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Aisle Seat April Assault!
In-Depth Break Down Of The Latest Releases
HD-DVDs, Blu Ray Discs, Vintage TV and More

As we head deeper into the new year, more titles on DVD and its competing high-definition counterparts will be spinning their way onto store shelves everywhere. April is when the pace really begins to pick up steam, as catalog titles, HD debuts, vintage favorites and TV on DVD box sets begin to sprout like fresh spring flowers (that is, if they can find their way out of the snow we’ve been getting recently!).

This week we’ll start with a run-down of the most recent high-definition titles on both HD-DVD and Blu Ray, and follow that up with a studio-by-studio rundown of what you can expect to find on the new release rack now and in the coming weeks. 

New Blu Ray and HD-DVD Titles

In addition to the news that Samsung will be manufacturing a dual-format HD-DVD/Blu Ray player for the end of the year (somewhat of a blow to Sony and its hopes for Blu Ray domination), a good amount of new titles have cropped up in both formats (as always, refer to earlier Aisle Seat reviews for more specific analysis on the films being reviewed).   

DOG DAY AFTERNOON: HD-DVD Edition (***½, 124 mins., 1975, R; Warner): Al Pacino’s brilliant performance as a desperate, manic New Yorker who attempts to steal funds from a small Brooklyn bank on a hot August afternoon  fuels Sidney Lumet’s still-relevant 1975 smash. As much a meditation on celebrity and the media as it is a tense study of a desperate man trying to steal the money to afford a sex change operation for his partner (Chris Sarandon), “Dog Day Afternoon” is a dynamic Lumet film, packed with atmosphere and great performances from a cast filled with character actors (Charles Durning, James Broderick, a young Lance Henriksen and particularly Pacino’s “Godfather” co-star John Cazale as his partner in crime). Warner’s HD-DVD edition reprises all the extras from the two-disc Special Edition package (i.e. a multi-part Laurent Bouzereau documentary and the trailer), while enhancing the movie’s appearance obviously for high definition. The print is in generally good condition and only shows its age in its general grainy aspects, making this a must-have release for Pacino fans with HD-DVD players (a Blu Ray version is also available).

SCHOOL FOR SCOUNDRELS: HD-DVD Edition (**½, 108 mins., Unrated, 2006; Genius/Weinstein): Todd Phillips’ remake of the vintage British comedy presents the sure-fire teaming of “Napoleon Dynamite”’s Jon Heder with Billy Bob Thornton. Heder is the delinquent who’s whipped into shape by teacher Thornton, with the usual assortment of cameos (Ben Stiller, David Cross, etc.) sprinkled into an uneven but occasionally funny farce, which only falls apart really in its final half-hour. Weinstein’s HD-DVD looks nifty and offers a sharper upgrade on the standard DVD edition, plus reprises the extras from the latter: an Unrated version that sports some eight minutes of added content; commentary with Phillips and writer Scot Armstrong; an alternate ending; gag reel; and a “Making Of” that “you didn’t see on TV.” On the audio side, the HD-DVD disc includes both Dolby Digital Plus and Dolby TrueHD sound.
FEAST: HD-DVD Edition (*½, 2006, 92 mins., R; Dimension/Genius Products): The Ben Affleck-Matt Damon co-produced “Project Greenlight” reality series hasn’t resulted in an output of theatrical features with wide distribution. In fact, the series’ first two movies disappeared without a trace and the latest off-shoot from the show -- the John Gulager-directed horror flick “Feast” -- met a similar fate by basically not being released whatsoever. Not that you could blame Dimension Films, since this tale of hungry creatures terrorizing various patrons at a rural bar (including Jason Mewes) is pretty much a time-killer for hard-core horror addicts only, serving up yawns instead of shocks and a overly-self aware script typical of most modern genre films. Dimension’s HD-DVD does look excellent, though, and sports supplements from the previous standard release (outtakes, deleted scenes, commentary, and a Making Of) while adding an HD-only “Where Are They Now?” featurette. The HD-DVD disc also includes Dolby TrueHD audio as well as Dolby Digital Plus sound.      
New Blu Ray Titles

THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS: Blu Ray Edition (***, 117 mins., 2006, PG-13; Sony): Chris Gardner’s remarkable true story about his travails from homeless hopelessness to climbing the corporate ladder makes for an at-times overly pat but nevertheless inspiring film. Will Smith is terrific here as Gardner, faced with trying to maintain an existence with his young son (Smith’s own son, Jaden Christopher Skye Smith) in tow, and while Gabrielle Muccino’s film feels a bit forced at times, the sentiment and sincerity of Smith’s performance carries the picture. Sony’s Blu Ray DVD edition looks virtually flawless as one would anticipate, sporting a 1080p transfer and 5.1, uncompressed PCM sound. In another happy development, the disc also offers a number of supplements including commentary from Muccino, several featurettes, and an interview with Gardner. Not a classic but certainly entertaining, worthwhile viewing, and a most satisfying Blu Ray disc overall.

NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM: Blu Ray Edition (***, 110 mins., 2006, PG; Fox): Surprisingly good, entertaining fantasy raked up major bucks at the box-office last Christmas, with director Shawn Levy surpassing his prior box-office hits (the hapless “Pink Panther” and “Cheaper By the Dozen” remakes) with a robust variant on “Jumanji.” Ben Stiller is pitch-perfect as the night guard at the Museum of Natural History, which improbably comes to life with all kinds of exhibits springing into existence. Loads of familiar faces turn up in engaging supporting roles (Steve Coogan, Ricky Gervais, Owen Wilson, and Robin Williams as Teddy Roosevelt), Alan Silvestri’s score adds a touch of class, and the special effects are equally strong. Fox’s Blu Ray release isn’t packed with as many extras as the 2-disc Special Edition, but does offer two commentary tracks, the trailer, and a solid 1080p (MPEG-2) transfer with 5.1 DTS Master audio.

KING ARTHUR: Blu Ray Edition (***, 139 mins.., 2004, Unrated; Buena Vista): A box-office disappointment in the U.S., Jerry Bruckheimer's muscular take on the legend performed exceedingly well overseas, where one might have assumed this action-packed Arthurian rendition would have failed to drum up much business.

Granted, "King Arthur" will never be revered as a celebrated epic like Mel Gibson's "Braveheart", as a visionary fantasy like John Boorman's "Excalibur," or a beloved cult item like "Conan the Barbarian." Still, you could do a lot worse than to take in Antoine Fuqua's fantasy: the actors perform admirably across the board, and there's at least one inventive battle sequence (with Arthur's band and the Saxons fighting on a sheet of thin ice) that's particularly effective. At a time when so many films are overly reliant on CGI, it's also refreshing to see a movie utilize actual locales, stunt men, and settings without the glare of glossy effects work. Fuqua's direction may be standard for the Bruckheimer school, but the movie thankfully doesn't cross-cut every few seconds like a typical Michael Bay epic, making "King Arthur" perfect for a night's worth of escapist entertainment.

That feeling is reaffirmed by Buena Vista's Blu-Ray DVD, which offers the longer, more violent version Fuqua wanted to be screened in theaters. Featuring over 15 minutes of extended scenes and a bit more blood, this more visceral cut is preferable to the theatrical version. Extras on the disc include commentary from Fuqua, an alternate ending that doesn't work as well as the one in the final cut, a "roundtable" discussion with cast and crew members, a Making Of featurette, and a Blu-Ray exclusive trivia track.

Visually, the HD transfer is frequently robust with strong, vivid colors, though like a lot of modern films the image is intentionally grainy at times and comes off as soft during some of the smokier sequences. The uncompressed 5.1 PCM sound is top-notch.

G.I. JANE (***½, 1998, 125 mins., R; Buena Vista): One of Ridley Scott’s better films from the ‘90s was a box-office disappointment, despite containing one of Demi Moore’s finest performances. Despite its pre-release controversy, “G.I. Jane” offers a straightforward, fast-paced boot-camp tale with Demi vying to become the first female Navy SEAL. Viggo Mortensen is tremendous as the predictably strict drill sergeant, while Anne Bancroft is likewise superb as a senator with ulterior motives and Jason Beghe is Demi's understanding boyfriend. Plenty of action, good performances, and smart dialogue prevail in this one, and Scott’s visuals have finally been given justice here in a new Blu Ray transfer. The previous standard DVD wasn’t even 16:9 enhanced, meaning this new HD transfer doesn’t need to go very far to improve upon its predecessor. However, while it IS an improvement, the results are solid but still not spectacular, with the Blu Ray transfer looking soft at various points, and only occasionally showing off the benefits of HD (you’ll note Paramount’s recent HD-DVD of Scott’s “Black Rain” contains a much stronger transfer). The uncompressed 5.1 sound seems a bit muted, and the Blu Ray release lacks any extras -- meaning the 1998 laserdisc is still the only place you’ll find the discarded opening title sequence and Ridley Scott commentary.

New April Releases by Studio


Another superb collection of Cinema Classics packages highlight Fox’s April DVD slate, along with several new vintage titles from the MGM label.

From the “Cinema Classics” line come three excellent Fox literary adaptations that Golden Age fans should love: Victor Hugo’s LES MISERABLES, presented in both its 1935 and 1952 adaptations, as well as the 1944 adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s JANE EYRE and the 1948 production of Leo Tolstoy’s ANNA KARENINA.

“Les Miserables” is especially intriguing, as one can compare the 1935 production (with Charles Laughton, Frederic March, and Cedric Hardwicke) with the 1952 version, which stars Michael Rennie, Debra Paget and a supporting cast of familiar faces (Robert Newton, Elsa Lanchester, Edmund Gwenn, Sylvia Sidney and others), plus offers an excellent Alex North score. Restored black-and-white transfers are on-hand, along with restoration comparisons, 2.0 stereo and mono soundtracks, and a featurette, “The Fugitive and the Pursuer: Vidocq.”

Excellent supplements highlight Fox’s adaptation of “Jane Eyre,” which stars Orson Welles, Joan Fontaine, Agnes Moorehead and Elizabeth Taylor in an atmospheric, memorable adaptation of the Bronte classic. John Houseman and Aldous Huxley contributed to the screenplay, which, under the direction of Robert Stevenson, resulted in a top-flight production all around, capped off by an outstanding Bernard Herrmann score.

Fox’s DVD sports a marvelously insightful commentary track with Nick Redman and fellow historians Steven Smith and Julie Kirgo, plus another excellent commentary with Welles biographer Joseph McBride and Margaret O’Brien, who co-stars in the film. An isolated music/fx track, a retrospective featurette, the original trailer, numerous still galleries, and a vintage US War Department film made by Stevenson cap off a first-class disc all around.

Vivien Leigh’s performance as “Anna Karenina” is the highlight of Fox’s glossy 1948 adaptation of the Tolstoy novel, which Fox has preserved here on DVD in another superb presentation, albeit minus the extensive extras found on “Jane Eyre.” Two featurettes on Tolstoy comprise the supplemental side, while the movie is presented in a remastered black-and-white transfer with matching 2.0 stereo and mono soundtracks.

MGM’s vaults have been mined for the first time in a while on DVD, with Fox offering several eclectic catalog titles this month.

Included in the batch are new editions of the 1981 Robert DeNiro-Robert Duvall thriller TRUE CONFESSIONS (1981, 106 mins., R), presented in a dual-sided release with 1.85 and full-screen transfers; the memorable 1974 Robert Altman-directed, Depression-era character study THIEVES LIKE US (1974, 123 mins., R), presented in 1.85 widescreen; the bizarre 1972 follow-up to “Get Carter” from director-writer Mike Hodges and its star, Michael Caine, entitled PULP (1972, 96 mins., PG), a sort-of spoof co-starring Mickey Rooney, offered here in 1.78 widescreen; and Keith Gordon’s low-budget 1988 adaptation of the Robert Cormier novel THE CHOCOLATE WAR (1988, 104 mins., R).

No extras are included on the discs save for “The Chocolate War,” which contains a new 16:9 transfer, remixed 5.1 soundtrack, interview with director Gordon, and a commentary track also with Gordon, who effectively handled this tale of humiliation and conformity at a Catholic boys school. “Smallville”’s John Glover is particularly good in the picture as the deceitful Brother and the film’s resident heavy. It’s not as satisfying as “Heaven Help Us” (Michael Dinner’s under-rated, and generally lighter, 1985 film about life at a Catholic high school in the mid ‘60s), but it’s certainly worth seeing.

Also new from MGM this month is the Complete First Season of FLIPPER (1964-65), the winning small-screen adaptation of the MGM films, starring Brian Kelly as the Park Ranger and father to sons Luke Halpin and Tommy Norden, who constantly get into some trouble -- mostly of the oceanic variety in their scenic Florida coastal town of Coral Key, with help from Flipper in tow during most episodes.

This colorful, half-hour series ran in syndication for years -- I even grew up with it during re-runs in the early ‘80s -- and MGM has done a nice job bringing “Flipper” to DVD. This four-disc box set includes all 30 season one episodes in excellent full-screen transfers with mono sound and a bonus “Flipper” trivia game.

Last but not least is the Complete ANT AND THE AARDVARK Collection from the “New Pink Panther Show” of the late ‘60s. Fans of the DePatie-Freleng cartoons will enjoy this single-disc anthology of all 17 shorts featuring the comic duo, presented in good-looking full-screen transfers. Recommended! 


SPIDER-MAN 2: Special “2.1" Edition (****, 136 mins., 2004, PG-13; Sony): Whether it's the fully-developed characters, more laid back tone, the added dashes of humor and warmth, or the sheer fact that “Spider-Man 2" has a genuine story to compliment its dazzling action scenes, the bottom line is that this 2004 sequel is a sensational follow-up that's not only superior to its predecessor but also one of the great comic-book films of all-time.

Thanks to a terrific screenplay by two-time Oscar winner Alvin Sargent that goes beyond the "origin story" confines of the original, "Spider-Man 2" is one of the rare sequels that improves upon its predecessor, perfectly capturing the essence of both the comic book's wild action and the very human story of Peter Parker at its core.

Not only are the characters and story better fleshed out, but the entire tone of "Spider- Man 2" feels right. There are a lot more laughs to be found here, more instances of humor lurking around the edges, yet none are done at the expense of cheapening the story or poking fun at the subject matter. That's undoubtedly due to the more assured direction of Sam Raimi, who seems more confident behind the lens. "Spider-Man 2" has plenty of great effects and colorful battles between Spidey and Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock, yet this film feels a lot more cohesive in every facet than the original. Raimi doesn't feel the need to throw in a handful of montage scenes here because the story has already been established; instead, there are scenes which develop the characters, dialogue which feels less artificial and more "real," and not one wrong note struck in the entire show.

If it sounds like I'm overflowing with praise for "Spider-Man 2," well, it's because I am. Three years after the film’s original release, it’s held up every bit as well as one could hope, setting the bar high for the new “Spider-Man 3" sequel to attempt to match next month.

Speaking of which, Sony’s new double-disc “Spider-Man 2.1" edition adds some eight minutes of footage back into the movie -- an expanded version which debuted a couple of months ago on the FX network. The new scenes are primarily additions to existing footage, but fans will appreciate seeing them, as they will the disc’s new supplements (a commentary with Sargent and producer Laura Ziskin; trivia track; and some new featurettes, including a relatively worthless “multi-angle” bonus with Danny Elfman conducting his score). Visually, the 16:9 transfer is good but not spectacular, with some digital artifacting cropping up here and there, whetting the appetite for a full-fledged HD version to follow (possibly) in the near future.

Note that this “2.1" edition wasn’t intended to supplant the original DVD release, so there are a ton of supplements on the original 2-disc set which aren’t reprieved here. Therefore, collectors will want to hang on to both sets for the complete “Spider-Man 2" DVD experience.

THE MARSH (**, 96 mins., 2006, R; Sony): Tired supernatural chiller with above-average performances finds Gabrielle Anwar returning to the land of the living (or at least working) as a children’s author suffering from visions of a ghostly child and a haunted house...leading her to visit the said house once she improbably stumbles upon it. Forest Whitaker (!), fresh off his Oscar win, must have cashed a decent check for his supporting part as a sympathetic investigator who helps Gaby put the pieces together. “The Marsh” isn’t awful but feels like a better-than-usual Sci-Fi Channel movie, meaning it still isn’t as entertaining as a typical episode of “Ghost Hunters.” Sony’s DVD includes a 16:9 (1.85) transfer, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, and a behind-the-scenes featurette.


FREEDOM WRITERS (**½, 122 mins., 2007, PG-13; Paramount): A few weeks ago “Mad TV” ran a hilarious sketch that skewered every white-schoolteacher-teaches-and-learns-from-poor-minority-students film ever made. Granted, there haven’t been a lot of them, but between the Michelle Pfeiffer film “Dangerous Minds” and “Freedom Writers,” the well-meaning and acted new film from Richard LaGravenese (screenwriter of “The Fisher King”), you can sense that this sub-genre of motion pictures has over-used enough cliches that any subsequent films will have work to do in order to be fresh and unpredictable.

“Freedom Writers” is not a bad film by any means -- LaGravenese does an excellent job establishing characters, and gets a good performance out of Hilary Swank as the noble teacher trying to bring tolerance and learning to a tough inner-city school -- but still, even here the movie reworks standard-issue plot devices that even the Jon Lovitz spoof “High School High” grilled a decade ago.

Paramount’s DVD offers commentary with LaGravenese and Swank, deleted scenes, two featurettes, and the trailer. The 16:9 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound are both fine, the latter offering an effective dramatic score by Mark Isham and “will i.am.”

THE ODD COUPLE: Season 1 (1970-71, 10 hrs., Paramount): Originally available from Time-Life Home Video, Paramount brings the excellent, supplemental-packed Season One set of the classic sitcom “The Odd Couple” to DVD nationwide this month. This hilarious small-screen adaptation of the Neil Simon stage play and subsequent hit film for Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon worked perfectly on network TV, where Tony Randall and Jack Klugman were perfect fits for Felix Unger and Oscar Madison, respectively. Paramount’s five-disc set includes all 24 first season episodes in remastered transfers with a smattering of extras (introductions from producer Garry Marshall; commentaries by Marshall, writer Jerry Belson, Klugman, actress Carole Shelley and others; TV promos; home videos; gag reel, etc.) and a bonus fifth disc sporting Randall and Klugman’s favorite episodes from the series. A must-have release for every “Odd Couple” fan!


THE QUEEN (***½, 103 mins., 2006, PG-13; Buena Vista): Helen Mirren’s Oscar-winning performance as Queen Elizabeth II lifts this Stephen Frears film from being merely entertaining to something more substantial. As a portrait of a woman who opens up following a tragic circumstance (here, the death of Princess Diana), “The Queen” is a witty, human character study. Writer Peter Morgan’s script follows the relationship between the Queen and Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) after that event and questions the point of the British monarchy and how far removed -- albeit well-intentioned -- the Queen is from her own subjects. “The Queen” isn’t particularly revolutionary, but the performances of Mirren and Sheen propel the material into an actor’s showcase, and those who missed the theatrical release most undoubtedly should check out Buena Vista’s DVD. Arriving next week, the disc includes commentary with Fears and Morgan as well as royal expert Robert Lacey on a separate track, as well as a standard Making Of featurette. The 1.85 (16:9) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound are both fine, with Alexandre Desplat’s low-key score suiting the material properly.

DEJA VU (**, 126 mins., 2006, PG-13; Buena Vista): Director Tony Scott, producer Jerry Bruckheimer and star Denzel Washington have worked their magic before, but their streak at the box-office ran out with this silly, tedious thriller. Washington plays a cop investigating a New Orleans ferry explosion who finds out the government can alter time to attempt to set things straight. Val Kilmer, Jim Caviezel and Bruce Greenwood lead a strong supporting cast in a slickly-made but jumbled, incoherent film that’s far from the best work of any of the talent involved. Buena Vista’s DVD offers deleted and extended scenes and a number of featurettes, plus a 16:9 (2.35) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Among the studio’s latest discs are Special Edition packages of Don Coscarelli’s 1979 horror favorite PHANTASM (1979, 88 mins., R) and its second sequel, PHANTASM III (1993, 91 mins., R).

The label had previously brought both pictures to DVD in a five-disc box set in the UK, complete with bonus features and specialized “sphere” packaging that emulated the series’ trademark flying silver ball of death.

Anchor Bay apparently doesn’t have the rights to Parts II and IV in the U.S., so they’ve issued the first and third films in the series on DVD here separately, enhanced by the majority of extras contained in the UK box-set (these include the 30-minute documentary “Phantasmagoria,” deleted scenes, numerous featurettes and interviews, commentary tracks, TV spots and trailers, and newly remastered 16:9 transfers with 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital sound).

Recommended for “Phantasm” fans who may not have a region-free player at their disposal and are unable to import the more substantial box-set from overseas.

Also worth noting from Anchor Bay is the release of Coscarelli's 1989 action-adventure SURVIVAL QUEST (90 mins., R), which stars Lance Henriksen, Delmot Mulroney and Catherine Keener in a film about a wildnerness adventure gone horribly awry. Scenic Rocky Mountain cinematography is complimented by strong performances in this moderately entertaining yarn. Anchor Bay's DVD includes a Making Of featurette, trailers, and a 16:9 transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

TEEN TITANS: Complete Season 3 (295 mins., Warner)
THE BATMAN: Complete Season 3 (273 mins., Warner)

Animation is in abundance from Warner on DVD this month.

The “DC Comics Kids Collection” strikes back in full force with the complete third seasons of Cartoon Network staple “Teen Titans,” as well as the WB animated series “The Batman,” which improves steadily in its third frame into a genuinely entertaining take on the Dark Knight. Even if the plots tend to be a little more juvenile than, say, the Bruce Timm “Batman” of the ‘90s, this is still a much-improved series with solid animation and action for fans.

“Billy and Mandy’s Big Boogey Adventure,” meanwhile, takes the Cartoon Network heroes and catapults them into their own full-length feature film, in a typically manic cartoon best appreciated by its fans.

LARRY KING LIVE: THE GREATEST INTERVIEWS (2007 compilation, 550 mins., Warner): The Man With The Suspenders gets his first DVD box set, and for fans, it’s a good one: a three-disc set with interviews ranging from Al Pacino and Audrey Hepburn to recent stars like Angelina  Jolie and George Clooney; talk show stalwarts Oprah, David Letterman, and others; many former U.S. Presidents with their wives; and bonus interviews with King. Well-produced and quite satisfying for King buffs.


THE TROUBLE WITH MEN AND WOMEN (2007, 74 mins., IFC/Genius/Weinstein): Cute, short comedy about a guy, newly single, who attempts to relate to women following a tough break up. Tony Fisher wrote and directed this indie film and gets appealing performances out of leads Joseph McFadden and Kate Ashfield. Not bad for a “date” flick at all. IFC’s DVD includes a 1.85 transfer and 2.0 Dolby Digital sound.

NEXT TIME: More reviews as the weather heats up (??) at last! Until then, don't forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards, check out the new Aisle Seat Blog, and direct any emails to the link above

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