2/24/09 Edition

Making the CONNECTION in HD
Fox Rolls Out Classics on Blu-ray
Plus: Paul Newman Film Series on DVD

Blu-Ray owners who happen to be movie buffs have been hungering for content so far in 2009. This month Fox does their best to placate them, dipping into their back catalog for several excellent high-definition titles that give viewers hungry for something other than mediocre catalog titles quality content that also takes advantage of the benefits only Blu-Ray can provide. Here’s a look:

THE FRENCH CONNECTION (****, 104 mins., 1971, R; Fox)
THE FRENCH CONNECTION II (**½, 119 mins., 1975, R; Fox)

Fox's two-disc Blu-Ray edition of “The French Connection" represents a new rendering of William Friedkin's gritty 1971 classic, starring Gene Hackman as "Popeye" Doyle and Roy Scheider as Buddy Russo -- a pair of New York City cops who take down an international drug cartel in a film inspired by Robin Moore's book (itself based on the real-life exploits of cops Sonny Grosso and Eddie Egan).

Most movie buffs recall the film for Friedkin's dynamite car chase -- one of the greatest of all-time, if not THE greatest -- but the rest of the movie is every bit as potent. Friedkin's documentary-like approach, the realistic performances and atmospheric use of NYC locations courtesy of Owen Roizman's cinematography all helped to make "The French Connection" a multi-Oscar winner that was revolutionary in its day and remains a landmark in the crime-thriller genre.

Fox's Blu-Ray set sports a new AVC encoded transfer that has already caused much controversy with viewers. While the image is crisp and shows a healthy amount of film grain, Friedkin has performed a visual "revision" here similar to what Francis Ford Coppola did on "Bram Stoker's Dracula," and that's tinker with the print's colors and contrast. I had to dig out my old "French" DVD to do a comparison, but the results are obvious if you compare the two versions: the new Blu-Ray transfer is a bit more washed-out and boasts heightened contrast, much to the detriment of the original, more natural looking cinematography. While the DTS Master Audio sound is excellent, this revisionist transfer may not be to the liking of most of the picture's fans (Friedkin explains these alterations in a featurette on Disc 2).

The double-disc BD set also offers hours of extras, highlighted by two previously-released documentaries: "The Poughkeepsie Shuffle" was produced by Mark Kermode for the BBC in 2000, and like his "Exorcist" documentary, it's an engaging, compulsively watchable program spotlighted by interviews with the filmmakers. Not to be outdone, Fox produced their own special for the Fox Movie Channel, "Making the Connection," that is every bit as fascinating, sporting newer conversations with the real-life participants and the filmmakers. Both programs run under an hour and provide essential viewing for fans.

Twenty minutes of deleted scenes, culled from very rough surviving prints, are also included, along with a pair of commentary tracks: one by the director (always willing to share an anecdote), the other with Scheider and Hackman alternating in separately recorded interviews. Still galleries and trailers round out the supplements culled from prior DVDs, while new extras abound: an interview with composer Don Ellis, a segment with Friedkin and the real Sonny Grosso, a look at the cinematography and a more recent interview with Gene Hackman are all on-hand plus a Blu-Ray exclusive trivia track and an isolated score track (in 5.1 Dolby Digital) of Ellis’ music, highlighting many cues that weren’t retained in the finished picture.

Aside from the controversial new transfer, this is an otherwise sparkling package that (mostly) does justice to the 1971 Oscar-winner for Best Picture, director, actor, script and editing.

To compliment the original film comes, naturally, a Blu-Ray edition of its sequel: 1975's THE FRENCH CONNECTION II, which finds Popeye Doyle heading to Marseilles to bust up Fernando Rey’s narcotics ring.

John Frankenheimer helmed this gritty and overlong follow-up that starts off well and ends terrifically, but sags during an interminable sequence where Doyle becomes addicted to heroin after being abducted by Rey’s gang. Hackman might be terrific here but the movie grinds to a halt during these sequences and never quite recovers.

Fox’s AVC encoded transfer of “French Connection II” is, at least aesthetically, an appreciable improvement over its predecessor since the source materials are in healthier shape. The DTS Master Audio sound is fine as well, while extras include a commentary with Gene Hackman and producer Robert Rosen, an older commentary from Frankenheimer, still galleries, an interview with Hackman, a new featurette “Frankenheimer: In Focus,” and both an isolated score track (this time in full DTS Master Audio) and numerous trailers in a myriad of languages.

THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (****, 126 mins. [120 mins. “Recut” version], 2004, R; Fox): Without dissecting the movie's religious and historical elements (which I assume will either compel or disinterest you, dependent on your own beliefs), Mel Gibson’s worldwide 2004 box-office hit is a film of enormous power simply from a filmmaking standpoint.

Gibson's vivid cinematic portrayal of the final hours of Jesus was tossed around every cable talk show and editorial column to no end after its original release five years ago, receiving polarized reactions from pundits on all ends of the religious and cultural spectrum. Charges of anti-Semitism, excessive violence, and a lack of spiritualism were leveled at the movie, and it seems that many critics approached the movie not reviewing the film so much, but rather how Gibson's beliefs and the picture's politics match up with their own views.

All I know is that, for me, "The Passion" is one of the most powerful and artistic pieces of filmmaking of the last decade. Neither as unrelentingly grim or excessively violent as some have made it out to be -- nor lacking in the spiritual elements some have claimed it is -- Gibson's beautifully, painfully rendered movie is so compelling you can't take your eyes off the screen.

Caleb Deschanel's vivid cinematography, John Debney's evocative music, and Gibson's conviction behind the lens collaborate to make an inspired work, while performances by Jim Caviziel as Jesus, Maia Morgenstern as Mary and a fine supporting cast (including Monica Bellucci as Mary Magdalene) support Gibson's carefully articulated evocation of the Stations of the Cross. This is a movie that looks like it would have cost well over $100 million by usual Hollywood standards, but was stunningly made for a fraction of that cost (a reported $30 million).

As a film, "The Passion" remains one of the most remarkable pictures I've seen in a long while. Any movie that challenges its audience and encourages conversation at a time when so few films do is more than worth a viewing, and its superlative cinematic presentation only adds to its impact.

Fox previously issued “The Passion of the Christ” in a barebones, but good-looking, 2004 DVD with DTS audio. Their later, double-disc “Definitive Edition,” while offering extras and both the original version of the movie and its toned-down (by six minutes) “Recut” version, dropped the DTS track and boasted a transfer widely acknowledged as inferior to the original DVD.

The studio’s Blu-Ray version, then, easily represents the most satisfying presentation of “The Passion” on video to date: the AVC encoded transfer finally gives home viewers a true approximation of the scope of Deschanel’s cinematography, far more than either of the prior DVD editions, and the result is impressive indeed. Colors, details, and the overall composition of the movie are heightened in every respect by the Blu-Ray transfer. The DTS Master Audio sound likewise packs more of a punch than its predecessors, while extras from the “Definitive Edition” include insightful commentary tracks from Gibson and numerous theologians, and (on a second, standard-def disc) other deleted scenes, a photo gallery, two documentaries and other supplements.

Both the original theatrical cut and its shortened “Recut” version are also present on the 50GB dual-layer BD platter.

RAGING BULL (****, 129 mins., 1980, R; MGM/Fox): Martin Scorsese’s now-classic portrait of boxer Jake La Motta (an Oscar-winning performance by Robert DeNiro) hits Blu-Ray in a vivid, beautiful AVC-encoded transfer that breathtakingly captures the potent images of the director and cinematographer Michael Chapman, without glossing over the movie’s crispness (again, little noise-reduction is seemingly on-hand here). The DTS Master Audio sound is likewise impressive when called upon, while numerous extras -- culled from the most recent, double-disc DVD edition of the picture -- include commentaries by Martin Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker (from the original laserdisc edition), plus assorted cast and crew members, and screenwriters Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin, plus La Motta himself; a four-part Making Of, totaling nearly 90 minutes; vintage La Motta newreel footage, and another, 30-minute “The Bronx Bull” behind-the-scenes featurette. Highly recommended!

DONNIE DARKO: THE DIRECTOR’S CUT (**, 132 mins., 2004, R; Fox): Some cult movie fans have turned Richard Kelly’s indie fave into a full-blown phenomenon, though my viewing of the “Director’s Cut” of “Donnie Darko” only confirmed my hesitation towards Kelly’s original theatrical version: namely, what’s the deal? This intentionally weird jigsaw puzzle of a film -- complete with ‘80s tunes, pop culture references and a giant rabbit -- gives you so little to go on that it’s not even up to sub-Lynchian standards, though some critics have already proclaimed it a masterpiece so judge for yourself. Fox’s two-disc Blu-Ray edition includes both the longer version of the film (which fleshes out the story more than the theatrical version) as well as the original cut, plus commentaries from Kelly and Kevin Smith, Kelly and star Jake Gyllenhaal, and yet a third track with assorted cast and crew members, plus on a second standard-def disc, a production diary, additional featurettes and the Director’s Cut trailer. The AVC encoded transfer may be acceptable but it’s far from spectacular, suggesting that the film’s cinematography and murky look don’t take all that well to the benefits of HD, while the limp DTS Master Audio sound only sporadically makes you take notice of its presence. For “Darko” addicts only.

THE BOONDOCK SAINTS (**½, 1999, 110 mins., R; Fox): Writer-director Troy Duffy might have created quite a bad rep for himself with his antics behind the scenes of “The Boondock Saints,” his 1999 debut feature, but it seems Duffy may have the last laugh: this tale of Bostonian crime and retribution has indeed become something of a cult favorite since its initial release, with a sequel slated for release later this year. Fox’s Blu-Ray disc includes a good-looking AVC encoded transfer of Duffy’s Director’s Cut (a couple of minutes longer than the released version) with plenty of extras from prior DVD editions -- commentary from Duffy, star Billy Connolly, deleted scenes, outtakes and a printable script make for a decent but not overwhelming supplemental package. Recommended viewing for aficionados of “action-crime noir,” with Duffy one-upping Tarantino in the violence and energy department at times.

Paul Newman Film Series on DVD

Five titles newly released from the Warner catalog celebrate the legacy of Paul Newman, each offering a unique view of the legendary star either in front of, or behind, the camera.

THE SILVER CHALICE (1954, 135 mins.) introduced Newman to the world in a Biblical saga not exactly revered along the lines of “The Robe” and other, better movies of its day. That said, director Victor Saville’s epic includes a terrific cast (Jack Palance, Virginia Mayo, Lorne Greene, E.G. Marshall and a blonde Natalie Wood) and a fine Franz Waxman score, with Warner’s DVD offering an excellent 16:9 (2.35) transfer with a pleasing, remixed 5.1 Dolby Digital audio track.

Another early Newman title, THE HELEN MORGAN STORY (1957, 118 mins.) has also been dusted off by Warner, starring Newman as a mobster whose on-again, off-again relationship with talented singer Helen Morgan (Ann Blyth in her final film) ultimately leads her down a path of despair and tragedy. Fine musical numbers punctuate this Michael Curtiz-directed affair, with Warner’s transfer looking exceptionally crisp in 16:9 (2.35) black-and-white widescreen and punctuated by acceptable mono sound.

THE OUTRAGE (96 mins., 1964), Martin Ritt’s westernization of “Rashomon,” stars Newman as a gunslinger accused of raping a frontier woman (Claire Bloom) with Laurence Harvey, Edward G. Robinson, Howard Da Silva and William Shatner tagging along for support in an underrated, interesting curio from the mid ‘60s. Once again Warner serves up a fine 16:9 (2.35) transfer with mono sound.

Newman stepped behind the camera to direct wife Joanne Woodward in the terrific RACHEL, RACHEL (1968, 101 mins.), a tale of a Connecticut schoolteacher trying to break free from her repressed existence in a quiet New England town. Stewart Stern adapted a Margaret Laurence book for this nicely understated, low-key drama filled with fine performances and a superb sense of time and place -- an excellent directorial debut for Newman that’s backed by an equally fine Jerome Moross score. Warner’s DVD looks terrific in 16:9 (1.85) widescreen and mono sound, while the original trailer and a promo footage reel (without dialogue) are also on-hand.

Last and undeniably least among the titles is the forgettable Irwin Allen vehicle WHEN TIME RAN OUT... (1980, 109 mins., PG), also making its debut on DVD. Newman’s presence in this utterly phoned-in tale of a South Pacific island and a volcano about to blow was sort of fitting, as he helped launched the genre in “The Towering Inferno” and was on-hand here to bid it adieu, with fellow victims including Jacqueline Bisset, William Holden, Edward Albert, Red Buttons, Alex Karras, Burgess Meredith, Ernest Borgnine, a particularly luscious Barbara Carrera and, in one of my favorite credits, “James Franciscus as Bob Spangler”! Even Lalo Schifrin’s score can do little to save the pre-fab hyjinks.

What’s worse, Warner has released the movie on DVD not in its 121-minute theatrical version, or its 143-minute expanded cut -- but rather a cut-down 109 minute edit, which doesn’t help what little character development there is. Fortunately the 16:9 (2.35) transfer helps to restore the film’s original Panavision dimensions, yet the mono sound is weak and no extras are on-hand.

Also New on DVD

STREET FIGHTER: EXTREME EDITION DVD & Blu-Ray (**½, 102 mins., 1994, PG-13; Universal): 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.

Visually, Universal’s new transfer of “Street Fighter” is a bit of a disappointment, appearing soft and a bit grainier than anticipated on Blu-Ray. The Blu-Ray version’s 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 on both platforms, 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.

JEAN-CLAUDE VAN DAMME 4-PACK (Universal): The recent release of “JCVD” has lead Universal to issue this handy DVD four-pack sporting a retrospective of prior Van Damme actioners: the merely-okay 1990 effort “Lionheart,” 1993's John Woo-directed “Hard Target,” plus the highly entertaining 1995 Peter Hyams thriller “Sudden Death” (intended for the mainstream, i.e. “Die Hard in a Hockey Rink”), and the leisurely Van Damme-directed 1996 effort “The Quest,” co-starring Roger Moore. Although “Lionheart” is presented here only in 1.33 full-screen, the good news for Van Damme addicts is that “Sudden Death” makes its DVD debut in 16:9 (2.35) widescreen, instantly improving upon the 1.33 cropped presentations fans have had to make do with for years. The 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks are excellent across the board, and the $15 price tag (in most outlets) makes it an appealing compilation for action fans seeking some major Van Dammage (sorry folks, I try and work that in any time I can!).

FLASH OF GENIUS (**½, 119 mins., 2008, PG-13; Universal): Greg Kinnear gives an earnest performance in this leisurely paced tale, based on a true story, about a Detroit family man and professor who invented the intermittent windshield wiper -- only to have the design stolen out from under him by Ford, resulting in a decades-long battle where personal recognition became more of an issue than monetary compensation. Director Marc Abraham’s movie is absorbing and compelling, mainly because its central topic is, yet the film isn’t especially well-written, offering little for co-stars Lauren Graham and Dermot Mulroney to do except try and offer understanding to Kinnear’s protagonist. “Flash of Genius” was a flop at the box-office, but hopefully its prospects will be brighter on DVD, where Universal has issued the movie in a fine 16:9 transfer with 5.1 audio, commentary from the director and deleted scenes.

DEAD LIKE ME: Complete Series & Movie (9 Discs, 2003-07; MGM/Fox): More than just a variation on HBO's "Six Feet Under," this agreeably offbeat Showtime series followed the adventures of Ellen Muth's George -- a would-be temp who ends up becoming a grim reaper after she's improbably killed by a falling toilet seat from the Mir Space Station! Her tenure in the after-life results in run-ins with fellow reapers (including Jasmine Guy, Rebecca Gayhart, and boss Mandy Patinkin) and stories that run the gamut from comedic to bittersweet, the latter involving the family that George has left behind. Though not a massive ratings hit, “Dead Like Me” nevertheless chronicled George’s adventures across two full seasons and the follow-up movie “Life After Death,” which is just now hitting DVD after some time on the shelf.

MGM’s nine-disc DVD box-set offers the complete run of “Dead Like Me” in excellent 16:9 (1.78) transfers and 5.1 soundtracks. The season one portions also include 30 minutes of deleted scenes, commentary tracks, and a featurette on the score. The latter includes comments from both composer Stewart Copeland and executive producer John Masius. Extras for Season 2 offer 10 minutes of deleted scenes, a photo gallery and two featurettes, while “Life After Death” includes a featurette and commentary from Muth and director Stephen Herek.

THE PINK PANTHER (***½, 115 mins., 1964; MGM/Fox): While it’s depressing to see Steve Martin flailing around in the critically reviled “Pink Panther 2" (thankfully audiences didn’t bite this time either, as the sequel has tanked at the box-office), “Pink Panther” fans still have much to celebrate, including yet another DVD edition of Blake Edwards’ original 1964 hit. Offering commentary from Blake Edwards (previously available only in one of the various box-set collections of the film) and a number of featurettes -- some new, others recycled from the prior releases -- the DVD also boasts a crisp 16:9 (2.35) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack. A nice package, but if you’ve already traveled down this road before, there’s not much new on-hand here.

THE PINK PANTHER CLASSIC CARTOON COLLECTION (MGM/Fox): Not to be confused with MGM’s earlier Pink “Classic Cartoon Collection,” this nine-disc set offers mostly recycled content from that release: five discs comprised of the original Pink Panther shorts, produced throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, as well as discs focusing on spin-offs “The Ant and the Aardvark” and “The Inspector.” What’s new here are the second batch of episodes from “The Inspector,” comprising one disc, and another DePatie-Freleng favorite, “Roland and Ratfink” -- discs which have yet to be issued separately (at least, there’s been no word of a standalone release). Fans, then, will have to weigh this set’s inferior packaging with its expanded content, and how necessary the second volume of “The Inspector” and “Ratfink” are to their DVD collections. Transfers and sound are all top-notch.

IN THE ELECTRIC MIST (**, 102 mins., 2008, R; Image): Disappointing, flat adaptation of James Lee Burke’s novel finds detective Dave Robicheaux (Tommy Lee Jones) investigating a Bayou mobster (John Goodman) in this second failed adaptation of Burke’s Robicheaux novels. Phil Joanou struck out with the commercially unsuccessful “Heaven’s Prisoners” back in the mid ‘90s (which starred Alec Baldwin as Robicheaux), and this time it’s Bertrand Tavernier’s time to sputter in a cold, mechanical police procedural co-starring Mary Steenburgen and Peter Sarsgaard. Image’s Blu-Ray transfer is, at least, quite good, as is the DTS Master Audio sound, sporting a better-than-the-material-deserves score by Marco Beltrami. (Available March 3rd)

THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (***, 96 mins., 1970; Blue Underground): The cult label’s latest Blu-Ray offering is a highly satisfying HD presentation of Dario Argento’s 1970 directorial debut. Credited as the film that launched the Italian “giallo” genre, this taut, crisply directed tale focuses on an American writer (Tony Musante) in Rome who witnesses a vicious attack on a woman in a crackerjack opening set-piece. Musante is then drawn into a web of murder and suspicion, first from the police who are suspicious of his story, and later from a mysterious individual who makes disturbing calls to his house. Memorably shot by Vittorio Storaro and scored by Ennio Morricone, this first Argento film is one of his more memorable, with the director employing numerous visual flourishes that later trademarked classics like “Suspiria.”

Blue Underground’s 1080p transfer is an appreciable upgrade on their DVD edition of “Plumage,” with heightened resolution and stronger colors befitting Argento’s vision. Both DTS Master and Dolby TrueHD audio offerings are onboard, while extras culled from the prior DVD include commentary with historians Alan Jones and Kim Newman, interviews with Storaro, Argento, Morricone and actress Eva Renzi, plus the trailers and TV spots. Recommended!

NEXT TIME: EAST OF EDEN debuts on DVD! 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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