3/10/09 Edition

March Madness Edition
Role models, Punisher & Australia reviewed
Plus: a FAMILY TIES classic

Long coveted by movie buffs but only recently released on DVD, MGM’s mammoth production of QUO VADIS (***, 174 mins., 1951; Warner) hits Blu-Ray next week, giving the high-definition format a major dose of Golden Age entertainment it’s been severely lacking so far.

Mervyn LeRoy directed this Sam Zimbalist production, an adaptation of Henryk Sienkiewicz’s international bestseller, set in Rome during the time of Nero (a wickedly over-the-top Peter Ustinov). While one of his commanders (Robert Taylor) romances the adopted daughter (Deborah Kerr) of a retired general, Nero goes positively bonkers, reacting in kind to certain Romans' attachment to a new sect called Christianity by throwing them to the lions, and setting in motion a grand spectacle of sex, violence, forbidden love, devout faith, and the downfall of Rome itself.

Credited with instigating the sword-and-sandal/Biblical epic genre of the 1950's, “Quo Vadis” was shot at Cincitta Studios in Rome with a huge cast, a massive budget for its day, and all the Technicolor splendor and scope that one would anticipate. While the movie doesn’t boast the stereophonic sound and widescreen cinematography that would come to mark films like “Ben-Hur” and “The Robe,” it’s nevertheless a gorgeous looking production with vivid colors and a grand Miklos Rozsa score. Just the sight of thousands of extras running around should get any Golden Age fan’s blood boiling, even though the movie is a bit long and too heavy-handed to be as dramatically potent as some of the superior pictures that followed in its wake.

Warner’s Blu-Ray disc follows last November’s DVD edition of “Quo Vadis” and presents a tremendous HD transfer in the film’s original 1.33 Academy aspect ratio. The image is immaculate, the result of an extensive restoration Warner recently performed on the picture. Rozsa’s score could’ve used the stereophonic treatment, as the film’s comparatively weak mono soundtrack dates it as a product of the era, but at least the composer’s original Overture and Exit music have been rejoined to the film for the first time in over a half-century. A 40-minute retrospective documentary, detailing the picture’s legacy via historian interviews, is on-hand, plus two trailers and an informative commentary track from film critic F.X. Feeney.

Also New on Blu-Ray

Cinematic comedies that are actually funny seem to be a dying breed, which makes this week’s release of the occasionally hilarious ROLE MODELS (***, 99 mins., 2008, R; Universal) a godsend if you’re just looking for a few good laughs.

A surprise box-office hit last fall, “Role Models” offers the ever-underrated Paul Rudd as a tired, sarcastic salesman for an energy drink company who -- along with pal Seann William Scott -- ends up causing a calamity at a local high school. Sentenced to community service for their drunken antics, Rudd and Scott are placed in charge of a pair of youngsters -- Rudd to a nerdy teen (Christopher Mitz-Plasse) who’s into role playing and Harry Potter, and Scott to a wise-acre, trash-talking boy (Bob’be J. Thompson) desperately in need of some kind of guidance...just not necessarily the sage world view that our heroes happen to deliver.

Rudd also co-wrote “Role Models,” which offers appealing characters and big laughs to compliment its irresistible comedic premise. Rudd and Scott work extremely well together here, while Mintz-Plasse, who stole “Superbad” away from Seth Rogen and company, is engaging again in a larger role, this time as a notably less confident teenager. They’re complimented by Jane Lynch (hysterical as the duo’s completely inappropriate community service advisor) and Elizabeth Banks, whose smiling face brightens up pretty much everything she’s in. It’s a smallish supporting part for Banks, but her scenes with Rudd give the movie just enough of a romance to freshen up some of its juvenile, R-rated humor.

“Role Models” is an inspired lark on most levels, as evidenced by its endearing portrait of medieval RPG fans who gather together for weekend battles. Director David Wain and the writers knew enough to exploit this comedic setting and utilize it for the picture’s final third, and the movie -- while no cinematic classic -- is sure to go down as a viewer favorite as a result, at least among comedy aficionados who haven’t had much to laugh at on the big-screen these days.

Universal’s Blu-Ray disc includes both the R-rated and unrated versions (which extends the film by about three minutes) of “Role Models” in top-notch VC-1 encoded transfers and DTS Master Audio soundtracks. The picture and audio quality are first-rate throughout, while extras include additional deleted scenes, bloopers, alternate takes and several Making Of featurettes, plus other “U-Control” picture-in-picture featurettes.

Also debuting from Universal this week on Blu-Ray is Gus Van Sant’s portrait of controversial, pioneering San Francisco politician Harvey MILK (***, 129 mins., 2008, R).

Sean Penn’s Oscar-winning performance is spot-on in this chronicle of Milk’s move from New York to the Bay Area during the turbulent early ‘70s, his election as a supervisor to the city and crusade to eliminate Proposition 6, which allowed local schoolboards to fire gay teachers. The film charts the beginning of the gay movement and Milk’s significance in leading the charge for gay rights, in a superbly performed tale that moves along at a good clip, reflecting on Milk’s accomplishments, his assassination at the hands of a contentious fellow board member (Josh Brolin, terrific as Dan White), and overall historical significance. There’s also plenty of period atmosphere as Van Sant intercuts archival footage throughout. Regardless of one’s political or sexual orientation, “Milk” is a compelling, fascinating and extremely well-acted film that represents some of Van Sant’s most accessible, and satisfying, work in quite a while.

Universal’s Blu-Ray and DVD editions of “Milk” include deleted scenes and several featurettes that recount the real Harvey Milk and how closely the film adheres to the facts. The 16:9 (DVD) and VC-1 encoded (BD) transfers are all excellent, while Dolby Digital 5.1 (DVD) and DTS Master Audio sound (BD) round out the audio presentation, topped off by a fine Danny Elfman score.

PITCH BLACK (**½, 109 [theatrical] and 112 [Unrated] mins., 2000, R; Universal): David Twohy has had an eclectic filmmaking career to date, having directed several excellent genre films ("The Arrival," "Grand Tour," "Below") that were all but passed over at the box-office. It figures then that the one film Twohy makes that does become a cult hit -- 1999's "Pitch Black" -- turns out, ironically, to be one of his least interesting films, though it's still an entertaining enough way to kill off a couple of hours.

This "monster in the dark" creature feature certainly didn't seem like the start of a franchise at the time of its original release, but Vin Diesel's popularity lead Twohy and Universal to revisit the property as a springboard for “The Chronicles of Riddick” four years later. Despite the larger budget and scope (see my review below), the sequel was inferior to this reasonably well-executed tale of a group of survivors trying to make it through the night on an alien planet, where they’re stalked by a creepy group of nocturnal, dinosaur-like monsters.

Universal’s Blu-Ray edition of “Pitch Black” includes both unrated and R-rated versions of the movie in excellent 1080p transfers, each backed by effective DTS Master Audio soundtracks. Extras include two commentaries and a myriad of supplements carried over from prior DVD editions.

THE CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK (**, 120 [theatrical] and 135 [Unrated] mins, 2004, PG-13; Universal): Dour, depressing sci-fi actioner picks up years after "Pitch Black," with Vin Diesel's Riddick running around the galaxy, trying to escape the clutches of nefarious bounty hunters. Soon, Riddick is unwillingly propelled into a war being waged by a dark race of evil doers (lead by Colm Feore and Thandie Newton), who are attempting to exterminate the good people of the galaxy (Judi Dench among them).

Writer-director David Twohy's movies usually have a good deal of humor lurking within them, but not "The Chronicles of Riddick," which comes across as one of the densest sci- fi movies to appear since "Dune." This is a deadly serious, pretentious film filled with unappealing characters, claustrophobic action scenes, and a leading man who looks out of his element at every turn. It's no surprise, then, that the film flopped at the box-office, despite a huge budget and massive advertising campaigns.

Universal has released several DVD variants of “Riddick,” but Universal’s Blu-Ray edition at least includes both versions of the movie on one dynamic looking, 50GB Blu-Ray release. The Unrated version is 15 minutes longer than the theatrical version, and incorporates what Twohy describes as a substantially different ending (at least in terms of its editing). The "tragic, ironic" finale seems to open the door for yet another sequel, but the film’s poor box-office negated any prospects of that happening (so far). Fortunately you can also choose the theatrical edit here, which is superior in terms of pacing.

Other supplements include another five minutes of deleted scenes, a set tour with Vin Diesel, a Virtual Guide to the "Riddick" Universe (the opening narration even sounds like "Dune"!), U-Control picture-in-picture goodies and other extras.

BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (***, 135 mins., 2005, R; Universal): Excellent performances from Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal marked Ang Lee’s acclaimed 2005 adaptation of Anne Proulx’s novel, as adapted by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana. Universal’s Blu-Ray disc reprises the extras from prior releases (featurettes and interviews, Making Of content, etc.), but adds a terrific 1080p transfer with DTS Master Audio sound to enhance the overall presentation.

Comic Book Madness

While the concept of “Motion Comics” isn’t new, Warner’s release of WATCHMEN: THE COMPLETE MOTION COMIC (350 mins., 2008) brings the increasingly popular genre into the mainstream with this surprisingly effective adaptation.

This meticulous rendering takes each panel of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ landmark graphic novel and renders it in a vivid digital environment with minimal movement -- but enough so that the images aren’t totally static -- and compliments it with narration by Tom Stechschulte, who voices each and every character. The result is oddly absorbing and compelling, like reading the graphic novel in a sort of “visual audio book” form. The lone odd element is Stechschulte voicing female characters, which proves to be a distraction, but otherwise, this is a terrific and slavishly faithful translation of the comic book in a realm that manages to capture Moore and Gibbons’ intentions in a production closer to its source, quite obviously, than even Zack Snyder’s new feature film.

Warner’s Blu-Ray edition of “Watchmen: The Motion Comic” offers the entire 12-part motion comic in exceptionally colorful, detailed VC-1 encoded transfers. The Dolby TrueHD audio is limited by its restrained narration track (with sound effects and unobtrusive original score), but it works just fine, while extras include just a brief conversation with Gibbons, a sneak preview of the new “Wonder Woman” animated movie, bonus BD-Live extras and a ticket voucher to the “Watchmen” movie, which will cover roughly a matinee performance or half the price of an evening ticket. Recommended!

More comic book craziness is also on-hand in PUNISHER: WAR ZONE (**, 103 mins., 2008, R; Lionsgate), a movie which feels like the Cannon Group and Golan-Globus could’ve been its producers, and which following a very-brief theatrical run is primed for release on DVD and Blu-Ray next week from Lionsgate.

While Marvel Comics’ big-screen arm had a sterling 2008 thanks to the success of “Iron Man” and “The Incredible Hulk,” this sequel to the marginally successful 2004 “Punisher” proved to be a dud for Marvel, even though the company didn’t oversee the production of this follow-up in-house. 

It’s perhaps unsurprising given how outlandish the finished product of “War Zone” turned out: this blood-soaked, gore-filled, low-brow actioner to its equally odd (yet comparatively restrained) predecessor feels more like the 1989 Dolph Lundgren “Punisher” than the Tom Jane-John Travolta version. Here, “Rome”’s Ray Stephenson steps into the role of Frank Castle, still brooding over the loss of his family and seeking vengeance on metropolitan mobsters -- including tough-guy Dominic West (“The Wire”), who’s disfigured by our anti-hero in the opening frames and re-appears as “Jigsaw,” the poor man’s version of The Joker.

Make no mistake, “War Zone”isn’t a good movie, but it’s so nutty that it’s almost appealing in its crass, over-the-top tone. The film is so absurdly violent that you’d never guess a female director -- in this case German kickboxing champion Lexi Alexander -- was behind the camera, especially once Castle dismembers an entire table of mafiosos in the opening frames. This sets the tone for an absolutely bonkers succession of bullets and bodies, most of which are effectively executed (at least visually) by Alexander, who obviously left the actors alone to tackle the ridiculous Nick Santora-Art Marcum-Matt Holloway script. That latter sentiment shows throughout: West is so horrendously goofy here that it’s obvious he knew he was in a piece of trash, while Doug Hutchinson, Dash Mihok and Wayne Knight deliver equally...well, colorful performances. On the plus side (or is it?), Stevenson is restrained and the always lovely Julie Benz adds another role to her growing assortment of B-movie female leads. It’s almost incomprehensibly violent, but you have to admit that it’s never boring at the same time.

Lionsgate’s Blu-Ray edition of “Punisher: War Zone” represents another first-class HD effort from the studio: the AVC encoded transfer is sensational, while DTS Master Audio sound is constantly active, filling your surround environment with effects and Michael Wandmacher’s appropriately bombastic score. Extras include commentary from Alexander and cinematographer Steve Gainer, plus the trailer and several Making Of featurettes. The standard DVD offers the same extras plus a 16:9 (2.35) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

More Blu-Ray New Releases

AUSTRALIA (**½, 165 mins., 2008, PG-13; Fox): A box-office catastrophe for its studio and director Baz Luhrmann, “Australia” is the second old-fashioned, “continental” romance epic to flop starring Nicole Kidman. However, much like Kidman’s other disappointment in this genre (Ron Howard’s not-bad “Far and Away,” which at least gave us a marvelous John Williams score), that’s not to say the film isn’t entirely without its charms: this sprawling tale of a proper Englishwoman (Kidman) who journeys Down Under, meets a cowboy (Hugh Jackman) and helps him on a cattle drive during WWII is packed with visual splendor, action and romance to spare. Luhrmann fortunately doesn’t rely on his bag of visceral tricks to keep you engaged for the most part here (there’s no “Moulin Rouge”/”Romeo + Juliet” styled hyper-editing, for example), but he does utilize his sense of spectacle to lure you in, and “Australia” does, in spite of its silly script, keep you engaged throughout its bloated running time. It certainly helps that Fox’s Blu-Ray disc is a winner as well, boasting a spotless AVC encoded transfer with vibrant DTS Master Audio sound and numerous extras, including deleted scenes and a handful of Making Of featurettes, profiling everything from David Hirschfelder’s score to the cinematography and production design.

SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK (**, 124 mins., 2008, R; Sony): Yet another weird outing from writer-director Charlie Kaufman (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”), “Synecdoche, New York” offers Philip Seymour Hoffman as a regional theater director with a degenerative medical condition and a wife (Catherine Keener) who’s becoming increasingly disinterested in his work. Hoffman turns his attention to a pair of other ladies once she’s out of town (including Samantha Morton and Michelle Williams), as well as his lifelong dream: a sprawling theater epic with a massive recreation of New York City and thousands of actors at his disposal...if he ever finishes it. Ambitious and yet nearly completely unsatisfying and relentlessly narcissistic, “Synecdoche” represents Kaufman at his most self-indulgent, and it goes without saying die-hard fans of the director may be the only ones who will appreciate the filmmaker’s offbeat tale here. Sony’s Blu-Ray disc sports a nifty AVC encoded transfer with Dolby TrueHD audio and several extras, including an interview with Hoffman, Making Of content and BD Live enabled content.

RACHEL GETTING MARRIED (**, 113 mins., 2008, R; Sony): Jonathan Demme’s latest is a strident domestic drama with Anne Hathaway as a troubled young woman who comes home for her sister’s wedding, only to cause much turmoil and heartache for everyone involved. This brittle, repetitious film from writer Jenny Lumet and Demme boasts a fine Hathaway performance in an unlikeable role (she was deservedly nominated for an Oscar for her efforts), but “Rachel Getting Married” is tough to take, populated with unappealing characters and annoying hand-held camera work that makes you feel like you’re watching reality TV. Sony’s Blu-Ray disc includes deleted scenes, both filmmaker and cast commentaries, a Making Of featurette, an AVC encoded transfer and Dolby TrueHD audio.

New on DVD

The concept of “very special episodes” seems to have gone by the wayside in network television today. Back in the ‘80s, however, any sitcom you’d routinely tune into would have one of those kind of shows, the type that often would encourage youngsters to talk to their parents or -- in the case of that infamous “Diff’rent Strokes” show where Arnold’s pal Dudley was molested by a bicycle shop owner (played by Gordon Jump of “WKRP”!) -- avoid them altogether.

Though it wasn’t always easy to watch, say, “The Facts of Life” confront the dangers of pre-marital sex, you have to commend the writers and producers back in those days for at least being socially conscious and trying -- even if the results were often mixed -- to incorporate reality into its family comedy/dramas.

One of the shows that did it best was Gary David Goldberg’s FAMILY TIES (1986-87, aprx. 12 hours; CBS/Paramount), which in its 5th season included one of the series’ most memorable episodes: a one-hour, deliberately theatrical show entitled “‘A’, My Name is Alex,” with Michael J. Fox’s Alex P. Keaton trying to recover from the loss of his friend Greg in a car accident. The episode begins like any other “Family Ties” episode, but, midway through, turns into a virtual stage play, with Alex recounting his feelings about life, death, God, his family, and the loss of his friend to an unseen, off-camera psychologist.

It’s a tour de force for Fox, who deservedly copped an Emmy for his work during this year (and almost certainly for this particular episode), with the episode deftly alternating between humor and poignant emotion in a manner that feels genuine at every turn. While other sitcoms often brazenly incorporated either “hot button” topics or “adult themes” just in an attempt at scaring up ratings, this particular episode showed “Family Ties” at its best, and it remains one of the more memorable programs of any ‘80s network TV series. Credit goes not just to Fox but also Goldberg and Alan Uger for penning this particular show -- like Fox, the duo also copped an Emmy for Outstanding Writing for this program.

Paramount’s Season 5 DVD includes this episode, albeit not in its original one-hour broadcast form (the second half of which ran without commercials), but rather in a two-part format that abruptly pauses the episode midway through. Apart from that, the content appears to be unedited (the first half runs 24 minutes, the second half nearly a full half-hour), and the rest of Season 5 looks equally good in Paramount’s four-disc set, which includes a gag reel on the bonus end. Fans should note that NBC also broadcast three “bonus” episodes of “Family Ties” during the summer of 1987, and these have also been included here in their broadcast order (though they were shot for prior seasons and, oddly, never aired).

Also new from CBS and Paramount this month:

ANDY RICHTER CONTROLS THE UNIVERSE (2002-03, aprx. 7 hours; CBS/Paramount): Conan O’Brien’s former sidekick (and soon-to-be “Tonight Show” announcer) had a rough go trying to find a sitcom that appealed to his particular brand of comedy. He came the closest to success with this critically well-received yet short-lived Fox sitcom, which finds Andy as a writer who often fantasizes about how life should be. A strong ensemble cast and better-than-average writing made “Andy Richter Controls the Universe” an engaging view, but not enough viewers tuned in to keep it going beyond its one 2002-03, 14-episode season. CBS’ DVD includes excellent 16:9 transfers, 2.0 Dolby Stereo soundtracks and extras including two featurettes and commentaries on select episodes from Richter and producer Victor Fresco.

SEVENTH HEAVEN: Complete Season 8 (aprx. 17 hours, 2003-04; CBS/Paramount): While “Seventh Heaven” creator-producer Brenda Hampton has found another major success with ABC Family’s “The Secret Life of the American Teenager,” her long-running WB/CW series was showing massive signs of fatigue by Season 8. Still, die-hard Camden family fans will enjoy this five-disc, 23-episode collection of “Seventh Heaven”’s eighth year, in 4:3 full-screen transfers and stereo soundtracks.

THE ODD COUPLE (****, 105 mins., 1967, G; Paramount): The original 1967 comedy classic receives its first deluxe DVD treatment, with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in their unforgettable roles as Felix Unger and Oscar Madison, the two mismatched roommates who spar in Neil Simon's funniest play. The movie version, directed by Gene Saks and scored memorably by Neal Hefti, is a laugh-riot, and demands to be seen in its original widescreen, Panavision aspect ratio -- or not at all.

Paramount's first DVD release from nine years ago boasted a dark but crisp new transfer, along with both a "restored" mono soundtrack and a surprisingly good 5.1 Dolby Digital stereo remix. The sole extra was a trailer -- something that's been rectified by Paramount's new, double-disc "Centennial Edition," which sports a remastered 16:9 (2.35) transfer, 5.1 audio, and numerous bonuses, including a commentary track with the late stars' sons, Chris Lemmon and Charlie Matthau, reflecting on the film; several Making Of segments (“In the Beginning...”, “Memories From the Set,” “Matthau & Lemmon,” “Inside The Odd Couple,” “A Classic”) with comments from Neil Simon to Brad Garrett (who appeared in a revival of the show), admirers like Larry King and others; two different production galleries; the trailer; and a booklet sporting production notes.

For viewers and fans, this is a terrific package for one of the all-time great film comedies. Watching it again reminded me just how funny it is, and how amazing Lemmon and Matthau were on-screen together in their prime. Sadly, they really don't make 'em like this anymore.

TO CATCH A THIEF (***, 106 mins., 1955, Paramount):Third DVD go-around for the memorable Alfred Hitchcock-Cary Grant-Grace Kelly teaming -- presented here as part of Paramount's superb "Centennial" double-disc editions -- includes some fresh new featurettes as well as copious extras from the prior DVD, including a four-part documentary presented in the same manner as producer Laurent Bouzereau's other Hitchcock DVD supplements. Regrettably, the new disc drops the prior commentary from Bouzereau and Peter Bogdanovich, and replaces it with a new track by Dr. Drew Casper. The 16:9 (1.85) transfer and 2.0 soundtrack appear to be on the same level as Paramount's prior releases (at least as far as my memory goes), but the added extras should make for a recommended double-dip (or triple-dip) for Hitchcock aficionados.

DOROTHY MILLS (**, 102 mins., 2008, R; Weinstein/Genius): Falsely advertised as a supernatural chiller (a comparison to “The Exorcist” appears on the front cover), this gloomy Irish import offers a psychologist trying to find out what happened when a chid was murdered on an isolated island, with all signs pointing to a young girl with multiple personalities. Decent performances mark “Dorothy Mills,” but it’s a rather lackluster affair that turns out to have as much in common with William Peter Blatty’s work as an episode of “Matt Houston.” Genius’ DVD includes a fine 16:9 (2.35) transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, a Making Of featurette and the trailer.

ELEGY (**½, 112 mins., R, 2008; Sony): Nicholas Meyer adapted Philip Roth’s novel about a man (Ben Kingsley) with numerous romantic involvements and little emotional attachment to any of them -- at least until he meets a gorgeous student (Penelope Cruz) who he develops an obsession towards. Kingsley, Cruz, Patricia Clarkson and Dennis Hopper are all first-rate in this leisurely romance with a tragic end, well-handled by director Isabel Coixet. Sony’s DVD includes a 16:9 (1.85) transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, commentary with Meyer and a Making Of featurette.

New From Disney

Two efforts from a kinder, gentler (if arguably tackier) period in family entertainment have been newly issued by Disney, just in time for their inevitable remake/continuation: ESCAPE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN (***, 97 mins., 1975, G, Disney) and RETURN FROM WITCH MOUNTAIN (**½, 94 mins., 1978, G, Disney).

Both movies were previously issued in Special Edition DVD versions back in 2004, then again in a double-disc set combining both discs, and now yet again in separate packages. The good news is that, if you already owned either of those older releases, there's little reason to revisit them here.

The "Witch Mountain" films were above-par live-action efforts from the Ron Miller tenure at Disney, offering fun sci-fi/fantasy stories for kids about psychic teens Tony (Ike Eisenmann) and Tia Malone (Kim Richards). The duo's power is exploited by evil billionaire Ray Milland in the original film, with the Malone twins on the run from danger when help arrives in the form of kindly camper Eddie Albert. Later, some otherworldly stuff begins to happen, though if you haven't seen the movie (or can't remember it), I won't spoil it for you.

Johnny Mandel scored the original film, while Lalo Schifrin took over musical duties on the sequel, "Return to Witch Mountain" which is more conventional and slightly less magical than its predecessor. Director John Hough was brought back to direct the action, which this time offers criminal masterminds Christopher Lee and Bette Davis attempting to recruit Tony's power for their own nefarious purposes. It's more formulaic than the original, but still entertaining considering its target audience.

Disney's latest Special Edition DVDs of both movies offer excellent special features -- but nothing new outside of pop-up trivia tracks for each disc. The rest of the goodies have been reprieved from prior editions, from the audio commentaries with Eisenmann, Richards, and Hough on each film, along with revealing "Making Of" segments featuring then-recent interviews with the cast and crew, plus "Vault Disney" extras (vintage interviews, a bonus cartoon, etc.), satisfying 16:9 (1.78) widescreen transfers and remixed 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks. Both are terrific packages (with bonus MovieMoney coupons to see the new "Race to Witch Mountain," which is supposed to offer cameos from Richards and Eisenmann in their original roles), yet have clearly been aimed at viewers who missed their earlier DVD incarnations.

Also new from Disney is their first Platinum release of 2009: PINOCCHIO (***½, 88 mins., 1940, G), which is set to debut this week on both DVD and Blu-Ray. This classic Walt masterpiece has never, incredibly, been given the deluxe treatment on DVD, as even its 2004 re-issue lacked much in the way of special features.

That’s been rectified with a gorgeous new remastering of the picture, presented in its proper 1.33 Academy ratio on both platforms, with newly remixed audio and a second disc of extras. Best of the additions is a fascinating audio commentary with Leonard Maltin, Eric Goldberg and J.B. Kaufman, recounting the project’s history and enduring legacy in the Disney canon. Never-before-seen deleted scenes and an alternate ending, a comprehensive documentary, games for kids (a trivia challenge and carnival games), a “Disney View” expanded viewing experience and other goodies compliment the BD’s second disc.

Visually, the picture is stunning: the standard DVD transfer is excellent, but the AVC encoded Blu-Ray presentation really shows off the meticulous restoration Disney went through on this picture, and the 7.1 DTS Master Audio sound is likewise satisfying (the original mono soundtrack is also on-hand).

Note that Disney sent us the Blu-Ray version for review, which includes the two Blu-Ray discs as well as the first DVD from the standard-def package (I’m assuming most of the extras from the BD’s extras disc is basically the same on the standard-def package).

Also New on Blu-Ray

A MIGHTY HEART (***, 108 mins., 2007, R; Paramount): The summer isn't usually an ideal time to release a film boasting an expressly adult subject matter, but Paramount attempted to do just that when they distributed the gut-wrenching "A Mighty Heart" in late June of 2007. Alas, this vivid portrait of Marianne Pearl's (Angelina Jolie) quest for answers concerning the whereabouts of her kidnapped (and later slain) journalist-husband Daniel Pearl (Dan Futterman) flopped in theaters despite receiving mostly positive reviews.

Now on Blu-Ray for the first time, "A Mighty Heart" again has a chance to find the audience that bypassed it in theaters, though the picture isn't without its shortcomings. Even though Michael Winterbottom's direction is taut and Jolie's performance admirable, I felt detached from the film in much the same way that I did while viewing "United 93." "A Mighty Heart" effectively dissects Marianne Pearl's attempts to find Daniel and navigate through an endless maze of political channels, yet because we all know about her husband's tragic fate, the way in which the film unfolds comes off as predictable. The handheld camerawork is fluid, creating a pseudo-documentary approach, yet the rapid-fire editing (there's a cut every few seconds) tends to keep you at arm's length as well. It's a worthwhile film, and an important one, but it's also reserved and not entirely satisfying.

Paramount's Blu-Ray edition offers a crisp 1080p transfer with Dolby TrueHD audio that's often restrained (the HD-DVD offered a Dolby Digital Plus track), plus a Making Of segment with cast/crew interviews, and public service announcements on the supplemental end.

THE KITE RUNNER (***, 127 mins., 2007, PG-13; Paramount): Marc Forster's adaptation of the bestselling novel by Khaled Hosseini failed to find an audience at the box-office, but it's a well-intentioned, absorbing cinematic rendering about two boys in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and what happens when one of them returns there -- years after having moved to the United States -- to pay back his debt to the other. Excellent cinematography by Roberto Schaffer aids this well- told tale, scripted by David Benioff from Hosseini's novel. Paramount's Blu-Ray disc includes a highly satisfying 1080p transfer with Dolby TrueHD audio plus commentary from the director, author and screenwriter, the trailer and two featurettes.

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. Making its debut on Blu-Ray, Paramount's 1080p transfer is excellent, while extras include seven deleted scenes and a Making Of featurette.

NEXT TIME: More of the latest reviews! 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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