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Super Bowl Edition
Criterion Brings GODZILLA to Blu-Ray
Plus: 50/50, RUM DIARY, Hitch on Blu, MGM MOD and More

Some five years after Classic Media brought the Japanese version of the original “Godzilla” to American shores, Criterion has enhanced the property immeasurably with a sterling Blu-Ray edition of GODZILLA [GOJIRA] – and the American GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS – complete with insightful new extras.

The “pop up” cardboard package houses a single BD platter offering both the 98-minute “native” version of Ishiro Honda’s 1954 monster masterwork with English subtitles, as well as its faster-paced, pulpier American version “Godzilla, King of the Monsters,” which was released in 1956 with much footage excised and newly-shot inserts with Raymond Burr (as U.S. reporter Steve Martin) inserted to give the movie local appeal.

Kaiju fans have raved for years about the Japanese version of “Gojira,” which moves at a slower clip but favors character development and a more somber tone -- with explicit commentary about the horrors of the Atomic Bomb and more overt parallels to Hiroshima -- than the U.S. print. In fact, it’s fascinating to see how thoughtful this groundbreaking movie actually is (in its original version), particularly when the dozens and dozens of Toho films that followed offered so little in the way of intellectual attributes.

The American version comes off as clumsy by comparison (and some of Burr’s reactions seem odd, to say the least) but its quicker pace -- accentuating the ‘50s monster craze of its time -- remains a positive aspect of director/editor Terry Morse’s U.S. version. The socio-political commentary is toned down, but it’s still there to a degree, particularly in relation to the B-movie thrills that so many of its sci-fi counterparts boasted at the time.

Criterion’s new HD print of “Gojira” is vastly superior to the Classic Media BD package, though there are still a substantial amount of scratches and dirt on-hand in each.
The full-screen framing is satisfying and the mono sound as effective as can be given the condition of the source material. There’s no doubt the DNR Classic Media applied to the original release has also been fully rectified here; the image is crisp, natural and an appreciable improvement on the Classic Media Blu-Ray.

Supplements include commentaries by David Kalat on both versions (insightful though ultimately a bit stuffier than Classic Media’s DVD commentary), plus interviews with actors Akira Takarada and Haruo Nakajima and effects artists Yoshiro Irie and Eizo Kaimai; a conversation with the great composer Akira Ikafube; a featurette detailing “Godzilla”’s effects; a new interview with Japanese film critic Tadao Sato; an illustrated audio essay about the fishing vessel Daigo Fukuryu Maru, a tragic event that inspired “Godzilla”; and trailers for both versions.

Also new this month from Criterion:

Francesco Rosi’s THE MOMENT OF TRUTH (107 mins., 1965) is a fascinating, Italian widescreen portrait of life in the bullfighting ring, with a real-life figure in the sport (Miguel Mateo) playing a Spanish superstar who rises and, spectacularly, falls in a Rosi film that uses bullfighting as an allegory for life itself. Criterion’s AVC encoded 2.35 transfer is marvelous, crisply capturing the full scope of the visuals, while clear mono sound (in Italian with English subs), an interview with Rosi from 2004, and an essay from Peter Matthews round out the single disc Blu-Ray package.

Catherine Deneuve’s luminous performance in Luis Bunuel’s international worldwide hit BELLE DE JOUR (100 mins., 1967) also receives the high-def Blu-Ray treatment from Criterion this month. Deneuve is breathtaking as a bored Paris housewife who dreams about, and ultimately becomes (or does she?), a bordello prostitute in Bunuel’s most well-known film – one which surreally blurs the line between reality and fantasy and offers a decidedly ambiguous finale. I hadn’t seen “Belle de Jour” since a college viewing (via a VHS tape projected on a classroom wall – not exactly pristine conditions!), but Criterion’s Blu-Ray sports a clean AVC encoded 1.66 transfer with French with English subtitles. Among the supplements are a commentary by author Michael Wood; an interview with screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere; an excerpt from a French TV program including interviews with Carriere and Deneuve; a video piece featuring writer and sexual-politics activist Susie Bright and film scholar Linda Williams; and both American and original French release trailers.

Also New on Blu-Ray

50/50 Blu-Ray (**, 100 mins., 2011, R; Summit): Disappointing chronicle of Seattle twentysomething Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who is diagnosed with a rare tumor and goes through the cycle of denial, acceptance and struggle as he fights the disease with the (on and off) help from a circle of friends, including crass bestpal Seth Rogen, moody artist-girlfriend Bryce Dallas Howard, young therapist Anna Kendrick and mom Anjelica Huston.

Despite a terrific cast and a couple of effective scenes, “50/50" comes across as a film that should’ve been rewritten a couple of times beyond Will Reiser’s credited screenplay. At a lean 95-minutes sans credits, the picture feels abrupt and incomplete – more like a series of scenes strung together than a fully developed story. Time and time again the movie fumbles obvious opportunities at creating drama, whether it’s in Gordon-Levitt’s older cancer-afflicted friends, to his relationships with Howard and Rogen, which play out – as most of the film does – in a number of short, perfunctory scenes. There’s no dramatic arc to director Jonathan Levine’s picture either – like an R-rated “Afterschool Special,” the movie hits the expected beats without any real character insight, and ends exactly where you anticipate it will.

Summit’s Blu-Ray includes a commentary with Levine, Reiser and Rogen; deleted scenes; three featurettes; a fine AVC encoded 1080p transfer and DTS MA soundtrack.    

Cancer is also at the center of Gus Van Sant’s RESTLESS (**½, 91 mins., 2011, PG-13), another big comedown for a director who in the late ‘90s was in high demand after popular critic favorites “Good Will Hunting” and “To Die For.”

This quaint love story – over and done with by the 90-minute mark – also skirts TV-Movie territory in its well-meaning yet predictable portrait of a girl with terminal brain cancer (Mia Wasikowska) who falls for a teen (Henry Hopper) whose parents have died. She’s a force of nature and likes painting nature portraits; he tries to cope with his pain by visiting the memorial services of strangers and whose best friend is the ghost of a kamikaze pilot from WWII.

“Restless” offers some nice performances from the two leads and technical quality to spare – from Harris Savides’ cinematography to Danny Elfman’s score – but there’s just nothing to grasp onto in the film, with no real quirkiness or “edge” that you’d anticipate from one of Van Sant’s better films. Tellingly, this Ron Howard production flopped at the box-office, with Sony relegating it strictly to art-house theaters as a “Sony Classics” release.

Sony’s Blu-Ray/DVD combo includes deleted scenes, the director’s “silent version” of the film, five behind-the-scenes featurettes, a 1080p AVC encoded transfer and 5.1 DTS MA audio.

THE RUM DIARY Blu-Ray (**½, 120 mins., 2011, R; Sony): Johnny Depp takes another sojourn into Hunter S. Thompson territory in this uneven and ultimately unsatisfying adaptation of the late author’s book “The Rum Diary” – a manuscript that had gone unpublished until Depp himself encouraged its release.

Depp plays the very Thompson-like Paul Kemp, a down-trodden journalist who heads to Puerto Rico for excitement, booze and something other than “normal” and ends up working at the San Juan Star. After settling into the island and its laid-back characters, Kemp falls for beautiful Amber Heard, the fiancee of a shady American businessman (Aaron Eckhart) who wants to turn the tropical paradise into a playground for the wealthy.

Michael Rispoli is terrific as a photographer who serves as Kemp’s right hand man, and “The Rum Diary”’s first hour is superb – filled with location detail and one of Depp’s better performances of late. Director-writer Bruce Robinson’s film is packed with A-list production talent behind the camera (Colleen Atwood’s costumes; Carol Littleton’s editing; Dariusz Wolski’s fine cinematography and Christopher Young’s score), but the goodwill generated by the movie’s first half evaporates by the time it reaches its climactic stages, making you wonder what the point was (outside of a vanity trip for the star). The lovely Heard also seems far too young for her role as the object of both Depp and Eckhart’s desire, while Giovanni Ribisi chips in a tiresome role as a local stoner.

Sony’s Blu-Ray of “The Rum Diary” does look terrific with a sun-soaked AVC encoded 1080p transfer with 5.1 DTS MA audio, while extras include a pair of Making Of featurettes.

THE DEAD Blu-Ray (**½, 105 mins., 2010, R; Anchor Bay): Oh no, not another zombie movie, right? Well, yes and no: brothers Howard and Jon Ford have fashioned a better-than-average portrait of the undead apocalypse in “The Dead,” a 2010 film just making its way to Blu-Ray from Anchor Bay.

Rob Freeman plays an American Air Force engineer whose evacuation flight out of an undead-ravaged Africa crashes, leaving him almost alone to face hordes of zombies populating the landscape. Freeman ultimately teams up with an African military man (Prince David Osei) who’s searching for his son, and together the duo try to survive while making their way back to Freeman’s military base.

“The Dead” doesn’t offer many surprises, though it’s certainly well-done for the indie horror flick that it is. The somewhat hopeful ending is also a plus, setting things up for a sequel that may happen should the movie do well on video. While not any type of classic, at least “The Dead” should satisfy horror fans looking for a competent reworking of tried-and-true genre conventions.

Anchor Bay’s Blu-Ray boasts a commentary, one deleted scene and a Making Of featurette. The 1080p transfer is just fine and the 5.1 Dolby TrueHD soundtrack is sonically involving.

Blu-Ray Catalog Titles From Fox and MGM

Hitchcock fans are sure to get their kicks out of a trio of new Fox/MGM Blu-Ray releases, offering HD presentations of three of the director’s ‘40s classics.   

The director’s legendary REBECCA (****, 131 mins., 1940), Hitchcock’s first American film produced by David O. Selznick, is a supremely memorable adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s novel starring Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier. Previously available in a fantastic, out-of-print Criterion DVD release, MGM and Fox’s new Blu-Ray includes extras from their prior DVD edition from a couple of years ago: a fresh commentary track with Richard Schickel, a Making Of featurette, a profile on Du Maurier, screen tests, radio plays, the trailer, an isolated music and effects track, and still galleries. Most of the extras were included on the Criterion release, while the B&W transfer is unadulterated, warts and all, with no DNR and a sharpness not present in the prior DVD on-hand.

Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck starred in another memorable Hitchcock-Selznick production, 1945's SPELLBOUND (***½, 118 mins.), here featuring a commentary with historians Thomas Schatz and Charles Ramirez Berg; featurettes on the production and the dream sequence created by Salvador Dalli; a 1948 radio adaptation; and the trailer. Once again, the B&W transfer is pleasing on its own terms, and superior to MGM’s prior DVD release thanks to a DNR-free, crisp AVC encoded mastering (the original Overture is also present and accounted for).

Finally, the 1946 classic NOTORIOUS (***½, 101 mins.) with Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman features two different audio commentaries (one by historian Rick Jewell, another with Drew Casper), Making Of featurettes; a 1948 radio play adaptation; another isolated music and effects track, still galleries and other extras. The B&W transfer is fine, and much like “Rebecca” and “Spellbound,” isn’t affected by noise reduction and other problems that have plagued recent BD catalog releases (like Universal’s “To Kill a Mockingbird”), allowing for a natural, pleasing HD appearance.

Also new from Fox and MGM on Blu-Ray this month:

A terrific HD edition of Billy Wilder’s THE APARTMENT (***½, 125 mins., 1960) sports commentary from film producer and historian Bruce Block, plus two new featurettes, one recounting the production and another paying tribute to star Jack Lemmon. The AVC encoded 1080p (2.35) transfer is excellent, preserving the scope B&W cinematography, while DTS HD mono audio does the best it can to preserve the film’s original sound mix.

Two Woody Allen classics have also debuted on Blu-Ray in highly satisfying presentations: ANNIE HALL (***½, 93 mins., 1977, PG) remains one of Allen’s most celebrated films – the 1977 Best Picture Oscar winner solidified his directorial career and sports some memorable sequences, terrific performances and an incisive script by Allen and Marshall Brickman. Fox’s 1080p (1.85) transfer is just perfect; crisp, natural and minus any filtering or DNR. The trailer is also included.

Brickman collaborated with Allen again on MANHATTAN (***½, 96 mins., 1979), one of Allen’s only widescreen films which, again, Fox and MGM have released untouched on Blu-Ray in a marvelous 1080p (2.35) presentation with DTS MA audio and the lengthy original trailer as its only extra. Gordon Willis’ cinematography has never looked better than it does here, enhancing the film’s atmosphere and its overall impact.

New From Paramount

Just in time for Valentine’s Day, Paramount has dusted off LOVE STORY (***, 100 mins., 1970, PG), the box-office smash that gave audiences of the early ‘70s Ryan O’Neal and Ali McGraw in a film whose musical score and main tag line (“love means never having to say you’re sorry”) have endured the years far better than the film itself, which feels dated and cliched, complete with one of those “downer endings” so prevalent in the decade.

Even if “Love Story” feels like a movie of the moment as opposed to a classic film, romantics still ought to enjoy director Arthur Hiller’s film of Erich Segal’s screenplay (based on his book) – one that inspired a wealth of rip-offs for years to come (not to mention a disastrous 1978 sequel, “Oliver’s Story,” that nobody outside of O’Neal’s family went to see). Will O’Neal’s preppy Harvard law student find true love with music student McGraw? Will she ever be accepted by O’Neal’s snobby billionaire father Ray Milland? Will love conquer all, or will death stand in the way? “Love Story” might feel like one bad cliche after another, but at least it was the film that established most of those cliches.

“Love Story” does boast strong chemistry between the two leads and a sweeping score by Francis Lai, along with an early performance from Tommy Lee Jones and on-location filming that adds to the film’s authenticity. Paramount’s Blu-Ray is also one of their better catalog efforts of late – the 1080p AVC encoded transfer does have some type of filtering on it at times, but in general maintains the picture’s natural grain and offers strong colors. The DTS MA 5.1 audio rechannels Lai’s score for a stereophonic effect but otherwise plays out in mono. Extras include an older retrospective featurette and commentary from Hiller, plus the trailer.

New Manufactured-on-Demand Titles from MGM

Here’s a capsule rundown of select November and December releases in MGM’s limited-edition manufactured-on-demand DVD-R series:

WHAT DO YOU SAY TO A NAKED LADY? (***, 86 mins., 1970, R): Allen Funt and the Candid Camera gang tried something a little different – and quite R-rated – in this feature expansion of the TV show. Dated but in a good way, with a Burt Bacharach-like soundtrack courtesy of Steve Karmen. The 16:9 transfer is perfectly fine.

UP THE CREEK (**½, 96 mins., 1984, R): Tim Matheson might’ve been over the hill by the time he starred in this surprisingly watchable Samuel Z. Arkoff production with Matheson and fellow “Animal House” alum Stephen Furst trying to win a whitewater rafting contest. A wacky supporting cast includes “Charles in Charge”’s Jennifer Runyon, young Clark Kent Jeff East, plus James B. Sikking and John Hillerman for good measure. Quite watchable for ‘80s comedy fans, with a respectable 16:9 transfer on tap again here from MGM.

NUTCRACKER THE MOTION PICTURE (***, 85 mins., 1986, G): Carroll Ballard’s 1986 “Nutcracker: The Motion Picture” captures the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s adaptation of Tchaikovsky’s perennial with sets and costumes designed by Maurice Sendak. No-frills filmmaking here – just a straight adaptation of the ballet with fine cinematography by Stephen H. Burum. MGM’s DVD includes the trailer and a perfectly serviceable 16:9 transfer that should satisfy fans of the film who’ve waited for some time now for a digital release of the picture.

FATAL CHARM (90 mins., 1992, R): Growing up I had a mad crush on Amanda Peterson, best known for her roles in “Can’t Buy Me Love” and “Explorers.” Peterson basically vanished off the planet after her role in “Fatal Charm,” a 1992 film with Peterson as a naive girl who forms an odd relationship with an inmate (Christopher Atkins). “Fatal Charm” feels like a very early Lifetime TV movie but just seeing Peterson on-screen again makes one wonder why her career stalled out in the early ‘90s.

A SMALL TOWN IN TEXAS (***, 96 mins., 1976, R): Cool American-International programmer finds Timothy Bottoms coming home to his baby and girlfriend Susan George – only to find out nasty sheriff Bo Hopkins has taken over his daddy role in this efficient B-movie from director Jack Smight. MGM’s 2.35 16:9 transfer really enables you to capture the full, widescreen vibe of this enjoyable drive-in flick.

HANNIBAL BROOKS (**½, 102 mins., 1969): A WWII POW gets to escape from the Germans and decides to take the elephant that he’s been caring for along with him in this uneven oddity from director Michael Winner who co-wrote the picture with Dick Clement, Ian La Frenais and Tom Wright. Oliver Reed and Michael J. Pollard star in a film that’s had some cult appeal over the years, despite few ways for viewers to see it. MGM’s DVD includes a clean 1.66 16:9 transfer and mono sound.

THE MANCHU EAGLE MURDER CAPER MYSTERY (**½, 81 mins., 1975, PG): Decidedly offbeat comedic-mystery from UA offers an ensemble cast (Gabriel Dell, Will Geer, Joyce van Patten, Barbara Harris, Vincent Gardenia, Jackie Coogan) trying to piece together who murdered a local milkman. Quirky and mildly entertaining. Fox’s 16:9 transfer also comes recommended.
Also On DVD

NEW FROM LIONSGATE: Method Man plays THE MORTICIAN (89 mins., 2012, R), who tries to protect a young boy – whose mother has just died – from his abusive father. Lionsgate’s DVD includes a 16:9 (2.35) transfer and featurette...STORMHOUSE (87 mins., 2012, R) finds a clairvoyant (Katie Flynn) trying to make contact with a supernatural presence that’s been captured in a U.S. military base. Lionsgate’s DVD includes a 16:9 (2.35) transfer, 5.1 soundtrack, and one behind-the-scenes featurette....FRED 2: NIGHT OF THE FRED (83 mins., Not Rated, 2011) offers more high school hyjinks with Fred Figglehorn (Lucas Cruikshank) attempting to find out the whereabouts of his favorite music teacher and convinced her replacement is a vampire. WWE superstar John Cena chips in a cameo as Lucas’ father in a silly slapstick affair aimed at younger viewers. Several featurettes, a 16:9 (1.78) transfer and 5.1 soundtrack are on-hand in Lionsgate’s DVD, streeting on February 7th...PROJECT NIM (93 mins., 2011, PG-13) is a terrific documentary from director James Marsh, focusing on Nim, a chimpanzee who was raised from birth by humans and his sad, long-winding journey through life. Lionsgate’s DVD includes a 16:9 transfer, 5.1 soundtrack, commentary from Marsh and a pair of featurettes.

NEW FROM A&E/NEWVIDEO: Season 3 of ANCIENT ALIENS (aprx. 12 hours, 2011) includes four discs of recent episodes from the History Channel series that ponder whether Ancient Astronauts have visited our little corner of the galaxy. This third season of the show feels as if it’s stretched past the material’s limits, though, with zombies and vampires profiled as a possible connection with extraterrestrial visitation (you mean “Lifeforce” was real!?). The DVD set includes widescreen transfers and 2.0 stereo soundtracks...Volume 2 of STORAGE WARS (408 mins., 2011) includes the first 14 episodes from the quite-popular A&E treasure-hunting series in widescreen transfers and 2.0 soundtracks.

NEXT TIME: VISION QUEST in Widescreen! 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!

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