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The APES Rise On Blu-Ray
It seems like Hollywood’s major offerings this year have basically fallen into several camps: sequels, super-hero films, kid-pics and raunchy R-rated comedies stockpiled with bodily fluid jokes. That roster hasn’t made for a memorable year at the movies – and in fact this holiday season’s box-office has slumped to embarrassing levels – yet one film this year embraced its heritage and utilized modern technology to produce a fresh take on familiar material.

That film was Fox’s surprisingly terrific RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (****, 105 mins., PG-13), a movie that at one time sounded like a bad joke – perhaps understandably given its premise of “James Franco starring with CGI monkeys” and a series still trying to shake off the general disappointment that greeted Tim Burton’s quirky but uneven semi-homage of a decade ago.

This genuine reworking of the franchise does what Burton’s remake failed to accomplish: take the series’ original concept, alter it for modern sensibilities, update it with cutting-edge special effects and infuse it with an emotional range no prior “Apes” film offered beyond the ‘68 original. Briskly paced at barely 90-minutes plus (minus its lengthy end credits), exciting and decidedly different than its predecessors, “Rise” isn’t just the surprise film of the season but one of the best films of 2011 altogether.

Franco plays a genetic scientist trying to find a cure for Alzheimer's (he’s personally invested because his father, played by John Lithgow, suffers from it), and thinks he’s found it after testing on a primate named Bright Eyes who shows enhanced intelligence. Unfortunately the ape goes berserk in front of the corporate board members funding the research, leaving Franco to reluctantly take home her infant after his boss tells him to euthanize all the remaining chimps.

The baby simian, who Lithgow names Caesar, displays the same level of intelligence as his late parent, but as he grows, Caesar becomes aware that he’s not like the humans who raised him. After Lithgow ends up in a confrontation with a hothead neighbor, Caesar rushes to his defense and is subsequently forced to live in a primate facility overseen by Brian Cox and his unsympathetic, cruel assistant (Tom Felton from the “Harry Potter” films). Caesar also doesn’t get along with his fellow apes at first, but soon learns to turn the tables on his captors...

Rupert Wyatt, a British director with only a couple of credits behind him, helmed “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa penned the movie’s screenplay. All of them, along with WETA Digital which produced the special effects and Andy Serkis who performed Caesar in motion-capture form, deserve an enormous amount of credit for making one of the best science-fiction films in recent memory. Serkis’ articulation as Caesar is moving and sympathetic, enhanced by a photo-realistic design of the primates that could’ve never been duplicated by having men in monkey suits act out these particular roles.

The film taps into modern science and establishes a Frankenstein-like premise, yet never becomes preachy; it chronicles Caesar’s rebellion and cruel treatment at the hands of Cox and Felton, but refrains from becoming overly violent or depressing; it culminates in a big action climax (one of the finest set-pieces I’ve seen on-screen in years), but accentuates character development – especially Caesar’s relationship with his fellow apes – instead of just a litany of haphazardly edited action scenes like most modern blockbusters. This refreshing tone carries the picture through its lean running time splendidly, and the ending is a big surprise as well – instead of being foreboding and downbeat, it’s inspiring and downright poignant, two feelings none of its series predecessors instilled in viewers.

Fans of the old films will enjoy the mostly subtle references to the originals (from character names to quick on-screen allusions), but the filmmakers wisely follow the reprise of one of Charlton Heston’s legendary lines with a big dramatic moment that’s tremendously well executed. Patrick Doyle’s score lacks the primal, percussive drive of Danny Elfman’s 2001 soundtrack, yet still works well, particularly in its concluding moments.

“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is by far the best of all of the recent remakes/reboots/reimaginings Hollywood has thrown our way, and sets the stage for a series of movies free to tell its own story instead of merely recycling what’s come before it. Regardless of what’s to come, this is likely to be the one film from the summer of ‘11 fans will still be talking about years from now.

Now available on Blu-Ray, Fox’s high-def package of the nifty new “Apes” includes a terrific AVC encoded transfer and DTS MA soundtrack, along with a pair of interesting commentary tracks: one from director Wyatt and another featuring the writers, who attribute the film’s surprising conclusion and tonal shift from the dark and depressing to the director. According to those who read an early draft of the picture’s script, it’s worth noting that the collaboration of the filmmakers with Serkis, the cast and effects team resulted in something more substantial than the more depressing, and predictable, script that the picture had in its initial stages.

Additional extras include 12 minutes of deleted scenes that were (for the most part) wisely dropped, and several featurettes showing the film in production with ample footage of Serkis on set (there are also multi-angle extras allowing you to glimpse the film in motion at various stages of its production). Watching Serkis fully deliver a performance in his CGI suit is utterly fascinating and adds fuel to the studio’s Oscar campaign which is hoping to be the first to nab an actor a nomination for delivering a computer-rendered performance.

Also New on Blu-Ray

A DOLPHIN TALE Blu-Ray/DVD/Ultraviolet Copy (***, 113 mins., 2011, PG; Warner): It seems as if a new family movie was released every other week in 2011, with many of them being of the dime-a-dozen, animated 3-D variety that would entertain kids while punishing their parents hoping for something more.

“A Dolphin Tale” was one of the exceptions to the rule: yes, unnecessarily converted to 3-D for its theatrical run, but nevertheless a sincere, thoroughly appealing dramatization of a real-life event where a young dolphin that had lost its tale was rehabbed back to health thanks to a Florida marine hospital and an astute engineer who designed a prosthetic tale for the mammal.

This Alcon Entertainment production takes numerous liberties with the real-life story, but that’s to be expected as it charts how young Nathan Gamble finds the young dolphin – whom he names Winter – washed up on a beach. Thanks to his efforts, Winter finds herself in the care of marine biologist Harry Connick, Jr., who tries to nurse her back to health in spite of her having lost her tail and associated functions. Things, ultimately, look grim, until Gamble tries to convince a prosthetist (Morgan Freeman) to design a tale for Winter.

Karen Janszen and Noam Dromi’s screenplay stuffs a fair amount of side plots into its  compelling premise, from the injuries of Gamble’s cousin sustained from a tour of duty overseas, to his single mom Naomi Judd’s efforts to convince Gamble’s teacher that he’s learning more working for the marine hospital than he is struggling at school. All the while, budget cutbacks and a hurricane threaten the future of Connick’s marine park.

Even if the story seems unnecessary cluttered at times, “A Dolphin Tale” works when it sticks to the water and the lovable Winter, who plays herself quite convincingly here. The performances of Gamble and young Cozi Zuehlsdorff (as Connick’s daughter) come across as natural and likeable, with credit going out to director Charles Martin Smith for juggling the film’s different subplots and conveying its emotional messages effectively. Mark Isham’s score and Karl Walter Lindenlaub’s cinematography lend the film a  professional gloss, and the picture concludes with a wonderful montage of Winter’s real-life rehab with the marine biologists who helped save her life – it’s an end credits sequence that’s certainly worth sticking around for.

Warner’s Blu-Ray edition of “A Dolphin Tale” looks just fantastic with its bright, 1080p transfer and DTS MA soundtrack. In addition to an Ultraviolet digital copy and a standard DVD edition, the BD combo pack includes a number of extras including behind-the-scenes featurettes, a look at Winter’s home at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, two bonus animated shorts, an additional scene and a gag reel. Well worth seeing for viewers of all ages.

FINAL DESTINATION 5 Blu-Ray/DVD/Ultraviolet Copy (**, 92 mins., 2011, R; Warner): So much for 2010's “The Final Destination” being the end of the line for New Line’s teen-oriented, R-rated horror series, which dispensed with any pretense of doing something different and went right back to numerical titles with last summer’s straightforward, you-know-what-you’re-gonna-get “Final Destination 5.”

This latest entry doesn’t do anything different than its predecessors, though since it was designed expressly for 3-D exhibitions, some of the special effects look a bit silly without the third dimension. The plot is standard-issue fare as Nicholas D’Agosto, thanks to a premonition, saves his fellow co-workers from a grizzly demise on a suspension bridge that collapses. Unfortunately for him and his bland co-stars, however, death soon comes calling, picking them off one by one in a number of ridiculous sequences that basically resemble any number of deaths in the “Omen” series minus Damien’s involvement.

“Final Destination 5" knows exactly who its audience is, and serves up a watchable yet uninspired affair that, for whatever reason, seemed to generate better reviews than some of its predecessors. Aside from Tony Todd showing up in a couple of sequences and David Koechner providing some comedic relief, the movie is push-button filmmaking that fulfills the interests of the “core demographic” and little more.

Warner’s Blu-Ray edition of “Final Destination 5" looks fine in its 1080p transfer, though minus 3-D some of the effects, as I mentioned before, aren’t nearly as effective as they would have been, and the transfer itself often seems overly “digital”. The DTS MA sound includes a competent Brian Tyler score and extras including a DVD, Ultraviolet digital copy, alternate death scenes, two effects split-screen features (for the airplane crash and collapsing bridge sequences), and a “Circle of Death: Your Final Destination” feature.

COLOMBIANA Blu-Ray (**½, 112 mins., 2011, Unrated; Sony): If this sleek new Luc Besson production feels like it could have been a sequel to “Leon: The Professional,” that’s because this was – at one time – apparently the follow-up Besson and co-writer Robert Mark Kamen wrote to the Jean Reno-Natalie Portman cult favorite.

For a variety of reasons that proposed sequel never happened, but it did morph – at least sections of it – into “Colombiana,” a routine if competently-told account of a young Colombian girl who swears revenge after her parents are murdered by a local mob boss. Seeking vengeance, the now-grown Cataleya (Zoe Saldana) lives in Chicago working for her Uncle Emilio (Cliff Curtis) while offing members of the gang that killed her parents in her spare time.

If you’ve seen any of Besson’s B-grade Euro thrillers, you’ll know what to expect in “Colombiana,” which gives the gorgeous Saldana a perfect excuse to run around in sleek outfits taking down gangsters in any number of preposterous scenarios. Besson’s cohort Olivier Megaton directs the film in a completely expected visual fashion, but does incorporate more character development than usual, along with a quite good opening 20 minutes involving the young Cataleya that’s actually more involving than the rest of the film.

Sony’s Blu-Ray of “Colombiana” looks absolutely spectacular. A level of fine grain and deep colors makes for one of the best looking Blu-Rays I’ve seen this year, while DTS MA audio and a few extras (one Making Of featurette and three BD-exclusive featurettes) cap off the Unrated disc, which also comes with an Ultraviolet digital copy.

DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK Blu-Ray (**½, 99 mins., 2011, R; Sony): Guillermo Del Toro-produced remake of the fondly remembered ‘70s TV Movie of the Week starring Kim Darby has some effective moments but never quite gets its act together.

Guy Pearce plays an architect restoring his gothic Rhode Island estate along with artist girlfriend Katie Holmes and young daughter Bailee Madison, whom he inherits from his ex-wife. The home is creepy and dark and, as Madison finds out, filled with whispering, ethereal words that emanate through its hallways and corridors from mysterious creatures that lurk in the shadows. Madison, seeking solace from both Pearce and Holmes, investigates and finds that the creatures live in the basement, and once she unlocks them from their long-dormant hiding place, unwittingly unleashes them on her family.

“Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” had one of the more effective trailers in recent memory, but the resulting film is much more of a straightforward monster movie than a truly terrifying piece of horror filmmaking. In fact, the film plays like a PG-13 picture aimed at younger viewers that was just a little too intense for the MPAA – the result is an R-rated film in rating only, since very little of the picture is likely to give older viewers the shivers.

That leaves the film a good-looking and certainly well-acted piece (Holmes has actually seldom been better than here) that bears Del Toro’s mark of quality in terms of its production design and associated trappings, but in making the creatures visually known even in its early stages, the film lacks suspense and terror. Del Toro and Matthew Robbins’ screenplay (adapted from Nigel McKeand’s original teleplay) also expands upon its predecessor’s story line and gives more of a rationale for the creatures’ origins, yet it’s something that doesn’t add any additional weight to the material. The straightforward, humorless tone doesn’t help either – one sequence, where Madison tries to grab a photograph that proves of the creatures’ existence from one of the little terrors underneath the dining room table (during one of Pearce’s dinner parties!), almost has a Joe Dante-type of feel, but even there, the scene could’ve been more playfully executed on the part of director Troy Nixey.

Another terrific Sony release, “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” boasts a beautiful 1080p AVC encoded transfer with gorgeous detail. The DTS MA soundtrack is frequently active while extras include a three-part Making Of documentary and an Ultraviolet digital copy.

STRAW DOGS Blu-Ray (**, 109 mins., 2011, R; Sony): Director Rod Lurie and a good cast slum their way through this unnecessary remake of the Sam Peckinpah-Dustin Hoffman cult favorite, wherein meekly academic Hoffman overcame his cowardly persona and exacted revenge on a group of sadistic Brit hooligans who tormented him and his nubile young wife (Susan George).

The 2011 “Straw Dogs” changes the storyline to the American south and puts James Marsden into Hoffman’s shoes as a northeast preppie who returns to wife Kate Bosworth’s southern home, wherein barbeques, hunting, football and church services rule the day. Unfortunately, Bosworth’s childhood friends have grown into a group of good o’l boys who really aren’t good at all, and ultimately verbally, psychologically and later physically abuse the couple.

Lurie does a sturdy, competent job behind the lens, and the first hour of “Straw Dogs” is a quite watchable slow burn, setting the viewer up for the violent confrontations of its second half. However, whether it’s because viewers know the story and/or its inherent shock value has been diminished over time, the remake’s second hour sputters, with Marsden and Bosworth unrealistically taking too much abuse from their tormentors before turning the tables (the updated setting also makes the whole situation feel a lot less believable as well), while there’s no sense of catharsis for the couple when all is said and done. In the end, the 2011 “Straw Dogs” is a soulless, hollow enterprise for nearly all involved.

Sony’s Blu-Ray of “Straw Dogs” includes commentary from Lurie and four featurettes that profile the production. The 1080p transfer is quite excellent and the DTS MA soundtrack features a surprisingly good, old-fashioned orchestral score by Larry Groupe.

APOLLO 18 Blu-Ray (*, 87 mins., 2011, PG-13; Anchor Bay): Woeful horror quickie must have gotten produced on the basis of its interesting premise – that an unofficial NASA mission to the moon in 1974 resulted in contact with alien life – and with Timur Bekamambetov on board as producer.

Outside of a few minutes at the start of “Apollo 18" where viewers are treated to recreations of behind-the-scenes NASA footage from the era, this late-summer, low-budget Dimension Films production plays like a pedestrian, “Blair Witch”-like wannabe. Brian Miller’s script offers two astronauts finding out the hard way that “moon rocks” really house a spider-like alien lifeform that’s already wiped out a Russian mission to the moon. After inadvertently touching them, one of the astronauts gets infected while the other tries to get back home...and that’s pretty much all there is.

Very little of “Apollo 18" is compelling – neither its characters, its settings, or even the aliens once they’re shown offer anything more than standard-issue thrills, while none of the performances is interesting either. Perhaps tellingly, Gonzalo Lopez Gallego’s film was edited by Patrick Lussier – a vet of numerous past B-grade Dimension horror flicks – but outside of a brief running time this misfire leaves you with little to be thankful for.

Anchor Bay brings “Apollo 18" to Blu-Ray this month in a BD/DVD combo pack. The HD transfer is okay but since the film is meant to look intentionally like banged-up old footage from the NASA archives, it’s not a title that takes great advantage of high-def. Extras include a commentary track with the director and editor, deleted/alternate scenes and a slew of alternate endings (more like alternate demises, none of which are any more satisfying than the released version).
POINT BLANK Blu-Ray (***, 84 mins., 2011, R; Magnolia): Short but exciting, briskly paced 84-minute thriller from French director Fred Cavaye finds the wife of a nurse’s aide (Gilles Lellouche) kidnapped by a ruthless gang that wants their comatose leader let out of the hospital Lellouche is working in. In order to save her, he has to smuggle the villain out, then literally run through the streets of Paris doing the mobster’s bidding, including engaging with rival gangs and warring police factions. Cavaye’s pacing is frantic and the film barely pauses to take a breath – it’s all about capturing Lellouche’s plight in the moment, and as such, the film offers a simplistic yet entertaining ride that’s worth a look for action fans. Magnolia’s Blu-Ray boasts a strong 1080p transfer with DTS MA audio, a behind the scenes doc and the trailer.

Also new from Magnolia is BLACKTHORN (102 mins., 2010, R), an old-fashioned western starring Sam Shepard as Butch Cassidy, who here didn’t perish during Butch & Sundace’s encounter with the Bolivian military but rather lived for another couple of decades, pining all the while to return to the U.S. This Spanish/U.S. co-production is beautifully shot by Juan Ruiz Anchia and directed by Mateo Gil, though it’s cluttered with some unnecessary characters who detract from Shepard’s strong central performance. Uneven, yet worthwhile viewing for western buffs in HD with Magnolia’s Blu-Ray including a dynamic 1080p transfer, DTS MA soundtrack, deleted scenes, two featurettes and the trailer.

WARRIOR Blu-Ray (***, 140 mins., 2011, PG-13; Lionsgate): Overlong but well-performed sports-movie drama from director/co-writer Gavin O’Connor (“Miracle”) applies the “Rocky” formula to the increasingly popular world of mixed-martial arts (MMA). Estranged, and down-trodden, brothers Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton find themselves both trying to win the same MMA tournament in a fairly predictable film that’s nevertheless compelling due to its performances (Jennifer Morrison offers strong support as Edgerton’s wife) and authentic feel. While O’Connor stretches the material out to a bloated running time, it’s hard not to feel moved by the time “Warrior” concludes with an expectedly rousing finish. Not the box-office success Lionsgate was hoping for (in spite of generally enthusiastic reviews), “Warrior” hits Blu-Ray in a good-looking 1080p AVC encoded transfer with DTS MA audio and a number of extras. Supplements here include a commentary from O’Connor, Edgerton and others; one deleted scene; a gag reel; a documentary and additional Making Of featurettes. The title is also being released on Video on Demand and Digital Download.

THE EXPENDABLES Director’s Cut Blu-Ray/Digital Copy (***, 115 mins., 2010, R; Lionsgate): Critics were divided over Sylvester Stallone’s ‘80s action-throwback, but audiences mostly enjoyed the film, generating a $100-mil plus domestic box-office performance and a sequel (that’ll hopefully be “bigger and better”) due out next summer.

It’s certainly a more lighthearted romp than Sly’s effective but ultra-violent “Rambo” revisit, with Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Terry Crews, Randy Couture and Mickey Rourke comprising a team of mercenaries hired by shady Bruce Willis to dispose of a ruthless South American dictator. Stallone and Dave Callaham’s script is just an excuse for the boys to blow lots of things up, generate a few laughs and leave as many dead bodies in their wake as possible, but the fun is how disarming “The Expendables” is – from the much-discussed cameo scene for Schwarzenegger and Willis (complete with a hilarious punch line), to Statham and Stallone’s air-assault on the island (the film’s most memorable set-piece), this is just hugely entertaining for genre addicts, even if Sly the director’s shaky-cam threatens to ruin a car-chase sequence.

The performances are all appropriately laid-back – Sly generating good chemistry with both Statham and the film’s female lead, lovely Mexican actress Giselle Itié, whose role might have ended up partially on the cutting room floor (like “Rambo,” perhaps a casualty of editing for the young male demographic Lionsgate covets), while a Lundgren-Li brawl ends up being particularly amusing.

It’s nothing extraordinary, and may not resemble the epic Stallone-Schwarzenegger team-up fans have been clamoring for, but “The Expendables” is definitely entertaining, throwback fun for action fans, and a film that’s been improved, at least on balance, in Stallone’s new Director’s Cut.

Lionsgate’s BD offers Sly’s longer edit of the film, which reworks some of the music (including removing Brian Tyler’s score for the climactic shoot-out in place of a driving rock song that was written for the film by the group Shinedown) and adds about 13 minutes of footage back into the picture, allowing for more character-driven beats. In an introduction to this new cut, Stallone says this is the version of the film that adheres more closely to his original screenplay, and the film – though still not flawless by any means – is at least somewhat enhanced by the alterations (I’m personally less satisfied with the musical changes than the added footage).

For extras, the BD includes a digital copy plus a Spike TV special, the same 90-minute Making Of from the prior release, a Stallone featurette, and a music video. The 1080p transfer and DTS MA soundtrack are both excellent.    

UNDERWORLD TRILOGY: Essential Collection Blu-Ray (Sony): Just in time for the release of another sequel, Sony has packaged the three existing “Underworld” films on Blu-Ray in a trilogy box that also includes a trio of “Underworld” anime shorts being released for the first time plus an Ultraviolet digital copy. Here’s a rundown:

UNDERWORLD: Unrated Cut (**½,  2003, 123 mins., NR; Sony): Ridiculous, humorless, yet stylish genre potpourri crosses "Highlander" with "The Crow," adds in a dash of vampire and werewolf action, and does a poor job developing characters for a movie that runs a full two hours.

All that being said, though, the central story in Len Wiseman's hit 2003 film is an intriguing one: in a nondescript, towering city, a centuries-old war is being waged by aristocratic vampires and street-savvy "Lycans," whom the legions of the undead want to extinguish from the world as we know it. Humans rarely interact with either species, which is why vampire huntress Kate Beckinsale finds it odd that one of the last Lycan mobs is targeting a human hospital internist (Scott Speedman).

Screenwriter Danny McBride weaves a compelling story of an ages-old conflict between warring supernatural forces, yet one wishes that the relationships between the protagonists -- especially the "forbidden bond" between Beckinsale and Speedman -- had been elaborated upon. The society the vampires have established for themselves is intriguing as well (particularly in its contrast with the Lycan world), yet the movie frustratingly never indulges us in anything more than what feels like an outline of a full- blooded story.

Columbia TriStar's Blu Ray edition of “Underworld” is basically a high-definition reprise of the studio’s earlier “Extended Cut” double-disc DVD set. It offers an alternate version of the film (not a "Director's Cut" according to Wiseman) that boasts over 20 minutes of restored and/or re-cut footage (the running time is 13 minutes longer than the theatrical cut). Generally, this cut does improve on the original version, thanks to added character bits and scene extensions, all helping to make the film flow more smoothly overall. The disc includes a newer commentary track with Wiseman, Beckinsale, and Speedman (the latter for a few minutes, at least). Discarding the original DVD's commentaries, this new track is unfortunately a bit too jokey at times for its own good, but there's enough information here to please fans.

Other Blu Ray extras include a 47-minute cable documentary, "Fang Vs. Fiction," which attempts to chronicle the origins of the vampire and werewolf myths and how they've been modernized on the big-screen; a reel of outtake bloopers; plus visual effects and production design featurettes. Carried over from the very first DVD release are "The Making of 'Underworld'" and other featurettes on the creature effects, stunts, sound design, storyboards and a music video.

Where the disc obviously shines is in its audio/visual presentation. This “Underworld” boasts an uncompressed PCM soundtrack and a marvelous HD 1080p transfer (AVC encoded) that packs a wallop; each and every frame boasts perfectly-pitched black levels and details that were lost on previous standard-definition versions.

UNDERWORLD: EVOLUTION (**½, 106 mins., 2006, R; Sony): Continuation of the vampires vs. werewolves saga offers more of the same -- which isn’t necessarily a bad thing if you found the original sufficiently engaging. Kate Beckinsale again looks radiant as the vampire warrior Selene, who along with vamp-wolf hybrid Scott Speedman attempts to track down the history of her race and the betrayal by those she was once faithful to. Director Len Wiseman amps up the action and pacing in this lean, stylish assemblage of effects and over-stuffed genre lore, making it a recommended view for fans of the original, though the plot remains deadly serious and grows increasingly silly as it goes along (and along similar lines, if you found the first film loud and obnoxious, you’re likely to have the same view of this sequel). Sony’s single-disc Special Edition Blu-Ray includes a good amount of featurettes, including commentary and even a look at the music (a portion of which is devoted to Marco Beltrami’s orchestral score). The BD again includes a solid 1080p transfer with uncompressed PCM audio.

UNDERWORLD: RISE OF THE LYCANS (*½, 92 mins., 2009, R; Sony): Maybe it’s because Kate Beckinsale isn’t running around...check that, it IS partially because of Beckinsale’s absence that this tedious prequel to the events seen in Len Wiseman’s big, goofy “Underworld” films just seems to be missing a certain something.

Granted, fill-in heroine Rhona Mitra is always easy on the eyes, but “Rise of the Lycans” feels awfully tired as it chronicles the backstory of the Lycan movement (as embodied by their eventual leader Lucian, again played by Michael Sheen) and its relationship with the vampiric “Death Dealers,” led again by the villainous Viktor (Bill Nighy). Mitra’s character Sonja is a vampire but she’s secretly in love with Lucien, leading to some brief love scenes and a lot more talk than action in the script credited to original writer Danny McBride, Dirk Blackman and Howard McCain (from a story by McBride and Wiseman).

Effects-meister Patrick Tatopolous directed (and again created the creature F/X) for “Rise of the Lycans,” which boasts a quality production with most of the same creative talent behind the scenes from its predecessors, and yet I was never engaged by the movie, which tellingly feels a lot longer than it actually is. Die-hard “Underworld” fans might still generate some excitement from it, but most viewers are likely to pass it by without a second glance -- and understandably so (surely one reason why Beckinsale was brought back for the forthcoming “Underworld: Awakening”).

Sony’s Blu-Ray disc looks a little grainy here and there, but that’s likely a result of the movie’s low-light, dark hued cinematography. The Dolby TrueHD audio throbs with another score by Paul Haslinger and an endless assault of sound effects, while extras include a commentary track by numerous members of the creative team, a few Making Of featurettes, a BD exclusive picture-in-picture track and BD Live bonuses as well.

STARS AND STRIPES FOREVER Blu-Ray/DVD (***, 90 mins., 1952; Fox): Glossy Hollywoodization of the life and times of American composer and march king John Philip Sousa surprisingly arrives on Blu-Ray and DVD for the first time in the kind of terrific Special Edition Fox once routinely released on disc. The movie’s 1.37 full-screen transfer is stronger than the okay but not spectacular mono soundtrack, while extras include a pair of featurettes, all kinds of still galleries and the original trailer. “Stars and Stripes Forever” offers some great music, an appealing Clifton Webb lead performance and an apparently much-fictionalized account of Sousa’s life, but it’s perfectly entertaining for the ‘50s studio production that it is, and if nothing else is a welcome addition to the format’s catalog library.

FUTURAMA: Volume 6 Blu-Ray (2011; Fox): Matt Groening’s cult comedy hits Blu-Ray again in a two-disc set offering 13 new episodes in AVC encoded 1.78 transfers, 5.1 DTS MA soundtracks and with plenty of extras: commentary on every episode, deleted scenes, BD Live extras, two featurettes and a F.A.Q.

New Criterion Titles

An Ernst Lubitsch classic and a pair of Seijun Suzuki films caps Criterion’s superb year of Blu-Ray titles.

Colorful cinematography stamps TOKYO DRIFTER (82 mins., 1966) as of Suzuki’s more eclectic offerings, a film that only could have been produced during the 1960s and which takes a page out of numerous films of the era, from the Bond movies to the glitzy comic-book trappings of pictures like “Danger: Diabolik.” The plot – a muddled mess involving a yakuza killer who wants to go straight and finds himself becoming a drifter in order to stave off hits from his former gang members – is completely secondary to Suzuki’s stylized widescreen aesthetic, colors, violence and memorable music. “Tokyo Drifter” might not be much of a bold dramatic statement but in terms of art it’s a fascinating piece for Japanese cinema enthusiasts.

Suzuki returned the following year with the black-and-white BRANDED TO KILL (91 mins., 1967), another odd yakuza tale of a hitman who botches a job and has to fight for his life while being pursued by a mysterious “Number One Killer.” “Branded to Kill” got Suzuki in hot water with the studio that produced the film (the picture was low-budget to begin with but the company apparently didn’t care for some of Suzuki’s more stylized touches), and while I can’t say that I found the film as appealing as “Tokyo Drifter,” Suzuki aficionados ought to be thrilled with the care that Criterion has brought to both films’ Blu-Ray debuts.

“Tokyo Drifter” includes a fully remastered 1080p transfer; a video piece featuring new conversations with director Seijun Suzuki and director Masami Kuzuu; an interview with Suzuki from 1997; the trailer; and improved Englsh subtitles. The 2.35 AVC encoded transfer certainly pops in high-def.

“Branded to Kill,” meanwhile, also includes a new high-def digital restoration; a video piece with Suzuki and Masami Kuzuu interviews; a new interview with star Joe Shishido; more of Suzuki’s 1997 interview; the trailer; and a fine 2.35 AVC encoded transfer in black-and-white.

Finally, Ernst Lubitsch’s pre-code DESIGN FOR LIVING (91 mins., 1933) concludes Criterion’s 2011 slate. This is a fascinating, free-wheeling early ‘30s comedy with Miriam Hopkins starring as an artist struggling to choose between potential suitors Gary Cooper and Frederic March while taking a train to Paris in a Ben Hecht adaptation of Noel Coward’s play. Witty dialogue, irresistible banter and a sexy atmosphere – particularly considering the era – make this a must for Golden Age fans. Criterion’s Blu-Ray offers a new high-def digital restoration; “The Clerk,” starring Charles Laughton, Lubitsch’s segment of the 1932 omnibus film “If I Had a Million”; selected-scene commentary from historian William Paul; a British TV production of Coward’s play from 1964; and a new interview with film historian Joseph McBride on the picture.


FAMILY GUY Volume 9 DVD (301 mins., 2009-10): 13 episodes from “Family Guy”’s 2009-10 season comprise this three-disc compilation from Fox. Seth MacFarlane’s series, as I’ve written before, has become increasingly uneven as the years have passed, particularly over the last few seasons, where there’s been a conscious attempt to reduce the amount of “cutaway” jokes and rely instead on character or plot-developed humor. Since that’s never been the series’ strong suit (the show isn’t “South Park”), “Family Guy” has become something of a rocky ride, as evidenced in these baker’s dozen shows that open with an unfunny, Agatha Christie-like murder mystery that goes on forever. Die-hard fans might want to pick this package up regardless (commentaries and featurettes adorn the set, which includes the last 11 episodes shot in 1.33 and the first three of the series shot in 16:9 widescreen), but others are advised to skip it.
THE HUNTERS DVD (111 mins., 2011, R; Lionsgate): Feeble thriller with Steven Waddington and his adult pals heading back to their local woods and discovering an abandoned fort that possesses nearly as much trouble as “The Keep.” Way overlong and not particularly well-made either, “The Hunters” co-stars Dianna Agron from “Glee” and does have a nice Mark Snow score, but little else to recommend it. Lionsgate’s DVD includes a Making Of, 16:9 transfer and 5.1 soundtrack.

MIDNIGHT IN PARIS DVD (***, 94 mins., 2011, PG-13; Sony): Woody Allen returns to form with this rom-com featuring Owen Wilson as a screenwriter and aspiring novelist who visits Paris along with fiancee Rachel McAdams and her family. Shortly after the group bickers over Wilson’s future outside the Hollywood scene, he’s transported back into the Paris of the 1920s and falls in love with both the city and the mistress of Pablo Picasso (Marion Cotillard). Beautiful cinematography from Darius Khondji and a terrific cast make this one of Allen’s better efforts of late. Sony’s DVD boasts a nice 16:9 transfer and 5.1 soundtrack along with a “Midnight in Cannes” featurette.

JUSTIFIED Season 2 DVD (547 mins., 2011; Sony): Season 2 of the hit FX series finds Timothy Olyphant’s U.S. Marshal Rylan Givens taking on nemesis Boyd Crowder and adversary Mags Bennett (the terrific, Emmy-winning Margo Martindale) following Givens’ takedown of the Crowder family. “Justified”’s second season arrives on DVD in early January with outtakes, deleted scenes and several featurettes, plus a 16:9 (1.78) transfer and 5.1 soundtrack.

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