4/13/10 Edition
Cage's BAD LIEUTENANT Hits Blu-Ray
Bakshi's RINGS, THE RELIC and More
Plus: Criterions and the Latest TV on DVD
Several new catalog titles hit Blu-Ray this month, including Ralph Bakshi’s troubled but interesting 1978 version of LORD OF THE RINGS (**½, 132 mins., PG; Warner), released to coincide with the theatrical cut debuts of Peter Jackson’s Tolkien trilogy in HD (written up in my prior Aisle Seat column).

Bakshi’s film was compromised by numerous budgetary and technical challenges -- elements that prevented the eagerly-anticipated film from reaching its full potential. With that being said, the finished picture isn’t without its positive attributes, including some nifty stand-alone sequences and effective use of “Rotoscoping,” which is jarringly contrasted here at times with animation that’s sometimes less than special. Bakshi’s penchant for colorful, eclectic design still occasionally shines through this 132-minute, Chris Conkling-scripted “downsizing” of the first two books in the series (it concludes abruptly after the battle at Helm’s Deep), which is further graced by a superlative Leonard Rosenman score that unquestionably ranks with the late composer’s finest works.

Unfortunately, the production issues that plagued “Lord of the Rings” ultimately deprived Bakshi from concluding his adaptation; despite robust, if not spectacular, box-office grosses, an announced sequel was kiboshed, leading Rankin-Bass to finish off Bakshi’s work with a TV-movie version of “Return of the King” in May of 1980 -- that project essentially serving as an unofficial sequel to “Lord of the Rings” (and a direct follow-up to their earlier animated rendering of “The Hobbit”).

Warner’s Blu-Ray of Bakshi’s LOTR looks and sounds acceptable, though the source elements understandably vary in appearance at times. Generally speaking, the VC-1 encoded 1080p transfer at least does a capable job of preserving the project’s color scheme, while an adequate Dolby TrueHD soundtrack supports Rosenman’s rousing score (one which Bakshi reportedly disliked -- no surprise since the director originally wanted Led Zeppelin to contribute music to the soundtrack!). The audio seems a bit “brittle” at times, but one has to chalk that up to the era’s rather primitive Dolby Stereo recording, while a 30-minute profile of Bakshi, with comments on LOTR incorporated within, rounds out the package (one which also includes a DVD/digital copy disc bundled inside).

While I would’ve preferred seeing a proper documentary on the making of the film (its interesting backstory includes Stanley Kubrick and John Boorman’s participation in the project), this is nevertheless a fine presentation of Bakshi’s work -- a movie which has its shortcomings but nevertheless remains one to be admired, particularly considering the era in which it was produced.

Meanwhile, another trio of catalog films from the Paramount vaults highlight new Blu-Rays from Lionsgate this month.

FLIGHT OF THE INTRUDER (**½, 114 mins., 1990, PG-13) was a big-budget disappointment that proved to be the last gasp for filmmaker John Milius in the studio system -- an unfortunate occurrence since the admittedly flag-waving "Flight of the Intruder" isn't nearly as bad as you might have heard.

Based on Stephen Coonts' bestseller, “Flight” takes place off Vietnam in the early '70s, where exhausted and frustrated military men continue to fight a losing war being primarily waged by bureaucratic politicians. When pilot Brad Johnson ("Always") loses his partner in a meaningless bombing raid, he becomes disillusioned by the mission of the military in the area. Commander Danny Glover feels for Johnson, but tells him there's nothing they can do -- at least not until Glover hatches a plan for Johnson and bombadeer Willem Dafoe to fly a top-secret mission using a classified stealth bomber deep behind enemy lines in Hanoi.

The cycle of Vietnam war movies had pretty much been exhausted by the time “Flight of the Intruder” was released in early 1991, and viewers apparently weren't in the mood for a war-set buddy movie when a REAL war was taking place in the Gulf right at same time (something that Hollywood might well have learned from, seeing that films from “The Hurt Locker” to “Green Zone” have all, also, flopped at the box-office). Bad timing, to be sure, but critics also accused Milius' film as being a pro-Vietnam slice of propaganda, which isn't entirely accurate. I prefer to think of “Flight” as a cliché-ridden, old-fashioned war movie that just happens to be set during Vietnam. The movie has all the requisite elements of the genre -- tragic losses, wacky humor, guys with crazy nicknames, girls left behind -- and serves them all up in Milius' typical gung-ho style.

It's admittedly no classic, and yet “Flight of the Intruder” is solid entertainment for those who enjoy the genre. The special effects are solid and Basil Poledouris' superb (sadly unreleased) score adds to the drama, which is quite awkward at times (just what is the point of Rosanna Arquette being in the movie?), and becomes excessively uneven as it rolls along. Yet, the performances are all fine, and there are early appearances by the likes of Ving Rhames and Tom Sizemore on-hand for buffs.

Lionsgate’s Blu-Ray of “Flight of the Intruder” looks excellent; the Super 35 transfer (2.35) is AVC encoded and is capped by DTS Master Audio sound.

More satisfying is Peter Hyams’ 1997 creature feature THE RELIC (***, 105 mins., R), an adaptation of a fine Douglas Preston-Lincoln Child bestseller that finds Chicago detective Tom Sizemore working with scientist Penelope Ann Miller to investigate a series of murders at the Museum of Natural History, which may well have to do with an archeologist’s disappearance and a rather large prehistoric(ish) monster with an appetite roaming the cooridors.

“The Relic” performed modestly at the box-office and garnered a number of positive reviews (including dual-thumbs up from Siskel & Ebert) at the time of its release, and while it doesn’t offer any great surprises, it’s safe to say this is one of Hyams’ better films. Well-executed set-pieces, surprising chemistry between the leads and, when it’s finally unveiled, an effective creature designed by Stan Winston and VFX make this a superior piece of genre filmmaking.

Lionsgate’s Blu-Ray disc is a winner on every count. All-new supplements include commentary with Hyams and a 10-minute interview with the filmmaker, discussing his directorial process as well as “The Relic.” The trailer is also on-hand in a disc that also includes a terrific AVC encoded 1080p transfer, an appreciable improvement on the prior DVD, though so much of the film is shot in the dark that some viewers, unfamiliar with the movie, may not notice how much an improvement it really is. The DTS Master Audio sound is excellent, layered with ambient sounds and an adequate, if formulaic, John Debney score.

The third and weakest of the batch is easily William Friedkin’s lousy 1995 thriller JADE (*½, 94 mins., R), a sleazy attempt to duplicate the success of other steamy ‘90s erotic thrillers like “Basic Instinct.”

In a role that basically ended his career until “CSI: Miami” resurrected it a few years ago, David Caruso plays a district attorney with a fellow lawyer pal (Chazz Palminteri) whose wife (Lindas Fiorentino) is a psychologist who might just be pulling a Sharon Stone on everyone.

Outside of one memorable, well-executed car chase “Jade” fizzled at the box-office, and hasn’t weathered the years well either; a good cast and capable technical team (Alex Tavoularis production design, James Horner score, Andrzej Bartkowiak cinematography) fail to enliven a weak Joe Eszterhas script authored when the writer was cashing in big paydays following his efforts on the Verhoeven thriller.

Making matters worse, the Blu-Ray only includes Friedkin’s theatrical version of “Jade” and not his longer Director’s Cut, which sported several minutes of extended scenes and a superior ending. That version was released on video, so what gives with the barebones Blu-Ray of the 95 minute theatrical version?

That said, the Blu-Ray’s AVC encoded transfer is alright, with the trailer and DTS Master Audio sound rounding out the release.

BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS Blu-Ray (***, 122 mins., 2009, R; First Look Studios): You’ve likely heard by now about Nicolas Cage’s latest foray into the absurd, but even though this in-name-only follow-up to the Abel Ferrara-Harvey Keitel cult fave “Bad Lieutenant” is certainly offbeat, the big surprise is how effective this moody, atmospheric and entertaining character study actually is.

Credit, naturally, has to go out to director Werner Herzog, who utilizes the opportunity to craft a portrait of a New Orleans cop (Cage) whose occasional good intentions are overrun by massive misjudgments caused, more or less, by a serious addiction to drugs. Although Cage’s character spirals out of control, Herzog manages to strike a fine balance between demonizing him and sympathizing with his troubled soul, to the point where his final hint of redemption actually feels somewhat earned -- a plot element in William Finkelstein’s script that’s deftly set up in its opening moments.

Not doubt there are portions of this “Bad Lieutenant” that are, well, “different,” but the film ultimately pays off for adventurous viewers willing to go along with Cage’s flamboyant performance. Supporting turns, meanwhile, are satisfyingly filled by the likes of Brad Dourif, Val Kilmer, Fairuza Balk, and Jennifer Coolidge, while the atmosphere of a post-Katrina New Orleans is served up via Mark Isham’s fine score and Peter Zeitlinger’s nicely textured cinematography.

First Look’s Blu-Ray disc is a winner. The 1080p transfer is impressive, while DTS Master Audio sound is complimented by a few extras including a Making Of featurette, two trailers, and Lena Herzog’s digital photography book.

New From Criterion
A new Director’s Cut of Ang Lee’s 1999 box-office disappointment RIDE WITH THE DEVIL (***, 148 mins., R) leads off Criterion’s slate for April.

Lee’s almost-forgotten epic starred Peter-Parker-to-be Tobey Maguire, Skeet Ulrich, Jeffrey Wright, and pop songmeistress Jewel in a violent but well-made account of the war between both sides on the Missouri/Kansas border during the Civil War.

The film does go on a bit (even more now that some nine minutes of footage has been added back into the picture), some of the performances leave something to be desired, and there's a tendency for Lee and screenwriter James Schamus (adapting "Woe to Live On" by Daniel Woodrell) to over-analyze comparisons between the Civil War and modern military conflicts. Despite all that, “Ride With the Devil” still manages to entertain and overcome its inherent flaws. Frederick Elmes's eloquent cinematography (which looks great in Criterion’s 16:9 DVD transfer) and a superb, moving score by Mychael Danna are two of the chief assets here. Danna's score, which I found to be one of the best and certainly more underrated works of its time (no surprise given the movie's scant theatrical distribution) is done justice by the 5.1 Dolby Digital track.

Extras include two new commentaries (one with Lee and Schamus; another with Elmes and members of the production team) plus a conversation with Jeffrey Wright.

Marlon Brando, Anna Magnani, and Joanne Woodward, meanwhile, starred in Sidney Lumet’s taut 1960 adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ play “Orpheus Descending,” retitled THE FUGITIVE KIND (***, 121 mins.).

This well-acted potboiler is on-hand in an excellent 16:9 (1.66) widescreen DVD transfer, approved by Lumet, with a new interview with the veteran filmmaker also included. Lumet’s 1958 television presentation of one-act Williams plays adorns the two-disc set’s supplements, which also sports an essay from critic David Thomson and a video program discussing Williams’ work in Hollywood and particularly “The Fugitive Kind.”

Olivier Assayas’ SUMMER HOURS (103 mins., 2008) is also on tap this month from Criterion, and for devotees of French cinema, this latest work from the filmmaker comes highly recommended.

Juliette Binoche, Charles Berling and Jeremie Renier play three siblings who gather at their mother’s country estate and decide what they should do with their late mom’s collection of art, forming a rumination on the meaning of materialism, the connectiveness of family, and mere inter-personal relationships which Assayas simply, yet profoundly, explores throughout the film’s 103 minutes.

Criterion’s two-disc DVD set is exceptional, backed by a hi-def digital transfer, a new video interview with Assayas, a documentary sporting cast and crew interviews, and an hour-long documentary from Olivier Gionard examining the picture’s approach to art.

Jean-Luc Godard’s VIVRE SA VIE (83 mins., 1962), finally, is also being welcomed into the Collection this month. Regarded as a turning point in Godard’s career, the picture stars Anna Karina as a young Parisian woman who wants to be an actress but ends up a prostitute in a landmark of French New Wave cinema.

Backed by a new high-def digital transfer (1.33 black-and-white), the single-disc DVD includes a commentary from Godard scholar Adrian Martin, a video interview with Jean Narboni, a TV interview with Karina from 1962, a 1961 French TV report on prostitution, an illustrated essay on the book that served as the inspiration for the film, Godard’s original trailer, and extensive booklet notes.

Also New on DVD and Blu-Ray
DREAMSCAPE Blu-Ray (***, 99 mins., 1984, PG-13; Image): Remember the summer of 1984, when "Temple of Doom," "Gremlins," "Conan the Destroyer," "Cloak & Dagger" (what an unsung classic!), “Buckaroo Banzai” and "The Last Starfighter" were released? Somehow we don't see too many seasons of quality popcorn-munching fare like those films these days.

One of the many genre movies released that summer was the engaging fantasy-thriller "Dreamscape," which has hit Blu-Ray courtesy of Image Entertainment.

Dennis Quaid, back in the day when he was essaying smug prettyboys (it's a virtual reprise of his "Jaws 3-D" performance), plays a young man and former prodigy with psychic abilities, recruited to infiltrate dreams and nightmares by some mysterious people at a clinic overseen by Quaid’s former professor Max von Sydow. Christopher Plummer and Kate Capshaw co-star in this thoroughly entertaining movie, one that scared the heck out of me when I was nine years old and still, surprisingly, holds up as a prime example of solid '80s entertainment. (And do check out the hilarious Indy-esque cover art, which makes it seem as if Quaid and Capshaw are about to run into Mola Ram themselves!).

Maurice Jarre's dated but sporadically effective synth score sounds terrific in the Blu-Ray's DTS Master Audio soundtrack, but truth be told, the BD's 1080i high-definition master shows its age, as well as some noise reduction polluting a hazy and only intermittently satisfying transfer. The original DVD commentary from producer Bruce Cohn Curtis and co-writer David Loughery ("Star Trek V") is reprieved here along with the trailer.

"Dreamscape" has held up well over the years but this catalog title only boasts marginal benefits over the old DVD, so fans may be advised to wait for an inevitable price drop before picking it up.

COCOON Blu-Ray (***½, 1985, 117 mins., PG-13; Fox): Ron Howard’s Summer of ‘85 sleeper hit comes to Blu-Ray this month.

Just the other day, I was talking to a friend of mine about how certain films remain in circulation and are still the occasional center of discussion years after their original release. "Back to the Future" is a case in point -- a movie that came out of nowhere and became the breakthrough hit of the summer of '85, and continues to be an enduring fan favorite.

Trailing behind in box-office dollars, but still one of the highest-grossers of that same year, was "Cocoon." Ron Howard's gentle sci-fi fantasy garnered all kinds of critical acclaim and became a financial triumph as well (earning Don Ameche a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in the process), yet some 25-plus years after its original release, "Cocoon" has become something of a forgotten film. Sure, it's shown on TV from time to time, yet the fact that it took until 2004 for the film to receive a proper DVD release shows you that the movie hasn't remained in the public consciousness, despite the success of Howard as a filmmaker in the years since its debut.

That being said, I found that "Cocoon" has held up pretty well since its original release. Its heartwarming tale of aliens and Florida retirees managed to cross all demographics, pleasing both adult viewers and younger audiences into genre fantasies of the era. The movie benefits enormously from a cast of Hollywood veterans (Ameche, Hume Cronyn, Wilford Brimley, Jessica Tandy, Jack Gilford among them), playing those residents of a Florida retirement complex who improbably find themselves rejuvenated, thanks to aliens (Brian Dennehy, Tahnee Welch) who arrive to retrieve the cocoons of their brethren deep on Atlantic Ocean floor with the help of fishing boat captain Steve Guttenberg.

Sure, some of the movie's humor is cliché (not unlike an episode of "The Golden Girls"), but the performances are still winning across the board, while James Horner's score keeps everything glued together. When the cast and Horner returned for the inevitable (and wholly unnecessary) 1988 flop sequel "Cocoon: The Return," the magic was gone, though the goodwill of the performances (sans Dennehy, who only appeared in a brief cameo) managed to make the sequel watchable in spite of its hackneyed script.

Fox’s Blu-Ray edition of “Cocoon” is a virtual HD reprise of the 2004 DVD, with the added benefit of a good looking AVC encoded transfer and DTS Master Audio soundtrack. Extras on the 25gb single-layer BD platter include a commentary by Howard expressly recorded for that DVD, along with vintage promotional material, TV spots, and trailers for both “Cocoon” (including an early teaser in 2.35 scope) and “Cocoon: The Return.”

THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR Blu-Ray (**½, 113 mins., 2009, R; MGM/Fox): I have to admit I was pretty rough on this 1999 remake of the late ‘60s Steve McQueen-Faye Dunaway hit. I lead off my original review with a thorough trashing of Bill Conti’s score: “it's ironic that Michel Legrand scored the original ‘Thomas Crown Affair,’ since Bill Conti's abysmal music in this slick but flat remake is the most inappropriate score written for a cool double-crossing romantic-thriller since ‘Never Say Never Again’, which was scored by -- of course -- Michel Legrand. Featuring -- for no discernable reason -- Flamenco passages (why?), '80s-ish electric guitars, blaring saxophones, and a distinct lack of connection with the drama onscreen (one sequence sports a laughable warbling trumpet, a la a '30s MGM Mickey Rooney picture), Conti's soundtrack is a total disaster in a movie that cried out for the silky strings of a John Barry soundtrack to make up for the lack of heat between the two leads.” Ouch!

I have to confess that even as a lifelong Conti fan -- and the sprightly main piano theme aside -- I still don’t quite care for his score for John McTiernan’s remake, but the movie itself isn’t as bad as I originally thought. Certainly this caper is moderately entertaining -- and performed well enough at the box-office to inspire intermittent talk of an as-of-yet unproduced sequel -- even though it has a few glaring problems that linger some 11 years after its original release.

Pierce Brosnan is suave, alright, as the debonair Thomas Crown, but he's so cool that he never conveys a real person. Rene Russo, in one of her more appealing performances, flexes her acting muscles (and displays her body for the first time in her career) but never generates any chemistry with the detached Brosnan, who could have been appearing in a Timex watch commercial for all the excitement he brings to the role. (Maybe his producing chores were too much to bear?).

The settings are pleasant, though, and McTiernan's leisurely pacing would have been sufficient had the movie worked. Unfortunately, and in spite of a few effective moments, it never really gets there, with most of it plodding along without any tension or suspense. Russo can only single-handedly carry the picture so far.

MGM’s Blu-Ray edition of “Thomas Crown” ‘99 is presented on a 50gb Blu-Ray platter with a robust AVC encoded transfer and DTS Master Audio soundtrack. A DVD edition, which includes McTiernan’s commentary, is also bundled inside the quite-affordably priced package.

ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS - THE SQUEAKUEL Blu-Ray (**½, 88 mins., PG; Fox): Still think the Chipmunks are a flash in the pan? How about another $200 million-plus domestic (double that worldwide) gross for another harmless slice of kid-friendly entertainment, wherein Alvin and the gang (minus Jason Lee, whose contractual commitments here relegated him to a cameo) enroll in school and meet the Chipettes for the first time. More music videos and childish gags ought to enthrall younger viewers, and I confess it’s at least more entertaining than its predecessor, with Zachary Levi (TV’s “Chuck”) subbing for Lee and David Cross on-hand to provide some very mild villainy. Fox’s Blu-Ray disc also sports a DVD and digital copy, plus plenty of extras, including numerous featurettes, music videos, an AVC encoded 1080p transfer and DTS Master Audio sound.

PIRATE RADIO Blu-Ray (**½, 117 mins., 2009, R; Universal): Richard Curtis’ latest film was originally released in England as “The Boat That Rocked,” but so-so reviews and criticism of a bloated running time lead Curtis and Universal to re-cut the movie for the U.S. That resulting new version, “Pirate Radio,” was generally regarded to have at least improved the picture’s pacing, but even here, it’s still an overlong but amiable comedy about a group of off-shore DJ’s who broadcast the revolutionary ‘60s rock songs of The Kinks, Jimi Hendrix, The Stones, etc. to a regimented UK that was banning some of the sounds of the era on the mainland. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Bill Nighy, Rhys Ifans, Nick Frost and Kenneth Branagh make up the terrific ensemble at the heart of Curtis’ movie, and the cast is able to overcome the film’s unevenness enough to make it worthwhile. Universal’s Blu-Ray includes ample deleted scenes (including three exclusive to the format), plus featurettes and commentary from Curtis and other members of the production team. The AVC encoded 1080p transfer is splendid, and the songs sound great in the DTS Master Audio soundtrack.

44 INCH CHEST DVD (**½, 95 mins., 2009, R; Image): Louis Mellis and David Scinto, who penned the memorable Ben Kingsley gangster thriller “Sexy Beast,” are back with another taut tale of a similarly tough guy (Ray Winstone) who kidnaps his wife’s lover while he’s being egged on by his buddies to exact revenge. Ian McShane, Tom Wilkinson and Stephen Dillane comprise the outstanding supporting cast in this interesting if somewhat superficial thriller that doesn’t overstay its welcome, and is well paced by director Malcolm Venville. Image’s DVD edition includes commentary from the director plus an interview with Venville, a behind-the-scenes featurette and the trailer; the DVD’s 16:9 (1.85) transfer is fine, while 5.1 audio rounds out the presentation.

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE DVD (510 mins., 1996; A&E): This A&E/BBC co-production is generally regarded as the finest adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic book, which says something given other outstanding renditions of the Austen story produced over the decades. Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle have palpable chemistry in this 1996 production, gracefully adapted by director Simon Langton and writer Andrew Davies, with a marvelous supporting cast and sumptuous locales.

A&E meticulously remastered “Pride and Prejudice” a year ago, offering the new transfer first on Blu-Ray, where the results completely blew away prior DVD and broadcast editions of the mini-series. As profiled in a featurette on the restoration, extensive work was done to produce a definitive transfer of the show and the results are outstanding indeed. The 2.0 stereo sound isn’t as much of an improvement, but the visuals are, and now DVD owners can appreciate the restoration as well in a package that also includes several featurettes profiling the legacy of this wonderful effort that comes with my highest recommendation.   

TENDERNESS DVD (*½, 101 mins., 2009, R; Lionsgate): Not even Russell Crowe’s name could stop this terrible indie drama/sort-of thriller from going straight to video in the U.S.. John Polson’s slow-moving, pointless movie (scripted by Emil Stern, from a Robert Cormier novel) follows Crowe as a detective still interested in a teen serial killer (Jon Foster), recently released from prison, and his relationship with a troubled young girl (Sophie Traub) who’s fascinated with him. “Tenderness” is atmospheric but doesn’t really work, with Crowe phoning in an almost catatonic performance. Remember this is from the same guy who gave us the hideous Robert DeNiro-Dakota Fanning travesty “Hide and Seek,” so you’ve been properly warned. Lionsgate’s DVD includes a 16:9 (2.35) transfer with 5.1 audio and one behind-the-scenes featurette.

NEOWOLF DVD (88 mins., 2010, R; Lionsgate): Tepid direct-to-video schlocker about a rural rock group populated with werewolves was apparently shot as “The Band From Hell” but something happened on the way to the small screen since none other than old friend Alan Smithee is credited as the director. Lionsgate’s DVD includes a 16:9 (1.78) transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

PEACOCK DVD (*½, 91 mins., 2010, PG-13; Lionsgate): Misfired thriller with Cillian Murphy as a bank clerk with a multiple personality -- namely a woman named Emma, whom his neighbors somehow believe is his character’s wife (!). Michael Lander’s period film, which deservedly went straight to video, offers a terrific cast, with Susan Sarandon, Ellen Page (playing a single mom with a young child), Josh Lucas and Bill Pullman co-starring, but it’s just impossible to believe that nobody can tell Murphy’s alter-ego isn’t on the level of Norman Bates. Lionsgate’s DVD includes deleted scenes, an alternate ending, a featurette and script in DVD-ROM, plus a 16:9 (1.78) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

JIM HENSON’S THE SONG OF THE CLOUD FOREST and Other Earth Stories DVD (100 mins.)
JIM HENSON’S ANIMAL SHOW: Lions, Tigers & Bears DVD (120 mins; Lionsgate): Two kid-friendly DVD compilations from Lionsgate spotlight some of the Jim Henson Company’s later offerings, all concerning the animal kingdom and the ecological world around us.
“Animal Show” was an enjoyable, funny series that aired on both Fox Kids as well as Animal Planet, revolving around a talk show hosted by a polar bear and skunk who interview various members of the animal world. The “Animal Show” DVD includes 5 episodes from the series in full-screen transfers and stereo sound.
“Song of the Cloud Forest,” meanwhile, was a “Jim Henson Hour” special, which is combined here on DVD with a “Fraggle Rock” episode (“River of Life”) plus two other episodes from “Animal Show.” Once again full-screen transfers and stereo soundtracks round out the disc.

RED CLIFF Blu-Ray (**½, 148 mins., 2009, R; Magnolia): John Woo’s epic drama, set in 208 A.D. during the end of the Han Dynasty, offers exquisite action sequences, gorgeous cinematography, massive fights -- and unfortunately, a running time so long that the film was divided into two parts, with the U.S. also receiving its own, shortened theatrical cut that abridges the entire movie. Magnolia has released both the long International version as well as the 148-minute theatrical cut on Blu-Ray, and having seen the longer edition, I can say the abbreviated version is definitely NOT the way to go. Although Woo’s original vision requires a lengthy commitment from the viewer, it’s also better paced, fleshed out and satisfying than the two-and-a-half-hour edition Magnolia provided for review here. The BD does include a great looking AVC encoded 1080p transfer plus DTS Master Audio sound and extras including an interview with Woo, a Making Of featurette, HDNet behind-the-scenes and storyboards.

DEFENDOR DVD (**½, 101 mins., 2009, R; Sony): Just in time for the release of “Kick Ass” comes this uneven but amiable Canadian import starring Woody Harrelson as a mentally-impaired guy who doubles as a super-hero despite not having any superpowers to speak of. Peter Stebbings’ picture is entertaining in spite of its shifting tone and sports good performances from Harrelson, Elias Koteas, Michael Kelly, Sandra Oh and particularly Kat Dennings as the hooker with a heart of gold who befriends our regularly-powered protagonist. Sony’s DVD offers deleted scenes, outtakes, five featurettes, and commentary from cast and crew members; the 16:9 (2.35) widescreen transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack are each just fine.

THE BASKETBALL DIARIES Blu-Ray (**, 102 mins., 1995, R; Palm Pictures): Jim Carroll’s autobiographical tale of his turbulent adolescence, going from high school hoops star to drug addict, became a mostly poorly-received film adaptation in the mid ‘90s. Today, it’s best known for Leonardo DiCaprio’s star turn as Carroll, who later became a poet but whose journey into the abyss and back again isn’t particularly well chronicled in this formulaic film from director Scott Kalvert and screenwriter Bryan Goluboff. The film charts Carroll’s downfall in gritty detail, but then skimps on the details of his turnaround and later redemption; what’s more, DiCaprio seems more of a poser here than anything else, failing to come off as believable in a difficult role. That said, DiCaprio fans may be interested in revisiting the picture, and indeed, between his appearance and an early starring role for Mark Wahlberg, those elements have given the film a bit of a (undeserved) cult reputation. Palm Pictures’ Blu-Ray disc looks fine, boasts DTS Master Audio sound, interviews with cast and crew members, and an interview and poetry reading with the late Carroll.

THE SLAMMIN’ SALMON DVD and Blu-Ray (*½, 98 mins., 2009, R; Anchor Bay): I haven’t been a fan of the comedy group Broken Lizard’s cinematic output so far, having advised fans in the past that they alone were the core audience for “Super Troopers” and “Club Dread.” Those aficionados are once again the viewers most likely to find something funny in their latest would-be comedic venture about a former heavyweight boxer (Michael Clarke Duncan) and his Miami restaurant, but it’s weak even by the (low) standards set by the group’s predecessors. Anchor Bay’s DVD and Blu-Ray editions of ”Slammin’ Salmon” offer widescreen (16:9 DVD, 1080p Blu-Ray) transfers with two commentary tracks and a featurette, plus 5.1 Dolby Digital sound (the BD also includes a PCM track).


FALCON CREST - Season 1 DVD (900 mins., 1981-82; Warner): Season one of the long-running CBS prime-time soaper hits DVD this month, starring Jane Wyman as the matriarch of the Channing family, forever intertwined in the wine and social circuit of Northern California. Robert Foxworth, Lorenzo Lamas, Abby Dalton and Susan Sullivan co-starred in this series that was, surprisingly, created by “The Waltons”’ Earl Hamner, who was attempting here to launch another family drama for the network. CBS wanted something more sensational, and Hamner laughed all the way to the bank as “Falcon Crest” would air for the duration of the decade. Warner’s Season 1 DVD box-set looks and sounds just fine given its age, with full-screen transfers and mono soundtracks on-hand.    

ALLY McBEAL - Season 2 DVD (978 mins., 1998-99; Fox): David E. Kelley’s popular ‘90s comic-dramedy comes back to DVD this month in a complete Season 2 package. Presented in 16:9 (1.78) widescreeen transfers and boasting that its original music remains intact (and this is one of those series where fans would rally against substantial alterations), Fox’s DVD set looks and sounds good, presenting all 23 second-season episodes from the Calista Flockhart show in a six-disc box-set.

RITA ROCKS - Season 1 DVD (aprx. 7 hours, 2008; A&E)
SHERI - Season 1 DVD (aprx. 5 hours, 2009; A&E): A pair of Lifetime sitcoms also hit DVD this month from A&E.

“Rita Rocks” is the more satisfying of the duo, offering former “MadTV” cast member Nicole Sullivan in an engaging star turn as a housewife and former Bangles cover band singer who strikes up a friendship with her teen daughter’s boyfriend and starts a band. This Lifetime comedy is quite likeable from what I’ve sampled of it, with the show nicely tailored around Sullivan’s comedic skills. “Rita Rocks” is presented in a three-disc set offering its 20 first-season episodes and a music video.

“Sheri,” meanwhile, stars the comedienne and current co-host of “The View” in a sitcom very loosely based on her own life, with Sheppard as an actress/comic trying to raise her two kids in spite of a cheating husband and a more mundane day job. Lifetime’s DVD includes “Sheri”’s inaugural 13 episodes on two discs with “webisode” extras.

THE REAL HOUSEWIVES OF NEW JERSEY - Season 1 DVD (aprx. 8 hours, 2009; Bravo/A&E): Extremely popular Bravo series follows the big-hair wearing, often trash-talking wives of New Jersey through an entire year of domestic squabbles, in-fighting and the immortal “table flip” episode. Bravo’s DVD includes the complete first season with reunion episodes, a “Director’s Cut” of the season finale and more.

THE ESSENTIAL GAMES OF THE DETROIT TIGERS DVD (MLB/A&E): With the baseball season finally here, Detroit Tigers fans are undoubtedly again hoping that their team wins a mediocre AL Central division. Even if they fail in that endeavor, fans can seek solace in this latest box-set from MLB and Bravo, offering the complete games (as selected by the fans) of Game 5 of the ‘68 World Series; Game 5 of the 1984 World Series (with legendary Tiger announcer Ernie Harwell’s play-by-play on a secondary track); the final game at Tiger Stadium in 1999; and the memorable Game 4 from the 2006 ALCS where Magglio Ordonoez hit a three-run homer to sweep the A’s. In addition to the complete TV broadcasts of those games, the set is packed with numerous all-time great highlights from other classic Tigers games. An essential release for baseball lovers and particularly Tiger fans.

KOURTNEY & KHLOE TAKE MIAMI DVD (179 mins., 2009; Lionsgate): Those crazy Kardashian sisters head to Miami to seek a fresh start in business and their ever-on going social lives. Lionsgate’s DVD includes 1.78 (non anamorphic) widescreen transfers, stereo sound, deleted scenes and bonus interviews.

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