11/29/11 EditionTwitter @THEAISLESEATCOM

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Aisle Seat Holiday Rundown
From SCROOGE to SCROOGED, a Wrap-Up of Yuletide Offerings
Plus: Lifetime's Holiday DVD Collection
Leading off this year’s Aisle Seat rundown of holiday video offerings is SCROOGED (100 mins., 1988, PG-13; Paramount), Richard Donner’s 1988 modern riff on “A Christmas Carol” featuring Bill Murray’s turn as Frank Cross, a TV executive who’s also a contemporary “Scrooge” at the heart of this oft-discussed holiday perennial.

On the one hand, this expensive Paramount production, scripted by former SNL writers Mitch Glazer and Michael O’Donoghue, was something of a disappointment upon its initial release. Some critics thought that Murray’s character hadn’t truly earned his change of heart and that the film’s ending came off as cynical and hollow; viewers, meanwhile, perhaps expecting a laugh riot along the lines of “Ghostbusters,” only showed up in modest numbers, with the movie failing to become the box-office blockbuster the studio hoped. Making matters worse were various reports of friction on the set between Donner and Murray, with cinematographer Conrad Hall fired several days into filming and most of Danny Elfman’s score discarded in post-production (the composer himself lamented that the original concept of the film had changed in his booklet notes for “Music From a Darkened Theatre Vol. 1").

Even if “Scrooged” was a troubled production, and understandably feels like an uneven film as a result, it’s a picture that its admirers defend to this day. If nothing else, the movie does include a number of amusing touches – most involving TV executive Cross’ attempts at cynically milking Christmas in his holiday programming (Cross’ big prime-time special boasts Lee Majors basically playing “Rambo” in order to save Santa). The movie’s cast is strong, thanks mainly to Karen Allen and Alfre Woodard’s sincere performances, though some of the gags aren’t remotely funny (Carol Kane’s physically abusive Ghost of Christmas Past has long been a head-scratcher). For me “Scrooged” has always been something of a mixed bag, like a picture at war with itself (is it a spoofy, comedic take on Dickens or an honest, modern attempt at updating the story?), yet I can understand the nature of the film’s perennial appeal given how many “Christmas Carol” movies that run each and every holiday season. “Scrooged” may not entirely work, yet it’s irreverent and interesting enough to fit alongside the more standard adaptations of the material.

Paramount’s Blu-Ray edition of “Scrooged” looks tremendous. This is one of the studio’s finest catalog titles I’ve seen, with a natural AVC encoded 1080p transfer preserving the movie’s filmic appearance without heaping any noise reduction on top of it. The DTS MA soundtrack, featuring some of Elfman’s score and an up-tempo collection of pop tunes (including the memorable Al Green-Annie Lennox version of “Put a Little Love In Your Heart”), also fares well, and the trailer is included in HD. Well worth a purchase for fans of the film.

IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE Blu-Ray (1946, 130 mins., Paramount): The perennial Frank Capra drama (though I admit that it's not one of my favorites) returns to Blu-Ray in a new Special Edition from Paramount. Included are dual restored and colorized versions of the film, along with a Making Of narrated by Tom Bosley, the original trailer, and a tribute to Capra narrated by his son Frank Jr.

The 1080p transfer is remarkably clear and consistently devoid of DNR – deep contrasts and fine detail make for a truly pleasing image though the mono sound is nothing to write home about. The double-disc Blu-Ray is packaged here alongside a exclusive ornament suitable for hanging on the tree plus a commemorative booklet.

I’m more a fan of SCROOGE (114 mins., 1970, G; CBS), the delightful, beautifully designed adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” from screenwriter-composer Leslie Bricusse.

Bricusse's 1970 musical adaptation of "A Christmas Carol" is – along with the Alastair Sim and Muppets versions – my favorite adaptation of the Dickens classic. There's vivid Panavision cinematography from Oswald Morris; evocative production design by Terence Marsh; a tuneful score by Bricusse (including "December the 25th" and "Thank You Very Much"); and wonderful performances from Albert Finney as Scrooge, Alec Guinness as Marley, and Kenneth More and Edith Evans as two of the ghosts Scrooge encounters on that fateful Christmas Eve.

Few presentations of the story convey such a creepy atmosphere as well: the scenes prior to Scrooge's meeting with Marley look and feel like a legitimate ghost story, while the movie's superb special effects (particularly for their time) lend an able assist to the great cast and festive tone.

CBS has done a phenomenal job translating “Scrooge” to Blu-Ray, though the disc is missing the original Overture music. The AVC encoded 1080p transfer is the best- looking presentation of the movie I've ever seen – even besting the 2003 DVD release, which had been the gold standard for its time (previous video versions were dark, scanned and cropped, except for Fox's mid '90s laserdisc issue). A lively DTS MA soundtrack, meanwhile, does full justice to Bricusse's score and Ian Fraser's stirring arrangements.

Although the disc is devoid of any extras, the price and presentation (the Overture excepted) make this highly recommended, and a must for the upcoming holiday season!

THE NUTCRACKER: THE UNTOLD STORY Blu-Ray (**, 108 mins., 2010, PG; Universal): Unbelievably weird, expensive, barely-released film from Andrei Konchalovsky attempts to turn “The Nutcracker” into a magical fantasy vaguely set in WWII with Nazi overtones and songs by Tim Rice! If that sounds odd, it’s nothing compared to the finished film, which was buried by critics upon its scant release a year ago.

Universal has brought the $90 million-budgeted film to Blu-Ray this month in a quality AVC encoded 1080p transfer with DTS MA audio and one Making Of featurette that fails to examine why Konchalovsky thought adapting the story to an oppressive Nazi-like regime was a good idea. Elle Fanning does try hard here but it’s a thankless role in an almost inexplicably strange “family film” with Nathan Lane and John Turturro also appearing. Just...wow.

New From Warner

‘TWAS THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS Blu-Ray (24 mins., 1974; Warner). WHAT IT IS: Cute, though not classic, CBS animated special from Rankin/Bass adapts Clement Moore’s tome through the prism of a mouse family trying to figure out why letters to Santa are being returned to the children of Junctionville. Joel Grey narrates and performs some so-so Maury Laws/Jules Bass songs, with only sections of the material bringing Moore’s actual story to life. TECH SPECS: Warner has released “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” to Blu-Ray in the form of a remastered, perfectly acceptable 1080p transfer that’s in line with prior Rankin/Bass BD releases. Extras include an animated comic book “exploring yuletide traditions around the world” and a DVD in the combo pack package. AISLE SEAT MERRY BOTTOM LINE: I grew up on re-runs of this special but, truthfully, it’s not up there with other perennials like Charlie Brown or Rankin/Bass’ superior offerings. That said, this is still a pleasant special that family audiences should enjoy – it’s just unfortunate more material wasn’t included here, as the 24-minute special is fairly slender in its overall entertainment value.

Also new from Warner just in time for the holidays is a DVD of FROSTY’S WINTER WONDERLAND (24 mins., 1976), a follow-up to Rankin/Bass’ earlier animated special with Jackie Vernon as the voice of America’s favorite holiday snowman (not sure who else was in the running, though) and Shelley Winters putting in an appearance as Frosty’s female squeeze. Like “‘Twas the Night...” this isn’t a particularly memorable special, but Rankin/Bass fans still ought to enjoy this remastered edition which includes a satisfying full-screen transfer, mono soundtrack, and a look at Frosty’s history.

HAPPINESS IS... PEANUTS: SNOW DAYS is the latest DVD compilation of previously unreleased material from the Peanuts vault. The main draw here is the 1980 special “She’s a Good Skate, Charlie Brown,” which aired around the time of the Lake Placid games and finds Peppermint Patty training for a figure skating competition. This is a pleasant show with a nice score by Judy Munsen, and is complimented in Warner’s DVD with three episodes from the early ‘80s CBS Saturday morning series “The Charlie Brown & Snoopy Show” (“The Play,” “Sweet Babboo!” and “Snoopy’s Story”).

THE SMURFS: HOLIDAY CELEBRATION (48 mins.), meanwhile, includes two animated prime-time NBC specials starring Peyo’s beloved characters, who hit the big-time with the surprisingly successful “Smurfs” movie this past summer (over $500 million internationally at the box-office). “Tis the Season to be Smurfy” finds young Sassette Smurf finding out about the true meaning of the season, while the more action-oriented “The Smurfs Christmas Special” includes the destruction of the Smurfs’ village at the hands of the dastardly wizard Gargamel, who learns the hard way that nothing can stop the Smurfs’ Christmas celebration.

Lifetime Christmas DVDs

Cable channel Lifetime is always a popular destination if you’re searching for feel-good yuletide fare, and this year NewVideo has released a dozen of the network’s more popular TV-movies on DVD. Here’s a look:

THE ROAD TO CHRISTMAS (2005)/RECIPE FOR A PERFECT CHRISTMAS (2006): Jennifer Grey hitches up with future SHIELD agent Clark Gregg in the pleasant “Road to Christmas” while Carly Pope (from Ryan Murphy’s short-lived but fondly remembered WB series “Popular”) deals with cantankerous mom Christine Baranski – while falling for restaurant owner Bobby Canavale – in “Recipe for a Perfect Christmas.”

HIS & HER CHRISTMAS (2005)/WILL YOU MERRY ME? (2008): In ‘His & Her Christmas,” small-town newspaper scribes Dina Meyer and David Sutcliffe find themselves penning dueling columns but later falling in love; “Will You Merry Me?,” meanwhile, offers a profile of young couple Vikki Krinsky and Tommy Lioutas getting engaged but having to deal with their respective families and their own religious traditions.

A CHRISTMAS WEDDING (2006): Sarah Paulson plans the “perfect wedding” but hubby-to-be Eric Maibus has to put it together in this romantic-comedy offering from 2006.

UNDER THE MISTLETOE (2006): Jaime Ray Newman plays a single mom whose precocious eight-year-old ends up landing her a suitor just in time for Christmas in this 2006 effort with Michael Shanks and Conan Graham.

HOLIDAY WISHES (2006): “Buffy” alumnus Amber Benson plays a professional party planner in this Canadian lensed tale of two kids who switch bodies and realize how hard it is to live in each other’s shoes.

CHRISTMAS IN PARADISE (2007)/DECK THE HALLS (2005): Double-feature pairs Charlotte Ross and Colin Ferguson as recently single parents of teen children who find love while vacationing in the Caribbean; “Deck the Halls” offers “90210" star Gabrielle Carteris as a single mom whose son tries to set her up with their new neighbor (Steve Bacic), who just might be Santa himself.

A VERY MERRY DAUGHTER OF THE BRIDE (2008): Rom-com with a yuletide feel stars Joanna Garcia as a wedding planner who disapproves of her widowed mother’s new romance; she ends up enlisting the help of the groom’s son (Luke Perry) to prevent it in this 2008 Lifetime film.

HOME BY CHRISTMAS (2006)/HOLIDAY SWITCH (2006): Linda Hamilton toplines the inspirational “Home by Christmas” while Nicole Eggert stars in the quite entertaining 2006 offering “Holiday Switch.”

More Holiday Treats on DVD

PREP & LANDING DVD (22 mins., 2009; Disney): Adorably cute 2010 animated special produced by Disney finds a down-on-his-luck elf named Wayne (voice of Dave Foley), in the dumps after being passed over for a promotion, who partners with happy-go-lucky Lanny (voice of Derek Richardson) as part of the elite elf unit “Prep & Landing.” After a snowstorm and other obstacles create issues for Santa’s Christmas sleigh run, it’s up to Wayne and Lanny to save the day. “Prep & Landing” won an Emmy last year for Outstanding Animated Program and it’s easy to see why critics enjoyed it – the colorful animation, amusing writing and character design make for a splendid special perfect for both kids and adults alike. Disney’s DVD boasts a 16:9 (1.78) transfer, 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack, two bonus shorts, several Elf Training videos, North Pole commercials and a North Pole newsreel for good measure.

LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE: Seasons 1-9 DVD (Lionsgate). WHAT IT IS: Michael Landon’s beloved, long-running NBC family drama – a free adaptation of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books – is back on DVD in a mammoth box-set from Lionsgate. Each season of “Little House” is presented alongside countless commentaries and behind-the-scenes extras, though several of the later TV-movies are not offered here. Transfers are a definite mixed bag as well, with some of the early seasons seemingly derived from PAL masters. AISLE SEAT MERRY BOTTOM LINE: “Little House” fans would do well to check out this heavy box-set that pays proper respect to one of the more memorable TV shows of its era. Recommended!

CLIFFORD THE BIG RED DOG: BIG BIG COLLECTION (Lionsgate): Parents looking for low-priced DVD collections for their children would fare well with two new Lionsgate box-sets coming out on December 6th.

“Clifford the Big Red Dog: Big Big Collection” includes six DVDs: Playtime with Clifford, Happy Birthday! Clifford, Clifford’s Schoolhouse, Doghouse Adventures, The New Baby on the Block, and Growing Up with Clifford, offering over 50 stories from the beloved PBS animated series in all.

The “Care Bears Super Cuddly Collection” also includes six DVDs: Cheer, There & Everywhere; Helping Hearts; Flower Power; Tell-Tale Tummies and Bear Buddies, along with the “Care Bears to the Rescue Movie.”

While all the DVDs have been released previously, the low price (under $30) and convenient packaging makes these an easy recommend for kids who enjoy either show.

THE LITTLEST ANGEL (83 mins., 2011; Anchor Bay): One of the highest-selling children’s books of all time, this CGI-rendered feature brings Charles Tazewell’s story to the screen in a Korean-animated offering sporting the voice of Ron Perlman as God. Anchor Bay’s DVD includes a 16:9 transfer and 5.1 soundtrack.

NEXT TIME: December titles! 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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