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April Assault Edition
New Twilight Time, Catalog Titles on Blu-Ray

Though not a big box-office success, the enchanting, fanciful romantic-comedy DON JUAN DeMARCO (***½, 98 mins., 1995, PG-13; Warner) has always been a personal favorite of mine. Writer-director Jeremy Leven’s film offers Johnny Depp in one of his most satisfying performances as a young psychiatric patient who believes himself to be the great lover – and Marlon Brando as the veteran shrink who watches and he and his staff are touched by the unlikely “Don Juan”’s charms.

Produced by Francis Ford Coppola, “Don Juan DeMarco” is a particularly interesting film as it falls between two different cinematic eras: Brando, who at least seems more alive here than he did in most of his late-career appearances, and Depp – on the verge of genuine “super-stardom” after several years essaying mostly character-driven parts in “Ed Wood” and “Gilbert Grape” – who shows a glimmer of the Jack Sparrow-esque leading man he’d eventually become as the charismatic, contemporary Don Juan.

Leven’s original story is funny and endearing – a bona-fide romantic souffle of a film – with a gorgeous, Latin-flavored, melodic Michael Kamen score that’s one of the late composer’s finest works. Even the requisite pop song Kamen wrote with long-time collaborator R.J. “Mutt” Lange, “Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman,” is a good one, offering another ‘90s hit single for crooner Bryan Adams. With Ralf Bode’s cinematography and a bevy of lovely ladies (Talisa Soto, Rachel Ticotin, Geraldine Pailhas among them) supporting Depp, Brando and Faye Dunaway (as Brando’s long-suffering wife), “Don Juan DeMarco” is a thoroughly delightful, winning film that makes its long overdue debut in high-definition this week.

Warner’s Blu-Ray does not disappoint either, thanks to a clear, crisp 1080p HD transfer that enhances the picture’s gorgeous use of primary colors while resisting the temptation to cover the material with DNR. The original trailer and Adams’ music video comprise a supplemental section that also houses a treat: Kamen’s original isolated score, a carry-over from the old DVD release and a testament to the composer’s legacy of writing some of the downright joyous music the medium had ever seen, when coupled with the proper project.

New From Twilight Time

Romance is also at the heart of Twilight Time’s newest limited-edition Blu-Ray titles (exclusively available at Screen Archives) this month.

The Fox Cinemascope production DESIREE (***, 110 mins., 1954) offers Marlon Brando as Napoleon and Jean Simmons as Desiree Clary, a young woman who meets the future French emperor in 1794 and instantly becomes smitten with the young man. While Desiree’s sister marries Napoleon’s brother, Desiree herself loses contact with Napoleon and eventually heads to Paris where she learns that he’s engaged to Josephine – thereby setting the stage for a fluffy historical drama scripted by Daniel Taradash from a Annemarie Selinko novel. Desiree’s eventual marriage to one of Napoleon’s fellow generals (Michael Rennie), his appointment as a Swedish royal, and her eventual realization that Napoleon still loves her all play out as a fictional Hollywood romantic-drama set against real historical events of the era, all captured in the glory of Cinemascope by director Henry Koster.

From Alex North’s sweeping score to Milton Krasner’s effective use of the Cinemascope frame, “Desiree” is terrific Golden Age entertainment  – not a classic film, but certainly an entertaining one with commendable performances from Brando (who made the picture for Fox after having abruptly departed from “The Egyptian”) and Simmons (who would reunite shortly with Brando in “Guys and Dolls”). It is amusing, though, to see Richard Deacon playing Simmons’ older brother!

The 1080p AVC encoded transfer culled from the Fox vaults is crisp and satisfying with no obvious use of DNR, and the print looks to be in generally satisfactory (if not pristine) condition as well. The DTS MA soundtrack offers an effective, 4-channel stereo mix with, as is customary from Twilight Time, the isolated score contained on a separate channel. The original trailer and Julie Kirgo’s booklet notes round out the package.

A more contemporary romance is the centerpiece of BELL, BOOK AND CANDLE (***, 103 mins., 1958), a breezy adaptation of John Van Druten’s Broadway play from screenwriter Daniel Taradash (again!) that provides a very different vehicle for stars Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak, who headlined Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” earlier that same year.

Novak plays a New York City witch who finds herself interested in one of her neighbors: an “ordinary mortal” NYC publisher (Stewart). After Stewart brings his girlfriend (Janice Rule) into the nightclub where Novak hangs out along with her warlock brother (Jack Lemmon), Novak is incensed seeing that Rule was an adversary of hers in college. Novak then conjures up some of that old black magic to make Stewart fall in love with her, but ultimately finds that her feelings for him are genuine and don’t require magic at all.

An obvious precursor to TV’s “Bewitched,” “Bell, Book and Candle” isn’t quite as much fun as Rene Clair’s earlier, 40's romp “I Married a Witch,” but director Richard Quine’s flavorful chronicle of late ‘50s New York still manages to be entertaining through James Wong Howe’s nuanced cinematography and the performances of the cast. Stewart and Novak work well together again here, but they’re mostly outdone by a supporting cast of Lemmon and stalwart veterans Elsa Lanchester, Hermoine Gingold and Ernie Kovacs, who plays an author specializing in the occult who meets a real witch for the first time. George Duning’s fine score also provides a solid assist in a picture that’s – due to its stage origins – understandably talky and a little bit static at times, yet nevertheless good fun.

Twilight Time’s Blu-Ray edition of “Bell, Book and Candle” includes a wonderful 1080p AVC encoded transfer with nicely balanced contrasts and HD detail. Unlike some of TT’s other Sony releases, the audio here is comprised only of the original mono mix (in 1.0 DTS HD MA, not the 5.1 mentioned on the back cover), but it nevertheless displays a decent dynamic range all things considered. The trailer and an isolated score track are also included, along with a couple of nice bonus features: “Bewitchered, Bothered and Blonde” is a 10-minute retrospective of the film featuring an audio interview with Novak, while “Reflections in the Middle of the Night” offers a similar, audio-only talk with Novak that plays out against a montage of clips from the Fredric March B&W drama “Middle of the Night.” Recommended!

Another catalog title new to Blu-Ray this month is Universal’s 100th Anniversary edition of BUCK PRIVATES (***, 85 mins., 1941), one of Abbott & Costello’s biggest hits and a tuneful romp (offering the Andrews Sisters belting out “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” among period classics) with the boys playing con artists who enlist in the Army in order to avoid jail time. Big laughs, musical numbers and a zesty pace make this one of the best A&C films, and the only one that lead to a direct sequel (the unfortunately inferior 1947 comedy “Buck Privates Come Home”).

Universal’s 1080p HD transfer of “Buck Privates” is more or less in line with the studio’s prior “All Quiet on the Western Front”: there’s a fair amount of HD detail on hand, with some processing having been added to the picture. Overall it’s one of those titles that, the larger your set is, the more you’ll notice the HD upgrade, though it is not a massive difference from the prior DVD contained in Universal’s A&C box-set.

Extras are mostly rehashed from prior releases, including the two historical featurettes on Universal’s studio legacy during its early years, plus “Abbott & Costello meet Jerry Seinfeld” and the trailer. The colorful Digibook packaging includes an introduction from John Landis along with pages of pressbook reproductions which fans are sure to enjoy.

Also New on Blu-Ray

CONTRABAND Blu-Ray/DVD/Digital Copy (**½, 110 mins., 2012, R; Universal): Surprisingly good Mark Wahlberg thriller played to decent box-office returns this past January.       

“Contraband” finds Wahlberg’s former New Orleans smuggler reluctantly called back into action after his wife’s younger brother ends up owing a debt to a local thug (Giovanni Ribisi). Taking a ride down to Panama on a cargo ship, Wahlberg’s plan is to make a quick score in order to placate Ribisi – who’s becoming increasingly threatening to Wahlberg’s wife (Kate Beckinsale) – but things soon turn out to be quite a bit more complicated than expected.

A remake of an Icelandic film, “Reykjavik-Rotterdam,” that’s been directed here by that picture’s star – Baltasar Kormakur – “Contraband” treads over familiar turf but gets by due to a genuinely compelling script with enough twists and turns to keep one satisfied. Solid character performances from Wahlberg, Ribisi (in the same heavy role he's been playing now for years), Ben Foster, Lukas Haas and JK Simmons; interesting locales (Panama and New Orleans) and a surprisingly low body count (given the material) make for an exciting ride while it lasts, despite the familiar material at hand.

Universal’s Blu-Ray edition of “Contraband” includes a fine 1080p AVC encoded transfer, though be prepared to pump up the brightness because this is one extremely dark film (so dark I nearly thought Peter Hyams was behind the lens!). A DTS MA soundtrack and a fair amount of extras include commentary from the director, two behind-the-scenes featurettes and deleted scenes, plus a DVD and digital copy.

THE RING Blu-Ray [Best Buy exclusive] (***, 105 mins., 2002, PG-13; Dreamworks): Director Gore Verbinski’s “The Ring” was not only one of the genre’s most successful films of the last 10-15 years, but also the film that ushered in years of Asian-horror domestic remakes – most of which, from “The Grudge” and its sequels, to the hugely disappointing remake of “Dark Water,” failed to live up to this film’s thrills.

The plot, which follows the Japanese version fairly faithfully, features the premise that a video tape brings death to all those who view it within the span of seven days. Journalist Naomi Watts stumbles upon the tape after her niece's heart mysteriously stops beating, and sees a series of seemingly random images on the video, several of which involve a little girl. This forms the basis for a mystery that takes Watts to an island off the northwest coast, where a horse breeder and her husband had a daughter with unexplained, incredible powers.

Hideo Nakata's Japanese filming of Koji Suzuki's novel was a smash hit in its native country, and was one of the few recent genre films to succeed primarily on the power of suggestion and minimalist scares – not gore and violence. It was followed by a poorly received semi-sequel called "Spiral," the tepid "Ring 2" and a so-so prequel ("Ring 0").

The American remake, scripted by Ehren Kruger ("Scream 3"), drops the ball in a couple of places (most notably in the subplot involving Watts' son, who apparently shares a physic connection with the girl that's never elaborated upon), and adds a couple of unnecessarily ghoulish-looking Rick Baker corpses, but otherwise adheres closely to its source material. “The Ring” is a movie that starts off slowly but picks up steam as its mystery unfolds, culminating in a doozy of a climax that's a little more Hollywood than the Japanese version, yet in some ways is superior: there's just more atmosphere and tension in the American remake.

Verbinski also does an adept job building and sustaining tension; the Pacific Northwest locales are vividly photographed by Bojan Bizelli, and if there's one area where the American “Ring” is a marked improvement on its predecessor, it's in the film's stylish look and mood. Complimenting the picture is a marvelous score by Hans Zimmer -- or at least, Zimmer and his stable of Media Ventures composers (three are listed with having written "Additional Music" in the end credits).

Currently a Best Buy exclusive, “The Ring” looks terrific on Blu-Ray. The 1080p transfer and DTS MA soundtrack are both excellent, and extras include a number of HD featurettes, interviews, and a 3-D lenticular cover.

Although its own sequel was a huge letdown (despite being directed by Hideo Nakata himself), “The Ring” is slick and entertaining, with enough memorable sequences to keep you from turning on the TV late at night. Worth a creepy view or two.

WE BOUGHT A ZOO Blu-Ray/DVD/Digital Copy (**, 123 mins., 2011, PG; Fox): Syrupy Cameron Crowe film is earnestly acted by Matt Damon and a capable cast, but what was sold as a Christmas family film is a mostly downbeat –  and terribly overlong – cliche-fest about a dad (Damon) trying to bond with his kids after the death of his young wife. Seeking a fresh start, Damon decides to buy a downtrodden zoo in the hopes of turning his family’s perspective – and the zoo’s sagging fortunes – around.

Crowe and Aline Brosh McKenna adapted Benjamin Mee’s autobiographical book (“Hollywoodizing” it and moving the British setting to an undefined West Coast locale) for “We Bought a Zoo,” but it’s difficult to envision much of what’s on-screen bearing much of a resemblance to reality. Nearly every aspect of this supposedly true story is predictable and the film an overall disappointment, though there are a couple of very poignant moments along the way. Ultimately, at two-plus hours and with some depressing elements – and surprisingly little animal involvement – it’s certainly not for young kids, while adult viewers will be wishing Crowe had brought more of an eccentric touch to the material.

Fox’s Blu-Ray includes a solid commentary with Crowe, deleted/extended scenes, numerous featurettes, a DVD and a digital copy. The 1080p transfer and DTS MA soundtrack are both up notch.

THE DARKEST HOUR 3-D Blu-Ray (*½, 89 mins., 2011, PG-13; Summit): Bubblegum sci-fi thriller for teens finds young American guys Emile Hirsch and Max Minghella in Russia for an internet deal gone wrong when, suddenly, weird electrical-based alien organisms descend from the skies above and subsequently zap any and all of Moscow’s inhabitants.

A dud released around Christmas time, “The Darkest Hour” has some major talent behind the lens, including producer Timur Bekmambetov and writers Leslie Bohem (the superb mini-series “Taken”) and Jon Spaihts, who recently authored the first draft of Ridley Scott’s eagerly awaited “Prometheus.” The finished product – running under 90 minutes – shows little evidence of their involvement, however, coming across like a higher-budgeted Syfy Channel movie. A few of the effects are fun but there’s no tension or excitement developed over the course of director Chris Gorak’s film, with the Moscow-based location being the most noteworthy element of the production.

Summit’s 3-D Blu-Ray is uneven, with some shots in the picture boasting solid depth-of-field effects while others appear completely flat. The 2-D transfer (contained on the same disc) is fine, with DTS MA audio and extras including deleted scenes, commentary and a pair of featurettes.

BORN TO BE WILD IMAX Blu-Ray/DVD/Ultraviolet Digital Copy (***, 41 mins., 2011, G; Warner): Adorable IMAX wildlife documentary is best viewed in its native 3-D format, but viewers interested in the subject matter would do well to check out this short production even in 2-D.

“Born to be Wild” offers ample photography of adorable baby elephants and orangutans who have been orphaned in the wilds of Kenya and Borneo, respectively. Thanks to the efforts of primatologist Dr. Mary Galdikas and elephant expert Dr. Dame Daphne Sheldrick, these orphans have been raised to be eventually returned back into their native habitats, with sweeping photography of the African locales and pitch-perfect narration from (who else?) Morgan Freeman effectively articulating the story on a sheer emotional level. The program is short and the message clear, but it doesn’t wear out its welcome either.

Warner’s Blu-Ray includes a gorgeous 1080p transfer with DTS MA audio (the score by Mark Mothersbaugh is quite nice) and a DVD and Ultraviolet copy also included (a 3-D version is sold separately). Short webisodes, meanwhile, take viewers further behind-the-scenes in the Blu-Ray’s special features.

New From Acorn

Several more outstanding releases are on tap this month from Acorn.

Set 4 of POIROT (319 mins., 1992) continues Acorn’s high-def retrospectives of the original David Suchet mysteries as Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. This two-disc set includes the later Suchet mysteries –  “The ABC Murders,” “Death in the Clouds” and “One, Two, Buckle My Shoe” – in satisfying 4:3 formatted 1080p transfers and PCM stereo soundtracks.

The recent Canadian TV series MURDOCH MYSTERIES (624 mins., 2008) also arrives on Blu-Ray in a Season 1 set this month. This intriguing import, set in Toronto during the 1890s and based on a series of novels by Maureen Jennings, follows a detective who tries to adopt “modern” techniques like finger marks and forensics. Acorn’s Blu-Ray includes fine 1080p widescreen transfers, stereo soundtracks and numerous extras, including commentaries, interviews, cast and character bios, and a photo gallery.        

Finally, the classic BBC series I, CLAUDIUS (668 mins., 1976) is back on DVD in a remastered set including all 12 episodes from this acclaimed, masterful chronicle of the Roman Empire as seen through the eyes of Claudius (Derek Jacobi) in a classic adaptation of Robert Graves’ books. Sian Phillips, Brian Blessed, John Hurt, Patrick Stewart and George Baker are among those who comprised the incomparable cast of “I Claudius,” which Acorn has released on DVD in a four-disc set with a bonus disc of extras. Among the bonus features: extended original episodes of programs 1 and 2; a 74-minute look at the production; a lengthy documentary on the production of a failed 1937 feature-film adaptation; a 12 minute interview with Jacobi; cast and crew favorite scenes; and an eight-page booklet detailing the show’s historical accuracy. Needless to say, highly recommended!

New From Anchor Bay

THE WICKER TREE Blu-Ray (*½, 96 mins., 2011, R; Anchor Bay): “Wicker Man” director Robin Hardy is back with this woebegone sequel that’s actually less fun than Nicolas Cage’s unintentional laugh riot remake. This time a Texas couple (Brittania Nicol, Henry Garrett) have the misfortune of traveling to the Scottish lowlands where they get, of course, more than they bargained for. Christopher Lee chips in a very brief appearance in this poorly received sequel that has a good John Scott score that deserved to be in a better film. Anchor Bay’s Blu-Ray includes deleted scenes, the trailer, and a featurette, plus a 1080p transfer and Dolby TrueHD soundtrack.

THE IRON LADY Blu-Ray/DVD/Digital Copy (**, 105 mins., 2011, PG-13; Anchor Bay): Producer Harvey Weinstein managed to generate an awful lot of hype for Meryl Streep’s capable performance as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in last year’s “The Iron Lady,” yet the film itself certainly wasn’t “The King’s Speech.”

In fact, this poorly-scripted film is severely underwhelming from start to finish,  framing Thatcher’s life and times in the form of a standard-issue biopic that also doesn’t seem to know what to say about Thatcher’s politics, unsure of whether to laud her accomplishments or condemn her point of view. Director Phyllida Lloyd and writer Abi Morgan’s film was ultimately most effective in enabling Streep to deliver a few impressive clips to sell her performance, with Harvey’s patented campaigning doing the rest. Alas – despite Streep’s Oscar win – it’s not much of a movie.

Anchor Bay’s Blu-Ray combo pack is mostly light on extras, including a Making Of featurette and several shorter featurettes, plus a digital copy and DVD as well. The 1080p transfer and DTS MA soundtrack are both fine.

Also new on Blu-Ray and DVD

X-MEN Anime ANIMATED SERIES DVD (287 mins., 2011; Sony)
IRON MAN Anime ANIMATED SERIES DVD (287 mins., 2011; Sony): Marvel animated projects seem to be everywhere these days, not just for kids but also anime fans thanks to these Japanese-animated productions that met with mostly mixed reaction from comic book aficionados.

The “X-Men” anime series finds Professor X summoning the team to Japan following the abduction of Hisaki Ichiki. They soon run into the U-Men, a group of crazies harvesting mutant organs to supplement their own army.

“Iron Man,” meanwhile, likewise finds Tony Stark in Japan where he’s trying to build a power plant, only to run into opposition from the Zodiac – a top secret organization out to disrupt Stark’s intentions of constructing a safe energy plant as well as “Iron Man Dio” armor that could be mass produced.

At 287 minutes each, both story lines unravel slowly in these two productions, which despite having been written (in story form) by Warren Ellis, are far more Japanese in their artistic AND narrative approach than most Marvel adaptations. For that reason, younger viewers unaccustomed to the pace might be put off by their leisurely nature, though they’re stylishly designed and older viewers might find the different treatment of familiar characters refreshing.

Sony’s DVD editions of both “X-Men” and “Iron Man” anime include 16:9 transfers and 5.1 soundtracks (in both English and Japanese) along with extensive extras on both discs taking viewers behind the scenes.

COVERT AFFAIRS Season 2 DVD (Aprx. 12 hours, 2011; Universal): Season 2 of the popular USA cable series stars Piper Perabo as a young CIA agent who again struggles to maintain her personal and professional relationships in a good-looking series that’s due back on the air this summer. Universal’s DVD set includes all 16 episodes from “Covert Affairs”’s second season in 16:9 transfers with extras including deleted scenes, a gag reel, a Comic Con intro and a behind the scenes location featurette.

PARIAH Blu-Ray (87 mins., 2010, R; Universal): Adepero Oduye’s lead performance is the main reason to check out Dee Rees’ 2010 indie drama about a young African-American lesbian trying to live her own life while her parents cope with her identity. Universal’s Blu-Ray includes three featurettes touching upon Rees’ direction and the Brooklyn location shooting, along with a 1080p transfer and DTS MA soundtrack. Available April 24th.

ANGELS CREST Blu-Ray (**, 93 mins., 2011, R; Magnolia): Depressing adaptation of Leslie Schwartz’s book from screenwriter Catherine Treischmann and director Gary Dellal follows the tragedy that befalls single father Thomas Dekker after he agrees to take care of his young son with alcoholic ex-girlfriend Lynn Collins. This maudlin tale – which focuses on the buried secrets in the small Rocky Mountain town in which the story takes place – is earnestly performed but ultimately slow-going in spite of a capable supporting cast including Jeremy Piven, Elizabeth McGovern, Mira Sorvino and Kate Walsh among others. Magnolia’s Blu-Ray includes a 1080p transfer, DTS MA soundtrack and extras including deleted scenes with director commentary, cast interviews, the trailer, and an HDNet behind-the-scenes.

THE RETURN DVD (**½, 97 mins., 2011, R; E One): Linda Cardellini’s excellent performance is the principal reason to check out writer-director Liza Johnson’s “The Return,” a slow-going account of an American soldier who returns home from Iraq but has problems re-adjusting to domestic life with her husband (Michael Shannon) and kids. “The Return” is earnestly made but extremely predictable – does every film about servicemen and women coming back to the States have to have a plot wherein said individual’s respective spouse has cheated on him/her? Still, Cardellini’s performance is compelling and kept me involved despite the lesser elements of Johnson’s screenplay. E One’s DVD includes deleted scenes and commentary with Johnson and cinematographer Anne Theridge along with a 16:9 (1.85) transfer and 5.1 soundtrack.

KILLER NUN Blu-Ray (88 mins., 1979, Unrated; Blue Underground): The lovely Anita Ekberg is at it again in this 1979 Italian slice of crazy as Sister Gertrude, a nun who doesn’t take her cues from Mother Theresea and instead gets hooked on morphine, engages in sexual affairs of both kinds and ends up even committing murder. Giulio Berruti’s “nunsploitation” film was reportedly based on a true story, albeit very loosely, and the film itself is a dated wreck – but one that, if you’re an Italian exploitation fan, is probably going to pique your interest nevertheless. Blue Underground’s Blu-Ray includes an interview with Berruti plus the trailer, a poster/stills gallery, AVC encoded 1080p transfer and DTS HD mono soundtracks in both English and Italian.

NEW FROM LIONSGATE: Season 5 of MEET THE BROWNS (440 mins., 2010) includes episodes 81-100 from the 5th season of the Tyler Perry produced TBS series, with episodes in 16:9 widescreen and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound..."From a producer of 'Dog Soldiers'" reads the back cover of NIGHT WOLF (85 mins., 2012, R), a blah direct-to-vid tale of a young woman who comes home to visit her estranged family, only to find out a bloodthirsty wolf lurks in their midst. Lionsgate's DVD of "Night Wolf" includes a 16:9 transfer and 5.1 soundtrack.
..With "The Avengers" due out shortly, it's no surprise we're seeing plenty of Marvel tie-ins. Lionsgate has coupled their previously-released direct-to-video features on a pair of Blu-Rays: MARVEL ANIMATED FEATURES 3-MOVIE COLLECTION includes PLANET HULK, THE INVINCIBLE IRON MAN and DOCTOR STRANGE (see archive for individual reviews), while ULTIMATE AVENGERS includes the two direct-to-video "Avengers" films, with "Next Avengers: Heroes of Tomorrow" as a bonus. 1080p transfers and DTS MA soundtracks are on tap for all included features.

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