12/19/06 Edition -- Holiday Buyer's Guide Part 1 Also Online

Holiday Buyer's Guide, Part 2
James Bond Returns In More ULTIMATE Editions
Plus: WORLD TRADE CENTER, Charlie Chan, Mission Impossible & More

No question, it’s a good time to be a James Bond afficionado.

Not only has the recent release of the tough, no-holds-barred Daniel Craig debut as Bond -- we’re speaking of “Casino Royale,” obviously -- been greeted with widespread critical acclaim, but the movie has taken off at the box-office in spite of a potential backlash from folks accustomed to the silly, effects-filled pratfalls of the Pierce Brosnan films.

On video, MGM and Fox released the first pair of “James Bond: Ultimate Edition” DVD anthologies last month, featuring 10 of the original Eon 007 adventures in sparkling new, frame-by-frame restored transfers from the wizards at Lowry Digital.

The Lowry transfers proved revelatory, especially on the early Sean Connery films which have been in need of restoration for seemingly ever. “Goldfinger” appeared more vibrant and colorful than it ever had before, making it a sight for sore eyes -- and nothing short of a breathtaking experience for anyone who wasn’t around, or didn’t have the opportunity, of seeing the film upon its original release in 1964.

Last week saw the release of the remaining Bonds in Volumes 3 and 4 of the JAMES BOND: ULTIMATE EDITION box-sets, and fans again ought to be thrilled by the new transfers and special features packed in each:

-Volume 3 includes an excellent assortment of 007s: the second Bond adventure, FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE (***½, 1963, 111 mins.), starring Sean Connery; George Lazenby’s first and only performance as Bond, ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE (****, 1969, 142 mins.), regarded by most fans as one of the series’ finest; two of Roger Moore’s best, LIVE AND LET DIE (***, 1973, 122 mins.) and FOR YOUR EYES ONLY (***, 128 mins., 1981); and GOLDENEYE (**, 1995, 130 mins.), the first of the Pierce Brosnan era Bonds, in what’s arguably the weakest of all the Lowry transfers for compositional reasons (read more below).

-Volume 4 wraps up the group with the inaugural James Bond film, DR. NO (****, 1962, 110 mins.), which has never looked better than it does here; the oft-parodied Bond, YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE (***, 117 mins., 1967); the silly, outrageous but somehow still entertaining MOONRAKER (**½, 1979, 121 mins.); the equally silly but more satisfying OCTOPUSSY (***½, 1983, 131 mins.), one of Roger Moore’s most enjoyable Bonds; and arguably the best of the Brosnan films, TOMORROW NEVER DIES (**½, 1997, 119 mins.), sporting a lean running time and quick pace, plus a fantastic closing song from David Arnold and Don Black, performed by k.d. lang.

As with the previous Lowry sets, the 16:9 transfers present these films as you’ve never seen them before, with “Dr. No” and “Live and Let Die” in particular looking so crystal clear they could have been made yesterday. Sadly, it does seem as if the framing on “Goldeneye” is a little “off,” with the colors stronger than the older MGM release but the picture visibly zoomed in on the left and right-hand edges when doing an A/B comparison. (Hopefully this may get corrected in a future pressing?).

On the audio side, the 5.1 DTS soundtracks have been carefully remixed and pack a potent punch, presenting many of these films as you’ve also never heard them before as well. On most of the films, the original mono/2.0 stereo track has also been included, but only the most die-hard purists will likely stick to the theatrical audio.

Special features have been reprieved from most of the prior MGM DVDs, with a few new added bonuses included:

-Ian Fleming interviews from the CBC and BBC’s “Desert Island Discs” on “From Russia, With Love”
-“On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” includes vintage promo films, a 1969 featurette, and a recent interview with George Lazenby
–Roger Moore commentary and the “lost” documentary “Bond 1973" on “Live and Let Die”
-Deleted scenes and Roger Moore commentary on “For Your Eyes Only”
-Deleted scenes and extensive featurettes on “Goldeneye”
-“Dr. No” contains a new restoration featurette, illustrating the Lowry process
-Vintage promo footage on “You Only Live Twice”
-Roger Moore commentary, vintage promos, and test footage on “Moonraker”
- James Brolin screen tests and interview, plus Roger Moore commentary and new featurettes, on “Octopussy” (you’ll never know how close we came to a Brolin Bond until you see this!)
-Deleted scenes and additional featurettes on “Tomorrow Never Dies” (note the isolated score track from the 2-disc Special Edition isn’t contained here)

Needless to say, the Lowry transfers (with the exception of “Goldeneye”), DTS soundtracks and new special features make these Bonds the definitive presentations of the Eon series and unquestionably recommended presents for any 007 fan on your Christmas list.

Also New From Fox: Box Sets, TV on DVD and More!

THE CHARLIE CHAN Collection, Volume 2 (Fox): Four more vintage Warner Oland performances as Earl Derr Biggers’ detective arrive on DVD after extensive restoration work courtesy of Fox. The 1936 release  “Charlie Chan at the Opera” offers Charlie going up against Boris Karloff in what’s regarded as one of the best series entries, with the DVD also containing a featurette on director H. Bruce Humberstone; “Charlie Chan at the Olympics” dates from 1937 and is complimented here by a featurette on Layne Tom, Jr.; “Charlie Chan At The Race Track” (1936) is supplemented by a look at the life of Keye Luke, Chan’s “Number One Son”; and the 1936 entry “Charlie Chan At the Circus” is topped off by a featurette examining the Fox Chan movies. Transfers are as crisp as can be anticipated given the age of the materials, and restoration featurettes are included on each disc. Highly recommended for Golden Age mystery enthusiasts!

STACKED: Complete Series (2005-06, 416 mins., Fox): Short-lived Fox sitcom starring Pamela Anderson as a party girl who starts working at a bookstore in order to reform her ways is, in more ways than one, a riff on the Parker Posey ‘90s indie semi-hit “Party Girl” -- just not as amusing. Still, Anderson is surrounded here by a solid supporting cast (including Christopher Lloyd) and critics didn’t totally dislike “Stacked,” which appeared on and off the Fox schedule for 14 episodes before being cancelled last season. Fox’s three-disc set includes five additional unaired shows, a decent amount of extras (including the obligatory blooper reel), 1.78 (16:9) widescreen transfers and 2.0 Dolby Digital sound.

THE SIMPSONS: Complete Season 9 (1997-98, 570 mins., Fox): Slowly but surely making their way through individual seasons of the animated perennial comes Fox’s latest DVD release of “The Simpsons.” Season Nine includes all 25 episodes from the series’ ‘97-‘98 season, full-screen transfers, commentaries on every episode, deleted scenes, sketches, and much more for the Homer fanatic thirsting for “The Simpsons Movie” and anything that could quench his/her thirst until it’s released next summer!

GARFIELD AND FRIENDS: Behind The Scenes (1989-94, 127 mins., Fox): Fox did a terrific job releasing the complete “Garfield and Friends” Saturday morning series on DVD, and this single-disc “Best Of” compilation offers over two hours of content culled from the program -- all selected by creator Jim Davis himself. Thus, this is a decent, low-cost primer for those who don’t have the shelf space (or funds) to afford the box-sets, but certainly not necessary if you already own them.

MATERIAL GIRLS (**, 98 mins., 2006, PG; MGM/Fox): Hilary and Haylie Duff team up for this innocuous, forgettable teen comedy about a pair of cosmetic heiresses whose lives take a tough turn after a product scandal bankrupts their fortune. Director Martha Coolidge has crafted some fine youth films in her time (“Real Genius,” “Valley Girl”), but this fluffy, formula teen comedy is not one of them. MGM’s DVD includes commentary from Coolidge and Making Of featurettes, plus both widescreen (2.35, 16:9) and full-screen transfers with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

THE SIMPLE LIFE 4: ‘Til Death Do Us Part (2006, 216 mins., Fox): Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie are back for another go-around of the decreasingly-popular reality comedy, this time with the girls opting to see who would make the better Martha Stewart. Do I need to tell you this one’s for fans only? In full-screen with 2.0 Dolby Surround stereo.

New From Paramount: HD-DVD, Mission Impossible & More!

WORLD TRADE CENTER: HD-DVD Edition (***½, 128 mins., 2006, PG-13; Paramount): Eschewing the flamboyant cinematic approach of his recent projects, director Oliver Stone’s chronicle of the harrowing rescue of two NYC Port Authority cops -- trapped in the rubble of the first tower’s collapse on 9/11 -- ranks as one of his most satisfying films.

Even though Nicholas Cage comes across as less than authentic as Sgt. John McLoughlin (with a garbled accent that sounds more Bostonian than New York), Stone manages to make you care about the struggles of McLoughlin and Will Jimeno (Michael Pena) as a group of emergency personnel and volunteers (including a marine played by Michael Shannon) try to find survivors in the wreckage. Back home, both men’s respective spouses (Maria Bello, Maggie Gyllenhaal) seek answers while the nightmarish scenario of 9/11 continues to play out on television screens around the world.

Going into both 9/11 films released in 2006 (Paul Greengrass’ fine “United 93" bowed in the spring), I have to admit I was less than compelled to see either picture -- particularly since numerous outstanding documentaries exist and the events of the day are still fresh in my mind. That said, I was surprised by the effectiveness of both pictures, particularly Stone’s piece, which looks authentic and benefits from strong cinematography by Seamus McGarvey and superb direction from its filmmaker, who concentrates on the lives of the two men -- framing it as just one example of survival and heroism on a dark day in American history.

Paramount’s HD-DVD presentation of “World Trade Center” contains a wide spectrum of colors and contrasts, handling every visual element of the film -- including the many dark, dimly lit sequences with its protagonists pinned in the rubble -- capably and commendably. The 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus sound is likewise enveloping on the audio side, offering numerous effects and a somber, effective Craig Armstrong score.

The special features are just as compelling as the film, for the real John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno participate in an hour-long documentary that recounts their actual trials and tribulations. As well as Stone is able to cinematically convey their plight, it cannot compare to hearing the men’s actual narrative of those bleak hours sandwiched in the mass of debris. Additional featurettes include a look at the making of the picture, its restrained visual effects, interviews with Stone, deleted scenes, and two commentaries: one with Stone and another with real-life 9/11 survivors Jimeno, Scott Strauss, John Busching, and Paddy McGee. Unquestionably recommended.

JACKASS NUMBER TWO: Unrated (**½, 93 mins., 2006, Unrated; Paramount): So-so sequel to the first theatrical “Jackass” (itself the big-screen spin-off of the raunchy MTV spills-n-thrills series) stars Johnny Knoxville, Bam Magera, and the rest of the crew (including director Spike Jonze, who dons the guise of an elderly woman with exposed, sagging breasts!) in more pranks and outrageous stunts. Some of the gags are decidedly clever, but more here are just plain gross compared to even the original film, making it best left for fans of the series. Paramount’s unrated DVD offers 16:9 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, additional segments that were left on the cutting room floor, outtakes, commentary and a Making Of. You have been warned!

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE: Complete Season 1 (1966-67, 28 Episodes, 24 hrs.; Paramount): All-time classic ‘60s spy series comes to DVD in an excellent, seven disc box set from Paramount. Season 1 of “Mission” stars Matin Landau, Barbara Bain, Steven Hill, Greg Morris, and Peter Lupus as the IMF team, who together protect the world from terrorists, corrupt dictators, politicians, and scientology. OK, just kidding -- but it’s great to see the original “Mission” back and in glorious, remastered transfers and 5.1 sound too...and not the one-man wrecking-crew vanity projects that the “Mission” theatrical films became under producer-star Tom Cruise. Paramount’s box-set doesn’t offer any special features but fans ought to be thrilled at least to see the first and best “Mission: Impossible” in its original, unexpurgated form on DVD at last.

THE LAST KISS (**, 2006, 103 mins., R, Dreamworks/Paramount): Zach Braff’s starring follow-up to his successful “Garden State” wasn’t written or directed by the young star, but rather scripted by Paul Haggis (based on an Italian film) and helmed by Tony Goldwyn. Perhaps Braff himself would have brought some freshness to this labored, contrived tale of a regular guy (Braff) who contemplates happiness at age 30 following a meeting with a younger girl (Rachel Bilson from “The O.C.”). Will Braff act on his instincts or will he grow up and marry fiancee Jacinda Barrett? Does anyone truly care? The believability factor is pretty low in “The Last Kiss,” which wastes supporting performances from Blythe Danner and Tom Wilkinson and never becomes as funny, moving or particularly insightful as it thinks it is. Dreamworks’ DVD includes a pair of commentaries, deleted scenes, a gag reel and more, plus a 16:9 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

New From Sony

TALLADEGA NIGHTS: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (*** Theatrical Cut, **½ Unrated Version, 2006, 121 mins. Unrated/108 mins. Theatrical; Sony): Here’s another case of more being less in terms of extended “Unrated” edition DVDs.

Last summer’s Will Ferrell box-office smash is a surprisingly funny chronicle of a champion NASCAR driver and his fall from grace, losing his wife (Leslie Bibb) to his best friend (John C. Reilly) and seeing his championships taken away by a fey Frenchman (Sacha Baron Cohen, who’s just as scene-stealing and hilarious here as he was in “Borat”), while Gary Cole is also hysterical as Ricky Bobby’s deadbeat dad.

The hit-to-miss gag ratio is on-target most of the time in this Adam McKay-directed romp (the director co-wrote the script with Ferrell), but the Unrated edition not only waters down the fun with 14 minutes of mostly needless, discarded scenes, but also strips away a few memorable gags from the theatrical cut in the process!

Sadly, Sony has only made the Unrated version available on DVD in Widescreen, with the Full-Screen versions (available separately) offering both the Unrated cut and the PG-13 theatrical edit (whatever happened to seamless branching?).

For supplements, more deleted scenes, interviews, gag reel footage and more are on-hand while the 16:9 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks are top-notch.

DREAMLAND (**½, 2006, PG-13; Sony): Well-acted little film about Audrey (Agnes Bruckner), a teen who lives in a New Mexico trailer park, where she cares for her troubled, alcoholic father (John Corbett). Audrey finds possible love with a newly-arrived athlete (Justin Long) while at the same time competing for his affections with her best friend (Kelli Garner), who’s also battling a debilitating disease. If “Dreamland” sounds “Lifetime Movie of the Week” fodder, you’re right on-target, but the performances and sincere direction by Jason Matzner make “Dreamland” better than you might anticipate, and the radiant Bruckner continues to be a star waiting to happen. Sony’s DVD offers only a 16:9 (1.85) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, sporting a score credited to “Photek” and Anthony Marianelli.

AND WITH THAT, MERRY CHRISTMAS EVERYONE! We'll be back next week with the final Aisle Seat of 2006, including a review of ROCKY BALBOA. Also, don't forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards and direct any emails to the link above

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