11/21/06 Edition -- Happy Thanksgiving -- SUPERMAN II: The Donner Cut Review Special

An HD-DVD Special
New Universal & Paramount High-Definition Discs Reviewed
Plus: FLINT Ultimate Collection, CLERKS II, PULSE and More

While the high-definition DVD format war is just beginning to percolate between HD-DVD and Blu Ray discs, the former format has gotten a shot in the arm through the recent release of Microsoft’s HD-DVD add-on for their Xbox 360 console.

The unit offers 360 owners the opportunity to jump into the HD-DVD waters without having to splurge on a more expensive stand-alone player (the add-on retails for $199 and includes a universal media remote and a HD copy of “King Kong” for a limited time). While the USB-powered player (it connects directly to one of the 360's ports) doesn’t do full justice to the new Dolby and DTS audio formats, those will require consumers to buy new receivers to begin with so the console’s 5.1 optical output will suffice just fine for most “current generation” receivers.

Since I now have an HD-DVD set-up here at home, I can better examine and compare the format’s new releases -- and so far, early adopters have to generally be quite happy with the titles that are available. Here’s our Aisle Seat round-up of recent Universal and Paramount offerings in high-definition and whether or not they take full advantage of the potential of the new format...

New From Paramount

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE: Ultimate Missions Box Set (Paramount, aprx. $70): Paramount’s collection of the three “Mission: Impossible” films ranks as one of the HD-DVD format’s strongest packages to date.

The HD presentations of the original 1996 “Mission: Impossible” and John Woo’s guilty-pleasure 2000 sequel both surpass their standard-definition DVD counterparts with stronger, more vibrant colors and enhanced detail. As with many HD-DVDs I’ve seen, outdoor and/or brighter sequences show off the capability of the format better than darker interiors, and while there’s a hint of softness in the image of both Brian DePalma’s original “Mission” and the first sequel, both presentations are highly satisfying and well worth the upgrade for fans.

On the supplemental side, all of the materials from the recent “Collector’s Edition” of the first “M:I” and the Special Edition of “M:I2" have been reprieved and are offered in standard-definition with the exception of the trailers.

Visually, the most spectacular presentation here is unsurprisingly in  J.J. Abrams’ recent sequel, “Mission: Impossible III,” a so-so thriller that strips away the outlandish action of Woo’s film for a story (written by Abrams and his associates Alex Kurtman and Roberto Orci) that strives for a human dimension but doesn’t entirely come off. Tom Cruise’s performance as Ethan Hunt is nicely dialed down but the uneven pacing makes “M:I III” seem like an episode from one of Abrams’ TV series, with lots of handheld camera and action that comes in fits and starts. Indeed, the film’s ending even plays like a typical “Lost” episode, with a weepy montage of emotional shots backed by a somber Michael Giacchino score -- if this is all Abrams has in his bag of tricks, I’m not so sure he’s the hand that ought to be guiding the “Star Trek” franchise, but we’ll see what he comes up with.

The transfer on the HD-DVD is sensational at every turn, as you anticipate it would be with a newly produced and released feature. Supplements have all been ported over from the standard-edition DVD and include a self-congratulatory visual commentary with Cruise and Abrams and a good amount of featurettes. Included among the Making Of footage is Giacchino at work on his score, even visited by Cruise on the set (it’s nice to hear Cruise’s fondness for Lalo Schifrin’s theme), plus deleted scenes and other goodies -- most in HD as well.

Overall this is a tremendous set that nicely shows off the benefits of HD-DVD in three movies that run the gamut from competent to outrageous and just sort of respectable. The extras and transfers are top-notch across the board and I highly recommend this package to all new adopters of HD-DVD.

New HD-DVD Releases From Universal

THE THING (****, 109 mins., 1982, R, Universal): Universal’s HD-DVD edition of John Carpenter’s 1982 remake of “The Thing” offers a nifty, sharp high-definition transfer that ought to satisfy all fans of the now-classic genre effort. Rob Bottin’s make-up effects and the movie’s pungent Dean Cundey cinematography are both enhanced by the new depth and detail, making the overall presentation enormously satisfying. Another plus: all of the extras from the Collector’s Edition package (the overlong documentary, commentary, deleted scenes) are also on-hand.

ARMY OF DARKNESS (***½, 81 mins., 1993, R, Universal): OK, so Universal’s HD-DVD Combo package (the disc also includes the standard definition DVD) doesn’t offer any supplements outside of the trailer, AND only includes the movie’s theatrical release cut and none of the myriad of other versions that exist of Sam Raimi’s conclusion (?) to his “Evil Dead” series. Still, I prefer the theatrical cut of “Army of Darkness” to begin with (the re-shot ending is more fun and several of star Bruce Campbell’s best lines are missing from the “Director’s Cut”), and the HD-DVD transfer, while looking its age a bit, does contain added detail and warmer colors, thereby enhancing the presentation of this modestly-budgeted 1993 release (needless to say, the film is unlikely to look any better than it does here). Well worth it for fans but the lack of extra content and higher (aprx. $25) retail tag may force some to hold off until its price comes down a bit.

SLITHER (**, 96 mins., 2006, R, Universal): James Gunn’s gross-out horror comedy about an extraterrestrial presence that mutates the poor residents of a small town is gooey and not nearly as funny as it thinks it is. Too-good-for-this-material Nathan Fillion and Elizabeth Banks try and rise above the fray, but other than a few chuckles (I loved the use of Air Supply’s “Only Woman In The World”) “Slither” wears out its welcome pretty fast.

Universal’s HD-DVD edition does feature a terrific 1080p, 1.85 transfer that takes advantage of the HD format here and there, but it’s such a dark film (literally) to begin with that the differences between the HD version and standard DVD format (also included in this “Combo Format” release) aren’t as significant as one might anticipate. The 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus sound packs a pretty good wallop, though, and all the DVD’s supplements (deleted/extended scenes, Making Of featurettes, commentary with Gunn and Fillion) are included on the standard DVD side.

THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS: TOKYO DRIFT (**½, 105 mins., 2006, PG-13, Universal): Here’s a rare sequel that improves upon its immediate predecessor, as a smaller budget and more obscure casting resulted in a superior product for a change. This third go-round for the “Fast and the Furious” franchise wisely starts fresh, with young American hotshot Lucas Black heading to Japan and promptly getting mixed up with the local, hot-rod ridin’ underworld there. Director Justin Lin and writer Chris Morgan have fashioned a good-looking, predictable thrill ride for teens with plenty of exciting chases (as we’ve come to expect from the series) and a throbbing Brian Tyler score. It’s nothing out of the ordinary, but it’s definitely superior to “2Fast2Furious” and offers a surprise cameo at the end that puts a satisfying cap on the action. Universal’s HD-DVD version is a noticeable enhancement over their standard-definition package, with an at-times picture-perfect image, ample extras include a commentary from Lin, the regulatory deleted scenes package and several Making Of featurettes. Viewers should note this release utilizes Universal’s “U Control” HD-DVD feature, which includes on-screen prompts to access behind-the-scenes material and adds further value to the higher-definition variation.

New Blu-Ray Titles

Not to be outdone but Disney has released another wave of Blu Ray titles for those with capable players (or a PS3, all 12 of you that have them!). I was able to take a look at a colleague's set up over the weekend are here are some quick reactions:

SKY HIGH (***, 100 mins., 2005, PG; Disney): Cute, colorful super-hero spoof -- sort of like an “X-Men” for kids -- stars Michael Angarano as the young son of heroes Kelly Preston and Kurt Russell. Angarano’s skills, though, aren’t what they ought to be, and he enrolls at a school for heroes basically as the odd man out among his peers. Director Mike Mitchell’s coming-of-age fantasy is fast-paced and offers plenty of laughs and teen romance to compliment its amiable performances. Michael Giacchino’s fun score and Shelly Johnson’s scope cinematography add to the fun, which is preserved splendidly on Blu-Ray by Disney: the disc offers an alternate opening sequence and two featurettes (the Blu Ray version is missing only the blooper reel and music video from the standard-definition DVD). The 2.35 transfer was solid on DVD but is even better on Blu-Ray, with sensational colors and a superlative 5.1 uncompressed Dolby Digital soundtrack.

ANNAPOLIS (**, 2006, 103 mins., PG-13; Touchstone): For those too young to remember old-school films like “Rocky” or “An Officer and a Gentleman” -- or the countless other movies “Annapolis” was “inspired” by -- this teeny-bopper effort is watchable enough. After slogging through “Tristan and Isolde,” James Franco fares better in a more contemporary role here as a young man driven to join the Navy, who ends up butting heads with tough commander Tyrese Gibson and falling in love with cute (but hardly convincing) officer Jordana Brewster. It’s all eventually settled in a climactic fight that you can see coming from miles away, but director Justin Lin coaxes competent performances out of his cast and the film is entertaining enough to work...provided you can distance yourself from writer Dave Collard’s overly-familiar premise. Touchstone’s Blu-Ray DVD ports over the commentary and deleted scenes from the standard-edition disc, while offering an exceptional, HD transfer and uncompressed 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack.

THE WILD (**, 82 mins., 2006, G; Disney): Tepid animated feature released by Disney fails to provide the magic touch from the Mouse House. A group of animals flee the city zoo and find out that life in NYC is just a tad too “wild” for their own good in this silly confection, which young kids might enjoy but adults are advised to steer clear of (and if you must seek out one film about cartoon animals escaping from their urban confines, try “Madagascar” instead). Disney’s Blu-Ray disc looks great in 16:9 widescreen (1.78) and sounds just fine with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, though the Alan Silvestri soundtrack (with songs by Eric Idle and John duPrez among others) is the best thing about it. Deleted scenes, bloopers and a music video round comprise the Blu-Ray supplements, making it identical to the standard-definition edition.

New & Coming Soon on DVD

ALIAS: Complete Fifth Season (2005-06, 724 mins., Buena Vista): J.J. Abrams' vivacious and sometimes confounding spy series came to a close this past May. This final collection of 17 episodes served to wrap up the series' laundry list of loose ends (more or less; there's still some puzzles left to viewers' imaginations even after the final show has concluded!) by going back to basics. Story lines are more accessible and enegertic than the program's preceding two years, and while the show lacked the urgency and freshness it had in its early going, at least these last batch of shows sent "Alias" off on a fairly strong note. Buena Vista's four-disc DVD box set includes excellent 1.78 (16:9) transfers with 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks; numerous featurettes including a blooper reel and a celebration of the show's 100th episode; a look at the music; and a profile of co-star Rachel Nichols, who was brought in to add some new life to the series. Overall, strongly recommended for "Alias" fans and a respectable, well-deserved send-off for Sydney Bristow.

ONCE IN A LIFETIME: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos (***, 97 mins., 2006, PG-13; Buena Vista)
: Top-notch documentary recounts the sudden rise of professional American soccer (football to everyone outside the U.S.A.!) in the late '70s. At the center of the craziness is Warner Communications head Steve Ross, who had a dream of launching the New York Cosmos into the cosmos by recruiting stars like Pele and making the international game into an American pastime...and for a while his efforts worked, with the Cosmos selling out Giants Stadium and becoming a bona-fide cultural fad in 1977. Sadly, like disco music and bell bottom fashions, it all came crashing down as the '80s began, but the journey is well-documented and irresistably appealing as told in this 2006 documentary. Offering vintage footage and often hilarious interviews, "Once In a Lifetime" looks at a fleeting moment in American sports when soccer was almost king (incredible as it may seem, by the time I was growing up in the '80s, the Cosmos had been basically erased off the face of the Earth), and Buena Vista's DVD backs it up with supplements ranging from classic Pele footage to deleted scenes. The 16:9 transfer is top-notch and the 5.1 soundtrack layered with '70s tunes and narration from Matt Dillon. For sports and '70s pop-culture enthusiasts, "Once In A Lifetime" comes highly recommended.

JOYEUX NOEL [Merry Christmas] (***, 116 mins., PG-13, 2005, Sony):
French filmmaker Christian Carion’s moving, poignant tale of a Christmas Eve shared between French, German, and Scottish soldiers on the front line trenches of WWI comes to DVD in a highly satisfying presentation from Sony. The movie manages to capture the insanity of the conflict between men who find out they have as much in common with the other side as they do in their own cause, while Philippe Rombi’s reflective score and the cinematography of Walther Vanden Ende give the picture a haunting, atmospheric look and feel. The 16:9 (2.35) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound are both top-notch, while commentary from Carion and an interview with the filmmaker are included on the supplemental side. For a superb war film and an excellent choice for a holiday-themed film this season, “Joyeux Noel” comes strongly recommended, examining war and the toll on its participants from a distinctly moving and humane angle.

CLERKS II (**½, 97 mins., 2006, R; Genius/Weinstein): Kevin Smith’s return to the movie that jump-started his career is a funny but somewhat lukewarm character drama. Jeff Anderson and Brian O’Halloran are back as Randal and Dante, now working at a fast food chain but still getting into plenty of trouble, particularly with new manager Rosario Dawson. “Clerks II” does have a good quotient of laughs but there’s no urgency in Smith’s film -- it’s all kind of there, livened up by cameos from the filmmaker’s usual crew (Jason Lee, Ben Affleck, etc.), but just doesn’t have the lasting effect its predecessor had. Perhaps the weak performances from the original leads is part of the problem; Smith’s less polished original “Clerks” made it easier to overlook their deficiencies, but here they pale in comparison to their supporting cast and have a hard time carrying the picture. Weinstein/Genius’ DVD offers three different commentaries plus deleted scenes, a full 90-minute documentary, bloopers, a 16:9 (1.85) transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound. (Avail. 11/28)

PULSE (**, 2006, Unrated, Genius/Weinstein): Yet another American remake of a Japanese horror film squanders the talents of stars Kristen Bell (so wonderful as “Veronica Mars” in the criminally-underwatched show of the same name) and “Lost”’s Ian Somerhalder. Wes Craven co-wrote this U.S. edition of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Japanese original, involving ghosts from beyond who find a way to use the internet and other electronic devices to devour the living. Some decent effects attempt to compensate for an outlandish story that’s routinely told, but it’s an uphill battle capped off by a silly ending (“why not take Peoria?” I kept thinking) that’s unintentionally funny. Genius Products’ fine DVD does offer a better-than-average, amusing commentary with director Jim Sonzero and make up artist Gary Tunnicliffe; another commentary; deleted/alternate scenes; and numerous featurettes. The 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack and 16:9 (2.35) transfer are both top-notch. (Available 12/5)

SIMON & SIMON: Season One (1981, 11 hrs., Universal): Gerald McRaney and Jameson Parker hit DVD! Yes, Universal has rolled out the first season of the long-running (1981-88) CBS detective series marked by laid back, amiable performances from its two leads and often leisurely-told mysteries that savvy-eyed viewers can see unfolding before their eyes in the opening minutes. Still, who cares? It’s the chemistry between Parker and McRaney that made “Simon & Simon” such an enduring network staple, and Universal’s box-set includes the series’ initial group of episodes (it debuted as a midseason replacement) in satisfying full-screen transfers with apparently only a few shows plagued by music that’s been changed for video. Extras aren’t on-hand but fans ought to be pleased regardless.

THE ULTIMATE FLINT COLLECTION (Fox): Terrific, low-priced Special Edition of James Coburn’s swingin’ 60s spy spoofs includes new commentaries from film scholars Lee Pfeiffer and Eddie Friedfeld, nine new Making Of featurettes, and as a special bonus, the rarely-screened, busted 1976 “Flint” TV pilot, “Dead On Target,” starring Ray Danton in a show that’s more ‘70s cop drama than Bondian. The transfers on the “Flint” films look just fine in 16:9 widescreen though Jerry Goldsmith’s great original scores could have used remastering (the sound is basic 2.0 mono); still, this is an affordable and nifty new release that ought to please any aficionado of Derek Flint’s cinematic escapades.

NEXT TIME: A TV on DVD Special! Until then, don't forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards and direct any emails to the link above . HAPPY THANKSGIVING!

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