4/21/09 Edition
A Trip Back to 2010
Warner releases BLU-RAY catalog Favorites
Plus: THE READER and more

April is usually a fairly quiet month for new video releases, and 2009 has proven to be no exception. However, a few major titles and a slew of catalog Blu-Ray discs from Warner Home Video take our lead-off position this week:

2010 (***, 116 mins., 1984, PG; Warner): Peter Hyams faced an impossible task trying to follow Stanley Kubrick’s seminal sci-fi classic “2001: A Space Odyssey,” but truthfully, the writer-producer-director (he also photographed the movie as well!) did a commendable job with this sturdy, compelling adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke’s outstanding novel.

With no hopes of living up to the mystical visual heights achieved by Kubrick, Hyams and Clarke attempted to make a logical narrative out of the questions raised by its ambiguous predecessor, something that turned off fans of “2001" but satisfied others hoping for a more plot and character-driven sci-fi film.

Roy Scheider immediately makes the viewer feel more at home than anyone in Kubrick’s movie, giving us a human Dr. Heywood Floyd who, admittedly, comes off more than a little as “Chief Brody in Space.” Tagging along on a Russian expedition to find out what happened to the crew of the Discovery and the huge monolith floating outside the orbit of Jupiter, Scheider brings his “A-game,” while John Lithgow offers some comedic support as a fellow American engineer who designed the Discovery, and Bob Balaban essays Dr. Chandra, HAL-9000's creator, who’s likewise searching for answers. After they gain entrance into the Discovery, they find a ghostly Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea again, quite creepy) with prophetic warnings and a frazzled HAL (also voiced by Douglas Rain) who meets with a surprisingly redemptive conclusion.

Hyams was a one-man show on “2010" and the movie, while not perfect, holds up visually far better than most ‘80s sci-fi fantasies: Richard Edlund’s marvelous special effects and the futuristic designs of Syd Mead among others make for a film that (outside of its clunky, then-cutting edge 1984 computers!) still looks fresh. David Shire’s fine, under-rated score is another plus (Shire replaced Genesis keyboardist Tony Banks during production, and his “New Worlds” theme is quite moving).

Where the movie gets off-track is in Hyams’ pre-“Glasnost” political commentary, which smacks far more of its era than anything in Clarke’s original novel. The tensions between the Americans and the Russian crew (lead by cosmonaut Helen Mirren) turn preachy and heavy-handed at times, dating the movie and leading to a bit of an obvious (if satisfying) final message.

That aside, “2010" is still a remarkably entertaining film which Warners has splendidly brought to Blu-Ray. Given that MGM’s prior, late ‘90s, non-anamorphic DVD was never re-issued (Warner’s re-packaging offered the exact same disc), this new VC-1 encoded transfer is basically a revelation: while the print shows some extreme grain in certain sequences (such as when Scheider first tells wife Madolyn Smith of his departure for Jupiter), the composition and crispness of the image really breathes new life into Hyams’ visuals. The Dolby TrueHD soundtrack is restrained more often than not, while extras include the trailer and a vintage promotional featurette sporting behind-the-scenes footage and comments from Arthur C. Clarke.

Speaking of Clarke, fans of “2010" would do well to pick up the excellent book “The Odyssey File,” a 1984 paperback released to coincide with film’s debut, offering the then-miraculous email correspondence between Clarke in Sri Lanka and Hyams in LA., working on the picture in pre-production. In addition to an insightful portrait of the filmmaking process, it also shows how technologically advanced simple email was back in 1983, and also how prescient Clarke was in predicting that the computer would eventually replace the telephone as a way of connecting the global village. Like the film, highly recommended!

FINAL DESTINATION (***, 98 mins., 2000, R; New Line/Warner): Better than expected teen horror thriller with a cutting sense of humor, thanks to former “X-Files” vets James Wong and Glen Morgan, who co-wrote, produced and directed this spring ‘00 sleeper hit (which generated over $50 million in domestic revenue).

Devon Sawa, Ali Larter, and Kerr Smith are high-schoolers being pursued by the Grim Reaper after Sawa's premonition of a crash on their school's plane trip to Paris ultimately saves their lives -- at least until Death comes back, stalking the would-be crash victims one-by-one.

Wong and Morgan's mostly clever script, based on a story by Jeffrey Reddick, never becomes too maudlin or depressing, and instead adheres to a smart application of genre formulas with numerous doses of black humor spicing up the action (most notably a none-too-subtle use of John Denver songs on the soundtrack!). Larter and Sawa are amiable protagonists in a movie where you're mainly rooting for some of the more obnoxious teen characters to be knocked off, while Tony Todd has a great cameo role as a coroner.

True, the movie does get sillier as it goes along, and has a tacked-on finale that shows -- despite the intriguing plot scenario -- that the filmmakers painted themselves into a corner they couldn't quite get out off. Still, “Final Destination” is a surprisingly smart and effective chiller for much of its duration, and despite being followed by a pair of inferior follow-ups, has held up as one of the better studio horror films of the last decade.

Warner’s Blu-Ray disc is impressive: the VC-1 encoded transfer is top-notch, while Dolby TrueHD audio features a fine score by the late Shirley Walker. Extras include two commentary tracks, Shirley Walker’s isolated score track (in 5.1) with composer comments, additional scenes, an alternate ending, the trailer and two featurettes.

THE WEDDING SINGER (***, 1998, 100 mins., Unrated [originally PG-13]; New Line/Warner): Blu-Ray “Unrated Edition” of the 1998 box-office hit extends the film by three minutes but, more importantly, offers a satisfying (though a bit soft at times) new VC-1 encoded transfer that looks appropriately colorful in high-def, and at least appreciably superior to the DVD.

Tim Herilhy’s script does the best job of any Adam Sandler vehicle in terms of juggling the comedian’s manic persona with a genuinely sweet story, where Sandler’s wedding crooner Robbie Hart falls for a bride-to-be (Drew Barrymore) about to question her pending nuptials. Barrymore resurrected her career with a winning performance playing off Sandler here, the film maintains a light touch with some uproarious moments throughout, and unsurprisingly has become something of a cult classic since its initial release...perhaps bumping “The Beastmaster” out of its previous pedestal as the most-shown theatrical film on basic cable TV.

Warner’s Blu-Ray also includes a Dolby TrueHD soundtrack and the original trailer, as well as a promotional look behind the scenes at the “Wedding Singer” Broadway musical. Well worth a purchase for “Wedding Singer” fans.

TAKING LIVES (**½, 109 mins., 2004, Unrated [originally R]; Warner): Unsurprising but effectively handled thriller stars Angelina Jolie as an FBI profiler working to solve a series of serial killings in Canada. It seems the culprit has been brutally murdering his victims, stealing their identities, then moving on to claim another life. Jolie's first assignment up north is to verify the story of Ethan Hawke, who claims he was at one of the crime scenes, and has a seemingly combative relationship with a "business associate" (Kiefer Sutherland, in a blink-or-you'll-miss-him supporting role).

"Taking Lives" isn't groundbreaking by any means, but at least screenwriter Jon Bokenkamp (adapting Michael Pye's novel) and director D.J. Caruso develop supporting players and give the material some much needed atmosphere. Thankfully, neither are trying to make another "Silence of the Lambs," and the material feels less formulaic than most cookie-cutter Hollywood thrillers (say, "Kiss the Girls" or "Along Came a Spider"). The performances are strong, from Jolie's heroine to Oliver Martinez and Tcheky Karyo as her Canadian counterparts, while Gena Rowlands also offers support as the mother of one of the victims.

Warner’s Blu-Ray disc offers a sharp VC-1 encoded high-def transfer plus a robust Dolby TrueHD soundtrack, sporting a generally unobtrusive Philip Glass score. Extras include a somewhat lengthy "Making Of" split into four featurettes, which examine the production with cast and crew interviews. It's mostly fluffy, but seems to confirm that the filmmakers had a good time making the picture, which is also evidenced by the three-minute gag reel which rounds out the supplementaries.

TANGO AND CASH (**½, 104 mins., 1989, R; Warner)
ABOVE THE LAW (**½, 99 mins., 1988, R; Warner)
POINT OF NO RETURN (**½, 109 mins., 1993, R; Warner)
COLLATERAL DAMAGE (**½, 109 mins., 2002, R; Warner): Warners has also dusted off four action catalog titles for Blu-Ray this month. Here’s a quick capsule recap:

TANGO AND CASH is the moderately enjoyable Christmas ‘89 teaming of Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell as a pair of L.A. cops in a standard “buddy movie” script from the era. Andrei Konchalovsky’s direction is sturdy but the film is pretty much standard-issue, coasting on the chemistry between the two stars. Warner’s VC-1 encoded transfer is a bit soft here and there but is generally satisfying, backed by a throbbing Dolby TrueHD soundtrack sporting an enjoyable (if dated) Harold Faltermeyer score and the original trailer.

Steven Seagal made his big-screen starring debut in “Fugitive” helmer Andrew Davis’ formulaic but well-crafted ABOVE THE LAW, which opened to surprisingly positive reviews in the spring of 1988. There are times during the Blu-Ray’s VC-1 encoded transfer where there’s an abundance of grain, but generally it’s a decent HD presentation with adequate Dolby TrueHD audio (the film’s modest budget may explain the film’s less than stellar HD transfer). The trailer is also on-hand.

John Badham’s POINT OF NO RETURN is a stylish-looking Americanization of Luc Besson’s “La Femme Nikita,” but some 16 years after the film’s release, few remember this U.S. remake as anything other than an inferior retread of its predecessor. Badham gets some juice out of a solid supporting cast (Gabriel Byrne, Harvey Keitel, Dermot Mulroney and Anne Bancroft) and one of Hans Zimmer’s more bombastic scores of the era, but Bridget Fonda isn’t overly convincing as this version’s Nikita, making there little reason to check out “Point of No Return” when Besson’s superior version is readily available. Warner’s VC-1 encoded transfer is top-notch at least on Blu-Ray, with fine Dolby TrueHD audio and the original trailer also present.

Finally, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s last starring role in Andrew Davis’ okay 2002 terrorist thriller COLLATERAL DAMAGE has also been issued on Blu-Ray from Warners. Likely due to the film  being the most recent of the group, Warner’s VC-1 encoded transfer is fresh and quite satisfying, while Dolby TrueHD audio and several featurettes (commentary from Davis, additional scenes, the trailer, and two featurettes) round out the package.

AMERICAN HISTORY X (**½, 119 mins., 1998, R; New Line/Warner): Powerful performances from Edward Norton and Edward Furlong make this controversial, uneven but compelling 1998 film from director Tony Kaye and writer David McKenna worthwhile. Warner’s Blu-Ray disc includes a well-balanced VC-1 encoded transfer with Dolby TrueHD audio, alternate scenes and the trailer in HD.

JOHN Q. (**, 116 mins., 2002, PG-13; New Line/Warner): Disappointing 2002 drama stars Denzel Washington as a distraught father trying to get care for his dying son. Nick Cassavetes’ movie has a terrific cast (Robert Duvall, James Woods, Ray Liotta) but rams home its health care commentary with a sledgehammer, while the drama itself feels overly manipulative. Warner’s VC-1 encoded HD transfer is pleasing, at least, with another Dolby TrueHD soundtrack and numerous extras (commentary, deleted scenes, the trailer, Making Of featurettes, a Fact Track) on-hand as well.

Also New This Week

*There are about a dozen different ways one could open up a review of Frank Miller’s THE SPIRIT (*, 102 mins., 2008, PG-13; Lionsgate), but I’m afraid none of them could do justice in detailing what an abomination this box-office dud from last December turned out to be.

A self-indulgent, uneven mismash that fails completely in bringing Will Eisner’s comic book to the screen, “The Spirit” has got to be a leading candidate for Worst Super-Hero Movie of All-Time – and that’s with a cast of gorgeous female stars like Eva Mendes, Sarah Paulson, Jaime King and Scarlet Johansson appearing in it.

Gabriel Macht stars as the title character, a masked crimefighter in a snowy, computerized metropolis that looks an awful lot like Miller’s “Sin City,” who takes on crazed villain The Octopus (an insanely over-the-top Samuel L. Jackson) while his former flame Sand Saref (Mendes) pops up back on the scene, looking for the second box of...well, your guess is as good as mine in trying to decipher Miller’s convoluted, ridiculously inane screenplay. Paulson, meanwhile, appears as The Spirit’s central love interest, whose father (Dan Lauria) captains the city’s police force, while Johansson is totally wasted as The Octopus’ top associate.

It doesn’t take long for you to realize that something is seriously, undeniably wrong with “The Spirit.” Miller bathes his over-stylized imagery in the same glossy, digitzed hues as his “Sin City,” but aims – it seems – for a lighter tone, a la “Sky Captain” or Warren Beatty’s “Dick Tracy.” For all of his visual flourishes, though, Miller isn’t much of a writer or director without the likes of Robert Rodriguez (“Sin City”) or Zack Snyder (“300") around, as this movie’s tone abruptly shifts from campy lightheartedness to grotesque, violent imagery, punctuated by leaden dialogue that sits there, DOA, from its opening frames. There’s no story, no human connection, to draw you in, and the performances are, accordingly, a rambling wreck across the board. And what more can you say about Louis Lombardi’s embarrassing role as a cloned line of evil henchmen -- seeing “24"’s Edgar getting run over by a truck, stabbed, shot, and jumping around as the laughing head on a galloping foot (you have to see it...or not...to believe it) is nothing short of a new low for the genre.

Lionsgate has released “The Spirit” on both DVD and Blu-Ray. Expectedly, both versions are nothing short of excellent: the AVC encoded Blu-Ray presentation is every bit as dynamic as you’d anticipate, while the DVD’s 16:9 (2.35) transfer is razor-sharp by standard-definition standards. The overly bombastic DTS Master Audio (Blu-Ray) and 5.1 Dolby Digital (DVD) sound is as relentless as Miller’s visual assault, with extras on both platforms including commentary by Miller, an alternate storyboarded ending (don’t worry, it’s not any better than what Miller came up with), Making Of features and a digital copy for portable media players.

*Kate Winslet copped an Oscar for her role as a former Nazi guard whose torrid affair with a teenager comprises the opening section of THE READER (***, 126 mins., 2008, R; Genius).

Stephen Daldry directed and David Hare adapted Bernhard Schlink’s international bestseller, which follows young Michael Berg (David Kross as a young man; Ralph Fiennes as an adult) as he engages in a sexual relationship with Winslet’s Hanna Schmitz. Berg knows nothing about Schmitz’s past, which comes roaring back to haunt both of them years later when Berg is a law student and Schmitz goes on trial for her crimes.

Effectively directed and superbly performed by Winslet, Kross and Fiennes -- all of them eloquently underplaying their roles -- “The Reader” is an absorbing, well-made picture that offers no easy answers to its compelling premise, despite a few sections of the picture having been “dumbed down” for audiences (in addition to an occasionally obtrusive score by Nico Muhly, did we really need a “Usual Suspects”-like succession of flashbacks to comprehend the movie’s obvious “big twist”?). That said, “The Reader” is a fascinating and low-key movie that encourages viewer discussion and boasts some terrific performances. Recommended.

Genius’ Blu-Ray edition of “The Reader” is highlighted by a terrific VC-1 encoded transfer that’s so clear you can occasionally spot the creases in Winslet’s old age make-up. The Dolby TrueHD sound is often restrained, while extras include deleted scenes and numerous Making Of featurettes profiling the picture’s genesis under the auspices of late producers Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack.

Coming Soon On Blu-Ray and DVD

THE GRUDGE (**, 91 mins., 2004, PG-13; Sony): The first decade of the 21st century will be remembered for numerous cinematic trends, most notably an influx of Japanese horror adaptations which reached their peak about five years ago. While the Americanized "The Ring" offered a substantial improvement on its source, the Sam Raimi-produced remake (actually more of a sequel) of "Ju-On," titled “The Grudge,” is only a negligible improvement on its predecessors, which frankly weren't all that good to begin with.

At least Raimi did recruit original "Ju-On" director Takashi Shimizu to helm "The Grudge" in his native Japan, and subsequently, the movie does boast the same languid pace as the original film and an atmospheric use of cinematography and sound design. Alas, if only the plot (what little there is of it) was as satisfying.

Sarah Michelle Gellar plays the film's heroine: an American nurse living with her exchange student boyfriend (Jason Behr) in Japan. After a fellow nurse goes missing, Gellar is sent to the home of an American couple with an incapacitated mother, only to find the couple also missing and the restless spirits of a murdered family hard at work. See, in the universe of "The Grudge," whenever someone dies a violent death, they haunt the location in which they died, and anyone who comes in contact with them is doomed to meet a violent, disturbing end.

Once this set-up is established, "The Grudge" has the same central problem as its Japanese predecessors (which included a TV series and a slew of sequels): namely, there's literally nowhere else for the movie to go except to show the demises of its lead characters. Unlike "The Ring," there's no real story in Shimizu's film (adapted by Stephen Susco), but rather a series of flashbacks showing what happened to the characters that triggered the event, and the deaths of the missing individuals. In those scenes, sure enough, we get all the standard Japanese horror devices: a restless female spirit with long dark hair and a wide-open iris (so scary!), dripping water, creepy sound effects and quick cutaways whenever the murders take place (at least the Japanese understand the meaning of restraint).

If you've seen "The Ring" or other Japanese horror films, "The Grudge" offers no surprises, except how thin the character development and central scenario is. Since there's no solution to Gellar's plight, the movie grows increasingly tiresome as it plods along, with the ghostly set- pieces leading to the same resolutions and Shimizu taking his time setting up the situations (too much time, as "The Grudge" feels overlong, even at 91 minutes).

At least "The Ring" had some mystery and a plot to compliment its horrific moments. "The Grudge," like "Ju-On," is a one-trick pony that's all about the scares and not about plot or character development. As a result, the film comes across as a one-dimensional thriller with a frustratingly conventional conclusion that sets up what has become an endless series of sequels.

Sony’s Blu-Ray disc is a virtual reprise of their original DVD, obviously with the added benefit of a pleasing AVC encoded 1080p transfer and creepy, occasionally quite effective Dolby TrueHD audio (particularly when the ghost of a young Japanese boy pitter-patters around the room!). Supplements include a fun group commentary with Sam Raimi, his brother Ted (who also appears in the film), Gellar and others, along with a several Making Of featurettes and short films.

KNOTS LANDING: Season 2 (1980-81, 873 mins., Warner): Abby Cunningham (Donna Mills) moves to Knots Landing in this saucy second season of the long-running CBS night time soap, a spin-off of “Dallas” with the occasional Guest Star stint from Larry Hagman and Patrick Duffy (as J.R. and Bobby Ewing, respectively). Warner’s second DVD release of “Knots Landing” offers its entire sophomore season in satisfying full-screen transfers and mono soundtracks, with English and French subtitles.

NEXT TIME: The animated X-MEN storm onto DVD! Until then, don't forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards and direct any emails to our email address.  Cheers everyone!

Get Firefox!

Copyright 1997-2009 All Reviews, Site and Design by Andre Dursin