3/11/08 Edition -- The New AISLE SEAT BLOG Is Also Live

March Mania Edition
Blu-Ray HD Review Blowout!
Plus: Criterion Unleashes THE ICE STORM

The late ‘90s were a time of reflection for middle age Americans. Movies like the Oscar-winning “American Beauty” surveyed the suburban malaise that enshrouded the culture along the same time that President Clinton went through his trials with Monica Lewinsky. 

One film that turned its attention to the past in order to draw a parallel to the present was Ang Lee’s hypnotic THE ICE STORM (***½, 1997, 113 mins., R; Criterion), which arrives this month as part of the Criterion Collection.

A marvelously written and multi-layered film that’s now as noteworthy for the presence of its young cast (Tobey Maguire, Christina Ricci, Elijah Wood, Katie Holmes) as it is for its veteran stars (Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Jamey Sheridan), “The Ice Storm” was based on Rick Moody’s novel about wealthy New Canaan, Connecticut socialites who opt -- with tragic consequences -- into clandestine relationships with one another, all the while neglecting their misguided children, who are fast getting into trouble of their own.

Set against the beginnings of the Watergate scandal, “The Ice Storm” was shot in authentic New England locales and boasts a natural, haunting feel courtesy of director Lee and cinematographer Frederick Elmes. Composer Mychael Danna’s unconventional score incorporates Native American instrumentation, accentuating the natural setting of the story’s surroundings while enhancing its protagonists’ disillusionment and the downside of the ‘70s sexual revolution. This is a movie that examines cultural and societal change and the negative consequences of its era’s mores, yet does so in such a compelling filmmaking manner that it’s impossible not to get lost in the picture’s subtle and melancholy atmosphere. I’ve always found it to be a far more interesting and satisfying piece than Sam Mendes’ more overtly in-your-face “American Beauty,” and rightly regarded on Criterion’s jacket as one of the finest films of the 1990s.

Criterion’s two-disc DVD set comes highly recommended. Lee and screenwriter James Schamus offer a new commentary during the film itself, while the trailer and a newly restored 16:9 transfer grace the first platter (audio is an okay 2.0 Dolby Stereo mix). Extras on Disc two include new interviews with Allen, Kline, Maguire, Ricci, Weaver and Wood, while author Moody participates in a recent video interview. Visual essays on the film (featuring additional interviews with crew members), footage from a New York Museum of the Moving Image gathering with Lee and Schamus, and deleted scenes make for a marvelous release all around.

Also new from Criterion this month are Alberto Lattauada’s 1962 dark comedy MAFIOSO, offering a new 16:9 (1.85) transfer, a 1996 interview with the Italian filmmaker, video interviews with the director’s wife and son, trailers, a new English subtitle translation and a gallery of promotional caricatures by artist Keiko Kimura; and ANTONIO GAUDI, an eclectic 1984 fusion between Japanese filmmaker Hiroshi Teshigahara and architect Antonio Gaudi, whose creations are profiled in this moody, meditative piece. Criterion’s double-disc DVD set includes a full-screen transfer, a video interview with architect Arata Isozaki, a BBC special on Gaudi’s life and work, another program on the artist by director Ken Russell, essays and more.

In High Definition on Blu-Ray

GATTACA: Blu-Ray (***½, 106 mins., 1997, PG-13; Sony): Now, here's a change: a science-fiction movie with actual characters on-screen, and more than a few ideas in its head. Writer-director Andrew Niccol’s 1997 film “Gattaca” remains a thoroughly compelling, still-relevant study of a "not too distant" future where DNA dictates the eventual outcomes of our lives.

As much an allegory for the direction our own society is headed in as it is a semi-futuristic sci-fi film, “Gattaca” stars Ethan Hawke as a young man "genetically challenged" to achieve greatness in his life, here symbolized by participating in a manned spaceflight into the heavens above. Hawke switches places with a crippled man with "superior" DNA, and begins to live his life with supposedly more gifted individuals in a technological workplace called Gattaca. The movie is leisurely paced, allowing for its characters to fully develop and their situations/relationships with one another to become fully engrossing. As for the setting, Niccol thankfully never goes overboard in his portrayal of an "Orwellian lite" future (we never know what exactly will happen to Hawke if he gets caught for impersonating a "valid" citizen), while a murder subplot is thrown in to try and throw us off from focusing on the main plot at hand.

Hawke is superb here in what’s his finest performance for this critic, leading a solid cast consisting of Uma Thurman, Loren Dean, Alan Arkin, and especially Jude Law, who's tremendous as the physically handicapped "valid" inspired by Hawke's dream. The movie also greatly benefits from an atypically warm, humanistic score from Michael Nyman, who here abandons the surface-level artifice of his early, redundantly "arty" scores and provides a layer of emotion that only exists deep within the souls of some -- though definitely not all -- of the workers in Gattaca.

Sony’s Blu Ray release of “Gattaca” boasts a superior new 1080p AVC-encoded 1080p transfer that’s hugely satisfying throughout, as well as a crisp Dolby TrueHD soundtrack. Extras are likewise effective, including a new Making Of featurette with retrospective interviews from Hawke, Thurman, and Law, a science featurette hosted by Gore Vidal (who also appears in the film), the original promo featurette, and a handful of deleted scenes.

SLEUTH: Blu-Ray (**, 89 mins., 2007, R; Sony): Disappointingly stilted remake of Anthony Shaffer’s play, previously brought to the screen in the 1972 Oscar winning film adaptation starring Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine. This new version from writer Harold Pinter and director Kenneth Branagh offers Jude Law in Caine’s old role as Milo Tindle, the playboy who comes asking millionaire novelist Andrew Wyke (Caine, in Olivier’s part) to divorce his younger wife, whom Tindle is having an affair with. Yet for Tindle, the day is just beginning as Wyke puts his younger romantic suitor through a succession of “games” that culminates in tragedy. Branagh and Pinter have pared down Shaffer’s original play to under 90 minutes, and predictably accentuated the darker aspects of its source: the film is more profane, more sexual, more explicit than the original, along with being overly stylized by Branagh and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos. It’s one thing to try and dress up a two-character play for the screen, but Branagh seems so distracted by the look, not to mention the gaudy set designed by Tim Harvey, that “Sleuth” feels off-putting at every turn -- a cold and overly calculated chess game between two detestable characters you can’t wait to get away from. Sony’s Blu-Ray release looks stylish, at least, with a superb 1080p transfer and Dolby TrueHD audio, with extras including two featurettes and a pair of commentaries: one featuring Law solo, another with Branagh and Caine discussing the film together.

DOGMA: Blu-Ray (**½, 128 mins., 1998, R; Sony): It’s tough to comprehend that it’s been nearly a decade since all the controversy raged over Kevin Smith’s “Dogma,” a self-indulgent though intermittently entertaining “religious comic fantasy” which Miramax Films had to sell off to other distributors at the behest of its parent corporation, Disney. Smith’s film takes some pointed jabs at Catholicism and other religions, no question, but the movie is really just a ribald and uneven film that seemed to usher in a period of inconsistent work from its filmmaker, who wrote and directed “Dogma” as a follow-up to his 1997 hit “Chasing Amy.” The cast is at least terrific (Ben Affleck and Matt Damon as a pair of fallen angels; Chris Rock as a 13th apostle; Alan Rickman as the “Voice of God,” plus Jason Lee and Jason Mewes from Smith’s stock company), and there are some laughs here and there, but the movie is kind of a rambling piece that could’ve used some judicious trimming, lingering on well past the two-hour mark. Sony’s Blu-Ray release does look and sound nifty, though, with its 1080p transfer and Dolby TrueHD audio, while extras include two commentaries, deleted scenes, storyboards, outtakes, and other goodies for View Askew fans.

RUN LOLA RUN: Blu-Ray (***, 80 mins., 1998, R; Sony): Tom Tykwer’s German action-thriller is 80 minutes of pulse-pounding filmmaking, following red-haired Lola (Franka Potente, later of the “Bourne” films) as she tries to help boyfriend Manni (Moritz Bleibtreu) from certain death after he loses a mobster’s cash stash and has only 20 minutes to replenish it. Tykwer’s movie definitely fits the “adrenaline rush” moniker so many films today have applied to it, mixing a variety of filmmaking styles and a techno score (composed by Tykwer with Johnny Klimek and Reinhold Heil) brilliantly. It’s mostly style over substance, but “Run Lola Run” became an international phenomenon for that very reason. Sony’s Blu-Ray release is superlative, boasting a vivid 1080p transfer with Dolby TrueHD audio and a couple of extras, including commentary from Tykwer and Potente, the “Still Running” featurette, and a music video.

THE ROOKIE: Blu-Ray (***, 128 mins., 2002, G; Disney): Agreeable sports film follows the trials of high school coach Jim Morris (Dennis Quaid), who in 1999 tried out for the Major Leagues after his team won the state championship. This true underdog story -- Morris eventually made the roster of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, appearing in several games with a respectable 4.80 ERA -- makes for a leisurely-paced but well-told picture from director John Lee Hancock and writer Mike Rich, with Quaid carrying the film as the likeable Morris. Disney’s Blu-Ray release is a marvel, offering a beautiful 1080p transfer with uncompressed PCM sound. Extras include a commentary with Quaid and Hancock, two featurettes (one of which profiles the real Jim Morris), and a number of deleted scenes with introductions from Hancock.

New Blu-Ray Releases From Fox & Warner

I, ROBOT: Blu-Ray (***, 114 mins., 2004, PG-13; Fox)
INDEPENDENCE DAY: Blu-Ray (**½, 145 mins., 1996, PG-13; Fox): Two of Fox’s more successful sci-fi blockbusters finally hit Blu-Ray this week in a pair of satisfying new high-definition packages.

“I, Robot” was the satisfactory, if not especially inspired, summer of ‘04 hit with Will Smith as a detective in a future Chicago where a giant corporation plans a roll-out of household robots. On the eve of the greatest consumer event since Walmart decided to cut holiday shopping prices, scientist-inventor James Cromwell takes his own life, and sends Smith on a journey into the inner-workings of the corporation where our hero meets a human-like robot (articulated and voiced by Alan Tudyk) who seeks to find the answers to his existence. At the same time, Smith wonders if "Sunny" was the reason for Cromwell's death -- or if another conspiracy is involved.

Loosely based on Isaac Asimov's classic novel, "Dark City" and "The Crow" auteur Alex Proyas' film is a fast-paced, sometimes clever, and generally entertaining production. Smith gives a nicely dialed-down performance, which helps to compensate for Bridget Moynahan's D.O.A. female lead (is there some reason why filmmakers continually cast the uncharismatic Moynahan in these parts? Wasn't her invisibility in "The Sum Of All Fears" enough?).

The Digital Domain special effects, along with Patrick Tatopoulis' production design, help create a future world that, for once, isn't just another "Blade Runner" knock-off, while the motion-capture of Tudyk's performance is downright brilliant. "Sunny" truly feels like a main character in the movie, and the use of an actual actor to perform the role (even if it's digitized afterwards) gives the actors a sense of interaction with the character which translates to the viewer at home. The robot doesn't feel stiff, nor do the characters' interaction with him -- like Gollum, it's another technological triumph that obviously yields better results than the stick-figure stand-ins George Lucas mostly used to play off actors in his new "Star Wars" films.

If there's a problem in "I, Robot" (other than Moynahan), it's the movie's conventional finale. Despite some of the clever dialogue and interplay in the Jeff Vintar-Akiva Goldsman script, the picture ultimately turns into just another chase/shoot 'em up, with slow-motion gun battles and an army of robots looking suspiciously like the clones from Episode II. It's competently handled, but it makes the picture more ordinary and detracts from the film as a whole.

Fox’s Blu Ray disc is a dual-layer 50GB release offering a good amount of extras from prior DVD editions, including three commentaries, deleted scenes, several Making Of featurettes, and a trivia track. The AVC-encoded transfer is excellent, as is the DTS-High Definition Master audio sound. A huge upgrade on the prior DVD release and a strongly recommended pick-up for all high-def sci-fi enthusiasts.

Also out from Fox is a Blu-Ray release of Smith’s inaugural sci-fi effort, “Independence Day,” Roland Emmerich’s huge smash from the summer of ‘96 that needs little introduction for most viewers. Suffice to say that, even though the movie plays better with a loud, raucous audience, “ID4" has its pleasures, even if the Emmerich-Dean Devlin script is too calculated and pat -- the ultimate “pre-fab” blockbuster if you will -- to be accepted as anything more than a forgettable, popcorn-munching piece of escapism.

Fox’s eagerly-awaited Blu-Ray disc is strongest in its presentation, with a 50GB dual-layer presentation presented in a strong (though not quite flawless) AVC-encoded MPEG4 transfer and a robust 5.1 DTS-HD MA audio track. Supplements, though, are a bit disappointing, offering two commentaries, a trivia track, trailers, and an interactive game, but none of the deleted scenes or other copious extras from the previous “Five Star Collection” double-DVD set.

ICE AGE: Blu-Ray (***, 81 mins., 2002, PG; Fox): Computer-generated animated feature from Blue Sky Studios and Fox became a box-office behemoth in early 2002. Basically an updating of the John Wayne film "The Three Godfathers," Chris Wedge's terrific fantasy finds a woolly mammoth (voiced by Ray Romano) and a sloth (voice of John Leguizamo) stumbling upon a human child who just lost its mother. With the assistance (however devious it may be) of a saber tooth tiger (voiced by Denis Leary), the trio set off to find the child's tribe, all the while a prehistoric squirrel-like critter named Scrat tries valiantly to simply gather an acorn.

Every once in a while someone other than Disney scores a huge hit with a family movie that manages to be sentimental without being overly saccharine and predictable. “Ice Age” was one of those gems -- a moving, smart, and funny adventure that captivated kids of all ages. The Michael Berg-Michael J. Wilson-Peter Ackerman script includes some Warner Bros.-like gags, mixed in with appealing and yet not overly cute characters.

With “Ice Age 2" having been available on Blu-Ray for some time, the release of the superior, original “Ice Age” in high-definition comes as a long overdue happening. Fox’s single-layer 25GB disc proves to be a delight with its AVC-encoded transfer, while DTS-HD Master Audio makes for the perfect sonic compliment. Predictably with most Fox titles, supplements have been pared down from prior DVD editions, here including commentary, deleted scenes, and the “Scrat’s Missing Adventure” animated short compiled alongside the original trailers in HD.

MR. MAGORIUM’S WONDER EMPORIUM: Blu-Ray (**, 94 mins., 2007, G; Fox): Innocuous kid fantasy is plenty forgettable, despite starring Dustin Hoffman as a Willy Wonka-type who wants to hand the baton to running his business over to shy manager Natalie Portman. “Stranger than Fiction” screenwriter Zach Helm made his directorial debut with this colorful Fox/Walden Media/Mandate Pictures production, which looks appealing and even contains a charming score by Alexandre Desplat and Aaron Zigman, but the movie is so vanilla and uninteresting that only undiscriminating young viewers are likely to be entertained by it. Fox’s Blu-Ray disc is a 50GB dual-layer release with a stunning 1080p transfer and DTS-HD Master Audio sound, yet no extras of any kind.

HITMAN: Blu-Ray (**, 94 mins., 2007, Unrated; Fox): As movie adaptations of popular video games go, “Hitman” is neither the best nor the worst of the litter, with director Xavier Gens serving up a predictable assortment of cliches as he follows genetically-enhanced assassin Timothy Olyphant (a role originally envisioned for credited executive producer Vin Diesel) to Russia where he’s charged with taking out the head of state. Explosions, chases, and conspiracies abound in “Hitman,” which performed modestly at the U.S. box-office, appealing to the same sorts of audiences who enjoyed the Luc Besson-produced “Transporter” films. Fox’s Blu-Ray release looks perfectly acceptable in its 1080p transfer, housed on a single-layer 25GB disc with DTS Master Audio sound, deleted scenes, an alternate ending, a few short featurettes (including one on the soundtrack’s creation) and a gag reel, plus a “digital copy” of the movie for your iPod or Zune on a second disc also provided within. 

JUSTICE LEAGUE: THE NEW FRONTIER: Blu-Ray (75 mins., 2008, PG-13; Warner): Darwyn Cooke’s acclaimed graphic novel -- focusing on the origins of the Justice League during the early 1960s -- makes for a decent, if decidedly uneven, made-for-video effort from Warner Bros. Animation. Stan Berkowitz’s script and David Bullock’s direction aim for a less frenetic pace than recent DC direct-to-video efforts, and the overall artistic design does a competent job capturing the nuances of Cooke’s work. Regrettably, the narrative has a hard time holding up in the confines of its 75-minute running time, the movie doing a fine job establishing the characters and setting in its first half, but turning routine and dull in its final third. Regardless, DC fans will still enjoy the action and unique setting of “The New Frontier,” with Warner’s Blu-Ray disc packed with the same extras as its standard 2-DVD counterpart, including a comprehensive documentary, two different commentaries (one with Cooke), two other featurettes and three additional JLA episodes. Visually the 1080p transfer is flawless and the Dolby TrueHD sound equally satisfying.

AUGUST RUSH: Blu-Ray (**, 113 mins., 2007, PG; Warner): Mediocre kid-fantasy from director Kirsten Sheridan boasts a script credited to Nick Castle (“The Last Starfighter”) and James V. Hart (“Hook”), telling a fanciful story of a musically gifted orphan (Freddie Highmore) who tries to find his separated parents (Keri Russell, Jonathan Rhys Meyers). Along the way he encounters a variety of folks including Robin Williams and Terrence Howard, leading to more than a few musical numbers in the process. “August Rush” is certainly sincere and offers fine performances from Highmore and others, but it’s so formulaic in its push-button storytelling that only young kids are likely to warm to it. Warner’s Blu-Ray disc does boast a magnificent 1080p transfer with Dolby TrueHD audio, with extras limited to a number of additional scenes.

New on HD-DVD

The HD-DVD format might be walking along in its final days, yet BCI has issued a pair of format exclusives that prove to be pleasant surprises for high-definition enthusiasts.

Previously available for years only in poor public domain transfers, BCI worked with the UCLA Film Archive to properly restore the later Bob Hope-Bing Crosby-Dorothy Lamour “Road” films ROAD TO BALI (1947) and ROAD TO RIO (1952) in the best transfers they’ve ever been screened in outside of their original release.

Granted, there are still some problems with the prints at times, but in general, the HD mastering of these two “Road” pictures -- combined in one, low-priced HD-DVD double feature -- proves to be enormously satisfying and a huge upgrade on prior editions, including BCI’s standard-definition versions (which were the best of the budget label versions out there).

Also out from BCI on HD-DVD is GALAXINA (* movie, *** for presentation; 88 mins., 1980, R; BCI Eclipse).

Slain Playboy playmate Dorothy Stratten’s short-lived film career met a tragic end shortly after the release of this highly forgettable sci-fi spoof. Writer-director William Sachs’ 1980 “comedy” isn’t funny -- at all -- but the adequate model effects and widescreen frame at least create the illusion that you’re watching a vintage, post-“Star Wars” spoof, years before Mel Brooks tried his own satire out with “Spaceballs.”

Given its poor reputation, it’s no surprise that “Galaxina” really IS awful (and not in a good way, either), but BCI Eclipse’s HD-DVD presentation is exceptionally good: the high-def transfer is as potent as you would anticipate, the 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack is also solid, and extras include not just a commentary with director Sachs and co-star Stephen Macht, but an audio interview with Sachs, four still galleries, and additional footage from the International release print.

Those will make you recall the good old days of growing up in the “golden age” of ‘80s sci-fi...at least until you put the movie on. Kudos to BCI Eclipse for putting a splendid package together that’s a lot more substantive than the movie itself deserved.

New on DVD

THE MIST (**, 126 mins., 2007, R; Genius): Heavy-handed, languid adaptation of Stephen King’s story from writer-director Frank Darabont, focusing on a group of Maine residents who hole up in a grocery store while a mist enshrouds them outside...and various creatures begin to appear around them. King’s original story might have been on the bleak side, but that’s nothing compared to the endless narcissism of Darabont’s film, which clearly thinks it’s being more high-minded than it turns out to be. Thomas Jane is fine in what turns out to be a somewhat thankless role as the everyman single father trying to protect his young son, but other characterizations are one-dimensional at every turn, especially Marcia Gay Harden as the requisite religious fanatic in a role that might have you reaching for the remote long before the end credits roll. A few suspenseful moments do pop up intermittently, but they’re negated by a hysterically downbeat finale that turned most audiences en mass against it. Suffice to say it’s been a while since we’ve seen such a self-indulgent conclusion to any film, making one question what the point of the preceding two hours was. Genius’ two-disc DVD set includes commentary from Darabont -- who seems overly satisfied with his work -- plus deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes “webisodes,” a trailer gallery, and featurette on artist Drew Struzan.

AWAKE (**½, 84 mins., 2007, R; Genius): Watchable, modest little thriller -- over and done before the 80 minute mark sans credits -- stars Hayden Christensen as a young businessman who lies awake during heart surgery...leading him to listen to a conspiracy that could leave him offed for his fortune. Jessica Alba and Terrence Howard co-star in this film from writer-director Joby Harold, which moves at a brisk pace and offers a fairly compelling story, even if the picture is so short that its character development is thin, resulting in a movie that’s fine for a one-time viewing but doesn’t resonate much beyond that. Genius’ DVD includes a stylish 16:9 (2.35) transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital audio, plus some deleted scenes, a Making Of featurette, storyboards, and a commentary with Harold.

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (***½, 122 mins., 2007, R; Miramax/Buena Vista): Even with the meditative ending, which rubbed some viewers the wrong way, the Coen Brothers’ “No Country For Old Men” is superlative filmmaking -- a rich adaptation of a Cormac McCarthy novel that serves as equal parts suspense thriller and allegory.

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

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

Buena Vista’s DVD release is excellent, offering a splendid 16:9 (2.35) transfer that nicely replicates Deakins’ outstanding photography. The 5.1 Dolby Digital sound is equally superb, while a brief assortment of extras include several short, promotional featurettes. High-def enthusiasts should check out the Blu-Ray release, which we reviewed in our last Aisle Seat column.

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

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 DVD includes a superb 16:9 (2.35) transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital audio plus commentary from the director, author and screenwriter, plus the trailer and two featurettes.

New From MGM/Fox

The acclaimed and successful WALK THE LINE (***, 2005, 153 mins., PG-13; Fox) is back on DVD this month in a new extended cut, restoring just under 20 minutes of previously cut footage. This layered, compelling account of the life and times of Johnny Cash, as brilliantly portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix, makes for an entertaining biopic, with Reese Witherspoon copping 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 James Mangold has directed 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 is “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 double-disc extended cut includes commentary from Mangold plus a full second disc of extras, many of which were included in the prior two-disc Special Edition, including extended musical sequences, more deleted scenes, trailers and numerous featurettes.

THE INSPECTOR: Pink Panther & Friends (117 mins., 1965-67; MGM/Fox): Inspired by the success of the “Pink Panther” animated shorts, producers David DePatie and Friz Freleng next turned their attention to a series of cartoons starring The Inspector himself. The result may not have been quite as popular as his furry pink counterpart, but for a span of nearly three years Depatie-Freleng animated over 30 “Inspector” shorts, some of which are quite funny and half of which are collected in a new DVD from MGM and Fox. Offering the first half of “The Inspector” cartoons produced between 1965 and 1967, this is a superb compilation for “Pink Panther” enthusiasts, spotlighting arguably the most satisfying of the “Inspector” shorts. Pat Harrington (later to gain fame as “Schneider” on “One Day at a Time”) voices the Inspector with Don Messick as The Comissioner; interestingly, the shorts aren’t a direct adaptation of the film characters, instead taking a protagonist who looks somewhat like Clouseau (but generally isn’t as clumsy) and following him through a series of increasingly madcap adventures. Recommended!

BILLY WILDER FILM COLLECTION (MGM/Fox): New Billy Wilder retrospective set from MGM offers Collector’s Editions of “Some Like it Hot” and “The Apartment,” along with the 1964 Kim Novak-Dean Martin vehicle “Kiss Me Stupid” and the memorable Jack Lemmon-Walter Matthau effort “The Fortune Cookie.” Nothing fresh here for viewers who already own these discs, and it’s by no means a complete Wilder box, even for MGM, but for other consumers looking to add some classic comedies to their collections it’s an attractively low-priced set.

12 ANGRY MEN (***½, 96 mins., 1957; MGM/Fox): Collector’s Edition package of the classic 1957 Sidney Lumet court room drama offers a commentary from historian/author Drew Casper and two Making Of featurettes chronicling the legacy of this Reginald Rose story, which Rose and star Henry Fonda produced so memorably for the screen.

BASEBALL SPECIAL EDITIONS: Released to coincide with the arrival of Spring Training and, soon, regular season baseball everywhere, Fox and MGM have a trio of new Special Editions available for three celebrated films centering around our national pastime. The Gary Cooper tearjerker THE PRIDE OF THE YANKEES is first and foremost on the list, inlcuding several new Making Of featurettes plus an interview with Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, reflecting on the life and times of Lou Gehrig. Yankee fans may not take to seeing one of their arch rivals discussing Gehrig’s legacy here, yet there’s no doubting Schilling’s sincerity or knowledge of the game or the man....John Sayles’ superb 1988 film of the infamous Black Sox scandal, EIGHT MEN OUT, finally receives its just due as a Special Edition, with MGM’s new DVD containing a two-part retrospective documentary on its production, commentary from Sayles, and two additional historical segments....and last but not least is Ron Shelton’s acclaimed comedy BULL DURHAM, which arrives on DVD with two commentaries (one with Shelton; another from stars Kevin Costner and Tim Robbins), plus several Making Of segments on the 1988 Orion release. Batter up!

NEW FOX FILM NOIR: Three new entries in Fox’s recent Fox Noir thrillers include DAISY KENYON, Otto Preminger’s 1947 noir with Joan Crawford, Dana Andrews and Henry Fonda; the Nunnally Johnson production of BLACK WIDOW, a 1954 thriller with Ginger Rogers, Van Heflin, Gene Tierney and George Raft; and DANGEROUS CROSSING, a 1953 Jeannie Crain-Michael Rennie effort. I’ve had the flu all week so I haven’t been able to sample the various extras, but special features listed for the following include commentaries on each title, as well as isolated score tracks on “Dangerous Crossing” (by Lionel Newman) and “Black Widow” (Leigh Harline).

NEXT TIME: ENCHANTED and more in our annual Aisle Seat March Madness edition! Until then, don't forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards, check out the newly relaunched Aisle Seat Blog, and direct any emails to our email address.  Cheers everyone!

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