2/10/09 Edition

February Freeze Edition
Plus: Spectacular Blu-Ray rundown!

It’s a rare occasion these days when a film that’s been out of circulation for years is released on DVD for the first time. Most weeks we tend to cover DVD catalog titles on their second or third incarnation on disc -- typically not films which still command over $100 on the secondary market for their ancient VHS releases.

This month marks such an occasion, as Richard Donner’s superb INSIDE MOVES (***½, 113 mins., 1980, R) at last receives a DVD edition courtesy of Lionsgate.

Fresh off the success of “Superman” (and his firing/departure from “Superman II”), Donner opted to helm this low-key character study about “damaged” individuals at a Bay Area bar and their relationships with one another. John Savage plays Rory, a man we first see trying to kill himself in the picture’s opening scenes -- as Rory later aptly puts it, he couldn’t even manage suicide without screwing it up. Rory regains his soul, in spite of his crippled body, by hanging out at Max’s, a local watering hole populated with off-kilter characters, a cute waitress (Diana Scarwid) and Jerry, a bartender (David Morse) who wants to pursue his dreams of a basketball career if he can afford a costly operation on his knees. Jerry is also saddled with a troubled floozy of a girlfriend (Amy Wright), much to the consternation of Rory, who latches onto the ably bodied but emotionally handicapped Jerry in the hopes that he can live out his dreams.

Valerie Curtin and Barry Levinson adapted Todd Walton’s mid ‘70s novel for this critically adored 1980 release, which I assume has been held up for release on video due to a rights issue (long-defunct Associated Film Distribution released the movie, leaving it in some kind of ITC/Carlton/Grenada limbo ever since). Whatever the reason for the picture’s inordinate delay, “Inside Moves” is a terrific “little” film worthy of reappraisal, and highlighted by marvelous performances from Savage and Morse. Donner handles the picture sensitively and without an excess of melodrama, while the screenplay realistically examines the relationship between its leads, the problems both men face and how the two of them need each other in spite of their differences. Laszlo Kovacs’ cinematography is atmospheric and richly textured, while John Barry provides a moody, subtle score that’s effective whenever it’s utilized. It’s a picture with a warm human center, and one that ranks with Donner’s finest.

One can only wonder after years of laying dormant on studio shelves what kind of condition “Inside Moves” was in when Lionsgate produced their DVD master. Regrettably, the print utilized here is often soft and not in the greatest shape, though at least the 16:9 (1.78) transfer appears well-composed. The mono sound is merely OK as well.

Special features include an insightful commentary track with Donner and Brian Helgeland (
even though Helgeland amusingly mistakes John Barry as having written the score for "Superman," and Donner then mistakenly declares that Barry also scored "another film of his" -- "Radio Flyer"!), the screenwriter-director who accompanied Donner on the commentary of “The Omen,” as well as an interview with Todd Walton and Donner, discussing the film’s transition from novel to screen. Highly recommended!

Aisle Seat Co-Pick of the Week

Although it virtually plays out like a “Law & Order” episode set in the 1920s, CHANGELING -- Clint Eastwood’s fact-based tale of the infamous California “Chicken Coop” child murders, and the odd case of Pauline Collins’ missing son -- makes for an absorbing, compelling film (***, 142 mins., 2008, R; Universal).

Angelina Jolie plays Collins, a single mother in 1928 Los Angeles who returns home to find her son Walter missing. Some time later, the authorities -- not all that cooperative to begin with -- tell her that they’ve found Walter, who apparently was picked up by a drifter in the midwest. Despite her initial problems with the police -- in particular a gruff, less-than-understanding captain (Jeffrey Donovan) -- Collins is elated at the news...at least until she sees that the boy the police return home isn’t her son, much to the consternation of the authorities, who need to trumpet Walter’s return in order to improve their rapidly declining public image.

Undeterred by their behavior, Collins continues to plea for her son’s return, leading to her being admitted into a psychiatric hospital...all the while one determined cop (Michael Kelly) continues his search for a group of missing children south of the city in the dusty town of Wineville.

Noted science fiction writer J. Michael Straczynski’s script for “Changeling” (his first produced feature screenplay) is laid out so that, eventually, the film splits into two paralleling stories: Collins’ inexplicable treatment by the Los Angeles Police Department, and the investigation into child predator Gordon Northcott, who tries to flee north of the border after his nephew confesses to the police. Eastwood’s direction is as no-frills as the screenplay, which dissects the harrowing, and almost entirely true, account of the slayings and Collins’ hope that somehow, somewhere, her son was still alive.

Jolie is convincing as Collins, and the film has the look of quality, spearheaded by period atmosphere provided by cinematographer Tom Stern and production designer James J. Murakami. It’s a taut and effectively rendered tale, though the movie tends to be so clinical in its approach that, emotionally, it’s difficult to penetrate its subject matter. Jolie is believable enough as Collins but John Malkovich, who appears as Gustav A. Briegleb, a Presbyterian minister who aided Collins (and had a seemingly popular radio program at the time), is simply a passerby in a story that moves to point to point with little pause for emotional beats -- all culminating in an ending that doesn’t pack nearly the emotional power it should have. “Changeling” is certainly still a worthwhile film but it never grabs you and takes hold the way you might anticipate.

Universal’s Blu-Ray disc includes a highly satisfying AVC encoded transfer with Dolby TrueHD audio, sporting a low-key, elegiac score from Eastwood, orchestrated (as usual) by Lennie Niehaus. Technically this is an excellent package from Universal, though extras are disappointingly slim: picture-in-picture segments and two Making Of featurettes make for a fairly bland collection of extras, though archival images and documents will provide some insight for history buffs.

Also New On Blu-Ray

GROUNDHOG DAY: 15th Anniversary DVD (****, 1993, 101 mins., Sony; PG): One of Bill Murray's finest vehicles remains one of the funniest romantic-comedies of the '90s, offering big laughs and a poignant message (not unlike "’A Christmas Carol’ in February") in addition to its innovative and clever time-paradox premise.

Murray plays a TV weatherman who becomes bound in time to relive Groundhog Day over and over and over again, with his producer Andie MacDowell and cameraman Chris Elliott attempting each time to understand just what's ticking off the irascible tube personality. Soon Murray's Phil Connors goes from frustration to acquiring God-like powers by living the day through repetition and bewildering the small-town residents with his vast knowledge of every individual's life.

Director Harold Ramis, reteaming with his "Ghostbusters" co-star, keeps the action moving, mixing laughs and sentiment perfectly, and constantly putting spins on the ingenious Danny Rubin premise. It's an undeniably entertaining brew that represents some of the best work of its cast and crew, with a great Murray performance and a catchy George Fenton score adding to the fun.

Sony’s Blu-Ray disc sports a crisp AVC encoded transfer, Dolby TrueHD audio and extras from its 15th Anniversary Special Edition DVD release (has it been 15 years?) from a year ago, offering inviting supplemental features, including never-before-screened deleted sequences and a new documentary on the production, as well as a recent Ramis interview and the commentary from the prior DVD release. There’s also a BD exclusive “Needle Nose Ned’s Picture in Picture Track” that enables Stephen Tobolowsky to reprise Ned Ryerson one more time as well!

ANY GIVEN SUNDAY (***½, 157 mins., 1999, R): Subtract a star if you're not a sports fan, since this 157-minute adrenaline-rush -- Oliver Stone's energetic, cinematic 1999 look at professional football -- manages to capture all the elements of the game: bone-crunching hits, veteran quarterbacks, younger rising stars, battle-scarred coaches, and tumultuous upper-management.

You've read a plot scenario like this before: the movie chronicles the on and off-field escapades of the Miami Sharks (the NFL wisely opted not to grant their license for this all-too realistic film), a once-champion team now fading into the twilight. The coach (Al Pacino) has seen better days, and now is faced with the prospects of using a hothead rookie (Jamie Foxx) after the veteran QB (Dennis Quaid) is hit early and often in the film's opening game sequence. To make matters worse, the owner (Cameron Diaz) wants to pick up stakes and move the team to Los Angeles, while the Sharks themselves are mired in a four-game losing streak.

It sounds hackneyed, but “Any Given Sunday” manages to not only encompass the usual "sports movie" formula of underdogs rising up against all odds, but also the controversial elements that make pro football such a constant topic of discussion in the sports world: drug abuse, medicinal cover-ups, players out of control making money beyond their wildest dreams, and succumbing to temptation at the cost of the game itself. Issues of race, sex, and merchandizing contracts are also adeptly brought up in the picture, which manages to touch upon each of these subjects without overly dwelling on any of them, and indeed, the film was a bit ahead of its time with its portrayal of “illegal substances.”

Stone's hyperkinetic filmmaking style has run colder than hot during the more recent portions of his career, but “Any Given Sunday” is one of his more satisfying films all told: hand-held camera, use of different film stocks, pounding music (from rap and techno tracks to original music co-composed by Robbie Robertson among others), and frequent montages make this one of the shortest two-and-a-half hours you're likely to spend, even if some of the game footage is too eclectic for its own good (often times it's impossible to follow one play from start to finish without getting dizzy). Still, more often than not, the technique works.

Even better are the performances, which manage to penetrate through Stone's fast cutting and the episodic script (written by Stone and John Logan from Rob Huizenga's novel): Pacino is perfect as the embattled coach, while Diaz surprises with a fairly believable performance as the fetching young owner of the team, which her father built for success along with the current coach. Foxx, meanwhile, is terrific as the new QB who rises too quickly to fame, and Quaid believably conveys the veteran who has seen it all and knows his time is up. Additional supporting performances manage to add to the movie's depth, from real-life football greats (Lawence Taylor, Johnny Unitas, Dick Butkus, etc.) to smaller parts played by John C. McGinley (as a Jim Rome-like reporter), James Woods and Matthew Modine as the team physicians, and Stone himself as the Sharks's color commentator.

The movie moves fast, looks great, and captures the essence of the game -- and its turbulent off-field issues -- while firmly remaining a celebration of the sport itself. If you could care less about football, chances are good that you'll find the movie to be a lot of noise and nonsense. For sports aficionados, “Any Given Sunday” is a feast of entertainment

Warner’s Blu-Ray disc includes the shorter Director’s Cut of the movie in a splendid VC-1 encoded transfer and with pleasingly effective Dolby TrueHD audio. Extras reprieved from the prior Special Edition DVD of the movie include commentary by Stone, another commentary with Foxx, deleted/extended scenes, music videos, outtakes, Making Of featurettes, a music-only track, and a documentary on the making of the picture. A digital copy for portable media players is also on-hand.

PRETTY WOMAN (***, 120 mins., 1990, R; Buena Vista): Garry Marshall’s box-office smash receives its first Blu-Ray release in a basic reprise of its 2005 15th Anniversary edition, minus its “Director’s Cut” presentation.

The AVC encoded transfer and uncompressed PCM sound are both quite good for a catalog title, while Marshall’s commentary, a vintage 1990 promo featurette, Natalie Cole’s “Wild Women Do” video, the original trailer, and a blooper reel comprise the extras. A pair of featurettes (“Live From the Wrap Party,” taken from a camcorder source, and “LA: The Pretty Woman Tour,” which includes a map of the film’s locales), produced for the then-new 2005 DVD, are also included.

The film remains a romantic fairy tale, a total star vehicle for Julia Roberts and Richard Gere, and isn’t to be taken too seriously. It’s still a highly entertaining, glossy romantic-comedy, and Buena Vista’s Blu-Ray edition serves up a nice presentation of the picture for its fans.

CLERKS II (**½, 97 mins., 2006, R; Genius/Weinstein): Kevin Smith's 2006 return to the movie that jump-started his career is a funny but somewhat lukewarm character drama. Jeff Anderson and Brian O'Halloran are back as Randal and Dante, now working at a fast food chain but still getting into plenty of trouble, particularly with new manager Rosario Dawson. "Clerks II" does have a good quotient of laughs but there's no urgency in Smith's film -- it's all kind of “there,” livened up by cameos from the filmmaker's usual crew (Jason Lee, Ben Affleck, etc.), but ultimately it just doesn't have the lasting effect its predecessor had. Perhaps the weak performances from the original leads is part of the problem; Smith's less polished original "Clerks" made it easier to overlook their deficiencies, but here they pale in comparison to their supporting cast and have a hard time carrying the picture. Weinstein/Genius' double-disc BD release offers three different commentaries plus deleted scenes, a full 90-minute documentary, bloopers, a VC-1 encoded transfer and Dolby TrueHD audio.

ZACK AND MIRI MAKE A PORNO (**½, 90 mins., 2008, R; Genius/Weinstein): Kevin Smith’s latest comedy is a foul-mouthed, basically lightweight tale of a pair of down-on-their-luck best friends and roommates (Seth Rogen, Elizabeth Banks) who opt to produce a porno in order to pay their bills. And, of course, fall in love in the process.

The flimsy premise aside (not much else happens other than an extended, and amusing, cameo for Justin Long), “Zack and Miri” is a likeable enough affair that coasts along on the performances of its leads. No surprise, Rogen is basically Rogen again here, meaning the Apatow Company superstar is playing the same exact role -- more of a persona -- that he has in every project he’s ever been in. Banks, predictably, outshines him, bringing a warmth and dimension to a character that’s a bit thinly written on the surface. A few scattered laughs occur every now and then, but dramatically the picture runs out of gas, leading to a “so what?” kind of conclusion. Smith aficionados are also likely to lament the lack of choice lines and gags here, but at least it’s better than “Jersey Girl”!

The Weinstein Company’s Blu-Ray disc sports a fine 1080p transfer with Dolby TrueHD audio and several documentary materials, but, surprisingly from Smith, no commentary.

DRUMLINE (***, 118 mins., 2002, PG-13; Fox): One of 2003's sleeper hits, “Drumline” tells the story of an African-American high schooler (Nick Cannon) from New York City who receives a scholarship to join a southern college with a big marching band. Cannon's obnoxious behavior, though, soon contrasts with his musical ability, and the youngster needs to learn a few lessons from bandleader Orlando Jones and his peers before he can strut his stuff out on the football field during halftime.

This vivid, highly entertaining youth picture doesn't condescend to its audience or muck up the drama with unnecessary comedic interludes -- a credit to the Shawn Schepps-Tina Gordon Chism script and director Charles Stone III, who does an excellent job capturing the intensity of the movie's dueling-band finale. The performances are also on the mark, especially Leonard Roberts as Cannon's frustrated line leader. John Powell's score also works well within the confines of the drama, and the 2.35 widescreen framing gives the movie a strong cinematic feel.

For extras, Fox's Blu-Ray disc includes four cut scenes with commentary by Stone, along with his audio commentary track during the movie proper. A half-hour BET Making Of is included along with a pair of music videos and other featurettes from a more recent Special Edition of the picture. The DTS Master Audio soundtrack is constantly active while a superb AVC encoded 1080p transfer rounds out the package.

Blu-Ray & More: The Latest Disc Rundown!

QUARANTINE: Blu-Ray (**, 89 mins., 2008, R; Sony). ANDY’S ANALYSIS: A remake of the Spanish language horror flick “Rec” finds TV reporter Jennifer Carpenter accompanying a group of firemen to the scene of an emergency, only to have the government seal the building off due to a virus that’s turning its inhabitants into zombies. Shot entirely in pseudo-documentary style (a la “Cloverfield”), this American remake from director/co-writer John Erick Dowdle is competently performed and compelling -- up until a point. The early going portions of the movie are believably executed and the scenario is well laid-out, but as the picture progresses, it’s clear this is just another “zombie movie” that we’ve all seen before. BLU-RAY BOTTOM LINE: The movie’s intentional “TV-news” styled photography makes it more suited to the small screen than theatrical exhibition, and Sony’s AVC encoded BD transfer is rock solid -- even though the very nature of the cinematography makes it far from being a title you’d dig out to show off the benefits of HD. The Dolby TrueHD audio is effectively active, while commentary from the director and three featurettes comprise the extras. 

MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA: DVD & Blu-Ray (**, 160 mins., 2008, R; Buena Vista). ANDY’S ANALYSIS: Rambling, disappointing Spike Lee joint adapted by James McBride from his book chronicles four African-American soldiers during the waning days of WWII, who find themselves in a small Tuscan village, threatened by incoming German forces and forming relationships with the local residents. At 160 minutes “Miracle at St. Anna” is overlong and something of a mess, trying too hard to be too many different things (a conventional war film from the viewpoint of black soldiers; a chronicle of the era’s racism; a drama with religious elements and “modern” bookends) and doing none of them especially well. All the performances are earnest and portions of it are absorbing, yet the final result doesn’t gel, and could’ve benefitted from judicious editing. DVD & BLU-RAY BOTTOM LINE: Both Buena Vista’s DVD and Blu-Ray packages look terrific: the DVD with a strong 16:9 (2.35) widescreen transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, the Blu-Ray disc backed by a vivid AVC encoded presentation and DTS HD sound (not DTS Master, but rather DTS High Resolution). Extras across both platforms include deleted scenes and two Making Of featurettes, one focused on the historical aspects of the real Buffalo Soldiers, and another with Spike Lee and assorted WWII veterans.

SPACE BUDDIES: DVD & Blu-Ray (84 mins., 2008, G; Disney). ANDY’S ANALYSIS: Robert Vince’s “Air Bud,” the 1997 tale of a particularly athletic golden retriever, has become a popular family video franchise over the last decade. “Space Buddies” is the latest in the series: a decidedly outlandish tale of several dogs who somehow end up in orbit, and on the moon! As improbable as the premise may be, “Space Buddies” isn’t nearly as cute as its predecessor, the surprisingly good 2006 effort “Air Buddies.” Most of the comedy is juvenile and the contrived story is likely to test the patience of adults who might sit through it along with their kids. Hopefully things will turn around in the forthcoming “Santa Buddies,” starring George Wendt as St. Nick himself, but I’m not holding my breath. DVD & BLU-RAY BOTTOM LINE: A number of extras, mostly geared towards the series’ intended young audience (“Buddy Finder,” bloopers, dog facts, etc.), comprise the goodies on both DVD and Blu-Ray. The latter’s AVC encoded transfer is spotless, while DTS Master Audio sound compliments the juvenile shenanigans. The standard DVD is just fine too, with 16:9 (1.78) “family friendly” widescreen and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound comprising the technical specs.

MAX PAYNE: DVD & Blu-Ray (*, 103 mins. [unrated] and 100 mins. [theatrical], 2008, PG-13; Fox). ANDY’S ANALYSIS: Unrelentingly awful videogame-to-film adaptation follows cop Mark Wahlberg around a snowy, noirish metropolis trying to hunt down his family’s killers and also what’s causing a rash of drug-induced deaths around town. John Moore, fresh off the mediocrity of his “Omen” remake, does a good job capturing the stylish visuals of the “Max Payne” video game series here, but the movie’s impressive appearance aside, there’s nothing good about the rest of this mess: Beau Thorne’s script is convoluted to the point of being incomprehensible, while Wahlberg looks like he’s on auto-pilot. And what more needs to be said when Chris O’Donnell pops up in a role that wasn’t even billed beyond the film’s end credits? If it weren’t for new Bond girl Olga Kurylenko’s early appearance and Mila Kunis’ sultry (if relatively thankless) turn as a fellow assassin helping Max, this one would be even more Payne-ful than it is. DVD & BLU-RAY BOTTOM LINE: I’ve yet again got to hand it to Fox. A year after issuing vanilla Blu-Ray discs, the studio has basically leapt to the top of its field, presenting features-rich BD discs with extensive extras. “Max Payne” is no exception, offering two different cuts of the movie, commentary, picture-in-picture extras and other goodies. The AVC encoded transfer is spectacular and the DTS Master Audio sound robust, complete with a score credited to both Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders. The standard DVD also looks terrific with its 16:9 (2.35) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack, while both discs include a digital copy for portable media players.

UNFAITHFUL: Blu-Ray (**½, 124 mins., 2002, R; Fox). ANDY'S ANALYSIS: Diane Lane plays a wife who decides to engage in an affair with a handsome artist (Oliver Martinez) in Adrian Lyne's intriguing though at times overblown 2002 character study. Richard Gere essays Lane's husband, who watches as his relationship with his spouse threatens to unravel while she toils around with the handsome stranger. Critical pundits were high on "Unfaithful," which nevertheless comes across as a contrived and stilted piece with good performances. Gere, who was here coming off the criminally underrated "Mothman Prophecies," gives another solid, nicely modulated performance as the husband, while Lane does a fine job as a woman who acts on her impulses. The trouble is the script (credited to Alvin Sargent and William Broyles, Jr.), which is never quite convincing in how the situation is set up: the opening scene alone is ridiculous in its execution. While “Unfaithful” is a depressing, at-times revealing, and often frustrating film that never really gets its act together, for Gere or Lane die-hards, Lyne's steamy picture is worth a view. BLU-RAY BOTTOM LINE: Fox's BD disc offers an excellent AVC encoded transfer with DTS Master Audio sound. It’s not a presentation that will knock your socks off but the film still looks pleasing in HD. For supplements, the disc offers commentary from the director and a separate cast commentary, along with 11 excellent deleted scenes (including a more predictable, alternate ending), behind-the-scenes and editing featurettes, "The Charlie Rose Show" interview with Gere and Lyne, and a few assorted odds and ends.

ANTWONE FISHER (***, 120 mins., 2002, PG-13; Fox). ANDY’S ANALYSIS: Denzel Washington’s feature directorial debut came with this low-key story about a young African-American sailor (Derek Luke) with a troubled past and temper who finds help in the form of an understanding naval shrink (Washington). Fine performances and understated direction from Washington make this true story, written by Fisher himself, so effective. BLU-RAY BOTTOM LINE: Another fine job from Fox, “Antwone Fisher” boasts a satisfying AVC encoded transfer with DTS Master Audio sound. Extras, culled from the prior DVD edition, include a commentary from Washington and producer Todd Black, plus three fairly bland Making Of featurettes.

NAPOLEON DYNAMITE (***, 94 mins., 2004, PG; Fox). ANDY’S ANALYSIS: The cult hit arrives on Blu-Ray in a fine HD presentation reprieving the contents of its first DVD release (commentary with Jon Heder and writer/director Jared Hess, deleted scenes) and assorted extras from its second, including even more alternate and excised sequences; another cast commentary with Tina Majorino, Jon Gries, Efren Ramirez, and Aaron Ruell; audition clips; and the featurette “On Location: Napoleon Dynamite.” Jared Hess’ film is low-key and subtly amusing throughout, with a warm, uniquely off-kilter sensibility. BLU-RAY BOTTOM LINE: The AVC encoded transfer is superb, as is the DTS Master Audio sound. Highly recommended for all “Napoleon” fans!

IGOR: DVD & Blu-Ray (**½, 86 mins., 2008, PG; MGM/Fox). ANDY’S ANALYSIS: Not-bad, CGI animated children’s film about the fun-loving monster caretaker, here not so much a Bela Lugosi-inspired loon but rather a lovable outcast in the Disney “Hunchback” mold. This Exodus Film Group production, which did decent bucks at the box-office last autumn, boasts some fine celebrity vocal work (John Cusack, Steve Buscemi, Eddie Izzard, Jay Leno, Molly Shannon and James Lipton!), a few laughs and a quick pace. It’s not Disney or Dreamworks quality, but it’s surprisingly passable entertainment for kids and nostalgic monster fans alike. DVD & BLU-RAY BOTTOM LINE: While Fox’s DVD looks great in 1.85 widescreen, the Blu-Ray presentation is spectacular, offering a flawless AVC encoded transfer with DTS Master Audio sound, the latter sporting a pleasing Patrick Doyle score. Extras on both platforms include commentary from the filmmakers, an alternate opening scene, concept art galleries and other goodies.

THE PINK PANTHER (***½, 115 mins., 1964; MGM/Fox). ANDY’S ANALYSIS: While it’s depressing to see Steve Martin flailing around in the critically reviled “Pink Panther 2" (they couldn’t have come up with a lazier title if they tried), “Pink Panther” fans still have much to celebrate, including this beautiful new Blu-Ray edition of Blake Edwards’ original 1964 hit. BLU-RAY BOTTOM LINE: This new, AVC encoded transfer of the original “Panther” is a sight for sore eyes: never before has the movie looked this fresh, this vivid on video. Both DTS Master Audio sound and the original mono soundtrack are also on-hand, while copious extras culled from prior DVD editions include commentary from Blake Edwards and a number of Making Of featurettes. Highly recommended!

SIDEWAYS (**½, 127 mins., 2004, R; Fox). ANDY’S ANALYSIS: Paul Giamatti plays a down-on-his-luck English teacher and would-be novelist whose actor pal (Thomas Haden Church) is about to be married. Out for one last buddy-fling before the wedding, Giamatti and Church head up north of L.A. where they wine, dine and fall for a couple of locals: waitress (and recent divorcee) Virginia Madsen and winery worker Sandra Oh, both unaware of Church’s situation and Giamatti’s constant depression. In a year of disappointing 2004 films, it was easy for critics to overrate “Sideways,” which has a few bright moments but several pretentious passages with an overly-active Rolfe Kent score that soon wears out its welcome. Director Alexander Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor adapted Rex Pickett’s novel, and they have a tendency to downplay the depressing aspects of the material in favor of offbeat comedic moments. The lack of consequence to the characters’ often disreputable actions (particularly Church’s playboy) never really ring true (often they’re anything but funny), but thankfully Giamatti’s strong central performance anchors the movie and makes you care about his character. Giamatti enables us to see all angles of his character’s alternately pathetic and sympathetic personality, though it could have been just as easily captured in a film that ran 30 minutes less than it does. BLU-RAY BOTTOM LINE: Fox’s AVC encoded transfer is sunny and bright, while DTS Master Audio is perfectly fine, even if it’s a subdued mix that (the score aside) doesn’t need to overstate its presence. Extras include a hysterical commentary track with Giamatti and Haden Church that’s often funnier and more playful than the film itself, seven deleted scenes and a Making Of featurette. Overrated but still worthwhile, “Sideways” is worth the trip for Giamatti’s journey (or the duo’s commentary track), and is best viewed with a glass of wine (or two) by your side.

OFFICE SPACE (**½, 89 mins., 1999, R; Fox). ANDY’S ANALYSIS:  Mike Judge’s 1999 cult favorite follows the misadventures of bored office worker Ron Livingston, with Gary Cole his spin-centric boss, Stephen Root a harried co-worker (“Milton,” a character based on Judge’s shorts of the same name), and Jennifer Aniston as the “Friday’s” waitress he romances. Though the movie runs out of steam after an hour, “Office Space” nevertheless has plenty of laughs and keen observations on the grind of daily work that so many of us have to endure (I’ll say nothing of my own schedule). An obvious influence on the later British comedy “The Office” (and its massively entertaining US spin-off), Judge’s film is entertaining in spite of its somewhat listless final act, and the performances all hit the mark. BLU-RAY BOTTOM LINE: Fox reprises their 2005 “Special Edition...With Flair!” package here, offering a 30-minute documentary with comments from Judge; eight deleted scenes totaling about six minutes; the original trailer, a trivia track, and a spotless AVC encoded transfer with DTS Master Audio sound.

THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES (***, 110 mins., 2008, PG-13; Fox). ANDY’S ANALYSIS: Melodramatic but effective adaptation of Sue Monk Kid’s novel about a precocious 14-year-old (Dakota Fanning) who leaves her unrelentingly cruel father with her caregiver (Jennifer Hudson) en route to a rural South Carolina town and the wise, bee-keeping Boatwright sisters (Queen Latifah, Alicia Keys and Sophie Okonedo) during the mid ‘60s. Atmospheric and well-performed across the board. BLU-RAY BOTTOM LINE: Fox’s AVC encoded transfer is exemplary, as is the DTS Master Audio soundtrack. Extras include two different commentary tracks, two different cuts of the film, eight deleted scenes and a handful of Making Of featurettes.

LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE (***, 102 mins., 2006, R; Fox). ANDY’S ANALYSIS: Dysfunctional family comedy from directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, and writer Michael Arndt, follows pop Greg Kinnear and mom Toni Colette on a road trip along with depressed sibling Steve Carrell, grandfather Alan Arkin and kids Paul Dano and Abigail Breslin -- the latter about to enter a California children’s pageant. Laughs and excellent performances make for a quite entertaining “indie” film that generated solid box-office dollars in 2006. BLU-RAY BOTTOM LINE: Fox’s Blu-Ray disc includes an excellent AVC encoded transfer with DTS Master Audio sound and all the extras from the prior DVD, including four alternate endings, two commentaries and a slew of Making Of featurettes.

STARGATE - THE ARK OF TRUTH (102 mins., 2007; Fox). ANDY’S ANALYSIS: Direct-to-video “Stargate” follow-up to the long-running Sci-Fi Channel series (a sequel/spin-off of sorts from the Roland Emmerich film) precedes 2007's “Stargate: Continuum.” Ben Browder, Amanda Tapping, Michael Shanks, and the original cast are back in a feature-length production that will naturally appeal mostly to series fans. BLU-RAY BOTTOM LINE: Boasting a crisp AVC encoded transfer and decent DTS Master Audio soundtrack, Fox’s Blu-Ray disc also includes commentary from producer-director Robert C. Cooper, co-star Christopher Judge and cinematographer Peter Woeste, plus two featurettes and other extras.

THE ROCKER: DVD & Blu-Ray (**, 102 mins., 2008, PG-13; Fox). ANDY’S ANALYSIS: Rainn Wilson from “The Office” tries to rock out as a former metal-head given another chance at fame when a local teen band needs a drummer. Sadly this by-the-numbers affair feels like Jack Black’s leftovers, with Wilson trying hard to hold a threadbare, uneven and not particularly enjoyable comedy together. A capable supporting cast (Christina Applegate, Jeff Garlin, Emma Stone) are wasted as well. BLU-RAY BOTTOM LINE: Fox once again serves up a terrific disc with an AVC encoded transfer, DTS Master audio and all kinds of extras: two commentaries, deleted scenes, outtakes, interviews, featurettes, and a digital copy for portable media players. The DVD’s 16:9 (1.85) transfer is also satisfying and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound comprises the audio presentation.

BODY OF LIES (**½, 128 mins., 2008, R; Warner). ANDY’S ANALYSIS: Ridley Scott’s latest thriller turned out to be a box-office disappointment, despite the presence of stars Leonardo DiCaprio (a CIA ground operative in Jordan) and Russell Crowe (his stuffy superior watching things from afar in the US). Scott brings his usual bag of tricks to the fore here, from crisp visuals to rapid-fire editing, yet the story just isn’t that interesting, and has been covered in other, superior films than this one. BLU-RAY BOTTOM LINE: Warner’s 1080p transfer is marvelous; as we’ve seen with prior Scott films, the director’s works adapt brilliantly to high-definition, where the added resolution adds immeasurably to the filmmaker’s visual pallet. The Dolby TrueHD audio is also robust, while extras include commentary from Scott, screenwriter William Monahan (who adapted David Ignatius’ book) and the author, plus additional scenes in HD with Scott’s introductions, extensive Making Of materials and BD-Live enabled bonuses.

NIGHTS IN RODANTHE (**½, 97 mins., 2008, PG-13; Warner). ANDY’S ANALYSIS: Another weepy Nicholas Sparks melodrama works due to the performances of Richard Gere, as a hard-working surgeon who falls for Diane Lane, who’s currently estranged from her husband. Nice locales and the palpable chemistry between the two leads helps to compensate for a pretty standard story adapted by Ann Peacock and John Romano from Sparks’ novel. BLU-RAY BOTTOM LINE: Warner’s VC-1 encoded transfer is sound but audiophiles may be let down by the ordinary Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. Extras in HD include alternate scenes with commentary from director George C. Wolfe and several Making Of featurettes.

STREET FIGHTER: EXTREME EDITION: DVD & Blu-Ray (**½, 102 mins., 1994, PG-13; Universal). ANDY’S ANALYSIS: Silly, frenetic but fun adaptation of the Capcom video game series -- about to be relaunched this month with both a new game and a fresh feature film starring “Smallville”’s Kristin Kreuk -- pits Jean-Claude Van Damme and his team of martial arts commandos against vile general Raul Julia. Julia sadly looks frail in his final screen appearance, but veteran action writer Steven E. DeSouza’s film is otherwise enjoyably over-the-top, cartoonish fun, from its bright, vivid colors and costumes down to the comic-book action. DVD & BLU-RAY BOTTOM LINE: Universal’s HD transfer of “Street Fighter” is a bit of a disappointment, appearing soft and a bit grainier than anticipated. The DTS Master Audio sound provides a decent kick, though, while standard DVD fans will be satisfied by the “Extreme Edition”’s 16:9 (2.35) transfer and 5.1 audio, both of which appear to be upgrades on the old, Collector’s Edition DVD release. Speaking of which, all the extras from that early-format DVD release have been retained here, from deSouza’s commentary to outtakes, a pair of deleted scenes, production archives, a promotional-flavored Making Of and several trailers for the upcoming “Street Fighter IV” video game.

THE ROCK: BLU-RAY ACTION PACK (Universal). ANDY’S ANALYSIS: Specially-priced three-disc box-set includes the previously-released Blu-Ray edition of “The Scorpion King” along with the debuts of two other movies starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson: the moderately entertaining action-comedy “The Rundown” (co-starring Seann William Scott, Christopher Walken and Rosario Dawson), as well as the disappointing adaptation of popular sci-fi/horror video game franchise “Doom.” BLU-RAY BOTTOM LINE: Rock-solid (no pun intended) AVC encoded transfers and DTS Master Audio soundtracks are on-hand along with extras ported over from prior DVD and HD-DVD editions, including commentaries and other extras. “Rock” fans should be pleased with the presentations, even if all the movies have their drawbacks. (For individual title reviews, use our Aisle Seat archive search).

THE HULK VS [Hulk Vs. Thor, Hulk Vs. Wolverine] (82 mins., 2008, PG-13; Lionsgate). ANDY’S ANALYSIS: Marvel’s latest direct-to-video production is far and away their most satisfying effort to date, offering a pair of self-contained Hulk tales loosely adapted from actual comic book story lines. “Hulk Vs. Wolverine” is a particularly entertaining tale of the big green one meeting up with the most popular X-Man, sparring and taking on a bevy of bad guys in the process. “Hulk Vs. Thor” isn’t quite as much fun, but colorful animation and loads of action should make these attractive for comic book buffs and younger viewers (the PG-13 rating notwithstanding) alike. BLU-RAY BOTTOM LINE: Spectacular AVC encoded transfers add an almost-three dimensional clarity to the decent animation values, while DTS Master Audio sound and a number of fine supplements (commentaries, Comic Con interviews, trailers and more) round out a disc that’s a must-have for Hulk fanatics.

W. (**, 129 mins., 2008, PG-13; Lionsgate). ANDY’S ANALYSIS: Mildly entertaining yet surprisingly toothless Oliver Stone bio-pic of the life and times of George W. Bush plays, at times, like one of Will Ferrell’s Saturday Night Live sketches -- but without the laughs. Josh Brolin does a reasonable impersonation of our 43rd President but most of the other casting is a bust: Elizabeth Banks is all wrong as first lady Laura, Thandie Newton a disaster as Condi Rice, Richard Dreyfuss is overboard as Dick Cheney and James Cromwell serves up George H.W. Bush with the same type of villainy as he did on “24.” Shockingly far from judgmental, this feels like a rough draft for a movie that should’ve been produced years from now, with more perspective, on the part of Stone and writer Stanley Weiser. BLU-RAY BOTTOM LINE: Lionsgate’s Blu-Ray and DVD editions of the movie are terrific: the BD’s 1080p, AVC-encoded transfer is superlative, as is the DTS Master Audio sound, while the standard DVD’s 16:9 (2.35) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack are likewise excellent. Extras are highlighted by commentary from Stone while deleted scenes, the trailer, documentaries on the movie and an analysis of Bush’s presidency are also on-hand.

MY NAME IS BRUCE: DVD & Blu-Ray (***, 84 mins., 2006, R; Image). ANDY’S ANALYSIS: Goofy, highly enjoyable lark for director-producer-star Bruce Campbell, here playing “himself” -- a B-movie star who ends up having to fight evil for real after a group of kids resurrect a Chinese “protector of the dead.” Loads of comedy ensues in this Dark Horse Comics-funded enterprise, written by Mark Verheiden and seasoned with appropriate Campbell touches, which fans should love. DVD & BLU-RAY BOTTOM LINE: Image’s BD and DVD releases each come packed with terrific extras: a 24-page comic book, commentary with Campbell and Richardson, an amusing documentary, numerous featurettes, trailers, poster and other still galleries, and matching, superb 1080p (BD) and 16:9 (1.78) transfers with 5.1 Dolby Digital (DVD) and DTS Master Audio (BD) sound, respectively.

THE MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN (*½, 100 mins., 2008, Unrated; Lionsgate). ANDY’S ANALYSIS: Barely-released horror film produced by Clive Barker, and based on one of the author’s short stories, is a well-produced and yet ridiculous, uninvolving tale of a photographer (Bradley Cooper) who becomes involved with a savage killer (Vinnie Jones) while riding the NYC transit system. Jeff Buhler adapted Barker’s story and Japanese director Ryuhei Kitamura brings a gritty edge to the gory visuals, but the story quickly turns into a bland cat-and-mouse game, with Jones’ killings a front for a larger, more demonic conspiracy. Brooke Shields, Roger Bart and Lesley Bibb provide stronger support than this material really needs, but horror addicts could still get a kick out of the over-the-top beheadings and other murders...at least until the train derails en route to an especially absurd conclusion. BLU-RAY BOTTOM LINE: Lionsgate’s AVC encoded transfer is excellent, as is the DTS Master Audio sound. Extras include commentary with Kitamura and Barker, who lament the film’s lack of distribution, and three Making Of featurettes.

SOUL MEN (**, 98 mins., 2008, R; Genius/Weinstein). ANDY’S ANALYSIS: Tired comedy pairs Samuel L. Jackson and Bernie Mac (in his final role) as former big-time soul singers who come together for one last road trip and performance at the Apollo Theater. Malcolm D. Lee’s film has some fine music but the abrasive relationship between the two leads and lack of laughs in the Robert Ramsey-Matthew Stone script culminate in a disappointing swan song for the late Mac. BLU-RAY BOTTOM LINE: Weinstein’s VC-1 encoded transfer is excellent, while the Dolby TrueHD provides a rockin’ sonic backdrop for the movie’s various songs. Numerous extras include commentary from the writers and director, behind-the-scenes footage, and copious interviews with the cast and crew.

MADAGASCAR 2: DVD & Blu-Ray (***, 89 mins., 2008, G; Dreamworks/Paramount). ANDY’S ANALYSIS: Superior to its predecessor, this fast-paced, fun and colorful continuation of Dreamworks’ original “Madagascar” finds Alex the Lion, Marty the Zebra, Melman the Giraffe and Gloria the Hippo still living in Africa and wanting to get home to their cozy NYC Zoo confines. Plenty of laughs, excellent animation and likeable characters make this a winner for family audiences. DVD & BLU-RAY BOTTOM LINE: As you might expect, Paramount’s Blu-Ray disc provides an outstanding 1080p transfer with Dolby TrueHD audio. Both picture and sound are exemplary, filled with eye-popping color and three-dimensional details. Though it naturally pales in comparison with the Blu-Ray release, the standard DVD still fares well, with a 16:9 (1.85) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound. Extras include commentary from the filmmakers, Making Of featurettes, and interactive games, while the standard DVD also comes bundled with “The Penguins of Madagascar,” a standalone short feature for kids that’s also a precursor for the upcoming Nickelodeon cable TV series of the same name.

Criterion Corner

Works from Luis Bunuel, John Cassavetes and Sir David Lean comprise the new offerings from the Criterion Collection this month.

Bunuel’s short feature SIMON OF THE DESERT (45 mins., 1965) arrives on DVD with a new, high-def black-and-white transfer in full-screen and mono sound, backed with a 1997 documentary on Bunuel from Emilio Maille, a new interview with actress Silvia Pinal and a booklet sporting a 1970s interview with Bunuel.

An earlier work, THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL, is also new to DVD this month from Criterion. This double-disc set from 1962 sports another, high-definition derived transfer in full-screen and with mono sound, with fine supplements including “The Last Script,” a 2008 documentary with screenwriter Jean Claude Carriere and director Juan Luis Bunuel, plus interviews again with actress Silvia Pinal and filmmaker Arturo Ripstein.

John Cassavetes’ films are an acquired taste, so aficionados of the filmmaker will be thrilled with a pair of new releases in the Criterion canon, each film having been available previously in Criterion’s five-film Cassavetes 2004 DVD retrospective:

FACES (130 mins., 1968), shot in 16mm, is a searing portrait of a marriage’s dissolution, starring John Marley and Lynn Carlin in one of Cassavetes’ more acclaimed films. Criterion’s DVD includes a restored, high-def transfer of the movie in 16:9 (1.66) widescreen, plus a 17-minute alternate opening from an early version of the film; a 1968 French television tribute to Cassavetes; a 2004 documentary on the film’s production; a short documentary from 2007 with cinematographer Al Ruban describing the look of the film; and notes from critic Stuart Klawans.

Cassavetes’ directorial debut, SHADOWS (81 mins., 1959), is also due out next week from Criterion, sporting video interviews with actress Lelia Goldoni, 16mm footage of Cassavetes and Burt Lane’s acting workshop, the trailer, an extensive stills gallery, and a restoration demonstration. The film is presented in a restored high-definition digital transfer in 1.33 full-screen black-and-white and complimented by remastered mono sound.

Last but certainly not least this month is David Lean’s HOBSON’S CHOICE (108 mins., 1954), the classic adaptation of Harold Brighthouse’s play starring Charles Laughton as a boot shop owner who clashes with his daughter (Brenda DeBanzie) after she falls for his co-worker (John Mills).

Lean’s delightful film is here presented in a crisp new restored transfer courtesy of the BFI National Archive, the David Lean Archive and Studio Canal, while extras include a commentary from film critics Alain Silver and James Ursini and a 1978 BBC documentary on the life and times of Charles Laughton.

Highly recommended!

Also New on DVD

YENTL: Special Edition (***, 137 mins., 1983, PG; MGM/Fox): Special Edition of Barbra Streisand’s long-gestating pet project, a 1983 adaptation of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s story “Yentl, the Yeshiva Boy,” offers an extended Director’s Cut of the movie seen here for the first time; commentary from Streisand and co-producer Rusty Lemorande; deleted scenes; featurettes; storyboards for Michel Legrand and Alan and Marilyn Bergman’s deleted songs; a new 16:9 (1.66) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

BLINDNESS (*½, 121 mins., 2008, R; Buena Vista): Misfire from “The Constant Gardener” director Fernando Meirelles, an adaptation of Jose Saramago’s novel by writer Don McKellar, finds couple Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo in the middle of a horrifying epidemic that blinds most of the Earth’s population. Moore is impervious to the affliction, and tries to help those being taken advantage of by criminals and other assorted scum. “Blindness” is difficult to take, being the result of a book many felt would be unadaptable for the screen...and likely should have stayed that way. Buena Vista’s DVD includes deleted scenes and a fluffy Making Of documentary, a 16:9 (1.85) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

OLIVER & COMPANY (***, 74 mins., 1988, G; Disney): Cute, if forgettable, late ‘80s Disney modernization of “Oliver Twist,” set in New York City and populated with both furry characters and slight pop tunes (from Billy Joel, Huey Lewis and Bette Midler), isn’t on the level of the Menken-Ashman renaissance that would follow a year later in “The Little Mermaid,” but it’s still fun for young viewers and Disney aficionados. Disney’s new 20th Anniversary DVD of “Oliver and Company” includes a nifty 16:9 (1.66) widescreen transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, a Making Of featurette, sing-along songs, two different vintage shorts, and new games and activities for the little ones.

THE BERENSTAIN BEARS: Learning Is Fun (Sony): Another compilation of episodes from “The Berenstain Bears”’ NBC cartoon from a couple of decades ago includes the prime-time Easter special “Easter Surprise.” Perfect family entertainment for adults who might’ve grown up on these shows and young kids alike, with full-screen transfers and stereo soundtracks both on-hand.

AGAINST THE DARK (94 mins., 2009, R; Sony): Tepid direct-to-vid thriller about a post-apocalyptic future where vampires have wiped out most of humanity...and one certain martial arts expert who can still take them down. No, it’s not “Blade” -- it’s Steven Seagal! Yes, this is the infamous “Seagal Vs. Vampires’ thriller you may (or may not) have heard about, and it’s a pretty tired (no shocker there), formulaic affair with surprisingly little screen time for the big man himself, who also co-produced. Sony’s DVD includes a pretty dreary looking 16:9 (1.85) transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound and one Making Of featurette.

DEA DETROIT (276 mins., 2008; Paramount): Spike TV reality series follows a group of Drug Enforcement officers as they hit the streets and try to clean up Detroit. Paramount’s double-disc set includes uncut episodes with some graphic language and a bonus episode of the Spike series “Real Vice Cops: Uncut.”

OUT AT THE WEDDING (96 mins., 2009; Paramount): Logo Channel-branded original movie about a pair of sisters, one of whom is about to be married, hits DVD in a no-frills disc from Paramount, offering a 4:3 widescreen transfer and 2.0 stereo sound, along with a director commentary track.

CHRISTOPHER TITUS: LOVE IS EVOL (2009, Paramount): Extended live concert featuring the popular comedian features bonus footage, featurettes and over 40 minutes of footage not seen on cable. Perfectly timed for a Valentine’s release, for the Titus fan everywhere.

RELIGULOUS (101 mins., 2008, R; Lionsgate): Bill Maher travels the globe in this strident commentary on religion from the comic and director Larry Charles. Lionsgate’s DVD includes commentary with Maher and Charles, deleted scenes and additional monologues.

COLLEGE (*½, 94 [theatrical] and 95 [uncut] mins., 2008, R; MGM/Fox): Threadbare comedy about a group of high schoolers (including “American Idol”’s former “Chicken Little,” Kevin Covais) who head to campus where they get involved in all kinds of predictable shenanigans. Fox’s DVD includes both R-rated and uncut versions of the movie in 16:9 (1.85) widescreen and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound. Extras are limited to a gag reel.

NEXT TIME: AMADEUS and more in HD! 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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