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February Freeze Edition
LADY AND THE TRAMP Enchants on Blu-Ray
Plus: PHANTOM, HAROLD & KUMAR, Universal Classics & More

Now that we’re out of the January doldrums (much more tolerable here in New England this year thanks to Mother Nature taking it easy on us), a number of diverse titles are hitting Blu-Ray and DVD this month, from the arrival of more classic films on Blu-Ray to fresh manufactured-on-demand discs. Let’s kick things off this week with a quartet of titles illustrating how there’s a bit of something for everyone this month.

The second film in Universal’s 100th Anniversary series of remastered Blu-Ray/DVD packages, the 1930 classic ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (133 mins.) fortunately fares far better than “To Kill a Mockingbird” did in HD a couple of weeks ago.

This Oscar-winning, early talky adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s still-relevant, classic anti-war WWI tome includes dialogue by Maxwell Anderson and George Abbott and a cast lead by Lew Ayres, who memorably depict the heartbreak and horror of war in a film – especially impressive for its time – that’s been brilliantly brought to Blu-Ray. Aside from the expected instances of print damage here and there, the 1080p HD transfer is remarkably crisp and freed from excessive DNR. The image mostly looks natural and is as detailed as one could expect from a film of its age.

Supplements are superlative in the double-disc, hardbound book-styled package: an introduction from Leonard Maltin includes background information on the film, an on-camera intro from TCM’s Robert Osborne provides additional detail, and best of all, the rarely-seen silent version of the film is also included. This version, recently restored by the Library of Congress and making its home-video debut here, includes all the sound effects of the film minus dialogue and with a fine score composed by Universal staff composer David Broekman. It’s easy to see why it’s often hailed as being superior to the sound version by scholars because of its music and smoother pacing. A DVD copy rounds out an excellent release that hopefully means good news for Universal’s forthcoming “100 Years” releases, especially after the underwhelming “Mockingbird” transfer.

Also new from Universal this month is THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA at the ROYAL ALBERT HALL (160 mins., 2011), a spectacular presentation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s legendary musical inspired by the original Hal Prince-Gillian Lynne staging. Shot at the Royal Albert Hall with Ramin Karimloo as the Phantom and Sierra Boggess and Hadley Fraser co-starring, the show also includes a few moving appearances from the show’s alumni (Sarah Brightman and Michael Crawford among them).

If you’re a fan of “Phantom,” Universal’s Blu-Ray is a must purchase, and if you’ve only seen the show through Joel Schumacher’s workmanlike film, you’re much better off capturing the authentic essence of the musical in this superb BD release, which includes an outstanding 1080p transfer and superbly engineered DTS MA soundtrack. (Lloyd Webber's recent “Phantom” sequel, “Love Never Dies,” will be out later this spring from Universal).

On the manufactured-on-demand front, Warner Archives unrolls VISION QUEST (**½, 107 mins., 1985, R) on disc February 14th for the first time in a 16:9 (1.85) widescreen format (the commercially released DVD is not just full-frame only, but also commands a high price on the secondary market since it’s out-of-print).

Harold Becker’s 1985 film is an interesting, though not altogether successful, tale of a working-class high school kid (Matthew Modine) who lives with single dad Ronny Cox in Spokane, Washington, and decides to lose weight in order to take on the state champion. Along the way he falls for a drifter (Linda Fiorentino) who takes residence in their home, subsequently navigating the ins and outs of his high school universe and the very adult world that Fiorentino represents.

“Vision Quest” has the feel of “Reckless,” one of my favorite ‘80s films with Aidan Quinn and Daryl Hannah (another great WB Archives release), and the natural setting enables the film to have a flavorful mood and atmosphere unlike other Hollywood films of the era. Darryl Ponicsan adapted Terry Davis’ book and Owen Roizman’s cinematography is terrific – but there’s ultimately something missing in the film, as if Becker couldn’t make up his mind whether to produce a coming-of-age teen film, a more authentic “adult” picture along those lines (a la “Risky Business”), or a “Karate Kid”-like, rah-rah underdog sports movie.

In the end “Vision Quest” is a little bit of everything and not enough of any one of those aspects, but the movie is still satisfying in spite of its flaws, with good performances from Modine and Fiorentino, early turns from the likes of Daphne Zuniga and Forrest Whitaker, and an effective Tangerine Dream score (augmented with plenty of pop tunes, including Madonna – who appears on-screen here for the first time – crooning her hit “Crazy For You”).

Warner Archives’ DVD looks terrific: the 16:9 transfer is well-framed at 1.85 and includes a fine stereo soundtrack. For fans of the movie – especially those still trying to find that out of print, full-screen DVD – this comes as an easy-to-recommend purchase.

Shout! has the Complete Collector’s Edition of UNDERDOG (aprx. 21 hours, 1964-66) due out on DVD this month as well: a massive, nine-disc assembly of all of the caped canine crusader’s adventures that have been mastered from the best available sources and re-edited to their original NBC broadcasts as best as Shout! has been able to. 

I grew up on “Underdog” re-runs that aired shortly before I would leave for grade school back in the early ‘80s, and seeing these shorts again on DVD brought back a warm wave of nostalgia. These are short, sweet and amusing cartoons with the same sort of charm as the Rocky & Bullwinkle cartoons of the era, and should (hopefully) enchant young kids today as much as they did for us adults way back when.

Shout’s DVD set includes all the Underdog shorts plus the “Go Go Gophers,” “Klondike Kat” and “Commander McBragg” cartoons which would air with Underdog in various syndicated packages starting in the ‘70s. Extra features include bonus cartoons, commentaries and a retrospective featurette. Great stuff!

New on Blu-Ray

A VERY HAROLD & KUMAR CHRISTMAS Blu-Ray/DVD/Digital Copy (**, 90/96 mins., 2010, R/Unrated; Warner): Disappointing third entry in the highly unlikely “Harold & Kumar” franchise was somewhat more fun in 3-D, though even in 2-D, you can see the rust in this reunion of stars John Cho and Kal Penn with original writers Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg.

This time out, estranged former buddies Harold and Kumar find themselves on opposite ends of the spectrum: Harold employed and happy, Kumar washed up and trying to make ends meet. The duo get back together just in time for Christmas, where they cause trouble in the Big Apple, hook up (very briefly) with Neil Patrick Harris, and of course, get high again. A few of the gags work (including a brief Claymation sequence) and there’s plenty of holiday atmosphere in the songs and William Ross’ score, but most of the film falls flat, feeling tired and strained; when even NPH's contribution is a brief cameo he must've filmed in a day or two, you know the series has likely reached the end of the line.

Warner’s Blu-Ray includes an extended cut of the film (running six minutes longer than the theatrical cut), a DTS MA soundtrack, an AVC encoded 1080p transfer and extras including two featurettes and deleted scenes, plus an UltraViolet digital copy and a DVD.   

...Disney’s latest Diamond Edition of their animated classics celebrates one of the studio’s all-time greats: LADY AND THE TRAMP (****, 76 mins., 1955). I could write for page upon page about how I grew up with the film, how it has been one of my lifelong favorite animated movies, and particularly how well the movie has stood the test of time -- suffice to say, most of you have seen it, or are aware of “Lady and the Tramp,” and there’s not much I can add that hasn’t already been stated about the picture. It’s a classic and deserves a place in any reputable Blu-Ray library.

The latter sentiment particularly holds true now that Disney has given their 1955 viewer favorite a thorough HD remastering. The studio previously issued “Lady” in a no-frills, single-disc DVD back in the relatively early days of the format, offering the movie’s full Cinemascope aspect ratio but nothing in the way of extras, and then again in a “Platinum” DVD release in 2006.

Disney’s Diamond edition sports a restored picture and remixed soundtrack, with the 2.55 transfer ranking as nothing short of breathtaking, and at the very least a major upgrade on both the previous DVD issues. On the audio side, Disney has included a remixed 5.1 DTS MA track, which is quite satisfying and has more of a presence than the restored original audio mix (also included here), which is acceptable but demonstrates the limitations of a mid ‘50s stereophonic recording.

The set includes a wealth of extras mostly carried over from the Platinum set, which weren’t as exhaustive as those found on the “Platinum” editions of, for example, “Snow White” and “Beauty and the Beast,” but nevertheless will appeal greatly to fans. “Lady’s Pedigree: The Making of ‘Lady and the Tramp’” offers a basic, interesting overview of the movie, its conception as being one of Walt’s pet (no pun intended) projects, the work of composer Oliver Wallace and songwriters Peggy Lee and Sonny Burke, and lasting legacy as part of the Disney canon. The documentary is split into several segments and totals just under an hour, while more vintage footage is on-hand in generous excerpts from Walt’s original Disneyland TV series. Additional deleted scenes, galleries and storyboards from an aborted 1943 version of “Lady and the Tramp” give Disney die-hards a fascinating look at other concepts and abandoned scenes, including a BD-exclusive never-before-heard song “I’m Free As the Breeze.” Other new extras include a commentary, “Inside Walt’s Story Meetings,” comprised of reenactments of story meetings between Disney and his staff; a featurette with Diane Disney Miller remembering her father; several additional deleted scenes in storyboard form; and an interactive app for your ipad or laptop that you can doodle around with during the film.

Needless to say this Diamond set earns a “Highly Recommended!” tag for all animation and Disney aficionados.

THE BIG YEAR Blu-Ray/DVD/Digital Copy (**, 100 mins., 2011, PG; Fox): I don’t know if any film could successfully turn the apparent pastime of bird watching into a compelling motion picture, but what I do know is that “The Big Year” certainly isn’t it.

This Fox fall release (which arrived DOA at the box-office, barely earning a total of $7 million) finds businessman Steve Martin, cocky Owen Wilson, and struggling thirtysomething Jack Black each trying to one-up each other as they travel the U.S. in the hopes of observing as much fowl as they can. It’s an odd premise to hang the premise of a dramatic motion picture on, and veteran screenwriter Howard Franklin (“Quick Change”) never settles into a comfortable rhythm in his adaptation of Mark Obmascik’s book: the film jumps from scene to scene, throwing in a would-be wistful passage, some nice scenary, and an obvious message about how there’s more to life than bird watching along the way. David Frankel’s movie offers nothing more than that obvious sentiment, however, and is neither funny nor charming, with John Cleese’s narration falling flat as it attempts to provide a humorous component to the limp storyline.

Fox’s Blu-Ray does look awfully nice in its 1080p AVC encoded transfer, including both the theatrical cut and a longer (by three minutes) unrated version, plus additional deleted scenes, a gag reel and a Making Of featurette. A DVD and digital copy are also included.

IN TIME Blu-Ray/DVD/Digital Copy (**, 100 mins., 2011, PG-13; Fox): Filmmaker Andrew Niccol has had a strange career, reaching his height with the release of “The Truman Show” and the well-received (though little-seen) “Gattaca” over a decade ago, and failing to make a whole lot of noise since.

“In Time” is yet another misfire from Niccol, set in the same sort of dreary not-too-distant future as “Gattaca” where aging stops when people reach the age of 25 and only the purchase of time itself can prolong life. It’s like “Logan’s Run” for the Occupy Wallstreet movement. Niccol receives a visual assist thanks to typically fine cinematography from Roger Deakins but his script is an uninteresting hodgepodge of other sci-fi stories and assorted genre films, with a bland lead performance from Justin Timberlake as a working class guy who grabs heiress Amanda Seyfried after he’s accused of murder and tries to turn the tables on the rich.

Fox’s Blu-Ray combo pack of “In Time” includes a well textured AVC encoded 1080p transfer, DTS MA soundtrack, and slight extras (deleted/extended scenes and a Making Of featurette).

ANONYMOUS Blu-Ray (**½, 130 mins., 2011, PG-13; Sony): Roland Emmerich’s latest somehow didn’t involve the destruction of Earth. Instead, the “modern Irwin Allen” tried to branch out with the intriguing but ultimately drawn-out and convoluted “Anonymous.”

John Orloff’s script tries to track down who the “real” William Shakespeare was, ultimately pointing the finger at Edward de Vere (Rhys Ifans), the Earl of Oxford, who was a poet and playwright in the Royal Court. Emmerich’s film mixes speculation with ample period atmosphere and a bit of a political intrigue in late-Elizabethan era England, but the movie didn’t feel focused enough to really engage anyone other than viewers with a hard-core interest in the subject matter. The game cast tries hard but I found a good deal of the film to be slow-going. 

Sony’s Blu-Ray boasts a crisp 1080p AVC encoded transfer, DTS MA soundtrack, deleted scenes, a featurette, commentary with Emmerich and Orloff, and BD exclusive additional deleted scenes and two more featurettes.

TAKE SHELTER Blu-Ray (***, 121 mins., 2011, R; Sony): Michael Shannon has been poised for a major breakout in a commercial film for some time (perhaps it’ll come in Zack Snyder’s “Superman” movie next year), but in the meantime, he crafts yet another memorable performance in “Take Shelter” – an unusual and moody piece from writer-director Jeff Nichols. Shannon plays a family man suffering from visions of an impending apocalypse, and decides to pour all of his energies into constructing a storm shelter that leads his wife Jessica Chastain and co-workers to believe he might be suffering from mental illness. “Take Shelter” works primarily because of Shannon’s strong work here; at 120 minutes, the movie feels overlong and has one of those “ambiguous” endings that seems more suited to, say, a film like “Inception,” but the picture is powerful in places and worth seeing because of its central performance. Sony’s Blu-Ray includes deleted scenes, commentary with Shannon and Nichols, a Q&A and Making Of featurette, plus an AVC encoded 1080p transfer and DTS MA soundtrack.

THE SON OF NO ONE Blu-Ray (**, 94 mins., 2010, R; Anchor Bay): Basically unreleased cop thriller wastes a good, if eclectic, cast in its cliched story of a New York cop (Channing Tatum) who finds himself wrapped up in a murder-investigation that includes a former detective (Al Pacino) and could lead back to his own family of crimefighters. Writer-director Dito Montiel’s film includes small roles for Pacino and Ray Liotta (who each act Tatum off the screen in their relatively scant appearances) as well as supporting turns from Katie Holmes, Juliette Bioche and Tracy Morgan – yes, it’s a bit of a kitchen-sink cast, and the movie feels equally fragmented, with a dull story line that never feels believable. Anchor Bay’s BD includes commentary with Montiel and deleted scenes, plus a 1080p transfer and Dolby TrueHD soundtrack.

METAL SHIFTERS Blu-Ray (90 mins., 2010, PG-13; Anchor Bay): Low-budget, Canadian-made Syfy Channel movie agreeably mixes “Transformers” with survival horror in its tale of an alien bacteria that crashes and promptly bonds steel objects together into a killing machine ravaging small-town U.S.A (errr, North America). Better-than-average for its type, with Anchor Bay’s Blu-Ray boasting a 1080p transfer, 5.1 Dolby TrueHD soundtrack and a featurette.

New From Acorn

A pair of new Blu-Ray releases highlight Acorn's recent slate of new arrivals.

In addition to the first two sets of “Poirot” mysteries with David Suchet which I reviewed in last week’s column, Acorn has the complete Set 2 of ROBIN OF SHERWOOD (681 mins.) bowing on Blu-Ray this month. After original star Michael Praed departed, the series was able to continue after Jason Connery joined the program as Robert of Huntingdon – a nobleman who reassembles the Merry Men and takes arms against the Sheriff of Nottingham in the final 13 episodes of the fan-favorite British series.

Acorn’s four-disc Blu-Ray set is rich with extras: music-only tracks on three episodes (Clannad fans should take note of this along with a 12-minute interview with the group); nine episode commentaries; a photo gallery; a 76-minute documentary on the Making of Series 3; a photographic retrospective from producer Esta Charkham; outtakes; a promo short; PDF material; and much more. The 1080p 4:3 transfers are right in-line with Acorn’s prior BD release, while both the original mono and a remastered stereo soundtrack complete the package. Highly recommended for fans.

Also new to Blu-Ray is Series 1 of GEORGE GENTLY (265 mins., 1996) starring Tony nominee Martin Shaw as Inspector George Gently, a London detective who teams with young cop Lee Ingleby to investigate a series of crimes in Northumberland, a remote region of Britain during the mid ‘60s. Guest stars Richard Armitage, Phil Davis and Jon Kavanagh appear in this first group of episodes from the acclaimed series, which arrives on Blu with three story arcs, 2.0 PCM stereo audio, and 1080i widescreen transfers.

Also New & Noteworthy

RABIES DVD (94 mins., 2010, Unrated; Image): Two couples run afoul of a serial killer in an uneven but at times compelling import hitting DVD this month from Image. This Israeli-made horror tale offers unusual direction from Navot Papushado and Aharon Keshales, who hopefully will take the relative success of this survival horror tale and put it to better use in a story more deserving of their talents next time out. Image’s DVD includes a 16:9 (1.78) transfer and 5.1 soundtrack.
NEW FROM E ONE/MPI: THE DEVIL'S ROCK (86 mins., 2011, Not Rated) finds a pair of Allied commandos running into a Nazi occult lair where a demoness and other horrors lurk inside. Paul Campion's horror flick was generally well-received by aficionados last year and hits DVD with numerous extras from E One: commentary from the director, a featurette, FX breakdown, extended scenes, alternate multicam takes and outtakes, plus a 16:9 transfer and 5.1 soundtrack...Tom Six is back at it with THE HUMAN CENTIPEDE II (FULL SEQUENCE) (91 mins., Unrated, 2011; IFC), another repellant waste of time for sadists only. IFC/MPI’s Blu-Ray includes commentary and an interview with Six, a deleted scene and several featurettes...VIPS (96 mins., 2010) stars Wagner Moura in a Brazilian “Catch Me If You Can,” following the exploits of one of the country’s most notorious con men. E One’s DVD of this Universal Pictures Intl. Production includes interviews with the cast and crew, a 16:9 transfer and 5.1 soundtrack in Portuguese with English subtitles.

NEW FROM LIONSGATE: Season 3 of NURSE JACKIE (334 mins., 2011) has Jackie Peyton failing to listen to the advice of her husband and best friend and stop her pill-popping addiction – it’s a post-intervention succession of 12 episodes that Lionsgate brings to Blu-Ray in a two-disc set. The 1080p transfers and DTS MA soundtracks are all fine, with extras including cast/crew commentaries, a gag reel and two featurettes...Mary-Louise Parker’s former suburban soccer mom tries to make a fresh start in New York City in the Seventh season of Showtime’s WEEDS (353 mins., 2011), which hits Blu-Ray in another fine package from Lionsgate. In addition to top-notch 1080p AVC encoded transfers and DTS MA soundtracks, plenty of extras include cast/crew commentaries, deleted scenes, a gag reel and several featurettes, plus a multi-screen comparison...KING OF TRIADS (95 mins., 2011, R) is a Hong Kong import with Simon Yam, Bernice Liu and Andy On, brought to DVD in both English 5.1 dubbed and the original Cantonese dialogue tracks with cast/crew interviews on-tap for extras. The 16:9 (1.85) transfer is perfectly passable.

NEXT TIME: Criterion round-up. 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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