3/31/09 Edition
007 and The Dark Knight Return to Blu-ray

If you’re a fan of James Bond or the Caped Crusader from Gotham City, it’s been a good month thanks to several excellent Blu-Ray releases that capture both heroes in spiffy high-definition packages.

For 007 fans you have your pick of the most recent Bond film, “Quantum of Solace” (reviewed below), along with a Special Collector’s Edition of the “bastard” Bond adventure NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN (**½, 135 mins., 1983, PG; Fox).

Produced independently, outside the Eon circle by Kevin McClory (who had won a suit over the ownership of “Thunderball” decades prior) and Jack Schwartzman, “Never Say Never Again” brought Sean Connery back as an older, wiser Bond in a year that also found Roger Moore engaging in one of his biggest 007 box-office hits, “Octopussy.”

Though this remake of “Thunderball” was a financial success (albeit not quite as much of a smash as “Octopussy,” which opened several months prior), it’s a messy, dated film that gets most of its mileage out of Connery’s laid back, engaging performance. The star’s return to the role that launched his career was almost certainly borne out of monetary considerations, but that aside, Connery gives more of an interesting performance here than he did in his later Eon offerings, and director Irvin Kershner (“Empire Strikes Back”) wisely relied on his star to carry the picture.

Story wise, credited writer Lorenzo Semple’s script finds Bond called back into action to locate a pair of stolen nuclear warheads and going head to head with a pair of SPECTRE agents, including smooth operator Maximilian Largo and henchwoman Fatima Blush. It’s basically a re-run of “Thunderball” with some effective humor added into the mix, such as 007’s early visit to a health clinic and Rowan Atkinson in an early role as a incompetent, bumbling government agent assigned to the case.

Other elements in “Never Say Never Again” are a real mixed bag: Klaus Maria Brandauer serves up a solid enough Largo, Barbara Carrera has fun as femme fatale Fatima, but Kim Basinger is wooden as the female lead and Max Von Sydow phones in what amounts to a cameo as Blofeld. Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais were brought in (uncredited) to punch up Semple’s script with a good amount of humor, but while their additions enhanced the film’s early portions, neither they nor Kershner could do anything to improve upon the movie’s tedious underwater climax, which the director even confesses to being bored while shooting it!

Some of the film’s various set-pieces work in spite of their dated aspects (such as Connery’s “video game duel” with Brandauer), while others come across as lackluster thanks to mediocre special effects (Connery on a jetpack?). Michel Legrand’s erratic, controversial score is another oddity: though a stark departure from John Barry’s classic Eon scores, some of Legrand’s jazzy compositions function quite well in the picture (it didn’t help its reputation that arguably the score’s finest cue -- the horseback chase -- was left off the soundtrack album), but its often inappropriate spotting -- especially Lani Hall’s title theme being laid over the front credits -- was rightly regarded as a disaster even by the writers.

Theatrically released in the U.S. by Warner Bros., “Never Say Never Again” isn’t nearly as satisfying now as it was for most critics back when it first debuted (Connery, understandably, generated an enormous amount of goodwill for the project), but for Bond fans it’s nevertheless a fascinating project for its historical background and Connery’s involvement. After being distributed by Warners for years, the film (and its rights) were purchased by MGM for a king’s ransom in the late ‘90s, thereby ending any future attempts by McClory or Schwartzman’s successors to produce yet another remake.

MGM’s first DVD of “NSNA” was a barebones package offering only the theatrical trailer, and for while it looked like that’s all Bond fans would get -- especially considering the film’s rocky history and Eon’s penchant for wanting to avoid controversy in their DVD supplements.

Surprisingly, MGM and Fox have served up a bona-fide Special Edition of “Never Say Never” with commentary from director Irvin Kershner and Bond authority Stephen Jay Rubin, plus three new featurettes, totaling about 30-40 minutes altogether. Among the interviewees are Kershner, Rubin, Talia Shire (late producer Jack Schwartzman's wife), Barbara Carrera, Pamela Salem, Dick Clement, Ian La Frenais, Valerie Leon and Lorenzo Semple among others.

The featurettes manage to be candid but not particularly in-depth at the same time. Kershner does tell you how much of a mess the movie was, how bad the script was, how Clement and La Frenais came in to rewrite the film (unfortunately not early enough, as he puts it), Kim Basinger being uncomfortable on the set (taking direction from her then-husband hair dresser, who went so far as to veto certain takes based on what she looked like!), and how the film likely would've been shut down if Sean Connery hadn't held it together. As I wrote earlier, he also admits to being "bored" shooting the movie’s robotic, bland underwater climax, admitting they never knew how to end it and being completely worn out by shooting men running around carrying guns.

The featurette also raises the issue of Jack Schwartzman's constant legal battles with Eon, which resulted in the producer often being away from the day-to-day shooting, yet the subject isn’t profiled in much detail. And there's also the admission from Clement and La Frenais that the opening sequence was one of the "worst" examples of post-production editing in history.

All of this is fascinating for Bond fans, yet it’s hard not to overlook the various omissions: there's no dissection of the music, no discussion on what Eon wouldn't let them do here in terms of utilizing their series’ trademarks, no real talk about Connery and Len Deighton’s “Warhead” script, and so forth. Carrera (who still looks terrific) and the other actors seem remarkably sympathetic towards the problematic shoot (though even Carrera admits that Basinger was miserable on the set), but there should have been even more details provided.

The biggest disappointment is the commentary. I haven't listened to it all, but from what I've sampled it's a real letdown, with Kershner basically providing an endless "play by play" of what's happening on-screen. Rubin accompanies him, and stops here and there to ask questions, but he should've done it more often, with the occasional gap of silence making you surmise that portions of it were edited out.

Faring better, thankfully, is the transfer. The Blu-Ray looks exemplary, offering a crisp, detailed and thankfully not over-processed (DNR-ridden) AVC presentation. The print shows the occasional "wear ‘n tear," but it looks good, and the trailer, photo gallery and fine DTS Master Audio soundtrack compliment the BD release (a DVD edition is also available). Oddly, just like the prior DVD, MGM's logo is nowhere to be found on the packaging or the disc itself, with the movie now opening with the Orion (!) logo.

NSNA's Special Edition is being released to coincide with the home video debut of the most recent 007 outing, QUANTUM OF SOLACE (**½, 106 mins., 2008, PG-13; MGM/Fox).

This second go-around for Daniel Craig following the commercial and critical triumph of “Casino Royale” is a movie I still have mixed feelings about: on the one hand, the movie is an effectively paced slice of escapist entertainment, with potent action scenes that, if not always well-choreographed, at least sustain your interest from beginning to end. On the other, the film, much like its predecessor, continues to veer so far away from the traditional aspects of the Bond franchise that you wonder how much of its soul the series has lost in the process.

The story, credited to Paul Haggis and series vets Robert Wade and Neil Purvis, is distinguished mainly in being the first Bond script that’s a direct sequel to its predecessor: in fact, the movie picks up literally minutes after the end of “Casino Royale,” with Bond having nabbed “Mr. White” and working with M to uncover the details of the mysterious, SPECTRE-like “Quantum Organisation.” What follows is a long succession of action scenes minus a lot of wit, humor, or romance (though Olga Kurylenko looks the part, I doubt most fans will recall her role as one of the series’ more memorable “Bond girls” down the line). What’s more, Mathieu Amalric continues the Craig era’s line of weak European bad guys, and once you find out the details of the Quantum league’s plot, it’s not very interesting -- nor is the film’s silly climax.

Director Marc Forster, best known for character dramas like “Monster’s Ball” and “Finding Neverland,” seemed like an odd choice to helm “Quantum of Solace,” particularly given this project’s reliance on action as opposed to character. The finished movie moves at a breakneck pace, but it’s nearly too frenetic at times, with Bond serving as a brute instead of the suave secret agent we know him to be. Certainly the movie lacks the balance that Martin Campbell brought to its predecessor, with the cold, clinical tone and lack of humor being a turnoff. We know how much of an influence “The Bourne Identity” and its sequels have been on Craig’s two films, but does the series need to excise so many of its traditional aspects in making it “grittier” for today’s audiences? Hopefully now with the “Casino” storyline having been concluded, the series can move forward and back a little bit towards its origins, which the end of the picture (with the gun barrel logo concluding the story as opposed to opening it) hints at.

“Quantum of Solace” is still a moderately entertaining film for action fans, if not Bond addicts, and Fox’s Blu-Ray disc is outstanding, marked by a gorgeous AVC-encoded transfer and rollicking DTS Master Audio soundtrack. Extras are decent but not comprehensive, offering trailers and a handful of mostly fluffy behind-the-scenes featurettes.

Re-assessing the Bat

Long before Christian Bale and Christopher Nolan “re-defined” the Dark Knight on the silver screen came Tim Burton’s BATMAN and the original Caped Crusader theatrical features, all of which have hit the world of high-definition courtesy of Warner’s BATMAN: THE MOTION PICTURE ANTHOLOGY 1989-1997 Blu-Ray box-set.

Though it had been years since I had watched any of these films, revisiting them in HD was a genuinely enjoyable experience, despite the varied quality of the pictures themselves.

Given the deluge of comic-book flicks we’ve seen over the last 10 years, it’s easy to overlook the impact that Burton’s first BATMAN (***, 126 mins., 1989, PG-13) had on modern cinema: this massive blockbuster essentially relaunched the modern super-hero genre single-handedly, giving it a “dark,” edgy visceral presentation in the process which no “funny book” movie had ever possessed before. 

That’s not to say the original “Batman,” which debuted in 1989 to enormous box-office receipts, is entirely serious and downbeat: compared especially to Nolan’s movies this “Bat” seems almost lightweight, with Jack Nicholson’s Joker dominating anything and everything on-screen in a story, credited to Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren, that was obviously reworked to accommodate its top-billed antagonist’s scenery-chewing antics, despite Burton’s claims that his intention was always for Batman to move in and out of the shadows, taking a secondary role to the main story. Nicholson is flamboyantly entertaining but he completely overshadows Michael Keaton’s Bruce Wayne, with Batman relegated to the side, punching the occasional hoodlum and hooking up with ace reporter Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger, who replaced Sean Young after she broke her leg just prior to filming), who’s pursuing a story on Gotham City’s masked hero.

“Batman” is an odd movie in several regards, and only occasionally does it feel like a true Tim Burton movie. With Jon Peters and Peter Guber handling the production, and Burton making his first, large-scale studio blockbuster, it’s apparent that “Batman” received ample creative input from all sorts of forces -- most especially Nicholson, who (along with Peters) concocted the film’s climax after having seen Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera” on-stage in London! In the disc’s supplements, Burton admits to having the script “get away from him,” but one can sense that it likely happened here beyond the filmmaker’s control. “Batman” was one of the highest budgeted films of its time, and with the studio and producers playing such a hands-on role, only here and there do we see the sorts of artistic flourishes that distinguish so much of Burton’s work -- and that especially pertains to the picture’s visuals. Anton Furst’s production design is occasionally evocative, but other sequences in the movie seem so drab and ordinary that you’d never know they were the product of its director simply by their appearance.

On the plus side, Danny Elfman’s thundering, propulsive score is still an outstanding creation, enhancing the action with a thundering, dynamic march that’s the total reverse of today’s “musical wallpaper” approach (as embodied all too well by the Nolan scores of Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard).

“Batman,” overall, is still quite entertaining in spite of its drawbacks, and Warner’s Blu-Ray presentation of the 1989 smash boasts a good, though not pristine, VC-1 encoded transfer with a strong Dolby TrueHD soundtrack. Extras, as they are throughout the set, are reprieved from the prior standard-def “Motion Picture Anthology,” and are highlighted by “Shadows of the Bat,” a multi-part, comprehensive documentary on the production of the film, utilizing interviews from Burton to Guber, Sam Hamm, Keaton, Nicholson, Basinger, Tracey Walter, Danny Elfman and others; extensive archival materials, including the trailer and Prince’s music videos; a commentary track from Burton; a storyboard for a deleted Robin sequence; and a digital copy for portable media players.

If “Batman” was “Burton Lite,” then BATMAN RETURNS (***½, 126 mins., 1992, PG-13) is most definitely, in every way, a genuine Tim Burton film. It only takes a matter of seconds after the Warner logo appears for one to realize that filmmaker was given full creative freedom here, and the result is a far more satisfying fantasy that remains the finest of all the Batman films for its involving story and captivating, wintry atmosphere.

The Daniel Waters script deftly intertwines the rise of the Penguin (Danny DeVito) with the birth of Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer, who substituted for Annette Bening at the last minute) but the real star here is Burton’s visuals. From the snowy Christmas setting to Bo Welch’s production design, Stefan Czapsky’s cinematography and Elfman’s score (likewise superior to the original) “Batman Returns” is a more interesting, compelling film on every level than its predecessor. In addition to a severe reduction in studio interference, Burton was also aided here by Christopher Walken’s underrated performance as a Trump-like Gotham mogul and a script that even gives Keaton’s Batman more to do once the story gets going, with numerous flourishes of offbeat humor punching up the material (particularly when Bruce Wayne ribs Alfred about letting Vicki Vale into the Batcave!).

Years ago “Batman Returns” was deemed by some as being overly dark and violent for children, and also too much of a product of its director. Seen today, it’s not nearly as graphic as “The Dark Knight,” with Burton’s vision creating a movie populated with heroes and villains both sad and sympathetic, and the rare super-hero film that’s worth repeat viewing.

Warner’s Blu-Ray transfer of “Batman Returns” is also more pleasing than its predecessor, with a crisp VC-1 encoded mastering and equally fine Dolby TrueHD soundtrack striking a nice balance between music, effects and dialogue. More candid talk about the film’s genesis is on-hand in another robust collection of extras, topped off by Burton’s commentary, all of which reveal how much leeway the director had this time around in bringing his vision to life.

Had Tim Burton continued on with subsequent “Batman” films (something the director surmises the studio didn’t want anyway because of the merchandizing money they lost on “Batman Returns”) it’s possible the series wouldn’t have needed its recent “creative reboot,” but alas, that wasn’t to be. Burton and Warners handed the series reigns over to Joel Schumacher, whose flamboyant visuals pushed the material away from gothic comic to campy garishness with his two entries, which ultimately ended the series in 1997.

Schumacher’s first foray, BATMAN FOREVER (**, 121 mins., 1995, PG-13), is the worst of the Bat-pics, with Val Kilmer as a sleepy Bruce Wayne and Nicole Kidman disinterested as Bruce’s shrink (and Batman’s girlfriend). Chris O’Donnell’s Robin adds little spice to the proceeding, with most of the shenanigans provided by the movie’s villains: Tommy Lee Jones’ “Two-Face” (a far cry from the disturbing portrait served up by Aaron Eckhart in “The Dark Knight”) and Jim Carrey’s Riddler.

Dominated by ugly, neon-tinged hues that recall the ‘90s at its worst, “Batman Forever” is something of a hybrid between Burton’s original “Batman” and a self-indulgent Schumacher romp, and it’s a borderline-total failure (no) thanks to the script by Akiva Goldsman, which swings and misses in the humor department and brings little to the table for the actors to work with. Elliot Goldenthal’s appropriately blaring score is more over-the-top than Elfman’s and also less satisfying, while the movie’s visuals, from John Dykstra’s effects to Stephen Goldblatt’s cinematography, fall flat after the creative triumph of “Batman Returns.”

Warner’s Blu-Ray transfer does the best it can to make the movie’s off-putting visuals palatable in its VC-1 encoded transfer, and the movie looks as crisp in HD as it possibly can. Extras include several deleted scenes, a commentary track from Schumacher, more of the excellent “Shadows of the Bat” documentary, archival featurettes, Seal’s “Kiss from a Rose” music video and other extras.

The massive commercial success of “Batman Forever” quickly lead to a sequel, and admittedly, there are folks out there who think that BATMAN & ROBIN (**½, 125 mins., 1997, PG-13) is one of the worst films ever made. I have to confess that I’ve always found the movie more entertaining than “Batman Forever,” if only because it feels more genuine: Schumacher wanted a big, campy epic dominated by humor, closer to the ‘60s TV series than any of its predecessors, and while Akiva Goldman’s script again fails to give its stars much to work with, at least “Batman & Robin” is a great deal more energetic than its predecessor.

The action once again is dominated (what else is new?) by villains Arnold Schwarzenegger (Mr.Freeze) and Uma Thurman (Poison Ivy), with George Clooney offering a serviceable  Batman, even if the character (as he had in basically all three prior films) does little but mope about. As Freeze, Arnold earns every cent of his hefty pay-check, gleefully romping through Gotham City in one his most entertaining performances (“kill the heroes! kill them!”) and Thurman likewise has fun as the sexy Ivy. Fresh off “Clueless,” Alicia Silverstone puts in an appearance in the thankless role of Batgirl (and charmingly has difficulty saying “Al-fred”several times), while Chris O'Donnell phones in another lifeless performance as Robin, and Elle Macpherson adds nothing but window dressing as Wayne's latest galpal.

As with the case of all the Batman films, this picture suffers from lethargic pacing and a script that needed a rewrite -- at 130 mins., it feels half an hour too long, and Goldsman's script adds a needlessly dour Alfred the Butler subplot that feels at odds with the campy tone of the rest of the picture. Still, it's fun, though Danny Elfman's music remains sadly missed -- Goldenthal's score, as with his "Batman Forever" effort, comes across as a heavy-handed, blaring mass of sound, lacking the dramatic flair and texture of Elfman's works.

Warner caps off this terrific box-set with another fine VC-1 encoded transfer and Dolby TrueHD soundtrack, with commentary from Schumacher, one deleted scene, a conclusion to the “Shadows of the Bat” documentary (with Schumacher taking full responsibility for the film's problems), four music videos, archival featurettes and the trailer putting the finishing touches on a HD release that’s a must for all Bat-fantatics, despite its relatively hefty price tag (fans who only want a particular installment take note: as of now, only a standalone release of the first “Batman” is available on Blu-Ray).

New This Week on Blu-Ray

I had to give credit to the Academy this past year: for a change, they got it right. SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (****, 121 mins., 2008, R; Fox) wasn’t just the best movie of 2008, but also one of the finest movies of the last decade altogether.

Danny Boyle’s virtuoso filmmaking powers this adaptation of Vikas Swarup’s book (adapted by Simon Beaufoy), crafting a compelling modern fairy tale set in India where Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) recounts his life from poverty through his unlikely arrival on the hot seat of the Indian “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”

Everything about “Slumdog Millionaire” works: the dazzling cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle, the performances of a terrific cast, the settings, off-kilter humor, moving drama and even A.R. Rahman’s atmospheric, haunting musical backing culminate in a one-of-a-kind entertainment that -- at its heart -- is just a movie about a boy and a girl and complications. A lot of complications.

For anyone who likes movies, “Slumdog Millionaire” comes with my strongest recommendation, and Fox’s Blu-Ray disc, out this week, is a winner all around: the immaculate AVC encoded transfer is the only way to properly experience the movie outside of a theater, while the potent DTS Master Audio sound is similarly satisfying. Extras are terrific as well, including 12 deleted scenes, commentary with Boyle and Patel, numerous Making Of featurettes, and a bonus digital copy disc.

Also out from Fox this week is another of the studio’s box-office hits from this past winter, MARLEY AND ME (***, 115 mins., 2008, PG).

This low-key adaptation of John Grogan’s autobiographical account of his life and times, as paralleled with his relationship with lovable lab Marley, makes for a pleasant, emotional movie, scripted by Scott Frank and Don Roos and directed efficiently by David Frankel. “Marley” (and the assorted dogs who play him) is more than lovable, though stars Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston are less heartwarming as Grogan and his beloved Jenny, whose relationship forms most of the film’s central drama. Still, the movie packs a solid emotional punch at the film’s conclusion, and any movie that makes me want to go hug my dog isn’t a bad thing (parents should note, however, that sensitive kids, and especially younger children, may be particularly affected by the picture’s ending).

Fox’s Blu-Ray disc includes a decent AVC encoded transfer with DTS Master Audio sound and both the standard-def DVD and a digital copy DVD comprising the three-disc package. Extras include 19 deleted scenes and numerous featurettes.

New TV on DVD from Shout! Factory

TV lovers have also reason to rejoice lately, as four successful series -- from the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, and '90s respectively -- have hit DVD in full-season box-sets courtesy of our friends at Shout! Factory.

James L. Brooks’ ROOM 222 (1969-70, 10 hours) may not have been the most realistic depiction of a Los Angeles high school at the time of its production, but it’s still a worthwhile, well-acted ensemble series that ran for five seasons on ABC. Lloyd Haynes stars as teacher who works with student instructor Karen Valentine and guidance counselor Denise Nicholas in trying to instruct his students through an even-keeled, understanding approach. Michael Constantine co-stars in a show that remained in the Top 10 during each one of its five seasons, mixing comedy and drama fairly well, especially considering the era in which it was produced.

Shout!’s box-set includes the complete Season 1 set (including an unaired pilot) of “Room 222" in sometimes marginal transfers that were culled from “the best surviving video masters.” Thus, the quality varies from downright shoddy (the pilot) to acceptable if far from pristine (everything else). Extras include interviews with Brooks, Nicholas and Constantine, who fondly recall their work on the series.

More classroom entertainment is on-hand in THE PAPER CHASE (1978-79, aprx. 18 hours), the superb small-screen adaptation of the early ‘70s film, following James Stephens as a first year Harvard law student who runs afoul of brilliant professor John Houseman (reprising his role from the film) on his first day, leading to a variety of trials and tribulations along with his peers.

CBS had high hopes for “The Paper Chase” but in spite of positive reviews, the series only generated moderate ratings. PBS soon broadcast re-runs to solid viewership, leading to Showtime producing three seasons of the show, following Stephens and his colleagues through to graduation.

Shout!’s box-set offers the complete first season of “The Paper Chase” in fine full-screen transfers and a booklet offering an episode synopsis, air dates and cast credits.

If you grew up in the ‘80s you undoubtedly watched MR. BELVEDERE (1985-86, 690 mins.) at some point in time. This innocuous guilty pleasure was a decent hit for ABC, following Christopher Hewitt’s title character (previously essayed by Clifton Webb and Victor Borge in both a series of films and a mid ‘60s TV series, respectively) as he holds a Pittsburgh family together, including sports writer Bob Uecker, wife Illene Graff and kids Rob Stone, Brice Beckham and Tracy Wells.

“Mr. Belvedere” isn’t what I would deem a classic comedy (with Uecker around how could it be?), but as the glut of ‘80s sitcoms go, the series was if nothing else a likeable one. The show’s producers attempted to work in a moral here and there, playing off the strengths of Hewitt, who’s actually quite good and whose “diary entries” punctuate the end of each episode. It may not be “The Cosby Show” but I’m sure Shout! will have plenty of fans interested in picking up their DVD box-set, even if not all of them will admit it!

Shout’s DVD box-set offers both the first (it debuted as a mid-season replacement) and second seasons of “Mr. Belvedere” in fine full-screen transfers and stereo soundtracks. Extras include an amusing Saturday Night Live sketch, “Mr. Belvedere Fan Club,” and retrospective, new interviews with Uecker, Graff, Beckham and Stone.

Finally, Shout! has the complete Season 2 of SPIN CITY (1997-98, 9 hours) lined up for release next week. Gary David Goldberg’s series hit its groove during its second year, dropping Carla Gugino from the last and adding the lovely Jennifer Esposito in her place. Shout!’s box-set includes the show’s entire year two on four discs, boasting excellent full-screen transfers and stereo soundtracks.

Also New On DVD

LILO & STITCH: Big Wave Edition (***½, 85 mins., 2002, G; Disney): Despite its cute and cuddly (if distinctive) alien protagonist, “Lilo & Stitch” isn't your “Mom & Dad's” Disney flick. In fact, this charming 2002 tale of a rambunctious alien who finds a home with a little Hawaiian girl and her older sister is a low-key and distinctive animated feature, quite unlike many of the studio's more generic recent efforts.

Stitch is certainly one of the more offbeat Disney animated protagonists you'll see, but the key to Chris Sanders and Dean Deblois’ film is the believable relationship between Lilo and her older sister, both trying to create a family after the death of their parents. The scenes with Stitch and Lilo bonding through classic Elvis tunes are priceless -- and are so good that the film's formulaic last 15 minutes come off as a disappointing and predictable end to everything that's come before it.

Still, “Lilo & Stitch” is a beautiful hand-drawn feature with unique characters and personalities -- easily ranking as one of Disney's finest features of the last decade. Kudos as well to Alan Silvestri's excellent score, which utilizes a real Hawaiian school chorus and enhances the film with its own distinct flavor.

Disney’s new double-disc “Big Wave Edition” of “Lilo & Stitch” -- which has already been available in international markets for some time now -- offers a group of special features, including deleted scenes, an interactive Making Of with behind-the-scenes footage, music videos, interactive games for the kids, and best of all, an entire second disc with a two-hour plus documentary on the picture’s production. Offering a thorough account of the project’s history, from its conception down to Silvestri’s scoring, this is as satisfying a doc you’ll ever find on a “family” DVD. Topped off with numerous other featurettes, advertising materials, an excellent 16:9 (1.85) transfer and 5.1 audio (that both appear comparable to the original DVD), and you have a must for Disney aficionados.

HOPE AND FAITH: Season 1 (625 mins., 2003-04; Lionsgate): Fairly popular ABC “TGIF” sitcom (remember those days?) debuts on DVD in a complete season one set from Lionsgate, sporting the complete Season 1 of “Hope and Faith” in excellent 16:9 (1.78) transfers and 5.1 soundtracks.

LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT Special Edition (**, 84 mins., 1972; MGM/Fox): Wes Craven’s brutal early ‘70s shocker is the latest genre work to be remade as another run-of-the-kill slasher, leading MGM to re-issue the original film in a new Special Edition. Boasting a fresh 16:9 (1.85) transfer and mono soundtrack, the disc also includes a commentary with cast members David Hess, Marc Sheffler and Fred Lincoln; a deleted scene and copious behind-the-scenes footage; an extensive documentary and additional featurettes with comments from Craven and various horror historians.

AFTER DARK HORRORFEST III (Lionsgate): Eight more “Films to Die For” hit DVD this week from Lionsgate. Among the offerings: Lena Headey as a woman who tries to uncover the existence of her doppleganger in THE BROKEN (93 mins., 2008), co-starring Oscar nominee Richard Jenkins; the cannibal thriller SLAUGHTER (96 mins., 2009), supposedly based on true events; Craig Singer’s PERKINS 14 (95 mins., 2009); FROM WITHIN (95 mins., 2008); the Korean thriller VOICES (85 mins., 2007), based on a popular Asian comic; Robert Patrick in AUTOPSY (89 mins., 2009); the Aussie cannibal horror entry DYING BREED (92 mins., 2008); and the direct-to-video effort THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT 3: REVELATIONS (90 mins., 2009), which, no surprise here, has nothing to do with its predecessors. All movies sport 16:9 transfers and 5.1 soundtracks, along with a variety of extras which vary from title to title.

 New & Coming Soon on Blu-Ray

FLY AWAY HOME (****, 107 mins., 1996, PG; Sony)
WINGED MIGRATION (***, 89 mins., 2003, G; Sony)

A movie that’s ideally suited to reap the benefits of high-definition, FLY AWAY HOME -- Carroll Ballard's 1996 film -- is a gorgeously photographed, moving picture almost on par with his superlative, earlier "family" film “The Black Stallion.” However, branding the movie as a picture strictly for children isn't accurately describing how eloquently handled the entire film is. Ballard veers away from saccharine sentimentality, and instead takes a low-key and yet enormously affecting approach to the material from its opening frames.

Anna Paquin, in one of her first post-“Piano” parts, plays a young New Zealand girl who moves in with her quirky Canadian dad (Jeff Daniels) after her mother dies in an auto accident. She ultimately bonds with her father while they attempt to nurse a wounded Canada goose and a show an entire flock of the birds the proper migration route from Canada to Virginia.

Caleb Deschanel's gorgeous cinematography is one of the chief assets in the film, and looks stunning in Columbia's Blu-Ray disc, which enhances the picture’s visuals substantially more than the prior DVD. This is the kind of cinematography that benefits immeasurably from the HD treatment, and fans of the movie will not be disappointed by the transfer. The Dolby TrueHD sound is also notably effective, featuring a beautiful Mark Isham score that boasts Mary Chapin Carpenter’s lovely vocal track “10,000 Miles,” which Isham arranged (and can be found, in its entirety, on her “Party Doll” compilation CD; the score itself still, inexplicably, has never been released).

Columbia's Blu-Ray disc features a handful of excellent supplements ported over from the 2001 Special Edition DVD, including audio commentary from Deschanel and Ballard, an HBO Making Of and a 50-minute documentary on Bill Lishman -- the real-life Canadian artist whose life and work with migration routes formed the basis for the film. (Lishman was featured on an episode of "20/20" in 1993). Featuring actual footage of Lishman with the geese, this is a fascinating look at the actual events that inspired the movie, and seems to have been independently produced prior to the picture’s release. (Sadly, the Blu-Ray drops the DVD’s "isolated score with composer's commentary" track, which featured Mark Isham discussing his music -- albeit usually over the score itself).

Aside from the latter track’s omission, the Blu-Ray edition of “Fly Away Home” is dynamite, enhancing all aspects of this outstanding movie that comes highly recommended for viewers of all ages.

Also forthcoming from Sony is a Blu-Ray presentation of Jacques Perrin’s 2003 art-house hit WINGED MIGRATION, a documentary following migratory birds around the globe from a pre-9/11 New York City to Paris and a European industrial wasteland. Incredible visuals that adapt brilliantly to high-definition make “Winged Migration” a prime candidate for Blu-Ray HD eye candy, and Sony’s presentation does not disappoint either with its AVC encoded transfer and Dolby TrueHD audio. Extras include a full-length commentary track from Perrin, a fascinating Making Of documentary, additional interviews, photo gallery and segment on the creation of Bruno Coulais’ moody score.

ANIMAL PLANET Blu-Ray Titles (Genius): Nature-starved HD owners can look forward to a trio of new releases from Genius Entertainment, sporting three Animal Planet specials with terrific, if not terrifying (depending on the viewer) visuals. In “The World’s Biggest and Baddest Bugs,” entomologist Ruud Kleinpaste takes a look at some of the stranger insects living among us; majestic African elephants take center stage in “Africa’s Elephant Kingdom,” which was originally shot for IMAX; and slithering serpents are on parade in “The Beauty of Snakes,” which was so horrifying my wife had to leave the room while I had it running (it’s not really horrifying -- unless you hate snakes!). All three Blu-Ray titles, running about 40 minutes each, include vibrant 1080p transfers and 5.1 and 2.0 Dolby Stereo audio tracks.

THE ROBE (**½, 134 mins., 1953; Fox): Another outstanding Blu-Ray catalog release from Fox arrives in time for Easter viewing. Fox’s 1953 Biblical blockbuster “The Robe” is a sprawling, old-fashioned (and quite silly) entertainment that certain Golden Age aficionados have loved for decades, but unless they viewed it on the big-screen they’ve never seen it like this before: the studio has meticulously remastered the movie for HD, resulting in a spectacular AVC encoded transfer of the film’s wide Cinemascope version with both DTS Master Audio and 4.0 Dolby Digital mixes complimenting a broad, stereophonic soundtrack (backed, of course, by Alfred Newman’s classic score). Ample extras include a great-sounding isolated score track, plus a commentary geared towards the music, featuring comments from Nick Redman, David Newman, Jon Burlingame and Julie Kirgo; a terrific featurette “The Cinemascope Story”; a 1969 audio interview with screenwriter Philip Dunne; “BonusView” picture-in-picture comparisons with the standard 1.33 version of the film and interactive content on the real-life search for “The Robe”; and both a standard Making Of and “From Scripture to Script: The Bible and Hollywood” featurettes. Fox Movietone newsreels, still galleries, and an introduction from Martin Scorsese round out an essential release for Golden Age movie lovers with Blu-Ray players.

SOUTH PACIFIC (***, 1958, 157 and 172 mins.): Musical fans also have reason to celebrate with Fox’s Blu-Ray high-def release of the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic “South Pacific,” presented in a double-disc set with all the outstanding extras from its prior DVD edition -- though with one caveat.

The preceding DVD release was most notable for its inclusion of the 1958 film’s long-lost “Roadshow” edit. Running 172 minutes (approximately 15 minutes longer than the general release print), fans were able to see the original, premiere version of the movie for the first time in 50 years. Most of the “new” footage is comprised of short edits, and although on first glance the additions would seem to be relatively minor asides, the film flows more smoothly as a result of their restoration, giving further depth to supporting characters and enhancing the setting.

Fox’s Blu-Ray disc includes the Roadshow version on its second platter, albeit only in standard-definition. There’s no lossless audio on the Roadshow version, and the transfer is very clearly a good-looking standard-def presentation -- yet why Fox didn’t explicitly mention this fact on their packaging is a disappointment.

On the other hand, the transfer on the theatrical cut is absolutely, positively spectacular: the AVC encode of the recent Lowry Digital restoration is reference-quality as far as catalog titles go, offering a crisp and just breathtaking presentation of the movie’s visuals. The DTS Master Audio sound is exceptional, and the movie’s original mix is simulated in a fine 4.0 Dolby Digital track as well, with little appreciable difference between the two tracks.

All the marvelous extras from the prior DVD are also on-hand, including a pair of fascinating audio commentaries by Richard Barrios (on the Roadshow version), Ted Chapin and Gerard Alessandrini (on the theatrical version); a terrific, vintage “60 Minutes” interview with “South Pacific” author James Michener, as interviewed by Diane Sawyer; archival Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza footage from the original stage production; Movietone news reels; a Making Of featurette; karaoke subtitles; Mitzi Gaynor’s screen test; the trailer and other goodies. Recommended!

THE PRINCESS BRIDE (**½, 1987, 98 mins., PG; MGM/Fox): MGM’s Blu-Ray edition of the Rob Reiner-William Goldman fantasy fave is a big improvement on their last DVD release, which left off numerous supplements. First off, the AVC encoded transfer is quite satisfying and DTS Master Audio sound does justice to the film’s audio mix. Extras are cobbled together from the prior two DVDs with just a couple of omissions, restoring the separate commentaries from Rob Reiner and William Goldman, the “As You Wish” documentary, and Cary Elwes’ home movies (which were left off the 2007 DVD), and adding some of the extras from its last DVD edition. The trailer and a second standard-def disc round out the package, which is ultimately missing just a few vintage marketing featurettes from its 2001 DVD release. Recommended for fans.

8 MILE (***, 111 mins., 2002, R; Universal): One of the more surprising awards at the 2002 Oscars had to be the winner of the Original Song category. Most prognosticators thought either U2 (for their so-so "Hands That Built America" from "Gangs of New York") or Paul Simon (for his forgettable tune from the "Wild Thornberries" movie) would walk home with the Oscar, but rapper Eminem ultimately copped the award for his "Lose Yourself" track from “8 Mile” -- even though the "song" itself wasn't even performed at the ceremony!

Say what you want about Eminem, but his semi-autobiographical film “8 Mile” -- now on Blu-Ray -- is a gritty slice-of-life vividly brought to the screen by director Curtis Hanson ("L.A. Confidential," "Wonder Boys"). The rapper stars as "Jimmy Smith, Jr.," a guy from the wrong side of the Detroit tracks who lives in a trailer park with his troubled mom (Kim Basinger) and younger sister. Jimmy has the vision to become a recording star but lacks the means to gain the opportunity, blacking out when he tries to win a "rap battle" on stage at pal Mekhi Phifer's nightspot. Ultimately, Jimmy -- the cinematic alter- ego for Eminem -- tries to rise above the insanity and hopelessness of his surroundings and gain a new opportunity for himself.

There aren't a ton of surprises in Scott Silver's screenplay, but “8 Mile” nevertheless works primarily due to the film's atmosphere and Hanson's direction, which gets a lot of mileage out of Eminem's surprisingly strong performance and work from the supporting cast. Reviewed by some as "'Rocky' for Rappers," “8 Mile” manages to be understated and quietly emotional at times, leaving a lot of questions dangling as it comes to its conclusion. Like many of Hanson's films, the location filming makes for an authentic, atmospheric picture that's formulaic and yet distinctive at the same time, with a potent climax involving dueling rappers that's entertaining even if you aren't into the genre (which I'm just guessing most of us here are not!).

“8 Mile” arrives in early April on Blu-Ray in a solid disc from Universal sporting a few extra features geared towards Eminem fans, including uncensored "rap battle" outtakes, comments from Eminem and Curtis Hanson, an adequate Making Of featurette, music video and a terrific 1080p transfer. The DTS Master Audio soundtrack is potent, though as a downside to filming on location, the dialogue is occasionally difficult to comprehend, meaning you'll want to turn up the bass-heavy volume at key points to comprehend it.

THE TALE OF DESPEREAUX (***, 94 mins., 2008, G; Universal): Pleasant animated film for young children adapts Kate DiCamillo’s book about a kind-hearted, big-eared little mouse who joins up with his rat sidekick to save a princess. This CGI rendered fairy-tale was produced and written by Gary Ross, with Framestore Animation providing fine rendering of the various characters, voiced by a cast that includes Matthew Broderick, Robbie Coltrane, Dustin Hoffman, Kevin Kline, Frank Langella, Richard Jenkins and Sigourney Weaver among others. Universal’s Blu-Ray edition includes two deleted songs and “U-Control” picture-in-picture extras, along with interactive games for kids, an excellent 1080p transfer and DTS Master Audio sound, highlighting a nice score by William Ross.

SEVEN POUNDS (*½, 123 mins., 2008, PG-13; Sony): [Editor’s Note: I don’t usually divulge spoilers but in the interest of saving you time and money, here you go]. As unappealing a holiday release as you could possibly find, Will Smith’s “Seven Pounds” ended the star’s run of blockbuster box-office smashes last December. Smith stars as a man, filled with guilt over causing an auto accident that claimed the life of his fiancee and six others, who opts to donate his organs to people who need them, leading to our star killing himself with his pet jellyfish in a tub. The End. Gabrielle Muccino’s painfully slow, depressing film isn’t exactly life-affirming (to put it mildly), and while the performances are sincere (Rosario Dawson is especially likeable), “Seven Pounds” offers little in the way of entertainment. Sony’s Blu-Ray disc includes an AVC encoded transfer with Dolby TrueHD audio, plus deleted scenes, numerous featurettes, commentary with Muccino and a Blu-Ray exclusive digital copy for portable media players (as if you’d want to sit through the film again on your ipod!).

YES MAN (**½, 104 mins., 2008, PG-13; Warner): Jim Carrey is getting a bit long in the tooth for the free-wheeling antics on display in “Yes Man,” a reworking (of sorts) of his mid ‘90s box-office smash “Liar, Liar.” Here, Jim plays a divorced office worker who opts to say yes to everything -- leading him on a series of comic escapades and romance with musician Zooey Deschanel (young enough to be his daughter, but whatever). Director Peyton Reed keeps “Yes Man” moving along and there are sporadic laughs in the Nicholas Stoller-Jarrad Paul-Andrew Mogel script, but the movie never shakes off the feeling of familiarity which permeates every element of it. Warner’s Blu-Ray disc includes a fine VC-1 encoded transfer with Dolby TrueHD audio and numerous extras, including ample behind-the-scenes featurettes, a gag reel, a handful of music videos, and several minor Blu-Ray extras (with BD-Live content supposedly forthcoming).

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN: Blu-Ray & DVD (***½, 122 mins., 2007, R; Miramax/Buena Vista): Even with the meditative ending, which rubbed some viewers the wrong way, the Coen Brothers’ “No Country For Old Men” is superlative filmmaking -- a rich adaptation of a Cormac McCarthy novel that serves as equal parts suspense thriller and allegory.

Josh Brolin plays a hunter in rural Texas who comes across a group of dead bodies, drugs and a bag stuffed with some $2 million in cash. Brolin takes the cash but soon wishes he didn’t once a stoic psycho (Javier Bardem) soon comes calling to collect it – wiping out nearly anyone and everyone that stands in his way. Even though the young married man is in over his head, that doesn’t stop him from trying to beat Bardem at his own game, all the while a veteran, aging Texas sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones) looks on from afar, trying to make sense of it all.

Layered, as most Coen films are, with memorable dialogue, superb performances, a haunting sense of time and place, and dark humor, “No Country For Old Men” is like a symphony of great filmmaking. Individual scenes retain their potency long after the film has concluded, while the film poses a fascinating portrait of characters bound by their ethics, or lack thereof, and the consequences that entail -- both good and bad -- from their decisions. Roger Deakins’ cinematography is another huge asset to the film, vividly capturing the surroundings and staging the preceding with a sense of foreboding that lingers after the credits have finished. It’s a marvelous picture, one graced with so many superb elements that it virtually demands repeat viewing, especially in lieu of its unconventional but somehow satisfying last few scenes.

Buena Vista’s Blu-Ray release supplants their prior BD edition by offering a huge amount of extras: Making Of materials, all sorts of interviews, a Q&A session with the Coens and other goodies, all of which add up to the most comprehensive selection of supplements ever packaged on a Coen title (that may not say much, but it’s still worth the upgrade for fans). The AVC encoded transfer is as potent as its predecessor, while DTS Master Audio sound replaces the prior Blu-Ray’s PCM track.

BEDTIME STORIES (**, 99 mins., 2008, PG; Disney): Adam Sandler in a Disney comedy? The mix proved to be only a moderate success for both parties last Christmas, as the comedian appeared in this mediocre fantasy that finds Sandler as an Uncle to his sister’s kids, spinning storybook tales with himself as the star. This results in a succession of fantasy sequences with all kinds of special effects, yet the end result feels like an inferior version of “Jumanji,” while Sandler seems a bit ill at ease with the PG-rated shenanigans. Kids may still warm to the movie, however, with Disney’s Blu-Ray offering the studio’s typically excellent AVC encoded transfer with DTS High Resolution audio and not much in the way of extras – just a few bloopers and deleted scenes, plus a look at the special effects. The set is a three-disc package also including a digital copy disc and standard DVD edition of the film.

DOUBT (**½, 103 mins., 2008, PG-13; Miramax/Buena Vista): Uniformly fine performances from Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Viola Davis make John Patrick Shanley’s adaptation of his own play an emotionally charged experience, even if I didn’t entirely buy the ambiguous nature of Shanley’s story -- nor how its mid ‘60s Catholic school setting doesn’t quite ring true. Buena Vista’s Blu-Ray disc is out next week and looks extremely satisfying, while DTS HD audio and numerous extras are also on-tap, including a segment on Howard Shore’s music, Shanley’s commentary, and several Making Of featurettes.

GULLIVER’S TRAVELS (*** movie, * disc, 76 mins., 1939; Koch): Animation fans have undoubtedly heard by now that Koch’s Blu-Ray edition of the 1939 Fleischers’ “Gulliver’s Travels” is a total disappointment, marred by having the feature’s original 1.33 Academy aspect ratio stretched to 16:9 for the benefit of...well, I’m not sure who is going to benefit from this badly-framed disaster, which does boast a decent transfer -- if only the aspect ratio hadn’t been modified. Hopefully a superior disc will follow from another label one day.

THE VENTURE BROS. Season 3 (286 mins., Warner): Adult Swim fans should flock to this third season of the popular Cartoon Network series, which riffs on ‘60s Hanna-Barbera cartoons a bit unevenly, but when it hits the target “The Venture Bros.” is often uproarious. Warner’s Blu-Ray package of the series’ third season is highlighted, unquestionably, by sublime packaging that recalls an Atari 2600 box, from the artwork to the fonts, offering a two-disc BD set with fine 1080p transfers and Dolby TrueHD soundtracks of the series’ 13 third-season episodes. On the supplemental side, a bonus music CD and assorted features are also on-tap for fans.

Also New on DVD

TCM SPOTLIGHT: DORIS DAY COLLECTION (Warner): More great entertainment is en route for Golden Age fans as Warner next week releases a five-film retrospective of America’s sweetheart Doris Day.

Included in the colorfully packaged box-set are “It’s a Great Feeling,” pairing Day with Dennis Morgan and Jack Carson and a bevy of star cameos (Gary Cooper, Joan Crawford, etc.); Day and Gordan MacRae in the tuneful “Tea For Two”; Day and McRae again in the patriotic all-star vehicle “Starlift,” with Jimmy Cagney, Gary Cooper, Virginia Mayo and others on-hand; “April in Paris,” which teams Day (as “Dynamite Jackson”) with Ray Bolger; and director Gene Kelly’s comedy “The Tunnel of Love,” with Day and Richard Widmark as a married couple trying to adopt a child.

Vintage shorts, classic cartoons, trailers and additional music-only extras on “Tea For Two” adorn this appealing package for all Day fans.

GOAL II: LIVING THE DREAM (115 mins., 2008, Not Rated; Genius): Sequel to “Goal!,” the tale of rising soccer star Santiago Munez (Kuno Becker), was dropped by Disney and picked up by indie label Peace Arch after the original failed to make much noise in the U.S. For those who saw the original, this second installment in a trilogy of films offers more spirited “footy” action for soccer fans, complete with a bevy of cameos from real international stars. Anna Friel and Stephen Dillane both reappear from the original, while Leonor Varela, Rutger Hauer and Alessandro Nivola offer additional support. Peace Arch’s DVD includes a terrific 16:9 (2.35) transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, a director/producer commentary, Making Of featurette, deleted scenes and bloopers.

VINYAN (96 mins., 2008, R; Sony): Emmanuelle Beart and Rufus Sewell give this odd horror entry a touch of class. In Fabrice du Welz’s film, Beart and Sewell play a couple who’ve lost their son in a tsunami, leading them on a frantic search deep into the jungles of Southeast Asia where they encounter a tribe of feral children. Vivid cinematography and Beart’s terrific performance make “Vinyan” more than just a disposable horror entry, but the story is a bit of a mess and fails to meet a satisfying resolution. Sony’s DVD includes a superb 16:9 (2.35) transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound and one Making Of featurette.

THE RICHES: Season 2 (296 mins., 2008; Fox): Season 2 for the FX cable series with Minnie Driver and Eddie Izzard hits DVD in a two-disc set with 16:9 (1.78) transfers, 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks, and one featurette on its leading man.

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