box-office hit. Fortunately, under the direction of John Stevenson and Mark Osborne, the movie is a lot funnier and endearing than, say, “Shark Tale” and the “Shrek” sequels. Less reliant on pop-culture riffs than the latter and populated with appealing characters, “Kung Fu Panda” is a tightly constructed, upbeat and entertaining animated feature that should appeal to both kids and adults equally.

Dreamworks’ DVD includes a picture-perfect 16:9 transfer but the Blu-Ray disc offers a reference-quality, flawless AVC encoded presentation that’s as spotless as any HD transfer I’ve seen in the medium. Colors pop off the screen and there’s not a blemish anywhere in sight. While the standard DVD will suffice for those who have yet to make the move to HD, I don’t think there’s any question “Kung Fu Panda” is one of those situations where an A/B comparison would convince HD-capable owners to upgrade to the Blu-Ray. The Dolby TrueHD audio (5.1 DD on DVD) is packed with sound effects and a wonderfully layered, impressive array of songs and John Powell-Hans Zimmer score.

A fine array of supplements on both platforms include an interesting commentary from the directors, Making Of segments, and a “Kung Fu Fighting” music video on both platforms (most in HD on the Blu-Ray platter), plus a Blu-Ray exclusive trivia track and additional storyboards on the BD side.

The DVD, though, has an advantage in that it boasts the 25-minute companion disc SECRETS OF THE FURIOUS FIVE, even though it’s a short follow-up video to the movie and doesn’t boast either animation nor storytelling on the same level as its predecessor. Still, it’s curious as to why Dreamworks didn’t include it on the Blu-Ray edition -- saving it for a later Special Edition perhaps?

TROPIC THUNDER (***, 120 mins., 2008, Unrated; Dreamworks/Paramount): A group of Hollywood stars (Ben Stiller, Jack Black, and a “pigment altered” Robert Downey, Jr.) appearing in a megabudget Vietnam movie get an unforgettable lesson in “method acting” when their director (Steve Coogan) opts to send them into the jungle, where they quickly have a difficult time separating the world of moviemaking from reality itself.

Stiller and Justin Theroux wrote this at-times uproarious, if uneven, action comedy which skewers the Hollywood studio system at the same time it pokes fun at the shallow, egotistical movie stars who populate it. Because of his work behind the camera (he also directed the film), Stiller understands the ins-and-outs of the business and, as a result, “Tropic Thunder” directly sets its sights on a variety of targets and hits the mark more often than not.

The movie is hilarious at times and a bit coarse in others, but generally “Tropic Thunder” delivers big laughs, especially in its early satirical moments and through the performances of the leads. Making matters a bit fuzzier, though, is the Unrated Cut which we have here on DVD and Blu-Ray. The theatrical cut felt a little long at 107 minutes and, with some 12 new minutes of footage being reinserted here, that feeling becomes a bit more pronounced.

Nevertheless, between Downey’s “controversial” performance as an Aussie who “dyes” his skin to better prep for his role as an African-American, to the cameo appearances of Matthew McConaughey and Tom Cruise (unrecognizable in a hilarious bit), “Tropic Thunder” still packs plenty of entertainment into its two-hour running time, with laughs and pointed barbs for insiders along the way.

Paramount’s Unrated DVD edition of “Tropic Thunder” comes in a 2-disc set boasting a good-looking 16:9 transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital audio. Extras include two different commentary tracks: one with Stiller, Black and an in-character Downey, and the other with Stiller and members of the crew (Theroux plus producer Stuart Cornfeld, cinematographer John Toll, production designer Jeff Mann and editor Greg Hayden). The latter is a obviously a lot more technical in nature than the former, which boasts plenty of laughs throughout its duration.

Deleted and extended scenes, an alternate ending, a hilarious “Hearts of Darkness” documentary parody (a little overlong at 30 minutes but still well worth checking out), other Making Of featurettes, and other goodies (including a Cruise make-up test) round out the disc’s second platter.

The Blu-Ray release, meanwhile, offers up a superior, finely detailed high-definition 1080p transfer with Dolby TrueHD audio that offers a more powerful, broader soundstage than the DVD’s regular 5.1 track. The majority of the extras have been carried over (the cast commentary, the “Hearts of Darkness” parody), with most having been presented here in HD as well.

THE SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS 2 (***, 119 mins., 2008, PG-13; Warner): Warm and quite likeable sequel to the 2005 hit reunites the young female friends (Amber Tamblyn, America Ferrera, Blake Lively and Alexis Bledel) who enjoy passing around a pair of trousers but find themselves spending less time with one another and more time growing up.

Set several years after the original, writer Elizabeth Chandler and director Sanaa Hamri have fashioned a good-looking, amiable follow-up that’s superior to the original for the most part, featuring a less generic (if still soap-operaish) story line that enables its four leads to better define their individual roles. From Rachel Portman’s score on down, this is a classy teen movie with a heartfelt script that makes it one of those rare “chick flicks” that guys shouldn’t mind sitting through (trust me, I know!).

Warner’s Blu-Ray disc serves up an excellent VC-1 encoded 1080p transfer with Dolby TrueHD audio and high-definition extras including additional scenes, a gag reel and other goodies.

LIVE FROM ABBEY ROAD: Best of Season One (146 mins., BCI): Excellent live music series offers a variety of performances recorded at the famed Abbey Road Studios in London. Included in sessions here are Natasha Bedingfield, Craig David, Dr. John, David Gilmour, Gypsy Kings, Gnarls Barkley, The Goo Goo Dolls, The Good, The Bad & The Queen, Josh Groban, Iron Maiden, Jamiroquai, Norah Jones, Kasabian, The Kooks, Ray Lamontagne, Amos Lee, Wynton Marsalis, Dave Matthews, John Mayer, Nerina Pallot, Primal Scream, Corrine Bailey Rae, Damien Rice, Leann Rimes and the Zutons. Both DTS Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD soundtracks make this a good bet if you’re a fan of any or all of the artists involved.

KITARO (103 mins., 2007; BCI): Colorfully flamboyant Japanese adventure, an adaptation of a long running (and hugely popular) magna finds the title hero and his creature friends trying to help a young boy whose home is being threatened by developers who are using nefarious creatures of their own to scare the tenants away. Goofy creatures and gobs of F/X make this a good bet for kids and Japanese aficionados, with BCI’s Blu-Ray disc sporting DTS and Dolby Digital 6.1 audio offerings in Japanese (plus an English dubbed track in 5.1 Dolby Digital) with two Making Of specials, trailers and TV spots rounding out the supplemental side.

New TV on DVD

MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000: 20th Anniversary Edition (Shout! Factory): After years of releases on the Rhino label, the cult video aficionado’s favorite boutique label, Shout! Factory, has picked up the rights to the beloved series and begun a new wave of their own MST3K box-sets.

The first compilation, a four-volume set of MST3K favorites, offers “First Spaceship on Venus” (the only one of the three featuring original star Joel Hodgson), “Werewolf,” “Future War” and “Laserblast.” The latter -- an unintentionally hilarious late ‘70s sci-fi effort -- was the series’ last show on Comedy Central, and as such boasts an incredibly high quotient of successful gags, mostly ribbing Leonard Maltin’s “TV Movies & Video Guide” review of 2.5 stars for the picture (“Amadeus....no better than ‘Laserblast’.” “‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’...not as good as ‘Laserblast’”!). Of all the MST3K episodes many fans rank “Laserblast” as one of the crown jewels of the show’s long run, and this box-set comes recommended for its inclusion alone.

All four episodes are new to DVD, while extensive extras include a three-part look at the creation of MST3K from its humble origins on local Minnesota TV to its pick up in the early days of the “Comedy Channel,” to a 2008 San Diego Comic-Con reunion panel, original trailers and other extras.

An essential release for all MST3K fans!

HAWAII FIVE-0: Season 5 (1972-73, aprx. 20 hours; CBS/Paramount): Leonard Freeman’s classic CBS crime-drama is back again on disc with another full-season retrospective courtesy of CBS and Paramount. Season 5 for “Hawaii Five-O” offers 25 episodes (“Death is a Company Policy,” “Death Wish on Tantalus Mountain,” “You Don’t Have To Get Rich But it Helps,” “Pig in a Blanket,” “The Jinn Who Clears The Way,” “Fools Die Twice,” “Chain of Events,” “Journey Out of Limbo,” a three-part “V For Vashon” arc, “The Clock Struck Twice,” “I’m a Family Crook – Don’t Shoot,” “The Child Stealers,” “Thanks for the Honeymoon,” “The Listener,” “Here Today, Gone Tonight,” “The Odd Lot Caper,” “Will the Real Mr. Winkler Please Die?,” “Little Girl Blue,” “Percentage,” “Engaged to Be Buried,” “The Diamond That Nobody Stole,” and “Jury Of One”) in full-screen transfers and mono soundtracks. The remastered visuals are superb though no extras are on-hand and disclaimers are present about edits in the possible episodes.

THE STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO: Season 2, Volume 2 (1973-74, aprx. 10 hours; CBS/Paramount): Back-half of the memorable Karl Malden-Michael Douglas series’ sophomore frame hits DVD from CBS and Paramount. Offering the latter 12 episodes from the show’s second season (“Winterkill,” “Most Feared in the Jungle,” “Commitment,” “Chapel of the Damned,” “Blockade,” “Crossfire,” “A String of Puppets,” “Inferno,” “The Hard Breed,” “Rampage” and “Death and the Favored Few”), Paramount’s box-set sports generally satisfying full-screen transfers and mono soundtracks, though fans may be annoyed by the series continually getting the “split season” treatment from the studio.

BEVERLY HILLS 90210: Season 6 (1995-96, aprx. 24 hours; CBS/Paramount): Darren Star, Aaron Spelling and E. Duke Vincent’s long-running night-time Fox soap was still going strong by the time its sixth season rolled around. This 1995-96 campaign works because of some engagingly melodramatic story lines, such as Kelly’s drug addiction and Emma Caulfield’s season-long stint as Dylan’s girlfriend. It’s all formulaic but “90210" had a lengthy run even after the kids left high school, and Paramount’s DVD set gives fans another nice presentation on DVD. The full-screen transfers and Dolby Stereo 2.0 soundtracks are all fine, with only some musical edits marring the fun.

7th HEAVEN: Season 7 (2002-03, 16 hours; CBS/Paramount): With Jessica Biel and Barry Watson in the rearview mirror, Brenda Hampton’s family drama turned its attention to its younger cast members, primarily youngest son Simon (David Gallagher) and daughter Ruthie (Mackenzie Rosman), whose antics range from smoking to lying in this seventh season of the long-running series. Hampton’s show was beginning to tread water by this point but fans kept the series afloat for several years to come, and said viewers will enjoy CBS’ five-disc DVD box set compiling its entire seventh season in fine full-screen transfers and 2.0 stereo soundtracks. All 22 episodes seem to have been preserved intact from their original network broadcasts as well with no trims for music indicated on the back jacket.

THE ODD COUPLE: Season 5 (1974-75, aprx. 5 hours; CBS/Paramount): Fifth and final season of the classic sitcom completes the series’ run on DVD. Again presented in satisfying full-screen transfers and mono soundtracks, Paramount’s DVD box includes the show’s final 22 episodes: “The Rain in Spain,” “To Bowl Or Not To Bowl,” “The Frog,” “The Hollywood Story,” “The Dog Story,” “Strike Up The Band or Else,” “The Odd Candidate,” “The Subway Story,” “The Paul Williams Story” with the singer-songwriter-actor playing himself, “Our Fathers,” “The Big Broadcast,” “Oscar in Love,” “The Bigger They Are,” “Two on the Aisle,” “Your Mother Wears Army Boots,” “Felix the Horse Player,” “The Rent Strike,” “Two Men on a Hoarse,” “The Roy Clark Show,” “Old Flames Never Die,” “Laugh Clown, Laugh” and the final episode, “Felix Remarries,” which satisfyingly concludes the entire series. As with the past DVD sets some episodes may be edited from their original broadcast runs but the picture and sound are certainly strong and the set comes highly recommended for fans.

JAG: Season 7 (2001-02, aprx. 17 hours; CBS/Paramount): David James Elliott and Catherine Bell’s palpable chemistry was the key ingredient in the success of Donald P. Bellisario’s CBS series. Paramount’s seventh-season DVD box set of “JAG” includes 24 episodes in excellent 16:9 (1.78) widescreen transfers and with stereo soundtracks, with apparently no edits (or at least none listed) for network episode edits.

Also on DVD

JACK BROOKS, MONSTER SLAYER (85 mins., 2008, R; Anchor Bay): Endearingly goofy salute to past genre favorites, from ‘80s horror flicks to Ray Harryhausen, from director/co-writer Jon Knautz finds slacker Trevor Matthews having to fight off all sorts of creatures after scientist friend Robert Englund uncovers a force that turns him into a monster. Plenty of laughs ensue in “Jack Brooks, Monster Slayer,” along with some “old school” make-up and special effects, though the movie’s budget and varied supporting performances tend to cut down on its overall effectiveness. Still, horror buffs are urged to give it a shot, with Anchor Bay’s features-packed DVD including behind-the-scenes footage, a segment on composer Ryan Shore (Howard’s son), deleted scenes, conceptual art galleries, commentary from the director, producers and Ryan Shore, the trailer, a fine 16:9 (1.78) widescreen transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

THE COLBERT CHRISTMAS: The Greatest Gift of All (43 mins., 2008; Paramount): A “very special” holiday episode of the comedian’s Comedy Central series includes guest appearances from Elvis Costello, Toby Keith, John Legend, Willie Nelson and Colbert’s old “Daily Show” pal Jon Stewart. Special features are also on-tap in a special that ought to appeal to all Colbert aficionados.

EXPLOITATION CINEMA DOUBLE FEATURE: Chinese Hercules/The Black Dragon (BCI): Entertaining new entry into BCI’s Exploitation Cinema Double Features offers an Asian blend of the 1973 Bolo Leung effort “Chinese Hercules” with the Ron Van Clief 1974 adventure “The Black Dragon.” Both films are presented in their original 2.35 aspect ratios (though only “Chinese Hercules” is 16:9 enhanced)

Soundtrack Corner

It’s taken several decades but Concord Music has finally given soundtrack fans a long-awaited box-set with their Limited Edition package of INDIANA JONES: THE SOUNDTRACKS COLLECTION, sporting John Williams’ four scores from the Lucas/Spielberg series -- two of them in new extended editions for the first time (“Temple of Doom” and “The Last Crusade”) -- and with a bonus disc comprised of interviews and bonus cues.

Sadly, this five-disc set isn’t all it could have been for a number of reasons. Those of us who have been spoiled by outstanding releases like Arista’s old “Star Wars Trilogy” anthology and the kinds of releases we get every month from FSM, Intrada and Varese will be disappointed by the rather plain, unexciting packaging that Concord has utilized here: individual “digipacks” are on-tap for each of the four soundtracks, with a booklet comprised only of colorful stills with some brief liner notes from soundtrack producer Laurent Bouzereau. Forget an in-depth analysis of these classic scores: there’s almost no content here truly celebrating these classics other than cursory intros from the producer and Steven Spielberg’s old LP comments.

Bouzereau, who has become the producer of choice for Spielberg’s “in-house” documentaries seen on laser and DVD over the years, seems to be more adept at producing those features than soundtrack albums, as there are some weird elements that will irritate die-hard Williams fans as well. The classic “Desert Chase” cue is offered here only in an edited version (the prior DCC Special Edition CD offered it intact), while the End Credits from the “Temple Of Doom” -- long one of the most coveted cues for all John Williams fans -- still isn’t included, with only the beginning portion of the utilized climactic cue included on the fifth disc’s “Return to the Village/Raiders March.” Adding insult to injury is the omission of “Anything Goes” in the nightclub cues from “Temple of Doom,”, and -- as Neil S. Bulk has reported online -- timing issues in some of the cues on “Raiders.” Given the significance and popularity of these works, these sorts of issues are just inexplicable.

While it’s still good to have the unreleased portions of “Temple of Doom” and “Last Crusade” at long last, the underwhelming presentation, oddball omissions and recycled interview content (the Lucas, Spielberg and Williams comments seem to be comprised of interviews produced for the DVDs) make this a bit of a disappointment for Indiana Jones fans, though at least the price tag (around $45 in most outlets) isn’t overly exorbitant.

NEXT TIME: A Thanksgiving feast with THE FINAL COUNTDOWN on Blu-Ray! Until then, don't forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards, check out the Aisle Seat Blog, and direct any emails to our email address.  Cheers everyone!

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