2/9/10 Edition
 Olympic Edition
Plus: COUPLES RETREAT and Peanuts on DVD

A brand new Special Edition of THE WOLF MAN (***½, 70 mins.; Universal), the 1941 Universal monster classic, has been issued just in time for the February 12th release of the highly anticipated (and oft-delayed) big-screen remake.

Scripted by Curt Siodmak, “Wolf Man” stars Lon Chaney as Larry Talbot, who becomes cursed with the fate of a werewolf after wandering in the forests of Wales and being bitten by one of the creatures. Claude Rains plays Talbot's father, and the supporting cast includes Maria Ouspenskaya and Bela Lugosi as the Gypsies who predict Talbot's fate, along with Evelyn Ankers as the love interest and additional supporting turns from Ralph Bellamy and Patric Knowles. The settings, atmosphere, and direction (by George Waggner) are all top-notch and the movie compares favorably with the Universal chiller classics of the period.

This new double-disc DVD edition of “The Wolf Man” claims to offer a newly remastered transfer, and while it is definitely a different transfer than the previous “Legacy” box-set release of the movie, it’s not a massive improvement -- there are less scratches on the print, but the brightness level appears to have been artificially pumped up a little bit from prior releases. Frankly while there might be more detail in this transfer, the contrast level seemed better balanced in the “Legacy” box-set release.

Most of the extras in this set have been previously released as well.

David J.Skal’s "Monster by Moonlight” documentary is a carryover from the Legacy edition. Hosted by John Landis, this is an engaging look into the Wolfman's creation and phenomenon as the last great character to originate from Universal's "Golden Age" horror cycle. Eschewing the testimony of countless historians (as were utilized in Skal's past documentaries on other Universal titles) in favor of interviews with make-up artist Rick Baker (who discusses Jack Pierce's lasting legacy as the genius who created the make-up for the Universal monsters) and screenwriter Siodmak, the program is entertaining and enlightening, even though it uses a generous selection of film clips from the Wolfman's subsequent cinematic appearances to round out the program.

Of special interest to film music fans will be the discussion of “The Wolf Man”’s musical score by Frank Skinner, Hans Salter, and Charles Previn, which is given a few minutes of analysis in the documentary by John Morgan and conductor William Stromberg, who re-recorded the score several years ago and were wisely interviewed for this DVD. Morgan notes how most film scores today consist of musical wallpaper while Stromberg discusses one particular cue that had been cut down in editing, where Talbot watches a Gypsy burial. The "Archives" section also contains an abundance of still-frame photographs and publicity shots, underscored by the original music without dialogue.

Universal authority Tom Weaver’s insightful commentary also returns as well as a trailer gallery. The second disc includes the previously-released, Kenneth Branagh-narrated documentary “Universal Horror” plus three featurettes on Lon Chaney, Jack Pierce (which was previously contained in the two-disc “Mummy” DVD) and “The Wolf Man: From Ancient Curse to Modern Myth.”

Also New on Blu-Ray and DVD
ZOMBIELAND Blu-Ray (***, 88 mins., 2009, R; Sony). LOWDOWN: Amiable comic tale set in a future world after a zombie apocalypse has claimed most of Earth’s population. Still living among the ruins is nerdy college student Jesse Eisenberg (seemingly Hollywood’s first choice whenever Michael Cera isn’t available), trying to get home to see if his dysfunctional parents are still alive. En route he meets a wild, truck-driving Woody Harrelson and a pair of female con artists (Emma Stone and younger sister Abigail Breslin) who join the duo in a wasteland where the undead lurk at every turn. Writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick and director Ruben Fleischer have fashioned an energetic, fast-moving and quite funny mix of humor and horror, with the accent heavily weighed on the former -- a cameo from Bill Murray is played completely for laughs, and for the most part, it works. TECH SPECS: Sony has served up a top-notch Blu-Ray with a perfect AVC encoded 1080p transfer and DTS Master Audio soundtrack. Extras include deleted scenes, commentary with cast and crew members, visual effects progression scenes, and two featurettes. There’s also a BD exclusive “Beyond the Graveyard” picture-in-picture track, a digital copy, and BD Live “MovieIQ” optional pop-up trivia track. AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: The choice to go with laughs over horror and gore does deprive “Zombieland” of tense dramatic situations, but zombie addicts can choose any number of other, more serious undead horrors to watch to fill their splatter meter. This is an engaging and entertaining comedy that managed to rake in $75 million and become, reportedly, the highest-grossing zombie oriented movie ever made in the process.      

THE STEPFATHER Blu-Ray (**, 102 mins., 2009, Unrated; Sony). LOWDOWN: Screenwriter J.S. Cardone’s remake of “Prom Night” was one of 2008's worst movies, and while this re-do of the memorable Terry O’Quinn-Jill Schoelen thriller “The Stepfather” is a marginal improvement as far as remakes go, it’s still a bland, uninspired outing. Dylan Walsh takes over for O’Quinn as the Mr. Rogers-looking suburban psycho who preys on one fatherless clan after another; Sela Ward is his unsuspecting fiancee and Penn Badgley the troubled son who thinks something’s a bit “off” with his mom’s newfound squeeze. Unfortunately Cardone and director Nelson McCormack seem to have no idea how to build tension or suspense, with this “Stepfather” laughably going from boring to manic as soon as Badgley’s younger brother turns up the volume too loud on his Playstation game – the unintended yucks of the character’s first “outburst” are a far cry from the creepy nuances that O’Quinn brought to the Donald Westlake-scripted original. Other deviations from the original plot (having Ward’s ex-husband around, switching the gender of Schoelen’s character) likewise fail to pay off. TECH SPECS: Sony’s Blu-Ray does include a reference-quality 1080p transfer and DTS Master Audio soundtrack, with a few special features including commentary, a gag reel, and two featurettes. AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: Blah and lifeless, there’s no reason to check in on this “Stepfather” when the superior original has been recently released on DVD from Shout! Factory.

THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE Blu-Ray (**, 107 mins., 2009, PG-13; Warner). LOWDOWN: Rather dreary adaptation of Audrey Niffenegger’s bestselling book with Eric Bana as a man with a genetic condition that forces him to jump around the space-time continuum. This causes problems when he falls in love with a young woman (Rachel McAdams), who has to put up with Bana disappearing and reappearing at assorted times in both of their lives. Bruce Joel Rubin, who wrote “Ghost,” is the sole credited screenwriter of this would-be fanciful tale, which is undercut by a sleepy, humorless tone and one-note performances; Bana, in particular, mopes about while displaying no chemistry with the much younger McAdams. TECH SPECS: Warner’s Blu-Ray edition of “The Time Traveler’s Wife” does include a satisfying VC-1 encoded transfer, accentuating the nicely textured cinematography of Florian Ballhaus. The DTS Master Audio sound is low-key, as is Mychael Danna’s score. Scant extras include just a pair of featurettes and a digital copy disc. AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: “The Time Traveler’s Wife” might have made for a magical romantic drama, but this joyless film plays out like little more than a one-note Lifetime movie, albeit with solid technical attributes. Even genre fans – particularly those looking for something appropriate for Valentine’s Day -- would be better off looking elsewhere.

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE Blu-Ray (***½, 129 mins., 2005, PG; Universal): Jane Austen’s novel has been adapted to film and television numerous times over the years, but perhaps never so eloquently as Joe Wright’s acclaimed and vividly shot 2005 production. Some Austen purists carped at changes director Wright and screenwriter Deborah Moggach made to the original novel, but those without a preconception of the material will likely be enchanted by this splendid production.

Keira Knightley here stars as Lizzie Bennet, one of five daughters attracted to the rich, “unpleasant” Mr. Darcy (Matthew Macfadyen) in late 18th century England. Their sparring eventually leads to romance over a period of time that also finds Lizzie’s sister (Rosamund Pike) initially turned down by Darcy’s friend, while an old acquaintance of Darcy’s -- Mr. Wickum -- turns up and runs away with a younger Bennet sister (Jena Malone), much to the dismay of their parents (played wonderfully by Donald Sutherland and Brenda Blethyn).

One of the wonderful things about “Pride and Prejudice” is that Wright’s film comes alive visually, far more than a typical, static Merchant and Ivory piece: filling the widescreen vistas with details, deftly utilizing the superb work of cinematographer Roman Osin and the sublime score by Dario Marianelli, Wright articulates the thoughts and feelings of Austen’s characters perfectly. Watching the sun rise at the beginning of the movie, and again when Lizzie and Darcy finally merge at the end of the piece, is a joy that only enhances the work of the performances and the strength of the story itself.

In regards to the acting, Knightley and Macfadyen build up some serious chemistry together, as one might anticipate, and supporting performances from Pike, Malone, Sutherland, Blethyn and Tom Hollander (as Mr. Collins, Lizzie’s would-be suitor) are likewise strong across the board.

“Pride and Prejudice” is likely to satisfy most Austen devotees and especially newcomers to the material, who ought to embrace this adaptation lovingly with open arms. Don’t miss it.

Universal’s Blu-Ray offers a gorgeous AVC-encoded 1080p transfer that looks breathtaking in HD. The DTS Master Audio sound prominently displays Marianelli’s introspective score, while extras, carried over from past releases, include a commentary track by Wright and four Making Of featurettes, including an HBO First Look special.   

New Lionsgate Blu-Rays: Paramount. Studio Canal Titles & More

You may have noticed that The Aisle Seat hasn’t been covering Paramount titles for quite some time now. That’s because the studio opted early last fall -- for reasons that have yet to be fully explained to us media folks (but are almost certainly related to economics) -- to stop sending review product out to the majority of film-oriented websites. Only a select few receive any of their DVDs or Blu-Rays for coverage, leaving the rest of us to supposedly publicize their releases through the magic of press releases (as we say, “thanks...but no thanks”). 

Happily, since the studio’s release of catalog content has been slim to none of late (especially on Blu-Ray) anyway, it’s good to see Lionsgate coming to the rescue with the first of several upcoming batches of Blu-Rays from the Paramount vaults – the first wave hitting stores next week. Here’s a preview of those titles as well as other new Lionsgate high-def releases:

THE PHANTOM Blu-Ray (**, 108 mins., 1996, PG-13; Lionsgate): I was hoping the years would have been kind to this 1996 box-office flop -- one of several period super-hero films produced during the decade -- but alas, “The Phantom” still comes across as something of a major disappointment.

After starring in a ‘40s Saturday Matinee serial, Lee Falk’s hero took years to return to the silver screen, languishing in pre-production hell with one director after another having failed to bring Falk’s source material to life. Credited executive producer Joe Dante came the closest (with the plug having been pulled shortly before his film was to be produced), but alas, the movie ultimately fell into the hands of Australia’s Village Roadshow Pictures, which brought along Aussie director Simon Wincer to helm “The Phantom,” shooting most of it Down Under.

Regrettably, despite working from what appears to be a capable script by Jeffrey Boam (“Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade”), the resulting “Phantom” movie is a B-grade production through and through: indifferently cast with bland Billy Zane essaying Falk’s creation, Kristy Swanson as a weak period heroine and Treat Williams serving up less than memorable villainy, director Wincer’s workmanlike adventure just never comes alive.

It’s unfortunate as well, since “The Phantom” aims to tell an old-fashioned tale of derring-do with live-action stunt work a la “Raiders,” a few years before CGI came to dominate genre films. The movie is fun in spots but has a particularly mundane look and feel to it, with Wincer bringing little flair to the material and the actors trying, but mostly failing, to treat the material with the right mix of seriousness and campy humor. Outside of Catherine Zeta-Jones’ turn as Williams’ henchwoman, the movie constantly feels forced -- right down to David Newman’s often repetitive score. (Dante had claimed in an interview that while Boam’s script was largely played for laughs, Wincer’s film mostly played it straight, resulting in a movie chock full of “unintentional humor” that was mostly cut out of a disastrous test screening).

Nevertheless, it’s interesting to go back to “The Phantom” some 14 years after its original release and witness a decidedly “old school” production that’s a far cry from the hard-edged, hyper-stylized comic book films we see on a routine basis today. Even if it’s not nearly as successful as other period adaptations of the era (“The Rocketeer,” “The Shadow” and “Dick Tracy” are each a great deal more entertaining), genre fans might be interested in giving it another shot, especially now in high-definition.

Lionsgate’s Blu-Ray of “The Phantom” looks and sounds terrific, with the AVC encoded 1080p transfer appearing crisp and colorful. The original trailer, presented in standard-def, is the only extra on the platter, which is rounded out with a fine, though not particularly overpowering, DTS Master Audio track. It should be noted that “The Phantom” is currently out of print on DVD, making this the first widely-available presentation of the picture in some time.

HARD RAIN Blu-Ray (**½, 96 mins., 1998, R; Lionsgate): Waterlogged thriller had a turbulent production history; originally entitled “The Flood,” this Mikael Salomon film bounced all around the 1997 schedule before finally being released during the January dumping grounds in early ‘98. “Speed” scribe Graham Yost’s script tries to mix a disaster-movie formula within a standard ‘90s action framework, pitting armored car driver Christian Slater against a group of thieves (led by Morgan Freeman) ravaging a small-town that’s been flooded over by Mother Nature. Minnie Driver and Randy Quaid co-star in this fast-moving and good-looking actioner that has a silly plot and some unintended yucks, but it’s not bad for what it is, thanks mainly to its technical presentation. Lionsgate’s Blu-Ray aids the picture as well, boosting the Panavision cinematography in 1080p and with a beautifully mixed DTS Master Audio soundtrack packed with sound effects and Christopher Young’s effective score.

DROP ZONE Blu-Ray (**, 101 mins., 1994, R; Lionsgate): Silly vehicle for Wesley Snipes was one of director John Badham’s last high-profile, big-studio films (before the filmmaker went back to specialize in TV work); the disjointed Peter Barsocchini-John Bishop script follows Snipes as a U.S. marshal whose prisoner is sprung by criminal Gary Busey and his free-falling “techno terrorists.” Snipes teams up with dive instructor Yancy Butler to track them down in a colorful, fast-moving but ridiculous outing that was inferior to another, similarly themed skydiving thriller (the underrated Charlie Sheen vehicle “Terminal Velocity”) that was released a few months earlier. Lionsgate’s BD again serves up a very satisfying 1080p transfer with DTS Master Audio sound.

THE RUNNING MAN Blu-Ray  (***, 101 mins., 1987, R; Lionsgate): Arnold Schwarzenegger ran his way through this engaging sci-fi actioner which met with moderate box-office returns in the fall of ‘87.

Lionsgate’s Blu-Ray offers a fine 1080p transfer and DTS Master Audio soundtrack plus all the superb extras from its last Special Edition DVD, including a pair of featurettes and two commentary tracks -- one by director Paul Michael Glaser and producer Tim Zinnemann, and another by executive producer Rob Cohen.

It's Cohen's track that should be of the most interest to movie buffs. Years before he directed films like "The Fast and the Furious" and "Dragonheart," Cohen served as a production executive for Taft Entertainment Pictures, overseeing films like "The Monster Squad" and "The Running Man."

Though the Arnold vehicle was ultimately a box-office success, the movie started out as a troubled shoot that involved the participation of no fewer than three previous directors. And, unlike many commentaries, Cohen isn't afraid to pull any punches, discussing how George P. Cosmatos was removed (he wanted to rewrite the script and shoot the whole movie in a Canadian mall), how Ferdinand Fairfax was fired, and especially how Andrew Davis was let go very late in the game. Davis proved indecisive about several issues vital to the filming, and when his methods began to push the production back, Cohen let him go as well -- leading him to hire Paul Michael Glaser as a last-minute replacement. Cohen is also candid about the logistics of the movie's shooting, the picture's backstory, and the challenge involved in financing a mid '80s film from a myriad of sources.

It's a terrific commentary for a formulaic but highly entertaining action yarn that's always been a favorite of mine. "The Running Man" offers the requisite Arnold one-liners, an engaging turn by Richard Dawson, and an efficient pace. It's a superior "B-movie" that has been given the proper respect it deserves on Blu-Ray, and with a frank commentary track that reminds you how enriching supplemental features can be, when their speakers actually tell you how it was.

CABIN FEVER: Unrated Blu-Ray (98 mins., 2003; Lionsgate): Eli Roth’s off-the-wall 2003 horror flick gets a new Unrated cut on Blu-Ray. Lionsgate’s BD sports tons of extras, from commentary to a pair of Roth’s short movies, the trailer, behind-the-scenes content, a 1080p transfer and DTS Master Audio sound. Also from Lionsgate comes the DVD and Blu-Ray editions of CABIN FEVER 2: SPRING FEVER (86 mins., 2009, Unrated), “House of the Devil” director Ti West’s direct-to-video follow-up to Roth’s film, presented in 16:9 (2.35) widescreen with only a few extras (featurette, “Prom Blows Gore Reel”) on tap for special features.

WRONG SIDE OF TOWN Blu-Ray (85 mins., 2010, R; Lionsgate): Small-screen actioner with David Bautistia, Rob Van Dam and Ja Rule hits Blu-Ray from Lionsgate later this month, sporting several featurettes, a 1080p transfer and DTS Master Audio sound.

Studio Canal Blu-Rays

Lionsgate also brings U.S. viewers the first Blu-Ray discs from the “StudioCanal Collection” this month -- three titles offering a bit of a mixed bag for cinephiles.

Akira Kurosawa’s RAN (***½, 162 mins., 1985, R) needs little introduction for most devotees: this 1985 epic -- one of Kurosawa’s final films -- places Shakespeare’s “King Lear” in the context of feudal Japan, and particular, a crazed warlord who witnesses the dismantling of his empire piece by piece.

“Ran” has been issued on DVD several times in the format’s history, but no presentation proved to be completely satisfying. Criterion’s 2005 DVD came the closest to doing the film justice; this new Blu-Ray looks to have been derived from the same master, but unfortunately, almost appears to be an upscale of that standard-definition source. The picture consistently lacks high-def detail throughout, a criticism that other “Ran” Blu-Ray releases have been met with throughout the rest of the world. It goes without saying, then, that the presentation is a letdown given the film’s inherent visual richness, and one would have to blame the original Studio Canal elements for the issues here.

In addition to an okay DTS Master Audio track, the release also includes Chris Marker’s documentary “A.K.” (previously a part of the Criterion release), plus another documentary on the filmmaker entitled “Akira Kurosawa: The Epic and the Intimate,” plus an interview with a Japanese Art-of-War expert and another featurette on Samurai art.           

Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers, Hebert Lom, and Cecil Parker starred in the hilarious THE LADYKILLERS (***½, 92 mins., 1955), which is more satisfyingly presented on Blu-Ray. The 1.33 1080p transfer is crisp and colorful, while extras include an introduction from Terry Gilliam, filmed interviews with Allan Scott, Terence Davies and Ronald Harwood; an audio commentary with Ealing Studios authority Philip Kemp; a documentary on the legacy of Ealing Studios; a restoration segment; the trailer; and an interview with filmmaker James Mangold reflecting on the picture.

Finally, Jean-Luc Godard’s 1963 drama CONTEMPT (***, 103 mins.) also hits Blu-Ray next week in a satisfying 2.35 AVC-encoded 1080p transfer with DTS Master Audio mono sound and a number of extras: an introduction from Godard expert Colin MacCabe; two different documentaries on the picture; an archival interview with Fritz Lang; a discussion between Godard and Lang, who stars in the film; and the trailer.

On Blu-Ray From Fox

WALK THE LINE Blu-Ray (***, 2005, 135 mins., PG-13; Fox): Multi-layered, compelling account of the life and times of Johnny Cash, brilliantly portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix in James Mangold’s successful 2005 film. Reese Witherspoon won a deserved Oscar for her role as June Carter, who eventually marries Cash and the fame that surrounds him -- and threatens at times to engulf them both.

Director Mangold has helmed some fine movies over the years (the under-rated “Copland” being one of my favorites), and “Walk The Line” offers an authentic, “you are there” cinematic approach courtesy of Phedon Papamichael’s cinematography and the performances of both Phoenix and Witherspoon, who carry the movie through its somewhat predictable bio-pic paces (yes, the joke that this movie was “Ray” for white people is true in some regards: the movie has the same scenes of domestic turbulence and depicts the protagonist’s inner-demons in a similar, formulaic fashion). The production of the musical numbers, though, is superlative (kudos to soundtrack producer/supervisor T Bone Burnett), and what’s even more amazing is that the stars did their own vocals, adding to the authenticity of their individual performances. The movie may only be a bit above average but it’s the performances of the leads that makes “Walk The Line” well worth viewing, whether or not you’re a fan of Johnny Cash or his music.

Fox’s Blu-Ray edition of “Walk the Line” is terrific, offering a nicely textured AVC encoded 1080p transfer and brilliantly executed DTS Master Audio soundtrack. Extras culled from the older double-disc Special Edition DVD, meanwhile, include extended musical performances by Phoenix and Witherspoon on the songs “Rock and Roll Ruby,” “Jackson” and “Cocaine Blues”; a Making Of that also includes interviews with modern music stars like Sheryl Crow, Willie Nelson, Kid Rick, Roseanne Cash, John Mellencamp and others; additional featurettes and the trailer.

TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. Blu-Ray (**½, 116 mins., 1985, R; MGM/Fox): William Friedkin’s stylish thriller is actually a bit ho-hum until its razzle-dazzle car chase sequence.

William Petersen, who only in the last decade received the recognition (thanks to "CSI") that was long overdue him, puts in an early role as a federal agent who's gone over the edge. Willem Dafoe, meanwhile, essays a counterfeiter that Petersen is pursuing by any means necessary in Friedkin's thriller, scripted by the director and Gerald Petievich from his novel.

It's mostly dated, "Miami Vice"-kind of action, right down to Wang Chung's soundtrack, yet there are some strong performances from Petersen and Dafoe, and a "money" set piece in the movie's well-executed auto chase that have made the movie a favorite of certain aficionados. It’s not quite the cult classic some make it out to be, but it’s certainly worth seeing on video.

MGM's Blu-Ray edition of “To Live and Die in L.A.” was obviously produced some time ago, since its MPEG-2 transfer and 25gb single-layer presentation are on-par with the studio’s barebones early-format releases. Thankfully the 2003 standard-def DVD version is also on-hand, marked by a typically chatty commentary from Friedkin, plus featurettes spotlighting deleted scenes and an alternate ending. A then-recent documentary examines the production of the film, while a photo gallery and trailers round out the package.

AMELIA Blu-Ray (**½, 111 mins., 2009, PG; Fox): Mira Nair’s conventional, almost too old-fashioned biography of Amelia Earhart isn’t a complete misfire but nevertheless ranks as one of last year’s larger disappointments considering its cast, director and subject matter. Hilary Swank is fine as the intrepid female pilot and Richard Gere a more than suitable match as husband George Putnam, but Nair’s movie, scripted by Ron Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan, tries to cram too much into a sub-two hour running time, adhering to a tried-and-true “biopic” formula that only skims the surface of its broad narrative scope. Fox’s Blu-Ray disc does deftly display the movie’s vivid cinematography in 1080p, while DTS Master Audio sound backs Gabriel Yared’s lovely score. Extras include deleted scenes, several featurettes, a digital copy, and best of all, numerous vintage Fox Movietone news reels related to Earhart’s accomplishments and eventual mysterious disappearance.

THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND Blu-Ray (***, 123 mins., 2006, R; Fox): Forest Whitaker’s Oscar-winning portrayal of barbaric Ugandan dictator Idi Amin is the main draw to this powerful account of Amin’s rise to power as witnessed by a young Scottish doctor (James McAvoy). Mixing elements of the truth with a fictional central story, director Kevin Macdonald’s film is well performed by its ensemble cast and sports an incisive script by Peter Morgan and Jeremy Brock, adapting Giles Foden’s novel. Fox’s Blu-Ray boasts a crisp, nicely textured AVC encoded 1080p transfer with DTS Master Audio sound and extras including several deleted scenes, a couple of featurettes and a “Capturing Idi Amin” documentary.

ONG-BAK: THAI WARRIOR Blu-Ray (**½, 105 mins., 2005, R; Fox): It takes a while to get going but this Thai import provides sufficient martial-arts entertainment once star Tony Jaa gets his kicks going via impressive, real stunt work -- no flying wires here! Fox’s Blu-Ray edition of “Ong-Bak” is passable, but the movie’s rather unattractive digital photography can only be enhanced so much in high-definition, with Fox’s 25gb single-disc package sporting an AVC encoded 1080p transfer and DTS Master Audio sound (both English-dubbed and subtitled). Extras include a few Jaa featurettes.

WHIP IT Blu-Ray (**½, 111 mins., 2009, PG-13; Fox): Drew Barrymore’s feature directorial debut bombed at the box-office last fall, but it’s still an endearing -- if uneven -- girl-empowerment tale of a small-town teen (Ellen Page) who finds her destiny when a roller-derby team (including members Kristen Wiig and Barrymore) arrive to put on a local show. Some laughs and a strong cast help “Whip It” overcome its lengthy running time and general predictability, which Shauna Cross adapted from her own book. Fox’s Blu-Ray includes a flawless 1080p transfer, DTS Master soundtrack, and not much in the way of extras -- just a few deleted scenes, a Fox Movie Channel featurette, and a digital copy for portable media players.

New From Shout! Factory

William Shatner gives a perfectly “Shatnerian” performance in John Bud Cardos’ immortal 1977 schlocker KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS (**½ , 97 mins.), at last re-issued in a Special Edition DVD from Shout! Factory.

The Shat stars as an Arizona veterinarian who tries, and fails, to stop an invasion of spiders whose food supply has been wiped out by the evil horrors of mankind. It’s over the top ‘70s drive-in fare with cheap thrills, unintentional humor and a few genuinely eerie touches (like a terrific matte-painting finale that’s only undone by a hilariously bad use of twangy country-western music).

Shout!’s DVD includes an engaging, all-new interview with Shatner, a featurette on “spider wrangler” Jim Brockett, a fun commentary with Cardos, Brockett, producer Igo Cantor and fans Lee Christian and “Hostel” producer Scott Spielgel, plus rare-behind-the-scenes footage, a poster gallery and the trailer.

Also new from Shout! this month is the complete first season of SMALL WONDER (1985-86), the syndicated sitcom about a suburban dad (Dick Christie) who brings home his latest project to his wife (Marla Pennington-Rowan) and son (Jerry Supiran): a walking, talking little girl robot (Triffany Brissette), who gets into all kinds of shenanigans in this long-running show that aired on local stations, usually on Saturdays, back in the ‘80s.

Shout’s DVD includes commentaries with the show’s creator and several cast members, plus episode promos and a fan art gallery.

Finally, Elvis fans -- and aficionados of Kurt Russell and John Carpenter, accordingly -- are in for a treat early next month when Shout! delivers a Special Edition of ELVIS (170 mins.), the memorable 1979 biopic of The King.

Russell is pitch-perfect as Presley in this superb, Dick Clark-produced biography of Presley’s life and times, filled with music and outstanding performances. Carpenter’s sensitive direction makes one lament the filmmaker’s career output being almost exclusively geared towards the horror genre, while ample extras shed light on the accuracy of the production (courtesy of a commentary from Elvis experts Edie Hand and Ronnie McDowell, who performed the singing vocals for Russell in the movie). An archival interview with Russell and Carpenter, presaging their eventual collaboration on several ‘80s classics, is also included plus a photo gallery and vintage American Bandstand clips.

While it would have been nice to hear another Carpenter-Russell commentary track, this is still a must-have release for fans of the star, director and, of course, The King.

New From Criterion

Three new offerings from the Criterion Collection include a pair of 2008 efforts that met with critical acclaim around the globe.

Steve McQueen’s eclectic HUNGER (96 mins., 2008) has nothing to do with the erotic Tony Scott vampire thriller -- but everything to do with a horrifying account of an IRA prisoner making a stand against the British government’s refusal to treat him and fellow inmates as political prisoners. McQueen’s offbeat film follows Bobby Sands’ act of defiance in the Maze prison in 1981, with an unusual collection of images that, when combined with Michael Fassbender’s performance, make for a striking, unsettling viewing experience.

Criterion’s DVD of “Hunger” includes video interviews with McQueen and Fassbender, a short documentary on the making of the film, a 1981 BBC program about the Maze prison hunger strikes, the trailer, and a high-def derived video transfer (16:9, 2.35) with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Gotz Spielmann’s REVANCHE (122 mins., 2008), meanwhile, was an Oscar-nominated tale of a Vienna ex-con (Johannes Krisch) who works in a brothel and attempts to get away from his dreary existence with a hooker, only to find that life in the countryside is anything but quiet and uneventful...especially after a robbery attempt that was meant to be his ticket out of town.

Leisurely told, vividly shot and quite powerful “Revanche” is one of the more satisfying foreign imports I’ve seen of late, with a satisfying conclusion and loads of atmosphere. Spielmann’s film makes for an ideal Criterion release, the DVD including an interview with Spielmann, a half-hour documentary on the production, one of Spielmann’s short movies, a 16:9 (1.85) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Finally last but not least is Max Ophuls’ LOLA MONTES (114 mins., 1955), the filmmaker’s chronicle of the courtesan and showgirl that was also Ophuls’ final film. Martine Carol is effective as Montes and Peter Ustinov co-stars as the American ringmaster of the circus where Montes eventually ended up working; it’s all shot in gorgeous, colorful 2.55 widescreen and brilliantly presented here by Criterion.

Criterion’s double-disc set includes commentary with Ophuls scholar Susan White, a 1965 French TV special on the filmmaker, a new documentary by Marcel Ophuls about his father, silent footage of Carol demonstrating the film’s hairstyles, and an essay from critic Gary Giddings.


YOU’RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN DVD (48 mins., 1985; Warner): Clark Gesner’s wonderful off-Broadway, late ‘60s musicalization of Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts was animated as an hour-long CBS special in 1985. While this abbreviated rendition gives one a fair approximation of what made the stage show so charming, Ed Bogas and Desiree Goyette’s bland musical arrangements and the decision to have kids provide the singing vocals fail to pay proper justice to the source material. That said, it’s still entertaining enough, especially if you haven’t seen the show or heard its original off-Broadway cast recording.

Warner’s DVD -- the format’s first domestic release of the special -- offers a flawless full-screen transfer with mono sound. A terrific new 15-minute featurette recounts the genesis of Gesner’s show, from the MGM concept album recording to its eventual physical production. Interviewees include original stage Charlie Brown Dean Stolber and assorted Peanuts authorities.

It’s a bit curious that Warner opted not to include the 1988 special “Snoopy! The Musical” here as a co-feature -- the adaptation of the lesser-known, early ‘80s stage production with a few nice songs by Larry Grossman and Hal Hackady. Interestingly, while “Snoopy!” wasn’t as well received or as successful on stage as Gesner’s show, it made for a more satisfying animated rendition on the tube.

MARY TYLER MOORE: Season 6 DVD (1975-76, 624 mins.; Fox): Still at the top of its game in its sixth season, Fox brings the classic “Mary Tyler Moore Show” back to DVD this month. Episodes include “Edie Gets Married,” “Mary Moves Out,” “Mary’s Father,” “Murray in Love,” “Ted’s Moment of Glory,” “Mary’s Aunt,” “Chuckles Bites the Dust,” “Mary’s Delinquent,” “Ted’s Wedding,” “Lou Douses an Old Flame,” “Mary Richards Falls in Love,” “Ted’s Tax Refund,” “The Happy Homemaker Takes Lou Home,” “One Boyfriend Too Many,” “What Do You Want To Do When You Produce?”, “Not With My Wife, I Don’t,” “The Seminar,” “Once I had a Secret Love,” “Menage-a-Lou,” “Murray Takes a Stand,” “Mary’s Aunt Returns,” “A Reliable Source,” “Sue Ann Falls in Love” and “Ted and the Kid.” The full-screen transfers and soundtracks are all top-notch.

GARY UNMARRIED Season 1 DVD (424 mins., 2008-09; Buena Vista): Jay Mohr plays a recently-divorced single dad trying to raise his kids while maintaining an amicable relationship with his ex-wife (Paula Marshall) in this CBS sitcom, several episodes of which were helmed by TV great James Burrows. Season one of “Gary Unmarried” has hit DVD in a three-disc box-set from Buena Vista, sporting 16:9 (1.85) transfers, 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks, bloopers and several additional behind-the-scenes featurettes.

ARMY WIVES Season 3 DVD (759 mins., 2009; Buena Vista): Popular Lifetime dramatic series follows the lives and loves of a group of military families and in particular a group of resilient women guarding the homefront (including the lovely Catherine Bell and Kim Delaney). Season three of “Army Wives” chronicles more of the group’s professional and personal challenges, with Buena Vista’s DVD edition including 16:9 (1.78) transfers, 5.1 soundtracks, and extras including bloopers, deleted scenes, six webisodes and other goodies.

BARNABY JONES: Season 1 DVD (1973, 11hrs., CBS): Buddy Ebsen IS Barnaby Jones, the amiable P.I. lured out of retirement to solve his son’s murder in Quinn Martin’s fondly-remembered ‘70s series. Long overdue on DVD, CBS serves up a quality presentation with their four-disc anthology of “Barnaby”’s first season, sporting 13 episodes including the pilot “Requiem for a Son,” “To Catch a Dead Man,” “Sunday: Doomsday,” “The Murdering Class,” “Perchance to Kill,” “The Loose Connection,” “Murder in the Doll’s House,” “Sing a Song of Murder,” “See Some Evil, Do Some Evil,” “Murder-Go-Round,” “To Denise, With Love and Murder,” “A Little Glory, A Little Death,” and “Twenty Million Alibis.” The full-screen transfers look just fine and minute-long episodic promos precede each show, with Jerry Goldsmith’s memorable title theme backing the mono soundtracks.

THE WALTONS: MOVIE COLLECTION (Warner): Fans of the long-running series will be thrilled with this three-disc set from Warner, which sports all six made-for-TV “Walton” reunion films produced over a 15 year span. Included are “A Wedding on Walton’s Mountain,” “Mother’s Day on Walton’s Mountain” and “A Day For Thanks on Walton’s Mountain” (all 1982), “A Walton Thanksgiving Reunion” (1993), “A Walton Wedding” (1995) and “A Walton Easter” (1997). The full-screen transfers and respective stereo and mono soundtracks are all perfectly acceptable.

Also on DVD & Blu-Ray
NEW YORK, I LOVE YOU Blu-Ray (**½, 103 mins., 2009, R; Vivendi): Anthology film presents a lengthy series of vignettes centering on relationships, love, romance and the like in the Big Apple, with a massive cast (Bradley Cooper, Andy Garcia, Natalie Portman, Orlando Bloom, Christina Ricci, Maggie Q, Ethan Hawke, James Caan, Jon Hurt, Shia LaBeouf, Chris Cooper, Eli Wallach and Cloris Leachman) and equal number of directors to boot (Mira Nair, Brett Ratner, Allen Hughes and Natalie Portman among them).

As with any vignette-oriented movie some portions work better than others (Hughes’ segment works well; Ratner’s is a strike-out), but the attractive cast and grab-bag storytelling ultimately make this a decent choice for Valentine’s viewing.

Vivendi’s Blu-Ray boasts a solid 1080p transfer with DTS Master Audio sound (the scoring of the film was likewise handled by a variety of composers), plus five director interviews, the trailer, and a bonus segment written and directed by Scarlett Johansson that was cut from the finished film.

LAW ABIDING CITIZEN Blu-Ray and DVD (**, 109 mins., 2009, Unrated/R; Anchor Bay): F. Gary Gray’s latest thriller is a well-played but ultimately unsatisfying yarn with Jamie Foxx as a cocky prosecutor forced into giving a light sentence to one of the killers of Gerard Butler’s wife and daughter; this, naturally, does not sit well with Butler, who years later kills the man and quickly admits to being responsible. Solid performances from both Foxx and Butler make “Law Abiding Citizen” almost worth a viewing until the wheels fall off the wagon in its third act. Anchor Bay’s Blu-Ray edition includes both an Unrated Director’s Cut of the movie as well as its R-rated theatrical version, plus numerous featurettes and a commentary (on the theatrical version) from producers Lucas Foster and Alan Siegel. While the DVD offers the same extras, it only includes the theatrical version of the film. The 1080p Blu-Ray transfer also easily trumps the DVD’s 16:9 (2.40) presentation, while Dolby TrueHD sound complements the high-def platter and 5.1 Dolby Digital suffices on the standard DVD.

½, 114 mins., 2009, PG-13; Universal): How starved are audiences for entertainment these days? How about “Avatar” becoming the largest grossing film in U.S. history (at least without inflation being factored in) and this amiable but lightweight romantic comedy from stars (and co-writers) Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau earning well over $100 million at the box-office last fall. Truth be told, “Couples Retreat” does include a terrific cast -- Vaughn, Favreau, Jason Bateman, Kristin Davis, Kristen Bell and Jean Reno among them -- and a few scattered laughs, plus gorgeous Bora Bora locales which look particularly enticing at this time of year. Universal’s Blu-Ray takes advantage of that with a gorgeous 1080p transfer with DTS Master Audio sound (the movie offering a pleasant A R Rahman score), plus an alternate ending, gag reel, numerous featurettes, and two BD-exclusive deleted scenes.

AIR BUD: GOLDEN RECEIVER DVD (90 mins., 2000, G; Disney): One of the first sequels to the original “Air Bud,” the football-oriented “Golden Receiver” provides ample amiable canine hyjinks for kids, with Buddy having moved on from soccer and basketball to the gridiron. Out of print for some time on DVD, Disney’s new Special Edition DVD includes a remastered 16:9 (1.85) transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, an exclusive “Air Bud” golden sports whistle, and a “Sports Channel” play-by-play supplement with the smaller “Air Buddies” puppies commenting on the action. Cute for the little ones.   

THE CRAZIES Blu-Ray (***, 103 mins., 1973, R; Blue Underground): George Romero’s memorable early ‘70s tale of an experimental government chemical weapon that’s unleashed on the unwitting residents of Evans City, Pennsylvania -- turning them into raging homicidal maniacs – is, of course, the latest vintage horror flick to be remade.

Regardless of how the new “Crazies” turns out (and I’m not holding my breath), the original film still holds up as a vivid and disturbing slice of paranoia, with Blue Underground’s Blu-Ray edition boasting a sharp 1080p transfer culled from the finest available sources, DTS Master Audio sound (in 1.0 mono), and extras including a commentary from Romero, an interview with star Lynn Lowry, and both trailers and TV spots.

WOLVERINE AND THE X-MEN: Fate of the Future DVD (110 mins., 2009; Lionsgate): Five segments from the popular TV cartoon “Wolverine and the X-Men” offers the episodes “Stolen Lives,” “Hunting Grounds,” “Badlands,” “Code of Conduct,” and “Backlash,” all in 16:9 (1.78) widescreen with 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks and several extras including commentary from Craig Kyle, Greg Johnson and Chris Yost, plus a trailer gallery.

FRAGGLE ROCK: WEMBLEY’S EGG SURPRISE DVD (72 mins., 1983-84; Lionsgate): Three episodes from Jim Henson’s lovable “Fraggle Rock” series are compiled in this single-disc DVD edition from Lionsgate. Episodes include “Wembley’s Egg,” “The Great Radish Famine,” and “The Finger of Life,” plus a bonus animated show “The Great Radish Round-Up” and a pair of sing-alongs.

GOOD HAIR DVD (95 mins., 2009, PG-13; Lionsgate): Chris Rock examines the world of African-American hairstyles in this very funny and insightful documentary that interviews luminaries and celebrities from the black community. Lionsgate’s DVD includes commentary from Rock and producer Nelson George, the trailer, a 16:9 (1.78) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

FROM MEXICO WITH LOVE DVD (98 mins., 2009, PG-13; Lionsgate): Kuno Becker is a migrant farmer by day and dancer by night...oh wait, make that a part-time boxer who gets wrapped up with an evil rancher and is sent packing back to Mexico. “From Mexico With Love” hits DVD next week with a 16:9 (2.35) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

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