3/17/09 Edition

A Vampire Chiller
LET THE RIGHT ONE IN shines on Video

Much like its snow-covered, wintry landscapes that are at once chilling and beautiful, Tomas Alfredson’s eloquent, haunting and low-key LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (***½, 115 mins., 2008, R; Magnolia) conveys a similar array of emotions.

This Swedish import, scripted by John Lindqvist from his own novel, is a remarkable film on a number of levels. It is, on the surface, a straightforward narrative about a perceptive yet weak young boy, tormented by bullies at school, who forges a relationship with an unusual girl next door...who just happens to be a vampire. Yet it’s more than just a horror film, touching upon themes of adolescence, friendship, and isolation, in a story that’s simultaneously unsettling, poignant and eerily uplifting.

It’s hard for some movies that have played the festival circuit to endless acclaim to live up to their billing, but “Let the Right One In” is an exception to the hype. For viewers tired of the ADD-centric editing of most modern blockbusters, not to the “torture porn” found in contemporary horror movies, Alfredson’s film is like a cinematic oasis: unfolding at a steady pace that accentuates mood and atmosphere, with gorgeous images of a Swedish winter in the early ‘80s, “Let the Right One In” grips you from its opening frames and never entirely goes in the directions you might anticipate.

The performances of its young stars are certainly noteworthy, yet the real star here is Alfredson, whose filmmaking style is naturalistic and confident from beginning to end. By focusing on the film’s characters and its surroundings, Alfredson makes the story’s brief moments of vampirism all the more effective; it would have been easy for any filmmaker to go for cheap shocks or CGI (and you can just see the eventual American remake favoring that approach), but outside of one brief cat attack that’s been dressed up with digital animation, the director keeps the movie on a realistic level that enhances the drama, while constantly maintaining a connection with its lead characters.

The end result is a movie about growing up -- with a vampire best friend -- that has a timeless feel that’s difficult to describe without experiencing it. Alfredson has essentially produced a movie that’s as old-fashioned and “low tech” as most of M. Night Shyamalan’s films, yet developed a story and a set of characters that aren’t nearly as static in the process. One of the protagonists in “Let The Right One In” may be part of the undead, but few movies I’ve seen in recent years are as cinematically alive as this one.

Out this week on both Blu-Ray and DVD, Magnolia has done an exceptional job bringing “Let the Right One In” to high-definition. The movie’s 1080p transfer is immaculate, perfectly rendering all of the wintry vistas vividly captured by Alfredson and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema. The DTS Master Audio sound is certainly acceptable (make sure you stick with the English-subtitled Swedish dialogue track), but this is a restrained mix without a lot of dialogue for a two-hour movie, with frequent stretches of silence and minimal background noise intentionally employed by Alfredson to augment the picture’s naturalistic feel. The effective score by Johan Soderqvist likewise stays out of the way for the most part, adding flourishes of lyricism and menace only when called upon.

Extras aren’t in abundance – under 10 minutes of extraneous deleted scenes are presented in 16:9 standard definition, while an English interview with Alfredson is also included. Make sure you wait until after the movie to watch it, as it includes comments about the movie’s open-for-discussion ending, including the director’s interpretation of its meaning (which I happen to agree with). A pair of still galleries rounds out a disc that’s easily one of the finest releases of 2009 to date.

Also New on DVD

From the sublime to the ridiculous comes the long-awaited DVD debut of HOWARD THE DUCK (**½, 109 mins., 1986, PG; Universal), the much-ballyhooed George Lucas-produced adaptation of Steve Gerber’s Marvel comic which flopped at the box-office in the summer of 1986.

Lucas’ “American Graffiti” and “Temple of Doom” co-authors Willard Huyuck and Gloria Katz wrote and directed this playful fantasy which for years was dumped upon in the mass media, mostly by viewers who had never seen it. Sure, “Howard” is no cinematic masterpiece, but as a piece of mid ‘80s comedic sci-fi escapism, the film is quite enjoyable, with an excellent John Barry score, fine special effects from ILM and amusing performances.

Lea Thompson leads the way as the lead singer of the group Cherry Bomb, a big-hair band trying to make ends meet in Cleveland when a wise-acre talking duck named Howard arrives from another galaxy. Her lab assistant friend Tim Robbins can’t quite figure out what to make of our pal Howard, but scientist Jeffrey Jones unlocks Howard’s inter-dimensional travels to the point where he unleashes another monster in the process, in so doing transforming himself into the evil Dark Overlord of the universe!

Once you get over Howard being a live-action puppet occupied by Ed Gale and other little people (Katz and Huyuck wanted the character to be animated, but “Roger Rabbit” was still a couple of years away), “Howard the Duck” works reasonably well. The film is energetic and populated with goofy, amiable performances from Thompson, Robbins and especially Jones, whose transition from kindly scientist to villain steals the show. ILM’s visual effects are first-class as well, with Phil Tippet memorably performing the stop-motion duties on the final stages of the Dark Overlord’s appearance. And while the movie’s comedy is often hit-or-miss, I confess that I’ve always found “Howard” to be a likeable enough outing that likely wouldn’t have been met with nearly as much critical derision if Lucas’ name hadn’t been on the credits.

Music also plays a large role in the picture’s appeal. John Barry’s score is one of his most under-appreciated, ranging from a jazzy, “Body Heat”-styled opening credits cue to tuneful “heroic” melodies and a love theme that I would honestly rank with his all-time finest. It’s a wonderful score that gives the movie an enormous amount of heart, and it’s made all the more remarkable in that it likely wasn’t the studio’s first choice: Thomas Dolby composed the movie’s catchy songs and originally intended to score the movie as well, going so far as to discuss his intentions of using avant garde instruments in published interviews prior to the film’s release. At some point, the filmmakers must have gotten scared off by Dolby’s approach, as Barry became involved along with Sylvester Levay, who adds a few propulsive action cues in his memorable “Airwolf”-esque style.

Long requested by fans, Universal’s Special Edition DVD pays proper tribute to “Howard” by offering a remastered, excellent 16:9 (1.85) transfer along with a fine Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. Not only that, but a generous allotment of extras are also included here, most notably a half-hour documentary from Laurent Bouzereau that’s highlighted by new comments from Katz, Huyuck, Lea Thompson, Jeffrey Jones and Ed Gale. This is a satisfyingly candid retrospective with Huyuck and Katz lamenting some of the puppet suit’s shortcomings and the film’s difficult technical challenges (these days Howard would’ve been all CGI, and probably all the better for it), while another 10-minute segment profiles the post-production process, with the filmmakers giving Barry credit for his score, and the disastrous theatrical reception that followed a series of mixed reactions from pre-release audiences. A series of archival featurettes are also on-hand, plus the movie’s original trailers, one of which shows evidence of Dolby’s scoring duties by only crediting him with the music.

“Howard The Duck” has attracted a good amount of fans since its debut back in 1986, and understandably so: the film’s engaging tone and performances make for a colorful slice of genre entertainment from the period, and Universal’s DVD gives the movie its due as a picture -- in spite of its prior rep -- that’s far from the worst of its decade.

New from Criterion

Three new titles join the Criterion Collection this month.

Francois Truffaut’s THE LAST METRO (130 mins., 1980) examines a French theater company in the waning days of WWII, with Catherine Deneuve giving one of her most acclaimed performances as the group’s lead actress, whose Jewish husband (Heinz Bennent) has to hide from the Nazis and directs their latest production through hearing the voices of the cast. Things become even more complicated when the troupe welcomes a new leading man (Gerard Depardieu) who falls for Deneuve, making for an interesting love triangle set against the German occupation of France and the plight of Parisians during those dark and difficult days.

Viewed as one of Truffaut’s more accessible films (and one of his most satisfying later works), Criterion’s new, double-disc DVD edition of “The Last Metro” includes a restored transfer in 16:9 (1.66) widescreen with mono sound and a new English subtitle translation. Commentary from Criterion scholar Annette Insdorf is on-hand, along with another, more satisfying track with Depardieu, Truffaut biographer Serge Toubiana and historian Jean-Pierre Azema. Disc two includes one deleted scene (which had been offered in certain other DVD editions of the picture), plus vintage French television interviews with Truffaut and the cast; new interviews with assorted crew members; a video interview with the great cinematographer Nestor Almendros; a 1958 Truffaut/Godard short; the trailer; and extensive booklet notes.

Another fine Depardieu performance is also on-hand in Criterion’s new release of DANTON (136 mins., 1983), a powerful, haunting evocation of the French Revolution starring Depardieu as Georges Danton, French politician and “man of the people” who spars with the idealistic Maximilien Robespierre (Wojciech Pszoniak) over the governing of France during the fateful spring of 1794. Both men tragically, and fatally, misjudge their standing against the tide of social unrest that’s upon them, in a finely acted movie from Polish director Andrzej Wajda that offers numerous parallels to the filmmaker’s home country in addition to its searing portrait of “The Great Terror.”

Criterion’s two-disc DVD set includes a superb 16:9 (1.66) transfer with mono sound and English subtitles, plus a 42-minute look at the production of the film and interviews with Wajda, writer Jean-Claude Carriere and Polish critic Jerzy Palzewski.

Last but not least from the Criterion Collection this month is Roberto Rossellini’s IL GENERALE DELLA ROVERE (132 mins., 1959), a WWII drama offered on DVD in a new high-def transfer (1.33 full-screen) with mono sound and English subtitles; video interviews with Isabella, Renzo and Ingrid Rossellini, plus scholar Adriano Apra; a visual essay from Tag Gallagher; the trailer; and essays on the director.

New From Disney

BOLT (***, 96 mins., 2008, PG; Disney): Cute, appealing, energetic Disney CGI feature follows a lovable canine who acts out the role of a super-hero on a massively popular TV series. Unfortunately for Bolt, he finds out that his super-powers aren’t real when he’s accidentally shipped cross-country to New York, and has to travel back to his co-star owner Penny, who’s saddened by the apparent loss of her co-star. “Bolt” may not be as “high brow” as the Oscar-winning Pixar-Disney offering “Wall-E” but in some ways it’s more satisfying, offering a colorful and winning story with fun characters (it’s tough not to love Bolt’s sidekick hamster Rhino), big laughs and a poignant finish. With gorgeous animation that looks just immaculate on Blu-Ray, Disney has also fashioned a brilliant BD package with a spectacular 1080p transfer and equally vibrant DTS Master Audio sound. Copious extras include the new short “Super Rhino,” deleted scenes, Making Of featurettes, an interactive game, music video from Miley Cyrus, interviews, and a digital copy for portable media players on the second platter, while the third disc includes a standard-def DVD presentation.

BUNNYTOWN: Hello Bunnies (96 mins., 2009; Disney): Cute Disney Channel “Playhouse” live-action series for toddlers with hoppin’ bunnies hits DVD in a four-episode compilation featuring full-screen transfers and 2.0 Dolby Digital soundtracks. Extras aimed at the little ones include a sneak peek at the upcoming “Mickey’s Adventures in Wonderland,” an interactive game and a “Bunny Dance” groove with the bunnies.

Also New on DVD & Blu-Ray

SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (***½, 118 mins., 1991, R; MGM/Fox): Blu-Ray edition of the 1991 Jonathan Demme Oscar-winner that feels less like a genre benchmark these days than it was the start of an unfortunate franchise that included the disastrous “Hannibal,” mediocre “Red Dragon” and check-cashing prequel “Hannibal Rising.” All of these follow-ups have detracted from the power and intensity of Demme’s film, which still holds up through the Oscar-winning performances of Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins. MGM’s Blu-Ray edition of “Silence” isn’t immaculate, however, offering an MPEG-2 transfer that seems less crisp and satisfying than most of the other Blu-Ray catalog titles we’ve seen of late. The DTS Master Audio sound is perfectly fine, but the transfer -- while still superior to other DVD editions out there -- seems to have been derived from an older HD master. That said, if you haven’t owned any prior edition of “The Silence of the Lambs” on DVD, this is still the best edition on the market, with numerous extras culled from the 2007 DVD, including extensive featurettes, a conversation with composer Howard Shore (“Scoring the Silence”), two new documentaries, a prior Making Of, 22 deleted scenes, and other goodies.

TWO EVIL EYES: Blu-Ray (**, 120 mins., 1990; Blue Underground): Horror-meisters George Romero and Dario Argento teamed up -- to disappointing results -- for this 1990 Poe anthology. Romero’s “The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valedemar” is a typical “just desserts” tale of a cheating wife (Adrienne Barbeau) who tries to embezzle funds from her dying husband, while Argento’s “The Black Cat” follows a crime scene photographer (Harvey Keitel) who uncovers all kinds of trouble being caused by his girlfriend’s feline friend. A terrific, eclectic supporting cast includes Sally Kirkland, Martin Balsam, E.G. Marshall, John Amos and Kim Hunter, and the production boasts both a bombastic Pino Donaggio score and make-up work from the great Tom Savini, but the storylines (penned by Romero and Argento and Franco Ferrini, respectively) are both frustratingly pedestrian, failing to take advantage of their directors’ talents. Blue Underground’s Blu-Ray edition of “Two Evil Eyes” includes a typically strong (for the studio) 1080p transfer with DTS Master and Dolby TrueHD audio, as well as interviews with Argento and Romero, Savini and others; a behind-the-scenes look at Savini’s work; an interview with Barbeau; and the theatrical trailer.

WATCHMEN: TALES OF THE BLACK FREIGHTER: Blu-Ray (26 mins., R, 2008; Warner): Zack Snyder’s film of the Alan Moore-Dave Gibbons graphic novel is apparently quite faithful (arguably too much so) to its source, but one concession the filmmaker had to make was to drop the “story-within-a-story” of “Tales of the Black Freighter” from his feature film adaptation. The consolation was this half-hour, direct-to-video effort which Warner is now releasing on Blu-Ray, with the apparent intention of ultimately incorporating it back inside of the “Watchmen” movie on a future video release. This half-hour adaptation of “Black Freighter” boasts strong animation, music from Tyler Bates (who scored the film), and a script co-authored by Snyder and Alex Tse. Complimenting the effort is the half-hour “Under the Hood,” a 40-minute profile of the Hollis Mason character with stars from the movie appearing in their respective roles. Warner’s Blu-Ray presentation is excellent, with VC-1 encoded transfers and Dolby TrueHD soundtracks, plus extras including a BD-Live enabled deleted scene from the movie and preview of the upcoming “Green Lantern” direct-to-video movie.

DEGRASSI: Season 7 (2008, 685 mins., Echo Bridge): One of TV’s longest-running teen dramas, Canada’s “Degrassi: The Next Generation” just keeps going and going, and this week hits DVD again in a four-disc box-set from Echo Bridge. Picking up where previous DVD distributor BCI left off (BCI released the prior six seasons but gave up the rights after the company restructured late last year), Echo Bridge’s DVD set offers bloopers, deleted scenes and Degrassi webisodes, plus uncut episodes (The N edits some of these shows for their US broadcasts) of the series’ 24 seventh-season episodes. Highly recommended for “Degrassi” fans, who I’m guessing aren’t limited to just teens.

THE FUGITIVE, Season 2 Volume 2 (aprx. 13 hours, CBS/Paramount): Back-end of Season 2 for the classic David Janssen-Quinn Martin series arrives on DVD from Paramount in a four-disc set featuring its final 15 episodes from its second season. The good news for fans is that Paramount’s DVDs don’t suffer from the massive music alterations (though there may still be some in this set) of its previous Season 2, Volume 1 edition which, incidentally, has recently been rectified by the studio. In case you haven’t heard, Paramount is offering re-pressed discs that restore most (though not entirely all) of the series’ original music to that release. For details and information on how to exchange your copies, check out Paramount's web page, though note the process only runs through September 1st of this year.

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