3/2/10 Edition
 Aisle Seat Fantasy Edition
Plus: THE WRAITH Special Edition
Sweeping, romantic and decidedly old-fashioned, Warner Home Video brings the great Ray Harryhausen’s cinematic swan song, CLASH OF THE TITANS (***½, 118 mins., 1981, PG), to Blu-Ray next week in a superb high-definition transfer that ought to enchant both fans and younger viewers unfamiliar with its magical sense of derring-do.

Released in a busy summer packed with more technologically advanced fantasies like “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Superman II,” Harryhausen, producer Charles H. Schneer and director Desmond Davis’ “Titans” nevertheless held its own at the box-office, becoming a favorite among genre aficionados and particularly younger viewers. As I can attest, having been not quite 7 when the movie was released, “Clash of the Titans” was a film I watched endlessly growing up; even though I was raised on “Star Wars,” I never found the stop-motion special effects outdated or anything less than “special,” even if the picture, ultimately, marked the end of an era for its style of genre storytelling.

It’s not always easy to go back to one of your childhood favorites, as once in a while you can come away disappointed, but I can honestly say “Clash of the Titans” more than holds its own when compared to today’s more serious and technologically advanced -- but far less fun -- blockbusters. This was a film clearly aimed at family audiences, managing to satisfy the young and young at heart, as they say, with its fairy-tale aspects and thrilling set-pieces, which again, hold up quite well.

Part of the reason why the film remains enchanting is in the conviction of its story and filmmaking. Beverly Cross’ tale of the heroic Perseus (Harry Hamlin), fighting to save a princess (the quite fetching Judi Bowker) from the likes of the vile Calibos, the terrifying Medusa and giant Kraken -- all the while being the pawn in a chess game amongst the Gods, including father Zeus (Laurence Olivier) – enables Harryhausen to craft a succession of brilliantly realized creatures, as well as engage the audience in an entertaining and episodic quest through Greek mythology. While much has been made over the years about the picture’s so-called “plastic” performances, the assembled cast was certainly atypical for one of Harryhausen’s productions. From Olivier to Maggie Smith, Claire Bloom, Ursula Andress and Sian Phillips, the performances are serious and mannered but suit the material splendidly, while Burgess Meredith’s sage presence equally aids in the adventure, the veteran actor essaying a playwright who thinks Perseus’ quest might make for an exciting story. Hamlin and Bowker, meanwhile, are also just fine, particularly when you match them up with the completely cardboard leads of Saturday matinee adventures from years gone by.

It also helps that Laurence Rosenthal’s score is so utterly gorgeous that it seems to age like a fine wine. Lyrical, heartfelt and stirring, Rosenthal’s music carries the entire picture, culminating in a finale every bit as delectable now as it was then. Rosenthal might have been the third man in following the likes of John Barry (whose name adorns the credits of the one-sheet poster still in the Blu-Ray’s Digibook packaging) and John Williams, but it’s hard to imagine any other score working as effectively as Rosenthal’s now-classic outing does.

In lieu of Louis Leterrier’s upcoming remake, Warner has dusted off “Clash of the Titans” and released it on Blu-Ray in a hardbound Digibook package. After a disappointing DVD release several years ago -- marked by a horribly compressed, tinny-sounding stereo soundtrack -- Warner has made amends with a satisfying high-definition mastering that’s only hindered by variances inherent in its source material.

Viewers unfamiliar with the movie may likely be surprised at how varied its elements appear, but as most fans of the picture will attest, there are limits with what you can do with remastering “Clash of the Titans” given the amount of optical effects (blue screen, matte paintings, etc.) it contains. There are times when it's jarring to go from a basically pristine shot to one that's riddled with grain -- but it's typically because there's a process shot or some kind of optical effect involved.

That said, “Clash” exhibits a distinctly film-like appearance, complete with varying degrees of grain. It would’ve been easy for Warner to go the “digital noise reduction” route here and try to smooth over the movie’s rough edges by applying lots of DNR, but thankfully they’ve avoided that temptation and produced as clear and vibrant an HD rendering as “Clash of the Titans” allows. Colors are strong and there are details present that none of the movie’s prior, uneven video releases rendered.

On the audio side, the DTS Master Audio presentation isn’t overpowering -- offering a simple 2.0 stereo mix -- while the supplemental package is a disappointment, leaving off the trailer, and including just a 12-minute videotaped interview with Harryhausen from the initial DVD release as well as a few extra snippets with the F/X pioneer. (The Digibook package also includes a mini-photo booklet of the “Titans” remake plus a discount movie voucher for the remake -- but not valid until a week after the film’s opening day!).

That said, this is nevertheless as exciting and satisfying an edition of “Clash of the Titans” as one could expect to see on Blu-Ray, and hopefully its remake will approximate the genuine sense of adventure and fantasy its predecessor boasts in abundance.

Meanwhile, two movies about youthful protagonists who seek solace in their own respective fantasy worlds -- in order to deal with the pressures of growing up -- have also debuted on Blu-Ray with varying degrees of success.

Spike Jonze’s fairly audacious adaptation of the beloved Maurice Sendak children’s book WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE (**, 101 mins., 2009, PG; Warner) is a hard movie to criticize because the picture’s heart is clearly in the right place. Its tale of a troubled boy (Max Records) who visits a fantasy island world populated by big, furry creatures (voiced by the likes of James Gandolfini among others) after getting picked on by his peers and yelled at by his own mom (Catherine Keener) is an emotionally wrenching picture that’s also vividly filmed: Jonze, cinematographer Lance Acord and production designer K.K. Barrett have fashioned an arresting looking film that offers a mix of evocative backgrounds and real world surroundings.

The picture’s problem, and it’s a substantial one, is that the one-note script by Jonze and Dave Eggers is neither magical nor heartwarming. In fleshing out Sendak’s story, the duo embellish the author’s concept by having the island’s monstrous inhabitants bicker, throw tantrums, cry and bicker again. Instead of a fantastical tale with metaphors to the boy’s situation, the movie instead offers a thinly-veiled contrast to Records’ adolescence, and grows tedious with the constant whimpering and arguments amongst the monsters. Kids ought to be bored or scared (or a mix of both) by their interplay, while it’s hard to envision adults being particularly compelled by it all. (That said, some viewers and critics loved it, so it all comes down to personal taste).

It’s certainly a game attempt at crafting a unique and haunting film about a child dealing with conflicting feelings and emotions but “Where The Wild Things Are,” unfortunately, falls well short of its lofty ambitions.

Warner’s Blu-Ray presentation is excellent: the VC-1 encoded 1080p transfer offers nicely textured visuals with abundant clarity, while an active DTS Master Audio soundtrack features an overly eclectic mix of alt-rock songs and pensive Carter Burwell score. The Blu-Ray package also includes a combo DVD/digital copy disc and extras including the new CGI/live-action short “Higglety Piggletty Pop!” (with voices by Meryl Sreep and Forest Whitaker), plus the HBO First Look special and a series of short Making Of vignettes touching upon the film’s production including the music and special effects.

Director Wolfgang Petersen’s 1984 fantasy THE NEVERENDING STORY (***, 94 mins., PG; Warner), meanwhile, offers a striking study in contrasts, even though its central concept is a bit similar.

In this adaptation of Michael Ende’s international bestseller, Barret Oliver plays a young boy with a recently widowed father (Gerald McRaney) who flees from a group of bullies on the way to school. After running into a bookshop presided over by cranky Thomas Hill (“Newhart,” “V: The Final Battle”), Oliver grabs a mysterious tome named “The Neverending Story” and proceeds to read it after ditching a math test. Inside, he finds himself wrapped up both figuratively and literally in the fantasy world of the novel, wherein a young warrior named Atreyu (Noah Hathaway from “Battlestar Galactica’ and “Troll”) tries to save the kingdom of Fantasia from “The Nothing,” a dark force that threatens the land.

Spectacular visuals and creature design, as well as a variety of colorful characters, made “The Neverending Story” a favorite among young viewers in the ‘80s, even though the film was only a moderate success at the box-office. The story doesn’t quite enchant on the same level as other, beloved fantasy films of its era, yet Klaus Doldinger’s score (augmented in the English language version by a chart-topping Giorgio Moroder theme song) and the artistic design of this German production certainly retain their appeal over 25 years since its original release (and the less said, the better about its subsequent sequels).

Warner’s Blu-Ray edition of “The Neverending Story” offers nothing extra, not even a trailer, but the VC-1 encoded 1080p transfer is simply magnificent: crisp detail with no apparent noise-reduction and deep, gorgeous blacks alternate with vivid colors to create a truly film-like appearance. This is an appreciable upgrade from the Dutch Blu-Ray disc visually, while DTS Master sound is quite active during the sequences it’s called upon. Until we get a bona-fide Special Edition one day (with the added sequences for its German release version), the Blu will likely be regarded as the definitive release of the picture. Recommended!

Warner Double Feature Discs

Those of us desiring more in the way of catalog content on Blu-Ray ought to be thrilled with Warner Home Video’s inaugural line of Double Feature Blu-Ray discs, which couple two movies onto a single dual-layer BD platter with VC-1 encoded 1080p transfers and several audio options.

The studio sent me a pair of titles to look at: a Harrison Ford double bill featuring the goofy Roman Polanski thriller FRANTIC (**½, 120 mins., 1987, R) plus the slick Alan J. Pakula adaptation of Scott Turow’s best-seller PRESUMED INNOCENT (**½, 127 mins., 1990, R); and a Sandra Bullock combo of the entertaining MISS CONGENIALITY (***, 110 mins., 2000, PG-13) with its lame sequel MISS CONGENIALITY 2 (**, 115 mins., 2005, PG-13).

All four movies look terrific, and while there aren’t any extras, the high-def presentations and lossless audio options (Dolby TrueHD on the Bullock films; 2.0 DTS Master stereo sound on the Ford pictures) make the discs a major value at under $20 retail.

Other Warner double-bills include GRUMPY OLD MEN/GRUMPIER OLD MEN, DIRTY HARRY/MAGNUM FORCE, ANALYZE THIS/ANALYZE THAT, and best of all for Chevy Chase fans, a twin-bill of SPIES LIKE US and FUNNY FARM. The latter disc, though, has not been widely released in the U.S.; I imported a copy from Amazon Canada and both movies look great (especially considering that neither have seen a widescreen release, not even on DVD!), but while there’s been talk this set was supposed to be a Best Buy exclusive for the time being, most consumers have yet to find it in-stores as well.

For Blu-Ray owning movie lovers, being able to score two high-definition titles on a single disc for under $20 is a terrific proposition -- here’s hoping the Double Features sell well and Warner brings us more in the near future.

Also New on Blu-Ray and DVD

2012 Blu-Ray (**½, 158 mins., 2009, PG-13; Sony): That fun-loving optimist, Roland Emmerich, is back with yet another “Trash the Planet” disaster movie. Thankfully his latest box-office hit “2012" is a lot more entertaining than Emmerich’s comparatively more pretentious exercise in global warming hysteria, “The Day After Tomorrow,” with scientist John Cusack and others finding out, the hard way, that the Mayans’ prediction of 2012 global apocalypse is more than just fodder for lame Discovery Channel specials.

“2012" wastes little time in getting to “the goods”: namely, loads of elaborate special effects showing worldwide catastrophes as waves devour mountains, assorted landmarks, and a less-than-first-rate cast. Rest assured this isn’t one of Irwin Allen’s all-star disaster spectacles, so don’t expect to have fun watching superstars like Richard Chamberlain and Gene Hackman throwing themselves into a fiery pit of lava. Instead, outside of a check-cashing Cusack, we have Chiwetel Ejiofor and a host of B-listers including Amanda Peet, Thandie Newton, Oliver Platt and Danny Glover, who’s less than convincing as the President of the United States (the money clearly went into the technical production and not the actors).

The film’s plot, written by Emmerich and composer/co-producer Harald Kloser, is utterly ridiculous and the film’s characters likewise disposable, but this is just a “special effects movie” through and through. And, on that level, and in Blu-Ray high-def, “2012" gets the job done, especially if you’re an undemanding fan of the genre. Personally, though, I’ll be sticking to “The Swarm” -- Michael Caine’s hysterical line readings beat CGI’d global destruction for me any day.

Sony’s single disc Blu-Ray offers a reference-quality, dazzling HD transfer with potent, active DTS Master Audio sound. Extras are sparse, offering just a commentary from Emmerich, an alternate ending, picture-in-picture content and BD-Live enabled MovieIQ features; more extras are apparently offered in 2 and 3-disc versions with the usual digital copy add-ons.

THE WRAITH DVD (***, 93 mins., 1986, PG-13; Lionsgate): Engaging slice of ‘80s B-movie hokum about a group of Arizona teens including a sadistic racing gang leader (Nick Cassavetes) who end up being schooled by a mysterious stranger (Charlie Sheen) they all have vague recollections of, and who drives a smokin’ hot black Dodge Interceptor with supernatural-like powers.

Mike Marvin’s eccentric little movie -- which shares more than a few conceptual similarities with the later Brandon Lee-Alex Proyas cult hit “The Crow” -- also might sound like a dense dramatic yarn, but it’s oddly played like any number of ‘80s youth pictures, backed by sunny Reed Smoot cinematography and an upbeat, rockin’ soundtrack populated with tunes from Robert Palmer, Billy Idol and Bonnie Tyler among others. The picture sports some well-choreographed car chases, an interesting plot (written by Marvin) that leaves key questions unanswered, Randy Quaid as a frustrated cop, Clint Howard as an unhinged gang member, and a particularly fetching Sherilyn Fenn in mid ‘80s attire. “The Wraith” might be a minor and uneven work, but it’s quite a bit entertaining if you can approach it with the right mindset.

Lionsgate’s long-overdue DVD of “The Wraith” is a bona-fide Special Edition, sporting a pleasing 16:9 (1.85) transfer with 2.0 stereo sound and a number of extras. Marvin’s commentary is the most enlightening supplement in the bunch, deftly detailing the low-budget film’s troubled shoot, along with an on-camera interview with Marvin, a talk with Clint Howard, the trailer, and a segment on the “Infamous Turbo Interceptor Vehicle.”

DANTE’S INFERNO Blu-Ray (88 mins., 2010; Anchor Bay): Not exactly an adaptation of Alighieri’s original “Divine Comedy,” this animated horror-adventure is a tie-in with the recently-released EA video game “Dante’s Inferno.” The game -- and film -- follows Dante, here portrayed as a valiant, but tormented, knight who tries to save his beloved Beatrice from the clutches of Lucifer by venturing into hell and taking on both personal demons and literal monsters. Film Roman utilized the talents of several different animators in putting together this moderately interesting work with splendid HD visuals, all of which look captivating in Anchor Bay’s 1080p widescreen transfer. 5.1 Dolby Digital sound is also on-hand plus a trailer for the game and mock-up animatics.

New Studio Ghibli DVDs

Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki’s latest effort, the gentle fairy tale PONYO (***, 103 mins., 2008, G; Disney), arrives on Blu-Ray next week in a Special Edition combo-pack also sporting a standard-definition DVD of the picture.

This variation on Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” co-produced by Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall and John Lasseter, boasts the movie’s original Japanese language track (in 5.1 Dolby Digital) plus an English-dubbed version (in DTS Master Audio sound) with a script authored by Melissa Mathison and voices provided by Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, Tina Fey, Liam Neeson and Lily Tomlin among others. With beautiful animation and another terrific score by Joe Hisaishi, “Ponyo” offers more Miyazaki magic, though this time the film is particularly geared towards young viewers, as evidenced by its G rating and somewhat broadly drawn, and not always well-defined, characters.

Disney’s Blu-Ray presentation is gorgeous, though, with extensive extras chronicling the film’s production and a history of Studio Ghibli, plus a storyboard presentation of the film and an introduction from the producers. The standard DVD rounds out the package.

Also new from Disney are a trio of Studio Ghibli Special Editions for Miyazaki’s early films KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE (***, 105 mins., 1985), MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO (***½, 86 mins., 1988), and CASTLE IN THE SKY (***, 125 mins., 1986). All three DVDs are newly packaged double-disc sets with brand-new “World of Studio Ghibli” documentaries, storyboard presentations of the respective films, introductions from John Lasseter (carried over, I believe, from prior DVD incarnations), remastered 5.1 soundtracks and 16:9 (1.85) transfers.

Also New on DVD and Blu-Ray

FLASH FORWARD Season 1 DVD (430 mins., 2009; Buena Vista):
David S. Goyer was one of the creators of this recent ABC series, which the network hoped would become the next “Lost” – i.e. a serialized “puzzle” of a show centered around a somewhat-supernatural premise (here, a worldwide blackout that causes all of humankind to lose consciousness for three minutes). Unfortunately, after a strong debut, “Flash Forward” started meandering on to nowheresville, failing to keep its momentum going and losing not just its core audience but Goyer as well (he was to be replaced with another showrunner while the series went on hiatus). Hopefully the series will regain its footing once it returns in March or else “Flash Forward” will be flashing ahead to its own demise quickly. ABC has released its first batch of the series’ “autumn episodes” on DVD in a Season 1, Part 1 set, which sports excellent 16:9 (1.78) widescreen transfers, 5.1 soundtracks, and two behind-the-scenes featurettes.

EVERYBODY’S FINE DVD (**, 100 mins., 2009, PG-13; Buena Vista): Mediocre, maudlin road-trip drama failed to muster much in the way of box-office returns last Christmas, when it was (understandably) buried under an avalanche of other films. In this remake of an Italian film, “Stanno Tutti Bene,” Robert DeNiro plays a widower who goes on a cross-country trek to reconnect with his estranged kids, including Drew Barrymore, Kate Beckinsale and Sam Rockwell. It’s fairly difficult to accept this group of “movie stars” as DeNiro’s off-spring, but the real problem is Kirk Jones’ depressing story, which allows DeNiro to give a solid, ultimately thankless performance in a movie where almost nobody is fine. Buena Vista’s DVD serves up a strong 16:9 (2.35) transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, deleted/extended scenes and a “Making Of” Paul McCartney’s tune “(I Want To) Come Home.”

OLD DOGS Blu-Ray/DVD Combo (*½, 88 mins., 2009, PG; Disney): Sorry attempt to rekindle the box-office success of “Wild Hogs,” the John Travolta-Tim Allen-Martin Lawrence comedy, brings back a particularly tired Travolta, who joins with best friend/fellow workaholic Robin Williams to take care of seven-year-old twins. Non-amusing, would-be comedic shenanigans ensue, not the least of which includes Seth Green crooning to a simian. Director Walt Becker helmed “Wild Hogs” and it’s obvious the studio hoped this family comedy would reap big dollars, but it failed so miserably Disney quickly squelched plans for “Wild Hogs 2.” I suppose, if nothing else, we can be thankful for “Old Dogs” in that regard. Disney brings “Old Dogs” to video in a 3-disc combo pack next week with a Blu-Ray platter sporting an AVC encoded 1080p transfer, DTS Master Audio sound, a Bryan Adams music video and featurette (exclusive to the Blu package), plus deleted scenes, bloopers, and commentary. There’s also a DVD in the package sporting the same extras, as well as a digital copy for portable media players.

GREEK: Chapter Four DVD (522 mins., 2008-09; ABC/Buena Vista): One of the best kept secrets on TV, this winning ABC Family series continues to hold up after several years on the tube. “Chapter Four” assembles 12 recent episodes of “Greek,” with the ZBZ girls putting up with nefarious Frannie one last time, and a new rushee (teen heartthrob Jesse McCartney) being torn between several houses on the Cyprus-Rhodes campus. Amiable performances, funny dialogue and just a dash of drama make “Greek” one of the most reliable shows on the small screen – now, if only more folks would tune in... Buena Vista’s DVD set offers 16:9 transfers, 5.1 soundtracks, bloopers, commentaries and behind-the-scenes extras.

HANNAH MONTANA: MILEY SAYS GOODBYE? DVD (135 mins., 2009; Disney): Miley Cyrus and her TV alter-ego, Hannah Montana, make a big decision in this pivotal third-season finale of the popular Disney Channel series, making its debut on DVD before premiering on cable. Disney’s DVD includes the final six episodes from “Hannah Montana”’s Season 3 in full-screen transfers with 2.0 stereo sound, an alternate ending and other assorted bonus features.
THE PRIVATE LIVES OF PIPPA LEE DVD and Blu-Ray (**½, 98 mins., 2008, R; Screen Media): Robin Wright and Blake Lively both essay director Rebecca Miller’s heroine -- a bored housewife with a much-older husband (Alan Arkin) who seeks to branch out of the retirement community they’re living in. Wright gives a strong performance and she’s complimented splendidly by Lively, who effectively portrays the younger “wild child” of Pippa Lee’s past. The movie is disjointed and doesn’t quite reach a satisfying conclusion but a tremendous supporting cast (Monica Bellucci, Maria Bello, Julianne Moore, Winona Ryder, Shirley Knight and Keanu Reeves) and the conviction of its lead performances make the film worthwhile viewing. Screen Media has brought “The Private Lives of Pippa Lee” to both DVD and Blu-Ray, both presentations offering commentary with Wright and Miller, interviews, widescreen transfers (1080p Blu, 16:9 DVD) and 5.1 audio (DTS Master on Blu, Dolby Digital on DVD).        

ALICE Blu-Ray (184 mins., 2009; Lionsgate): Nick Willing, who wrote and directed the surprisingly agreeable Sci-Fi Channel mini-series “Tin Man,” stages another contemporary “reimagining” of a classic fairy tale with this modern spin on “Alice in Wonderland.” The three-hour production, starring Caterine Scorsone as a twentysomething Alice and Matt Frewer, Tim Curry, Harry Dean Stanton and Kathy Bates in assorted supporting roles, offers more offbeat characters and doesn’t work nearly as well as “Tin Man,” but genre fans might find it compelling just the same. Lionsgate’s Blu-Ray disc serves up a strong 1080p transfer with DTS Master Audio sound.

NURSE JACKIE Season 1 DVD and Blu-Ray (333 mins., 2009; Lionsgate): Caustic Showtime series with “Sopranos” vet Edie Falco as a nurse on the edge in a New York City hospital is a bit hard to swallow, but those who warm up to the sometimes outlandish material will appreciate Lionsgate’s matching DVD (16:9, 5.1) and Blu-Ray (1080p, DTS Master Audio) presentations, each with cast/crew commentaries and several behind-the-scenes featurettes.

CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY DVD and Blu-Ray (127 mins., 2009, R; Anchor Bay): Michael Moore’s latest “documentary” is a treatise on the ills of capitalism and corporate greed, but his politics are transparent to a degree where it was impossible for me to take his rambling, overlong 127-minute effort seriously. Not my cup of tea, but if you’re a devotee of the director, you’re sure to find ample amusement in the filmmaker’s latest opus, which Anchor Bay brings to DVD and Blu-Ray in excellent transfers (1080p on BD, 16:9 on DVD) with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound (TrueHD on Blu), ample bonus content and a digital copy on the Blu-Ray side.

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