11/24/09 Edition
Thanksgiving Feast Edition
The “Terminator” franchise may not have gone in the direction that James Cameron, the writer-director of the first two films in the series, originally envisioned, and undoubtedly he sat on the set of “Avatar” last year wondering how in the world someone like McG (“Charlie’s Angels,” “We Are Marshall”) ended up taking over the reigns of what was once his baby.

That being said, the big-budget box-office disappointment (at least domestically) that is TERMINATOR: SALVATION (***, 114/117 mins., 2009, PG-13/R; Warner) is actually a pleasant surprise: a large-scale sci-fi action film that picks up from the end of “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” and presents fans of the series with a post-apocalyptic future where mankind battles the automatons of Skynet with only a few survivors being lead by the charismatic John Connor (Christian Bale).

Bale’s boisterous performance seems to be a mix of grandstanding and check-cashing indifference, but fortunately most of the movie is carried by Sam Worthington as the mysterious Marcus Wright -- a man we see being sentenced to death in the movie’s prologue (set in 2003), and who oddly appears after Connor and his men attack a Skynet outpost in the film’s opening. Marcus can’t recall what year it is and is shocked to see a bombed-out metropolis being overrun by terminators, but he’s saved by a young Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin, deftly channeling some of Michael Biehn’s performance from the original film), who’s hoping to find John Connor and join the resistance.

The script by Michael Ferris and John Brancato (who wrote “Terminator 3") lays the groundwork for a series of exciting set-pieces, which the movie provides in spades: in fact, the picture’s dizzying array of chases and F/X make for fun, popcorn-munching escapist entertainment, especially if you’re a “Terminator” fan. From a motorcycle/truck pursuit to a fairly memorable climax involving a terminator assembly line (with a most-amusing -- and expertly executed by ILM -- digitized cameo appearance from a familiar terminator), “Salvation” clicks as a better-than-average futuristic action film, while Danny Elfman’s satisfying, mostly-atypical score works Brad Fiedel’s original theme into the mix quite effectively. The cast, meanwhile, does what it can in the few moments of respite the film allows, but despite Bale’s top-billed performance, it’s Worthington (soon to be seen as the lead in both Cameron’s “Avatar” and the remake of “Clash of the Titans”) who really carries the show here, providing a compelling, fresh original character to blend with the mix of protagonists viewers will recognize from prior installments.

While the movie could have used more breathing room -- with co-stars like Jane Alexander and Bryce Dallas Howard (in the Claire Danes “T3" role) each reduced to a few lines -- the picture’s story is engaging enough to satisfy long-time “Terminator” fans while being accessible enough to lure in younger viewers perhaps unfamiliar with the prior entries in the franchise.

“Terminator: Salvation” doesn’t have the vision of James Cameron supporting it nor does it have the freshness that his original 1984 classic offered, yet that’s to be expected. In spite of the fan-trashing that the movie took from the expected internet quarters, McG has done a more than serviceable job producing a sequel that’s unlikely to appeal to anyone but sci-fi/action fans, but if you’re looking for an entertaining enough Blu-Ray diversion along those lines, “Salvation” packs more of a punch than you might’ve heard.

Warner’s Blu-Ray edition of “Terminator: Salvation” is a winner in the visual and audio departments; the VC-1 encoded 1080p transfer is unsurprisingly pristine while potent DTS Master Audio is guaranteed to shake your surround system from start to finish. Both the PG-13 theatrical version and an extended (by three minutes), R-rated Director’s Cut are on-hand, the differences of which are mostly minor outside of some additional nudity (surprisingly the R-rated cut isn’t much more violent than the PG-13 edit from what I sampled). Extras include a picture-in-picture mode hosted by McG plus a couple of additional featurettes, BD Live features and a digital copy for portable media players.

New on Blu-Ray from Sony
ANGELS AND DEMONS Blu-Ray (**½, 138/146 mins., 2009, PG-13; Sony). LOWDOWN: Director Ron Howard is back for another adaptation of a Dan Brown bestseller, and the good news is that “Angels and Demons” -- while not a completely satisfying film -- is at least an appreciable step-up from the international phenomenon that was Howard’s limp cinematic rendition of “The Da Vinci Code.” Looking a great deal more debonair than he did in this film’s predecessor (not that it would take much, admittedly), Tom Hanks is back as Robert Langdon, who this time out is summoned by the Catholic Church to help stave off a threat from the Illuminati. Ewan McGregor, Stellan Skarsgard and Armin Mueller-Stahl offer veteran support to another slick-looking, though rather lengthy, suspense-thriller from Howard and writers David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman, adapting Brown’s novel. TECH SPECS: Sony’s Blu-Ray edition of “Angels and Demons” shines with matching AVC encoded 1080p presentations of both the movie’s theatrical version (138 minutes) and its extended-for-video 146-minute cut, which is offered exclusively in the Blu-Ray package. The transfer is exceptional, deftly preserving Salvatore Totino’s widescreen lensing. Hans Zimmer’s score, meanwhile, gets a workout in the disc’s DTS Master Audio soundtrack, which is packed with the expected three-dimensional sound design and plenty of bass. Extras are also in abundance here: numerous featurettes profile the production and Brown’s novel along with a BD-exclusive “Path of Illumination” featurette, BD Live goodies and a digital copy for portable media players. And not only that, but there’s also a software trial for the “Hans Zimmer Music Studio,” where you too can become one of the composer’s clones! AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: I’m not a big follower of Dan Brown’s novels and wasn’t all that interested in “The Da Vinci Code,” but “Angels and Demons” is fairly entertaining, boasting a story that’s not really that controversial and succeeds, in spite of its length, in presenting a pleasing star-powered entertainment slickly executed by an “A-list” director.

LEON THE PROFESSIONAL Blu-Ray (***, 109/133 mins., 1994, R/Not Rated; Sony): One of Luc Besson’s most satisfying works arrives in a top-notch Blu-Ray edition courtesy of Sony.

Sporting both the film’s original theatrical version (109 minutes) as well as its more leisurely paced Director’s Cut (133 minutes), “Leon” has never looked or sounded better than it does here -- the AVC encoded 1080p transfer deftly showing off the film’s stylish, detailed cinematography and the DTS Master Audio sound providing a powerful backing for the highly active sound design and Eric Serra’s score.

Extras are carried over from prior DVD editions and are quite satisfying: “Natalie Portman: Starting Young" contains a retrospective interview with the actress, reflecting back on her still-discussed, career-launching role in Besson's 1994 film; "Jean Reno: The Road to Leon" offers then-recent comments from the international star, while the 25-minute "10 Year Retrospective" includes comments from Portman, Reno, and other cast/crew members, with the notable omission of Besson.

Speaking of which, Besson apparently prefers to let his films speak for themselves, which would explain the disc’s lack of commentary or interview comments from the filmmaker. However, there is an additional trivia track on the extended version which should provide fans with additional insight into the film’s background if they choose to access it.

GODZILLA Blu-Ray (***, 139 mins., 1998, PG-13; Sony): I didn’t think the much-reviled 1998 Emmerich-Devlin version of “Godzilla” would hit Blu-Ray this quickly, but the release of “2012" -- Roland Emmerich’s latest, bloated effects extravaganza -- has given new life to his prior, admittedly silly but generally mis-understood monster epic.

Yes, I remain one of the few backers of the 1998 ‘Zilla, which in no way approximates the good, clean fun of watching men in rubber suits and listening to hilariously bad, dubbed dialogue that we all watched growing up on the Creature Double Feature. Emmerich and Devlin might have failed to deliver on their intended promises with “Godzilla,” yet the movie is still entertaining in spots and isn’t nearly as awful as most kaiju fans would lead you to believe.

In fact, this tongue-in-cheek sci-fi epic has a lot of good things going for it: terrific effects and creature design by Patrick Tatopolous, a rousing score by David Arnold, amusing performances by Jean Reno and Hark Azaria, and a slam-bang final half-hour with a dynamite climax on the Brooklyn Bridge. (I’ll even be the first to admit I felt more for Godzilla’s demise than I did watching Kong fall from the Empire State at the end of Peter Jackson’s version!). Sure, there are plenty of things that fail to click, like an over-abundance of characters played for laughs; a Jurassic Park-inspired succession of mini-Godzillas; and a D.O.A. female lead provided by Maria Pitillo, who vanished off the face of the Earth shortly after the movie’s release. That being said, as sheer monster movie mania goes, the American “Godzilla” is entertaining in its own way, and worthy of a reevaluation...perhaps if it didn’t have “Godzilla” in its title the movie wouldn’t have been scolded the way it was by kaiju fans around the world.

Sony’s Blu-Ray edition of “Godzilla” offers a nifty AVC encoded transfer and an even more impressive DTS Master Audio soundtrack that’s as loud and potent as the film’s action sequences. Extras are on the slim side, comprised of a tedious technical audio commentary, a lame “All Time Best of Godzilla” fight scenes montage that’s basically just a 10-minute ad for other Sony Godzilla DVDs; a behind-the-scenes featurette with Harry Shearer in character; a Wallflowers music video; a digital copy for portable media players and a BD-exclusive trivia game. Regrettably none of the movie’s amusing theatrical trailers (which included specially shot footage) are on-hand.

SEX, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE Blu-Ray (***, 100 mins., 1988, R; Sony). LOWDOWN: Steven Soderbergh’s big splash was an indie phenomenon in the late ‘80s, and arrives on Blu-Ray in a fine presentation from Sony. This contemporary take on relationships, sex, and infidelity is still relevant and offers four superb performances from James Spader, Andie MacDowell, Peter Gallagher and Laura San Giacomo. Sony’s Blu-Ray disc offers as fine a HD presentation as this low-budgeted hit could possibly have, presented in crisp AVC-encoded 1080p and with Dolby TrueHD audio. Extras include a commentary with Soderbergh and fellow filmmaker Neil LaBute, plus one deleted scene with commentary, a Soderbergh interview, and a 20-year reunion shot at the Sundance Film Festival. A BD Live “MovieIQ” function is also slated to offer “real time” trivia.

New Blu-Ray Titles From Lionsgate

THE MONSTER SQUAD Blu-Ray (***, 82 mins., 1987, PG-13; Lionsgate): Filmmaker Fred Dekker has been involved in a number of genre favorites over the years, from penning the original story for Steve Miner’s haunted house chiller “House” to writing and directing the under-rated 1986 sci-fi homage “Night of the Creeps.”
Regrettably, the window of opportunity for some directors can open and close in a heartbeat, and as Dekker himself has noted, he “killed” his own career twice -- first with the failure of the 1987 kid-fantasy “The Monster Squad,” and later with the well-intentioned “Robocop 3,” which sat on the shelf for several years while Orion Pictures went bankrupt and the audience for the series went elsewhere.

It’s quite unfortunate as well, since Dekker seems to have a natural instinct for what makes the genre click, as evidenced by his savvy script for “Creeps” and the genuine affection shown to the Universal Monsters in “The Monster Squad,” which arrives on Blu-Ray in a splendid HD presentation that reprieves its 2007 Special Edition DVD.

This broadly-played, entertaining kid-fantasy is sort of a cross between “The Goonies” and “Ghostbusters,” with Count Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, the Wolfman, and the Gil-Man arriving in a typical, Spielberg-like suburb and causing all sorts of problems. To the rescue come a group of grade-schoolers with a serious knowledge of classic monster folklore -- and it’s not long before Dracula (Duncan Regehr) and his gang are pushed to their limits by a group of modern day American kids.

A box-office bust released at the tail end of the 1987 summer movie season (back when August really was “the dumping grounds” for failed theatrical prospects), “The Monster Squad” is crackling good fun for the young and the young at heart: Dekker, working from a script he co-wrote with Shane Black (soon to hit the big time with “Lethal Weapon”), employs the wide Panavision frame to great effect, punching up the action with a robust Bruce Broughton score and plenty of old-fashioned, solid visuals courtesy of F/X supervisor Richard Edlund and make-up guru Stan Winston. The movie is short, sweet, and plenty of fun, incorporating the movie monsters of the ‘30s and ‘40s in a fast-paced homage to the later Universal monster mash-ups and especially “Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein,” which Dekker says was a direct influence on the movie (in fact, Dekker’s original idea was to make a film where the monsters met the Little Rascals!).

Due to the film’s poor financial performance and apparent rights issues between Tri-Star and Taft/Barish (which produced the film), “The Monster Squad” has never been an easy film to track down over the years. The movie was never issued on laserdisc in North America (fans circulated bootlegs of the widescreen Japanese laser for years) and never received a proper DVD release until Lionsgate’s 20th Anniversary DVD edition from 2007.

Lionsgate’s new Blu-Ray is a magnificent package as it contains all the goodies from that release, plus an enhanced HD transfer and DTS Master Audio sound. A lengthy, 90-minute documentary offers a cavalcade of 2007-produced interviews with Dekker, stars Andre Gower, Duncan Regehr and Tom Noonan (who essays Frankenstein in the film), plus cinematographer Bradford May, composer Bruce Broughton and many more. Filled with anecdotes, “Monster Squad Forever!” is a detailed account of the production of the film, sporting tasty anecdotes (Liam Neeson was the first choice to play Dracula but bailed out late in the game) and an honest assessment of where the film went wrong at the box-office (Noonan says the marketing attempted to sell the film to several different niches, when just one would’ve sufficed).

Trailers, a vintage 10-minute gag interview with Noonan in make-up, animated storyboards, and deleted scenes (most of which involve Gower’s parents) round out the bonus features, while a pair of commentary tracks are also on-tap -- one with Dekker and May, the other with Dekker and Gower plus his now-grown co-stars Ryan Lambert and Ashley Bank.

Visually, the AVC encoded transfer is excellent, an appreciable upgrade on the DVD, which was certainly far better than I’d ever seen the movie previously appear (even if the print still looks a little worn at times). The DTS Master Audio sound fares better, though the dialogue seems to be mixed a bit low in comparison to the relatively overpowering score and sound effects.       

A must-have for all fans of the movie, and perfect for a Blu-Ray double-bill with the recently released Director’s Cut of Dekker’s “Night of the Creeps.”

ANGEL HEART Blu-Ray (**½, 112 mins., 1987, R; Lionsgate): Best known as the controversial movie that led Bill Cosby to remove Lisa Bonet from the cast of "The Cosby Show," "Angel Heart" has been brought to Blu-Ray in a fine HD presentation from Lionsgate.

I have to admit that I've never much cared for the movie. Sure, filmmaker Alan Parker's adaptation of the William "Legend" Hjortsberg novel is richly stylized, thanks to outstanding, moody cinematography by Michael Seresin and arty production design, yet at its core, "Angel Heart" is an unpleasant supernatural thriller where the outcome is as obvious as the identity of Robert DeNiro's character when he first appears on-screen.

Mickey Rourke stars as a NYC private eye hired by DeNiro's enigmatic "Louis Cyphre" to track down a missing crooner from the WWII era. Rourke's journey into darkness includes a sexy rendezvous with backwoods priestess Bonet, who looks good even when she's rolling around naked in blood. There's plenty of symbolism and violent imagery to go around, yet while Parker keeps you watching all the way, the ending is heavy-handed and poorly executed (look out for those glowing eyes!).

That said, "Angel Heart" does have its fans, and if you're one of them, Lionsgate's BD is a must own. The AVC encoded transfer is marvelous, and the DTS Master Audio sound features lots of bass and Trevor Jones's effective score. Supplements from the 2004 DVD include then-recent interviews with Parker and Rourke (who candidly admits he didn’t feel a connection with the material and has few recollections about the picture) plus the trailer and Parker’s sporadic commentary track.

CUJO Blu-Ray (**½, 1983, 95 mins., R; Republic/Lionsgate): Decent adaptation of Stephen King’s dark novel from director Lewis Teague overcomes its relatively modest budget through strong performances (including Dee Wallace), Jan DeBont’s cinematography and Neil Travis’ effective editing. This tale of a couple (Wallace, Daniel Hugh-Kelly) trying to repair their marriage at the same time their son (Danny Pintauro of later “Who’s the Boss” fame) takes to a St. Bernard who turns into one mean puppy offers a decent number of shocks and an ending thankfully not as unflinching as the book (and was changed with King’s own consent). Lionsgate’s BD culls its supplements from its 25th Anniversary DVD and includes commentary with Teague and a three-part Making Of from DVD producer Laurent Bouzereau, which recounts the film’s troubled production history (Teague replaced Peter Medak after the project switched studios; Travis was brought onboard to re-cut the film during shooting) and status as one of the better Stephen King cinematic adaptations of its era. The AVC encoded transfer is fine and both the original mono sound and a DTS Master Audio soundtrack round out the release.

MY BLOODY VALENTINE Blu-Ray (**½, 90 mins., R and Unrated; Lionsgate): Decent Canadian slasher about a killer miner with a mean, nasty axe was remade as a fairly entertaining 3-D feature earlier this year. To coincide with its debut, Lionsgate licensed the original 1981 “My Bloody Valentine” from Paramount and re-issued it as a bona-fide Special Edition on both DVD and now Blu-Ray, complete with a myriad of gore cuts that the film’s fans have clamored to see for years. The end result is a superb release for ‘80s horror buffs, with the previously excised footage culled from the best surviving print and available to view either separately or as part of the picture itself. While the AVC encoded transfer is as satisfying as the material allows, the deleted footage unsurprisingly stands out since it’s been wasting away for decades after being trimmed for an “R” rating back in 1981. A fine, new retrospective documentary and comments from director George Mihalka and other members of the production team (prior to the deleted scenes) make this one of the better ‘80s horrors that we’ve seen recently on disc.       

FRAILTY Blu-Ray (**, 100 mins., 2002, R; Lionsgate): Bill Paxton directed this well-acted but not altogether satisfying supernatural drama with Paxton and Matthew McConaughey starring in a leisurely-paced tale, written by Brent Hanley, set in a rural Texas community. Liongate’s BD includes all the extras from its DVD edition, including two commentaries, deleted scenes, a pair of featurettes and a photo gallery, along with an improved 1080p transfer and DTS Master Audio sound.

AIR AMERICA Blu-Ray (**½, 113 mins., 1990, R; Lionsgate): Unevenly written, yet well-directed mix of comedy and action from veteran filmmaker Roger Spottiswoode looks terrific on Blu-Ray, with Roger Deakins’ scope cinematography making the most of its conversion to 1080p HD. “Air America” didn’t quite connect with audiences upon release in 1990, with Mel Gibson and Robert Downey Jr. starring as covert pilots for secret CIA missions in Laos. Lionsgate’s BD also sports commentary from writer-producer John Eskow, three featurettes and the trailer, plus DTS Master Audio sound.

WAY OF THE GUN Blu-Ray (119 mins., 2000, R; Lionsgate): “Usual Suspects” co-writer Christopher McQuarrie wrote and directed this 2000 ensemble piece with Benicio Del Toro and Ryan Phillippe as kidnappers who nab a surrogate mom (Juliette Lewis) and hold her for ransom, hoping to make a fortune from the wealthy couple whose child she’s carrying. Taye Diggs, Scott Wilson and James Caan co-starred in this 2000 release, which hits BD in a solid AVC encoded transfer with active DTS Master Audio sound, plus interviews, the trailer, commentary with McQuarrie and composer Joe Kraemer, and a separate track with Kraemer himself discussing the music.

NEW POLICE STORY Blu-Ray (123 mins., 2004, R; Lionsgate): Jackie Chan’s 2004 return to the “Police Story” series arrives on Blu in a satisfying presentation for martial arts enthusiasts, the disc boasting either English (DTS Master Audio) or Cantonese (DTS HD) sound with optional English subs, scene commentaries with Chan, a Making Of featurette, and a profile on the English dubbing also with Jackie.

Also New on Blu-Ray

FIGHT CLUB Blu-Ray (**, 139 mins., 1999, R; Fox): David Fincher's 1999 excursion into the nightmarish world of modern living, “Fight Club,” is nothing less than two and a half hours of excessive violence and outrage at the workaday structure of the corporate workplace. True enough, Fincher has something to say about how mundane our lives are and how reaching back to our primal urges and desires brings forth suppressed emotions, but you can say it all in the span of five minutes (or the space of this paragraph) instead of sitting through the barrage of grizzly images Fincher conjures up from one frame to the next in this film -- a box-office disappointment that nevertheless has become a cult favorite since its release 10 years ago.

Edward Norton is a dissatisfied yuppie trying to find meaning in his life (shades of “The Game”), and finds it in the form of Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), a "soap salesmen" who's actually a societal terrorist who enjoys splicing pornographic frames into kid movies, urinating in restaurant soup, and stealing lyposuction fat so he can create his special brew of hand detergent. Norton and Pitt end up in a brawl and, in doing so, soon create a secretive "Fight Club" for all other dissatisfied businesspeople and yuppies to get out there, beat the hell out of each other, and "LIVE!" for a change. (Whatever happened to the days of junking it all, moving to an island in the South Pacific, and living with beautiful native women? Somehow or other I don't think pounding another guy into submission in the decaying basement of a fast-food restaurant is much of a progression for humankind).

This ultimately leads to fascism and genuine terrorism, much to the shock of Norton, who takes a back seat and wonders why nutcase Helena Bonham Carter (seldom so unappealing as the film's love interest) keeps sleeping with Pitt.

Fincher does craft an amusing first third, primarily due to some clever dialogue in Jim Uhls's screenplay, before it becomes apparent that “Fight Club” isn't going to pay off.
Among the gratuitous visuals are Meat Loaf as a former weightlifter with breasts, a man's head being shot off and fights overflowing with blood, and the kinds of ugly black/orange imagery (that Fincher staple from his early directorial outings) that makes you feel as if you've spent the last two hours in the gutter.

That said, if you’re a fan of “Fight Club” (and goodness knows there are plenty of you out there), Fox’s Blu-Ray disc is a winner on every front. The AVC encoded HD transfer is top-notch, breathing new life in the home theater arena to Fincher and Jeff Cronenweth’s visuals, while the DTS Master Audio soundtrack is equally satisfying.

Extras are in abundance, mostly carried over from the film’s superlative 2000 DVD edition. Included are four separate commentary tracks (the best with Edward Norton, Brad Pitt, and David Fincher watching the film together, interspersed with comments from Helena Bonham Carter), 20 minutes of outtake footage, a handful of alternate opening credit sequences with a choice of musical compositions, behind-the-scenes info and storyboards, trailers and best of all, some 17 different interactive chapters that enable you to examine a certain sequence in the film from pre- production scouting, location filming, and post-production angles. BD exclusive goodies include a look at Ren Klyce’s sound design, a “Flogging Fight Club” featurette, and a most amusing menu gag.

IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA: A VERY SUNNY CHRISTMAS Blu-Ray (43 mins., 2009, Fox). LOWDOWN: Brand-new Christmas episode of the F/X series arrives on Blu-Ray in an AVC-encoded, 1080p transfer with DTS Master Audio sound and extras including deleted scenes, a making of featurette and “ Sunny sing-a-long” extra.

KEVIN SMITH Blu-Ray Collection (Miramax): Miramax’s Blu-Ray box-set offers the HD debuts of Kevin Smith’s “Clerks” and “Chasing Amy,” along with a reprieve of the studio’s previously issued Blu-Ray edition of “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.” Here’s a closer look:

CLERKS (***, 89 Mins., 1994): Smith’s first big smash was a 1994 indie effort that launched the View Askew universe and remains a viewer favorite.

Miramax's Blu-Ray box-set essentially reprises the contents of its 10th Anniversary DVD, including the 1995 laserdisc commentary; an “enhanced playback track” with “synchronized trivia”;  a deleted scene, MTV spots with Jay and Silent Bob, cast auditions, the original trailer, an entirely different, extended cut of the movie; and a comprehensive, 90-minute documentary, "Snowball Effect: The Story of 'Clerks'." Outtakes, journals, reviews and more goodies round out the disc, while the movie -- which is still fresh and entertaining -- is presented in an AVC encoded transfer with DTS Master Audio Sound.

JAY AND SILENT BOB STRIKE BACK (**½, 104 mins., 2001, R): The apparently final adventure of Kevin Smith's long-running Jay and Silent Bob characters (previously seen in the director's past projects from "Clerks" to "Dogma") is a ribald, sporadically funny comedy that overcomes its hit-or-miss gags with a bright, energetic pace and plenty of in-jokes.

After finding out they've been turned into comic book heroes (dubbed Bluntman and Chronic) and that a forthcoming movie adaptation is in production, Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith) decide to take a road trip cross-country to take down the studio. What follows is a wacky farce with Jay and Silent Bob running into diamond-stealing femme fatales (Shannon Elizabeth, Eliza Dushku, and Ali Larter), an incompetent park ranger (Will Ferrell), and appearances by nearly every star of Smith's previous films, including Ben Affleck as both his "Chasing Amy" character and -- in an uproarious spoof of "Good Will Hunting" -- himself!

While the laughs are scattershot for a while, the big Hollywood finish provides plenty of amusement: Chris Rock is notably hilarious as the film's foul-mouthed director (actually, pretty much EVERYONE in this film is foul-mouthed), while James Van Der Beek and Jason Biggs provide some big laughs as themselves -- as does Mark Hamill, mocking Luke Skywalker and having a grand time as the cinematic bad guy.

Previously released on Blu-Ray, this identical BD edition looks and sounds terrific (AVC encoded 1080p and uncompressed PCM audio), but dumps all the extras from its DVD (over 40 deleted scenes and other goodies) save for its original commentary track. 

CHASING AMY (**½, 113 mins., 1997, R): Smith’s 1997 mix of comedy and romantic drama offers Ben Affleck and Joey Lauren Adams as a couple of comic book artists who fall hard for one another, only to endure a relationship that goes through wild swings of emotion.

This Blu-Ray debut for “Chasing Amy” offers some brand-new, exclusive to Blu special features, including commentary with Smith and producer Scott Mosier; a new documentary on the production; a “10 Years Later” Q&A; plus deleted scenes, outtakes and the trailer. The AVC encoded 1080p transfer is excellent, as is the disc’s DTS Master Audio sound.

SCRUBS: Season 8 Blu-Ray (414 mins., 2008-09; Buena Vista). LOWDOWN: Bill Lawrence’s mostly comedic variant on “E/R” may end up staying on TV as long as its recently-concluded NBC brethren, since ABC swooped in and began broadcasting the former “Peacock” series last year. Amazing as it may seem, Season 8 of “Scrubs” did well enough in the ratings to produce a ninth year of the series, which is supposed to offer series regulars like Zach Braff and Sarah Chalke only in “transitional” episode arcs. TECH SPECS: Following (and improving upon) the Season 8 DVD release from last August, “Scrubs” fans will be happy with this improved Blu-Ray box-set, offering flawless 1.78 1080p transfers and DTS Master Audio soundtracks. Extras include bloopers, deleted scenes, a few featurettes (including “intern webisodes”) and a Blu-Ray exclusive “It’s All in the Name” clip montage. AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: “Scrubs” fans who held off on purchasing the Season 8 DVD of the series will be rewarded with this superior Blu-Ray edition.

ROME: The Complete Series Blu-Ray (22 hrs., 2006-07, HBO). LOWDOWN: Lavishly produced, epic HBO series lasted only two seasons, but drew solid reviews in spite of only moderate ratings. Bruno Heller wrote most of the series -- which included John Milius as one of its producers -- with its second (and final) season picking up from the assassination of Julius Caesar and following a variety of characters -- from Mark Antony to soldiers Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus -- as they attempt to maneuver their way to power. A solid cast, lots of sex and violence, and robust production values dominate the drama. TECH SPECS: HBO’s Blu-Ray box-set offers the complete series of “Rome” in outstanding 1080p transfers and DTS Master Audio soundtracks. Similar to the excellent job HBO did on their “Band of Brothers” Blu-Ray release, this is an impressive technical presentation, matched with extras including 13 cast/crew commentaries; four behind the scenes featurettes; additional featurettes touching upon individual scene creation and historical background; and more. AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: “Rome” is fairly dense in its plotting and demands the viewer’s attention, but for those with an interest in the subject matter this is a solid HBO drama that’s been flawlessly presented on Blu-Ray.

Holiday and Family Fare

SANTA BUDDIES Blu-Ray (88 mins., 2009, G; Disney). LOWDOWN: The latest entry in director-producer-writer Robert Vince’s successful line of pooch-tastic family videos finds the talking buddies (Budderball, B-Dawg, Rosebud, Buddha and Mudbud) teaching Puppy Paws – the son of legendary Santa Paws – about the true meaning of Christmas, along with a cantankerous Christopher Lloyd. George Wendt, meanwhile, appears as St. Nick himself in this small-fry oriented Disney co-production that ought to enchant dog lovers and those with a tolerance for overly sweet yuletide fare. TECH SPECS: Disney’s Blu-Ray/DVD combo serves up the requisite extras (Christmas Carol sing-alongs, music videos) plus satisfying widescreen transfers that are appreciably more colorful in Disney’s AVC-encoded Blu-Ray presentation, which also sports DTS-HD audio. AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: Recommended for the little ones but if the subject matter sounds instantly unappealing to you, be sure to stay away.

FOUR CHRISTMASES Blu-Ray (**, 88 mins., 2008, PG-13; Warner). LOWDOWN: Caustic holiday comedy sports Reese Witherspoon and Vince Vaughn as a “happily unmarried” couple who typically get away for the Christmas season, but unlikely circumstances dictate that the duo hop from one family home to the next (populated by the likes of Robert Duvall, Jon Voight, Sissy Spacek and Mary Steenburgen among others) in the span of 24 hours. Seth Gordon’s movie, credited to scribes Matt Allen, Caleb Wilson, Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, is light on heart and heavy on forced, mostly unfunny comedic situations that Vaughn and Witherspoon find themselves wrapped up in. TECH SPECS: Warner’s Blu-Ray disc looks and sounds sprightly (VC-1 encoded 1080p HD and Dolby TrueHD audio), but offers not a whole lot in the way of supplements save a gag reel, an HD “holiday moments” featurette, and Food Network staple Paula Deen serving up a few festive recipes. There are also BD Live exclusive outtakes and a digital copy for portable media players. AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: The cast is capable of more, and so are you in terms of finding superior perennial holiday viewing fare.

SHORTS Blu-Ray (**, 89 mins., 2009, PG; Warner). LOWDOWN: Robert Rodriguez’s latest excursion into family-movie territory (following three “Spy Kids” movies and the disappointing “Shark Boy and Lava Girl”) failed to match the success of his earlier productions. Working from his own original script, “Shorts” tells the story of what happens to a suburban community after a young boy gets his hand on a magical “wishing rock,” leading to all kinds of chaos for basically everyone he knows. Jon Cryer, William H. Macy, Leslie Mann and James Spader are a few of the adult charges who end up being comically run over in this broadly played but not particularly funny or enchanting Rodriguez effort that feels labored and rarely magical. TECH SPECS: Once again offering a colorful VC-1 encoded 1080p transfer, Dolby TrueHD audio and a digital copy, Warner’s “Shorts” also includes a standard DVD edition and a few extras, including two Making Of featurettes, behind-the-scenes footage, and the Rodriguez clan providing instruction on making “chocolate chip volcano cookies.” AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: “Shorts” bombed in theaters last August, and while young kids might enjoy its frenetic pace, even “Aliens in the Attic” (another family film released around the same time) offers superior entertainment in its genre.

MY SISTER’S KEEPER Blu-Ray (***, 109 mins., 2009, PG-13; Warner). LOWDOWN: Sensitive tearjerker adapted from Jodi Picolut’s bestseller (with, I’ve been told by my wife, a different and more satisfying ending) stars Abigail Breslin as the daughter of parents Cameron Diaz and Jason Patric, who’s been raised to be an organ donor for her sick, lukemia-stricken sibling (Sofia Vassilieva). Breslin, though, wants to have the right to control her future in director Nick Cassavetes’ superbly-performed, absorbing drama with excellent performances from young leads Breslin and Vassilieva. Caleb Deschanel’s expert cinematography and a fine script from Cassavetes and Jeremy Leven also make this one of the better “chick flicks” to come down the pike in a while. TECH SPECS: Warner’s Blu-Ray disc is a winner, deftly supporting Deschanel’s visuals in a fully satisfying 1080p VC-1 encode, while Dolby TrueHD audio backs up Aaron Zigman’s effective score. Extras include over 15 minutes of deleted scenes and a Blu-Ray exclusive profile of Picolut and the book’s adaptation to the screen (which the author ultimately didn’t care for at all). A digital copy rounds out the package. AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: Touching without being overly morbid, “My Sister’s Keeper” boasts fine performances across the board. Recommended.

Also New on Blu-Ray and DVD

HEAT Blu-Ray (***½, 170 mins., 1995, R; Warner). LOWDOWN: Michael Mann’s overlong but superbly performed crime drama has always been notable for its teaming of Al Pacino as a tough L.A. cop out to nab expert criminal Robert DeNiro, but in spite of the duo’s billing, the stars only share a few minutes of screen time in a sprawling story that encompasses a number of other characters. Indeed, Mann’s intricate (if slightly overplotted) script sports a marvelous supporting cast including Tom Sizemore, Jon Voight, Val Kilmer, Diane Venora, Amy Brenneman, Ashley Judd, Mykelti Williamson and Mann’s “Last of the Mohicans” co-star Wes Studi in a dazzling looking and sounding film, enhanced by the outstanding visuals of Dante Spinotti and a superb Elliot Goldenthal score. Even if it’s still a little too long (with female characters that aren’t always integral to the story), “Heat” packs indelible performances and moments of great power, from a thrilling robbery sequence to DeNiro and Pacino’s sequences together. TECH SPECS: Warner’s Blu-Ray edition of “Heat” is glorious: the VC-1 encoded HD transfer is exceptional and potent Dolby TrueHD audio is also on-tap. While Mann did supervise “content changes” for the Blu-Ray, online comparisons illustrate that the differences are minor editorial tweaks that were applied because Mann didn’t have enough time to polish the picture prior to its theatrical release. Thus, fans worried this is a somewhat substantial “re-cut” like “Last of the Mohicans” should rest easy, while a good array of other extras, cobbled together from prior DVD editions, include 11 additional scenes, Mann’s commentary, trailers, and five documentaries. AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: An exciting thriller that remains one of Michael Mann’s finest films, “Heats” packs a wallop on Blu-Ray with knockout audio and video. Highly recommended!
THE OPEN ROAD Blu-Ray and DVD (**, 90 mins., 2009, PG-13; Anchor Bay). LOWDOWN: Mediocre road flick from writer-director Michael Meredith basically bypassed a theatrical release, and with good reason. Jeff Bridges and Justin Timberlake play an estranged father and son, respectively, who reunite after Timberlake’s mom (Mary Steenburgen) gets sick. The duo, also coincidentally both baseball players, take the opportunity to reluctantly mend their fences in this predictable tale with a solid supporting cast (Harry Dean Stanton, Kate Mara). Unfortunately Meredith -- the son of football player/broadcaster/ad pitchman Don Meredith -- fails to give the cast much to do but go through the motions of a relentlessly conventional script. TECH SPECS: Anchor Bay’s DVD includes a fine 16:9 (2.35) transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, while the Blu-Ray disc offers up an even more impressive 1080p transfer with the same 5.1 DD track. Extras on both platforms include a featurette and commentary with Meredith and Bridges. AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: Bridges and Timberlake are both fine here but “The Open Road” travels down a predestined narrative path that won’t surprise anyone.

PAPER HEART Blu-Ray and DVD (***, 88 mins., 2009, PG-13; Anchor Bay). LOWDOWN: Amusing ersatz documentary with Charlyne Yi as “herself,” a precocious young woman who sets out with director Nicholas Jasenovec (Jake M. Johnson, playing the movie’s actual director of the same name) on a worldwide journey to find what true love is all about. Along the way she finds Michael Cera, also playing a fictionalized version of “himself,” and the duo fall in love...with some complications. Jasenovec’s alternately improvised/staged documentary is a heartfelt, unpredictable and amusing journey into modern love circa 2009 with eccentric “performances” from the two leads. TECH SPECS: Anchor Bay’s DVD edition of “Paper Heart” offers a fine 16:9 (1.78) widescreen transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital audio while the Blu-Ray platter boasts a crisper 1080p transfer with Dolby TrueHD audio. Extras across both platforms include deleted scenes, interviews, live musical performances, a Making Of featurette, and more, while the BD also contains a digital copy for portable media players.

A CHRISTMAS TALE [Un conte de Noël] DVD (***, 152 mins., 2008, R; Criterion). LOWDOWN: Arnaud Desplechin’s wild emotional ride stars Catherine Deneuve as the matriarch of the Vuillard family, who enters into a Christmas reunion knowing she needs a bone marrow transplant from a blood relative. That premise serves as the framework for an unusual, eclectic cinematic journey with sometimes jarring swings of tone and loads of superb performances, from Deneuve to Mathieu Amalric and Jean-Paul Roussilion. TECH SPECS: Criterion’s DVD of “A Christmas Tale” includes a highly satisfying 16:9 (2.35) presentation with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound and extras including a 2007 Desplechin documentary, “L’aimee,” about the sale of his family home; a 35-minute behind-the-scenes documentary on the making of the film; trailers; and a booklet sporting an essay from critic Phillip Lopate. AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: French cinemaphiles will definitely want to check out “A Christmas Tale,” which is anything but your typical holiday fare. Unusual, offbeat, and while not entirely cohesive, it will certainly hold your attention for most, if not all, of its two-and-a-half hours.

In Brief

THE MAIDEN HEIST DVD (**½, 88 mins., 2008, PG-13; Sony). LOWDOWN: The Yari Film Group might’ve gone out of business, but one of their last productions makes its way to DVD courtesy of Sony. This moderately amusing heist caper finds Morgan Freeman, Christopher Walken and William H. Macy as a trio of museum security guards who opt to switch original works of art with fakes after learning several favorites are slated to be moved to another museum. Marcia Gay Harden co-stars in this breezy, if forgettable and uneven, outing from director Peter Hewitt. TECH SPECS: Sony’s DVD includes a perfectly acceptable 16:9 transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound and extras including commentary, a gag reel, deleted scenes, and a Making Of featurette. AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: Not quite as much fun as it sounds, “The Maiden Heist” is still good for a rental, especially if you’re a fan of any of the stars.

MEGAFAULT DVD (90 mins., 2009; Asylum). LOWDOWN: Brittany Murphy, Eriq LaSalle, Bruce Davison and Justin Hartley (“Smallville”’s Green Arrow) star in this watchable Syfy Channel original movie about a West Virginia TNT explosion that improbably ends up threatening all of North America after it causes an apocalyptic seismic shift. Utterly implausible but not bad, though this is the first time I’ve ever seen a DVD back package credit an Amazon.com customer review (!).TECH SPECS: Asylum’s DVD offers a widescreen transfer, 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack, trailers, cast/crew commentary and a Making Of featurette. AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: “Megafault” isn’t an Irwin Allen styled disaster epic but it’s pretty amusing, both intentionally and, at times, unintentionally. If you have a jones for the genre you could do a lot worse than to check this one out as a rental.        

THE CANYON DVD (102 mins., 2009, R; Magnolia). LOWDOWN: Tepid horror effort on the part of writer Steve Allrich and director Richard Harrah, which wastes the lovely Yvonne Strahovski (from TV’s “Chuck”) as a newlywed who runs into major trouble after joining hubby Eion Bailey for a trip into the Grand Canyon. Not even a scenery-chewing Will Patton can enliven this DOA, surprisingly boring direct-to-video affair. TECH SPECS: Magnolia’s DVD of “The Canyon” includes a fine 16:9 (2.40) widescreen transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, deleted scenes, a featurette, casting audition footage, and other extras. AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: Skip it. Watch Yvonne on “Chuck” when it returns shortly to NBC instead.

HUMP DAY DVD (94 mins., 2009, R; Magnolia). LOWDOWN: Lynn Shelton wrote and directed this film-festival indie favorite, which plays out like a more “realistic” version (more or less) of Kevin Smith’s recent “Zack and Miri Make a Porno,” except with two male (and straight) buddies engaging in the world of amateur porn production. TECH SPECS: Magnolia’s DVD includes an acceptable 16:9 (1.78) widescreen transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound and extras including commentary with stars Mark Duplass and Joshua Leonard, along with another commentary with Shelton and assorted crew personnel, deleted scenes, and a behind the scenes featurette. AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: Sophomoric humor makes “Hump Day” the Sundance equivalent of, say, “American Pie,” but there are some sporadic laughs along the way.

DANE COOK: Isolated Incident DVD (55 mins., 2009, Comedy Central): A more dialed down, “edgier” Dane Cook serves up a new set of stand-up material in front of a crowd of roughly 400 at Hollywood’s Laugh Factory. Comedy Central’s DVD of “Isolated Incident” includes the hour-long special plus an interview with Cook and “30 Premeditated Acts.”

DRAWN TOGETHER: Complete Series DVD (790 mins., Comedy Central): Special box-set release of the Comedy Central animated series includes the complete run of episodes from the show, plus several board games provided within that justify the package’s “Party in a Box” subtitle.

NEXT TIME: December arrives (can you believe it?) with festive reviews and news! 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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