2/12/08 Edition -- The New AISLE SEAT BLOG Is Also Live

Presidents Day Edition
30 DAYS OF NIGHT Hits Blu-Ray & DVD

The empty void of the month of February has been brightened up by a succession of hot new video releases, from Criterion’s outstanding new box-set of “The Last Emperor” to superb new editions of comedy classics “Groundhog Day” and “Tootsie.” Without further ado here’s the latest round-up of new and upcoming DVD and Blu-Ray discs for your viewing enjoyment...

New Releases

30 DAYS OF NIGHT: Blu Ray & DVD (**½, 106 mins., 2007, R; Sony): Atmospheric but obvious vampire yarn, an adaptation of a Dark Horse graphic novel centering around a small Alaskan town attacked by vampires after the sun sets for the last time in a month.

Josh Hartnett is the town sheriff who takes on the ugly undead after their cargo ship arrives shortly before the town is enshrouded in darkness; Melissa George his estranged wife, who misses her plane out of town and tries to find a way with Hartnett to stay alive during one bloody onslaught after another.

Steve Niles, Stuart Beattie and Brian Nelson’s script is ultimately too familiar for the movie to really be effective, but credit should go to director David Slade for playing up the atmosphere and crafting vampires that are anything but the sexy, seductive beings we typically get in genre films. These bloodsuckers are nasty in appearance and personality, making their menace at least physically threatening, while Hartnett and George both put in reasonably convincing performances. In the end “30 Days of Night” will likely prove to be overly predictable and cliched for seasoned genre fans, but those searching for any watchable horror outing with a bit of visual flair could do far worse, especially in lieu of the “Saw” movies and similar knockoffs typically infiltrating theaters and video store shelves.

Sony’s Blu Ray disc is a keeper, with a beautiful AVC encoded transfer and Dolby TrueHD audio track making for a spectacular technical presentation. Solid extras abound as well including a commentary, eight featurettes, and a Blu-Ray exclusive comparison with the graphic novel.

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.

Columbia's new 15th Anniversary Special Edition release (has it been 15 years?) offers 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. The 16:9 (1.85) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack are both excellent, and a Blu-Ray version is supposedly in the works, though without any release date.

Also new from Sony is a 25th Anniversary Edition of another comedy classic, Sydney Pollack’s TOOTSIE (***½, 116 mins., 1982, PG), a huge box-office smash and multiple Oscar nominee with Dustin Hoffman as a down-on-his-luck New York actor who dresses up as a woman in order to score employment...which he promptly does on a network soap opera opposite gorgeous Jessica Lange (Oscar winner for Best Supporting Actress), whom he subsequently falls in love with.

Winning performances from Murray, Lange, Charles Durning, Teri Garr and an uncredited Bill Murray (as Hoffman’s roommate) are complimented by a superb script (credited to Larry Gelbart and Murray Schisgal, with an unbilled assist from Elaine May), fine cinematography by Owen Roizman, and a pleasant Dave Grusin score. The film may be dated in some respects -- and certainly seems to have ushered in the era of cinematic montages, as accompanied by Stephen Bishop’s classic soft-rock ballad “It Might Be You”-- but “Tootsie” remains one of the ‘80s top comedies for its warm and believable characterizations.

Sony’s 25th Anniversary DVD includes the documentary “A Better Man,” offering new interviews with Pollack and Hoffman, as well as a generous mix of older interviews and Hoffman’s original screen test. Deleted scenes are also on-hand, though regrettably Sony didn’t import Pollack’s director commentary from the Criterion laserdisc (as well as a deleted, improvised scene between Hoffman’s female persona and Gene Shalit). The 16:9 (2.35) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack are both top-notch.

Coming From Criterion

Even if it glosses over some of the more heinous crimes of Communist China, Bernardo Bertolucci’s THE LAST EMPEROR (***½, 165 and 218 mins., 2007, PG-13; Criterion) is still a sweeping, captivating epic that chronicles the life and times of Emperor Pu Yi, the last reigning ruler of China from age three in 1908 through decades of cultural and social unrest and his country’s eventual evolution.

Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography is outstanding, capturing images never before caught on-screen, while Bertolucci’s direction takes us through the life of Yi in a manner that manages to be sympathetic and sad, epic in scope but personal in nature. “The Last Emperor” swept through the Oscars in 1988, earning nods for Storaro and Best Picture, even if many viewers have forgotten about the picture since its original release.

Criterion’s four-disc Special Edition of “The Last Emperor” is a marvel for a number of reasons. First, the new digital transfer is immaculate, as close to HD as one could anticipate from a standard-definition release (here’s hoping Criterion hits the high-definition arena soon!), while the 2.0 Dolby Surround stereo is satisfying enough. Secondly, the release preserves both versions of the picture, and it’s important to note that the 165-minute theatrical release is basically Bertolucci’s preferred Director’s Cut, not the expanded version. Bertolucci has said he was under contract to make a longer version of the movie for international television exhibition, but while many viewers prefer that 218-minute edit for its more developed narrative, the director believes it’s overlong and detracts from the central power of the piece.

Either way you go, though, both versions of the movie are preserved here, with ample supplements that put the icing on the cake. Commentary from Bertolucci, producer Jeremy Thomas, writer Mark Peploe and composer Ryuichi Sakamoto (who composed the odd, albeit Oscar-winning, score with David Byrne and Cong Su) is offered during the theatrical version, with extensive extras on discs three and four highlighted by an hour-long documentary about the director; video images shot by Bertolucci on-location in China; a 45-minute documentary featuring Storaro; a 50-minute examination of the production; a 66-minute BBC documentary on the film; a 30-minute interview with Bertolucci from 1989; a recent interview with David Byrne; and an interview with cultural historian Ian Baruma about the filming.

Extensive liner notes round out a marvelous DVD package that’ll undoubtedly rank as one of the new year’s finest disc presentations.

New From Buena Vista

GONE BABY GONE: Blu Ray & DVD (***½, 114 mins., 2007, R; Buena Vista): Dennis Lehane’s bestselling novel became a taut, tense film under the guidance of director Ben Affleck, impressively making his feature debut behind the lens.

Casey Affleck (Ben’s younger brother) stars as a private detective looking for a young girl who’s just disappeared from her Boston-area home; Michelle Monaghan is his girlfriend (and associate), Ed Harris and Morgan Freeman the cops all hired by the girl’s aunt and uncle to find her, but the situation isn’t entirely what it seems in this twisty thriller, adapted by Affleck and co-writer Aaron Stockard for the screen. This is a well-performed (Amy Ryan is likewise sensational as the girl’s troubled mother) and enthralling piece that deserved a better fate at the box-office but ought to find ample viewers on DVD and Blu-Ray.

Buena Vista’s DVD looks perfectly acceptable in its 16:9 (1.85) transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital audio, but the presentation is trumped by the Blu-Ray’s superlative 1080p AVC-encoded transfer with uncompressed PCM sound. Extras include an extended ending and deleted scenes, two Making Of featurettes, and commentary from Affleck and Stockard. Highly recommended!

BECOMING JANE: Blu Ray & DVD (***, 120 mins., 2007, PG; Buena Vista): Charming little period piece, an embellishment on author Jane Austen’s life in her 20's produced and directed as if it were any of the recent Austen film adaptations. Anne Hathaway is delightful as the young Austen, who falls for a dashing Irish lawyer (James McAvoy) at Christmas time 1795. Whether or not Julian Jarrold’s film is even remotely accurate to the actual Austen, “Becoming Jane” is a highly enjoyable romantic film for anyone who’s been enchanted by recent period pieces like “Pride and Prejudice” -- and while it’s not on the level of the latter, the picture still functions as a pleasant and entertaining work with fine performances from Hathaway and McAvoy, supported by Julie Walters, James Cromwell and Maggie Smith. Buena Vista’s DVD looks fine in its 16:9 (2.35) transfer, but the Blu Ray’s AVC-encoded 1080p transfer is even more satisfying, vividly capturing Eigil Bryld’s cinematography and the film’s lush production design and costumes (the film was shot mainly in Ireland). The uncompressed PCM 5.1 sound is splendid on the Blu Ray disc, as is the standard DVD’s regular Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. Supplements found on both platforms include deleted scenes, a filmmaker commentary, a Making Of featurette, and on-screen pop-up facts (on the Blu Ray disc).

Also New From Buena Vista....I’m not up on the soap world but spin-offs of pre-existing shows seems to be popular these days, with GENERAL HOSPITAL: NIGHT SHIFT (530 mins.) being one of the first exclusives of the SoapNet cable network. Disney’s box-set includes the complete first season of the series in full-screen transfers and with 2.0 Dolby Stereo audio.

New From Paramount

BEOWULF: Director’s Cut (**, 114 mins., PG-13; Paramount): Robert Zemeckis’ sojourn into the realm of computer-generated features continues with this mediocre, action-oriented take on the Old English poem, scripted by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary and offering visuals that occasionally seem more akin to an Xbox 360 game than mind-blowing 3-D animation.

Granted, some of the background and creature rendering is impressive, but just like Zemeckis’ last “film” -- “The Polar Express” -- the film strikes out when it comes to its human characterizations, with vanilla facial expressions and movement, making one wonder what the filmmaker is trying to achieve here. How does a computerized Angelina Jolie supply any benefits over the real thing? Ditto for Anthony Hopkins and some of the other actors whose likenesses are animated here (other stars, meanwhile, look little like their real-life counterparts, including top-billed Ray Winstone and Crispin Glover, trying to pull an Andy Serkis here in his “performance” as Grendel). The script, meanwhile, doesn’t help matters either, with leaden dialogue that’s often unintentionally amusing as well.

Paramount’s DVD looks mightily impressive, at least, with its deleted scenes, multiple featurettes, and two additional minutes of footage rounding out the package. The 16:9 (2.35) transfer is exceptional and the Dolby Digital 5.1 sound likewise spectacular; our HD-DVD review will follow shortly.

MARGOT AT THE WEDDING (**, 92 mins., 2007, R; Paramount): Stilted Noah Baumbach “comedic drama” about a tart author (Nicole Kidman) who stirs up trouble at the wedding of her estranged sister (Jennifer Jason Leigh) was one of last year’s more poorly reviewed “indie” movies, filled with unlikeable characters who you can’t wait to part from, as well as some rough miscasting -- like Jack Black as Leigh’s fiancee. Paramount’s DVD includes a conversation with Leigh and Baumbach and theatrical trailers, along with a 16:9 (1.85) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

CAILLOU: Caillou’s Family Favorites (100 mins., 2008; Paramount): Popular, charming PBS series for young children hits DVD with four different episodes represented from the program. Additional extras include games and character bios, as well as parents’ information and optional Spanish audio tracks.

Also New on DVD

JUSTICE LEAGUE: THE NEW FRONTIER (75 mins., 2008, PG-13; Warner): Darwyn Cooke’s acclaimed graphic novel -- focusing on the origins of the Justice League during the early 1960s -- makes for a decent, if decidedly uneven, made-for-video work from Warner Bros. Animation. Stan Berkowitz’s script and David Bullock’s direction aim for a less frenetic pace than recent DC direct-to-video efforts, and the overall artistic design does a competent job capturing the nuances of Cooke’s work. Regrettably, the narrative has a hard time holding up in the confines of its 75-minute running time, the movie doing a fine job establishing the characters and setting in its first half, but turning routine and dull in its final third. Regardless, DC fans will still enjoy the action and unique setting of “The New Frontier,” with Warner’s double-disc DVD set packed with extras, including a comprehensive documentary, two different commentaries (one with Cooke), two other featurettes and three additional JLA episodes on the second platter. Visually the 16:9 (1.85) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack are each outstanding, with both Blu-Ray and HD-DVD releases to follow.

1968 WITH TOM BROKAW (94 mins., 2007, A&E/Newvideo): Absorbing, thoroughly captivating History Channel documentary narrated by Tom Brokaw examines the year in American history, from the tragic assassinations of MLK and Bobby Kennedy, to the Vietnam War, the rise of the Civil Rights movement and counter-culture, and the Apollo NASA missions. Brokaw, working from his book “Boom! Voices of the Sixties,” offers a broad and intelligent overview of 1968 with ample interviews and archival footage, along with bonus extras including extended interviews (with Arlo Guthrie, Tommy Smothers, Bruce Springsteen, and even Jon Stewart) and more comments from Brokaw. The transfer and sound are just fine, though viewers may be disappointed some of the classic rock tracks heard in the broadcast version have been eliminated for the DVD release.

NEXT TIME: The latest DVD and high-definition reviews and news! Until then, don't forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards, check out the newly relaunched Aisle Seat Blog, and direct any emails to our email address. Cheers Everyone and GO PATS!

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