3/14/06 Edition -- Happy St. Patrick's Day!

An End of Winter Celebration!
Andy Reviews HARRY POTTER, New Buena Vista & Paramount Titles

David Cronenberg’s creepy A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE (***, 2005, 96 mins., R; New Line) leads off this week’s new releases on DVD.

This adaptation of a graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke, scripted by Josh Olsen, stars Viggo Mortensen as an Indiana family man whose life is shaken when a pair of thugs enters his diner, looking for trouble. Mortensen takes the men down in a brilliant display of violence that quickly has the local media bearing down on him. Soon after an East Coast mob boss (Ed Harris) pays a visit to Mortensen, calling his Tom Stall character “Joey” and asking why he abandoned his old identity...

“A History of Violence” is crisp, efficient, and certainly well-acted. Mortensen gives an excellent performance as a man who has attempted to start his life over, only to have history -- and even his homicidal gangster brother (an overbearing William Hurt) -- re-enter his peaceful existence. But has Mortensen’s character completely buried his old ways, or is there still enough of the man he once was buried deep inside?

Cronenberg’s direction hits the mark with many tense, tightly-choreographed individual sequences, and Peter Suschzitzky’s cinematography is crisp and atmospheric. The movie, however, seems to lose a bit of momentum from the time that Mortensen’s heroic acts are exposed on local media and Harris comes to town, while the curious sex scenes between Mortensen and Bello seem like they’re of more interest to Cronenberg and his past works than a necessity to this story. The final third with Hurt’s heavy-handed performance also feels like it’s out of another film altogether.

Nevertheless, “A History of Violence” is an uneasy, unsettling, and compelling film not for the squeamish (but is anything from Cronenberg?), and New Line’s “Platinum Edition” DVD offers the studio’s usual standards of excellence. The 16:9 enhanced transfer is superb and the 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack effectively layered with sound effects (I loved the natural sounds of the opening sequence) and a solid score by Howard Shore.

Extras include an insightful commentary from Cronenberg and a deleted scene, which feels like something out of one of the filmmaker’s sci-fi/horror efforts (and was excised, the director states, for that reason). A lengthy, multi-part documentary offers ample behind-the-scenes footage, candidly packaged without the typical PR fluff we usually see in DVD supplements, plus an engaging look at Cronenberg and the cast at the Cannes Film Festival. The original trailer and a brief comparison between the R-rated U.S. edit and the “unrated” international cut round out the disc (the differences of which amount to a few dabs of extra blood which Cronenberg notes wasn’t enough to warrant multiple versions of this DVD).

New From Paramount

STAR TREK FAN COLLECTIVE: BORG (2006 compilation). 4 Disc Set, Paramount. DVD FEATURES: Text and audio commentaries; Full-Screen except “Enterprise” episode in 16:9; 5.1 Dolby digital surround.

Satisfying, four-disc anthology compiles 14 Borg-oriented episodes from “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” “Voyager,” and “Enterprise.”

The episodes you’d expect to find are here, highlighted by the two-part “Best of Both Worlds” from TNG, now with new text commentary from Denise and Michael Okuda. Other episodes include the surprisingly strong finale from Voyager, “Endgame”; Enterprise’s “Regeneration”; TNG’s “Q-Who?,” “I-Borg,” and “Descent”; and Voyager’s “Scorpion,” “Drone,” “Dark Frontier,” and “Unimatrix Zero.” In addition to the Okudas’ text anecdotes on “Best of Both Worlds” there’s another fine text commentary on “Unimatrix Zero, Part II” and an audio commentary by Mike Sussman and Phyllis Strong on “Regeneration.”

Obviously, if you’re a die-hard Trekkie and own all the individual box-sets, this DVD anthology offers nothing new outside of the respective commentaries. However, this set isn’t aimed at the die-hard as much as it is for those fans with more restrictive wallets, who may find this affordable (under $40 in most outlets) and satisfying compilation to offer an excellent dose of some of Trek’s better hours.

Transfers and soundtracks are all in their proper aspect ratios (full-screen except for the single offering from Enterprise) with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound. Future “Fan Collective” anthologies highlight “Time Travel” and “Q,” and are due out in April and June, respectively.

THE THING CALLED LOVE: Director’s Cut (**½, 118 mins., 1993, PG-13; Paramount): Peter Bogdonavich’s film about a collection of aspiring country singers (Samantha Mathis, River Phoenix, Sandra Bullock, and Dermot Mulroney) must have garnered some kind of following over the years since its 1993 release, since the movie was barely released and widely panned by most critics. Carol Heikkinen’s script offers a basic, mostly routine tale of young characters trying to make it in the Nashville music biz, with cameos from Trisha Yearwood among others, but it’s the performances that make this minor tale worth watching: Mathis has always provided a cheery presence on-screen despite her career never having taken off, while Bullock shows signs of her forthcoming stardom in a lighter, more comedic part. It’s Phoenix, though, who most viewers will gravitate towards, and the late star gives a somewhat strained performance in his last screen role. The movie doesn’t quite come off but it’s likeable enough, and obviously someone at Paramount feels that way since the movie has been treated to a full-fledged Special Edition DVD, including commentary from Bogdonavich, a three-part documentary (sporting new interviews with the director, Mathis, Mulroney, Anthony Clarke and others), the original trailer, and even a pair of previously excised minutes restored to the film. The 1.85, 16:9 enhanced transfer is satisfying and both 5.1 Dolby Digital and 2.0 mono soundtracks are included on the audio side.

SPRING BREAK SHARK ATTACK (89 mins., 2005; Paramount): I cannot in good conscience give this CBS TV-movie from last year a positive review of any kind, but B-movie (B as in “bad”) fans are encouraged to check out this improbably entertaining mix of teen soap and South African-styled “Jaws” a look. Shannon Lucio plays a co-ed who heads down to Florida (actually Cape Town) with her friends for Spring Break; naturally, chaos eventually ensues, though not before all kinds of calamity breaks out with Lucio trying to hook up with local boy Riley Smith, whose mother (Kathy Baker) runs the local boat rental agency and spends most of her time sparring with fisherman Bryan Brown, who may just be hiding a secret. And, oh yes, sharks DO show up, though anyone looking for entertainment on the level of Spielberg’s classic or even the James Fransiscus-Vic Morrow bomb “Great White” will be in for a disappointment on the creature-feature front. Still, if you’ve had enough of this long winter and don’t mind watching a few attractive young ladies mix it up with surf, sand, and a few sharks, “Spring Break Shark Attack” provides guilty pleasure viewing with a colorful 16:9 transfer and 2.0 Dolby Digital stereo sound.

THE BRADY BUNCH: COMPLETE SEASON 5 (1973-74, 22 Episodes, aprx. 9 hrs.; Paramount): And so it came to an end in Spring 1974 -- the Brady clan ended its five-year mission, having sought out bad ‘70s fashions, embarrassed themselves in front of celebrities like Davy Jones and Broadway Joe Namath, and boldly traveled where no ‘70s era sitcom would ever venture...into the stratosphere of classic TV nostalgia, only to be dusted off, resurrected as a “Variety Hour,” a series of TV-movies in the ‘80s, a brief (and misguided) weekly revival, and a pair of hilarious, spoofy late ‘90s feature films. The last season of “The Brady Bunch” wasn’t especially satisfying for star Robert Reed, who refused to appear in the show’s final episode due to its script and lamented the series’ gradual reliance on slapstick comedy and lack of “realism” (as if the show really ever had it to begin with). Still, fans ought to find plenty of entertainment from this fifth and final season of “The Bunch,” which Paramount has once again satisfyingly collected on four DVDs, once again presenting the original, uncut episodes as they appeared on ABC back in the ‘70s (meaning there’s new footage here for anyone who wasn’t yet born to see the initial broadcast shows) in remastered full-screen transfers. The episodes themselves run the gamut from the completely disposable to several indispensable in Brady lore (“Adios, Johnny Bravo”; “Mail Order Hero”), not to mention the controversial appearance of Cousin Oliver (Robbie Rist). However, the real “Jump The Shark” moment occurs when the Bradys meet their new neighbors, The Kellys, in “Kelly’s Kids,” a hoped-for spin-off with Ken Berry acting as a dad to his own son and foster kids of different ethnic backgrounds. Still, even in its most dated moments, “The Brady Bunch” offers good, clean fun for kids and nostalgic, now-campy humor for adults who grew up on it. Extras aren’t on-hand but that shouldn’t stop any major Brady buff from gobbling up all the sugar-coated, groovin’ good times of season five.

YOURS, MINE & OURS (**, 87 mins., 2005, PG; Paramount): Harmless, slight reworking of the old Henry Fonda-Lucille Ball family comedy finds Dennis Quaid as a Coast Guard widower who returns home -- with his eight kids -- to New London, Connecticut, where he promptly rekindles a romance with high school sweetheart Rene Russo, also a widower with 10 children of her own. Ultimately the two groups of kids clash once their respective parents get together, much to the dismay of Quaid’s housekeeper Linda Hunt. Director Raja Gosnell has made an amiable but too-familiar comedy that kids might enjoy, though at a brief 87 minutes (with one whole minute devoted to the logos of Paramount, Nickelodeon, Columbia and MGM!) there’s little time to develop any of the characters or situations beyond basic sitcom-level. In all, “Yours, Mine and Ours” isn’t worth your time, with the movie mostly feeling less like a remake and more of a retread of the recent “Cheaper By the Dozen.” Paramount’s Special Edition DVD includes commentary from Gosnell, a couple of deleted scenes, and a handful of shorter, colorful featurettes produced with its intended family audience in mind. The 2.35 (16:9) transfer is impeccable and the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound likewise satisfying.

New From Warner Home Video

Not as magical as the first two films, not as stylized as the third, HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE (***, 157 mins., 2005, PG-13; Warner Home Video) nevertheless struck box-office gold worldwide and offers an efficient, entertaining continuation of J.K. Rowling’s saga.

In “Year Four,” Harry’s name is entered into the prestigious Triwizard Tournament, despite young Potter not being old enough to officially participate. More than just your typical Quidditch tournament, the Triwizard tourney involves terrifying tasks involving dragons, ethereal water sprites, labyrinthine hedges, and the distinct possibility that something far more sinister is at play for our young wizard.

With the characters getting older, it’s wonderful to see the young trio proving to be just as adept performers in their teenage years as they were as cute young kids when initially cast: Daniel Radcliffe in particular displays superior acting chops as Harry inches closer to his destiny, while Emma Watson and Rupert Grint lend solid support as Potter’s pals Hermoine and Ron. The adult supporting cast is uniformly fine, though I’ve yet to warm to Michael Gambon’s strident Dumbledore and Ralph Fiennes’ performance (as Voldemort) comes off like a reject from a Wes Craven film.

Director Mike Newell stages some lovely scenes and keeps the moving rolling, despite its lengthy 157 minute running time. Unlike his “Azkaban” predecessor Alfonso Cuaron, Newell doesn’t have any pretense about stamping “The Goblet of Fire” with his own artistic agenda and, consequently, the movie retains the fantastical feel of Chris Columbus’ initial installments, even if the picture ultimately feels more workmanlike than visionary. Technically the movie still boasts top-flight talent across the board: Roger Pratt’s cinematography is moody and the effects as accomplished as those in the preceding pictures (I especially loved the aquatic demons Harry encounters), though Patrick Doyle’s hugely disappointing, unmemorable score fails utterly to approximate the wonderful work of John Williams from its predecessors.

Warner Home Video’s 2-disc Special Edition DVD offers an exceptionally strong 16:9 enhanced transfer with active 5.1 Dolby Digital sound. Extras include 10 minutes of deleted scenes and a lengthy, 30-minute interview with Radcliffe, Grint, and Watson reflecting on their work on the picture, in addition to a myriad of interactive games and a “Goblet of Fire” videogame demo.

New Miyazakis & The Latest From Buena Vista

THE SHAGGY DOG (***, 1959, 102 mins., G; Disney)
THE SHAGGY D.A. (**½, 1976, 92 mins., G; Disney)

Now here’s how Disney should treat all of their live-action films on DVD! The recent release of the Tim Allen “Shaggy Dog” remake lead the studio to re-issue the original films on disc, both in Special Editions with audio commentaries and other extras.

The original “Shaggy Dog” -- the 1959 classic with Fred MacMurray and Tommy Kirk -- includes a fun, nostalgic commentary with Kirk and co-stars Kevin Corcoran, Tim Considine and Roberta Shore, along with a pair of featurettes spotlighting recent interviews with the actors, recalling their work on the movie, along with Fred MacMurray (with his other Disney co-stars, including Lesley Ann Warren, appearing for good measure). Disney fans ought to love this good-natured assembly of extras, while the 16:9 enhanced transfer spotlights the full, original 102-minute version of the film. There’s also the colorized, cut 92-minute version which I assume was produced for syndicated television in the ‘80s, and it’s included here in full-screen (to apparently placate kids who don’t like “the black bars” and anything not in color).

Also newly available from Disney is the less-inspired 1976 sequel “The Shaggy D.A.,” with Disney leading man Dean Jones as an older version of Kirk’s character, in a formulaic follow-up that’s more in tune with the slapstick, live-action comedies Disney routinely turned out in the ‘70s than its predecessor. It’s still a colorful and engaging period piece (gotta love the roller derby sequence!) with amusing appearances by veterans like Tim Conway, Suzanne Pleshette, Dick Van Patten, JoAnne Worley, and Keenan Wynn. Speaking of Worley, Conway, and Van Patten, all three appear in Disney’s audio commentary, offering amusing comments not just on the movie but in their various appearances for Disney. The 16:9 transfer and mono sound are leagues better than most of Disney’s ‘70s output that’s been released on DVD to date, and ought to satisfy kids and nostalgic Disney fans alike.

HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE (***, 2004, 119 mins., PG; Disney)
WHISPER OF THE HEART (***, 1995, 111 mins., G; Disney)
MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO (***½, 1988, 86 mins., G, Disney)

Disney’s three new Studio Ghibli releases are highlighted by the acclaimed, recent “Howl’s Moving Castle” as well as two older works produced by master animator Hayao Miyazaki.

2004's “Howl’s Moving Castle,” a fantasy along the lines of “Spirited Away” and “Nausicaa,”  includes a behind-the-scenes featurette, an interview with Pixar’s Pete Docter, another featurette with Miyazaki visiting the Pixar studios, trailers, storyboards, and TV spots. The 1.85 (16:9) transfer is superlative and the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound available in English, Japanese (with subtitles) and French, offering another rich score by Joe Hisaishi.

Mayazaki was a “General Producer” on the 1995 “Whisper of the Heart” and also wrote this tender, human tale of the romance between a young boy and girl, with just a dash or two of the fantastic added for good measure. Disney’s DVD includes a “Behind The Microphone” featurette offering interviews with American vocal talents Brittany Snow, Cary Elwes, Courtney Thorne-Smith, and David Gallagher, plus storyboards, trailers and TV spots. Both the newly English-dubbed and original Japanese language tracks are available in Dolby Digital 5.1 while the remastered 16:9 transfer is just fine.

Finally, one of Mayazaki’s most enchanting works, the 1988 effort “My Neighbor Totoro,” is back on DVD after a full-screen effort from Fox was released several years ago. This superior disc includes a new English dubbed track, a “Behind The Microphone” featurette with Dakota and Elle Fanning, a lengthy assembly of storyboards, the original Japanese trailer, the opening and closing animation without credits, a newly remastered 16:9 transfer and 2.0 English/Japanese/French Dolby Surround soundtracks with optional subtitles.

BABY EINSTEIN: MEET THE ORCHESTRA (2006, 41 mins., Disney): Another charming installment in this uber-popular series of videos for toddlers highlights the symphony orchestra, offering youngsters the opportunity to meet individual instruments and hear the music of Beethoven, Brahms, Joplin, Mozart, Haydn, and Strauss. Lovingly produced, this latest release ought to enchant its very young audience and offer parents another respite from the mind-numbing noise of Nickelodeon and other so-called “educational” programs targeted at their little ones.

UNDERTAKING BETTY (**½, 2002, 88 mins., R; Buena Vista): Aka “Plots With A View,” this 2002 British import is just making its debut on DVD domestically. Brenda Blethyn plays a woman in a small English village who stages her own death so she can finally elope with Alfred Molina; the competition over the rights for her funeral is what forms the basis of this very black, and sporadically funny, comedy with Christopher Walken as an American funeral home director and Naomi Watts as the mistress of Blethyn’s husband. Barely released even in its native England, this one is worth a view, especially for admirers of the cast. Buena Vista’s DVD includes a fine 2.35 (16:9 enhanced) transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound and a Making Of featurette.

DEN OF LIONS (*½, 2003, 103 mins., R; Miramax/Buena Vista): Tired action-adventure with Stephen Dorff as an FBI agent who seeks to clean up the presence of the Russian mafia in Budapest. Bob Hoskins, meanwhile, chews up the scenery as the former Iron Curtain’s equivalent of Marlon Brando, though it’s nice to see the under-utilized Lara Fraser (“A Knight’s Tale”) as the female lead. Watchable but tedious and ultimately unremarkable; it’s hard to believe that “Blade Runner” production designer David L. Synder was the visual consultant. Dimension’s DVD offers a 16:9 enhanced transfer of this 2003 production, which also sports 5.1 Dolby Digital sound and no extras.

ZU WARRIORS (***, 2001, 80 and 104 mins., PG-13; Miramax/Buena Vista): At one point considered for a U.S. theatrical release, this follow-up to the landmark 1983 Hong Kong fantasy (also from that film’s director, Tsui Hark) ends up being issued direct-to-DVD as one of the last remaining titles on the Miramax shelves. Buena Vista’s DVD offers the original, 104-minute Cantonese version (with English subtitles) as well as the bastardized, 80-minute dubbed English version which Miramax initially had thoughts of releasing to theaters. The 2.35, 16:9 transfer likely looks better than most of the “Region Free” DVDs that have floated around through the years, the 5.1 sound is perfectly acceptable on both versions, and a “Making Of” featurette rounds out the disc. Colorful action with the lovely Zhang Zi Yi and Cecilia Cheung on-hand for good measure.

DEUCE BIGALOW, MALE GIGOLO: Little Black Book Edition (**½, 1999, 88 mins., R; Touchstone/Buena Vista): This 1999 comedy raked up $65 million in domestic box-office, so I obviously wasn’t the only one who enjoyed Rob Schneider’s magnum opus. Buena Vista’s new “Little Black Book Edition” offers a new collection of DVD supplements, including a handful of deleted scenes and brief “Making Of” featurettes. There are even “newly discovered” home videos from director Mike Mitchell. Whether any of this is worth a re-purchase for fans is debatable, but the movie remains a fitfully amusing collection of gags that’s hard not to like. Buena Vista’s DVD also offers the same visual package as its predecessor, namely 16:9 widescreen and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

REMEMBER THE TITANS: Director’s Cut (***, 2000, 120 mins., Not Rated; Disney): The unlikely (and first) collaboration between the Walt Disney Pictures brand name and producer Jerry Bruckheimer resulted in this 2000 feel-good football drama, the true story of a Virginia high school football team in the early '70s fighting racial prejudice as well as their on-field opponents. Denzel Washington is terrific as a black coach designated to take over the racially polarized Alexandria school district's football squad, while Will Patton -- as the white coach relegated to a backup role with Washington's arrival -- ends up helping bring races together in a movie that is every bit as corny, syrupy, and saccharine as you might anticipate from a Disney release, but also highly entertaining nevertheless. This new “Director’s Cut” restores about seven minutes of previously excised footage (most of which apparently turned up in the ABC network TV version), an additional four deleted scenes, and three featurettes profiling the production and the actual “Titans.” The 16:9 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack are both superb.

THROUGH THE FIRE (2005, 103 mins., Not Rated; ESPN/Buena Vista): Documentary profiles a year in the life of basketball star Sebastian Telfair (currently with the Portland Trailblazers), the high schooler who has to reconcile his family’s tough living conditions with being recruited by Rick Pitino at Louisville, or fulfilling the promise of making good for his family by signing with the NBA. “Through The Fire” might be a bit less involving than “Hoop Dreams” but this excellent work from producer-director Jonathan Hock should be mandatory viewing for all basketball fans. Buena Vista’s DVD includes deleted scenes, interviews with the key participants, extended game footage, Hock’s commentary, a 1.78 widescreen transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Also New On DVD

OCCUPATION: DREAMLAND (2005, 76 mins., Not Rated; Greenhouse/Rumor): Having a friend currently stationed in Falluja and another only recently returned from there, I viewed Garrett Scott and Ian Olds’ documentary “Occupation: Dreamland” with a great deal of interest. This brief but fascinating work follows the 82nd Airborne as they endure a tour of duty in the hell of Falluja, in footage shot prior to the massive Marine assault on the city late in 2004. The battalion’s soldiers are interviewed in-depth and “Occupation: Dreamland” does an exceptional job capturing the essence of their daily existence, nervous run-ins with locals and battles with insurgents. Objective and honest, this is a superb piece that provides an ample dose of reality as opposed to the endless editorializing and bickering we see from pundits every night on cable talk shows. Rumur’s DVD includes commentary from the filmmakers and soldiers; deleted footage; updated biographies on the soldiers; raw footage from the final assault on Falluja; and other extras. The 5.1 Dolby Digital sound and widescreen transfer are as good as to be expected given the actual footage, which was, naturally, shot in a myriad of difficult conditions.

VEGGIETALES: SHEERLUCK HOLMES AND THE GOLDEN RULER (2006, 52 mins., Sony Wonder): More fun, colorful adventures with morals for kids, offering Larry the Cucumber as detective Sheerluck Holmes, Archibald Asparagus as Don Quixote (in the “Asparagus of La Mancha”) and a bonus song, “Gated Community.” Clever, amusing entertainment for children that provides exactly what Sony promises: “Sunday morning values, Saturday morning fun!” The DVD offers commentaries, numerous interactive games and hidden easter eggs for kids and Veggietales fans of all ages.

BABYLON 5: THE LEGEND OF THE RANGERS (2001, 90 mins., Warner Home Video): Last-ditch attempt at prolonging the “Babylon 5" franchise from writer-producer J. Michael Straczynski -- the last of several TV-movies that also served as a busted pilot for “The Rangers,” a group of heroes who here attempt to stop an alien race from invading the galaxy. Hard-core “Babylon 5" fans mostly dismissed this Sci-Fi Channel TV-movie as the weakest entry in the franchise and it subsequently died a quick death, but Warner has issued it on DVD this week for completion’s sake, with a fine 16:9 transfer and 2.0 Dolby Digital sound.

IRISH JAM (2006, 90 mins., PG-13; Bauer Martinez Entertainment): Just in time for St. Patty’s Day comes...well....this lump of malarky starring the deserving-of-better Eddie Griffin as an LA. con man who wins a contest and, as a prize, a deed to an Irish pub. Standard-issue laughs and subpar production values make this direct-to-video comedy more of a chore to sit through than past American-Irish comedies like “The Matchmaker” (remember that one...produced in that limited window when Janeane Garofalo was a leading lady?). The Bauer Martinez Entertainment DVD includes 2.0 Dolby Digital sound, a widescreen transfer, and a bonus interview with Griffin.

THE JUDY GARLAND SHOW: 2 New Volumes (100 mins. each, 1963-64; Geneon): Two new volumes of the short-lived Judy network series arrive on DVD from Geneon. One release sports episodes 21-22, offering guest appearances by Mel Torme, Diahann Carroll, Jack Jones, and Ken Murray. Geneon’s other release includes shows 10 and 11, with guest appearances by Ray Bolger, Jane Powell, Vic Damone, Zina Bethune, and Jerry Van Dyke, who was a regular through the series’ initial 10 episodes. Transfers and 5.1 remixed soundtracks are as good as to be expected, while outtakes and detailed notes from author Scott Schechter round out the two respective volumes.

NEXT TIME: CHICKEN LITTLE, THE CUTTING EDGE 2, DERAILED, and More! Don't forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards, direct any emails to the link above and we'll catch you then. Cheers everyone!

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