4/27/10 Edition
Aisle Seat May Day Edition
Plus: CRAZY HEART, DUNE and More
Several catalog titles new to Blu-Ray headline this week’s Aisle Seat, some offering excellent transfers (“Dune,” “Doctor Zhivago”, “Tombstone”) while others, regrettably, disappoint (“Out of Africa”).

David Lean’s epic production of Boris Pasternak’s DOCTOR ZHIVAGO (***, 200 mins., 1965, PG-13; Warner) is a leisurely paced adaptation of the author’s Nobel Prize-winning book, chronicling the struggle of Yury Zhivago (Omar Sharif), a doctor caught up in a love triangle between his devoted wife (Geraldine Chaplin) and a nurse named Lara (Julie Christie) during the turbulent period of the Russian Revolution.

Grand in scale and featuring some truly awesome cinematic imagery, “Doctor Zhivago” has always been a bit of a polarizing film, even since its original release. The MGM production was a commercial hit and was nominated for five Oscars, yet many critics at the time complained about its length, as well as a lead character who seems aloof throughout.

While the film has always had its admirers (and with Maurice Jarre’s memorable score, it’s easy to understand why audiences ate it up), it’s a bit of a mixed bag. I admit to finding it somewhat draggy as well -- with a melodramatic story line that doesn’t entirely feel believable -- but it’s at least enhanced by enough meticulous production design and art direction that it’s difficult not to be entranced by its wintry atmosphere if nothing else.

Lean’s sense of scope certainly makes Warner’s Blu-Ray edition of “Doctor Zhivago” one to savor for Golden Age aficionados. The VC-1 encoded 1080p transfer looks clean and vibrant, and it stands to reason that the picture’s strongest attribute has been enhanced by the high-definition remastering. The DTS Master Audio soundtrack boosts Jarre’s stereophonic score, while ample extras on this two-disc 45th Anniversary release include a commentary by Omar Sharif, Rod Steiger and Lady Sandra Lean; a new, half-hour “Doctor Zhivago - A Celebration” documentary (in standard-def); plus a standard DVD second disc featuring a slew of vintage featurettes and a sampler of the original soundtrack CD, all housed in a 50-page hardbound Digibook package sporting production photos and background text.

David Lynch’s “Dune,” meanwhile, might have been a flop when first released to theaters at Christmas 1984, but the movie has gained a sizeable cult following over the years since its initial performance. A multitude of “Dune” laserdisc and DVD releases have popped up all over the globe, some offering just the standard theatrical release version, with others containing the expanded, three-hour Universal TV version (made without Lynch’s involvement) and a myriad of unique supplements.

This week Universal releases the first Blu-Ray edition of DUNE (**½, 137 mins., PG-13) in North America, featuring a VC-1 encoded presentation of the theatrical cut with DTS Master Audio sound and extras from its prior 2006 video release. Having seen several releases of the film in HD, overall I think this is the finest “Dune” has appeared on video to date.

Fans hoping for Lynch to re-edit his adaptation of Frank Herbert’s mammoth novel have been constantly disappointed that the director has expressed little interest in revisiting this work, apparently preferring instead to let his own Director’s Cut -- the theatrical version -- speak for itself. The finished cut is more than a bit of a mess, but it has its moments of both effectiveness and unintentional humor, and the added benefit of seeing the production design and cinematography in high-definition overcomes some of the film’s deficiencies to a degree. Toto’s memorable soundtrack, meanwhile, is offered in a pleasing “lossless” soundtrack as well.

The Blu-Ray is basically a reprise of Universal’s prior HD-DVD edition (with the added benefit of DTS Master sound and a higher bitrate), right down to its special features, which were in turn carried over from the 2006 DVD. Then-newly produced featurettes include “Deleted Dune,” with fresh comments from producer Raffaella De Laurentiis, who clears up some of the misconceptions about the rumored “four-hour cut” of Lynch’s film. Apparently, Lynch screened a four-hour, rough assembly of the picture, but long before post-production had begun and effects inserted. She also mentions that Lynch reworked Paul’s “Water of Life” sequence to compensate for the removal of a long section of film, knowing full well that the movie would be pared down.

In addition, there are some 15 minutes of deleted sequences on-hand, most culled off a workprint, with production audio only: these include the knife fight between Paul and Jamis (Judd Omen); a longer introduction to the movie with Virginia Madsen's Princess; what appears to be an alternate introduction to the Bene Gesserit sisterhood, with what possibly could be Lynch's voice heard off-camera (I'll leave that to the experts); and two extensions to the film’s conclusion, one showing the fate of servant Thufir Hawat and the other setting up Paul’s marriage to Princess Irulan (only the latter sequences are fully scored, leaving one to suspect that they were jettisoned at the last minute).

Three other featurettes (totaling about 20-30 minutes) are also on-hand, including “Designing Dune,” “Dune FX,” “Dune Models,” and “Dune Wardrobe,” including comments from De Laurentiis, production designer Anthony Masters, costume designer Bob Ringwood and others. A photo gallery and production notes round out the supplements.

Visually, the VC-1 encoded transfer is terrific -- on-par with the HD-DVD release, which was a tad darker than the French Blu-Ray edition that’s been available overseas for some time, but also more satisfying in terms of overall colors and contrast. The print seems a bit more banged up than the French release, but generally, this is a very satisfying HD presentation that’s an appreciable enhancement on prior DVD releases. The DTS Master Audio soundtrack, meanwhile, is exceptionally well detailed, and much more boisterous than its French Blu-Ray counterpart.

Unless Universal is one day willing to spend major money to complete post-production on the surviving rough footage of “Dune” -- and do so without the involvement of David Lynch -- I’m not sure we’ll ever see a superior release than this Blu-Ray release. Recommended, especially for fans.

OUT OF AFRICA Blu-Ray/DVD (***, 161 mins., 1985, PG; Universal): 25th Anniversary edition of Sydney Pollack’s multiple Oscar-winner arrives in a Blu-Ray/DVD combo disc that regrettably offers a disappointing HD transfer.

Robert Redford stars as a British big game hunter that writer Karen Blixen becomes enthralled with while helping her husband work on a coffee farm in Kenya; Meryl Streep essays the author, while Klaus Maria Brandauer is her philandering spouse. Together, they form a romantic triangle sumptuously filmed by director Sydney Pollack and cinematographer David Watkin, and beautifully scored by John Barry.

The settings and photography remain the highlights of this romantic drama, which tends to drag on at 161 minutes but always remains a pleasure to look at. On Blu-Ray, its scenic attributes ought to be magnified, but the VC-1 encoded transfer on Universal’s new combo disc is a big-time letdown. The film looks overly processed and riddled with edge-enhancement, often lacking in high-definition detail throughout. Given that this Oscar winner boasts gorgeous cinematography, “Out of Africa” should’ve made for a gem on Blu-Ray, but this aged and feeble looking HD master is a disappointment, particularly compared to how detailed “Dune” looks by comparison. It’s still a (marginal) improvement on the DVD (included on the flip side of the disc), but that’s faint praise given how flawed the transfer appears here.

A nice assortment of extras include deleted scenes and other extras carried over from a decade-old DVD release. Pollack delivers an informative commentary track on the making of the picture, while Universal has also reprieved Charles Kiselyak’s fine documentary "Song of Africa," which includes interviews with Pollack, Meryl Streep, and Isak Dinesen biographer Judith Thurman.

Film music buffs will certainly be interested in the comments of John Barry, who talks at length in the program about his score, the creation of the movie's central sweeping theme, and use of music in various sequences. Combined with footage culled from the film's behind-the-scenes featurette and a look at the actual relationship between the characters, it puts a nice cap on a disc that should have looked superior than it does.

TOMBSTONE Blu-Ray (***½, 130 mins., 1993, R; Buena Vista): This rousing, unlikely box-office hit (at least considering its troubled production history) finally hits Blu-Ray in a release that -- if not proving to be comprehensive from a supplemental standpoint -- at least gives the movie’s fans the technical presentation they’ve longed for since its original release.

It's well-known that “Tombstone” overcame a great deal of odds in becoming a bona-fide success. Original writer Kevin Jarre (Maurice's son) was also the film's first director, fired a week into production and replaced by "Rambo" vet George P. Cosmatos. The movie also faced what was supposed to be stiff competition from competing project "Wyatt Earp," and with Kevin Costner and Lawrence Kasdan onboard, that box-office flop at least initially seemed to be the more prestigious production between the two films.

Nevertheless, “Tombstone” worked splendidly on its own terms as an old-fashioned western, retelling Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell) and Doc Holliday's (Val Kilmer) fight with the infamous Clanton gang that formed the basis of a handful of previous films about the O.K. Corral. A great cast from Powers Boothe, Michael Rooker, Sam Elliott, Dana Delany on down augment terrific cinematography by William A. Fraker and a dynamic Bruce Broughton score.

Despite its familiar story, “Tombstone” clicked with audiences and many critics, more so than most later-day revivals of the western genre. Even now, the film comes across as a highly entertaining, broad cinematic action-adventure, capped off with a tip of the hat to Hollywood's Golden Age by the participation of Charlton Heston and Robert Mitchum, who narrates the movie in appropriately nostalgic fashion.

It's widely known that the original cut of “Tombstone” ran nearly three hours (Russell has discussed this fact on and off over the years), but to date, there’s never been a full restoration of its long version. A “Director’s Cut” surfaced on DVD in 2002, but only added four minutes of new material, while failing to offer all the deleted scenes contained in a prior laserdisc supplement.

Buena Vista’s Blu-Ray edition is a bit of a good news, bad news situation (thankfully tilted more towards the former than the latter). On the downside, the disc doesn’t contain that Director’s Cut, nor does it offer any deleted scenes. Cosmatos’ commentary from the DVD isn’t on-hand either, for that matter.

The flip side is that, those added four minutes aside, the “Vista Series” DVD supplements weren’t very good to begin with, so it’s not as if a great deal is missing -- and at least the Blu-Ray retains the slight “Making of ‘Tombstone’” documentary, trailers/TV spots and storyboards from that release.

The best development comes in the disc’s technical attributes. With the Vista Series DVD offering an ugly, edge-enhancement plagued transfer, “Tombstone” stood to gain a great deal from the jump to HD, and Buena Vista’s 1080p AVC-encoded presentation does not disappoint. A fine layer of grain prevails throughout the whole movie, giving the picture a pleasing cinematic appearance. Colors and contrasts, meanwhile, are outstanding. I don’t recall the movie even looking this impressive theatrically.

The DTS Master Audio soundtrack is just as satisfying. Broughton’s score soars throughout the sound field while a potent blend of sound effects takes center stage at other points. It’s a wonderfully engineered mix.

“Tombstone” is a superb film and a great behind-the-scenes story, one that deserves a more lavish treatment this rather plain Blu-Ray edition. Nevertheless, in terms of picture and sound, the presentation here is excellent and that’s enough to give it a strong recommendation.

ARMAGEDDON Blu-Ray (*½, 150 mins., 1998, PG-13; Buena Vista): Everyone has their version of what the "perfect American movie" would be. I suppose there's someone out there who thinks that “Armageddon” is that film, since Michael Bay’s 1998 blockbuster scored big-time with audiences (less so with critics, but isn’t that always the deal?). After all, how much more American can you get than to have a film featuring Bruce Willis, Liv Tyler, NASA, Aerosmith on the soundtrack, and Old Glory flying in virtually every other scene?

Willis stars as an oil foreman whose rag-tag team of rig workers (think “Con-Air”) are recruited by NASA to drill a nuclear missile into an asteroid that’s on a direct heading with Earth. Billy Bob Thornton plays the requisite NASA man whose disability prevented him from taken flight to the stars, while Liv Tyler is Willis's lovestruck daughter and Ben Affleck essays the young hotshot hero who has Tyler's heart. The assorted supporting roles are filled out by a predictably eclectic group of actors, including “Fargo”'s Steve Buscemi and Peter Stomare, the latter ludicrously overplaying a Russian cosmonaut stuck in a space station. Yet, for the most part, virtually all of these characters are more stereotypical than real -- we have the wise-cracking nerd, the fat guy, a spaced-out "dude," etc., all parts that feel as if they were decided upon by the studio’s focus group before the script was even written.

I’ve run hot and cold on Bay’s movies over the years, but truth be told, have never really been a big admirer of any of his cinematic output. “Armageddon” is probably my least favorite of his movies as well -- a bloated, empty carcass of a movie that’s an assault on the senses from start to end. It has the form of a disaster epic, done in the requisite Bruckheimer/Bay style, but it doesn't have the heart to support it, much less the sense of impending doom and disaster that the plot so desperately needs. (Even the 1979 belated disaster entry “Meteor” with Sean Connery had that going for it). As far as dragging out countless flag-waving elements to pander to the lowest common American denominator goes, how's a slow-motion scene of small-town kids running by a building with a JFK painting on it for you?

It’s not as if this concept couldn’t have worked either. I’ve always found it interesting to compare the movie with “Deep Impact,” another tale of impending cosmic doom released around the same time. In that movie, I actually felt a connection with the characters because the situation itself -- that Earth is about to be destroyed and our way of life erased from the planet -- was so well exploited. The cause of humanity's survival, and how people would react to the news of worldwide catastrophe, was truly terrifying and tragic, and the end of the picture was that much more meaningful and suspenseful because of it. I didn't feel any of that in “Armageddon” and maybe that's because the issue of Earth's survival is addressed in no more than a series of "international location shots" that closely resemble a long distance commercial for AT&T.

That said, “Armageddon” has its fans, who ought to be, if nothing else, pleased with Buena Vista’s Blu-Ray package. Once again skimping on extras (the BD only includes a music video and trailers), the presentation is the focal point here, and aficionados of the film will find another powerhouse AVC-encoded 1080p transfer and DTS Master Audio soundtrack on-hand.  

CRAZY HEART Blu-Ray (***, 111 mins., 2009, R; Fox): Jeff Bridges gives a wonderful performance in Scott Cooper’s “Crazy Heart” as country singer Bad Blake, a former star who can still write a tender melody but spends most of his days in a booze-infused stupor, playing third-rate bars (or, what’s worse, bowling alleys) and living from one slender paycheck to another. Things perk up when he meets reporter Maggie Gyllenhaal, a divorced mom who provides Bridges’ character with more than a little inspiration and, eventually, motivation to clean up his act.

Bridges’ laid back, perceptive portrayal of Bad is right on target here; this Oscar-winning performance energizes what’s otherwise a fairly conventional film, adapted by Cooper from Thomas Cobb’s novel. The story outline is as standard as they come -- you just know Bad is going to hit rock bottom before raising himself up again -- and the picture doesn’t do as much with fine supporting turns from Robert Duvall and Colin Farrell as it should have.

That said, Bridges is tremendous, and T Bone Burnett’s musical production gives the tuneful soundtrack a major boost. “Crazy Heart” is a decent movie with a great central performance, and for the latter it comes recommended.

Fox’s Blu-Ray disc serves up a nice AVC encoded 1080p transfer, well representing the strong, natural cinematography of Barry Markowitz. The DTS Master Audio soundtrack is likewise superb, while extras include deleted scenes and extended/alternate musical cuts, several featurettes, and a digital copy for potable media players.

AVATAR Blu-Ray/DVD (**½, 162 mins., PG-13; Fox): Its mammoth box-office gross aside (aided to some extent by inflated 3-D ticket premiums), “Avatar” was released on Blu-Ray last week in a barebones BD/DVD combo package -- an edition just to whet the appetite of fans before the Deluxe 3-D set arrives later this year.

Most audiences devoured Cameron’s expensive sci-fi blockbuster, but truth be told, I found it just as disappointing the second time around as I did upon initial viewing. Visually the film sets another landmark in terms of special effects and CGI imagery; narratively it’s a simplistic, pretentious comic book recalling dozens of other movies Cameron liberally “borrows” from throughout this lengthy, yet narratively undernourished, sci-fi adventure.

The writer-director’s long-awaited follow-up to “Titanic” is easily (not counting “Piranha II: The Spawning”) his weakest film, following a paralyzed marine named Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) in the future who joins an expedition to a gorgeous green planet named Pandora, one backed by an evil corporation (sound familiar?) using the military as its pawns (no, Bill Paxton isn’t around to shout “Game Over, Man!”). With the help of scientist Sigourney Weaver, Jake bonds with the genetically engineered body of one of Pandora’s indigenous people, the Na’vi, and is able to transplant his mind into the towering blue form of his Na’vi alter-ego. At first, Jake infiltrates the Na’vi with the goal of understanding their ways and culture, and falls in the process for one of their female warriors (“performed” by Zoe Saldana). After being  indoctrinated into the clan, Jake is brought back into his former human world where an evil military colonel (Stephen Lang) and his corporate counterpart (Giovanni Ribisi, trying to mimic Paul Reiser from “Aliens”) inform him that since the Na’vi are sitting on a gold mine of a substance that the company needs, Jake had better get the Na’vi to relocate or else suffer a “shock and awe” display of military prowess. If you’ve seen “A Man Called Horse” or “Dances With Wolves” there’s no reason for me to tell you where it goes from here...

“Avatar” is breathtakingly designed with gorgeously textured and rendered backdrops that make Pandora truly come to life; this is a world populated with interesting creatures and plant life, so detailed that one can easily see where Cameron spent his money. And no surprise, it makes for a dynamic looking and sounding Blu-Ray with a reference-worthy 1080p, AVC-encoded transfer (in Cameron’s preferred 1.78 ratio; curiously I saw the film screened at both 1.78 and 2.35 in the same theater complex last winter!) and fantastically layered DTS Master Audio soundtrack.

As I wrote originally, it’s all the more unfortunate, then, that Cameron didn’t expend as much effort on his screenplay, seeing as the dialogue and story of “Avatar” are both leaden and utterly predictable -- influenced by Disney’s “Pocahontas” and countless other films.

None of these “influences” would be that significant if the film weren’t so pretentious, or if it had established characters and situations you care about, and it’s here where Cameron’s picture fails most significantly. Particularly considering the film’s duration, it’s shocking how threadbare the character development is -- for example, all we really know about Jake is that his brother was involved with the Avatar project (a plot element that has no payoff at all) -- while there are precious few scenes where characters stop and reflect about what’s going on. Most of the movie’s first half is a succession of montages showing Jake bonding with the Na’vi, while a slew of subplots curiously go undeveloped. After the halfway point (and a particularly humorous love scene), the film quickly turns into a loud assault on the senses with endless action scenes finding the “bad guys” (Lang’s colonel and squadrons of soldiers) beating up on “the good guys” (the Na’vi)...but I felt nothing while watching it from an emotional standpoint except tedium.

It should also be noted that the film’s ecological and political messages are heavy-handed, that James Horner’s score is one of his weakest in years, and that I laughed outloud at some of bad guy Lang’s dialogue, particularly at the end. Yet I still wouldn’t have felt such a letdown had I cared about the characters, and it’s for that reason that I didn’t feel the same love for “Avatar” that seemingly everyone else did.

Fox’s Blu-Ray (there’s a standard def DVD also bundled within) sets the bar for its radiant and gorgeous transfer, and fans are sure to enjoy it -- at least until Fox’s supplement-laden (and 3-D) Director’s Cut package hits home in time for the holidays.

IT’S COMPLICATED Blu-Ray (***, 121 mins., 2009, R; Universal): Nancy Meyers’ enjoyable latest film stars Meryl Streep as a divorcee who strikes up a relationship with her ex-husband (Alec Baldwin) even though he’s been remarried (to Lake Bell) and she has a potential suitor in architect Steve Martin. Meyers’ romantic-comedy background serves her well in this well-acted, breezy tale, peppered with laughs and solid chemistry between the actors; John Krasinski from “The Office” also manages to score points as Streep and Baldwin’s son-in-law to-be. Universal’s Blu-Ray disc is light on special features (just a Making Of and commentary), but does include a fine 1080p transfer with DTS Master Audio sound.    

DISGRACE Blu-Ray (**½, 118 mins., 2008, R; Image): John Malkovich stars in this uncompromising, yet uneven, Australian film, an adaptation of J.M. Coetzee’s acclaimed novel about a South African college professor (Malkovich) who’s fired for seducing one of his students; he seeks solace on his estranged daughter’s remote farm, only to get involved in a tragic turn of events. Steve Jacobs’ film is methodically paced and compelling, yet Malkovich’s somewhat brittle performance fails to open up his character’s emotional arc as much as it arguably should’ve been. Image’s Blu-Ray disc includes a Making Of featurette, cast/crew interviews, the trailer, a 1080p transfer and DTS Master Audio soundtrack.

THE IMAGINARIUM OF DR. PARNASSUS Blu-Ray (**½, 122 mins., 2009, PG-13; Sony): Terry Gilliam has had a rough go of things over the last 10 years, having seen his Don Quixote project canceled shortly after filming began, to encountering post-production problems with the Weinsteins over the disappointing “Brothers Grimm.” That film did enable Gilliam to meet star Heath Ledger, whom he recruited to star in his new fantasy “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus” -- only to see Ledger pass away before principal photography concluded.

While a good amount of Ledger’s scenes were completed, others had to be produced with a series of big-name stars like Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell substituting for the late actor in a number of fantasy sequences. The end result is a predictably uneven film for that very reason, though truthfully, Gilliam’s work has been so disjointed of late that it’s likely not the only factor that prevented “Parnassus” from being much more than a curiosity item.

In Gilliam and frequent collaborator Charles McKeown’s script, Christopher Plummer plays an aged “Doctor” who sold his soul to the Devil (Tom Waits); Lily Cole is his daughter, who works in their rundown “Imaginarium” until a stranger named Tony (Ledger) shows up and updates the show to gain more attention.

There are some moments of the old Gilliam magic here, with what appear to be direct riffs on the animator-filmmaker’s past work, but ultimately not enough of them, with the film feeling bloated at two hours and simply not dramatically cohesive enough to truly satisfy. The good news is that it’s at least a major improvement for the director following “Brothers Grimm” and the awful “Tideland,” and aficionados of both Ledger and Gilliam would do well to check the picture out in spite of its obvious shortcomings.

Sony’s Blu-Ray disc of “Dr. Parnassus” looks and sounds terrific. The AVC encoded 1080p transfer is exceptional, while the DTS Master Audio soundtrack is fairly well mixed. Extras include a few featurettes including a tribute to Ledger, plus a deleted scene, intros and commentary from Gilliam.

New from Acorn Entertainment

SIX CENTURIES OF VERSE DVD (410 mins., 1984; Acorn): One of the most purely enjoyable DVD sets I’ve reviewed in some time, “Six Centuries of Verse” was a Thames TV production that was first broadcast in 1984. Acorn Media Group has brought the series to DVD in a three-disc set that readers everywhere out to find particularly appealing.

John Gielgud serves as the master of ceremonies through this tour of English language poetry, as compiled by poet-critic Anthony Thwaite. The set-up is simple -- a litany of performers from both England and America read a series of poems, as collected in specific genres and time frames. From Peggy Ashcroft to Lee Remick, Stacy Keach to Ralph Richardson, Anthony Hopkins and others, the distinguished actors read everything from Elizabethan-Medieval poetry, Milton, Wordsworth, Keats, Whitman and Chaucer, taking us back centuries and then ahead to the present for more contemporary works. It’s basically like taking a terrific college-level course.

Acorn’s DVD includes a 20-page viewer’s guide plus information on the poets and actors involved. Highly recommended!   

Also new this month and/or due out shortly from Acorn are:

MURPHY’S LAW Series 2 DVD (6 hrs., 2004; Acorn): James Nesbitt is back as tough, no-nonsense Irish cop Tommy Murphy in this British series. This time out Murphy goes undercover to take down a serial killer, solve a convent suicide, and possibly find vengeance for the IRA’s murder of his young daughter. Acorn’s DVD includes fine 16:9 transfers, 2.0 stereo soundtracks and a biography of the star.

A VOYAGE ROUND MY FATHER DVD (80 mins., 1982; Acorn): Laurence Olivier and Alan Bates are both terrific in this award-winning 1982 tele-film from writer John Mortimer, who later garnered further acclaim for his “Rumpole of the Bailey” series with Leo McKern. This semi-autobiographical tale chronicles the relationship between a increasingly blind barrister (Olivier) and his son (Bates), who puts up with his dad’s stubbornness even though he’d rather be a writer than a lawyer. The full-screen transfer is as good as this early ‘80s British TV film could possibly appear, while biographies of the author and stars complete the disc.

ON THE ROAD WITH CHARLES KURALT Set 2 DVD (378 mins.; Acorn): One of my favorite discs of 2009 was Acorn’s wonderful compilation of Charles Kuralt vignettes from CBS News -- home-spun, unpretentious profiles of people and places in our country, often with an alternately historical or eccentric nature. Now Acorn is back with another marvelous anthology preserving some 18 “On the Road” re-edited programs (previously broadcast on the Travel Channel), most with updated information on the profiles contained within. Hugely entertaining and just plain bittersweet to watch. Highly recommended!

New from BBC

SHARPE’S PERIL Blu-Ray (105 mins., 2006; BBC)
SHARPE’S CHALLENGE Blu-Ray (138 mins., 2008; BBC): Sean Bean returns as Bernard Cornwell’s swashbuckling Napoleonic-era hero in a pair of standalone TV-movies produced in 2006 and 2008.

Both “Sharpe’s Peril” (set in India) and “Sharpe’s Challenge” hit Blu-Ray in good looking 1080p transfers, both of which showcase the more elaborate technical attributes of the productions -- superior to prior Sharpe tales which were produced by Britain’s ITV in the ‘90s, which also starred Bean as Sharpe.

The 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks are fine, whole extras adorn both discs: commentaries, deleted scenes, outtakes, a photo gallery, and a behind-the-scenes segment on “Sharpe’s Challenge,” plus a photo gallery and cut-down 100-minute “movie version” on “Sharpe’s Peril.”

MERLIN Season 1 DVD (568 mins., 2009; BBC): Amiable British fantasy series with a sense of humor aired on NBC last summer and Syfy Channel, where it has recently landed for its second season. For those who might’ve missed its initial group of episodes, BBC has collected the fanciful first season of “Merlin” in 16:9 (1.78) widescreen transfers with stereo soundtracks and plenty of extras, including a commentary, Making Of featurettes, video diaries, a photo gallery and more.

New on DVD

TCM - GREATEST CLASSIC FILMS COLLECTION War DVD (Warner Home Video): Bargain hunters with a fondness for vintage fare might want to check out next week’s new releases from Turner Classic Movies and Warner Home Video. Both multi-disc DVD packages sport previously released catalog favorites in conveniently priced bundles: “Westerns” offering Gregory Peck in Robert Mulligan’s “The Stalking Moon,” Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott in Sam Peckinpah’s “Ride the High Country,” Peckinpah’s “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” (see the Aisle Seat archives search for a full review) and John Wayne in “Chisum.” “War,” meanwhile, includes George Stevens’ classic “Gunga Din,” John Wayne in “Operation Pacific,” Errol Flynn and David Niven in “The Dawn Patrol,” and Ken Annakin’s all-star WWII epic “Battle of the Bulge” (again, see the index for a complete review).

NO TIME FOR SERGEANTS DVD (***, 119 mins., 1957; Warner): Mervyn LeRoy’s film adaptation of Mac Hyman’s book and the popular Broadway play that followed launched a litany of careers, not the least of which was star Andy Griffith, who reprieved his stage role as a rural country boy named Will Stockdale who joins the Air Force and stirs up all kinds of trouble. Myron McCormick and Don Knotts returned from the stage version as well for this 1957 Warner production, which also stars Nick Adams and Murray Hamilton. This is a funny, if dated, studio vehicle which Warners has finally brought to DVD in a terrific 16:9 (1.85) transfer that’s been remastered from original elements. Recommended!

THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE DVD (***, 74 mins., 1986, G; Disney): Terrific little Disney film served as a precursor to “The Little Mermaid,” which resurrected Disney animation (from most of the same production team) a few years later. This cute tale finds Basil of Baker Street (bearing a bit of a resemblance to a certain Arthur Conan Doyle detective) teaming up with sidekick Dawson to find a missing toymaker who has been kidnapped by the nefarious Professor Ratigan (voiced by Vincent Price). Henry Mancini’s superb score and some excellent animation make this a delight for kids and adults alike, particularly now that Disney has fully remastered the film for its brand-new DVD release. The 16:9 (1.78) transfer is razor sharp, while a fine 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack provides a pleasant stage for Mancini’s music. Extras include a Making Of, sing-a-long song, and interactive game for the little ones.

GEORGIA O’KEEFFE DVD (89 mins., 2009; Sony): Multiple award recipient copped acting kudos for both stars Joan Allen (as the influential female artist) and Jeremy Irons (as renowned photographer Alfred Stieglitz). Writer Michael Cristofer and director Bob Balaban (whom many remember from his various acting performances throughout the years) have fashioned a moving, compelling drama with superb work from both leads; even though the TV-film runs a scant 89 minutes, much is packed into this absorbing, acclaimed film. Sony’s DVD includes a fine 16:9 (1.78) widescreen transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound and a behind-the-scenes featurette. 

DIRTY JOBS - Season 4 DVD (1032 mins., 2009; Discovery Channel Store): Sold exclusively at Discovery Channel’s online store, “Dirty Jobs”’ Season 4 offers affable host Mike Rowe once again indulging in a number of tough jobs, from cleaning diapers to building trains, producing tofu and glass, looking after crickets and chickens, harvesting maple syrup and washing high-rise windows. This family-friendly Discovery series is one of its most popular, and fans are sure to enjoy this five-disc DVD set housing all 24 episodes of “Dirty Jobs”’ fourth season, including a retrospective “200 Jobs Look-Back,” sporting highlights from previous episodes. 16:9 transfers and 2.0 stereo soundtracks complete the package, which also sports a number of deleted scenes on each disc. 
TRANSYLMANIA DVD (**, 97 mins., 2009, Unrated; Sony): Wacky comedy spoof about a group of college kids who end up encountering the undead (and then some) somehow managed to get a theatrical release -- though the picture quickly died itself at the box-office. Viewers might be more forgiving of this uneven, occasionally amusing effort from producer-directors David and Scott Hillenbrand now that “Transylmania” has hit DVD in an Unrated presentation from Sony, presented alongside a number of supplements. In addition to a 16:9 (1.85) transfer and 5.1 soundtrack, the DVD sports commentaries, deleted/extended scenes, alternate opening and ending segments, a gag reel, and behind-the-scenes featurette.

THE DESCENT PART 2 DVD (**, 94 mins., 2009, R; Lionsgate): Shauna MacDonald returns as heroine Sarah Carter in this sequel to at least the American version of Neil Marshall’s hit Brit horror import “The Descent.” This direct-to-video follow up is basically more of the same without the visual style of its predecessor, though horror fanatics might find enough of it satisfying to warrant a rental. Lionsgate premires “Descent Part 2" on DVD exclusively with a 16:9 (2.35) transfer, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, and extras including deleted scenes, Making of content, commentary and storyboards.

WOLVERINE AND THE X-MEN - REVELATION DVD (110 mins., 2008; Lionsgate): Five episodes from the animated series (“Guardian Angel,” “Breakdown,” “Rover,” “Aces & Eights,” and “Shades of Grey”) hit DVD from Lionsgate. The disc also sports 16:9 (1.78) transfers, 5.1 soundtracks, and commentary tracks from Craig Kyle, Greg Johnson and Chris Yost.

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