12/8/09 Edition
December Chill Edition
THE MASK OF ZORRO Reviewed on Blu-Ray
Plus: LOST Season 5 and More!
The exquisite, lavish, thrilling return of one of the cinema's original heroes -- THE MASK OF ZORRO (****, 136 mins., 1998, PG-13; Sony) -- still ranks as one of the most satisfying escapist adventures that Hollywood has released in years.

As close to a true romantic swashbuckler as we're likely to see in the modern era, “The Mask of Zorro”’s execution and direction, look and atmosphere, don't simply recall the elements of derring-do and heroism of the old school, but genuinely, and refreshingly, harken back to the days when villains were nefarious yet didn't react to every situation with a comic one-liner, and heroes fought for causes unrelated to smashing cars and cracking jokes. It’s old-fashioned moviemaking that works on every level.

Positively electric and charismatic, Antonio Banderas was the perfect candidate to resurrect Zorro, with his dashing, handsome looks and confident, assured personality romping through a story that would be right at home in a typical Saturday matinee programmer. Likewise energetic is Anthony Hopkins's performance as Deigo, the original Zorro, who trains his protege Banderas to save the Californian people from the dastardly motives of Montero (Stuart Wilson, perfectly underplaying Hopkins's adversary), who wants to steal the native land's gold to purchase the territory for himself. Hopkins, meanwhile, as a score himself to settle -- Montero stole his infant daughter and killed, albeit accidentally, the mother of his child, leaving Hopkins to waste away in a prison for two decades. With both Banderas and Hopkins joined to fight evil for the power of the people, already you would ordinarily have enough plot to sustain an entire picture, but this movie adds the icing on the cake by having Hopkins's grown daughter Elena (the ravishing Catherine Zeta-Jones) thrown into the mix. Romance, swordfighting, thrilling escapes -- who could possibly ask for anything more?

Director Martin Campbell, who was coming off “Goldeneye” and the not-so-bad sci-fi thriller “No Escape” heading into production, treats the material with a perfect touch, never once succumbing to the kinds of pitfalls that often plague modern-day stabs at Saturday matinee adventures. For one, the movie never relies on saccharine-cute or camp, providing witty dialogue instead of cloying one-liners, and wisely focuses on the main characters without throwing in an abundance of unnecessary supporting players (like the seemingly requisite little kids we usually get in Steven Spielberg-produced pictures). Each scene has a purpose, and the plot is well-drawn, unfolding at a deliberate yet brisk clip. John Eskow and Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio's screenplay should also be commended for being "politically correct" in that no offensive Latin-American stereotypes are anywhere to be found, while at the same time it retains the sense of fun and excitement that the name Zorro carries with it.

Technically, watching the movie is a marvel, like going on a trip to a far-away time and place that no longer exists, with Sony’s Blu-Ray disc approximating the theatrical experience with its grand, AVC-encoded visuals. Phil Meheux's Panavision cinematography captures all of the costumes and sets with an almost golden glow, and James Horner's music, rendered here in sublime DTS Master Audio sound, is utterly fabulous. His score, while obviously being sweeping and romantic, features a memorable collection of themes, a perfect blend of orchestra with Flamenco textures, and a flawless understanding of the drama on-screen. While I have always enjoyed many of Horner's works -- particularly considering the general decline of modern dramatic scoring -- I don't think it's an understatement to claim that this is nothing short of one of his finest achievements, and even the end-title song (produced by Jim Steinman) doesn’t feel entirely out of place.

Sony’s Blu-Ray edition not only includes the requisite high-quality audio/video you’ve come to expect from the studio, but also reprieves most of the extras from its two-disc DVD special edition, including Campbell’s commentary, deleted scenes, the “Unmasking Zorro” documentary, a Marc Anthony-Tina Arena music video, and material related to the belated but generally entertaining sequel “The Legend of Zorro,” which Sony has already issued on Blu-Ray. There’s also a “MovieIQ” function via BD Live which offers additional trivia popping up on the screen. Viva Zorro!

LOST: Season 5 Blu-Ray (731 mins., 2009; Buena Vista). SEASON LOWDOWN: The wild, no-holds-barred fifth season of  “Lost” finds the group of passengers from Oceanic flight 816 split up -- one group stuck in the ‘70s where the Dharma Initiative is just beginning to tap into the mysterious power of the island, the other in the present, haunted by the past and trying to get back there in order to -- in the mind of Matthew Fox’s brooding hero Jack -- make things right. Any additional plot synopsis would spoil the fun of this tremendously satisfying season of the series, which by this point in time has dispensed with anything resembling a “filler episode,” each show instead moving its intricate, unpredictable plot forward at rapid speed. As such, don’t even think of watching one of these episodes and making sense of it if you haven’t watched all prior seasons of “Lost” already. TECH SPECS: Buena Vista’s Blu-Ray edition of “Lost”: Season 5 is just spectacular. Gorgeous AVC encoded transfers and DTS Master Audio soundtracks adorn each episode, while copious extras include deleted scenes, commentaries, bloopers, and amusing behind-the-scenes featurettes hosted by cast members Michael Emerson (Benjamin Linus) and Nestor Carbonell (the particularly mysterious Richard Alpert) among others. These extras are also on the DVD edition, which boasts 16:9 transfers and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks. BD-exclusive goodies, meanwhile, include a “Lost University” “interactive collegiate experience” exploring the themes of the show, plus a “Lost 100" featurette looking back on the series’ first 100 episodes. AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: Though “Lost” has been, at times, a frustrating show over the course of its life span, there’s no denying that it’s also a one-of-a-kind, intelligent and just hugely entertaining series that demands patience and attention from the viewer. Several years after its debut we’re now seeing viewers reap rewards from their diligence with intricately plotted and fascinating episodes that dive right into the various concepts it established from the start, whether it’s in its inter-personal relationships or trippy sci-fi time-travel theories. Highly recommended, no question, for fans of the series, though newbies need to start at the beginning before venturing here.

NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM: BATTLE OF THE SMITHSONIAN Blu-Ray/DVD (**, 105 mins., 2009, PG; Fox). WHAT IT IS: Mediocre follow-up to the surprise 2006 hit “A Night at the Museum” provides yet another case of sequelitis. Ben Stiller is back as the former night watchman at the Museum of Natural History, where all kinds of exhibits (and famous figures) came to life once the lights went out at night. This time, his historical buddies have migrated to our nation’s capitol where they’re about to be retired to the Smithsonian archives. An all-star cast tries hard to make the film work -- including Amy Adams as Amelia Earhart, plus Owen Wilson, Steve Coogan and Robin Williams returning from the original -- but director Shawn Levy (back for another installment) fails to make the elements gel this time in a labored script by Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon. Only Hank Azaria provides a consistent stream of laughs, doing a Boris Karloff imitation as a bastardly Egyptian trying to bring the underworld to earth. Otherwise, this sequel is forgettable stuff that only young kids are likely to find amusing. DVD/BD TECH SPECS: Fox’s Blu-Ray edition looks spiffy, with a superb AVC encoded transfer and constantly active DTS Master Audio soundtrack. Extras include a gag reel, deleted scenes, numerous featurettes, commentaries, a standard DVD and digital copy for portable media players comprising the three-disc package. AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: I found the original “Night” to be pleasant and surprisingly entertaining but this chaotic sequel, while reuniting most of its principal players, is bigger and louder but not nearly as satisfying.    

New On DVD   

LOVE COMES SOFTLY DVD Collection (8 Discs, Fox). WHAT IT IS: Janette Oke’s popular novels were turned into a series of well-meaning, if occasionally melodramatic, television films, all of which garnered solid ratings on cable. Fox’s eight-disc box-set collects the entire series, chronicling three generations of pioneer women, beginning with “Love Comes Softly” (with Katherine Heigl) and followed by “Love’s Enduring Promise” (with January Jones as the daughter of Heigl’s character), “Love’s Long Journey,” “Love’s Abiding Joy,” and “Love’s Unending Legacy” (with Erin Cottrell in Jones’ role), “Love’s Unfolding Dream,” “Love Takes Wing,” and “Love Finds a Home,” the latter two with Sarah Jones as the offspring of Cottrell’s heroine. All eight stories offer fine lead performances and solid production values. TECH SPECS: Fox’s box-set of the “Love Comes Softly” collection sports all eight films in separate DVD boxes, all in 16:9 (1.78) transfers with the exception of “Love’s Enduring Promise,” and “Love’s Long Journey,” which are 1.33 full-screen only. Stereo soundtracks are also perfectly acceptable. AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: Perfect for family viewing, this old-fashioned, wholesome anthology is perfect for gift-giving this holiday season.

BETTER OFF TED: Season 1 DVD (299 mins., 2009; Fox). WHAT IT IS: Wacky ABC comedy stars Jay Harrington as the head of research and development at Veridian Dynamics, working with a group of scientists in testing a succession of bizarre inventions for possible commercial release. Portia de Rossi co-stars in this generally well-received and occasionally quite funny comedy, which is about to start its sophomore season in prime-time. TECH SPECS: Fox’s two-disc set contains the complete first season of “Better Off Ted” in excellent 16:9 (1.78) transfers with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound. Alas, extras are nowhere to be found. AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: Offbeat and amusing “Better Off Ted” has yet to find its core audience, but hopefully DVD sales will spur interest in this decidedly wacky sitcom.

THE GOODS: Live Hard, Sell Hard DVD (**½, 89 mins., 2009, R; Paramount). WHAT IT IS: Will Ferrell and Adam McKay must have been influenced by John Landis’ 2004 under-the-radar documentary “Slasher,” as the duo’s production “The Goods” takes the basic premise of his documentary -- recounting what happens when auto dealerships bring in a national salesman to run a weekend special -- and turns it into a raunchy, uneven farce with Jeremy Piven as “the slasher.” A terrific supporting cast -- including Ving Rhames, James Brolin, David Koechner, plus Ed Helms and Craig Robinson from “The Office” -- sprinkle some laughs here and there, but it’s all too frantic and over-the-top to fully satisfy. TECH SPECS: Paramount’s DVD edition of “The Goods” boasts a colorful 16:9 (1.85) transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound. AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: Fans of Ferrell’s humor (the star also makes an amusing cameo as Honest Abe Lincoln) are most likely to enjoy “The Goods,” but its uneven attributes aren’t certain to be a hit even with that core audience.

NEXT TIME: Our annual Holiday DVD Round-up! Until then, don't forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards and direct any emails to our email address. Cheers everyone!

Get Firefox!

Copyright 1997-2009 All Reviews, Site and Design by Andre Dursin