3/15/11 Edition Twitter: THEAISLESEATCOM
High-Def Catalog Round-Up
Plus: New Criterions, THE FIGHTER and More

Unquestionably one of the very best adaptations of a Stephen King work, Rob Reiner’s STAND BY ME (***½, 90 mins, 1986, R; Sony) arrives on Blu-Ray next week along with a handful of other catalog titles from the ‘80s and ‘90s, from “Against All Odds” to “Awakenings,” all of which carry affordable price tags that should delight Blu-Ray owners.

I've always been a big fan of Reiner's film, which Raynold Gideon and Bruce A. Evans adapted from King's novella "The Body." The coming-of-age '50s tale about a group of friends (River Phoenix, Will Whteaton, Corey Feldman, and Jerry O'Connell) who go looking for the body of a missing neighborhood teen is funny, touching, and an ideal examination of a boy's journey into manhood. Reiner was able to capture superb performances out of his young ensemble, punctuated by equally strong work by other young leads like Kiefer Sutherland (terrifying as the film's heavy) and John Cusack (in flashbacks as Wheaton's older brother). Narrating the later-imitated film is Richard Dreyfuss, who came in after Reiner wanted to re-shoot scenes involving the original narrator, and also following a variety of actors who unsuccessfully tested for voice-over work. The resulting film is a memorable, entertaining and endlessly repeatable viewing experience (at only 90 minutes "Stand By Me" never wears out its welcome).

Columbia's 2002 Special Edition DVD included "Walking the Tracks," a then-brand new documentary on the making of the picture, incorporating interviews with Reiner, Dreyfuss, Wheaton, O'Connell, Feldman and Sutherland (a few months prior to his breakout, career-reviving role on "24"). They speak about the tragic death of fellow star River Phoenix and naturally offer their vivid recollections of making "Stand By Me." Reiner also contributed an informative commentary track to that release – extras which have both been ported over to Sony’s Blu-Ray package, which is headlined by a highly-detailed AVC encoded 1080p transfer that marks another exemplary release from the studio.

New to the Blu-Ray release is a fine new video commentary with Reiner, Feldman and Wheaton remembering the film; the trio are sufficiently engaging and Feldman is fortunately less irritating than he was when he drove Sean Astin out of the room during their “Goonies” commentary several years ago.

Image Entertainment, meanwhile, serves up a trio of catalog titles new to Blu-Ray that the label has licensed through Sony. All of them, like Image’s prior Sony releases, offer top-quality AVC encoded transfers and extras from their corresponding DVD editions, along with attractive, mostly-under $15 price tags.       

Taylor Hackford’s 1984 semi-remake of the RKO film noir classic “Out of the Past,” AGAINST ALL ODDS (***, 121 mins., R) has not particularly weathered the years well: Jeff Bridges’ bland performance is one of his most disposable, the picture shifts gears from a throwback romantic thriller to a contemporary tale of corruption and politics rather uneasily, and it’s all capped by one of the worst scores of the decade by Michel Colombier and Larry Carlton.

In fact, the music is so bad – loud, grating and often completely incongruous with what’s happening on-screen – that I wish the disc had the option of isolating the dialogue, seeing that several scenes in the movie likely would’ve played better without the heavy-handed synths and guitar Colombier and Carlton lay on thick across every scene the music appears in.

The irony is that the movie also sports one of the decade’s most memorable film songs – Phil Collins’ classic “Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now)” – but it says something that Collins’ ballad briefly appears once or twice as underscore, and is otherwise relegated to the movie’s end credits (Collins also had to take it on the chin during the 1985 Oscars, when for whatever reason he had to sit and listen to his nominated Original Song be performed by.....Ann Reinking!)

Despite all that going against it, “Against All Odds” is nevertheless a stylish looking and entertaining film – not nearly as effective as “Body Heat” yet still a worthwhile view for noir fans as injured pro football player Bridges is hired by slimy James Woods to track down his girlfriend (Rachel Ward, riding her career pinnacle with top billing), who’s run away from Woods as well as her mother (Jane Greer, who also appeared in “Out of the Past”), the owner of Bridges’ football team.

Eric Hughes’ script could’ve used a bit more work -- Ward’s character motivation isn’t as well established as it ought to be, while Bridges spends most of the film listening to others divulge the plot – but director Hackford captures L.A. as well as its Mexican locales atmospherically, plus gives viewers a dynamic, brilliantly edited car chase early on that’s nearly worth the price of a view by itself.

Image’s Blu-Ray disc offers a nicely textured AVC encoded 1080p transfer and DTS Master Soundtrack. Extras, culled from the older DVD, include over 20 minutes of deleted scenes (in full-frame standard def), two commentaries (including a highly engaging talk with Hackford, Bridges and Woods, recorded in 1999) and an awful theatrical trailer that uses music from Arthur B. Rubinstein’s “Blue Thunder” score.

One of 1999's box-office underachievers, Sydney Pollak's RANDOM HEARTS (**½, 133 mins., R) isn't quite the disaster many made it out to be. Sure, the romantic sparks between stars Harrison Ford and Kristin Scott Thomas are limited to Ford sneering and Thomas staring, the subplots are bare, the supporting cast is wasted, and the whole movie never answers the question "who cares about these people?," but there is still a touch of class in this old-fashioned melodrama.

Ford plays a D.C. internal affairs cop whose wife is killed in a plane crash along with senatorial candidate Scott Thomas's husband. A little detective work uncovers that the two were having an affair, and the pursuit of the truth leads Ford and Scott Thomas down a dangerous path – well, not so dangerous – where they find out they have more than common than just a pair of cheating deceased spouses.

Charles S. Dutton, Bonnie Hunt, Dennis Haysbert, and Richard Jenkins comprise a solid supporting cast that has little to do but sit on the sidelines while Kurt Ludetke's script tries to craft a memorable love story for our modern media-obsessed age. Unfortunately, because Ford mopes about and has no chemistry whatsoever with Scott Thomas, “Random Hearts” doesn't catch fire, but the movie manages to work in spite of itself through Pollak's assured direction, good-looking cinematography, and a pleasant jazz score by Dave Grusin, which boasts a particularly lovely concluding arrangement of Patty Larkin’s mellow song “Good Thing.”

In addition to another fine AVC encoded transfer and DTS Master soundtrack, Image’s Blu-Ray offers Pollak's commentary, three deleted scenes, and the film's problematic theatrical trailer (which tries and fails miserably to sell the movie both as a thriller and a romantic drama).

It's not “An Affair to Remember”, and Ford's performance is not one of his best, but at least “Random Hearts” is a high-class production that looks and sounds good.   

Also among Image’s Sony-licensed Blu-Ray titles are the Al Pacino courtroom drama “...And Justice For All” plus Penny Marshall’s AWAKENINGS (***, 127 mins., 1990, PG-13), the well-intentioned adaptation of Oliver Sacks’ true-life chronicle of his work “awakening” catatonic patients. Robin Williams plays the Sacks character while Robert DeNiro is one of his subjects, who undergoes a miraculous recovery before (predictably) slipping back.

Everything about “Awakenings” screamed Oscar contender at the time of its release: the presence of DeNiro and Williams working under Marshall, with a script fashioned by Steven Zaillian, cinematography by the great Miroslav Ondricek, production design from Anton Furst and a Randy Newman score...and yet despite all that, a respectable box-office in-take for its time and a wonderful supporting cast (John Heard, Julie Kavner, Max von Sydow, Penelope Ann Miller), the movie has been virtually forgotten as the years have passed.

While more of a “good” film than a great one, hopefully Image’s Blu-Ray will bring more viewers to “Awakenings,” which hits BD in a fine AVC encoded 1080p transfer with DTS Master Audio sound.

Blue Underground, meanwhile, has done a favor for all fans of Dario Argento with their new Blu-Ray edition of Argento’s 1980 follow-up to "Suspiria," INFERNO (**½, 106 mins., 1980, Not Rated), which hits stores this month.

Though I’m not a massive aficionado of Argento or Euro-horror, there’s still a lot of visual flair on-hand in “Inferno” that makes it a must for aficionados of the director – especially since its transfer has been immeasurably improved upon compared to Anchor Bay’s DVD edition of over a decade ago.

“Inferno” isn't as effective or interesting as “Suspiria,” and is primarily regarded as a lesser Argento work in Argento’s “Three Mothers” trilogy (though it’s definitely superior to the belated “Mother of Tears”). Best looked at as a follow-up to or extension of themes from "Suspiria" instead of a straight sequel (the film suffers by direct comparisons), “Inferno” hits BD in a exceptional Blue Underground release: two new interviews, shot in HD, offer conversations with stars Leigh McCloskey and Irene Miracle, along with an interview with Argento and assistant director Lamberto Bava, the trailer and an Argento introduction. The AVC encoded 1080p transfer is excellent, as is a boisterous DTS Master Audio soundtrack.

Also New on Blu-Ray

THE FIGHTER Blu-Ray/DVD/Digital Copy (***, 115 mins., 2010, R; Paramount): Mark Wahlberg’s pet project – a chronicle of Lowell, Mass. boxer Mickey Ward, his drug-addicted ex-champ brother (Christian Bale), tough mother (Melissa Leo) and his feisty, borderline psycho family – earned numerous awards for Bale and Leo, who swept the Supporting Actor/Actress categories at the Academy Awards last month.

That alone sums up the strengths and weaknesses of “The Fighter,” a compelling and certainly entertaining film directed by David O. Russell, and shot on location north of Boston. Bale is excellent in a showy role as Ward’s brother Dicky, a troubled soul being followed by an HBO crew doing a documentary on addiction, while Leo is sufficiently boisterous as the head of the Ward clan: a group of trash-talking, larger-than-life knuckleheads who enjoy fighting one another as much as they do watching their sibling brothers spar in the ring.

These two aspects of the picture do ultimately overwhelm its core story – there are times when Mickey’s own story takes a secondary role to the three-ring circus served up by his family, with the concluding championship bouts seeming almost anti-climactic – yet “The Fighter” still comes across as an authentic “slice of life” film if nothing else, with Russell helming the material in an appropriately pseudo-documentary fashion.

Paramount’s Blu-Ray edition of “The Fighter” offers a few supplements of note, including behind-the-scenes material that touches upon the filming, the real Micky and Dicky’s story, deleted scenes and a commentary from Russell. The AVC encoded 1080p transfer is flawless, as is the DTS Master Audio sound. A standard DVD and digital copy are also bundled within.

JACKASS 3 Blu-Ray (**½, 94/99 mins., R/Unrated; Paramount): Third entry in the “Jackass” movie franchise once again finds Johnny Knoxville, Bam Margera, Steve-O and the gang trying out a group of raunchy, ridiculous stunts, but this time in 3-D. Though the 3-D format alone helped “Jackass 3" turn a tidy profit at the box-office last fall, I’m not sure watching men urinating on one another in the third dimension really enhances the comedic aspect of the material!

As with the prior “Jackass” movies (and its corresponding MTV series), some of the material is mildly amusing, some gags are hilarious, while others are tasteless (mostly the body-fluid jokes) and some may make you cringe. Overall I still think a little of this goes a long way, but in terms of its overall effectiveness, I’d place it ahead of “Jackass 2" but slightly behind the original film.

Paramount’s Blu-Ray does include a 3-D version of the picture, but it’s in old-time anaglyph format (with four pairs of glasses provided). As I’ve written before, though, watching an anaglyph format film in HD is certainly more effective than watching it in standard-def, though it’s not the same (obviously) as seeing it in “real” stereoscopic 3-D. A standard 2-D version is also on-hand, along with an Unrated version of the film with five minutes of extra footage, extra deleted scenes, outtakes, an AVC encoded 1080p transfer, DTS Master soundtrack, digital copy and standard def DVD for good measure.

MORNING GLORY Blu-Ray (**, 107 mins., 2010, PG-13; Paramount): Contrived tale of an aspiring young TV producer (Rachel McAdams), fired from her job running a New Jersey morning news program, who gets a job in NYC producing an “eye-opener” for a fourth-place network. Her challenge in turning the show around is compounded by hiring a veteran ex-prime-time news anchor (Harrison Ford) just wanting to play out the rest of his lucrative contract and his female counterpart (Diane Keaton), who spars with Ford the same way McAdams does with a fellow network employee (Patrick Wilson) who wants to show her that life isn’t all about work.

The cast tries hard but Aline Brosh McKenna’s script feels like a watered down version of her “Devil Wears Prada” for TV news, with McAdams putting perky on overload in a performance that might’ve been more appealing had the material been funnier. Alas, it’s not – aside from a few mild laughs with Ford and Keaton amiably filling their roles, “Morning Glory” feels forced at every turn, like just another movie that rolled off the assembly line, relying on its veteran cast to put it over the top.

A disappointment for director Roger Michell and co-producer J.J. Abrams, “Morning Glory” looks appropriately sunny on Blu-Ray in its AVC encoded 1080p transfer while slim extras include one deleted scene and commentary from the writer and director.

THE TEN COMMANDMENTS Blu-Ray (***½, 220 mins., 1956; Paramount): With Easter fast approaching, the time is perfect for a new edition of Cecil B. DeMille's epic –  one of those movies I've always respected though have never been especially fond of.

Paramount's Blu-Ray edition of the perennial “The Ten Commandments” is being released in a number of flavors, including a gift set housing most of the special features. For those who don’t want to splurge for the more elaborate packaging and extras, Paramount’s 2-disc BD edition ought to suffice, as it presents a glorious 1080p AVC encoded transfer of the movie with robust DTS Master Audio sound. Unlike most of the studio’s Blu-Ray catalog transfers, this HD presentation is superb, freed from excessive DNR and offering appreciable detail and enhancement over the prior DVD edition. Elmer Bernstein’s score also sounds magnificent in the DTS MA mix presented here.

With most of the extras confined to the more expensive gift set, Paramount’s BD doesn’t offer much in the way of supplements, though it does retain the prior DVD’s outstanding, informative commentary track from author Katherine Orbison. Orbinson wrote "Written In Stone," an account of the making of the 1956 production, and gives a trivia-filled, insightful discussion on "The Ten Commandments" for all of its 220 minutes! Barely pausing to take a break, Orbison unearths all kinds of nuggets about casting, the logistics involved in filming, DeMille's mindset during production, and pays tribute to both the movie and the Golden Age of Hollywood in general. Along with Warner’s upcoming “King of Kings,” this is a highly recommended release that gives the Golden Age its due in high-def.

THE TOURIST Blu-Ray (**, 103 mins., 2010, PG-13; Sony): Admirable attempt at an old-time, star-driven romantic thriller doesn’t quite come off.

Johnny Depp plays an American college professor named Frank who stumbles upon the elusive, mysterious Elise (Angelina Jolie) while traveling in France. She’s being trailed by a government agent (Paul Bettany) whose boss (Timothy Dalton) wants her caught; a gangster (Steven Berkoff) looking to collect; and another mysterious man (Rufus Sewell) trailing close behind.

The location shooting in Paris and Venice is glorious to behold, James Newton Howard’s music is lovely (it’s one of his best scores), and director Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck handles it all with a light touch. It’s just unfortunate that nobody bothered to bring along a screenplay, since the story is just a mess – the movie takes forever to get going and is shockingly basic in its dramatic development. Next to nothing really happens in the movie, until its pre-ordained “twists” which you can sense coming from miles away.

“The Tourist” isn’t quite the worst film of 2010 – nor was it deserving of being inexplicably nominated for several Golden Globes – but fans of the stars and those seeking an old-time sort of escapist thriller might want to give it a look...just be prepared to dial down your expectations since the finished film doesn’t really deliver outside of its aesthetic attributes.

Sony’s Blu-Ray does offer up a well-textured AVC encoded 1080p transfer and DTS Master soundtrack, with extras including an outtake reel, an alternate animated title sequence, director commentary, and several featurettes (most of which are exclusive to the Blu-Ray release). 

MADE IN DAGENHAM Blu-Ray (**½, 113 mins., 2010, R; Sony): Female workers in Dagenham, England’s Ford plant go on strike in 1968 in this real-life story told in an entertaining, if formulaic, fashion by director Nigel Cole and writer William Ivory.

Sally Hawkins is terrific as one of the 187 women who decide to stand up for themselves and demand equal pay for their performance; Bob Hoskins is equally fine as the union rep who helps her, while Miranda Richardson is the Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity who takes up their cause. Ivory’s script offers a lot of predictable subplots involving Hawkins’ fellow co-workers and adheres to a tried-and-true formula blueprint (it also, apparently, isn’t even close to being factually accurate), but with Hawkins leading the way “Made in Dagenham” nevertheless manages to entertain.

Sony’s Blu-Ray disc sports a lovely AVC encoded transfer along with a DTS MA soundtrack boasting a David Arnold score. Extras include outtakes, deleted scenes, a making of featurette, and commentary with the director.

THE SWITCH Blu-Ray (**½, 101 mins., 2010, PG-13; Lionsgate): Advertised as a typical romantic comedy, “The Switch” offers Jason Bateman as a thirtysomething guy whose best friend (Jennifer Aniston) decides she doesn’t want to wait for marriage to have a child. So, just like everyone does today (right?), she opts to hold a “Sperm Donation Party” so she can be inseminated by a good-looking donor (Patrick Wilson) – at least until Bateman gets drunk and decides to do the job himself.

Anison also produced “The Switch,” but despite her top billing, the movie really belongs to Bateman, who carries the majority of screen time and tries valiantly to keep Allan Loeb’s contrived screenplay afloat. Bateman and Aniston have zero chemistry together (when they kiss at the film’s end, you almost feel uncomfortable watching it!), but Bateman does generate some appeal when he’s playing opposite Bryce Robinson as his young son, even if both Robinson and Aniston aren’t aware of the boy’s true biological origins. Their scenes are genuinely cute, but since the romantic element of the picture completely fizzles out, “The Switch” ends up being a case where only half of the film works.

Lionsgate’s Blu-Ray release offers deleted scenes and an alternate ending with an introduction from directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck, plus a featurette and bloopers. The AVC encoded 1080p transfer is top-notch, as is the DTS Master Audio sound.

New From Criterion

It’s a great time to be a Gilbert & Sullivan fan, thanks to two of Criterion’s outstanding new Blu-Ray releases this month.

Mike Leigh’s justifiably celebrated TOPSY-TURVY (****, 160 mins., 1999) was one of its year’s best films: a meticulously crafted chronicle of the personal and artistic pursuits of the Victorian composer-librettist duo, their production battles, relationships with actors and the inside story behind some of their greatest works.  Ample musical numbers from “HMS Pinafore,” “Pirates of Penzance” and others are included in Leigh’s colorful, beautifully designed production, which specifically profiles how the creation of the duo’s most durable work – “The Mikado” – came about.

Jim Broadbent and Allan Corduner are both outstanding as Gilbert and Sullivan, with a brilliant array of supporting faces (Timothy Spall and Lesley Manville among others) adding to the authentic look and feel of the picture. It’s a terrific historical account as well as a fascinating interpersonal profile in line with many of Leigh’s other works.

Criterion brings “Topsy-Turvy” to Blu-Ray this month in a terrific package: Leigh provides a commentary as well as appears in a conversation with musical director Gary Yershon about the production; “A Sense of History,” a 1992 short film Leigh directed with Broadbent, is on-hand; plus deleted scenes; a 1999 promotional featurette; the trailer and various TV spots. Cinematographer Dick Pope’s approved HD transfer is beautifully detailed and DTS Master Sound rounds out a well-engineered sound mix.

In concert with “Topsy-Turvy” comes the interesting 1939 Technicolor filming of THE MIKADO (***, 91 mins.), Gilbert & Sullivan’s zesty Brit political satire set in Japan with classic songs like “A Wandering Minstrel I” and “Three Little Maids from School Are We” among others.

This first filming of G&H’s material is a bit dated but looks surprisingly good in its AVC encoded 1080p (full-frame 1.33) transfer with mono sound as satisfying as can be anticipated given the age of the materials and the background of the film. Interviews with Mike Leigh and G&H historians Josephine Lee and Ralph MacPhail, Jr. are included, along with a rare short silent film promoting a 1926 stage performance of “The Mikado,” a deleted scene, and excerpts from a 1939 radio broadcast of assorted stage productions.

Also out from Criterion this month is the terrific 1984 documentary THE TIMES OF HARVEY MILK (88 mins.), which counts the life and times of the trailblazing gay San Francisco politician, from his political policies to his homosexual advocacy and eventual assassination in 1978.

Robert Epstein and Richard Schmiechen’s documentary feature was celebrated upon its initial release and still ranks as a testament to Milk’s legacy – it more concisely, and emotionally, details his struggles and accomplishments than the Sean Penn film from a few years ago was able to.

Criterion’s Blu-Ray offers a 1080p transfer culled from the UCLA Film & Television Archive, with DTS Master Audio sound; commentary with Epstein and other production personnel; interview clips that didn’t make it into the film; an interview with documentary filmmaker Jon Else; a look at both this doc and the Gus Van Sant movie, offering personnel from each project; rare audio and video recordings of Milk; excerpts from Epstein’s research tapes; footage of its Castro Theatre premiere and 1984 Oscars; the trailer; and footage from the 25th anniversary commemoration of Milk and SF Mayor George Moscone’s assassinations.

Short Takes

THE VENTURE BROS. Season 4 Blu-Ray (386 mins., Warner): Cartoon Network’s daffy series returns to Blu-Ray this month in a complete Season 4 set, offering all 16 episodes from its 2009-10 season. Episodes include: "Blood of the Father, Heart of Steel", "Handsome Ransom", "Perchance to Dean", Return to Malice", "The Revenge Society", "Self-Medication", “The Better Man", "Pinstripes & Poltergeists", "The Diving Bell Vs. The Butter-Glider", "Pomp & Circuitry", "Every Which Way But Zeus", "Everybody Comes to Hank's", "Bright Lights, Dean City", "Assisted Suicide”, "The Silent Partners", and "Operation: P.R.O.M." 1080p transfers, assorted extras and Dolby TrueHD soundtracks adorn the single disc release.

THE ALAN BENNETT COLLECTION DVD (611 mins., BBC): Fantastic four-disc anthology offers a handful of Alan Bennett’s plays: “An Englishman Abroad” (with Alan Bates); “The Insurance Man” (with Daniel Day Lewis starring as Kafka); “A Question of Attribution” (with Prunella Scales and James Fox); “102 Boulevard Haussmann” (with Bates and Janet McTeer); “A Day Out”, “Sunset Across the Bay” (both directed by Stephen Frears); “Our Winnie”; “A Visit From Miss Prothero” and “A Woman of No Importance,” along with two film essays (“Dinner at Noon” and “Portrait or Bust”) from Bennett himself. The DVD set also includes an interview with the playwright and nearly 40 minutes of Bennett’s introductions, with 4:3 transfers culled from the best elements and stereo or mono soundtracks on-hand throughout.

TREME Season 1 DVD (632 mins., 2010, HBO): The creator of “The Wire,” David Simon, produced this intriguing chronicle of life in contemporary New Orleans post-Katrina, from musicians and chefs to a cross-section of residents in a small section of the city. Khandi Alexander, Rob Brown, Kim Dickens, John Goodman, Melissa Leo and Steve Zahn are a few of the colorful personalities seen in “Treme,” which is a bit less focused than “The Wire” but nevertheless is every bit as compelling as Simon and co-producer Eric Overmyer’s prior outing. HBO’s DVD set, released to coincide with the debut of its second season next month, includes 16:9 transfers, 5.1 soundtracks, and extensive extras (five commentaries, music commentaries, Making Of materials and a music featurette).

TEENAGE PAPARAZZO DVD (95 mins., 2010, HBO): “Entourage” star Adrian Grenier directed this documentary about a 13-year old member of the paparazzi. HBO’s DVD of this 2010 feature boasts interviews with parazzi-afflicted stars, along with a 16:9 transfer and 5.1 soundtrack.

NEXT TIME: KING OF KINGS in HD! 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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