3/30/10 Edition
Aisle Seat April Assault
It’s an exciting time for Blu-Ray owners as Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” theatrical edits and Disney’s “Toy Story” films have both arrived in the format in satisfying new high-definition packages.

New Line’s LORD OF THE RINGS box-set -- out next week -- sports “The Fellowship of the Ring,” “The Two Towers” and “Return of the King,” all in their original theatrical release versions, presented in VC-1 encoded 1080p transfers and DTS Master Audio soundtracks. Extras on the respective Blu-Ray platters are limited to trailers, while Special Features discs are near-identical reprisals of their prior theatrical cut DVD’s corresponding supplements. Finally, digital copy discs (in their own separate, three-platter Blu-Ray case) are also on-tap.

Going back over my original reviews of the pictures, I found portions of Jackson’s films thrilling, others a bit lethargic. Certainly I can respect Jackson’s cinematic take on Tolkien’s massive tome no matter what shortcomings I had with the pictures, and even if the films aren’t as close to my heart as they obviously are for other viewers, they certainly deserve a spot in any LOTR fans’ collection.

THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING (***, 178 mins., 2001, PG-13; New Line) launched the series in 2001, meeting with positive acclaim and solid commercial box-office.  After watching the first three hours of Jackson's series, I initially wrote at the time that I had some mixed feelings – though overall, I felt that I had seen one of the few films that had succeeded in establishing a true fantasy world and an epic quest that lures you in the way that great fantasy can.

As a standalone film, “Fellowship” is the kind of film that most genre fans loved, though even watching it a third time through on Blu-Ray, it's curious how repetitive the action is for a movie that goes on for three hours: the characters run into a monster or new supporting character, walk to another location, run into a monster or new supporting character, run to another venue, all the while staying ahead of the bad guys.

That's not to say that I wasn't entertained by the movie or enthralled by parts of it, but the novelty of its story didn’t seem as cinematically fresh as it could have been had the film been made years prior -- especially after so many other Tolkien-inspired cinematic journeys, from "Willow" to "Dragonslayer," "Star Wars" and others, had already covered similar ground of unlikely heroes, dastardly villains, and bizarre creatures scattered across unfamiliar terrain.

What I found most satisfying about “Fellowship” -- and the series as a whole, ultimately -- was the look of Jackson's film and the fact that he captured the essence of an epic adventure, a great quest, on-screen without getting sidetracked by the many supporting characters and subplots. When the characters travel through the mine of the dwarves, are pursued by a fire-spewing demon, and jump across a crumbling bridge, you truly feel as if you're in the middle of a great fantasy adventure. Where each turn could lead down a different path, each path leading to doom or discovery.

If I had to single out a general flaw in the first installment, it’d be the rather one-note tone of the film: the drama doesn't seem to have any peaks or valleys. It's all just kind of "there." Maybe it's because of the repetitive nature of the story, or that Elijah Wood's functional performance as Frodo doesn't quite convey the wide range of emotion inherent in the character and his journey. Even though we know the ending is going to be open-ended, Jackson doesn't quite handle it right: I could hear several "is that it?" responses from people sitting near me when the film faded to black and the credits began rolling in theaters when it first opened.
I also concluded my original review of “Fellowship” by writing: “Is this the next ‘Star Wars’? I think the jury is still out, but Jackson at least laid the foundation here to craft one of the fantasy genre's few epic cinematic works. Whether the remaining installments hit the dramatic heights that this one doesn't quite reach, or if it's all just a great-looking tease made unique only through its connection with the classic text, at least it seems apparent that it's going to be a journey worth taking.”

A journey, indeed, that would be followed by superior sequels, released in 2002 and 2003.

From a technical angle, “Fellowship” is the weakest of the LOTR films visually on Blu-Ray, though all three of the movies tend to share the same visual characteristics: some of the movie appears “flat” and lacks the kind of high-def detail you’d anticipate from an HD master, while other scenes do offer an appreciable upgrade on the DVD. The fluctuation in the transfer’s appearance leads me to believe that the extensive post-production process and integrating of live-action location work with CGI and green-screening caused some of the elements to be “smoothed over,” since sequences that don’t involve a heavy use of digital effects tend to be sharper than others. Overall, I think most fans are going to be pleased with the results, with only hard-core technophiles being the most concerned with the solid if not spectacular VC-1 encoded transfers. The DTS Master Audio track, meanwhile, is robust at every turn, offering a sublime mix of ambient sound, effects and Howard Shore’s score.

Extras aren’t overwhelming here, but you wouldn’t expect them to be since this set is a essentially a straight HD version of LOTR’s theatrical editions. On the Special Features DVD for “Fellowship,” you get a 16-minute featurette produced by book publishers Houghton-Mifflin, a half-hour special that aired on Fox, and a 45-minute Making Of that was broadcast on the Sci-Fi Channel. All of these are mostly promotional in nature but aren't devoid of interest, with background footage and interviews breaking up the monotony of seeing the same film clips rehashed over and over. A handful of shorter featurettes produced for the Lord of the Rings website are included, as are your full run of trailers and TV spots, an Enya music video, and a few other goodies.

THE TWO TOWERS (***, 179 mins., 2002, PG-13, New Line) continues Tolkien’s story and, overall, comes across as a superior fantasy adventure than its predecessor.

Since everyone knows the story by now, I'll spare you from a lengthy plot summary -- suffice to say this sequel picks up right from the end of “Fellowship” and is comprised of big action scenes, sprawling battles, and fascinating new creatures. Gollum is a tremendously articulated CGI character, and Andy Serkis' "performance" gives this second part of Peter Jackson's trilogy a boost of energy in all the scenes he appears. There are some amazing moments here, marked by the climactic tussle at Helm's Deep that will surely draw repeat viewing from action and FX enthusiasts for years to come. While I’ve never understood how Liv Tyler nabbed herself third billing on the credits (nabbing about a half-hour of total screen time between Parts 1 and 2 combined), the movie manages to deliver the goods most of the way.

I was entertained by the film on the level of an old-time fantasy adventure (not unlike a technically proficient updating of an old Ray Harryhausen Greek mythology flick), but a few problems still linger in Jackson's Tolkien adaptation. Howard Shore's score here is a disappointment compared to his work on "Fellowship," being repetitious and overbearing in a manner that his first work was not -- something that partially has to do with structure of the story itself. After a slow start, “The Two Towers” turns into an impressive battle epic with tons of visual effects, though after 30 minutes of the battle at Helm's Deep, I had seen enough. In its own way, the small-scale and much lower-budgeted "Army of Darkness" had a climactic battle sequence that was more fun to watch -- ditto for John McTiernan's underrated "The 13th Warrior," with its crackling action scenes.

Finally, Jackson and his screenwriters moved around elements of Tolkien's book, including what Paul MacLean had told me was an unnecessary extension to Frodo's run-in with the brother of Sean Bean's character from the original -- resulting in a pointless trip to a burned-down city near the end. There are also long stretches of the movie when the hobbits are hardly in the film, with Jackson taking the safe route of concentrating on Aragon's adventures instead of developing Frodo's internal struggle with the Ring.

That said, “The Two Towers” is certainly an exciting piece of escapist fare and there's still much to savor in the picture, with New Line’s Blu-Ray offering a superior HD presentation of the movie. As with “Fellowship” there still seems to be a bit of DNR and “flat” detail here and there, but generally this is an improvement on its predecessor technically. No such issues linger with another reference-quality DTS Master Audio track, which is consistently potent throughout.

The DVD special features are again mostly comprised of the self-promotional variety: featurettes culled from the Sci-Fi Channel and Lordoftherings.net primarily serve to promote the movie as much as show how it was made, while a music video of "Gollum's Song" and complete trailers and TV spots are also included, along with Sean Astin’s cute movie, "The Long and Short of It.”

Jackson concluded the series with the massive, overlong and Oscar-winning finale, RETURN OF THE KING (***, 200 mins., 2003, PG-13), which nicely wraps up the epic trilogy.

This particular installment, arguably the most satisfying of the three films, features some brilliant moments -- a marvelous climactic battle that surpasses anything in "The Two Towers," a chillingly effective confrontation with a giant spider, and a moving ending that sweetly concludes the adventure -- along with some of the same issues that have plagued each of Peter Jackson's films. Like its predecessors, the first hour of "Return of the King" takes forever to get going, and along the way there are a few too many "operatic" slow-motion shots that build to an endless series of false crescendos. What's even more curious is that Jackson cut all of Christopher Lee's scenes because of time (eventually restoring them to the Director’s Cut), and yet he retained an ultimately pointless subplot involving Borimir's father that feels like the sort of thing that should have been relegated to a DVD deleted scenes supplement. Jackson easily could have trimmed the movie by a good half-hour, and despite one unintentionally hilarious moment (when one character ends up on fire and runs off the edge of a castle), there's no denying the overall artistry involved in the production and its compelling central story. I also felt that Howard Shore's score was more balanced and introspective here than his work on "The Two Towers," with new themes nicely complimenting an adventure that didn't quite enthrall me as much as it did for other fans, yet remains an admirable stab at epic fantasy filmmaking few have attempted before.

Visually “Return of the King” is similar in appearance to the prior LOTR Blu-Rays, though if you had to rank all three, it would probably be at the top of the list overall, with the DTS Master Audio sound once again outstanding.

Extras on the standard-def disc are again okay -- short featurettes from the lordoftherings.net take an interesting look behind the scenes, while three longer Making Of segments include an excellent National Geographic special and "The Quest Fulfilled: A Director's Vision." And, again, the three Blu-Rays also include teasers and trailers in HD, plus three additional digital copy discs.

Overall this is a perfectly acceptable presentation of LOTR’s theatrical edits, and I would think fans who believe that the released versions are more palatable for viewing in one sitting than Jackson’s Director’s Cuts will certainly want to pick this release up. For others who’d prefer sitting this release out until the Extended editions hit Blu-Ray (with their corresponding, rich supplemental features), I can’t blame them for holding out either...but it might be a few years, until Jackson and Gulliermo Del Toro’s six-hour, two-movie expansion of “The Hobbit” (a story that doesn’t seem to cry out for that kind of bloated blockbuster treatment) is finally released, before we see that inevitable release happen.        

Fans of Disney/Pixar’s classic “Toy Story” films also have cause for celebration with breathtaking Blu-Ray editions of both TOY STORY (***½, 81 mins., 1995, G; Disney) and TOY STORY 2 each in gorgeous new AVC-encoded 1080p transfers with DTS Master Audio soundtracks and  corresponding DVD editions bundled within, plus all the supplements (for the most part) fans could’ve hoped for.

And has it really been 15 years since the release of the original “Toy Story”? This brilliant, and still fresh, entertainment for viewers of all ages will certainly go down as one of the most influential films of the last several decades. Its utilization of 3-D computer animation single-handedly ushered in the CGI era for modern “family films” (and virtually signaled the death knell for hand-drawn work), paving the way for the “Shreks” of the world to follow.

Still, the central story is what makes the film so captivating: there are more technically complex CGI movies being made today, but the warmth of the characters, the endless humor and the emotion of the original “Toy Story” remain unsurpassed in its genre, even 15 years later.

Disney’s 15th Anniversary “Toy Story” Blu-Ray edition not only boasts a flawless, colorful AVC encoded transfer and DTS Master Audio soundtrack, but also numerous supplements from the studio’s superlative (and out-of-print) “Toy Story: The Ultimate Toy Box” box set, as well as 10th anniversary edition DVD and a few new goodies of its own.

New to the Blu-Ray and DVD are several featurettes (“Buzz Lightyear Mission Logs,” “Paths to Pixar: Artists,” three “Studio Stories” segments, “Buzz Takes Manhattan” and “Black Friday: The Toy Story You Never Saw”), while “Classic DVD Bonus Features” include the original 1996 laserdisc audio commentary, a good if somewhat short (only 15 minutes) “Legacy of Toy Story” documentary including 2005 interviews with the principal filmmakers and talent like Tom Hanks and Tim Allen, while Pixar director John Lasseter appears in a “Filmmakers Reflect” featurette. Other extras include deleted scenes and multiple production featurettes, though some fans may want to hang on to their “Toy Box” DVD editions for a few additional extras (an isolated effects track, animation tests, text information) that didn’t make the cut here.

TOY STORY 2 (***½, 1999, 95 mins., G, Buena Vista) followed in 1999 and offered more outstanding family entertainment, big laughs, and the same winning characters that enchanted kids and adults alike.

Once again Disney has provided a knockout new AVC encoded 1080p transfer that’s certain to test the capabilities of your HDTV, with spectacular colors and not a flaw to be found anywhere. DTS Master Audio sound again compliments the disc, which includes, as with “Toy Story,” a handful of new special features (more “Studio Stories” interviews with Pixar imagineers, another “Buzz Lightyear Mission Log,” and a different “Toy Story 3" sneak peek), plus copious extras from the prior release (commentary, a short featurette, and assorted production featurettes from production to music and sound, publicity and a few deleted scenes).

Both platters include information on obtaining one free “Toy Story 3" ticket, while the standard-def DVD editions (also included in the package) will be available in stores, separately, in May.        

Also New on Blu-Ray

SHERLOCK HOLMES DVD and Blu-Ray (***, 128 mins., 2009, PG-13; Warner): Guy Ritchie’s entertaining take on Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary sleuth is undoubtedly a bit more boisterous and action-oriented than purists would like, with Holmes (another terrific performance from Robert Downey, Jr.) essentially serving as a Victorian era super-hero who aims to stop a villain practicing the black arts named Lord Blackwood who’s recently returned from the grave. Jude Law essays Dr. Watson, who’s nearly as skilled in fighting as his partner, while Rachel McAdams appears as Irene Adler, the woman with the key to Holmes’ heart and a few other tricks (or is it kicks?) up her sleeve. Fans of Conan Doyle’s writing and prior renditions of the 221B Baker Street detective may be put off by this free-wheeling “revisionist” adaptation of the iconic literary protagonist, and there are times when you’d wish Ritchie and writers Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham and Simon Kinberg would just slow, slow, slow the movie down -- does everything today have to be a litany of CGI action scenes paced like a coming attractions trailer? That said the film is rich in visual invention, Philippe Rousselot’s cinematography is fascinating to look at, the entire production first-class, anchored by Downey’s performance. Warner’s DVD of “Sherlock Holmes” looks just fine in its 16:9 (1.85) transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, but there are ample benefits to be gained from the VC-1 encoded Blu-Ray disc, which offers a robust DTS Master Audio soundtrack and more finely detailed HD transfer. Extras include a picture-in-picture track with Guy Ritchie discussing the film’s production via a host of on-screen featurettes, while a proper Making Of and digital copy (on the Blu-Ray only) round out a great-looking, though not especially comprehensive, release.

A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET Blu-Ray (**½, 1984, 92 mins., R; New Line/Warner): After striking gold with excellent high-def editions of “Clash of the Titans” and “The Neverending Story” a couple of weeks ago, Warner again hits the bullseye with a vivid, pleasing new Blu-Ray edition of the original 1984 Wes Craven fave “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” This first and almost-best of the Elm Street franchise (I prefer Ronny Yu’s over-the-top “Freddy Vs. Jason” brawl to this ‘80s staple, while Part 3 of the original “Nightmare” franchise -- “Dream Warriors” -- is easily the best of the “official” series) boasts Heather Lagenkamp, Johnny Depp, Robert Englund, John Saxon and the hilariously-awful Renee Blakely in an always-amusing, though not always terrifying, ‘80s chiller with laughs of both the intentional and unintended variety.

Issued to coincide with the upcoming release of the “Nightmare” (groan) remake, this Blu-Ray edition serves up a crisp, highly detailed new HD transfer that’s an appreciable improvement on the Canadian Blu-Ray import Alliance released up north a year or so ago. The remixed DTS Master Audio soundtrack is likewise impressive for a film of its age.

Extras are copious and are culled from the “Infinifilm” special edition New Line issued on DVD in 2006, including commentary with Craven, Lagenkamp, Saxon and cinematographer Jacques Haitkin, plus never-before-seen alternate endings, two documentaries, various Making Of featurettes, and a BD-exclusive trivia track. Highly recommended for all Freddy enthusiasts!

THE FOURTH KIND Blu-Ray (**, 98 mins., 2009, PG-13; Universal): Low-budget sci-fi thriller did okay business at the box-office last autumn, and stands to provide a few chills for sci-fi fans now on Blu-Ray.

Olatunde Osunsanmi’s film purports to be a mix of documentary film and “dramatic reenactments,” but it’s really just a load of hokum involving psychologist Dr. Abby Tyler (Milla Jovovoich) investigating the phenomena of alleged alien abductions via videotaped sessions with victims in remote Alaska. Even if the movie is hogwash, “The Fourth Kind” manages to send a few chills up your spine as it chronicles Dr. Tyler’s own abduction, but the movie -- even if it’s not explicitly violent -- is also relentlessly unpleasant, and Osunsanmi’s direction fails to provide the material with, say, the interesting stylistic touches Mark Pellington brought to another, better supernatural thriller, 2002's underrated “The Mothman Prophecies.”

Universal’s Blu-Ray package includes a pungent AVC-encoded 1080p transfer with an active, and very effective, DTS Master Audio soundtrack filled layered with sound effects. The Blu also includes deleted scenes and D-Box compatibility plus BD-Live and “Pocket Blu” applications.

FREE WILLY: ESCAPE FROM PIRATE’S COVE DVD and Blu-Ray (**½, 101 mins., 2010, PG; Warner): Predictable but surprisingly sweet, direct-to-video sequel to the “Free Willy” films is an in-name-only continuation of that ‘90s franchise, serving mainly here to launch the late “Crocodile Hunter”’s daughter, Bindi Irwin, as a young lead. Bindi plays a young Aussie girl who leaves Down Under to enjoy a summer with grandfather Beau Bridges near his old seaside park in South Africa; she discovers a baby killer whale stranded nearby, and subsequently helps to lead him back to the wild. The recent tragedy at Sea World involving the trainer who was killed by one of the park’s resident killer whales probably couldn’t have made the timing worse for “Escape From Pirate’s Cove,” but removed from the bad vibes of that situation, kids ought to enjoy this animal-centric, family-friendly tale with colorful cinematography -- they probably won’t even notice that the whales are mostly CGI special effects and animatronic creations, obviously the product of a reduced budget. Warner brings the latest “Free Willy” to DVD and Blu-Ray in a fine presentation with outtakes, deleted scenes, a video diary of the young actress, and Making Of featurettes. The DVD’s 16:9 (1.85) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack are fine, while the Blu-Ray includes a vibrant VC-1 encoded 1080p presentation with DTS Master Audio and a bonus disc sporting a DVD and digital copy.

IMAX UNDER THE SEA Blu-Ray (41 mins., 2010; Warner): Gorgeous Imax cinematography highlights this 41-minute chronicle of ocean life around Papua, New Guinea; Australia; and Indonesia, aimed at kids with the accent on some of the deep’s most colorful inhabitants. The footage is spectacular, particularly in Warner’s VC-1 encoded Blu-Ray disc, with Jim Carrey an ideal narrator, yet the fun dissipates when the subject turns to global warming, and a one-sided portrayal of the controversial topic that might have some viewers thinking they’ve been ambushed by the message. Warner’s Blu-Ray also includes a DTS Master Audio soundtrack and one Making Of featurette.       

FANTASTIC MR. FOX Blu-Ray (***, 87 mins., 2009, PG; Fox): Wes Anderson’s idiosyncratic filmmaking meets the imagination of Roald Dahl in this eclectic stop-motion production about a charismatic fox -- a former chicken killer turned newspaper columnist – who’s now the target of a trio of farmers who want to wipe him, and his clan, out. Anderson and Noah Baumbach scripted this free-wheeling big-screen realization of Dahl’s original story, utilizing Anderson’s typical eccentric touches to create a most offbeat, unique film. “Mr. Fox” might be just too verbose for young kids, but older children and especially adults ought to find the film quite enchanting, even if it’s hard to emotionally embrace. Fox’s Blu-Ray disc is a winner, the AVC encoded 1080p transfer and DTS Master Audio soundtrack each being superlative. The BD edition also includes several featurettes, a standard DVD copy, and a digital copy for portable media players.

VENGEANCE TRILOGY DVD (Tartan): Pan Chan-wook’s powerful, acclaimed meditations on vengeance have attracted legions of fans, all of whom ought to love this Palisades Tartan anthology of his trilogy: “Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance,” “Oldboy,” and “Lady Vengeance.” While there have been multiple releases of these films around the world, Palisades Tartan claims this box-set offers more supplements than any other package, and they’re most likely dead on given the scope of the goodies contained in the 8-disc package: Park Chan-Wook and actor Ryoo Seung-wan offering commentary on “Sympathy,” while three commentaries on “Oldboy,” deleted scenes, Multiple featurettes, multiple versions of “Lady Vengeance,” and other goodies adorn the discs. All films are offered, of course, in their original 16:9 (2.35) widescreen aspect ratios with 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital soundtracks. Enthusiastically recommended for aficionados of the series.

Also New on DVD
SCARECROW AND MRS. KING Season 1 DVD (994 mins., 1983-84; Warner): Aaah, the ‘80s. One of my favorite grade-school series, “Scarecrow and Mrs. King,” has at last hit DVD courtesy of Warner Home Video, offering its complete first season.

A lightweight slice of escapist entertainment that was likely influenced to some degree by the success of NBC’s “Remington Steele” (and one that would provide an influence on “True Lies” and similarly-themed “domestic” spy caper yarns), this CBS series followed Kate Jackson as single mom Amanda King, mom of two young boys in Washington D.C., who improbably gets swept up with secret agent Lee “Scarecrow” Stetson’s latest adventure -- thereby beginning a friendship with romantic overtones and a new profession for our seemingly everyday suburban mother.

Jackson and Boxleitner were both well-cast in this good-natured, upbeat show, which boasts a fantastic Arthur B. Rubinstein title theme (Rubinstein later won an Emmy for his scoring of the episode “We're Off to See the Wizard”), a good supporting cast (including the late Beverly Garland, Mel Stewart and Martha Smith), top-notch production values and a nice blend of action and romantic comedy. The series seldom broke out of its formula but, for what it was, “Scarecrow and Mrs. King” served up dependable, family-friendly fun.

Warner’s DVD includes the first season of “Scarecrow and Mrs. King” in excellent full-screen transfers and mono soundtracks, offering all 21 episodes in their original uncut broadcast presentations. Recommended!   

THE ABBOTT AND COSTELLO SHOW: Complete Series DVD (over 22 hours, 1952-53; E1 Entertainment): Abbott & Costello fans should rejoice thanks to this remastered, spectacular box-set from E1 Entertainment, offering the complete 52-episode “A&C Show” from the early ‘50s, which ran for years (if not decades) in syndication but has, until now, only been released in mediocre DVD editions.

E1's digitally restored and remastered transfers ought to be a revelation for A&C die-hards, particularly in comparison with what we’ve seen before. The silly, slapstick series is a bit of a mess at times, as our immortal duo reprise many of their vintage routines in a “situational comedy” format that’s nearly as loose as the plots of the episodes themselves. Yet in spite of its shortcomings (critics reportedly assailed the series back at the time of its production), this is just comedy gold for fans, and E1's presentation is outstanding.

In addition to the remastered transfers, the set sports a number of extras, including a 1978 network special (“Hey Abbott!”) hosted by Milton Berle; vintage Lou Costello family home movies; interviews with Chris and Paddy Costello; the 1948 short movie “10,000 Kids and a Cop”; four collectible postcards and a 44-page commemorative book with extensive behind-the-scenes information, including its production background, individual episode synopses, tough critical reception, and enduring legacy as one of the longest-running syndicated shows in history. Highly recommended!

AN EDUCATION DVD (***, 100 mins., 2009, PG-13; Sony): Fascinating and insightful character study from writer Nick Hornby (“About a Boy,” “High Fidelity”) about a young girl (Oscar nominee Carey Mulligan) in early ‘60s England whose parents (Alfred Molina, Cara Seymour) try and guide her onto the right track academically, but meet challenges when she falls for a slick, creepy con man (Peter Sarsgaard) whose romantic overtures are transparent yet interest our heroine at the same time. Mulligan’s wonderful performance anchors this terrifically performed tale (Sarsgaard has never been as slimy as he is here, and Molina is pitch-perfect as Mulligan’s domineering father) with a nice sense of time and place and an ending that gets it right -- a credit to director Lone Scherfig. Sony’s DVD includes commentary with Scherfig, Mulligan and Sarsgaard, plus deleted scenes and two featurettes. The 16:9 (2.35) transfer is superb and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound rounds out the disc.

New From Lionsgate

AFTER DARK HORRORFEST Volume 4 (Lionsgate): Lionsgate’s latest annual batch of indie horror films once again includes a little something for everyone. Here’s what’s on the docket for this year’s gruesome assortment of genre fare...

KILL THEORY DVD (85 mins., 2009, R): The Aisle Seat has always been a big fan of Agnes Bruckner, who’s once again saddled with starring in just an okay timekiller about a maniac who preys on seven college kids at a vacation home. Taryn Manning is also on-hand for eye candy in this Chris Moore-directed movie which sports a deleted scene, alternate openings, a featurette, 16:9 (1.78) widescreen transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital audio on DVD.

THE REEDS DVD (86 mins., 2009, R): One of the better efforts of Afterdark 2010, this British thriller follows a group of Londoners, partying on a boat, who run aground and into a confrontation with punks and a mysterious hooded man. Not much in the way of anything substantial here for extras (in fact, there are none at all), but the 16:9 (2.35) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack are both just fine.

DREAD DVD (94 mins., 2009, R): Grizzly, unpleasant adaptation of a Clive Barker short story with pretentious overtones on the part of writer-director Anthony DiBlasi, who chronicles a pair of college students who set out to make a documentary about what people dread (how about bad movies?), only to have to face them head on when their partner goes off the hinges. Nearly as bad as another recent Barker misfire, “The Midnight Meat Train,” though as with that turkey aficionados of the author might want to check it out just the same. Lionsgate’s DVD of “Dread” sports a talk with the author and filmmaker, plus deleted scenes, a Making Of, 16:9 (2.35) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack.        

THE GRAVES DVD (88 mins., 2009, R): Clare Grant and Jillian Murray might be easy on the eyes but they’re two of the only things keeping you interested while watching this forgettable tale of sisters who end up in an Arizona town where terrors await. Not a whole lot to recommend here; I’d send “The Graves” to your nearest video graveyard. Lionsgate’s DVD has the most extras of any of these new Afterdark Horrorfest releases, including two commentaries, a whole bunch of featurettes, the script, a music video, the trailer, 16:9 (1.85) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack.

HIDDEN [Skjult] DVD (95 mins., 2009, R): The most stylishly shot of the batch, “Hidden” is a well-directed Norwegian import about a guy who inherits his late mom’s haunted house and learns the hard way that the supernatural loves to stick around. Well photographed but slowly paced and with an ending that just don’t pay off, “Hidden” is a real mixed bag but worth a rental for curious horror fans. The DVD’s 16:9 (2.35) transfer is superb and the audio is presented with its original Norwegian dialogue with English (or Spanish) subtitles.

LAKE MUNGO DVD (104 mins., 2008, R): Aussie horror comes to the forefront here with this mock-umentary tale of a teenager who drowns but comes back to haunt her family, who in turn hire a psychic to piece together her double life. A nicely done little sleeper on the part of writer-director Joel Anderson, “Lake Mungo” is the best of the Afterdark Horrorfest entries, and is already slated to be remade here in the U.S. next year. Lionsgate’s DVD sports a fine 16:9 (1.78) transfer with 5.1 audio but only a “producer’s trailer” on tap for extras.

ZOMBIES OF MASS DESTRUCTION DVD (89 mins., 2009, R): Uneven and not very funny comic-zombie vehicle (doesn’t seem to be any other kind these days) about a conservative island overrun with the undead, needing a group of liberals to save them. It’s Obama-era gore with a bland cast under the direction of director Kevin Hammedani. Lionsgate’s DVD includes a Making Of plus a 16:9 (1.78) widescreen transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.   

THE FINAL DVD (99 mins., 2009, R): A group of high school outcasts plot their revenge by turning the tables on the popular kids in this interesting but not completely successful attempt at crafting a commentary on school violence and bullying with requisite exploitation horror elements, most of which only come to pass in the film’s final third. Lionsgate’s DVD offers commentary from the producer and director Joey Stewart, one deleted scene, a featurette, 16:9 (2.40) widescreen transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

MAD MEN Season 3 DVD and Blu-Ray (611 mins., 2009; Lionsgate): After a slow start things pick up quickly in the third season of the compulsively watchable, completely entertaining and brilliantly performed AMC series, which copped an Emmy for Best Dramatic Series two years running. Don Draper and friends also have never looked better in “Mad Men”’s third season, the Blu-Ray edition sporting vivid 1080p transfers with DTS Master Audio soundtracks and numerous extras, including commentaries, a documentary on Medgar Evers, a visual depiction of Tobacco advertising, a pictorial gallery of the March on Washington, an interactive gallery on 1963 inventions, and other goodies. The DVD sports the same extras with 16:9 (1.78) transfers and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks.   

New From IFC Films

I SELL THE DEAD Blu-Ray (**, 85 mins., 2009, R; IFC): A commendable, if only partially successful, attempt by writer-director Glenn McQuaid to make an atmospheric, outlandish period horror film for genre devotees, “I Sell the Dead” offers Dominic Monaghan as a British grave robber who tells his life story to a priest (Ron Perlman), recounting his run-ins with the undead, vampires, zombies and even alien babies! Angus Scrimm and Larry Fessenden, who also co-produced the picture, co-star in a fanciful tale that produces a few laughs but is too uneven and peculiar to really work with anyone except hard-core genre devotees. IFC’s Blu-Ray disc includes a fine 1080p transfer of this low-budget effort with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound and extras including commentary with McQuaid, another commentary with Monaghan and Fessenden, the trailer, and two featurettes.

PARIS Blu-Ray (***, 129 mins., 2007, R; IFC): Cédric Klapisch’s 2007 French drama is an ensemble piece centered around a Moulin Rouge dancer (Romain Duris) awaiting a heart transplant, his sister (Juliette Bionche) -- a single mom of three trying to make things work as a social worker – and the people they literally encounter in their day-to-day existence. Beautifully shot in 2.35 widescreen, this salute to the City of Light is a bit melodramatic but flows well through its two-plus hours with engaging performances and lots of emotion. IFC’s Blu-Ray disc sports a 1080p transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound and extras including deleted scenes, several featurettes, a table reading of the script, the trailer, and a look at the soundtrack.

BRIEF INTERVIEWS WITH HIDEOUS MEN Blu-Ray (**½, 80 mins., 2009, R; IFC): “The Office”’s amiable Jim Halpert, John Krasinski, made his directorial debut with this stagy, claustrophobic adaptation of David Foster Wallace’s book -- an ensemble film about a grad student (Julianne Nicholson) who interviews a variety of males with a penchant for failing to behave. Included in the superb cast are performers as eclectic as Saturday Night Live’s Will Arnett and Will Forte, plus Timothy Hutton, Christopher Meloni, Bobby Cannavale, Josh Charles, and Krasinksi himself. John Bailey’s 2.35 widescreen cinematography gives the production a major assist, and there are some laughs here, but even 80 minutes feels a bit much for the material on-hand. IFC’s Blu-Ray disc sports a fine 1080p transfer, 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack, interview with Krasinski, a behind the scenes featurette, TV spot, and the trailer.        

NEXT TIME: More of the latest reviews and more! 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!

Get Firefox!

Copyright 1997-2010 All Reviews, Site and Design by Andre Dursin