Thanksgiving 2008 Edition -- The AISLE SEAT BLOG Is Also Live

A Thanksgiving Feast

As the Blu-Ray market expands independent labels are beginning to provide the fledgling high-definition format with some much-needed offbeat viewing options for HD enthusiasts.

Blue Underground, renowned for their roster of eclectic genre and European fare on DVD, is off to a strong start with their inaugural Blu-Ray offerings, both of which are available on BD via 50gb dual-layer platters with excellent 1080p transfers and both DTS Master and Dolby TrueHD audio.

Kirk Douglas produced and starred in the 1980 time travel adventure THE FINAL COUNTDOWN (***, 102 mins., PG), appearing as the captain of the U.S.S. Nimitz, an aircraft carrier that finds itself inexplicably caught up in a vortex that sends it, and its crew, back to 1941...just hours before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Though the workmanlike script credited to four different writers tends to fumble some of the dramatic opportunities the scenario affords, director Don Taylor’s movie is efficient and entertaining enough. Martin Sheen co-stars as a Defense Department worker, James Farentino is one of the Nimitz’s commanders, Charles Durning a senator in the Roosevelt administration and Katharine Ross his assistant in a plot that finds the latter duo coming into contact with Douglas’ crew while Kirk and co. determine if they can change the course of history by attacking the Japanese instead of watching idly by on December 7th, 1941.

Produced with full cooperation from the U.S. Navy, “The Final Countdown” is a low-key sci-fi tale marked by good performances and appropriate visual flourish from cinematographer Victor J. Kemper and Bond veteran Maurice Binder, who quite obviously contributed a good amount to the picture’s visual effects. It might play out like a standard “Twilight Zone” episode, but thanks to the visuals and John Scott’s rousing score, it’s a recommended view for sci-fi/fantasy fans on Blu-Ray.

Blue Underground’s BD presentation of “The Final Countdown” offers a crisp 1080p transfer that’s highly satisfying. This Bryna Company production, which UA theatrically released, has always looked horrid in prior pan-and-scan transfers, which every U.S. video release was saddled with throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s. After issuing a terrific DVD edition, Blue Underground reprises that transfer here with a newly minted HD presentation and the film looks far better than it has any right to, with only some blemishes on the print occurring here and there. None of them are enough to mar one’s enjoyment of the film and the picture, overall, is so much more satisfying than past transfers that it’s like you’re watching a whole new movie.

The sound options include both DTS Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD tracks and the mix is robust, sporting one of Scott’s finest scores.

Extras culled from the prior 2-disc DVD edition include a commentary track from cinematographer Kemper, an interview with associate producer Lloyd Kaufman, conversations with the Jolly Rogers F-14 Fighter Squadron, trailers and TV spots. It’s not a massive collection of extras but they’re still a nice compliment to a film many had forgotten about until Blue Underground resurrected it on DVD and, now, Blu-Ray. Recommended!

I’ve never been a huge fan of Dario Argento but some of his fans are sure to love Blue Underground’s Blu-Ray edition of THE STENDHAL SYNDROME (**, 119 mins., 1995).

This freaky and uncomfortable thriller stars Argento’s daughter Asia as a detective who encounters a phenomena which causes her to go insane after being around certain works of art...and also helps her track down a serial killer in Italy.

With music by Ennio Morricone, “The Stendhal Syndrome” is a stylish looking film but even Argento die-hards were split over the picture’s eventual release, with many finding it to be a disappointment. Aficionados of the movie, though, will at least appreciate another superb release from Blue Underground, boasting both English (DTS Master and Dolby TrueHD) and Italian (5.1 Dolby Digital) audio tracks plus another fine 1080p transfer. 

Extras include segments on Argento, “psychological consultant” Graziella Magherini, effects master Sergio Stivaletti, asssitant director (and veteran filmmaker) Luigi Cozzi and the original trailer.

Another independent label has sprung up on Blu-Ray: Somerville House, distributed by Koch, which just in time for the holiday season gives us the original BLACK CHRISTMAS (***, 98 mins., 1974, R).

Director Bob Clark’s benchmark thriller laid the groundwork for John Carpenter’s “Halloween” and the myriad of slasher movies that followed, with Roy Moore’s script finding a group of sorority girls terrorized by a killer with motives that are never, chillingly, fully explained. Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder, Keir Dulla, John Saxon and future “SCTV” cast member Andrea Martin (who later appeared in the remake) are the cast members who find themselves terrorized on a cold, snowy December night, and Clark’s direction is taut and low-key, enabling the picture to build up an enormous amount of tension as it moves along. Forget the awful recent version of “Black Christmas” and enjoy this fine slice of ‘70s horror, as the original is less explicit but far more terrifying than its putrid remake.

Though theatrically released by Warner Bros., the Critical Mass/Somerville House Blu-Ray offers a generally pleasing HD presentation of the movie, though as you would expect, the movie isn’t exactly “eye candy” material. The source print shows its age though it’s still quite satisfying when compared to past versions of the movie I’ve watched on video. A remastered 5.1 Dolby Digital track comprises the audio side of things, and is surprisingly effective in its stereophonic presence considering the limitations of the source material.

Two hours of special features include a documentary with recollections from cast members Art Hindle, Doug McGrath and Lynne Griffin; additional interviews with Olivia Hussey and Margot Kidder; a Q&A session from a midnight screening with John Saxon, Bob Clark and composer Carl Zittrer; and two scenes with a different soundtrack.. Original trailers are also on-hand.

Well worth a look!

Coming on Blu-Ray

THE DARK KNIGHT (***, 151 mins., 2008, PG-13; Warner):
Dark, foreboding, grim...those are just a few of the terms to describe Christopher Nolan’s massive “Batman” sequel, which has raked in massive amounts of dollars at the box-office since its July release.

Picking up shortly after the events of “Batman Begins,” Gotham City is now besieged by attacks from a new criminal on the scene: The Joker (the late Heath Ledger), who manipulates the local crime bosses into supporting his reign of twisted terror. His insanity comes at the same time hope arrives in the form of new District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), a “White Knight” crusader whose bold prosecution of the city’s crooks makes him Target #1 among the thugs, now playing without rules under the Joker’s anarchy.

Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) realizes that Dent is the city’s true hope for the future, especially since Batman is officially a vigilante in the eyes of the law and some residents, and even contemplates hanging up the bat suit so he can move on with former girlfriend Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, effectively replacing the lightweight Katie Holmes). Unfortunately for Bruce, however, justice comes with a price, as he all too quickly realizes...

Technically dazzling yet fundamentally flawed in certain areas, “The Dark Knight” is a compelling, somewhat pretentious, overlong, yet often brilliantly realized comic book movie. Nolan and cinematographer Wally Pfister have once again produced a breathtaking looking picture with an unrelenting sense of dread that permeates every sequence. Ledger’s much acclaimed performance could’ve easily been a self-indulgent affair yet the actor seized the opportunity to craft a memorably off-kilter, truly insane villain that undoubtedly would’ve boosted Ledger’s career had he lived to see the movie’s release.

Yet The Joker is also, ironically, one of the film’s core problems: out of respect to the late actor, it seems that Nolan was slavish to retaining every shot of The Joker and "preserving his performance" as he's said, to the point where the character overpowers everything else in the movie. Batman is basically treated like a secondary character once again, much like Michael Keaton was back in the original, Tim Burton-directed “Batman” to Jack Nicholson, and as a consequence the movie has an odd focus at times with no real center anchoring it down.

The tragic character of Harvey Dent, meanwhile, also complicates matters -- after 2.5 hours I felt that Ledger's Joker was plenty of "bad" for one movie to handle, and while I understand what Nolan was trying to say with the “Two-Face” character, dramatically it throws the story off-course in the final third to the degree where I was never convinced that his presence was entirely necessary.

The pacing also pushes Batman into the back seat in favor of a redundant succession of scenes where audiences are supposed to believe that the situation is under control, only to have The Joker throw it all into chaos.

There should have been more pauses, more scenes to develop Bruce Wayne’s character, and especially more interaction between him and Alfred (Michael Caine). Bale has less to do here this time out and doesn’t have great chemistry with Gyllenhaal either, so much that it’s understandable at least that “the love story” is given little screen time.

Yet Nolan’s script (co-written with his brother Jonathon) eventually settles into a repetitive, humorless structure of events instead: here's a scene where the Joker crashes a party and something bad happens. Here's a scene where the Joker terrorizes the commissioner's funeral and something bad happens. Here's a scene where Harvey Dent is riding in a police car and something bad happens. The Joker's in a jail cell and...guess what...something bad happens. And on and on.

The script could’ve used another pass or two, because while there are some wonderful scenes and moments within it, it needed something more to break up its structure. Yes, Nolan is interested in discussing what constitutes a “hero,” about the fragile nature between good and evil, and how good can be corrupted -- which is all fine and good for a dissertation, but one wishes he had spent as much time on a script that was better balanced and gave Batman more to do. At times it’s also pretentious with its cold, clinical tone and lack of humor (whatever nervous laughter the film provokes comes during The Joker’s attacks), making it easily the most downbeat film of its kind ever produced. And again, the Zimmer/Newton Howard score is a misfire -- even more droning, inconsequential musical wallpaper than its predecessor, it fails to lift any of the film dramatically, especially in scenes that call for a bold musical statement (much less an actual theme!).

Outside of a few other pacing and story issues (the Scarecrow’s “cameo” is a total waste of time; some scenes feel abbreviated with no resolution while others linger on forever), “The Dark Knight” is still a compelling, visually dazzling show, and Gary Oldman is again superb as Jim Gordon. So are Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman, even if both actors -- along with Bale -- have less to do here.

In the end it’s all Ledger’s show, and he does leave us with a memorable, dynamic final turn. One just wishes that Nolan would’ve had the courage to trim it just a bit and give its hero as much of an opportunity to take the spotlight, or at least bring some light to its unrelenting darkness. 

That said, “The Dark Knight” became a massive worldwide phenomenon, and has clearly tapped into the “dark” pessimism of our times. Warner’s two-disc Blu-Ray package (with a third disc comprised of a portable digital copy) arrives in two weeks and is sure to sell like hotcakes once it hits stores.

The 1080p transfer and Dolby TrueHD soundtrack are both marvelous, as you would anticipate them being. Interestingly, Warner opted to use a shifting aspect ratio for the picture, so IMAX-shot portions are framed in “full” 16:9, while the rest of the picture is presented in its 2.35 theatrical frame. Visually, it’s a spectacular presentation with no flaws in sight, though some viewers may be puzzled by the alternating perspective.

Extra features on Disc 1 include a number of “Focus Points,” which are short vignettes between 5-10 minutes each, and which either pop up during the film or can be viewed separately. All are in HD and range from an examination of the picture’s stunts and various technical achievements, as well as an interview with Hans Zimmer, who discusses the creation of The Joker’s “theme” (if you can call it that).

Disc 2 presents more in the way of supplements: a “Batman Tech” featurette profiles the Gotham Knight’s gadgets, while the TV special “Batman Unmasked” gives viewers a psychological profile of Bruce Wayne. Both are offered here in HD and sport a copious amount of film clips, meaning they’re both fairly transparent promotional tie-ins to the movie. The “Extras” section includes six “Gotham Tonight” faux newscasts while a slew of art galleries (including concept and poster art, production stills and the Joker’s card designs) and trailers/TV spots round out the package.

It’s a decent, but not spectacular, assemblage of extras; much like “Batman Begins” it seems Nolan intends for his Caped Crusader movies to, for the time being at least (until we get a commentary from the filmmaker), speak for themselves.

Also New On Blu-Ray

FRED CLAUS (*½, 115 mins., 2007, PG; Warner): There’s a reason why perennial yuletide favorites like “A Christmas Story” and “Christmas Vacation” receive ‘round-the-clock viewing marathons as we approach the holiday season. Very clearly it’s to compensate for the amount of horrid Christmas comedies Hollywood now seems to turn out on a regular basis, whether it’s “Deck the Halls,” “Christmas With the Kranks” or, most recently, last year’s unfortunate bust “Fred Claus.”

A reunion of star Vince Vaughn with his “Wedding Crashers” director David Dobkin, “Fred Claus” is a borderline-embarrassment and a clear waste of copious talent: Vaughn stars as Santa’s estranged brother, who finds the true meaning of Christmas after an efficiency expert (Kevin Spacey, synonymous with spreading holiday joy) decides it’s time to downsize brother Santa (Paul Giammati)’s operation. Miranda Richardson, Rachel Weisz, Kathy Bates and Elizabeth Banks all appear in support of Dan Fogelman’s woeful script, which seems “wrong” from the very moment it starts.

Overlong and offering jarring shifts from sentiment to slapstick, “Fred Claus” isn’t funny nor is it ever especially entertaining. Much of the picture is strangely content to play it straight, with Vaughn reduced to smirking or complaining about his family’s issues -- the kind of thing that will bore kids and adults equally. What’s more, the pacing in the picture is incredibly “off”; some sequences linger on forever, while Vaughn’s introduction into Santa’s “world” (with lavish production design that’s the best thing about the movie) is hyper-edited with some “scenes” lasting under 30 seconds. Along the way the film also parades out a handful of cliched scenes (Vaughn goes for a sleigh ride; Vaughn teaches the elves how to dance, etc.) that are every bit as tired as they sound.

It all makes for a tedious, unsatisfying affair that comes off as the kind of movie that was produced based on a concept instead of a script. Unless you know someone who deserves a lump of coal in their stockings, avoid this “Claus” like a pitcher of expired eggnog.

Warner’s Blu-Ray edition of “Fred Claus” sports a plain, unexciting presentation by HD standards: the VC-1 encoded transfer seems a bit fuzzy with some artifacts popping up at times, while the standard 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack is limp when compared to other BD’s we’ve heard (Christophe Beck’s score is equally flat). Special features offer 13 deleted scenes, three Making Of featurettes, commentary with the director, and five “Vince and Paul Fireside Chats” with the stars improvising in brief “Unscripted” segments that are more amusing than anything in the film itself.

WANTED (**, 110 mins., 2008, R; Universal): Summer-time comic-book shenanigans from Russian filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov is basically undone by heavy-handed characterizations and a grating lead performance from British star James McAvoy.

As a tired office worker bored by his daily existence, McAvoy is quickly thrust into a secret world of assassins, lead by a heavily-tattooed Angelina Jolie and mastermind Morgan Freeman. The duo inform McAvoy that he’s the son of a slain former assassin with the potential to alter the direction of bullets with his mind and soon send him to slaughter the killer responsible for his father’s death...but first, McAvoy has to undergo a series of brutal beatings and rituals that almost make “Fight Club” seem like child’s play by comparison.

Best known for his silly vampire sagas “Night Watch” and “Day Watch,” Bekmambetov makes his mark on the American studio system with “Wanted,” which if nothing else is a slick-looking piece with a couple of dynamic action scenes. Late in the game McAvoy corners his prey on a train running through the mountains of Italy, in a sequence that’s splendidly edited and choreographed. The Michael Brandt-Derek Haas script (based on a Top Cow graphic novel) is a mixed bag but offers a few twists up its sleeve that might take some viewers by surprise as well.

Where “Wanted” goes wrong is in its brainless, one-note characters, from the office drones McAvoy works with to its central performance altogether. McAvoy seems totally ill-at-ease here, failing to portray a nebbish who’s supposed to be at least somewhat likeable and identifiable. A young Matthew Broderick could’ve made the part work, but McAvoy -- from a forced American accent to his heavy-handed delivery -- is all wrong, and since the film basically rests on his shoulders alone (Jolie’s secondary part turns to be basically thankless), “Wanted” has no dramatic center, existing solely as a brainless shoot ‘em up for 13-year-olds, in spite of its hard “R” rating, non-stop gore and profanity-ridden screenplay.

The film’s ultimate message, even for a soulless summer blockbuster, is also downright disturbing -- being a murderer is “cooler” than working in an office? No wonder why “entertainment” these days seems to be going right down the tubes.

That said, “Wanted” rang up solid box-office grosses (of course), and Universal’s Blu-Ray edition does offer a rock-solid 1080p transfer with a pounding DTS Master Audio soundtrack, the latter boasting a Danny Elfman score that’s as effective as it can be given the material.

A decent array of special features includes an alternate opening, picture-in-picture segments, special effects extras (all in HD) plus an extended scene (in SD) as well as a bonus digital copy for portable media players.

THE KINGDOM (**½, 110 mins., 2007, R; Universal): Overblown, but nevertheless quite watchable, action piece from director Peter Berg follows a group of FBI agents (including Jamie Foxx and Jennifer Garner) sent to Saudi Arabia to track down a terrorist before his next strike. Though Matthew Michael Carnahan’s script holds some contemporary and social relevance, “The Kingdom” is big, loud action filmmaking for the most part, nearly resembling a “Call of Duty” video game in its frantic sequences late in the picture. The film doesn’t entirely connect but there’s enough in the way of thrills and explosions here to keep most fans satisfied, while the performances do their best to make an impression inbetween the carnage.

Universal’s Blu-Ray presentation offers an excellent 1080p transfer with DTS Master Audio sound, deleted scenes (in HD) and numerous featurettes, along with commentary from Berg.

JARHEAD (**, 123 mins., 2006, R; Universal): Sam Mendes’ Iraq war movie wasn’t especially well received and met with mixed reaction at the box-office upon its 2006 release. Universal’s Blu-Ray disc offers a fine 1080p transfer of the 2006 Jake Gyllenhaal vehicle with DTS Master Audio sound and two commentaries (with one with Mendes, another with writer William Broyles, Jr. and the source novel’s author, Anthony Swofford).

SOUTHLAND TALES (**, 144 mins., 2007, R; Sony): Nutty follow-up to "Donnie Darko" from filmmaker Richard Kelly sat on the shelf for some time after its initial festival screenings proved to be less than receptive. 

Eventually re-cut but barely released to theaters, "Southland Tales" now arrives on Blu-Ray as one of the weirdest films of our generation, boasting a cast filled with past and present action stars (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Christopher Lambert), past and present Saturday Night Live performers (Nora Dunn, Jon Lovitz, Cheri Oteri, Amy Poehler), various music stars (Justin Timberlake, Mandy Moore), assorted other comic actors (Kevin Smith, John Larroquette, Wallace Shawn), plus Sarah Michelle Gellar and one of the guys (Seann William Scott) from "American Pie" -- in a dual role, no less!

Despite the eclectic cast, none of it makes any sense at all, and good luck to the cult that devoured "Darko" as a post-modern masterpiece in trying to do the same with this oddball effort, which Sony has issued on Blu-Ray following last spring’s DVD release.

The AVC encoded transfer is excellent, as is the Dolby TrueHD audio, while extras include Kelly’s commentary (exclusive to the HD disc), some “graphic novels” which precede the film’s story and lend additional context (as much as can be added given the jumbled story), a Making Of featurette and the trailer.

BLUE STREAK (**½, 94 mins., 1999, PG-13; Sony)
NATIONAL SECURITY (**, 88 mins., 2003, PG-13; Sony): A pair of Martin Lawrence action comedies are also new to Blu-Ray this month from Sony.

The 1999 action comedy “Blue Streak” is the better of the duo, offering the comedian as a jewel thief who poses as a cop in a lively enough lark co-starring Luke Wilson and Dave Chappelle. Lawrence’s 2003 “National Security” isn’t as amusing, being a more comedic affair with Lawrence and Steve Zahn as L.A.P.D. officers who get kicked off their squad and begin another life as security guards.

Both movies boast satisfying AVC encoded transfers and Dolby TrueHD soundtracks. Extras on “Blue Streak” include a pair of Making Of featurettes and numerous music videos, while “National Security” includes commentary from director Dennis Dugan, an alternate ending, other deleted scenes, and a music video.

THE UNIVERSE, Season 1 (aprx. 12 hours; History/Newvideo): Three-disc Blu-Ray edition of the History Channel’s still on-going series, profiling our galaxy with copious amounts of visual effects and scientist interviews. Though some have carped that the show isn’t quite as “scholarly” as, say, your typical “Nova” episode, the HD visuals alone ought to please home theater enthusiasts, with Newvideo’s box-set offering the show’s first season in crisp VC-1 encoded transfers and Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo soundtracks.

PAUL McCARTNEY: THE SPACE WITHIN US (115 mins., A&E/Newvideo): The former Beatle’s 2006 concert tour hits Blu-Ray, offering nearly two hours of the singer-songwriter’s classics in HD with Dolby 5.1 surround. A&E has also included a bevy of special features here, including three bonus sound-check songs, interviews with McCartney and his band and other promos.

New & Coming on DVD

POOR LITTLE RICH GIRL: The Barbara Hutton Story (300 mins., 1987, A&E/Newvideo): An extended European broadcast version of the 1987 TV mini-series, “Poor Little Rich Girl” follows the miserable existence of Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton (Farrah Fawcett) in a well-made 1987 international production from director Charles Jarrott. Though this unedited cut reportedly adds much footage to NBC’s original U.S. broadcast version, I’m not sure if most viewers won’t have had enough by the time this bloated affair reaches the five-hour plus mark. A&E’s transfer is sound, as is the 2.0 stereo sound. (Available Dec. 16)

MR. BEAN: THE ULTIMATE COLLECTION (aprx. 12 hours; A&E/Newvideo): If you’re looking for a stocking stuffer for the Rowan Atkinson fan in your life, this new A&E anthology basically includes it all: seven discs stuffed with three volumes of the entire, original “Mr. Bean” series; the theatrical “Bean: The Movie” and “Mr. Bean’s Holiday” affairs, plus nine episodes from the animated series, deleted scenes, a bonus documentary, several new-to-DVD sketches, Making Of featurettes, theatrical trailers and more. Housed in one of A&E’s trademark box-sets with slim line cases, this is a nicely-priced and appealing set for all Mr. Bean addicts, enabling them to have basically all of Atkinson’s original creation in one convenient package. (Available Dec. 16th)

NEXT TIME: The original DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL in HD and more! 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 and HAPPY THANKSGIVING!

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