2/26/08 Edition -- The New AISLE SEAT BLOG Is Also Live

Winter Chill Edition
Plus: MICHAEL CLAYTON & HD Format War Obituary

The once-cloudy future for high-definition DVD supremacy is a whole lot brighter now that Toshiba has announced that they’re pulling out of the HD-DVD format effective almost immediately. Warner Home Video’s recent defection to Blu-Ray started to put the final nail into the HD-DVD coffin -- and despite the advantages of the format’s lower price, equal performance to its more expensive competitor, and good amount of catalog titles available, sales were unable to support Toshiba single-handedly in their battle.

The impact was felt quickly -- Universal, a key proponent of HD-DVD, announced they would immediately be issuing their movies on Blu-Ray, as did fellow HD-DVD supporter Paramount, while Toshiba’s plug-pulling means no more players will be produced after the next few weeks.

While the news is obviously devastating for HD-DVD owners, they can at least take solace in the fact that they’ve got a terrific upconverting player for regular DVDs (the XA2 offering the high-end Reon chip for upconverting; the recent A20, A30 and A35 players containing top-quality Anchor Bay chips that likewise upscale standard-definition discs exceptionally well) as well as a group of format exclusives that may, or may not, see the light of day on Blu-Ray.

Indeed, while this is obviously a huge victory for Sony’s format, Blu Ray still has something to prove to a lot of folks sitting on the fence in this battle: player prices for the only two machines that actually function from my own experience (the Playstation 3 and Panasonic’s superb BD-30) still run $399 or thereabouts; the format’s specs continue to be worked on and shifted, enabling new features that HD-DVD had implemented basically from the beginning; and certain discs from BD-exclusive studios still leave a good amount to be desired, while older “catalog” titles (excellent releases like “Close Encounters” excepted) do not seem to be a priority for the Blu-Ray format at this time.

With competition looming from the potential of digital on-demand delivery and other programming options, it would be in the format’s best interest to release a group of dependable and less expensive players, as well as a healthier and more diverse group of releases. Whether or not they will – especially without that competition from HD-DVD – remains to be seen, though with Universal onboard it’s a good bet things will be improving on the software front quickly.

Either way we’ll cover all the new BD titles as well as what (few) HD-DVD exclusives are still coming, in addition to the latest DVDs and other developments at the Aisle Seat. As always, keep it here!

On High Definition & DVD

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN: Blu-Ray & DVD (***1/2, 122 mins., 2007, R; Miramax/Buena Vista): Even with the meditative ending, which rubbed some viewers the wrong way, the Coen Brothers’ “No Country For Old Men” is superlative filmmaking -- a rich adaptation of a Cormac McCarthy novel that serves as equal parts suspense thriller and allegory.

Josh Brolin plays a hunter in rural Texas who comes across a group of dead bodies, drugs and a bag stuffed with some $2 million in cash. Brolin takes the cash but soon wishes he didn’t once a stoic psycho (Javier Bardem) soon comes calling to collect it – wiping out nearly anyone and everyone that stands in his way. Even though the young married man is in over his head, that doesn’t stop him from trying to beat Bardem at his own game, all the while a veteran, aging Texas sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones) looks on from afar, trying to make sense of it all.

Layered, as most Coen films are, with memorable dialogue, superb performances, a haunting sense of time and place, and dark humor, “No Country For Old Men” is like a symphony of great filmmaking. Individual scenes retain their potency long after the film has concluded, while the film poses a fascinating portrait of characters bound by their ethics, or lack thereof, and the consequences that entail -- both good and bad -- from their decisions. Roger Deakins’ cinematography is another huge asset to the film, vividly capturing the surroundings and staging the preceding with a sense of foreboding that lingers after the credits have finished. It’s a marvelous picture, one graced with so many superb elements that it virtually demands repeat viewing, especially in lieu of its unconventional but somehow satisfying last few scenes.

Buena Vista’s Blu-Ray release is spectacular in every sense of the word, with a marvelous MPEG-4 AVC encoded transfer doing full justice to Deakins’ outstanding photography. The uncompressed PCM sound and 5.1 Dolby Digital offerings are equally satisfying, while a brief assortment of extras include several short, promotional featurettes. The supplements will be shared on the standard DVD edition, which is slated to offer a 16:9 (2.35) transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

MICHAEL CLAYTON: Blu-Ray & DVD (***, 122 mins., 2007, R; Warner): Compelling suspense-thriller with George Clooney as a “fixer” for a high-priced law firm whose latest assignment is to straighten out their top litigator (Tom Wilkinson) who’s abruptly turned whistleblower in a billion-dollar case. Veteran screenwriter Tony Gilroy makes his directorial debut with “Michael Clayton,” an absorbing film that doesn’t overplay its hand right away and offers excellent performances from Clooney, Wilkinson and Tilda Swinton. It’s taut and exciting, with a fine score by James Newton Howard and atmospheric lensing by Robert Elswit adding to the entertainment. Warner’s Blu-Ray disc boasts a solid VC-1 encoded transfer with a capable 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack (an HD-DVD version was planned for a few weeks down the line, as was the case with “No Reservations” and “In the Valley of Elah” reviewed below), and only two extras: several deleted scenes and commentary from Tony Gilroy and his brother, editor John Gilroy.

DAN IN REAL LIFE: Blu-Ray & DVD (***, 98 mins., 2007, PG-13; Buena Vista): Engaging romantic comedy with Steve Carrell as a widowed father who takes his young girls to Rhode Island to visit his family, only to fall for the new girlfriend (Juliette Binoche) of his younger brother (Dane Cook). A good amount of low-key laughs and a few moving scenes make “Dan in Real Life” a worthwhile film, marked by a nicely understated performance from Carrell. Even though he and Binoche have little chemistry together, this is a charming “little” movie all the way, shot entirely on authentic Ocean State locales including the beautiful Pt. Judith lighthouse. The standard DVD’s 16:9 (1.78) transfer and 5.1 soundtrack ought to be top-notch, but Buena Vista’s Blu-Ray release includes an even more impressive 1080p transfer with uncompressed PCM audio and a number of extras, including commentary from Hedges, deleted scenes, outtakes, and several Making Of featurettes, including a look at the creation of Sonre Lerche’s pleasant score and songs.

NO RESERVATIONS: Blu Ray & DVD (**1/2, 104 mins., 2007, PG-13; Warner): Barely above-average romantic drama-edy, an adaptation of the superior German film "Mostly Martha," stars Catherine-Zeta Jones as Kate, a hardworking chef who becomes a guardian to her niece Abigail Breslin after her parents are tragically killed. Precocious little Breslin manages to turn Zeta-Jones' world upside down, at the same time a new chef (Aaron Eckhart) joins the staff of Zeta-Jones' posh NYC restaurant. Scott Hicks ("Shine") directed "No Reservations," which manages to turn the subtle and low-key charm of "Mostly Martha" into a standard-issue American piece of fluff, from Eckhart's obvious performance as the outgoing guy who breaks his way into Zeta-Jones' impenetrable heart, to the relationship between Breslin and Zeta-Jones. It's all too cute and predictable, though the performers do their best under the circumstances. Warner's Blu-Ray disc sports a competent 1080p transfer and disappointingly plain Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, with minimal extras including an "Emeril Live" episode with the stars on the former Food Network chef's popular series, and an "Unwrapped" special with host Marc Summers mixing PR schmooze with the cast.

IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH: Blu Ray & DVD (**1/2, 121 mins., 2007, R; Warner): Slow-moving, emotionally heavy-handed study of a father (Tommy Lee Jones) who tries to find his son -- a soldier newly returned from Iraq -- after he goes AWOL. Jones takes matters into his own hands and spearheads a personal investigation into his disappearance, leading him to a New Mexico base, a cop (Charlize Theron) who tries to help, and the eventual remains of his deceased son.

Paul Haggis scored a major critical success with "Crash" but came back to earth with this stilted study of loss and an investigation into military life that leads to the preordained conclusion that war is horrible and scars all of the people who participate in it. Sadly, "In the Valley of Elah" offers few other revelations other than that one-sided point of view, taking an enormous amount of time to get to its point and then hammering it home in a contrived finale. The performances nearly overcome the preaching, though, with Lee Jones enormously effective in a moving performance.

Warner's Blu Ray disc offers a superb 1080p transfer with Dolby Digital TrueHD audio, one additional scene and two Making Of featurettes. Mark Isham's overly dense and one-note score does not aid the film either.

BEOWULF: Director's Cut HD-DVD (**, 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 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 HD-DVD, as you might anticipate from a digital film, looks absolutely sensational, with a flawless visual presentation all around. The Dolby Digtial Plus sound also packs a hugely potent punch, while picture-in-picture segments offered during the film are supplemented by extra featurettes and deleted scenes on the set’s second platter.

New on DVD

IT'S THE EASTER BEAGLE, CHARLIE BROWN (1974, 50 mins., Not Rated; Warner Home Video, with "It's Arbor Day, Charlie Brown"): The latest Peanuts DVD remastering from Warner pairs -- as its Paramount predecessor did -- the charming 1974 Easter perennial with a lesser-known, yet equally entertaining, 1976 story intended to celebrate Arbor Day.

The “Easter Beagle” is a fine Charles Schultz effort which examines the gang's Easter preparations like coloring eggs and Linus' assertion that the Easter Beagle will soon arrive, spreading joy and candy to all who believe in him (sound familiar?). Meanwhile, Snoopy tries to help out Woodstock by finding our feathered friend some new digs.

The great Vince Guaraldi provided another toe-tapping soundtrack for this special, with a good variety of amusing vignettes and a colorful design making for a pleasant perennial effort.

Also included on the DVD is “It's Arbor Day, Charlie Brown,” which was notable (according to Scott Maguire's essential Peanuts webpage) for being the final special scored by Guaraldi. This low-key affair shows what happens to Charlie Brown's All-Stars after his sister Sally opts to turn their baseball diamond into a Field of Gardens, complete with trees and shrubs.

Transfers on both programs are presented in their original 1.33 aspect ratios, and are a marked improvement on the prior Paramount DVD editions. Extras include the featurette "In Full Bloom: Peanuts at Easter," with the show’s producers and Charles Schulz's widow Jean offering comments on the enduring legacy of the 1974 Easter special.

Also new on DVD is a Special Edition of the Rankin-Bass special THE EASTER BUNNY IS COMING TO TOWN (1977, 50 mins., Warner), an entertaining, nostalgic stop-motion special offering Fred Astaire in the same genial narrator role that Burl Ives provided in “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

Warner’s new transfer looks and sounds just fine, and extras include a gallery of additional stop-motion shorts that round out a fine Easter special for the whole family.

101 DALMATIANS: 2-Disc Platinum Edition (***1/2, 79 mins., 1961, G; Disney): Classic Disney feature is the latest to receive the 2-disc Platinum treatment on DVD. Presented in its original full-screen format, the movie’s restored transfer and 5.1 sound are an appreciable upgrade on the prior DVD edition, with ample games on-hand for kids and an optional trivia track selectable during the film (purists can rest easy as the original mono soundtrack is also available). The second disc offers the bulk of the substantive extras for fans, including a Making Of documentary, deleted songs, a profile of the correspondence between Walt and the author of the original “101 Dalmatians” book, and other extras. Highly recommended for all Disney fans, and as with all prior Platinum discs, the set will be available only for a limited time.

New From Fox & Paramount

THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE (***, 118 mins., 2007, R; Dreamworks/Paramount): Well-performed drama stars Halle Berry as a widower who brings a long-time friend (Benicio Del Toro) to live with her family, including her two kids, after the tragic death of her husband (David Duchovny). Sam Mendes was one of the producers of this little-seen 2007 romantic drama, offering strong work from its leads, most especially Berry, who gives a touching performance as a mother trying to hold everything together after a devastating tragedy. Paramount’s DVD includes seven deleted scenes and a Making Of featurette, plus a fine 16:9 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound; an HD-DVD edition is due out shortly.

INTO THE WILD (***, 148 mins., 2007, R; Paramount): Jon Krakauer’s acclaimed portrait of young Christopher McCandless, who leaves his home and possessions for a life on the road and, eventually, the wilderness of Alaska makes for a memorable film from writer-director Sean Penn. Emile Hirsch here confirms his status as one of the top young actors of his generation, giving a convincing, well-shaded performance as McCandless, while a marvelous supporting cast includes Hal Holbrook, William Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden, Catherine Keener and Jena Malone, as either McCandless’ family or the people he meets along the way. The cinematography of Eric Gautier and Penn’s direction make for a terrific, moving entertainment which Paramount has beautifully captured on DVD in an excellent 16:9 transfer. The two-disc set offers a decent assortment of extra features on its second platter, recounting McCandless’ tragic end and the production of the film; viewers should note that an HD-DVD edition is also forthcoming.

HUMAN GIANT, Season 1 (160 mins., 2007, Paramount): Season one of the raunchy MTV sketch comedy series hits DVD with loads of extra features. Aziz Ansari, Rob Huebel and Paul Scheer star in the show, which offers the requisite amount of raunchy gags with some genuinely funny moments interspersed throughout. Paramount’s two-disc set includes all sorts of guest appearances from Bill Hader to Mary Lynn Rajskub (“24”), Bob Odenkirk and Will Arnett, commentaries, deleted scenes, early live footage and other goodies for fans.

SOUTH PARK: Imaginationland (65 mins., 2007, Paramount)
LIL’ BUSH: Season 1 (132 mins., 2007, Paramount): A pair of Comedy Central titles hits DVD on March 11th from Paramount.

“South Park: Imaginationland” is clearly the better deal of the duo, offering several recent episodes from the long-running series edited together as a 65-minute movie. Two bonus episodes and commentary from Trey Parker and Matt stone make this uncensored release worthwhile for fans. “Lil Bush,” meanwhile, is a much more uneven series focusing on the adventures of George W. in his early years. Numerous extras include commentaries and a never-before-seen bonus episode.

MRS. DOUBTFIRE: Behind the Seams Edition (**1/2, 125 mins., 1993, PG-13; Fox): New Special Edition of the 1993 holiday box-office smash with Robin Williams in drag as a nanny to his own kids after his estranged wife (Sally Field) falls for another man (Pierce Brosnan). Overlong and preachy, I didn’t personally care for this Chris Columbus film at the time, but fans are sure to enjoy this new edition, sporting deleted/extended or alternate scenes, loads of new featurettes examining the production, plus numerous vintage promotional materials, from shorts to trailers. The 16:9 (2.35) transfer is fine and the 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack likewise effective.

STRAWBERRY SHORTCAKE: BIG COUNTRY FUN (44 mins., 2007, Fox): More animated fun for the little ones as Strawberry and pals attempt to thwart the evil Purple Pie Man from putting the Carmel Corn Ranch out of commission. Only 44 minutes of programming are on-hand here, but young girls ought to enjoy the program nevertheless. Fox’s disc also includes a music video and DVD-ROM printable coloring pages.

NEXT TIME: AWAKE and more of the latest DVD and high definition reviews. 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!

Get Firefox!

Copyright 1997-2008 All Reviews, Site and Design by Andre Dursin