4/26/11 Edition Twitter: THEAISLESEATCOM
BLOW OUT on Blu-Ray
Criterion's Latest Reviewed
Plus: Twilight Time DVDs, Fox Catalog BDs and More

One of Brian DePalma’s best films, BLOW OUT (***, 108 mins., 1981), arrives on Blu-Ray this month in a superb Criterion package. Mostly praised by critics though a box-office failure, “Blow Out” was one of the director’s more fully-formed early features in terms of character development.

While DePalma’s visual flourishes are still on full display throughout (use of split-screens, Steadicam, etc.), the movie isn’t just a Hitchcock homage (nor a basic riff on Antonioni's similarly-titled "Blow Up"), with the filmmaker’s original script following a B-movie sound effects editor (John Travolta) who catches on tape an accident that claims the life of an aspiring presidential candidate. Travolta manages to save the life of a girl (Nancy Allen) who was in the car with him, but soon finds out the accident was an assassination attempt when he plays back his audio recording, audibly picking up a gun shot prior to the incident.

DePalma’s scenario is equal parts JFK and Chappaquiddick, and Travolta’s attempts to uncover the truth leads to endless pain and no way out; even his relationship with Allen, playing a simple-minded, easily influenced young woman, never becomes overtly romantic as he crusades to get to the bottom of the conspiracy, but is stopped by forces beyond his control, including a devious killer (John Lithgow) committing crimes just to lead the police away from his main goal.

There are contrivances in DePalma’s screenplay to be certain – why Travolta’s character would ever give the original film over to Allen without making a copy first, or why he lets Allen go down into the Philadelphia subway system alone, are gaping plot holes that enable DePalma to craft a number of exciting set-pieces (including a dynamite car chase through a Philly “Liberty Day” parade), yet ultimately detract from the film’s dramatic power. There are also times when DePalma the writer gets sidetracked – the picture primarily serves as a commentary on politics, corruption and conspiracy in the post-Bicentennial era, yet goes off track to incorporate a spoof on modern slasher films, while the entire Lithgow subplot also doesn’t feel entirely at home with the film’s other aspects either.

Still, there’s much to admire in the film, from Travolta’s excellent performance (it’s still one of his best), to the crackerjack editing and cinematography, with Vilmos Zsigmond providing DePalma with a neverending supply of beautifully composed widescreen images. Pino Donaggio’s score is also one of his best efforts for a DePalma picture, while the entire movie has an authentic, atmospheric backdrop having been shot entirely on location in a city where the director spent a good deal of his youth. It’s energetic and always entertaining, even if the screenplay is uneven and at times unbelievable.

Criterion’s Blu-Ray package preserves Zsigmond’s cinematography in a newly remastered AVC encoded 1080p transfer with 2.0 DTS MA stereo audio, reproducing the film’s original 2-channel Dolby Stereo mix. Both are effective, while extras include an hour-long, informative interview of DePalma by filmmaker Noah Baumbach that was conducted last October; a half-hour conversation with Nancy Allen, who recalls working on the film, with DePalma (then her husband) and Travolta; a particularly interesting segment with Steadicam inventor Garrett Brown talking about his process and how it has evolved over the years; the original trailer; and DePalma’s avant garde 1967 indie feature “Murder a la Mod,” presented in HD. Highly recommended!

Also new from Criterion this month:

KES (111 mins., 1970) is a sincere, downbeat 1970 British drama about a 15-year-old boy (a strong performance from young David Bradley) from a working class background – bullied by sadistic schoolmates and abused by an uncaring family – who forms a bond with a falcon that he eventually trains to fly free. Director Kenneth Loach’s film was deemed one of the best British films by the BFI and it’s certainly compelling, yet I also found it slow-going and let down by a predictable ending. Criterion’s Blu-Ray offers both an uncompressed monaural soundtrack from the producer’s original production soundtrack (some of the accents are still difficult to understand) plus the internationally released soundtrack with postsynced dialogue, an AVC encoded transfer supervised by Ken Loach and DP Chris Menges, a new documentary on the production featuring cast and crew interviews, a 1993 profile of Loach, a 1966 TV feature “Cathy Come Home” produced by Loach, the trailer, and an essay from film writer Graham Fuller.   
Finally, Claire Denis’ WHITE MATERIAL (105 mins., 2009) – a tale of fading European colonialism as embodied by an unstable Isabelle Huppert maintaining her family’s coffee plantation in Africa while a civil war rages around her – also arrives on Blu-Ray from Criterion. Denis and DP Yves Cape supervised the crisp AVC encoded 1080p transfer, while interviews with Denis, Huppert and co-star Isaach de Bankole lead a supplemental package that also includes a deleted scene, the trailer, and a short documentary from Denis on the film’s premiere at a 2010 Cameroon film festival.

New Limited Edition/Manufactured on Demand DVDs

The days of films from decades ago being released on DVD and populating retailer shelves, sadly, has past. If you’re a fan of catalog content, the manufactured-on-demand (MOD) route has become the standard bearer for vintage films in the DVD format, with more and more studios favoring the MOD process over costlier retail releases.

The Twilight Time label, meanwhile, recently started up by Nick Redman and Brian Jamieson, offers something more refreshing for movie buffs: a limited edition line of fully-pressed DVDs (not DVD-Rs) from the Fox vaults that offer isolated scores and the type of insightful liner notes we soundtrack lovers have come to expect from limited edition soundtrack albums we’re bombarded with on a near-weekly basis these days.

Twilight Time’s inaugural releases, now available exclusively through Screen Archives, spotlight a pair of contrasting ‘noir’ thrillers from two distinctly different eras, and ought to have particular appeal to movie buffs.

John Huston’s THE KREMLIN LETTER (120 mins., 1969) was not one of the director’s more well-received films, despite it having, on the surface, what appeared to be a great deal of commercial potential – a globe-trotting tale of espionage and Cold War intrigue adapted from a bestselling book by Noel Behn.

After an unauthorized document that puts into writing an American and Russian agreement to attack China’s atomic weaponry falls into the wrong hands, suave naval officer Patrick O’Neal is recruited by the government to reunite a crack team of agents in order to retrieve it. This colorful trio of spies includes hustler (and Mexican female wrestling aficionado) Nigel Green, cross-dressing San Francisco cabaret performer George Sanders, and the daughter (Barbara Parkins) of a safecracker whose abilities have fallen victim to the ravages of time. After getting the lowdown from “The Highwayman” (Dean Jagger) and his assistant – a shady “country boy” played to the hilt by Richard Boone – the quartet fly to Russia and attempt to infiltrate into the Soviet Union to get the document back, running into resistance from – among others – counter-intelligence colonel Max von Sydow and politician Orson Welles.

“The Kremlin Letter” is a well-crafted yet cold and convoluted film populated almost entirely by unsympathetic characters. Despite the tremendous cast (O’Neal, whose role was originally intended for James Coburn, and his robotic delivery aside) and superb widescreen lensing from Ted Scaife, it’s easy to see why the film failed to muster much box-office at the time, and also why some viewers today are compelled by it. This is a narcissistic and unrelentingly grim film, a total antidote to the James Bond and “Mission Impossible” swinging spy capers of the era, backed by a potent downer ending that would have been more powerful had you actually cared about its characters. The slow development of Huston and Gladys Hill’s script (it takes 45 minutes just to get the “team” together), the dense nature of the plot and the near total absence of humor make for a movie that’s easy to appreciate in terms of its technical attributes and yet seldom emotionally involving.

As it stands, “The Kremlin Letter” is, if nothing else, a fascinating curio of its time, and numerous critics (including filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville) have praised Huston’s film in recent years for its decidedly unromantic view of the “modern spy.” Twilight Time’s DVD certainly goes a long way to backing up those claims, given the terrific 16:9 (2.35) widescreen transfer that preserves the movie’s deft use of Panavision. The mono sound is acceptable, offering a Robert Drasnin score that seldom calls attention to itself, and is quite content to back up the drama. Drasnin’s score is also isolated on a secondary channel, while Julie Kirgo’s informative booklet notes put the film into the proper historical and social context, with numerous quotes from the director himself shedding light on the film’s shortcomings.

A much more colorful and entertaining experience is on-hand in a different type of ‘noir’ – the 1955 Fox Cinemascope thriller VIOLENT SATURDAY (91 mins.), which offers plenty of melodrama and excitement.

In this fast-moving adaptation of a William L. Heath novel, Stephen McNally, J. Carrol Naish and Lee Marvin play a trio of bank robbers looking to pull off a heist in a small Arizona mining town. Richard Egan is the mine’s manager, trying to work things out with his cheating wife (Margaret Hayes) but drawn to local nurse Virginia Leith at the same time. There’s also Egan’s associate, Victor Mature, who tries to win over his son (Billy Chapin), who doesn’t feel that his father is a hero. Meanwhile, Tommy Noonan essays the bank’s manager – who enjoys looking at Leith whenever possible; Sylvia Sidney is a librarian with a Winona Ryder type of shoplifting complex; and Ernest Borgnine is an Amish farmer whose pacifist beliefs are put to the test in a potent climax.

“Violent Saturday” has all the makings of a grand, glorious Cinemascope noir, and the picture does not disappoint. Richard Fleischer’s tight direction keeps the film moving, while a robust Hugo Friedhofer score adds the right amount of dramatic tension. The cast is interesting, the thematic material a deft mix of pulp-noir and ‘50s melodrama, and I have to confess I found every bit of it irresistibly appealing.

Twilight Time’s fine DVD presentation is hampered primarily in that the original Cinemascope 2.35 aspect ratio is confined to a 4:3 letterboxed format. The print looks good, the stereo sound is effective, but the lack of 16:9 enhancement is a bit of a disappointment (yet it was all TT had to work with). Friedhofer’s excellent score is isolated in stereo, while Julie Kirgo’s notes rightfully sing the film’s praises as a potent slice of “southwestern noir.”

All the Twilight Time discs are available from Screen Archives, with upcoming releases slated to include “Fate is the Hunter.” Given the superb booklet notes, professional packaging and isolated scores, I would rank Twilight Time’s discs as the cream of the crop in regards to the current trend of limited edition and/or manufactured-on-demand releases, and one would hope consumers will respond in kind to the treatment the label is giving these vintage Fox titles. (And here’s hoping one day we see a manufactured-on-demand Blu-Ray release as well!).

Meanwhile, a number of new titles have been released in MGM’s line of Limited Edition DVD-Rs, most of which are available at Screen Archives, Amazon and other retailers. The packaging on these are by far the worst of the MOD discs I’ve reviewed (they’re so crude you’d nearly think these were bootleg titles), but the transfers thankfully fare (a bit) better. Here’s a quick rundown:

COHEN AND TATE (85 mins., 1989, R): Roy Scheider and Adam Baldwin play a pair of hit men who take down the parents of nine-year-old Harley Cross, a witness to a mob slaying, and then kidnap the boy in order to drive him back to Houston where he too will likely be executed. Fortunately for Cross, his scrappy personality manages to slowly turn the quarreling pair of killers against one another.

Eric Red’s modern variation on the O’Henry story “Ransom at Red Chief” has generated a minor cult following over the years despite its lack of availability – in fact, this MGM manufactured-on-demand release marks the picture’s first appearance on video since a VHS and laserdisc release over 20 years ago.

“Cohen and Tate” has moments of effectiveness and Scheider tries hard to bring nuance to what’s basically a thinly-written role, but it’s also a nasty, violent little movie that ultimately plays out like a gory, would-be more “realistic” variation on Red’s prior script “The Hitcher,” complete with a blood-soaked finale. Aside from Scheider, the picture is most distinguished by a superb dramatic score from Bill Conti, which adds a touch of class to a low-budget film that’s rough around most of its edges.

MGM’s manufactured-on-demand DVD-R is 16:9 enhanced but looks dated and  washed out; the theatrical trailer contained on the disc appears to be in far healthier (colorful) condition by comparison.

QUEEN OF BLOOD (81 mins., 1966): Grade-C ‘60s American-International programmer likewise has generated a following among sci-fi/horror devotees. Curtis Harrington’s pulpy tale of a rescue team sent to Mars to find the remnants of a downed alien ship– and discover a space vampiress who proceeds to knock off our heroes one by one – is colorfully shot and has been designated as an inspiration of sorts on Ridley Scott’s later classic “Alien,” yet it’s difficult to believe that seminal genre masterwork was produced just 13 years after “Queen of Blood,” which seems positively prehistoric by comparison. Slow moving and laughably silly at times (with John Saxon and Basil Rathbone struggling to maintain straight faces), MGM’s “Queen of Blood” disc does serve up an alright 16:9 transfer that ought to please its fans.

THE BLACK SLEEP (81 mins., 1956): Agreeably silly old-school monster mash-up boasts Basil Rathbone, Akim Tamiroff, Lon Chaney (as “Mongo,” a role Mel Brooks later parodied in “Blazing Saddles”), John Carradine, Tor Johnson and Bela Lugosi in a crazy UA production about a somewhat sympathetic scientist with a penchant for creating hideous mutant experiments. Stark black-and-white cinematography and a bombastic Les Baxter score make this an agreeable good time for old-school horror show buffs, with MGM’s DVD-R boasting an acceptable full-screen transfer and mono sound.

BILLY TWO HATS (99 mins., 1973, PG): Slow-moving, obscure early ‘70s western finds Scottish outlaw Gregory Peck and half-Indian boy Desi Arnaz, Jr. being pursued by Jack Warden and David Huddleston, who want Peck gunned down for a bank robbery. Norman Jewison produced this UA release, shot in Israel, which Ted Kotcheff directed and John Scott scored. It’s pretty dull stuff, though MGM’s 16:9 (1.66) transfer is in excellent shape (in fact the best of this entire bunch of MGM Limited Edition discs I screened).

HOW I WON THE WAR (111 mins., 1967): Richard Lester’s strident anti-war lampoon was as much a Vietnam polemic as it was a send up of Brit morals and WWII cliches – viewed today, it’s little more than a curio for its subject matter and John Lennon’s starring role as a soldier serving under Michael Crawford’s ill-fated brigade. One-note and seldom funny, fans of the movie will still appreciate MGM’s DVD-R which sports an erratic 16:9 (1.66) transfer that varies from acceptable to mediocre in appearance.

Also New on Blu-Ray

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING Blu-Ray (***½, 111 mins., 1993, PG; MGM/Fox): MGM's affordable HD package of the acclaimed 1993 Kenneth Branagh film looks just fine on Blu-Ray.

The movie itself needs little comment: Branagh's delightful Shakespeare adaptation is light and romantic, wonderfully performed by an ensemble cast comprised of Branagh, Emma Thompson, Michael Keaton, Denzel Washington, Keanu Reeves, Robert Sean Leonard and a young Kate Beckinsale, long before she became a horror movie heroine. The film's gorgeous scenery and stirring Patrick Doyle score make this one of Branagh's most satisfying pictures.

MGM’s Blu-Ray disc looks terrific; the AVC encoded 1080p transfer hasn’t been over-processed with noise reduction and looks natural throughout. Sadly, the DTS Master 2.0 stereo soundtrack, advertised on the back cover, is nowhere to be found – in its place is a somewhat limp, standard DTS stereo track confined to the front channels. A trailer and a promotional featurette round out the 50gb dual-layer BD package. Recommended (in spite of the soundtrack issue).

BENNY AND JOON Blu-Ray (***, 98 mins., 1993, PG-13; MGM/Fox): Johnny Depp and Mary Stuart Masterson give fine performances in this engaging, if only somewhat believable, 1993 romantic drama about an eccentric, mentally unstable young woman (Masterson) whose life under the care of (rightfully) overprotective brother Aidan Quinn is changed when she meets a wacky loner (Depp) with a penchant for performing silent comedy routines. Depp and Masterson build up some genuine chemistry together, and they help off-set some of the more outlandish dramatic elements in the Barry Berman script. Also on the plus side: John Schwartzman’s lensing and Jeremiah Checik’s sincere direction. “Benny and Joon”’s Blu-Ray looks just fine, the AVC encoded 1080p transfer again not falling victim to excessive DNR, while extras from its prior DVD editions are on-hand for good measure (director commentary, deleted scenes, a music video, costume, make-up and stunt reels, plus the trailer).

MYSTIC PIZZA Blu-Ray (**½, 104 mins., 1988, R; MGM/Fox): Good-natured, entertaining romantic-comedy follows a trio of young women (Annabeth Gish, Julia Roberts and Lili Taylor) working a summer away at a pizza parlor in beautiful coastal Mystic, Connecticut. All three leads – Roberts in particular, who was on the cusp of stardom here – are charming, Vincent D’Onofrio chips in an early role as a local fisherman, and the settings (shot on location in seaside southeastern Ct. and nearby Watch Hill, RI) are gorgeous – it’s just a shame the hackneyed script (credited to four different writers, including Amy Jones and “Driving Miss Daisy” playwright Alfred Uhry) curtails the fun with a story that occasionally becomes melodramatic and predictable. MGM’s Blu-Ray again looks crisp and freed from too much processing; the 50gb layer platter also includes a 2.0 DTS MA stereo track and the original trailer.

GLEE: ENCORE Blu-Ray (88 mins., 2009-10; Fox): “Glee” fanatics might enjoy this 77-minute feature assembly of musical performances from the series’ first two seasons – it’s straight ahead music without the alternately comic or heavy-handed dramatic passages from Ryan Murphy’s top-rated Fox series, presented on a 25gb single-layer BD with 5.1 DTS MA audio.

GULLIVER’S TRAVELS Blu-Ray/DVD/Digital Copy (**, 85 mins., 2010, PG; Fox): North American box-office bust (though it surprisingly performed well internationally) might have Swift turning over in his grave, yet on its own terms, this modern variation on the oft-told classic – reworked as a vehicle for Jack Black – might provide a few yucks for undemanding children. Black does his usual shtick as a mailroom clerk who washes ashore on Lilliput where he befriends one of the diminutive locals (Jason Segel) who has eyes for the king’s daughter (Emily Blunt). Typical gags ensue and it’s all over before the 80 minute mark – pretty blah for the most part but, again, a few mild laughs do pop up occasionally. Fox’s Blu-Ray includes deleted scenes, a gag reel, and nearly a dozen featurettes of the mostly promotional variety, while a DVD and digital copy are also on hand. The AVC encoded 1080p transfer and 5.1 DTS MA soundtrack deliver exactly what you’d expect from a modern special effects-laden fantasy.

SOUTH PARK Season 14 Blu-Ray (308 mins., 2010, Paramount): Unlike “The Simpsons,” Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Comedy Central series is still going strong after 14 seasons, mixing topical humor with low-rent gags and the occasionally brilliant send-up along the way. These days the show is more hit than miss for me, and Paramount’s Season 14 Blu-Ray package offers its most recent 14 episodes in 1.78 AVC encoded 1080p transfers and with Dolby TrueHD audio. It might seem like overkill to present the relatively crude (though much improved over its early years) animation in HD, yet the colors are heightened and the overall presentation that much more satisfying when viewed on Blu-Ray.

Episodes in Season 14 include “Sexual Healing,” “The Tale of Scrotie McBoogerballs,” “Medicinal Fried Chicken,” the outrageously funny “You Have 0 Friends,” the controversial “200 and 201,” the hilarious “Crippled Summer,” “Poor and Stupid,” “It’s a Jersey Thing,” “Insheeption,” the epic three-parter “Coon 2" and “Creme Fraiche.” Extras include “mini commentaries” by Parker and Stone on all episodes, plus deleted scenes and a bonus episode – the original “Coon” – from Season 13.

JOLENE Blu-Ray (***, 115 mins., 2007, R; E One): Jessica Chastain’s performance in this E.L. Doctorow adaptation is more than enough reason to check out Dan Ireland’s 2007 film. As a young girl who ends up traveling across America, enduring assorted hardships from age 15 to 25, Chastain gives a strong portrayal in an uneven, episodic but ultimately compelling film just being released on Blu-Ray for the first time. E One’s BD disc offers a commentary with Ireland, interviews with Chastain and other cast members, plus a blooper reel, 1080p transfer and DTS MA 5.1 audio.

IP MAN 2 Blu-Ray (**½, 108 mins., 2010, R; Well Go USA): Donnie Yen is back as Grandmaster Ip Man, the real-life martial arts instructor who, in the original “Ip Man,” we saw flee from the Japanese along with his wife and son.

“Ip Man 2" follows a similar formula with Yen and family now in British-occupied Hong Kong, seeking to teach Wing Chun but running into resistance from both ignorant and skeptical residents of the city along with the British themselves, who extort money from HK martial arts schools in return for their protective services.

Not nearly as focused as the original “Ip Man,” “Ip Man 2" nevertheless manages to deliver the goods for martial arts enthusiasts. The fight sequences are crisply edited and well choreographed, and while the film feels a bit extended at 108 minutes, it retains enough of its predecessor’s pull to warrant a view for fans.

Well Go USA’s Blu-Ray disc includes a Making Of featurette, deleted scenes, interviews, trailers, and other behind-the-scenes goodies (totaling well over two hours of extra content), along with 5.1 audio in both Cantonese (subtitled) and English (dubbed).

New From Warner

Anybody want to go back to the ‘90s, when video game movie adaptations like the brilliant Jean-Claude Van Damme “Street Fighter,” the ahead-of-its time Disney edition of “Super Mario Bros.,” and the criminally underrated filming of “Double Dragon” ruled multiplexes everywhere? (No need to send emails - I’m being sarcastic!).

At the top of the list in terms of box-office was the reasonably entertaining 1995 New Line adaptation of fighting game franchise MORTAL KOMBAT (**½, 101 mins., PG-13), a fantasy that finds a trio of fighters whisked away to a mystical kingdom where they’re selected to fight for Lord Rayden (Christopher Lambert) in a tournament against eeeeeeeeeevil (as Richard Burton said a few times in “Exorcist II: The Heretic”).

The fight sequences are fairly well-executed, the special effects adequate, and Bridgette Wilson and Talisa Soto are both fetching enough to offset the total lack of character development or dramatic tension. Director Paul Anderson used this film as a springboard for a career of video game movies (he launched the still on-going “Resident Evil” series) while the classic techno theme song adds some punch to the soundtrack. “Mortal Kombat” isn’t any great shakes but for what it was – a sleeper that ended up grossing $70 million domestically at the tail end of summer ‘95 – it’s flashy and fun, at least for a while.

The movie’s success lead to an inferior sequel, MORTAL KOMBAT ANNIHILATION (*½, 95 mins., 1997, PG-13), which managed to only gross half as much as its predecessor. It also offers a similar reduction in quality, with only Robin Shou and Talisa Soto back from the original, and Christopher Lambert replaced by James Remar, in a hackneyed story that’s merely an excuse for 95 minutes of fight sequences and low-grade special effects. John R. Leonetti, who shot the original, made his directorial debut here, and wouldn’t be asked to sit in the director’s chair again until 2006's “The Butterfly Effect 2" (your call as to which sequel was worse!).

Both movies have been brought to Blu-Ray this month from Warner Home Video in respectable AVC encoded 1080p transfers and 5.1 DTS MA soundtracks. Original trailers are included on both discs (along with a preview for the new MK video game and a downloadable costume code), while the first movie also boasts an animated adventure “The Journey Begins.”

New From History/A&E
THE UNIVERSE Blu-Ray MEGA COLLECTION (History/NewVideo): Blu-Ray boxed-set anthology offers all five seasons of the History series. Here’s a breakdown, culled from past Aisle Seat reviews:

THE UNIVERSE, Season 1 (aprx. 12 hours; History/NewVideo): Three-disc Blu-Ray edition of the History Channel’s popular series, profiling our galaxy with copious amounts of visual effects and scientist interviews. Though some have carped that the show isn’t quite as “scholarly” as, say, your typical “Nova” episode, the HD visuals alone ought to please home theater enthusiasts, with NewVideo’s box-set offering the show’s first season in crisp VC-1 encoded transfers and Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo soundtracks.

THE UNIVERSE: Season 2 (14 hours., 2007-08; History/NewVideo): Season 2 of “The Universe” once again blends science, speculation and special effects as it chronicles a number of topics, from “Exoplanets” to the cataclysmic possibilities of “Cosmic Collisions,” plus “The Milky Way, “Dark Matter, “Supernovas” and “White Holes” as well. The HD transfers on NewVideo’s release are all top-notch, while uncompressed (PCM) 2.0 stereo tracks round out the package, along with one “Backyard Astronomers” featurette.

THE UNIVERSE, Season 3 (10 hours, History Channel/New Video): Series three focuses on topics as varied as “Deadly Comets and Meteors” to “Sex in Space” (!), “Parallel Universes,” and the hypothetical “Planet X,” all in nifty widescreen transfers, with stereo soundtracks, a “Universe Facts” bonus and a photo gallery also on-hand.   

THE UNIVERSE, Season 4 (564 mins., History/NewVideo): More speculation and less science is on hand in “The Universe”’s fourth season. Episodes include: Death Stars, The Day the Moon Was Gone, It fell from Space, Biggest Blasts, The Hunt for Ringed Planets, Ten Ways to Destroy The Earth, The Search for Cosmic Clusters, Space Wars, Liquid Universe, Pulsars and Quasars, Science Fiction / Science Fact and Extreme Energy, while extras include “Meteors: Fire in the Sky” and a comets special.

THE UNIVERSE Season 5 (aprx. 6 hours, 2010; History/NewVideo)
THE UNIVERSE 7 Wonders of the Solar System 3-D Blu-Ray (47 mins.; History/NewVideo): Eight episodes comprise the fifth season of the popular History Channel series, following actual Mars rovers to NASA probes which document the behavior of comets. Shows in Season 5 include “7 Wonders of the Solar System,” “Mars: The New Evidence,” “Magnetic Storm,” “Time Travel,” “Secrets of the Space Probes,” “Asteroid Attack,” “Total Eclipse” and “Dark Future of the Sun.” DTS Master Audio tracks and vivid AVC encodes are on tap in the Blu-Ray edition.

Also included is first 3-D “Universe” Blu-Ray release, “7 Wonders of the Solar System,” an episode from Season 5 which features visually compelling footage from the series and repurposes it for 3-D. Those with 3-D set-ups are sure to enjoy the virtual trip through our solar system (and from what I sampled on my friend’s TV, it looks good), though the trip doesn’t last long at just 47 minutes. An excellent AVC encoded transfer and DTS Master soundtrack are on-hand.

IRT: DEADLIEST ROADS Season 1 Blu-Ray (aprx. 8 hours, 2010; History/NewVideo): More reality excitement from the “Ice Road Truckers” series, profiling a group of drivers hauling cargo through treacherous locations in the Himalayan highways. Some of the footage is particularly compelling this A&E series, offering crisp AVC encoded 1080p transfers and 2.0 DTS MA soundtracks. Additional footage is also included.

THE KIDS IN THE HALL COMPLETE COLLECTION DVD (aprx. 45 hrs, A&E/NewVideo): Massive 22-disc box-set offers the entire collection of episodes from “The Kids in the Hall,” including all five seasons of the sketch comedy troupe’s series. Best of all: two additional discs include “Death Comes to Town,” an exclusive double-disc DVD set that boasts over 90 minutes of original performances from the Rivoli Theater, archival footage that’s never been seen before, 10 best-of compilations from all five seasons, interviews with the cast members and producer Lorne Michaels, audio commentaries, full-screen transfers, 5.1 soundtracks, cast bios, photo galleries, slideshows and other extras for series fans.

SEX & THE SINGLE MOM DVD (90 mins., 2003; Lifetime/NewVideo)
HONEYMOON WITH MOM DVD (89 mins., 2006; Lifetime/NewVideo): A pair of Lifetime original movies arrive on DVD in time for Mother’s Day. Gail O’Grady and Danielle Panabaker headline “Sex and the Single Mom,” a tale of a single mother who preaches abstinence but has a difficult time pushing home her morals once she ends up pregnant, while the more romantic “Honeymoon with Mom” offers Shelley Long and Virginia Williams taking a trip together after the latter’s trip down the aisle is derailed. Stereo soundtracks (2.0) and full-screen transfers are included on both value-priced DVDs.


DROP DEAD DIVA Season 2 DVD (569 mins., 2010; Sony): Brooke Elliott’s dynamite lead performance as Jane Bingum -- a plus-sized attorney who houses the soul of a deceased aspiring supermodel – is the sole reason to watch this colorful Lifetime series. Elliott manages to bring comedic, dramatic and musical chops to her conflicted heroine, who seldom has an issue in the courtroom defending a variety of clients (mostly involving social issues, not “Law & Order” type stuff) but struggles out of it to juggle her romantic interests and also the fact that she’s living in a different body. It’s a difficult role but one that Elliott manages to pull off effortlessly – and one can see her using the show to launch superior material down the road.

In the meantime, “Drop Dead Diva”’s second season offers more of what made the first season a success: a mix of comedy and drama with mostly lightweight plots, the occasional musical number and a range of guest stars including Cybill Shepherd, Natasha Henstridge, Robin Givens and Paula Abdul among them. At times the show’s writing is heavy-handed and saccharine, but the cast beyond Elliott is also likeable enough to make it a frothy piece of escapism.

Sony’s DVD of the series’ sophomore year includes 16:9 (1.78) transfers, 5.1 soundtracks and extras including deleted scenes, a music video and three behind-the-scenes featurettes.

THE AVENGERS Volume 1 DVD (161 mins., 2010; Buena Vista)
THE AVENGERS Volume 2 DVD (137 mins., 2010; Buena Vista): Poised to be the super-hero cinematic event of 2012, Marvel’s “The Avengers” gets a warm-up in this small-screen animated series that’s aired on Disney XD and now arrives on DVD in a pair of separate volumes.

Season 1 of “The Avengers” brings the team together with Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, Captain America, Wasp and Ant-Man joining up with Hawkeye and the Black Panther to combat all kinds of villainy including the Gamma-radiated mastermind the Leader. Episodes include “Iron Man Is Born,” “Thor the Mighty,” “Hulk Vs. The World,” “Meet Captain America,” “The Man in the Ant Hill,” and “Breakout Parts 1 and 2" (all on Volume 1); “Some Assembly Required,” “Living Legend,” “Everything is Wonderful,” “Panther’s Quest,” and “Gamma World Parts 1 and 2" (Volume 2).

16:9 (1.78) transfers and 5.1 soundtracks comrpise the technical side of things, while extras include a behind-the-scenes featurette on each disc looking ahead to the series’ second season.

New From Lionsgate

BLOOD OUT DVD (89 mins., 2011, R; Lionsgate): Small-town police chief Michael Spencer decides to go undercover to find out who killed his brother in this direct-to-vid affair co-starring Vinnie Jones, Val Kilmer, Luke Goss, and Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson. A 16:9 (1.78) transfer, 5.1 soundtrack, a trailer gallery and cast/crew interviews are on hand in Lionsgate’s DVD.

THE PJs Season 1 (312 mins., Lionsgate): Eddie Murphy was one of the voices behind this fairly short-lived, animated ABC series about a superintendent in an urban housing project, his wife and associated family members.  Lionsgate’s DVD of “The Pjs”’ season 1 boasts full-screen transfers and 2.0 stereo soundtracks.

BOY MEETS WORLD Season 5 DVD (576 mins., Lionsgate): 1997-98 season for the long-running ABC “TGIF” series hits DVD in another no-frills yet satisfyingly affordable package from Lionsgate. All 24 episodes from the series’ fifth season are on-hand in full-screen transfers with 2.0 stereo soundtracks.

ACCORDING TO JIM Season 3 DVD (625 mins., Lionsgate): Can you believe this innocuous Jim Belushi comedy ran for nearly the entire duration of the last decade? “According to Jim” debuted in 2001 and finished its run in 2009 – somehow, enough people watched this forgettable formula sitcom to generate years of episodes that will run in syndication. For fans, Season 3 of the series arrives on DVD with 16:9 (1.78) transfers and 5.1 soundtracks, with a couple of featurettes included for good measure.

TYLER PERRY’S HOUSE OF PAYNE Volume 7 DVD (480 mins., Lionsgate): Episodes 125-148 of the cable comedy series hit DVD in this three-disc Lionsgate set. 4:3 full-screen transfers and 5.1 soundtracks grace the package.

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