12/5/11 EditionTwitter @THEAISLESEATCOM

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December Arrival Edition
THE HELP, MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS Headline New Blu-Rays
Plus: THE ROCKETEER Soars Again
One of the great movie-going experiences I ever had was seeing "The Rocketeer" back on its opening weekend in June of 1991. My parents and I were at the end of a long vacation that saw us drive from Colorado back to Rhode Island right after my sophomore year of high school finished, stopping near the finish line in Toronto. I don’t recall the name of the theater where we saw the film, but it was one of those old, grand movie palaces that was updated for THX and had the singular best stereo system I had ever come across (before or since).

Seeing the film with a packed audience on a Saturday matinee in that particular venue was just amazing, and the crowd – filled mostly with kids and their parents – laughed and cheered at all the right moments, even giving the Disney film a round of applause at the end.

For that reason, THE ROCKETEER (***½, 108 mins., PG; Disney) has always been a film I’ve had a particular fondness for, though on-screen there’s also much to admire in this Joe Johnston-directed adaptation of Dave Stevens’ 1940s-set graphic novel. As scripted by Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo (who wrote the solid yet short-lived TV adaptation of “The Flash” around the same time), “The Rocketeer” stars Bill Campbell as a barnstorming pilot who improbably inherits a stolen top-secret jet pack that had been created by none other than Howard Hughes (“Lost”’s Terry O’Quinn). In hot pursuit of Hughes’ creation are the mob, the FBI, and a dashing Errol Flynn-like movie hero (Timothy Dalton) with a secret agenda, all of whom try and wrestle the pack away from Campbell, who dons a helmet courtesy of pal Alan Arkin and takes to the skies in WWII era Southern California.

“The Rocketeer” is nostalgic and fun, filled with period detail, gorgeous widescreen lensing, one of James Horner’s best scores and pitch-perfect direction from Johnston, who would get another crack at helming a period super-hero film with last summer’s “Captain America.” Rewatching the film on Blu-Ray, it’s even more rewarding now than it was then – made without an abundance of CGI and colorfully shot by Hiro Narita, the film may only be 20 years old but feels older (in a good way). It also feels less formulaic than so many of today’s routine super-hero movies, moving at a brisk clip but still pausing to develop its characters without the contemporary helter-skelter editing that’s designed to hold the attention spans of ADD-riddled viewers.

Jim Bissell’s production design beautifully evokes the era and the cast is fine, from supporting roles filled by veterans like Dalton, Arkin and Paul Sorvino, down to Campbell in what would be one of his few lead performances and Jennifer Connelly as Jenny, the Rocketeer’s love interest. Connelly never looked so luminous on-screen as she did here, years before dieting, plastic surgery and the course of time changed her voluptuous physical appearance into that of any other anorexic-looking modern leading lady. Johnston even throws in a nod to Hollywood’s past by having a henchman made up like B-movie villain Rondo Hatton!

“The Rocketeer,” sadly, performed only modestly at the box-office back in ‘91 but viewed now, ahead of all the various super-hero films we’ve seen, it holds up as one of the best of its kind: a rousing, old-fashioned entertainment, capped by one of Horner’s finest scores – a real beauty – that adds immeasurably to the action.

For years, though, I’ve been unable to recapture the magic of seeing “The Rocketeer” in that Toronto theater. A widescreen laserdisc transfer sounded great but looked a bit fuzzy, while the domestic DVD edition didn’t even include an anamorphically-enhanced presentation of the film (I did import the Region 4 DVD, which was 16:9, though not a great transfer by any means).

Neither did justice to the picture’s visuals, but fortunately Disney’s Blu-Ray edition – out next week – does in an almost spectacular fashion. The AVC encoded 1080p transfer is dazzling, especially during the outdoor, aerial portions of the film. Bold colors, crisp detail, and no seeming use of DNR make for a gorgeous presentation all told, even if the movie’s darker, studio-set portions are less impressive, showing the age of the master that was used. The DTS MA sound is certainly good, though seems a bit subdued from what I recall, and the sole extra is the theatrical trailer, culled off an old videotape master.

Despite the lack of extras, Disney has finally done “The Rocketeer” justice on Blu-Ray, where hopefully it will garner some new fans in the process. Highly recommended!

Sure to be an Oscar front runner, Tate Taylor’s film version of Kathryn Stockett’s bestselling novel THE HELP (***½, 156 mins., 2011, PG-13; Buena Vista) hits Blu-Ray and DVD this week. Filled with fine performances and a knowing sense of time and place, “The Help” is a hugely entertaining, moving film that avoids heavy-handedness through its sincere screenplay and performances that manage to avoid stereotype.

Taylor wrote and directed the film version of “The Help,” which follows young aspiring newspaper writer Emma Stone as she returns to her home of Jackson, Mississippi in the early ‘60s. Stone decides to write a book about the experiences of the town’s black maids from their own personal point of view, especially after witnessing condescending behavior from some of her now-grown childhood friends, including one played by Bryce Dallas Howard who decides “the help” ought to have segregated bathrooms in their suburban workplaces. Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer essay two of the hard-working black women who not only tend to the domestic chores of white southern women but also raise, care for, and love their young children – something Stone realizes as she tries to find out what happened to her family’s black caretaker (played wonderfully in a series of flashbacks by Cicely Tyson).

It’d have been easy for “The Help” to embrace cliched stereotypes and turn into a sort of “Steel Magnolias”-like melodrama, but the film feels authentic because of its strong execution in front of and behind the camera. Stone is entirely convincing and likeable here, and Jessica Chastian is equally wonderful as a blonde-bombshell who doesn’t fit into their stuffy neighborhood – and who bonds with Spencer in some of the film’s most affecting scenes. Davis’ quiet power is pitch-perfect and even Howard manages to convey the film’s heavy without dragging the character over the edge.

Taylor’s script adeptly juggles the various storylines (only the relationship Stone has with a male suitor feels half-baked) and Thomas Newman’s excellent score is the icing on the cake. With a domestic gross of over $160 million, “The Help” was both a big hit and a critically praised film that seemed to please everyone save some groups with a social agenda. Taken on its own, as a piece of entertainment with some relevant historical material backing its messages, it’s a fine piece of old-fashioned Hollywood filmmaking in every regard.

Buena Vista’s Blu-Ray edition of “The Help” looks dynamite with its crisp, clear 1080p transfer and DTS MA soundtrack. Lightweight extras include a DVD plus 10 minutes of deleted scenes with Taylor’s introductions (a few of which are exclusive to the Blu), a Making Of featurette and “In Their Own Words: A Tribute To The Maids Of Mississippi.”

Aisle Seat Pick of the Week

MGM musicals don’t come more tuneful, entertaining and downright inspiring than MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (****, 113 mins., 1944), one of the all-time greats that Warner Home Video releases on Blu-Ray this week in a Digibook package offering a gorgeous 1080p transfer.

Vincente Minnelli directed this original screen musical (later adapted to the stage in the late ‘80s) based on the autobiographical “5135 Kensington” New Yorker stories of Sally Benson. One of the many wonderful things about the musical is how it manages to capture the ordinary, everyday life of a St. Louis family (Judy Garland and young Margaret O’Brien as the children of middle-class parents Leon Ames and Mary Astor) circa the World’s Fair in 1904, its generational relationships and the passage of the seasons – from summer-time to Halloween – while still dressing the story up in a typical, shimmering MGM production. The three-strip Technicolor cinematography shined as one of the prime examples of the format at the time of its release, and the original songs by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine remain delightful, from “The Boy Next Door” and “You and I” to all-time classics like “The Trolley Song” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

With an appealing story, some wonderful performances particularly from Garland, and a classic score, “Meet Me In St. Louis” has always been regarded by musical buffs as one of the finest of the genre, and Warner’s BD does not disappoint. Reportedly culled from a restoration made several years ago, the 1080p transfer here is dazzling and heightened by fine grain, while the 5.0 DTS MA soundtrack is effective in rechanneling the music for stereo. Ample extras in the hardbound book include an introduction from Liza Minnell; commentary from Margaret O’Brien, Hugh Martin, writers Irving Brecher and Barbara Freed-Saltzman, and Garland historian John Fricke; the Lux Radio Theater broadcast; and a music-only audio track. Unquestionably recommended!

Also New on Blu-Ray
THE SMURFS 3-D Blu-Ray Combo Pack (*½, 103 mins., 2011, PG; Sony): Painful live-action feature adapts Peyo’s little blue characters to the big-screen in a low-rent affair that managed to rake in $500 million-plus worldwide in spite of itself.

About the only good thing in Raja Gosnell’s film (this is the same director who brought us the “Scooby-Doo” movies, keep in mind) is Sony Pictures Imageworks’ CGI visualization of the Smurfs – their rendering is well-executed and the characters mesh with the live-action material effectively. Unfortunately, it doesn’t help that the story (credited to J. David Stern, David N. Weiss, Jay Sherick and David Ronn) is so tired, with wizard Gargamel (an occasionally amusing Hank Azaria) having chased the Smurfs into the “real world” of NYC where Papa Smurf and friends try and get help from Neil Patrick Harris and Jayma Mays in order to get home.

Almost nothing in “The Smurfs” works: the comedy is weak, the tone unappealing and the pacing too frantic...yet audiences ate the picture up in droves, paving the sure-fire way for a sequel in 2013.

Sony’s 3-D Blu-Ray of “The Smurfs” does look great: the movie’s 3-D effects are mostly depth-of-field in nature but they’re actually quite good, and both the 3-D BD and the standard Blu-Ray offer colorful, sunny 1080p AVC encoded transfers that are flawless. In addition to DTS MA audio the set includes deleted/extended scenes, two commentaries, numerous featurettes on the production of the film, an interactive game, an “Ultraviolet” digital copy and a standard DVD copy for good measure.
THE DEBT Blu-Ray (**½, 114 mins., 2011, R; Universal): Three Israeli intelligence agents (Sam Worthington, Jessica Chastain and Martin Csaokas) find themselves trying to track down a ruthless Nazi criminal (Jesper Christensen) in East Berlin circa 1966 in this adaptation of an 2007 Israeli film by writers Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman (“Kick-Ass,” “X-Men: First Class”) and Peter Straughan.

“The Debt” is a well-made spy thriller handled by veteran John Madden, and backed with fine performances (Chastain is superb again in a role that couldn’t be more different than her turn in “The Help”), but it’s a problematic picture because the 1966 story is contrasted with inferior “30 years later” material featuring Helen Mirren, Ciaran Hinds and Tom Wilkinson in the roles of the older Mossad agents. Not only are those scenes poorly structured (the movie pointlessly does a flashback-within-a-flashback at one point early on), but who Hinds and Wilkinson are playing isn’t immediately known and that confusion carries over into the initial third of the film, making you feel detached from the core drama. With a tighter script “The Debt” could’ve been a refreshing throwback to old-school spy thrillers, but as it stands, it’s a finely-acted yet uneven film with some flawed elements to it.

Universal’s Blu-Ray offers a strong 1080p transfer, DTS MA soundtrack (offering one of Thomas Newman’s more unmemorable scores) and extras including commentary and three featurettes.

FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS Blu-Ray (***, 109 mins., 2011, R; Sony): “Easy A” director Will Gluck hits the mark again with a surprisingly good romantic-comedy that’s a lot better than its premise suggests.

Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis (she’s better than he is, unsurprisingly) play a couple of platonic pals who, frustrated with the dating scene, opt to try out a “friends with benefits” relationship that – naturally – eventually evolves into something more. Getting there, though, turns out to be a lot more entertaining than you’d anticipate, thanks to a script (credited to Gluck and Keith Merryman and David A. Newman) that mixes laughs that are raunchy but not excessively ridiculous. There’s chemistry between the leads and, much like “Easy A,” Gluck works in a number of veteran actors (Patricia Clarkson, Richard Jenkins and Woody Harrelson among them) who lend able support to familiar material.

Sony’s Blu-Ray includes BD exclusives (two featurettes, pop up trivia track) plus deleted scenes, outtakes, and commentary from the stars and the director. The 1080p transfer is terrific and DTS MA sound completes the package.

LIFE ABOVE ALL Blu-Ray (106 mins., 2011, PG-13; Sony): German director Oliver Schmitz’s latest film is a South African drama about a 12-year-old (Khomotso Manyaka) who loses her baby sister and ends up having to fight for the rest of her family after her mother falls ill. “Life Above All” is a well-acted film with a social message that can be applied to any setting, though the film’s South African feel gives the movie a strong sense of time and place. Recommended! Sony’s Blu-Ray includes a Making Of featurette, a crisp 1080p AVC encoded transfer and DTS MA soundtrack.

OUR IDIOT BROTHER Blu-Ray (*½, 90 mins., 2011, R; Anchor Bay): Tepid, forced “offbeat” indie comedy squanders a terrific cast. Paul Rudd plays a pot-smoking man child who, after getting busted for selling weed, is forced to move back in with mom Shirley Knight and his three sisters: workaholic Elizabeth Banks, lesbian Zooey Deschanel, and Emily Mortimer, a mother married to cranky videographer Steve Coogan (unfunny). Director/co-writer Jesse Peretz’s film tries much too hard to be eccentric and fails completely to generate laughs or characters we should care about; only the goodwill of the actors makes “Our Idiot Brother” even remotely watchable, but even then the movie feels stretched out to 90 minutes. Anchor Bay’s Blu-Ray includes a 1080p transfer, DTS MA soundtrack and extras including commentary from the director, deleted/extended scenes and a featurette.

TANNER HALL Blu-Ray (95 mins., 2009, R; Anchor Bay): Forgettable, dreary coming-of-age drama from Tatiana von Furstenberg – who co-wrote and directed “Tanner Hall” with Francesca Gregorini – focuses on a quartet of young girls (Rooney Mara, Brie Larson, Amy Ferguson, Georgia King) at a New England prep school. Completed in 2009 but only now released on Blu-Ray (undoubtedly to coincide with Mara’s upcoming turn in David Fincher’s “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”), “Tanner Hall” is harmless but formulaic, uninspired stuff, like a CW drama goosed with some R rated material. Anchor Bay’s BD includes a 1080p transfer, Dolby TrueHD soundtrack and commentary from von Furstenberg and Gregorini.        

CHILLERAMA Blu-Ray (120 mins., 2011, Not Rated; Image): Sporadically amusing but extremely overlong “Grindhouse”-styled anthology set in a Southern California drive-in that’s seen better days. The quartet of stories includes Adam Rifkin’s “Wadzilla,” Tim Sullivan’s “I was a Teenage Wearbear,” Adam Green’s “Dairy of Anne Frankenstein,” and Joe Lynch’s “Zom B Movie,” with cameos turned in by the likes of Kane Hodder, Ray Wise and Eric Roberts. “Chillerama” certainly has its heart in the right place and there are a few fun moments (especially during “Wadzilla”), but it’s too scattershot for its prolonged running time. For genre fans only. Image’s Blu-Ray sports a video commentary from the directors, deleted scenes from “Wadzilla,” a Making Of for “Anne Frankenstein,” deleted scenes from both “Werebear” and “Zom B Movie,” interviews and trailers, along with a 1080p transfer and DTS MA soundtrack.

MICHAEL FEINSTEIN: THE SINATRA LEGACY Blu-Ray (86 mins., 2011; Image): Tremendous concert (one of the best musical discs I’ve seen of late) offers Michael Feinstein with a 32-piece orchestra performing assorted Sinatra/big band classics “Once in a Lifetime,” “I Thought About You,” “Fly Me to the Moon,” “Put on a Happy Face/Lot of Livin’ to Do,” “So in Love,” “There’ll Be Some Changes Made,” “Begin the Beguine,” “Brazil,” “For Once in My Life,” “Maybe this Time,” and “New York, New York.” A bonus track (“Sway”) is on-hand in Image’s Blu-Ray along with a DTS MA soundtrack, 1080i transfer and a featurette.

ANOTHER EARTH Blu-Ray (92 mins., 2011, PG-13; Fox): Abstract, offbeat indie sci-fi drama from first-time feature helmer Mike Cahill stars Brit Marling as a high school student who causes a tragic accident that claims the life of William Mapother’s wife and children. Years later, Marling works as a maid at Mapother’s home – with him unaware of her identity – at the same time scientists discover an “Earth 2" where everyone has a twin on a corresponding planet. Marling is superb here and Cahill shows some potential, although “Another Earth” ultimately doesn’t follow through on its intriguing premise with an ending that just fizzles out. Fox’s Blu-Ray includes an AVC encoded transfer, DTS MA soundtrack and extras including deleted scenes, two featurettes, a Fox Movie Channel segment, a DVD and digital copy for portable media players.

THE ART OF GETTING BY Blu-Ray (83 mins., 2011, PG-13; Fox): Fine performances from Freddie Highmore and Emma Roberts sell this otherwise just-marginal indie coming-of-age drama from writer-director Gavin Wiesen. Highmore steps out of his comfort zone as a cynical teen getting through the high school year without doing any work; Roberts is the “girl with issues” who breaks him out of his morose existence in a harmless, short movie (under 80 minutes sans credits) that’s quickly forgotten once it’s over. Fox’s Blu-Ray includes Fox Movie Channel and HBO specials, commentary with the director, two featurettes and the trailer, plus a 1080p transfer and DTS MA audio.

Lionsgate New Releases

HEAVENLY CREATURES Blu-Ray (***½, 109 mins., 2002, R; Miramax/Lionsgate): Peter Jackson branched out of the horror genre and generated international acclaim for this unforgettable 2002 chronicle of an infamous murder involving a pair of teenage girls (played memorably by Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet) in 1950s New Zealand. Jackson fills each and every frame of “Heavenly Creatures” with gorgeous period atmosphere and a few visual effects representing Lynskey’s active imagination – but nothing can prepare first-time viewers for the raw, horrific conclusion which is as gut-wrenching as any on-screen death I’ve ever seen. Excellent performances and a strong script by Jackson and Frances Walsh make this one a must-see (the fact that one of the girls eventually became bestselling mystery-crime novelist Anne Perry makes the story all the more unusual...and creepy!). Lionsgate’s Blu-Ray includes a perfectly acceptable AVC encoded transfer and DTS MA soundtrack.

CITY OF GOD Blu-Ray (***½, 130 mins., 2002, R; Miramax/Lionsgate): Searing art-house smash chronicles three decades of life in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. This eye-popping, involving film was written by Braulio Mantovani and expertly directed by Fernando Meirelles. While "City of God" demands your full attention, it's a gripping, unflinching account of gang violence, rampant crime and poverty, as seen (more or less) through the eyes of three characters, one of whom is ultimately able to break free of his surroundings. Miramax's Blu-Ray offers a superlative AVC encoded transfer, DTS MA soundtrack, and the documentary "News From a Personal War."

Also New From Lionsgate: Tyler Perry’s A MADEA CHRISTMAS: THE PLAY (153 mins., 2011) includes a filmed version of Perry’s staged play, presented in full 1080p with DTS MA audio. A number of extras include behind-the-scenes content and bloopers...More Perry mania is also on tap in TYLER PERRY’S MEET THE BROWNS Season 3 (440 mins., 2011), offering episodes 41-60 from the TBS cable series. The three-disc DVD set offers 16:9 transfers and 5.1 soundtracks...Another Miramax title, the 1998 rock drama VELVET GOLDMINE (119 mins., R) also makes its way to Blu-Ray this month. This early vehicle for then up-and-comers Ewan McGregor, Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Christian Bale receives an attractive 1080p transfer with DTS MA audio and extras carried over from its prior DVD (commentary with director Todd Haynes, the trailer).

E One New Releases

MEDEA Blu-Ray (110 mins., 1969, Not Rated; E One): Pier Paolo Pasolini’s eclectic adaptation of the Greek tragedy offers opera singer Maria Callas her one and only cinematic role in an offbeat, mostly wordless film with production design by Dante Ferretti. E One’s Blu-Ray includes a 1080p transfer and mono soundtrack with Tony Palmer’s fine documentary about Callas’ turbulent life included as an extra.
UNDERBELLY: THE TRILOGY DVD (E One): Australian TV series generated huge audiences – as well as much controversy – Down Under, and comes to DVD in an E One box-set offering its three prequel shows: “A Tale of Two Cities,” “The Golden Mile” and “War on the Streets,” all chronicling the real-life Melbourne gang wars. Behind the scenes featurettes are included in the uncut DVD set.


THE SARAH JANE ADVENTURES Season 4 DVD (315 mins., 2011; BBC): The recent passing of star Elizabeth Sladen makes this new DVD release of “The Sarah Jane Adventures” a bittersweet affair.

Season 4 of the BBC series, aimed at younger viewers than “Dr.Who,” finds Sarah Jane and the gang confronting the Men in Black; waking up to find they’re the only humans left on the planet; taking on ghosthunters, Nazis and Tudors across time; and attending a funeral for the Doctor himself.

This next-to-last season of the series offers over 300 minutes of good-looking, 16:9 transfers and stereo soundtracks, and comes recommended for Sarah Jane fans and Dr. Who completists, all of whom mourned the loss of the series’ star earlier this year.

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