2/5/08 Edition -- The New AISLE SEAT BLOG Is Also Live

RAMBO Returns
Stallone's New Comeback Reviewed

The second leg of the Sylvester Stallone Comeback Tour may not be as successful as "Rocky Balboa" but the latest adventures of his iconic hero John RAMBO (***, 93 mins., R) still makes for a gripping visceral ride that showcases its actor-director’s maturation as a filmmaker.

This fourth outing (which curiously shares the same title as its second installment) in the “First Blood” series finds Rambo making a living by hunting and selling cobras in Thailand until a group of American missionaries come looking for help. Needing Rambo’s boat in order to take them up river into Burma where the Karen people (many of which are Christian) are routinely slaughtered in a still on-going genocide, the missionaries (including cute Julie Benz) think they’re going to make a difference. To Rambo, their naivite is surpassed only by their lack of weaponry -- and our gruff, silent hero ends up unsurprised once the group is captured in a brutal attack that slaughters nearly the entire village they were providing relief for.

“Rambo” doesn’t offer much plot (is there ever?) but the picture works due to its gut-punching action sequences, and make no mistake, this is a violent, graphic film that -- quite unlike its second and third installments of some 20-plus years ago -- shows the consequence of said violence, as well as takes a firm stand that there are indeed times when it is necessary. None of it has the comic book feel of “Rambo II” or III and while it doesn't have the strong character development of the original “First Blood” either, it’s surprising how well the film comes together. Stallone’s performance is more in-line with the John Rambo seen in the original “First Blood,” making this feel like a natural conclusion to Ted Kotcheff’s 1982 action classic instead of a re-run of the more outlandish, bigger-budgeted comic books that its sequels turned out to be.

The film also illustrates that Stallone has progressed enormously as a filmmaker -- like “Rocky Balboa” the actor clearly has a strong take on his lead character, and provides a realistic continuation of where its hero would be in the present day. The film moves along at an economically brisk pace and offers a succession of excellent set-pieces, as well as a brief flashback to the first movie (even with, oddly enough, the discarded footage of its alternate ending where Col. Trautman shoots Rambo!). More over, Stallone’s script (co-written with Art Monterastelli) is equally less long-winded than the prior “Rambo” films -- there’s no lengthy exchanges between the missionaries and Rambo at the end, no concluding preachiness about their mission nor a lengthy thanks to Rambo for saving their skin. Instead, a few glances exchanged between the survivors says it all, and it’s perfectly handled by Stallone at every turn.

Speaking of the end, “Rambo” culminates in a wild, raucous and graphic conclusion that’s worth the price of admission for action fans, as well as a gorgeously lyrical final shot that recalls the end of the first movie, from the credits rolling on the left-hand edge of the frame to a full reprise of Jerry Goldsmith’s “It’s a Long Road.”

Also worth commending here is the work of composer Brian Tyler. Goldsmith's main theme pops up at the beginning and the end of the piece, and while Tyler's action music can't hold a candle to Goldsmith's, his music is still perfectly serviceable and is anything but the disappointment that John Ottman's “Superman Returns” was in terms of wrecking its predecessor’s orchestration and feel.

“Rambo” may not end up being a classic, nor will it likely relaunch the character on a whole new series of films (unless box-office receipts hold up overseas). It is, though, a gritty and satisfying ride that proves Stallone’s critics wrong (again) and ought to provide the goods for action fans on a cold snowy winter’s night.

New on DVD

One of my all-time favorite series hits DVD this week when Fox issues the Complete First Season of the classic, long-running CBS sitcom NEWHART (1982-83, 546 mins.).

This second starring series for Bob Newhart is usually regarded by critics as being inferior to his equally strong ‘70s comedy “The Bob Newhart Show,” but I have to express my personal preference for “Newhart,” even if this three-disc 1st Season set isn’t an accurate indicator of the series the program would become in its subsequent years.

“Newhart” stars Bob as Dick Loudon, a normal, stoic everyman who moves with his wife Joanna (the under-rated Mary Frann) to Vermont in order to escape the rat race and run the Stratford Inn -- a local, quaint B&B. At the Stratford Dick and Joanna are surrounded by a group of local kooks, including Minuteman Café owner Kirk (Stephen Kampmann) and resident handyman George Utley (Tom Poston), with the majority of episodes involving Dick’s futile attempts to remain sane while a bevy of guests and local-yocals stir up all kinds of shenanigans.

Even those familiar with “Newhart” may find this first season of 22 episodes to be quite unfamiliar from a number of angles. The show was shot on videotape only in its first season and as a result looks entirely different (and more “staged”) than the filmed episodes that would follow, while a number of cast alterations improved the program immeasurably after this first season. Here, instead of Julia Duffy’s hilarious Stephanie Vanderkellen we here have Jennifer Holmes as her cousin Leslie -- a pretty Dartmouth graduate student who serves as the Stratford maid, but is ultimately too vanilla in her delivery and never provides any friction for Newhart to play off (something Duffy would quickly change in Year 2). Instead of Peter Scolari’s affably annoying local TV producer Michael Harris we have Kampmann’s loony Kirk Devane, who manages to be annoying and never very likeable -- a trait that Scolari possessed in spades.

By the second season Duffy would be in, Holmes would be gone and Kampmann would be back (briefly) as a slightly less strident Kirk, with later seasons to incorporate Scolari’s engaging work and the appearance of “Larry, Daryl and Daryl” -- characters who would push “Newhart” higher in the ratings and turn it into a classic series that would endure for the rest of the 1980s.

Even though the quality of episodes varies wildly during this first season (and it’s not hard to see why changes were made in front of and behind the camera), “Newhart” fans will find this DVD set to be enormously intriguing. All 22 episodes have been presented in their original, uncut lengths from the videotape masters, offering clear mono soundtracks and episode synopsis for each program.

Extras are also on-hand, though I honestly was disappointed in their brevity and general lack of candor. The three featurettes offer new interviews with Newhart, Julia Duffy, William Sanderson (“Larry”), John Voldstad (one of the “Daryl”’s), and assorted crew members, but their comments are generalized to include the entire run of the series. There’s no discussion at all about the peculiar nature of the first season, no talk about the casting changes or genesis of the series -- it’s a nice but brief overview of the show that makes one feel these will be the only extras we’ll get for this series’ duration on DVD, which is unfortunate. There are, at least, moving tributes to Mary Frann and Tom Poston, but no episode commentaries or anything else outside of those three featurettes.

Overall it’s fabulous to have “Newhart” on DVD at long last and even those fans who may not feel that this first season is the best should still go out and pick up a copy. If nothing else those sales will help stir the release of future seasons of the show on DVD, which in this case are the best years of “Newhart.”

New on Blu-Ray and DVD

THE INVASION: Blu-Ray (**, 99 mins., 2007, PG-13; Warner): Disappointing remake of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” offers a few narrative twists on the old formula but suffers from odd pacing and several unintentional yucks.

Nicole Kidman stars as a divorced psychiatrist who notices a change in her Washington, D.C. co-workers and neighbors, not to mention her ex-husband (Jeremy Northam), a CDC rep who’s one of the first respondents on the scene when a NASA shuttle blows up upon re-entry to the Earth’s atmosphere. Unbeknownst to Northam, the debris from the shuttle contains an alien life form that “takes over” its hosts, submerging their consciousness and leaving an unemotional, disconnected lifeform in its wake.

In getting to the bottom of the personality changes around her, Kidman enlists the help of her doctor-friend Daniel Craig and scientist pal Jeffrey Wright, both of whom conclude that falling alseep would not be a good idea...

This big-budget and good-looking Joel Silver production was directed -- at least initially -- by “Downfall” helmer Oliver Hirschbiegel, making his English language debut. Hirschbiegel’s original cut apparently played up the psychological and political aspects of David Kajganich’s script, but test audiences allegedly found it too slow and distant. Subsequently, Silver and the studio ordered a litany of re-shoots handled by Silver’s “Matrix” cohorts the Wachowski Brothers, resulting in a few chase sequences in the movie’s final third.

Needless to say,  “The Invasion” not only feels like the work of too many cooks in the kitchen, but even the early-going portions of the film (which the Wachowskis apparently didn’t touch) have their problems. Northam’s discovery of the alien spores is hilariously followed by him being infected by a little girl on the street who hands him a piece of the shuttle that fell on her family’s house -- the sequence is so matter-of-fact and unintentionally funny that it actually feels like an early ‘50s sci-fi flick.

The biggest problem is that, unlike every other filmed adaptation of Jack Finney’s novel, “The Invasion” never establishes a sense of normalcy before the extraterrestrial outbreak occurs. From John Ottman’s overly ominous score to the botched opening minutes, little tension is ever developed in the film because all hell breaks loose right off the bat. Even in Abel Ferrara’s uneven 1993 take on “Body Snatchers,” the set-up at least developed its core set of characters and surroundings before the invasion began to claim its human hosts one by one; here, the film tips its hand too early, and only rarely generates a chill or two (such as when Kidman’s heroine is approached by a “census bureau worker” late at night).

“The Invasion” does boast a solid performance by Kidman and a few neat twists that other versions haven’t offered (including a cure for the alien invasion in the form of Kidman’s young son), but the dismal last scene (which embarrassingly suggests that we might be better off as “pod people”!) and overall lack of execution seal the film’s fate as one of the costliest flops in recent box-office history.

Warner’s Blu-Ray disc does boast a superb VC-1 encoded 1080p transfer that looks quite good for the most part, showing off the fine cinematography of Rainer Klausmann. The Dolby TrueHD sound isn’t as satisfying, needing to be turned up on my receiver to high decibels and offering dialogue that seems to be mixed too low in relation to the film’s abundant sound effects. Extras include three basic Making Of featurettes plus a 20-minute look at other “Body Snatchers” versions (sans film clips of those renditions).

THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD: Blu Ray (***, 160 mins., 2007, R; Warner): Beautifully filmed, elegiac western focuses on the final days of Jesse James (Brad Pitt), now 34 and still pulling off the occasional heist, as well as the young Roger Ford (Casey Affleck) who becomes attached and drawn to James before turning embittered by his actions. Andrew Dominik’s film offers strong performances from Pitt and Affleck, along with Sam Shepherd as James’ older brother Frank, Mary-Louise Parker as his wife, and Sam Rockwell as Ford’s older brother. The key star, though, is cinematographer Roger Deakins, whose haunting and gorgeously layered work captures all of the Calgary locales in their haunting majesty. On the negative side of things, “The Assassination of Jesse James” is certainly slow-moving and its mid-section could’ve benefitted from some judicious cutting, but for western fans this tense and compelling film is nevetheless well worth a view. Warner’s Blu-Ray disc is somewhat of a disappointment -- the VC-1 encoded transfer is okay but shows some occasional digital artifacts, while the sound is even more of a letdown: only standard 5.1 Dolby Digital, with no lossless PCM or Dolby TrueHD offerings anywhere to be found. A Making Of documentary is the disc’s lone supplement.

THE BRAVE ONE: Blu Ray (**½, 122 mins., 2007, R; Warner): Well-directed Neil Jordan film is essentially a more psychological, modern update on “Death Wish,” with Jodie Foster as a New York City talk show host whose fiancee (Naveen Andrews from “Lost”) is killed in a seemingly random attack. Foster goes on the offensive to exact her own vengeance in this taut, gritty film that suffers from a predictable script (credited to Roderick Taylor, Bruce Taylor and Cynthia Mort) that also lingers on past the two-hour mark. Warner’s Blu-Ray edition offers up a satisfying VC-1 encoded transfer with Dolby TrueHD audio, additional scenes, and an HD Making Of featurette.

*EDITOR’S NOTE: HD-DVD owners should note that HD-DVD versions of all three Warner titles reviewed above will be available in the next few weeks.

WE OWN THE NIGHT: Blu Ray (**½, 117 mins., 2007, R; Sony): Well-acted morality play involving night club owner Joaquin Phoenix and brother Mark Wahlberg, a cop who needs his sibling to turn informant in order to take down a growing NYC narcotics ring. Robert Duvall co-stars as their father in this melodrama from writer-director James Gray (“The Yards”), which ultimately becomes a bit far-fetched as it moves forward, culminating in a less than credible finale. Sony’s Blu-Ray release offers commentary with the director and three Making Of featurettes, along with an excellent 1080p transfer and Dolby TrueHD sound, sporting a brooding Wojciech Kilar score.

THE JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB: Blu Ray (**½, 106 mins., 2007, PG-13; Sony): Cute ensemble drama-edy about a group of women (Kathy Baker, Maria Bello, Emily Blunt, Amy Brenneman and Maggie Grace) and one guy (Hugh Dancy) who gather together each month to read and discuss a Jane Austen book...only to find, as time progresses, how similar their own lives are to the novels they’re reading. Robin Swicorn wrote and directed this adaptation of the Karen Joy Fowler novel, which makes for a cute piece of romantic-comedy fluff with engaging performances by the entire cast. Certainly it makes for a nice alternative viewing option for Blu-Ray owners, as Sony has given us a strong 1080p AVC-encoded transfer with Dolby TrueHD sound. Extras include commentary, deleted scenes and several Making Of featurettes. A “nice” movie well worth checking out, especially if you need something for Valentine’s Day that doesn’t involve shootings or heavy profanity!

CRIMSON TIDE: Blu Ray (***, 116 mins., 1995, R; Buena Vista): Tony Scott’s nuclear war-submarine thriller “Crimson Tide” holds even more rewards when viewed now than it did upon its 1995 release, with a supporting cast of familiar faces (who would gain later success) including James Gandolfini, Viggo Mortensen, and Steve Zahn supporting leads Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman. Quentin Tarantino’s much-lauded, uncredited script contributions tend to stick out like a sore thumb (I didn’t buy the Silver Surfer references 11 years ago, and they’re just as inappropriate now), but the movie is still an exciting popcorn-munching entertainment with Buena Vista’s Blu-Ray disc offering a satisfying 1080p transfer with uncompressed 5.1 PCM audio, deleted scenes and two Making Of featurettes.

More TV On DVD

BLADE: THE SERIES (2006, 338 mins., New Line): Surprisingly watchable cable-TV continuation of the Wesley Snipes big-screen series turns out to be better than both of the latter’s second and third installments. In this 13 episode series, Snipes’ shoes are filled by “Sticky Fingaz” but the show is stolen by Jill Wagner’s performance as Krista Starr, a tough girl looking to avenge her brother’s death at the hands of the evil vampire brotherhood “House of Chthon”, only to become a vampire herself during her investigation. Wagner looks great and her character’s unpredictable journey carries nearly all of the episodes, with the Blade sequences feeling completely phoned in and totally routine by comparison. New Line’s four-disc DVD box-set includes excellent 16:9 (1.85) transfers, 5.1 Dolby Digital audio and additional unrated footage incorporated back into the 13 episodes.

E/R: Season 8 (2001-02, 981 mins., Warner)
THIRD WATCH: Season 1 (1999-2000, 989 mins., Warner): Two of NBC’s popular dramatic series from the late ‘90s hit DVD this week, with one of the series debuting on disc for the first time.

NBC’s “Third Watch” was a critically acclaimed rescue drama that the network hoped would favorably compare with its long-running medical franchise “E/R.” Unfortunately for NBC, despite solid reviews and a strong fan base, the network’s constant time-shifting scheduling ruined a good thing, with the series ultimately proving to be a ratings underperformer that was often relegated to mid-season, non-sweep shifts, the kind that usually entailed pre-emption with no explanation.

Fans driven mad by NBC’s treatment of of “Third Watch” will be thrilled with Warner’s six-disc box-set, offering all 22 first-season episodes in unedited full-screen transfers and 2.0 Dolby Stereo sound.

“E/R” fans, meanwhile, will find the complete Eighth Season of the still on-going program now on DVD. Year eight says goodbye to Anthony Edwards’ poor Dr. Greene (seldom has a series been so tough on its lead character!) and also welcomes the return of Sherry Stringfield’s Susan Lewis, in a re-eapparance that turned out to have no effect on the series whatsoever. Warner’s box-set includes 16:9 transfers, 2.0 stereo sound and extras including a gag reel and unaired scenes.

Upcoming From Criterion

Filmmaker Alex Cox was quite a hot commodity during the 1980s. His “Sid and Nancy” and “Repo Man” become bona-fide cult classics, but alas, his star burned out relatively quickly thanks to self-indulgent messes like his bizarre 1987 offering WALKER (94 mins., R; Criterion).

This “hallucinatory biopic” is an anachronistic take on the life and times of William Walker, an American eccentric who became dictator of Nicaragua for a time during the mid 19th century. As controversial for its off-camera aspects (the film was shot with the support of the Sandinista army) as its nutty, pointed political agenda, “Walker” was bankrolled by Universal Pictures, who watched in horror as Cox’s off-the-cuff criticism of American “Manifest Destiny” was derided as one of the worst films of 1987 by many critics around the world.

Whether it’s overdue for critical re-appraisal or not, Criterion’s DVD presents “Walker” in a new, digitally remastered 16:9 (1.85) transfer with mono sound and a number of extras, including commentary by Cox and writer Rudy Wurlitzer, an original documentary (“Dispatches from Nicaragua” about the location filming), an interview with an extra about the filming, behind the scenes photos, the trailer, and Cox discussing all the bad reviews “Walker” received from critics -- including zero stars from Roger Ebert. After watching it, though, you may be inclined to agree with them.

Also new from Criterion is Jean-Luc Godard’s PIERROT LE FOU (110 mins., 1965), with Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina in a stylish, wacky film from the pinnacle of French new-wave filmmaking, bathed in gorgeous colors by cinematographer Raoul Coutard.

Criterion’s two-disc edition includes a new 16:9 (2.35) transfer approved by Coutard along with an interview with Anna Karina, a “video primer” on the film with commentary by filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin, a 50-minute documentary on Godard and Karina, archival interview excerpts, the trailer, and extensive booklet notes.

New From Disney

It’s never been regarded as one of Disney’s finest but THE ARISTOCATS (***, 79 mins., 1970, G) returns to DVD this week in a superb new 30th Anniversary Edition.

Offering the first widescreen 16:9 (1.75) presentation of the film on video to date, this re-issue also sports a deleted scene, an interview with the Sherman Brothers (whose jazzy songs adorn the film), an “Aristocats” scrapbook, a TV segment with Disney from the late ‘50s (which has nothing to do with the movie), and a number of games for kids, including a “Disney Virtual Kitten” and DVD-ROM mini-game with the virtual kitty as well. The 5.1 Dolby Digital sound is excellent and the movie itself a satisfying piece of Disney animation that’s historically notable for being the last picture that Disney greenlit, and also the first released after his passing.

It’s always been a bittersweet film (and was out of circulation during most of my youth altogether), but viewers unfamiliar with “the Aristocats” are likely to find it an entertaining family effort well worth adding to your Disney collections.

NEXT TIME: 30 DAYS OF NIGHT bears down on disc. 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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