12/9/08 Edition -- The AISLE SEAT BLOG Is Also Live

December Mania Edition
New Blu-Ray, DVD titles Reviewed

No matter how frustrating J.J. Abrams’ ABC series LOST can become, how ill-advised some of its plot tangents feel, the show remains as fresh and unique as anything on the air today -- a fascinating puzzle of a series that rewards viewers who pay attention to each and every episode and all the individual sequences within.

Season 4 of the series (2008, 604 mins., Buena Vista) keeps the momentum moving ahead from its prior season’s surprise conclusion, wherein one of the show’s patented “flashbacks” involving lead “Lostie” Jack (Matthew Fox) turned out to be a framing device not for a look into the past but rather a “flash-forward” wherein the series framework shifts to the future...or at least a “present” wherein Jack and several other survivors of Oceanic Flight 815 are back home, off the island and meeting with a variety of fates -- many tragic in nature.

How this group left the island, what happened in the days before their departure, what their lives have become and the mystery of who -- or what -- was left behind comprises the show’s fourth year, and for fans, it’s another doozy. Lacking episodes that fail to pertain to the series’ central narrative, this season of “Lost” may be its leanest and most compelling yet, although in refusing to “take a break” for different types of episodes (or shows that highlighted peripheral characters), the series has become a deliciously complicated sci-fi tale that will leave even casual viewers baffled by everything that’s going on.

Without divulging any additional plot developments, I’ll just say that fans will devour each episode of “Lost”’s fourth season on DVD and Blu-Ray, with the BD platter featuring spotless AVC encoded transfers and uncompressed PCM 5.1 soundtracks that surpass the broadcast HD versions I watched of the series throughout last year. Colors are strong, details are crystal clear, and the sound is likewise excellent for a television series. The DVD transfers are 16:9 enhanced, meanwhile, and offer 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Special features are copious: numerous featurettes highlight the creation of individual sequences, while another segment profiles the Honolulu Pops performing a suite of Michael Giacchino’s music live in concert (several minutes of which, including a performance of “The Others Theme,” are exclusive to the BD release). Bloopers, deleted scenes, commentaries, time lines and other goodies are on-hand, all of which should keep “Lost” fans preoccupied until Season 5 arrives next month.

Also out from Disney are great looking Blu-Ray and DVD presentations of THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: PRINCE CASPIAN (**½, 149 mins., 2008, PG), the disappointing, overlong continuation of its 2005 predecessor.

Director Andrew Adamson is back for this go-around, as are the young actors portraying the Pevensie siblings, who this time venture back to Narnia, only to find the storybook world they once visited is older (as in several hundred years older!) and presided over by an evil king who’s taken the throne away from its rightful owner, Prince Caspian.

Elaborate effects and lengthy battle scenes take the place of compelling character development and storytelling in this bigger but not necessarily better sequel, which met with okay but disappointing box-office receipts at the May box-office. Young viewers may gravitate towards it, particularly if they enjoyed the original, yet the bloated running time may be a turn off even for them.

Disney’s Blu-Ray presentation is a marvel though, thanks to its reference-level AVC encoded transfer and enveloping DTS Master Audio soundtrack. Colors leap off the screen in a spectacular looking and sounding disc that home theater enthusiasts should gobble up, even if the picture itself fails to support its technical achievements. The standard DVD edition, meanwhile, looks equally strong from what I sampled with a fine 16:9 (2.35) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack.

The three-disc set (one platter of which is a digital copy) includes a bevy of extras, including commentary with Adamson and various cast members, deleted scenes, bloopers, numerous Making Of featurettes and other goodies, mostly all presented in high definition as well on the BD side.

New On DVD

I AM LEGEND Ultimate Edition (***, 100 [theatrical] and 104 [alternate] mins., 2007, PG-13; Warner): The first-hour of "I Am Legend" is as tense, compelling, disturbing and thoroughly gut-wrenching a science-fiction film as you'll see.

Adapting Richard Matheson's "I Am Legend" for a new generation, director Francis Lawrence and writers Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman place Will Smith in the role that Vincent Price and Charlton Heston essayed in decades past -- that of Robert Neville, a biologist who seemingly becomes the last man on Earth after a virus, once intended to cure cancer, wipes out nearly the entire populace of New York City and beyond.

Neville cruises the streets of the now-deserted Big Apple with his German Shepherd Sam in tow, hunting wild animals who have taken to running through the buildings and tunnels of the formerly major metropolis. He even rents videos from a corner video shop, having placed and dressed mannequins who he talks to every day as if they were real people.

It's a lonely existence, but it could be worse: once the sun goes down, whatever is left of humanity comes out, making loud, snarling noises and hunting whatever life is still left in the post- apocalyptic world.

For essentially an hour, "I Am Legend" draws you into this nightmarish scenario of humanity's demise and doesn't let up. The picture's visuals of empty New York streets and animals running amok are breathtakingly -- and all too convincingly -- represented, while Smith gives a sympathetic, wholly believable performance as a man who's lost everything, yet still tries to "fix" the situation by abducting the "infected" and trying to find a cure for them. All the while, flashbacks (seemingly modeled after "Lost") fill in the gaps of mankind's final hours, as Smith tries tragically to get his family out of the city. Individual set-pieces are also potent, such as when Smith's dog runs into a darkened warehouse where hordes of the creatures congregate, and a later sequence where the creatures turn the tables on Neville.

The picture's opening is so strong that one would anticipate the filmmakers having a hard time finding an ending that would live up to it. Sadly this is completely the case here, as the picture sinks once a woman (Alice Braga) and a young boy appear, having received Smith's daily radio broadcast. There's no development of these characters of any kind, and Braga comes off as being particularly devoid of charisma or any chemistry with her co-star (the sequence where Smith tries to teach Braga about the beauty of Bob Marley's music is downright pathetic). Their role in the story is pre-ordained, but because of the startling lack of development of these roles, there's no emotional connection or pay-off to them -- something the story needed to have in order to function at the end.

Warner's video releases do offer one advantage over the theatrical version: that being the option to view the film with its alternate (original) ending, which not only is a tad more upbeat than the released version, but also ties in with the main story (of the infected beings chasing Smith) far more effectively. Why this more emotional finale was jettisoned in favor of a slightly more "action" filled climax is anyone's guess, but viewers new to the film are urged to view it with the "alternate" ending instead of the theatrical version. Not that this finale is perfect, either, but it's certainly the better option given the choice (and given the rumors that a sequel is going forward, would’ve been a more fitting conclusion leading into a follow-up).

"I Am Legend," then, is that rare science fiction film that doesn't pull any punches (young children should avoid the film at all costs, as well as dog lovers sensitive to traumatic death scenes of animals on-screen). It's a visually compelling and well-performed piece that likely works better on video than it did in theaters -- due to the amount of silence in its opening hour -- and comes as strongly recommended for sci-fi fans in spite of its lackluster final third.

Warner’s beautifully assembled new Ultimate Edition DVD box-set (a Blu-Ray version is also slated for release) sports a host of new extras: commentary from Lawrence and co-producer Akiva Goldsman, plus a variety of deleted scenes, most of which (unsurprisingly) involve the relationship between Neville and the girl in the picture’s second half. These sequences, while helping the story on paper, seem to have been wisely discarded as they play out as flatly as the above-mentioned bit where Neville professes his love for Bob Marley. Still, these are interesting to see if nothing else, while a host of all-new Making Of featurettes go behind the scenes and expand the somewhat limited offerings from the prior DVD (which have been carried over to this new edition).

Spiffy packaging includes a 45-page book of conceptual artwork, six collectible art cards, four comics and other goodies, while the 16:9 (2.35) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack are both as strong as its predecessor.

Criterion Debuts in HD

Although the Criterion Collection’s Blu-Ray offerings were delayed for several weeks, the first title has arrived here for review: a supremely satisfying edition of Wong Kar-Wai's CHUNGKING EXPRESS (1994, 102 mins.).

An HD reprise of the standard definition version we covered a couple of weeks ago, this dreamy, slow-moving but evocatively produced tale of failed relationships, heartbreak and the affect that love can have makes for a splendid addition to the Criterion catalog -- and also a spectacular debut to the BD format for the label.

The AVC-encoded transfer, supervised by Wong, is just ideal, offering a warm array of colors and details that are an appreciable enhancement even on the label’s standard-def edition. The stereo sound is here presented in a lossless DTS Master Audio track, which is likewise more effective than the standard DVD track’s stereo mix.

All the extras from the standard DVD are available, including commentary from Asian cinema expert Tony Rayns; a 1996 British TV episode "Moving Pictures" with Wong; the original trailer; and a new, improved English subtitle translation.

New on standard-definition DVD from Criterion is Samuel Fuller’s strange and controversial WHITE DOG (**½, 90 mins., 1982, PG), starring Kristy MacNicol as a young woman who befriends a German shepherd that’s been trained to attack African-Americans. Trainer Paul Winfield attempts to correct the dog’s upbringing in this searing adaptation of Romain Gary’s novel, which proved to be such a conduit for controversy that Paramount Pictures opted to withhold it from widespread release in the early ‘80s.

Criterion’s DVD edition is the first video release of “White Dog” ever, and Fuller aficionados will find much to enjoy in the picture, along with a strong Ennio Morricone score. Regrettably, while the movie is compelling, it doesn’t quite click on all dramatic cylinders, thanks in part to a jumbled opening half-hour, while Fuller’s penchant for pulpy exploitation likely didn’t serve the movie’s reputation well -- even if the film is a potent diatribe against racism, not a movie that in any way, shape or form supports it.

Certainly “White Dog” is challenging filmmaking that interested viewers will find worthy of discussion if nothing else. Criterion’s DVD sports a fine 16:9 (1.85) transfer with mono sound and a supplemental section comprised of an insightful 45-minute documentary on its troubled production, an interview with dog trainer Karl Lewis Miller, photos from the production and booklet note essays.

Also among Criterion’s new releases this month is Lars Von Trier’s EUROPA (107 mins., 1991), the filmmaker’s odd, color/B&W conclusion to his trilogy of tales about Europe’s past and present.

Criterion’s double-disc DVD edition includes a new 16:9 (2.35) transfer with stereo sound, English subtitles, a commentary (in Danish with English subs) by Von Trier, a documentary on its production, the original trailer, copious 2005 interviews with all of the creative team, and an essay from critic Howard Hampton.

Also New on Blu-Ray

AUSTIN POWERS - Blu-Ray Box Set (Warner): Mike Myers’ groovy spy spoofs arrive on Blu-Ray in an attractively packaged box-set from New Line and Warner.

It’s easy to forget that the original (and best) “Austin Powers” was only a sleeper hit at the box-office, grossing just over $50 million domestically in the spring of 1997. Myers’ retro swinging espionage comedy only became a massive hit on home video, leading to the immense box-office performance of its two sequels: 1999's lame “The Spy Who Shagged Me” and 2002's moderately enjoyable “Goldmember,” both of which took in over $200 million each in North America alone.

Still, the force is clearly with the original, director Jay Roach’s lark which introduced us to Myers as both Britain’s top secret agent and the nefarious Dr. Evil and Seth Green as Evil’s son Scott, plus Robert Wagner, Will Ferrell, Mimi Rogers, Elizabeth Hurley and Michael York (as “Basil Exposition”) all adding to the fun.

Sadly, those who felt that even the first movie pushed its premise to the limits had their suspicions confirmed in the sorry sequel “The Spy Who Shagged Me,” which appealed to every teenager in America at the time but remains a flimsy follow-up on every level.

After a tepid opening that disposes of Elizabeth Hurley's original heroine in the most mundane fashion, Myers's film settles into a tiresome rehash of his predecessor's routines, mixed with dated "hip" references and tasteless humor. There's also no hint of even the slightest intention to convey a logical storyline, which here sends Austin, now accompanied by the terribly uncharismatic Heather Graham, back into the '60s (meaning we see one colorfully dressed backlot set) to hunt down Dr. Evil, himself having been cloned in a midget-ized version named Mini-Me (Verne Troyer).

Outside of Green’s appearance and Rob Lowe's spot-on imitation of Robert Wagner (Lowe plays a young Wagner in the '60s segments), “Austin 2" is sheer desperation all the way. Scenes play themselves out without a punchline, and there are no genuine comedic set-pieces to be found. The '60s scenes play like a good idea that didn't work because they couldn't come up with any jokes, and even another Burt Bacharach cameo fails to register.

You hate to think that Myers was so taken aback with the original's success on video and later in the media (not to mention the franchise's incessant merchandising since then) that he didn't know how to approach a sequel, and found himself creatively stuck throughout the writing and filming of this second go-around.

Whatever the case may be, both he and returning director Jay Roach strike out time and time again with material that's astoundingly flat and consistently skirts the bottom of the barrel of good taste. For Bond fanatics, the humor is limited to two John Barry “You Only Live Twice” quotes in George S.Clinton's musical score and Graham wearing Ursula Andress's bikini top from “Dr.No.” For people looking for a few good laughs, you're going to be out of luck, unless you think that scores of bowel movement jokes are amusing by themselves.

Meanwhile, 2002's “Austin Powers In Goldmember” rounded out the series with Myers' spy trying to reconcile his relationship with his dad (Michael Caine), while Dr. Evil's latest attempt to take over the world involves a skin-eating Dutch madman named Goldmember. The latter requires Austin to high tail it to the '70s, where he teams up with the very Pam Grier-like Foxy Cleopatra (the extremely easy-on-the-eyes Beyonce Knowles).

While the energy in “Goldmember” also seems to lag at times, the good news is that there are enough laughs here to warrant a recommendation. Recycled jokes are kept at a minimum (particularly considering the second film), and there's one gem of a gag involving Austin and Mini-Me trying to elude a doctor on Dr. Evil's submarine that's absolutely hysterical. Knowles is a pleasant addition to the cast and everyone seems to be having a good time as usual (there are a handful of fun cameos as well). Also a plus are two great musical numbers: one in the movie, and the other in the deleted scenes section. The latter involves a nice salute to Caine as the cast sings an Austin-altered rendition of "Alfie (What's It All About)," with George S. Clinton providing an especially nice arrangement.

Sure, in comparison with the first film, not every gag is quite as fresh or energetic in “Goldmember,” but the bottom line is that this is a major improvement on the lethargic second installment.

Speaking of that, when was the last time you saw something in the deleted scenes section worth watching? A plethora of extra scenes here -- fully edited and likely cut from the movie just before its release -- include some spirited gags that are actually worth taking a gander at. Extras recycled from the prior DVDs, meanwhile, include several featurettes, commentary from Myers and director Jay Roach and other goodies.

Warner’s Blu-Ray box-set is sparkling, offering colorful VC-1 encoded transfers and Dolby TrueHD soundtracks, which should tide Austin addicts over until Myers makes good on his promise (threat?) to produce another Powers sequel.

HANCOCK (**, 92 mins., 2008, PG-13; Sony): Will Smith and sci-fi are usually a potent combination at the box-office; from the huge grosses of the “Men in Black” movies to the sturdy (if unremarkable) “I, Robot” and last Christmas’ smash hit “I Am Legend,” the mix of star and genre has resulted in many a commercial success over the years.

With “Hancock,” Smith attempts to put his own spin on the super-hero genre, but the movie, in spite of its robust financial in-take, is close to a total misfire, feeling like the work of too many cooks in the kitchen in spite of a few interesting touches.

As a drunken super-hero with no knowledge of his past, Smith is as amiable as always (and engagingly stays in-character, without too many winking sarcastic barbs), but the movie is a mess: after opening with a quite funny succession of sequences showing us Hancock’s bad-boy antics, the Vince Gilligan-Vicent Ngo script focuses on a downtrodden PR consultant (Jason Bateman), who attempts to help Hancock improve his image. After spending time in jail to compensate for the expense of his behavior, Hancock is let out by the LAPD so he can take down some cardboard villains, and soon finds out that Bateman’s gorgeous wife (Charlize Theron) harbors a few secrets of her own.

At 90 minutes and change, “Hancock” is a lean, good-looking piece of commercial filmmaking, but as a narrative the movie is all over the map: a raucous comedy for about 40 minutes, then a serious super-hero tale/domestic drama for its second half. As such, the movie almost feels like an origin movie and its sequel rolled into one failed experiment, with wild tonal shifts and a thoroughly unsatisfying climax involving bad guys who are given about two minutes of screen time. The nature of Theron’s character is tipped off early and doesn’t work at all -- once she takes center stage you could almost feel the air being let out of the theater, since the film’s first half-hour played well in front of the audience I saw the picture with.

Unlike some disappointing movies, “Hancock” is at least mildly entertaining for its duration and is complimented by a spirited John Powell score, and its central concept certainly could’ve made for a fresh twist on the well-worn comic book genre. Alas, the finished product feels like one idea from one writer or producer piled on top of another, culminating in an uneven brew that director Peter Berg is never able to get under control.

Sony’s Blu-Ray disc looks phenomenal at least with another outstanding AVC-encoded transfer and boisterous Dolby TrueHD sound. A good amount of special features include an extended Unrated version (with about 10 minutes of added footage) and seven behind-the-scenes featurettes, as well as a BD-exclusive picture-in-picture “visual diary.”

HOME ALONE: Family Fun Edition (***½, 103 mins., 1990, PG; Fox): Blu-Ray edition of the John Hughes-Chris Columbus Christmas perennial shines with a sparkling new AVC-encoded transfer and DTS Master Audio soundtrack.

With a new HD transfer enhancing the splendid, snow-capped holiday visuals provided by cinematographer Julio Macat and an improved DTS-MA soundtrack, the presentation here alone would be enough to recommend this re-issue for “Home Alone” fans. Just as satisfying is the supplemental package, which reprises the extras from the last “Family Fun Edition” DVD, with an enlightening commentary with Columbus and Macaulay Culkin that’s a must for fans; 15 mostly disposable deleted/alternate scenes; a gag reel; and numerous featurettes, both new and vintage, including fresh comments from Culkin, Columbus, John Williams and others (regrettably, all the trailers have been excised from the BD platter).

In the recent 20-minute Making Of, it’s noted that “another composer” (i.e. Bruce Broughton) had originally been attached to the project but bowed out due to a scheduling issue; the filmmakers considered Williams’ subsequent involvement to be a happy accident where a “better puzzle piece” fell into place. No offense to Broughton’s copious abilities, but it’s hard to argue with their assessment: Williams’ marvelous, holiday-tinged score put the film over the top, while the movie itself remains a mixture of mirth, merriment and holiday feeling that’s lost none of its appeal over the years. Highly recommended!

MEET DAVE (**½, 90 mins., 2008, PG; Fox): Somehow it figures that the one movie Eddie Murphy fails to promote, going so far as to not even attend its L.A. premiere, is actually more entertaining than most of the movies he has shown up to support over the last 10 years.

An alien spacecraft makes its way to New York City in order to retrieve an orb that, months prior, fell into the possession of a grade schooler with an overprotective, widowed mom (Elizabeth Banks). The spacecraft, though, doesn’t look like a spacecraft: it’s actually in the form of Eddie Murphy himself, with a crew of extraterrestrials led by (who else?) captain Murphy and crewmates Gabrielle Union and Ed Helms (Andy from “The Office”), all of whom attempt to retrieve the orb and blend in with Earthlings in the process.

Make no mistake, “Meet Dave” is no classic, and its box-office failure can be primarily attributed to a horrid marketing campaign and tepid title, elements which made this Fox/Regency production look a whole lot worse than it actually is. As breezy family comedies go, however, this engaging sci-fi fantasy boasts a decent quotient of laughs, a playful Murphy performance and the presence of lovely leading ladies Banks and Union, both easy on the eyes.

Brian Robbins, who helmed Murphy in the horrid “Norbit” and is directing him again in the forthcoming “A Thousand Words” (making Murphy’s failure to support the finished product here even odder), paces the picture well and mixes up laughs that are both slapstick and sentimental, yet never as raunchy as many of Murphy’s recent outings. It’s a film that kids can enjoy and adults not be completely bored by, even if much of it resembles the old EPCOT attraction “Cranium Command,” which exploited similar comedic terrain more effectively.

Fox’s Blu-Ray disc looks superb with its AVC encoded transfer and DTS Master Audio soundtrack. Extras include an alternate ending, deleted scenes, a gag reel, Making Of featurette and several promo-flavored behind-the-scenes segments from the Fox Movie Channel.

DODGEBALL: A TRUE UNDEROG STORY (***, 93 mins., 2004, Unrated; Fox): There isn't a whole lot of substance in this Vince Vaughn-Ben Stiller comedy, but "Dodgeball" does, just the same, offer a solid quotient of laughs.

This intentionally hyper-silly though often inspired lark stars Vaughn as the affable owner of a small gym whose millionaire competitor (Stiller) wants to buy him out. To raise the needed capital to keep his gym going, Vaughn and his motley assortment of clients opt to enter the Las Vegas Dodge Ball Invitational, which carries a cash price of $50,000 and coverage on ESPN 8 ("The Ocho").

The gags are all outlandish but many hit in the mark in Rawson Marshall Thruber's film, which boasts perfect comic timing and some very funny supporting turns from the likes of Gary Cole and Jason Bateman (as the ESPN8 announcers), Rip Torn, and even Chuck Norris and William Shatner. "Dodgeball" isn't high art and parents will likely object to some of its adult-oriented content, but it’s nevertheless entertaining just the same.

Fox's Special Edition Blu-Ray disc includes the unrated cut of the film, commentary from Stiller, Vaughn, and writer/director Thurber; deleted scenes, a gag reel, and several Making Of featurettes.

X-FILES: I WANT TO BELIEVE (**½, 104 mins., PG-13, 2008; Fox)
X-FILES: FIGHT THE FUTURE (**½, 122 mins., PG-13, 1998; Fox): Chris Carter’s long-running TV series fumbled its way onto the big screen first in the confusing 1998 “Fight the Future,” which was entertaining by itself but failed to provide a focal point for the series’ tangled narrative web to latch onto. As such, the movie served only to further confuse newcomers to the franchise, while Carter’s recent resurrection of his creation -- last summer’s box-office flop “X-Files: I Want to Believe” -- feels like a movie that’s too little, too late, a low-key but depressing “standalone” tale that’s likely to entertain only hard-core series fans.

Fox has brought both movies to Blu-Ray in excellent, matching 1080p AVC encoded transfers and DTS Master Audio soundtracks. Copious extras include, on “Fight the Future,” both extended and theatrical cuts of the movie; two commentaries, a new talk with Carter, Frank Spotnitz and director Rob Bowman (with a Blu-Ray “BonusView” picture-in-picture visual option), as well as the original 1999 Bowman/Carter commentary; visual effects, scoring and vintage featurettes, a gag reel and other goodies. “I Want to Believe” also offers two versions of the picture, plus commentary by Spotnitz and Carter (with BonusView capable picture-in-picture visuals), deleted scenes, still galleries, featurettes, and a digital copy for portable media players.

THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (****, 92 mins., 1951; Fox): Robert Wise’s ‘50s sci-fi classic hits Blu-Ray this week in a marvelous package that includes a new assortment of extras as well as a crisp AVC encoded transfer in the movie’s original academy aspect ratio. Numerous supplements have also been ported over from prior DVD editions, including commentary from Wise and Nicholas Meyer and a lengthy documentary, while all-new extras are highlighted by a superb conversation with film music gurus John Morgan, Steven Smith, William Stromberg and Nick Redman. An isolated score track (in gorgeous DTS Master Audio) is also on-tap, along with a bevy of newer featurettes, trailers, still galleries, an interactive press book, Fox Movietone newsreel, two BD exclusive features (“Theremin: Create Your Own Score” and an interactive game involving Gort) and a reading of the original Harry Bates short story by Jamieson K. Price. Both the original mono mix and an effective DTS Master Audio remix are available for audio options, both giving a marvelous sound stage for Bernard Herrmann’s superlative score. A classic for all Golden Age sci-fi fans in HD, while standard-def viewers can check out Fox’s separate, 2-disc Special Edition DVD reprieving virtually all of the contents of the BD platter in a fine full-screen transfer.

SPACE CHIMPS (**, 81 mins., 2008, G; Fox): Not to be confused with the recent “Fly Me to the Moon,” about houseflies who decide to orbit in outerspace, “Space Chimps” follows a group of primates...who decide to orbit in outerspace. Though this Starz Animation production doesn’t overstay its welcome at 80 minutes, it’s doubtful anyone other than very young children will garner much entertainment from its bland, routine premise and execution. Fox’s Blu-Ray disc does look quite nice, at least, thanks to its AVC encoded transfer, while DTS Master Audio sound, a stills gallery, TV spots, and a Fox Movie Channel featurette comprise the meager supplemental offerings.

SUPER TROOPERS (**, 103 mins., 2002, R; Fox): There seems to be two ingredients involved in making a successful comedy. First, you have to have an amusing script, or at least, enough of one that the performers can make something out of it. That raises the issue of the second ingredient: you have to have funny performers. I'm sure the scripts for a few of Jim Carrey's early efforts were pathetic, but Carrey's antics carried those brainless movies to the point of being watchable, to say nothing of being successful at the box-office.

What all of that has to do with “Super Troopers” is simple: some of the gags in this tale of goofy Vermont State Troopers are indeed amusing, but the actors who also wrote the film (under the comedic troupe name "Broken Lizard") aren't funny at all playing the leads. It's one thing to have members of Monty Python writing and performing their own material, but the Broken Lizard boys (director Jay Chandrasekhar, Kevin Heffernan, Steve Lemme, Paul Soter, and Erik Stolhanske) have a real problem pulling off the frantic comic pitch the material badly needs. At times I almost thought the movie would have worked better with Steve Guttenberg, Bubba Smith, and George Gaynes in the cast!

Still, Broken Lizard devotees will enjoy Fox’s Blu-Ray disc of the 2002 film, which offers a new AVC encoded transfer with DTS Master Audio sound. Extras include a handful of outtakes, extended scenes and even an alternate ending, plus two commentary tracks, a trailer, and a Making Of featurette.

ELF (**½, 95 mins., 2003, PG, New Line): Cute, appealing but somewhat under-developed vehicle for Will Farrell stars the former SNL cast member as the North Pole's only human elf, "Buddy." Wanting to meet his real dad (an under-written role for James Caan), Buddy ventures to the big city where he tries to spread Christmas cheer and falls for cute department store clerk Zooey Deschanel.

Jon Favreau's movie has its heart in the right place and a few big laughs, but as gentle a fantasy as "Elf" is, the final result just never really gels. The comedy is hit-or-miss and while there are some neat references to Rankin-Bass animated specials mixed in (along with Bob Newhart as the Head Elf and Buddy’s adoptive father), the picture doesn’t hit on all cylinders when it comes to the “domestic” drama of our big elf’s human family. Still, at least it’s better than numerous other holiday misfires (“Fred Klaus,” “Deck the Halls,” etc.) lurking out there.

New Line's Blu-Ray edition is a winner, though, sporting commentaries from the filmmakers, a few deleted/alternate scenes, plenty of Behind the Scenes segments, interactive games for kids, and a breezy Dolby Digital soundtrack sporting a fine John Debney score. The VC-1 encoded transfer is also just fine.

STEP BROTHERS (**½, 98 mins [theatrical] and 106 mins [Unrated], 2008, R; Sony): Will Ferrell’s latest cinematic journey into the comedically absurd doesn’t reach the heights of either “Blades of Glory” or “Talladega Nights,” but “Step Brothers” manages to produce a few yucks in spite of its inherent uneveness.

Ferrell and John C. Reilly play spoiled man-children whose respective parents (Richard Jenkins and Mary Steenburgen) decide to wed. The duo bicker, argue, physically and mentally torture each other en route to trying to break up their parents’ plan, with some predictably raunchy moments along the way.

“Step Brothers” isn’t especially inspired but Ferrell and Reilly make for an engaging comic team here, so much that one can overlook the spotty, disjointed narrative and weak supporting players, none of whom make much of an impression. The movie managed to gross over $100 million in spite of its issues, which is no small testament to Ferell and Reilly’s chemistry, which alone carries “Step Brothers” to the finish line.

Sony’s double-disc Blu-Ray platter is packed to the brim with supplements, from the pre-requisite deleted scenes, bloopers, commentary, Making Of featurettes, to both R-rated and theatrical cuts of the movie itself. The AVC encoded transfer is excellent, as is the Dolby TrueHD audio.

THE LONGSHOTS (**, 95 mins., 2008, PG; Genius Products): Routine tale of Ice Cube coaching a Pop Warner football team and the teenage girl (Keke Palmer, so great in “Akeelah and the Bee”) who becomes his secret weapon. “The Longshots” makes for adequate viewing for youngsters but the story is so predictable that there’s little to offer otherwise. Genius’ Blu-Ray disc does look nifty with its 1080p transfer and Dolby TrueHD audio, while extras include deleted scenes, a Making Of segment, interviews with director Fred Durst and Ice Cube, and a look at the real Jasmine Plummer, whose story formed the basis for the picture.

THE HEARTBREAK KID (**½  114 mins., 2007, R; Dreamworks): The Farrelly Brothers and Ben Stiller reworked the old Neil Simon/Charles Grodin "Heartbreak Kid" for this box-office disappointment. Dreamworks’ Blu-Ray release presents a solid presentation of this not-bad comedic re-do, peppered with a few laughs as well as misfired jokes that feel like leftovers from "There's Something About Mary." That being said, Stiller and Michelle Monaghan are engaging, while co-star Rob Cordry nails his role as Stiller's married-to- the-bone cohort. The Blu-Ray edition sports a terrific 1080p transfer with Dolby TrueHD sound, with extras including commentary from the Farrellys, deleted scenes, a gag reel and other featurettes, as well as the trailer (in high definition).

TOMMY BOY (**½, 97 mins., 1997, PG-13; Paramount): One of the better (faint praise that may be) Saturday Night Live alumni comedies of the mid-to-late ‘90s finds Chris Farley as a college student whose dad (Brian Dennehy) dies, leaving him to inherit his successful auto pad business. Unfortunately dad leaves the business in charge of Farley’s wicked stepmother (Bo Derek), leading Farley and David Spade on a journey to save the family company before it’s too late. Paramount’s Blu-Ray edition of this fan-favorite box-office hit includes commentary from director Peter Segal, four Making Of featurettes, numerous deleted/alternate scenes, a photo gallery, retrospectives on Farley, and the original trailer in HD. 

PLANET TERROR (***, 105 mins., 2007, Unrated; Dimension/Genius)
DEATH PROOF (**½, 113 mins., 2007, Unrated; Dimension/Genius): Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s “Grindhouse” was a notorious box-office flop, leading to the Weinstein Company splitting up its two main attractions for expanded, unrated and separate DVD -- and now Blu-Ray -- releases.

That may disappoint fans longing for more than an HD reprise of the two main features in the “Grindhouse” double-bill: Tarantino’s overly talky “Death Proof” with Kurt Russell and Rodriguez’s gleefully tacky sci-fi spoof “Planet Terror” with Rose McGowan as a stripper who fights a horde of mutants. That said, the Genius Blu-Ray platters are both outstanding with their VC-1 encoded transfers and Dolby TrueHD soundtracks; “Planet Terror” also boasting a “scratch free” version minus the nostalgic visual “imperfections” from its “Grindhouse” release.

Both movies include a big roster of extras, “Planet Terror” in particular with its double-disc set that includes commentary from Rodriguez, an audience reaction track, trailers, extensive Making Of materials and other goodies. The single-disc “Death Proof” offers a number of individual featurettes plus trailers and an uncut version of “Baby It’s You” performed by Mary Elizabeth Winstead.

LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN (**½, 2006, 110 mins., R; Dimension/Genius): Engaging performances from Morgan Freeman, Bruce Willis, Stanley Tucci, and Ben Kingsley nearly make this over-plotted thriller from writer Jason Smilovic and director Paul McGuigan work. Josh Hartnett plays a down-on-his-luck young man who enters into an urban battle between feuding crime bosses Freeman and Kingsley; the twists come fast and furiously, but so much so that you just know there’s a “big one!” coming at the very end. Tarantino and Shyamalan-esque “Slevin” wants to be, but despite falling short of its aspirations, McGuigan’s overly-telegraphed film is still energetically played and directed. Genius Products’ superb Blu-Ray edition includes deleted scenes, an alternate endings, two commentaries (one by McGuigan, another with Harnett, Liu, and Smilovic), and a Making Of featurette. The VC-1 encoded transfer and Dolby TrueHD soundtrack are both excellent.

ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD (101 mins., 2007; Discovery/Image): Werner Herzog documentary finds the filmmaker in Antarctica, capturing the sights, sounds, people and wildlife that populate its terrain. Beautiful HD visuals and a DTS Master Audio soundtrack combine for a strong technical presentation while extras include commentary with Herzog and cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger, a Jonathan Demme interview with the director, the trailer, and a host of Making Of featurettes.

New TV on DVD and Other Capsules

24: REDEMPTION (87 mins., 2008; Fox): A launching pad for “24"’s Season 7 premiere in January, this feature-length TV-movie reintroduces us (as if anyone could ever forget!) to Jack Bauer, cast off from his American citizenship, wanted by the authorities and working at old friend Robert Carlyle’s school in Africa. Of course, trouble follows Jack around like nobody’s business, and soon our man Bauer is back into the fray when he finds out a local warlord is capturing children and heading to the school to capture Carlyle’s kids.
As a dramatic piece “Redemption” is sturdy enough, but for “24" fans this crisply paced offering is sure to get the blood going for the series’ proper return, some 18 months after Season 6 concluded. Though the show itself has been faltering for some time with hackneyed, recycled elements (how many times does the sitting President have to survive a coup from within?), Kiefer Sutherland’s strong central performance and the series’ absence from the airwaves ought to make fans hungry for more -- as evidenced by “Redemption”’s strong broadcast ratings a couple of weeks ago. It remains to be seen if the series can revert back to its glory days, but at least there’s reason for encouragement based on this superior outing.

Fox’s two-disc DVD of “24: Redemption” includes over 10 minutes of added footage not seen in the broadcast version plus the first 17 minutes from Episode 1 of Season 7 -- a nice bonus for fans. The 16:9 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack are both excellent, while commentary and Making Of featurettes round out the supplemental section.

HAPPY DAYS Season 4 (1976-77, 11 hrs., CBS/Paramount): Gary Marshall’s beloved sitcom was still on top of the ratings during its fourth year. Prior to Fonzie jumping the shark, this collection of 25 episodes from “Happy Days”’ Season 4 offers some memorable moments, from a multi-episode arc involving Fonzie’s relationship with Pinkie Tuscadero to the Fonz dancing the night away with Joanie Cunningham at an Arnold’s competition. By this point Henry Winkler’s iconic performance as Fonzie had completely taken over the show, with top-billed Ron Howard and the gang being relegated to the background for the most part -- not that any of them complained while the series took off in popularity. Paramount’s Season 4 box-set includes all 25 shows in fine full-screen transfers and even includes the 3rd Anniversary “clip show.” As with before, some music edits are unavoidable, but the presentation otherwise is top-notch.

SWINGTOWN: Season 1 (2008, 9 hrs., CBS/Paramount): Good-looking and well-cast, but essentially ridiculous, CBS night-time soap failed to find much of an audience this past summer. That said, the subject matter is remarkably scandalous for the network’s usual standards, following a young couple (Molly Parker and Jack Davenport) who move to the other side of town, away from their conservative friends and near swinging couple Lana Parilla and her airline-pilot husband Grant Snow.

Packed with ‘70s attire and mores, “Swingtown” is watchable enough but most episodes adhere to the same formula in each episode (should they cheat? Should they do drugs? Does anyone really care?). More over, the “swinging” is essentially portrayed like vampirism (!), making for some unintentional yucks as goody two-shoes housemom Miriam Shor attempts to cope with pal Parker’s new freewheeling lifestyle and conversion to “the dark side.” It’s basically like a lightweight, soapy version of Ang Lee’s “The Ice Storm.”

Paramount’s superb DVD box-set of “Swingtown” preserves the series’ complete run (no Season 2 has been announced) in glossy 16:9 transfers with 5.1 audio, deleted scenes, a gag reel, audio commentaries and a Making Of featurette.

GUNSMOKE, Season 3, Vol. 1 (1957-58, 8 hrs.., CBS/Paramount): The first 19 episodes from “Gunsmoke”’s third season are on-tap in this latest DVD compilation from Paramount. Once again sporting remastered black-and-white transfers (as well as original sponsor ads), fans will enjoy seeing Matt Dillon, Miss Kitty and the rest of the gang back together again. Episodes include “Crack-Up,” “Gun For Chester,” “Blood Money,” “Kitty’s Outlaw,” “Potato Road,” “Jesse,” “Mavis McCloud,” “Born to Hang,” “Romeo,” “Never Pester Chester,” “Fingered,” “How to Kill a Woman,” “Cows and Cribs,” “Doc’s Reward,” “Kitty Lost,” “Twelfth Night,” “Joe Play,” “Buffalo Man,” and “Kitty Kaught.”

RAWHIDE, Season 3, Vol. 2 (1961, 13 hours., CBS/Paramount): Four-disc box-set includes the final 15 episodes from the long-running western’s third season. Episodes include “Incident on the Road Back,” “Incident of the New Start,” “Incident of the Running Iron,” “Incident Near Gloomy River,” “Incident of the Boomerang,” “Incident of His Brother’s Keeper,” “Incident in the Middle of Nowhere,” “Incident of the Phantom Bugler,” “Incident of the Lost Idol,” “Incident of the Running Man,” “Incident of the Painted Lady,” “Incident Before Black Pass,” “Incident of the Blackstorms,” “Incident of the Night on the Town,” and “Incident of the Wager on Payday.” Full-screen transfers and mono soundtracks are all in satisfying condition.

AMERICAN TEEN (101 mins., 2008, PG-13; Paramount): Indie documentary from Paramount Vantage and A&E looks at the lives of five Indiana high-schoolers in a fairly compelling yet not especially insightful work from producer-director Nanette Burstein. Despite good intentions all around, this subject matter has been covered in similar projects far more effectively. Paramount’s DVD includes trailers, deleted scenes, and cast interviews, along with a 16:9 (1.85) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

THE BEST OF DR. KATZ, PROFESSIONAL THERAPIST (1995-99, 110 mins.; Paramount): I was never a big fan of this ‘90s Comedy Central series, but fans of the show are sure to enjoy this single-disc compilation of sketches from the long-running series. The near-two hours of content includes “appearances” by comics ranging from Dave Chappelle and Janeane Garofalo to Denis Leary, Conan O’Brien, Ray Romano, Sarah Silverman, Richard Lewis and others. The animation has always looked bad so the transfer is every bit as good as can be hoped for.

TRANSFORMERS ENERGON (2008, 1092 mins., Paramount): Recent Transformers animated series, finding the Autobots and Deceptions living in a period of peace (go figure!), hits DVD in a seven-disc box-set from Paramount with full-screen transfers and Dolby Surround soundtracks.

NEXT TIME: Abbott & Costello, SNL and More! Until then, don't forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards, check out the Aisle Seat Blog, and direct any emails to our email address.  Cheers everyone and HAPPY THANKSGIVING!

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