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Muppet Mania Edition
Disney's Revival Reviewed
Plus: Cult Titles, BBC Special Editions and More

Disney’s revival of THE MUPPETS (***, 103 mins., 2011, PG), spearheaded by “How I Met Your Mother” cast member Jason Segel, managed to be one of last year’s more pleasant surprises: a charming revitalization of Jim Henson’s beloved characters in a film with many inspired moments.

Segel plays Gary, a small-town guy with a grade school teacher girlfriend (an underutilized Amy Adams) and a brother, Walter, who just wants to fit in – and with good reason: he’s a Muppet! Seeing as Walter most identifies with the original “Muppet Show” series of the ‘70s and ‘80s, Gary and Walter head to Hollywood in the hopes of finding the original Muppet crew, only to run into Kermit living alone in a rundown mansion and the gang scattered across the country. Can Gary, Walter, and Kermit save the original Muppet theater from the clutches of a vile oil baron (Chris Cooper) by way of a telethon? Is it a guarantee there will be numerous song sequences along the way?

Segel and his “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” director Nicholas Stoller wrote “The Muppets,” which pays loving respect to Henson’s characters while updating the material for modern audiences – though I think it’s safe to say the film will likely most appeal to older viewers who grew up with the material. Bret McKenzie’s terrific songs are tuneful and poignant, amusing but not campy. The film moves at a fast pace and isn’t bogged down with too many star cameos (perhaps a result of the Muppets’ declining fortunes, the biggest names to show up here are Jack Black and Zach Galifinakis) and has just one clunker sequence: the song “Me Party,” which should’ve been left on the cutting room floor.

If there’s a complaint I’d have to lodge with “The Muppets,” it’s that the film plays perhaps a little too downbeat than it ought to. Segel’s intentions are so honorable that you can feel the humor having been dialed back more than it should’ve been, and as a result, the movie has more of a wistful feel that may not have played that well with kids (especially those with no familiarity with the characters). That, and its inherent self-conscious aspects, makes for a film that’s not entirely in-line with the Muppets’ past, but still a very worthy and entertaining picture for older kids and adults with several standout musical numbers.

Disney’s “Wocka Wocka Value Pack” includes a crisp AVC encoded 1080p transfer of the film (with Don Burgess cinematography that’s merely serviceable and often dark) on Blu-Ray with a number of extras including 10 minutes of deleted scenes (including one where most of the film’s star cameos went), Cooper’s extended rap/song; commentary with Segel, Stoller and director James Bobin; a camera test; unused theatrical spoof trailers; and a silly 15-minute “behind the scenes” segment. A DVD and digital copy are also on-hand here, along with a download voucher for the soundtrack.

If you’re looking for more family fare in time for Easter, Universal brings their live-action/CGI animated hybrid hit HOP (**½, 96 mins., 2011, PG) to Blu-Ray in a couple of weeks. This silly kid-flick is, at least, beautifully animated thanks to Chris Meledandri and his Illumination Entertainment company, who’ve just notched another big success with “The Lorax” this month.

“Hop” finds a teen “E.B.” (voiced by Russell Brand) resisting his destiny as the grand Easter Bunny while human slacker James Marsden likewise is struggling to follow in the footsteps of his dad (Gary Cole). The two come together just in time to save Easter itself from a chick uprising (you’d have to see it).

“Hop” isn’t particularly inspired or amusing, but the integration of three-dimensional CGI with live-action is so good that it kept me watching in spite of the predictable shenanigans. The characters are appealing at least and kids ought to enjoy the film’s energy and positive messages.

Universal’s Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack includes a brief mini-movie and numerous extras suitable for young viewers. The VC-1 encoded 1080p transfer is just perfect, and the DTS MA audio is just fine. An Ultraviolet digital copy rounds out the release.

Both “Hop” and especially “The Muppets” are better viewing options than TOOTH FAIRY 2 (90 mins., 2012, PG), the direct-to-video sequel to The Rock’s lame comedy hit (of sorts) from a couple of years back. This time around, Larry the Cable Guy steps into Dwayne Johnson’s shoes as a blue-collar man’s man who has to don the tights of the Tooth Fairy and attempt to git-r-done by winning back his former girlfriend (Erin Beute).

Fox’s Blu-Ray of this Fox Home Entertainment/Walden Media co-production includes an AVC encoded 1080p transfer, DTS MA soundtrack, four featurettes, deleted scenes and alternate takes.

Controversial Cult Films on Blu-Ray

Throughout the years there have been numerous films that constituted the talk of their day and generated controversy – yet as the years passed, time exposed their respective weaknesses, making newcomers wonder just what all the fuss was about.

Chief in point is Martin Scorsese’s 1988 film THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (**½, 163 mins., R; Criterion), a picture which – inspired not by the Gospels but rather Nikos Kazantzakis’ ‘50s novel that portrayed Jesus as less the Biblical Messiah of the Cinemascope era but rather a flesh-and-blood man – generated loads, and loads, of controversy upon its release date. Even now I can remember going to the local multiplex the day it opened to see some other film (most likely “Tucker: The Man and His Dream”) where a group of protestors stood outside the theater, which was to be expected living here in the heavily Catholic state of Rhode Island.

Quite unlike Mel Gibson’s beautifully rendered (and cinematically accomplished) “The Passion of the Christ,” which also generated a great deal of discussion among viewers, Scorsese’s film failed to connect with audiences and seemed to curry most favor among critics, who argued that the film was quite religious and spiritual despite its untraditional portrayal of Jesus (Willem Dafoe).

Whatever side of the religious debate you fall on, I found the movie itself – which arrives on Blu-Ray this month from Criterion – to be stilted and dull, and unworthy of all the hubbub that accompanied its original release. Harvey Keitel’s New York accent and abrasive performance as Judas feels out of sync with Dafoe’s “internal” struggle to portray Jesus as an individual struggling with the flesh and his place in the world. Dafoe is effective in some scenes, downright awkward in others (likely the fault of Paul Schrader’s script) – but then again, so is the entire film, which Scorsese shot in Morocco at a modest budget in conditions that required him and the cast (that includes a weird collection of faces, from David Bowie to Roberts Blossom, Barbara Hershey as Mary Magdalene and even director Irvin Kershner!) to improvise upon Schrader’s screenplay. In fact, you wonder if the technical shortcomings also trickled down to Scorsese’s direction, which isn’t nearly as polished as the filmmaker’s typical output. This is a markedly threadbare production considering the director and crew involved.

With the movie meandering on for 160-plus minutes (though its strongest moments come in its second half), portions of “Monty Python’s Life of Brian” come across as more profound than this uneven and unsatisfying film that does not rank with Scorsese’s best.

Criterion brings “The Last Temptation of Christ” to Blu-Ray next week in a 1080p AVC encoded transfer that’s the best the film will ever likely appear, though the transfer is hampered by fluctuating source elements that show various shortcomings throughout – as a result, there’s not a lot of HD depth on-hand here. The DTS MA soundtrack is well engineered, even if contains a dated, coarse score by Peter Gabriel.

Criterion’s solid, though not overwhelming, extras include a superb 1997 commentary with Scorsese, Schrader and Jay Cocks that’s more illuminating than the movie itself; 15 minutes of Scorsese’s behind the scenes videos shot on his VHS camcorder; a gallery of production and publicity stills; another gallery of Jean-Pierre Delifer’s costume designs; and a 1996 interview with Gabriel.

Another film that was greeted with controversy was Kinji Fukasaku’s BATTLE ROYALE, a gritty, exciting, violent 2000 Japanese film that adapted a Koushun Takami book about junior high school students forced to participate in a “Dangerous Game”-like hunt where its youthful protagonists are coerced to kill one another.

With the Columbine shootings still fresh in American minds, “Battle Royale” never received wide distribution in the States, though its infrequent theatrical showings and video distribution internationally earned it a wealth of followers including Quentin Tarantino, who went so far as to cast one of its stars in “Kill Bill.” While the subject matter understandably still makes it difficult for a domestic studio to mount a remake, portions of the story have worked their way into the popular “Hunger Games” novels (even if both properties smack of “The Running Man” and similar, “Most Dangerous Game”-like premises).

Finally available on American home video, Anchor Bay brings the original “Battle Royale” – an exhilarating picture on every front – to Blu-Ray in a three-disc, hardbound-book box-set including its original cut, Director’s Cut, and the generally poorly-received sequel “Battle Royale II: Requiem,” all in 1080p (1.78) transfers and Dolby TrueHD soundtracks with English subtitles. All three discs look good and include ample extra content: a Making Of examines the controversy and backstory to the film; audition and rehearsal footage is on-hand along with a press conference video, special effects comparisons between the two versions, a documentary, trailers, TV spots and plenty more. Recommended!

Finally, Palisades Tartan brings another acclaimed set of Asian films to Blu-Ray: Hong Kong director Johnnie To’s ELECTION series, featuring the acclaimed 2005 “Election,” its 2006 sequel “Triad Election,” and a prior, not-directly connected 2004 film, “Triad Underworld.”

To’s films, which in some way may have inspired “The Departed” (though obviously not to the same degree as its credited remake/predecessor, “Infernal Affairs”), look vibrant here: the 1080p HD masters are in good shape indeed, and with DTS MA Cantonese dialogue tracks, easily outdo any prior DVD release of these films. Extras aren’t on-hand, and all three films are held on one single, 50gb dual-layer BD, but the compression is more than acceptable. Asian cinema fans would do well to check out Tartan’s Asia Extreme Blu when it streets next week.

Also New on Blu-Ray

MELANCHOLIA Blu-Ray (135 mins., 2011, R; Magnolia): It goes without saying at this point that Lars von Trier’s films are an acquired taste, running the gamut from visionary and influential (“The Kingdom”) to polarizing and repellent (“The Antichrist”). “Melancholia,” von Trier’s latest film, is one of his more emotional pictures with a superb performance from Kirsten Dunst as a young newlywed whose wedding reception is capped by family strife and the appearance of a planet veering close to Earth. In the film’s second part, the world is about to be destroyed as Dunst’s character tries to make amends with her sister and husband and their young son. Leisurely paced, “Melancholia” blends an apocalyptic, end-of-the-world scenario with a domestic drama that I personally found dull and uninvolving, yet aficionados of the director are sure to admire it. Magnolia’s Blu-Ray includes a good-looking 1080p transfer and numerous extras including featurettes on the production and visual effects along with trailers and a DTS MA soundtrack comprised mostly of selections from Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde.”

Also new from Magnolia is the superior ROADIE (96 mins., 2010, R), a fine indie drama with Ron Eldard as a Blue Oyster Cult roadie who ends up back in Queens after years spent touring with the band. Eldard’s Jimmy finds his past catching up with him, though, in a bittersweet, poignant film from director Michael Cuesta and his co-writer/brother Gerald that’s heartfelt and “real”, with fine performances from Eldard, Bobby Cannavale, Jill Hennessy and especially Lois Smith as Eldard’s mom. Extra features on Magnolia’s Blu-Ray include a featurette and photo gallery. The grainy, digital-video transfer is as good as can be expected in the disc’s 1080p transfer and the DTS MA soundtrack includes plenty of vintage rock tunes.

A DANGEROUS METHOD Blu-Ray (99 mins., 2011, R; Sony): David Cronenberg-directed adaptation of Christopher Hampton’s play “The Talking Cure” – scripted by the author (and based in turn on John Kerr’s novel “A Most Dangerous Method”) – is a talky affair involving a young Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and his relationship with both Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) and a woman (Keira Knightley) with whom he crosses the patient/doctor line on the precipice of WWI. All three actors are fine here (Knightley in particular goes for broke in one of her better performances), but Cronenberg’s direction is more inert than usual – perhaps due to the project’s stage-bound roots, resulting in a film that’s tedious and not particularly stimulating from a visual aspect (despite work from veteran Peter Suschitzky behind the lens). Sony’s Blu-Ray includes a commentary with Cronenberg and two featurettes (including an AFI seminar with the director), a DTS MA soundtrack and 1080p transfer.

Another veteran director, Roman Polanski, decided to take a crack at adapting a well-known play (“God of Carnage” by Yasmina Reza) in CARNAGE (80 mins., 2011, R), which at least rates as a more energetic cinematic endeavor.

Reza and Polanski are both credited with the screenplay in this four-character drama involving a wealthy New York couple (Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly) who invite another couple (Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz) over to discuss a scuffle involving their children on the playground. The subject though quickly changes as the conversation spirals out of control – echoing the increasingly child-like behavior of the two couples.

Some biting lines are matched with mostly excellent performances from the quartet, though Foster at times seems to be pushing too hard to sell the material. Not all of “Carnage” hits the bullseye, but Polanski paces the film perfectly – at 80 minutes, there’s no chance for the film to overstay its welcome. Sony’s Blu-Ray includes three featurettes, a 1080p transfer and DTS MA soundtrack.   

New From Legend Films

Legend Films has restored a pair of genre favorites that fell into the public domain long ago: both Ed Wood’s infamous PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE (79 mins., 1959) and Roger Corman’s THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (72 mins., 1960), both of which have been released on Blu-Ray in dual B&W and restored colorized versions.

As with Legend’s earlier Blu-Ray edition of the Laurel & Hardy “March of the Wooden Soldiers,” Legend Films’ colorization is much more effective than the pallid Turner color jobs that generated a great deal of controversy back in the ‘80s. That said, most viewers will opt for the original B&W versions of these B-classics (or in the case of “Plan 9,” a Grade Z classic), which include the most extensive restorations ever performed to either picture.

“Plan 9" in particular looks remarkably good: its best sections are appreciably crisp and filled with HD detail, far surpassing any presentation I had ever seen of the picture. Ditto for “Little Shop,” whose HD transfer was previously utilized for Legend’s earlier 2006 DVD release, which many viewers claimed was the best the 1960 film – the inspiration for the wonderful Alan Menken-Howard Menken off-Broadway musical and corresponding 1986 Frank Oz film – ever looked.

Extras on both releases include commentary tracks from MST3K’s Mike Nelson, while “Plan 9" also includes Ed Wood’s home movies, rare Wood commercials and a trivia track. Recommended!

New From BBC

Nature and travel documentaries have proven to be dependable releases in the Blu-Ray format, as evidenced by the massive sales of BBC’s PLANET EARTH (aprx. 550 minutes, 2006), the multi-part production offering some of the most miraculous footage ever glimpsed of the natural world around us.

A winner of four Emmys and numerous other awards, “Planet Earth” helped to launch both high-def optical formats years ago and now returns on Blu-Ray in a brand-new, six-disc Special Edition that’s also now a part of THE BBC HIGH DEFINITION NATURAL HISTORY COLLECTION. The box-set includes the entire original series, as narrated by David Attenborough, in beautiful 1080i transfers and DTS-HD 5.1 soundtracks, while adding some new extras. Among the additions are four DVD bonus programs (“Great Planet Earth Moments,” “Snow Leopard: Beyond the Myth,” “Secrets of the Maya Underworld” and “Elephant Nomads of the Namib Desert”) plus a producer commentary, video diaries, a sneak peek at Discovery’s “Frozen Planet” and the option to view the respective episodes strictly with George Fenton’s fine scores.

The box-set also includes the previously released, equally worthwhile BBC documentaries GALAPAGOS, WILD CHINA and GANGES, all presented in satisfying 1080i transfers with a mix of 2.0 and 5.1 DTS soundtracks.

If you enjoyed “Planet Earth” or any of the titles in the “Natural History Collection,” the BBC’s new FROZEN PLANET series will also be of interest. The Discovery Channel is set to air the program in April and the BBC is also releasing the program in a superb 1080i transfer on Blu-Ray.

I’ve taken a sample of the series and have come away quite impressed with the photography of the Arctic and Antarctic, with David Attenborough profiling the amazing lifeforms living in one of the most barren, harshest places on Earth. Unfortunately, there’s a tendency to jump on the global warming soapbox more than in prior BBC documentaries here – and the preaching might sour some viewers on the otherwise compelling content (in fact, the seventh and final episode was originally going to be discarded domestically by Discovery Channel, but apparently will air next month as part of the series. One way or the other, it’s not exactly objective in terms of its point of view).

Also new from BBC this month are four brand-new Dr. Who Special Edition releases:

DOCTOR WHO - THE FACE OF EVIL (96 mins) is a Tom Baker arc from writer Chris Boucher, following the Doctor and a native girl named Leela getting wrapped up in a war between feuding tribes on a jungle planet. A cast/crew commentary, half-hour Making Of, numerous featurettes and PDF materials are included in the single-disc release of this 1977 broadcast.

DOCTOR WHO - THE ROBOTS OF DEATH (99 mins.) followed “The Face of Evil” a week later in January of ‘77, with Tom Baker’s Doctor and Leela boarding a sandminer on a deserted world where its human crew are being murdered one by one. Commentary from writer Chris Boucher and producer Philip Hinchcliffe, along with a second commentary from Tom Baker, Louise Jameson (Leela) and other cast members are on-tap here plus another half-hour documentary, shorter featurettes and other goodies for Dr. Who fans.

DOCTOR WHO - THE THREE DOCTORS (97 mins.) is one of the more interesting story arcs from December ‘72-January ‘73, with Jon Pertwee joining Patrick Throughton and William Hartnell as a trio of Doctors goes up against Omega, a fallen Time Lord bent on destroying the universe. Commentary, PDF materials, vintage featurettes, retrospective interviews, and a look at Dr. Who’s female leads during the ‘70s graces this Bob Baker-Dave Martin collaboration, housed here in a double-disc set.

Finally, Patrick Troughton fans also get their due in a Special Edition of THE TOMB OF THE CYBERMEN (95 mins.), a September ‘67 story line with Doctor Who and company encountering an alien, long-dormant presence on Telos. Two commentaries and plenty of featurettes are housed in this two-disc edition of the story penned by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis.
New From IFC/E One: The lovely Melissa George essays one of several hikers in the Scottish highlands who come across a young girl involved in a kidnapping in A LONELY PLACE TO DIE (99 mins., 2011, Not Rated), an indie thriller IFC brings to Blu-Ray this month. Julian Gilbey’s film comes complete with a 1080p transfer and DTS MA soundtrack...Bertrand Bonello’s HOUSE OF PLEASURES [L’Apollonide] (125 mins., 2010, Not Rated) is a French drama profiling a turn-of-the-century brothel with ample nudity and typically Parisian melodrama. IFC’s DVD includes two behind-the-scenes featurettes, a 16:9 transfer and 5.1 soundtrack in French with English subtitles...Peter Facinelli, Jaimie Alexander, Michael Madsen, Joe Pantoliano and Vincent Gallo star in LOOSIES (89 mins., 2011, PG-13), the latest urban character drama from director Michael Corrente. IFC’s DVD includes the trailer...Gustavo Taretto’s SIDEWALLS [Medianeras] (94 mins., 2011) is a heartfelt Argentinian romantic-drama that IFC also is releasing this month on DVD with the trailer, a 16:9 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack in Spanish with English subtitles.

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