Christmas & New Years Edition -- Merry Christmas!

A Christmas & New Years Finale
Andy Spars With ROCKY BALBOA
Plus: LADY IN THE WATER, WICKER MAN and New High-Def Discs

I admit up front that I was hoping Sylvester Stallone’s sixth and final go-around as Rocky Balboa, the Italian Stallion from Philadelphia, would turn out to be a worthwhile endeavor. The trailers looked absurd, the concept sounded ridiculous, but nostalgia can be a powerful beast and I found myself in recent weeks rooting for “Rocky Balboa” to prove to be the underdog cinematic incarnation of, well, Rocky himself.

Amazing as it may seem, and personal well-wishes for the project aside, Stallone has really done it this time: ROCKY BALBOA (***½) is a heartfelt, soulful film that truly does harken back to the original Oscar winner, now 30 years old, in how it portrays its lead character and his unflinching desire to overcome obstacles of any kind.

Now older, wiser, and living day to day without the light of his life (Talia Shire’s Adrian has been deceased for several years at the start of the film), we meet Stallone’s hardened but still sweet and likeable big lug managing a restaurant named in honor of his late wife. He still sees Paulie (Burt Young), who’s still employed at the meat factory, but wants to see more of Robert, Jr. (Milo Ventimiglia), who’s now grown up and working in the city at a corporate job, in the shadow of his famous pop.

Rocky does get a spark after he reunites with “Little” Marie (Geraldine Hughes), the girl he teased back at the start of the 1976 original, who’s now working as a bartender in one of the less savory corners of South Philly. Marie has a teen son nick-named “Steps” (James Francis Kelly III) who Rocky takes a shine towards, promptly perking up Balboa, ever soul-searching despite having climbed to the top of the heavyweight division so many years ago.

When an ESPN computer-generated match-up pits Balboa against today’s current reigning champ Mason Dixon (Antonio Tarver), Rocky feels inspired to maybe get back into participating in local fights -- that is, until Dixon’s promoters come to town with the idea of actually pitting Rocky and Dixon together in a real boxing exhibition match...

One of the first things that instantly hits home in “Rocky Balboa” comes during the film’s opening: Bill Conti’s beautiful, haunting piano underscore reprises numerous themes from the composer’s previous series efforts, punctuating Rocky’s return to the locales where he first courted Adrian in the original “Rocky.” There’s a genuine sense of bittersweet emotion in these moments, with Stallone’s direct-from-the-heart dialogue ramming home a sense of love and loss.
Speaking of Stallone, he’s tremendous here, and one can forgive the movie’s over-abundance of speeches since it’s obvious that “Rocky Balboa” comes from the heart. Quite unlike many of the later “Rocky” sequels (III and IV in particular), the focus here isn’t on the ring or the big climactic fight (which still delivers the goods but isn’t vital to the outcome or the over-riding message) but rather the characters. Stallone’s script is as good as anything he’s ever written, illustrating Rocky’s pain over the loss of Adrian and the disconnect with his son, but also how the human spirit keeps going in spite of life’s abundant challenges. It’s easy to call the film uplifting, but “Rocky Balboa” truly is that -- and capped with a “Gonna Fly Now” montage that proves as irresistible as the picture itself.

It certainly helps that Stallone has matured as a director (sequences contrasting Rocky with Dixon and his entourage are nicely done), and also that the supporting cast is excellent and is given something to do: Hughes is superb as Marie, who compliments Rocky in a quietly understated relationship that one senses could lead to something more than friendship, while the performances of Kelly as her son and Ventimiglia as Rocky, Jr. mesh perfectly with Stallone. Young gets to portray a sympathetic and equally adrift Paulie (plus speak the film’s funniest lines), while old friends Tony Burton and even Pedro Lovell (a former boxer who played Spider Rico in the opening moments of the first film) lend further support.

While the movie seems to be a bit lean in its editing (a little more exposition wouldn’t have hurt the climactic bout as well as Rocky’s relationships with Rocky Jr. and “Steps”), this is a fully satisfying finish to the “Rocky” franchise and -- even more so -- a life-affirming and emotional piece that also marks some of Stallone’s finest work as a filmmaker and actor.

The star has said recently that he made numerous bad decisions and was lead astray during his career, but that “Rocky Balboa” was a project that he was proud of. Indeed it is -- who would’ve thought this Christmas’ most satisfying film is one more round with Rocky Balboa and the marvelous music of Bill Conti raising goosebumps on your arm one final time? Yo! (102 mins., PG).

Year-End Wrap: New HD-DVDs

LADY IN THE WATER: HD-DVD Edition (**, 2006, PG-13, 111 mins., Warner): Another poorly constructed effort from writer-producer-director M. Night Shyamalan, who commits the same mistake here that he did with “Unbreakable”: produce a film with a pace and over-riding tone seemingly totally at odds with the subject matter he’s presenting.

His latest -- last summer’s flop “Lady in the Water” -- is supposed to be a magical “bedtime fairy tale” but Shyamalan’s film is every bit as lethargic (or leisurely, depending on how you look at it) as his past films and filled with oddball characters that are nearly impossible to care about.

Bryce Dallas Howard tries to project an etherealness as a water nymph who suddenly appears in the swimming pool of manager Paul Giamatti’s apartment complex; Giamatti’s tenants include a collection of folks from obnoxious movie critic Bob Balaban to a writer with the power to save the world....played by M. Night Shyamalan!

There are so many things wrong with “Lady in the Water” that it would be easy to write the entire project off altogether. It’s hard to imagine that this uneven and strange script would have been the basis for Shyamalan’s messy public divorce from Disney (which had bankrolled all of his prior projects to one degree or another), and the film is packed with inside jabs (like Balaban’s critic) to numerous self-congratulatory moments, no more so than in Night’s own performance as the writer whose prose is supposed to inspire a future leader to save the planet.

More over, the movie’s somnabulant tone -- which often makes the picture feel like “The Sixth Sense” instead of “E.T.,” which the story owes more of a debt towards – just doesn’t feel appropriate to the film at all.

Still, what carries “Lady” are the same elements that saved Shyamalan’s previous film (“The Village”) from total damnation: a sense of cinematic style and a rich musical score by James Newton Howard. The composer’s music again lifts Shyamalan’s rickety script and closes with a stylish, beautiful final shot -- something that makes you regret how bizarre and unsatisfying the rest of the picture is.

Warner’s HD-DVD edition is, sadly, one of the weaker HD discs I’ve seen so far. The HD-DVD transfer often nearly looks identical to the standard DVD transfer (included on the disc’s flip side), with a muddy darkness and slight haze about the whole image. There are just few scenes here that cry out for the benefits of high definition. The Dolby TrueHD soundtrack, on the other hand, does do justice to Newton Howard’s strong musical component.

For special features, a multi-part Making Of is mostly on the promotional side, while five minutes of deleted scenes and a tease for Shyamalan’s children’s book version of the story round out the presentation.

MIAMI VICE: HD-DVD Edition (**½, 2006, 140 and 133 mins., Unrated and Rated; Universal): Michael Mann’s odd updating of his groundbreaking ‘80s TV series shares almost nothing in common with its predecessor outside of its title, creator, and lead character names. Crockett and Tubbs are here embodied by Colin Farrell (continuing his streak of box-office poison) and Jamie Foxx, respectively, who get wrapped up in Miami drug trafficking during their investigation of two federal agent killings. Good-looking cinematography is off-set somewhat by a meandering script that’s never as compelling as it ought to be; still, “Miami Vice” is watchable enough, particularly on HD-DVD where Universal’s Unrated transfer is an appreciable upgrade on the standard-definition version (included on the disc’s flip side in the movie’s shorter, R-rated theatrical cut). A few HD-DVD exclusive extras (picture-in-picture “U Control” behind the scenes interviews and Making Of segments) are included along with commentary from Mann on the Unrated version and two Making Of featurettes. The 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus sound is predictably strong.

ACCEPTED (**, 93 mins., 2006, PG-13; Universal): Sporadically funny tale of a high school prankster (Justin Long) who fails to get into his safety school and -- seeking to satisfy his parents -- actually creates a phoney college to placate them. Things go fine until Long and his pals find others responding to their website and actually enrolling at the “South Harmon Institute of Technology”! John Cusack pal Steve Pink directed this harmless, PG-13 teen comedy, with Long managing to get a few laughs and co-star Lewis Black doing his shtick as the uncle of his best friend (whom the gang uses as their Dean). Alas, things go seriously awry once the film asks you to take it seriously in its final third, with a particularly outrageous conclusion. Universal’s HD-DVD edition looks reasonably colorful with its 1080p transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus sound, and offers two HD-DVD exclusive supplements (picture-in-picture commentary and production photos); other special features can be found on the disc’s standard-definition flip side, where the same commentary (albeit minus its visual component), deleted scenes, bloopers, and Making Of featurettes can be found.

New and Recently Released on DVD

THE WICKER MAN (*½, 2006, 102 mins., PG-13; Warner): Hilariously misguided update/remake/Americanization of the well-regarded ‘70s British chiller stars Nicolas Cage as a well-meaning cop in the Pacific Northwest who’s called to a remote island by his ex-fiancee, whose young daughter has apparently gone missing. The signs for “Something Is Wrong Here” permeate the place, but Cage misses all the warning signs and ends up just like Edward Woodward -- just punching a few more women in the face en route to his destiny. Neil LaBute was a strange choice to helm this good-looking but ridiculous thriller that tries to add supernatural elements into the mix, but aside from seeing Molly Parker (who looks particularly radiant here) and Leelee Sobieski on-hand in supporting parts, there’s little to recommend in “The Wicker Man.” Warner’s DVD includes both the PG-13 rated theatrical cut on one side and a slightly re-edited “Unrated” version on the other half of the platter, with a longer assembly of the movie’s would-be “shock” ending and the picture’s added coda (with James Franco and Jason Ritter) excised. A commentary and the original trailer round out the disc, presented in 16:9 (2.35) widescreen and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, backed by hard-working Angelo Badalamenti score. A turkey that would have been worth tossing in the movie’s big, climactic fire!

SNAKES ON A PLANE (***, 2006, 106 mins., R; New Line): It’s hard to anoint a movie a “cult classic” before it’s even released, but that rare occurrence happened to the Samuel L. Jackson (self-titled) actioner “Snakes On a Plane” last summer. The movie failed to live up to the hype at the box-office, but I suspect time will be kind to this outrageously fun, good-natured tale of snakes that run amok on a flight from Hawaii to L.A. while FBI agent Jackson transports a witness (Nathan Phillips) who watched a mob hit while on vacation. Initially (and obviously) intended as PG-13, teen-friendly fare, “Snakes” was slightly re-filmed to add more blood, guts and gore to the action, plus a hilarious rant by Jackson with a whole bunch of f-bombs. Otherwise, “Snakes” is pretty tame, put-your-brain-on-hold summer movie fare, with engaging performances from the cast. It’s a nice little B-movie that probably would’ve performed better if there hadn’t been any pre-release “buzz,” and looks great in New Line’s Special Edition DVD. In addition to a fine 16:9 (2.35) transfer and DTS ES and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, the studio has included commentary from director David R. Ellis, Jackson and others, plus deleted scenes, a blooper reel, and a music video of the hysterical end-title theme song.

NATIONAL LAMPOON’S PLEDGE THIS (91 mins., 2006, Unrated; Vivendi/Visual Entertainment): Poor Paula Garces hasn’t been able to parlay her recent gigs in “Blade 2" and “Harold and Kumar” into major success -- and here, she suffers the ultimate indignity by being billed under Paris Hilton AND having her name spelled wrong on the front cover of “National Lampoon’s Pledge This.” Indeed, this sophomoric raunch fest is by-the-numbers stupid, but does boast a T&A quotient that might satisfy the only people who could possibly be interested in watching it: sex-starved teenagers! Visual Entertainment’s DVD includes a widescreen transfer and a Making Of featurette.

HD-DVD & Blu Ray Capsules

A good sampling of back catalog discs have made their way onto the new, respective high-definition DVD formats. Since the films need little introduction and/or have been reviewed previously, here’s a quick synopsis of the high-def disc features of each:

AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON: HD-DVD (***, 98 mins., 1981, R, Universal): John Landis’ wacky, cult favorite 1981 horror hit arrives on HD-DVD in a fairly solid high-definition transfer. Sure, the film’s soft and grainy spots still look well, softish and a bit dirty, but the colors and clarity of the image (especially during the metropolitan London sequences) is an upgrade on the standard-definition DVD and worth the purchase for fans. Speaking of the standard-def version, it’s included on the HD-DVD combo disc’s flip side along with the special features, save the commentary, which makes an appearance on both versions. The Dolby Digital Plus sound is fine, roughly on par with the DTS track of the standard-def edition.

DUNE: HD-DVD (**½, 137 mins., 1984, PG-13, Universal): David Lynch’s sci-fi epic was just issued by Universal in a superb DVD last January comprised of the theatrical cut plus the extended TV version and a good amount of supplements. Universal’s HD-DVD includes all the features from that release -- save the TV version -- with the added benefit of a new high-definition transfer and Dolby Digital Plus audio that combine to give Lynch and Frank Herbert devotees the strongest looking (and sounding) home-video presentation yet of the 1984 flop. Even the interior, dark sequences of the picture look appreciably sharper here in HD than any previous transfer, with exterior footage likewise reaping the benefits of high definition. Recommended!

THE HULK: HD-DVD (***, 138 mins., 2003, PG-13, Universal): Ang Lee's controversial filming of the Marvel Comics hero certainly isn't a faithful adaptation (a forthcoming sequel will apparently adhere a lot closer to the big green one himself) but a flawed, fascinating effort that -- while being too dark for its own good and often bogged down in psychological aspects that don't quite come off -- ranks as a watchable combination of silly, colorful Marvel Comics action and a study of parents and children and what makes us all tick. Universal's HD-DVD edition is a smashing success in more ways than one: the high-definition transfer bursts with colors and three-dimensional depth, making it one of the best of the HD discs I've seen to date. Most, if not all, of the extras from the Special Edition DVD have been ported over as well (deleted scenes, commentary, featurettes) and the 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus sound is excellent. Strongly recommended if you're a fan of the film.

INVINCIBLE: Blu-Ray (***½, 104 mins., 2006, PG, Disney): I covered Disney’s standard-definition release of the winning bio of Philadelphia Eagles folk hero Vince Papale last week; Disney’s Blu-Ray edition offers the same extras as the standard release (two commentaries, two featurettes), plus a uncompressed 5.1 soundtrack and 1080p transfer that looks splendid in HD.

PEARL HARBOR: Blu-Ray (**½, 183 mins., 2001, PG-13, Disney): The much-ballyhooed 2001 epic DID gross $200 million in spite of mixed reviews, and Disney’s Blu-Ray transfer here is exceptionally clear and three-dimensional; too bad, then, that the disc is missing so many of the supplements from the film’s Special Edition package -- just two featurettes, trailers, and a music video. Wasn’t the capacity of Blu-Ray supposed to enable studios to pack all kinds of extra features on here? What gives?

FLIGHTPLAN: Blu-Ray (**, 98 mins., 2005, PG-13, Disney): The underwhelming 2005 Jodie Foster thriller arrives on DVD in a decent Blu-Ray package with two featurettes, commentary, and a fairly murky transfer that, similar to the HD-DVD edition of “Lady in the Water” above, doesn’t make for overly spectacular high-definition viewing.

AND WITH THAT, MERRY CHRISTMAS & HAPPY NEW YEAR EVERYONE! We'll be back in 2007 wih more reviews, extensive coverage of films and DVD, and much more. As always, thanks for reading, writing, and we'll see you on the other side in 2007! 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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