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3-D Triple Feaure

North American audiences unfamiliar with Herge’s animated hero “Tintin” may not have known what to make of THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN (***, 106 mins., 2011, PG; Paramount), Steven Spielberg’s “performance capture” CGI feature that’s high on action and decidedly light on emotional, heart-tugging moments viewers have come to expect from the filmmaker.

Deftly animated by Peter Jackson’s WETA company, “The Adventures of Tintin” adapts a pair of Herge’s original stories, following the intrepid young journalist Tintin and his faithful canine companion, Snowy, on a globe-trotting adventure to find the lost treasure of Sir Francis Haddock. Along the way, Tintin runs into the sauced, current-day Captain Haddock, whose lineage suggests that he may be able to unlock the “Secret of the Unicorn” and the whereabouts of hidden loot that a vile villain (voiced by Daniel Craig) is also in search of.

Admittedly, I haven’t been crazy about any of these CGI animated motion-capture features, especially in terms of their poor articulation of human emotion and movement. “Tintin,” at least, fares better than Robert Zemeckis’ efforts, mainly because Weta’s animation adheres more closely to the cartoon realm of Herges’ source material as opposed to trying to make the overall visual appearance realistic (that said, the adorable Snowy is more effective than Tintin himself, who still suffers from a bit of the “zombie” look that characterized Zemeckis’ CGI characters).

The film itself is fun – lightweight, fast-moving and beautifully designed – with kids likely to eat up the colorful visuals. In 3-D, the movie immerses the viewer even further, though there’s not much in the way of “pop up” visual effects – just an enhanced sense of depth that the format affords viewers with 3-D set-ups at home.

Though the film is playful – almost to a fault – it’s also something of a one-trick pony. Most of Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish’s script is comprised of chase scenes – on the sea, in the air, in the desert, through the streets of a 1930s Morocco – which, while fitting the source material, doesn’t make for particularly compelling drama. There’s no emotion generated by the story, no real depth in its characterizations – it is, pure and simply, a comic strip come to life, and I can see some viewers being worn out by its repetitive nature (which also does no favors to John Williams’ hard-working, though mostly unmemorable, score, which never gets a chance to do anything more than support the frantic goings-on).

Paramount’s Blu-Ray includes a lovely AVC encoded 1080p transfer with an engaging DTS MA soundtrack – as you’d expect from a digitally rendered animated feature, there are no faults to be found in the a/v presentation on either end. Extras are comprised of an entertaining 96-minute assortment of Laurent Bouzereau featurettes, which document the production from Spielberg’s first knowledge of the material (after reading French reviews of “Raiders of the Lost Ark”) to his association with producer Peter Jackson. There’s a brief segment on Williams’ music with the composer noting that he scored the film in its early animated form, as well as lots of behind-the-scenes footage of actors Jamie Bell (Tintin) and Andy Serkis (Haddock) at work on the mo-cap stage.

While “Tintin”’s universe was designed for 3-D, Tarsem Singh’s IMMORTALS (**½, 109 mins., 2011, R; Fox) wasn’t – the movie, like many live-action films that have been released in the format lately, was a post-production conversion. While a few of the movie’s 3-D shots are effective, most of it is flat and drab, causing the picture’s already-dim cinematography to be even darker and blurrier with glasses on. The movie itself is a mess – but somehow I found it to be a guilty pleasure, at least until the bottom dropped out in the final 15 minutes.

Yet another revisionist fantasy take on Greek mythology, “Immortals” plunders “300" and the remake of “Clash of the Titans” as it follows the vile King Hyperion (a growling Mickey Rourke) and his relentless pursuit of a golden bow that would give him the power of the Gods. Mere mortal Theseus (Henry Cavill, the new Superman) stands in his way after his mother and fellow villagers are brutally attacked by Hyperion while the latter attempts to get his hands on the bow by way of a gorgeous oracle (the luminous Freida Pinto).

The story of “Immortals” doesn’t come together at all. The script, credited to brothers Charles and Vilas Parapanides, might have made more sense on the printed page than it does in Tarsem’s trademark, hyper-stylized picture, which spends too long on Hyperion’s brutal behavior and not enough on the Gods who watch with a vested interest in the outcome of the characters. Zeus tells his fellow immortals not to intervene, but once the Titans (not the Kraken but rather a group of charcoal-colored hooligans stuck in Pandora’s box) get out, all bets are off – though this climactic battle-for-the-planet turns out to be a poorly-established confrontation with too much of the action set in dank, claustrophobic corridors.

Capped by a particularly limp ending and no real development of its premise, “Immortals” is a misfire – but at least it’s a compelling, odd, weird mess of a film with outlandish costumes by Eiko Ishioka and some occasionally stirring fight sequences. Even if the blood and CGI decapitations look straight out of a video game, Tarsem knows how to make even the ugliest man-to-man combat look like a ballet, and it’s in those quick, captivating moments when “Immortals” is most compelling (and whenever Pinto is on-screen – the actress has never looked more ravishing than she does here).

Fox’s 3-D Blu-Ray includes a fine rendering of the movie’s 3-D theatrical experience, though as I wrote above, there’s little “pop” in the 3-D and I preferred the 2-D version for its higher detail and brighter rendering of the film’s cinematography (both versions are included here, along with a digital copy). The DTS MA soundtrack is potent and packed with surround information, while extras include two deleted endings (the portions involving Pinto should’ve been included in the final cut), an alternate beginning, deleted scenes and fluffy behind-the-scenes featurettes.

The most effective overall use of 3-D, though, is on-hand in HUGO (***½, 126 mins., 2011, PG), Martin Scorsese’s deservedly celebrated – though costly – adaptation of Brian Selznick’s “The Invention of Hugo Cabaret.” I watched the film a little too late at night, and in 2-D, a few weeks ago, and felt like I needed to give it another chance in its native 3-D format (and with a fresher set of eyes): turns out I enjoyed the picture much more, and Scorsese’s enchanting visuals become all the more impressive when viewed in 3-D.

Scorsese’s first attempt at making a children’s movie after a career spent turning out adult fare, “Hugo” likely could’ve benefitted from a more nuanced actor than Sacha Baron Cohen playing the train inspector (you wonder if producer Johnny Depp originally eyed that role), yet there are countless magical moments in its chronicle of a Parisian orphan (Asa Butterfield) trying to find his place in the world during the early ‘30s after losing his father (Jude Law) in a fire. It’s a paean to movie making, Méliès, the city of Paris and the magic of the everyday world all at once, and Scorsese brings viewers some beautiful sights of Paris, and of the early days of cinema, repurposed for 3-D (and looking all the more impressive because of it). Although the leisurely pacing may put off certain younger viewers for whom the film was intended (something that would explain the film’s mediocre box-office receipts), I didn’t find there to be a wasted moment on my second view of the film, with Scorsese unfolding the story with one surprise after another.

Shot in 3-D, “Hugo” is the first film I’ve seen that truly benefits from exhibition in the third-dimension. It’s not that Scorsese has included all kinds of gimmicky “pop out” effects (though there are a few brief instances of those) – more that all of his visuals, and Robert Richardson’s cinematography, utilize 3-D to layer the surroundings. Nearly every shot has some type of depth to it, enhancing the overall viewer “immersion factor” so to speak, and Paramount’s 3-D BD transfer is absolutely superb (showing some signs of “ghosting” only in close-ups of the actors).

Aisle Seat Pick of the Week

THE DESCENDANTS (***½, 119 mins., 2011, R; Fox): Alexander Payne's latest is a beautifully stated, eloquently acted family drama with wry dashes of humor. George Clooney (who, for me, should’ve won the Oscar last month) gives one of his best performances as Matt King, a Hawaiian resident whose wife lies in a coma, dying, after a boating accident; after he tells his two young daughters about what transpired, he also finds out that she’s been less than faithful to him. Matt’s ensuing journey to uncover the truth about his wife’s infidelity – and his relationship with his daughters (Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller) – is filled with heartbreak and insight, in a superb film adapted from Kaui Hart Hemmings’ book.

Phedon Papamichaels' gorgeous cinematography of the Hawaiian locales, the poignant score and best of all, great performances from Clooney and Woodley (marvelous as his eldest daughter) bring home an understandably bittersweet tale of a father trying to figure out who his wife really was. There's an enormous amount of humanity in the film along with the type of offbeat (though subtle) humor Payne brought to “Sideways,” and one of the things I liked best about the film was how the story played with typical conventions: in most movies like this, Clooney’s protagonist would be the “outsider” in his relationship with his girls, and most of the picture would be spent with him trying to win them over and earn their respect. Here, however, the tables are turned: Matt already has the love of his daughters (despite not being home enough), and he acts on his wife’s behalf to get them to reconcile their feelings for her infidelity (while also wrestling with his own conflicting emotions). It’s an interesting switch from the norm and just one of many ways in which “The Descendants” was one of last year’s best films.

Fox’s Blu-Ray looks dynamic; the 1080p transfer is just perfect, and the DTS MA sound perfectly functional for the material. For extras, Payne has included a number of deleted scenes with introductions from the director and several behind the scenes featurettes; music videos; a silent film, “The World Parade-Hawaii”; a conversation with Clooney and Payne; and a DVD and digital copy.

Also New on Blu-Ray and DVD

DISCLOSURE Blu-Ray (***, 131 mins., 1994, R; Warner)
STRIPTEASE Blu-Ray (**, 117 mins., 1996, Unrated; Warner): Long before her current off-screen woes, Demi Moore was one of the leading ladies of the ‘90s, even if her involvement in the box-office juggernaut that was “Ghost” lead to a series of box-office disappointments (and that being said, I’ve always liked “The Scarlet Letter” and Ridley Scott’s “G.I. Jane”).

Warner has dusted off a couple of Moore’s vehicles for Blu-Ray this month, including one of her bigger successes: co-starring with Michael Douglas in Barry Levinson’s slick 1994 adaptation of Michael Crichton’s bestseller “Disclosure.”

Though not nearly as fondly remembered as Douglas’ other “erotic thrillers” (“Fatal Attraction” and “Basic Instinct”), “Disclosure” is a solid film that follows Seattle tech exec Douglas through one very bad day: after learning that he’s been passed over for a promotion, Douglas finds out that one of his former flames (Moore) is now his boss. To make matters worse, what Douglas believes will be just a drink with his former boss turns into a near-rape with Moore being the aggressor – the subsequent fallout of which, naturally, pins the blame on Douglas for what happened.

Though “Disclosure” was naturally sold on its provocative sexual content, the latter comprises just one relatively short sequence in a film that mostly centers around the corporate merger going on at Douglas’ employers and new, up-and-coming virtual reality technology that – predictably – firmly stamps the film as a product of its era (especially with lines like “could you please charge my cellular?”). Fortunately, Paul Attanasio was wise to pay attention to character interplay and not use the film strictly as a sounding board for a debate on sexual harassment, seeing as the thriller aspects of the material work well enough to keep you involved. Tony Peirce-Roberts’ widesceen lensing makes it essential to see the film rendered in scope, and Warner’s no-frills AVC-encoded 1080p Blu-Ray transfer does the trick. The DTS MA sound is mostly subdued as you’d anticipate, underscored with one of composer Ennio Morricone’s lesser outings. The original trailer (in 4:3) is the only extra.

Moore hoped that controversy would sell her 1996 turn in STRIPTEASE, a film from writer/director Andrew Bergman, whose infrequent directorial outings sometimes worked (“So Fine,” “The Freshman”) and sometimes didn’t (“Honeymoon in Vegas,” “Isn’t She Great,” “It Could Happen To You”).

Bergman’s adaptation of Carl Hiaasen’s book is a tease alright – a tedious film that’s not really funny, erotic or particularly thrilling. Moore does give it her all –  and exposes both of her enhanced assets – as a single mom who becomes a stripper in order to get custody back of her daughter. Burt Reynolds, Armand Assante, Ving Rhames and Robert Patrick co-starred in a film that generated a lot of buzz at the time of its summer ‘96 release but, understandably, not much in the way of box-office revenues after its opening weekend.

Warner’s Blu-Ray again looks quite good and includes the trailer, along with a DTS MA soundtrack.

TINKER TAILOR SOLIDER SPY Blu-Ray (324 mins., 1979; Acorn): Acorn’s Blu-Ray edition of this rightly-celebrated British mini-series offers a pleasing 4:3 formatted 1080p transfer along with bonus content not included on their earlier DVD release. This superlative production offers Alec Guinness in a tremendous turn as George Smiley, John LeCarre’s anti-Bond who’s called out of retirement to find a Russian mole who’s infiltrated their way into the British secret service. With strong performances turned in by Guinness, Ian Bannen and Ian Richardson among others, this late ‘70s mini-series is taut and impressively directed – leisurely paced at times but more and more compelling as it rolls along.

Issued undoubtedly to coincide with the recent movie version’s video release, Acorn’s Blu-Ray includes a superb 1080p transfer plus BD-exclusive extras including an interview with director John Irvin; 11 minutes of deleted scenes; production notes and the previously-released interview with LeCarre. Highly recommended!

Also new from Acorn this month is the third volume of episodes from AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT with David Suschet as Christie’s irrepressible Belgian sleuth. Presented again in their original UK broadcast order, the three-disc set includes The Mysterious Affair at Styles; How Does Your Garden Grow?; The Million Dollar Bond Robbery; The Plymouth Express; Wasps’ Nest; The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor; The Double Clue; The Mystery of the Spanish Chest; The Theft of the Royal Ruby; The Affair at the Victory Ball; and The Mystery of Hunters’ Lodge. All the 4:3 formatted 1080p transfers look just fine, and another serving of Poirot’s mysteries are due out again from Acorn next month. Can’t wait!       

Speaking of that remake, Universal’s Blu-Ray of TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY (***, 128 mins., 2011, R) also hits stores this month. The English language debut of “Let The Right One In” director Tomas Alfredson is a visually accomplished though predictably convoluted distillation of Le Carre’s book – what flows so leisurely in the ‘70s TV mini-series is packed into a two-hour feature running time here that makes for an at-times confounding narrative. At times I felt like I needed a road map to keep score of the various characters – the same sentiment I had while watching Fred Schepisi’s muddled filming of LeCarre’s “The Russia House” (thank goodness for Jerry Goldsmith’s score, one of the only aspects of the film that got me through it).

What does work well in the picture are the performances, with Gary Oldman leading the way as George Smiley and a brilliant ensemble (Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Ciaran Hinds, John Hurt, Toby Jones) supporting him. Alfredson’s widescreen lensing is excellent and both that, and the cast, are enough to help overcome the haphazard plotting – something that makes familiarity with either the book or the prior Alec Guinness adaptation a definite plus.

Universal’s Blu-Ray includes interviews with the cast along with co-writer Peter Straughan, who adapted LeCarre’s book with Bridget O’Connor. Deleted scenes and a couple of behind-the-scenes featurettes are also included along with a DVD and digital copy/Ultraviolet versions.

WIZARDS Blu-Ray (**½, 81 mins., 1977, PG; Fox): One of Ralph Bakshi’s more entertaining (if typically uneven) features was released on Blu-Ray in the UK last year. Fox’s domestic Special Edition appears to have been housed from a similar source, with the AVC encoded 1080p transfer looking as good as the source animation (a hybrid of Bakshi’s hand-drawn animation and rotoscoping) allows. Andrew Belling’s fine score is on-hand in a serviceable DTS MA 5.1 soundtrack with extras including Bakshi’s commentary, a profile of the director, a stills gallery and the original trailer (if I recall, the UK release also had an isolated score or score/effects track). The Digibook package includes liner notes written by the director along with color stills.

STRIP NUDE FOR YOUR KILLER Blu-Ray (98 mins., 1975; Blue Underground): Wild and woolly Italian “giallo” from director Andrea Bianchi has a leather-clad killer wearing a motorcycle helmet murdering beautiful models – with a failed abortion from years prior perhaps at the center of his (or her) motivation. A usual number of suspects includes the lovely Edwige Fenech and Femi Benussi, the latter of whom takes off her clothes in a number of sequences deftly captured in full widescreen by Franco Delli Colli. Giallo fans are sure to get a kick out of this 1975 Italian import, which Blue Underground has released in one of their typically fine Blu-Ray editions: the AVC encoded 1080p transfer vividly captures the full 2.35 frame with extras including trailers, interviews with actors Solvi Stubing and co-writer Massimo Falisatti, and a full stills gallery.

SPLINTERED Blu-Ray/DVD (**½, 85 mins., 2011, Not Rated; Well Go): Simeon Halligan’s feature debut is a notch above the norm for an indie horror flick. Holly Weston is one of several British teens who venture into the wilds of Wales and come across a beastly mongrel (Stephen Martin Walters) who stalks them in a well-done, low-budget British chiller heavy on atmosphere with references to classic werewolf films that buffs might enjoy. “Splintered” isn’t outstanding but it’s moderately entertaining and Halligan has done a better than serviceable job with the budget at hand. Well Go USA’s Blu-Ray includes deleted scenes, a featurette and trailers.           

TV on Video

THE KILLING Season 1 Blu-Ray (587 mins., 2011; Fox): Leisurely paced AMC original series following the murder of a young woman – the fallout involving her family and the investigation into her death – earned critical kudos last year and solid viewership, though most gave a thumbs-down to its inconclusive season finale (something the show’s creators say will absolutely be resolved when “The Killing”’s second season starts in April). Fox’s Blu-Ray and DVD releases of “The Killing” include its complete 13-episode first season with solid extras including an extended season finale; commentary on the pilot; deleted scenes; a gag reel; featurette; and commentary on the finale. The 16:9 (1.78) DVD transfers are fine but the 1080p AVC encoded Blu-Ray transfers are, predictably, even better, complimented by DTS MA audio.

Also new from Fox is the complete first season of BREAKOUT KINGS (572 Mins., 2011), an A&E original series that’s about to return for its second year on cable. Fox’s four-disc DVD set includes 13 episodes in 16:9 transfers and 5.1 soundtracks with extras including three featurettes, commentaries and deleted scenes.        

THAT ‘70s SHOW: SEASON 1 Blu-Ray (aprx. 10 hours; Mill Creek): Mill Creek’s first Blu-Ray TV release is a keeper: a high-def remastering of the popular Fox sitcom ‘That ‘70s Show,’ which lasted some eight seasons and launched the careers of Ashton Kutcher, Topher Grace, and Mila Kunis. Bonnie Turner and Terry Turner had notched a number of successes on TV and on the big screen thanks to shows like “3rd Rock From the Sun,” and “That ‘70s Show” turned out to be one of their more durable accomplishments: a heartwarming and often funny trip back in time, chronicling the lives of a group of Wisconsin high school students. Mill Creek’s 1080p transfers (1.78) are all just fine; DTS MA audio and extras from its prior DVD release are included, among them a trivia challenge; bumpers and commercials for season one; favorite moments from the cast; and brand-new BD-exclusive extras, including a “Groovy Green Screen” split-screen comparison and sneak peek at Season 2.

JANE BY DESIGN Volume 1 DVD (435 mins., 2011; Disney): Erica Dasher stars as a high school student who earns an internship at Donovan Decca, a fashion house where she becomes an assistant to a top executive (Andie MacDowell) after a case of mistaken identity. 10 episodes comprise this Buena Vista DVD release from “Jane By Design”’s first season which aired to decent ratings on ABC Family last year. The 16:9 (1.78) transfers are fine, as are the 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks.

New Manufactured-on-Demand Titles

A host of new titles are on tap from both MGM and Warner’s respective MOD programs this month. Here’s a look at MGM’s latest:

NUMBER ONE WITH A BULLET (100 mins., 1987, R): One of Cannon’s last gasps is a typical “buddy movie” with Robert Carradine and Billy Dee Williams as cops trying to expose a cover-up in their own department. Valerie Bertinelli, Peter Graves and Doris Roberts co-star in Jack Smight’s agreeable time-killer that was co-written by Jim Belushi. MGM’s DVD includes a 16:9 transfer.

SUMMER HEAT (80 mins., 1987, R): Odd, slight drama stars Lori Singer as the young wife of a tobacco farmer who falls in love with a hired hand (Anthony Edwards). This 1987 Atlantic Entertainment production offers a 16:9 transfer and a score by Richard Stone with songs supervised by future “adult contemporary” crooner Steve Tyrell.

SINFUL DAVEY (95 mins., 1969, R): John Huston’s answer to “Tom Jones” was this late ‘60s misfire that’s a definite curio for movie buffs, starring John Hurt as a young Scotsman futilely trying to live in his highwayman-father’s footsteps. Pamela Franklin, Nigel Davenport and Robert Morley headline a great supporting cast in this rarely-screened UA release with a score by Ken Thorne. MGM’s DVD includes a 16:9 (2.35) transfer.           

HELL BOATS (96 mins., 1970, PG-13): James Franciscus starred in this forgettable WWII programmer directed by Paul Wendkos. MGM’s DVD includes a 16:9 (1.85) transfer.

New from the Warner Archives, meanwhile, are a pair of Jim Brown starring vehicles from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.

TICK...TICK...TICK... (97 mins., G) will be the one most remembered by movie buffs: a racially charged southern drama about a black sheriff (Brown) trying to curtail tensions among white and black residents with only his ousted predecessor (George Kennedy) trying to support him. Fredric March in one of his final performances co-stars as the town mayor in Ralph Nelson’s 1970 film, which has become part of the Warner Archives in a satisfying 16:9 (2.40) transfer that captures the movie’s essential wide scope framing.

A fast exploitation action thriller, THE SLAMS (91 mins., R) is a 1973 programmer from producer Gene Corman and director Jonathan Kaplan, starring Brown as a con who knows the whereabouts of a fortune in stolen mob cash but has to get out of prison – and avoid assorted hoods on the outside who want a piece of the action – in order to claim it. Typical black-exploitation fare from MGM, Warner’s Archive release includes a perfectly acceptable 16:9 (1.85) transfer.


EAGLEHEART DVD (132 mins., 2011; Warner): Slapdash Chris Elliott comedy, airing on the Cartoon Network’s “Adult Swim” block, hits DVD with ample special features: 20 commentary tracks, deleted scenes/outtakes, scenes from a never aired pilot with Conan O’Brien appearing, a NY Comic Con panel, promos and other goodies. The 16:9 transfers and 5.1 soundtracks are fine, but the material is only sporadically funny – thankfully, each episode runs under 15 minutes, but even as an Elliott fan, I can’t give “Eagleheart” much more than a mild recommendation.

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO DVD (**, 158 mins., R, 2011; Sony): I’m not a huge fan of the source material, but credit David Fincher for helming a good-looking, stylish picture with Jeff Cronenweth cinematography that makes you feel cold simply watching its snow-covered Swedish settings. All the performances are first rate as well in this Steven Zaillian-scripted adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s international bestsellers...but the material is repellent in places, no matter how “high quality” the production happens to be, and there's no emotional connection between the characters. In short, fans will be compelled; others, at least some of them (myself included), mystified as to the appeal of the subject matter. Sony’s DVD includes a commentary by Fincher, a 16:9 transfer and 5.1 soundtrack. I believe the Blu-Ray has more in the way of special features, but you’ll have to check that out for yourselves!

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