4/29/08 Edition -- The AISLE SEAT BLOG Is Also Live

May Day Edition
The Newest Blu-Ray & DVDs Reviewed

It’s been a little quiet on Blu-Ray over the last few weeks and things seem to be picking up only slightly as we head towards the end of the 2nd Quarter.

Classic film fans have been disappointed so far in some of the titles offered in the dual high-definition formats, but Sony has made a nice addition to the slender line-up of more “adult” films with their Special Edition of A PASSAGE TO INDIA (***½, 164 mins., 1984, PG; Sony), available on Blu-Ray as well as standard DVD.

This final film for director David Lean is a leisurely told but beautifully photographed and well-acted adaptation of E.M. Forster’s novel, focusing on the class and racial divide in Colonial India. Judy Davis stars as a young Englishwoman, set to marry fiancee Nigel Havers, who travels to India along with her older counterpart (and prospective mother-in-law) Peggy Ashcroft. While investigating a local cave, Davis believes that she’s been assaulted by a young Indian doctor (Victor Banerjee), leading to a clash of cultures as a trial soon follows, playing up the friction between the Muslim populace and British colonists. James Fox co-stars as a local English educator while Alec Guinness makes the most his limited role as a Hindu professor (a role Guinness allegedly hated, and which was significantly reduced in the editing room).

Ernest Day’s cinematography and a pleasant Maurice Jarre score marked “A Passage To India” as a vivid travelogue as well as a triumph for writer-director Lean, returning from a 14-year lay-off following the disappointment of his overblown 1970 production of “Ryan’s Daughter.” Nominated for multiple Oscars, the picture served as a fitting final film for one of the cinema’s finest craftsmen.

Sony’s Blu-Ray edition sports a respectable AVC-encoded 1080p transfer and Dolby TrueHD audio. The print looks a bit “flat” at times, but the colors are strong and certain sequences appear remarkably sharp. Since the film is often quiet, the TrueHD audio isn’t anything spectacular, but does its job when called upon. Overall this is a more commendable release, for certain, than what we’ve seen from Fox on their catalog titles of late, even if it is not quite pristine.

Extras are also on-hand, including an informative commentary with producer Richard Goodwin and a number of Making Of featurettes packed with new interviews that go into extensive detail about the picture’s production. They’re complimented by an excellent “picture-in-graphics” track that offers running details about the film.

Also new on Blu-Ray is one of the more disappointing epics of the ‘90s, FIRST KNIGHT (**, 134 mins., 1996, PG-13; Sony).

Following on the success of his 1990 phenomenon “Ghost,” director Jerry Zucker picked a retelling of the Arthur legend for his next project. Sean Connery was cast as the King (great!), Julia Ormond as Guinevere (okay), and Richard Gere as Lancelot (what in the world were they smoking?) in this box-office disappointment from the summer of ‘96, marked by unappealing cinematography, lousy action sequences, a poor script (credited to William Nicholson), and even a Jerry Goldsmith score that seems understandably uninspired given the circumstances (and yes, I’m a gigantic Goldsmith fan, but I’ve never been a fan of this particular score).

I recall seeing “First Knight” at a preview screening where the audience was totally disinterested -- not that you could blame them, given the film’s elementary drama and fumbled set-pieces. Rewatching the film on video, I had nearly forgotten about the embarrassing sequence where Lancelot proves his worth by running through an obstacle course that seemed as if it was inspired by “American Gladiators” more than “Excalibur.” Later, in a sequence I certainly didn’t forget, outright comedy ensues when Connery’s cries over Guinevere’s infidelity are matched by a dissolve into a ring of fire that lead nearly every person sitting next to me into hysterics.

With comic-book villainy served up by Ben Cross (making one last big-studio role before an endless assortment of direct-to-video fare), “First Knight” is under-baked and hugely disappointing, a by-the-numbers epic that flat-lined with audiences (the picture grossed only $37 million domestically and cost more than double that amount).

Indeed, as the years have passed, it’s interesting to compare the basically-forgotten “First Knight” with another epic released that same summer -- “Braveheart” -- which went onto win Oscars and become a modern-day classic with audiences by comparison.

Sony’s Blu-Ray edition (also out on standard DVD) includes a commentary with Jerry Zucker and producer Hunt Lowry, plus a secondary commentary examining the history behind the film. Deleted scenes, a production design featurette, and a formal Making Of headline a solid assortment of extras, while the movie’s AVC-encoded transfer and TrueHD audio track do their best to sell the picture’s dreary look.

Fox, meanwhile, has lined up the successful Katherine Heigl comedy 27 DRESSES (***, 111 mins., 2008, PG-13) for Blu-Ray and DVD this week.

One of this year’s early sleeper hits (earning over $75 million), this predictable romantic comedy pushes all the right buttons as it tells the story of a perennial bridesmaid (Heigl) who watches as her gorgeous but annoying younger sister (Malin Akerman) steals away her boss (Ed Burns), whom she harbors a serious crush on. Their whirlwind relationship leads to a surprise engagement, which brings in a sarcastic journalist (James Marsden) who secretly plans on penning a lengthy piece on Heigl and her failure to land the right guy.

Aline Brosh McKenna’s script is by-the-numbers in outline but the writer does a nice job developing the respective characters and their relationships with one another. Heigl is quite appealing in this, her first lead role, and she has a decent amount of chemistry with Marsden, who comes off a little strong as the “wrong guy” who, naturally, turns out to be Mr. Right. More satisfying is the interplay between the siblings, which has a note of truth in it and is likewise nicely directed by Anne Fletcher. The film is set in NYC but was filmed primarily in Rhode Island, with a good assortment of recognizable Ocean State locations doubling as the Big Apple (I should also point out the gorgeous wedding flowers in the film, many of which were provided by the award-winning Flowers by Semia of North Providence...Semia also provided the flowers for my wedding and is also a high school classmate of mine, not coincidentally. Sorry for the shameless plug but I couldn’t resist the opportunity!).

Fox’s Blu-Ray disc sports a very nice AVC-encoded transfer with DTS-HD Master Audio sound. The movie looks flawless and, while not the kind of film that benefits necessarily from “lossless” audio, the soundtrack is quite nice, sporting an unobtrusive (and not particularly memorable) score by Randy Edelman. Extras include several featurettes and a group of deleted scenes in standard-definition.

New Line is also unrolling their costly production of THE GOLDEN COMPASS (**, 113 mins., 2007, PG-13) on BD and DVD this week, in a spectacular looking and sounding package with ample extras.

Unfortunately, the film is a borderline disaster, a convoluted adaptation of the first book in Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” series that flopped in the U.S., leading to New Line Cinema being absorbed into Warner Bros. earlier this winter (while the film was enormously popular outside North America, New Line sold the picture off to other distributors in most of those markets, meaning they didn’t recoup much revenue. As it stands, “The Golden Compass” is the only film in history to rake in over $300 million internationally while failing to hit the $100 million mark in the United States).

I’ve never read Pullman’s books, which were aimed at kids and young adults but boasted their share of controversy in the author’s none-too-subtle criticism of the Catholic Church and organized religion in general.

While the movie reportedly waters down this element, it’s also lifeless and cold, with elaborate visuals cobbled together from exterior influences (especially “The Phantom Menace” and the “Harry Potter” films) and a confusing story that fails to properly introduce its mythology to viewers unfamiliar with the source material -- that of a parallel universe where its inhabitants co-exist with animal alter-egos, representing their respective humans’ souls. Daniel Craig makes a fleeting appearance as a man who finds a mystical substance that could challenge the rule of the evil “Magisterium,” leading to him venturing into the far North to find it. Not far behind is his plucky young niece (Dakota Blue Richards), who’s traveling along with the evil Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman).

Chris Weitz -- yes, the co-director of “American Pie” -- was probably not the first choice to helm an elaborate fantasy like “The Golden Compass,” and it shows. Working from his own script, Weitz’s film has no flow, with scenes during the first hour seeming especially jumbled and a litany of supporting faces popping up here and there, some never to return. The picture’s effects are, predictably, impressive, but the movie is humorless and takes a long time for the viewer to become immersed in its universe. By the time it improves in its later third, one wonders how many viewers will still care, making “The Golden Compass” the least of the “young adult” fantasy films we’ve seen of late (“Narnia,” “Spiderwick,” “Lemony Snicket,” etc.)

New Line’s DVD and 2-disc Blu-Ray release are certainly impressive: the 1080p VC1-encoded transfer on the Blu-Ray disc is spectacular and the DTS-HD Master Audio sound likewise packs a potent punch. Extras are ample as well: the BD disc sports an exclusive HD “visual commentary” with behind-the-scenes footage plus a commentary from Chris Weitz and a full second platter of featurettes, much of it devoted to the picture’s production design and visuals, as well as a look at Alexandre Desplat’s serviceable score.

Also available from New Line is THE ORPHANAGE (***, 105 mins., 2007, R), a stylishly old-fashioned ghost story produced by Guillermo Del Toro.

Belen Rueda stars as a woman who returns to the orphanage where she was raised along with her husband and young, adopted son. Soon their child begins to witness apparitions of children and one, particular young boy who once lived at their seaside home, and after he goes missing, Rueda realizes who might be to blame...

Sergio G. Sanchez’s script and the direction of J.A. Bayona are intentionally, and effectively, restrained, with “The Orphanage” clearly trying to pay homage to classic, low-key ghost stories like “The Haunting,” “The Innocents” and “The Uninvited.” The sound effects and effective score by Fernando Velazquez combine with the performances to create an atmosphere that keeps you off-kilter, though the picture is never quite as suspenseful and scary as you might anticipate it being. One also wonders if these Shyamalan-like “big reveal” endings haven’t played themselves out by this point, since I always had the feeling the filmmakers were ready to play a trump card on the audience at the end (which they do, only somewhat effectively).

Ultimately, “The Orphanage” isn’t on the level of the films it’s trying to emulate, but it’s not entirely out of place in their company, and comes recommended for viewers looking for a ghost story more interested in character development than gore and cheap shocks.

New Line’s Blu-Ray disc boasts a beautiful VC-1 encoded transfer with a dynamic, fully active 7.1 DTS-MA audio track. This is one of the more involving sound designs you’ll hear, and it’s perfectly rendered in DTS high definition audio. Extras on the Spanish language, English subtitled film include three featurettes, still galleries, rehearsals and a marketing campaign feature.

Warner’s ONE MISSED CALL (*½, 87 mins., 2008, PG-13), meawhile, continues the downward trend in American adaptations of Japanese horror films.

This lightweight and barely 80-minute adaptation of “Chakushin Ari” stars Shannon Sossamon (of “A Knight’s Tale”) as a psych student who teams up with a sarcastic detective (Ed Burns; I wonder if he drops the “Edward” in films he’s just cashing the check in) after a group of her friends receive an ominous call on their cell phones....leading to their eventual deaths!

Yes, Eric Valette’s movie is the “Killer Cell Phone” picture referenced in the hilarious new comedy “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” and it’s stylishly made...just completely empty in the brain department. Perhaps teen viewers who were petrified by the “Grudge 2" might find this to be scary, but everyone else might want to bypass it in favor of, well, most anything else.

Warner’s Blu-Ray disc does boast a superb VC-1 encoded transfer with Dolby TrueHD audio, featuring a not-bad score by Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek, who recently composed one of my favorite original soundtracks of late for the German film “Perfume: Story of a Murderer.” Extras are non-existent.

Meanwhile, HD-DVD may be in its final hours but BCI Eclipse is treating format owners to a double-dose of classic Bob Hope with their double-feature release of Hope’s 1947 effort MY FAVORITE BRUNETTE and the hilarious 1952 western comedy SON OF PALEFACE.

Though both prints show their age, these public-domain staples have here been remastered from the best-surviving UCLA archival elements, resulting in a crisp and surprisingly good transfers for both movies. While neither will be the sort of title you’d ever use as an example of the benefits of high-definition, the contrast and sharpness on BCI’s HD-DVD is quite good considering how awful both pictures have looked at times over the years.

If nothing else this is a nice release for Bob Hope and Golden Age comedy fans, and a satisfying addition to the slowly dying HD-DVD format’s library.

New on DVD

BEST OF THE PRICE IS RIGHT (BCI Eclipse): BCI Eclipse previously notched successes with their earlier DVD sets for classic game shows “Match Game” and “Family Feud,” and have returned this month with a superb 4-disc set from both the beginning and the end of host Bob Barker’s tenure on “The Price Is Right.”

BCI’s set offers a satisfying retrospective of the long-running series (now hosted by the affable Drew Carey) by including early B&W shows with original host Bill Cullen, plus a slate of shows from the beginning of Barker’s tenure in the early ‘70s. It goes without saying that the early Cullen shows bare little resemblance to the “Price” we’ve all watched over the years, but at the same time, the early Barker shows illustrate the program’s formula in its infancy. As dated as some of the fashions and items up for bid may be, the music, sets and pace have changed little since Barker took over the hosting reigns -- something that makes “The Price Is Right” as enduring an institution that exists on network television today.

Production slates are on-hand, as well as several shows that were pre-empted by the Watergate hearings. BCI has also included the entire last week of Barker’s shows, though it’s disappointing that they didn’t include some of the prime-time specials or “Best Of” Anniversary specials that showed some of the series’ most memorable moments. As it stands, the DVD set is focused heavily on the early years and the end of Barker’s tenure, without anything on-hand from the late ‘70s, ‘80s or ‘90s.

That slight disappointment aside, this is nevertheless a must-have for all game show fans with priceless episodes that have literally been unseen for decades. Come on down! (you knew that was coming).

SALUDOS AMIGOS/THREE CABALLEROS (1943 and 1945; 42 and 71 mins.; Disney): Double-feature edition of Walt Disney’s early “South of the Border” animated efforts pairs the short 43-minute feature “Saludos Amigos” with its more elaborate 1945 follow-up “Three Caballeros,” each offering a mix of live-action and Disney animation. The merits of these productions is widely debated by Disney aficionados (some of the animation is superb and there’s Carmen Miranda, too!), and it’s likely that young viewers today will be interested in little outside of the animated sequences. That said, Disney archival fans will be satisfied by this single-disc DVD, containing both “Saludos Amigos” and “Three Caballeros” in full-screen transfers basically identical to their prior, out-of-print Disney “Gold Collection” DVD editions. This new set does boast a few extras (animated shorts and a “Backstage Disney” retrospective on their production) and all-new 5.1 stereo audio, but regrettably drops the trailers from their prior DVD releases.

THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY (***, 112 mins., 2007, PG-13; Buena Vista): Moving, well-acted adaptation of Jean-Dominique Bauby’s autobiography, following the author as he awakens from a coma, only to find himself paralyzed by “locked-in syndrome.” The former Elle magazine editor is only able to communicate by blinking his left eye, and we watch as Bauby (a superb performance by Mathieu Amalric) retells his story to a magazine reporter (Emmanuelle Seigner), chronicling his lost loves, family and pursuits when he was still physically functioning. Ronald Harwood adapted Bauby’s book and director Julian Schnabel shot the Kennedy/Marshall production in French to maintain its authenticity. The result is an inspiring true story that comes strongly recommended on DVD, where Buena Vista has issued a superb DVD with a 16:9 (1.85) transfer, 5.1 Dolby Digital audio (in French or English), optional subtitles, a Charlie Rose interview with the director, Schnabel’s commentary track, and a pair of Making Of featurettes.

BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD (***, 117 mins., 2007, R; Image): Tough, gritty Sidney Lumet film focusing on two brothers (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke) who decide to rob the jewelry store of their parents (Albert Finney, Rosemary Harris), thinking insurance will cover their loss. Of course, the best laid plans go to oblivion in this strongly performed character drama, written by Kelly Masterson and directed by Lumet in the same uncompromising fashion that’s marked most of his filmmaking career. Hoffman and Hawke are terrific and there’s a tremendous performance by Marisa Tomei, clothes on AND off as well! Image’s DVD includes a commentary with Lumet, Hoffman and Hawke, plus a Making Of, satisfying 16:9 (1.85) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack.

MANNEQUIN/MANNEQUIN 2: ON THE MOVE (**½ for the original; *½ sequel; 88 and 91 mins., 1987 and 1991, PG; MGM.Fox): Double-feature pairing sports the 1987 box-office hit “Mannequin” -- the innocuous comedy with Andrew McCarthy and Kim Cattrall -- as well as its inferior 1991 sequel, “Mannequin 2: On the Move,” featuring Kristy Swanson (in a horrible wig) and William Ragsdale in a virtual re-run of its predecessor’s formula. The original is housed on its own platter in a presentation identical to its prior DVD (16:9 widescreen, full-screen, 2.0 stereo) while “Mannequin 2" hits DVD for the first time in a 16:9 transfer (1.85) with 2.0 stereo.


 The CBS imprint of Paramount Home Video has been busy of late offering a host of new titles on DVD.

First up is the third and final volume in the YOUNG INDIANA JONES CHRONICLES, dubbed “The Winds of Change.” This nine-disc set concludes George Lucas’ re-editing of his “Young Indy” ABC series, combining network episodes with later Family Channel-broadcast TV movies in a chronological order, and re-editing portions of their original form (including the elimination of the elder Indy, played by George Hall).

Packed, like its predecessors, in a sturdy cardboard box, Paramount’s Volume 3 set offers Sean Patrick Flanery as the young adult Indy in the following two-hour blocks: “Tales of Innocence”
(Northern Italy 1918/Morocco 1917), “Masks Of Evil” (Transylvania 1918/Istanbul 1918), “Treasure of the Peacock’s Eye” (one of the few episodes untouched from its original airing), “Winds of Change” (Paris 1919/Princeton 1919), “Mystery Of The Blues” (again an unedited program, featuring a bearded Harrison Ford as Indy once again), “Scandal of 1920" and “Hollywood Follies.” Along the way Indy meets up with a cavalcade of historical figures including Eliot Ness, Paul Robeson, Pablo Picasso, Vlad the Impaler and others, learning a few educational lessons along with the usual derring-do.

A host of lengthy documentaries again adorns each installment, while top-notch full-screen transfers and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks make this a recommended pick-up for all “Young Indy” fans.

Also new from CBS/Paramount this month is the second-half of episodes from the first season of LOVE, AMERICAN STYLE (1969-70, aprx. 10 hours).

This long-running sitcom features a group of comedic vignettes in each episode (plus the requisite laugh track), starring a literal who’s-who of network television at the time. You’ll recognize familiar faces including Barry Gordon, Vivian Vance, George Gobel, Dorothy Lamour, Penny Marshall, Mariette Hartley, Shecky Greene, Dick Sargent, Ray Walston, Tony Randall, Steve Allen, Jayne Meadows, Bob Denver, Kurt Russell, Orson Bean, Suzanne Pleshette and many more in each show, making the series a fascinating time capsule of its period.

Paramount has also issued a superb 50th Anniversary Edition of PERRY MASON (1960-66, 12 hrs., CBS/Paramount), featuring a dozen episodes culled from the classic courtroom drama’s long run.

While some fans may lament the fact that Paramount has put the kibosh on releasing the series in proper seasonal sets, this is still an excellent package, containing several of the show’s most respected episodes plus a number of special features.

Among the extras are interviews with Barbara Hale and Arthur Marks, plus the top-rated NBC 1985 tele-film “Perry Mason Returns” (which launched a long-running series of bi-annual TV films), syndication promos, a look at creator Erle Stanley Gardner, Raymond Burr’s interviews on the Charlie Rose Show, an interview with CBS executive Anne Nelson, anti-smoking ads from William Talman, the cast on “Stump the Stars,” a photo gallery and other goodies. Highly recommended for Perry Mason fans!

TWO AND A HALF MEN: Complete Season 3 (2005-06, 527 mins.; Warner): CBS’ top-rated comedy with Charlie Sheen and Jon Cryer returns to DVD in the third-season of “Two and a Half” men, the network’s Monday night staple. More comedic shenanigans are on-hand as Sheen and Cryer juggle dating with the misadventures of Cryer’s chubby son Angus T. Jones. Warner’s box-set release includes a gag reel and fine 16:9 (1.85) transfers with 2.0 Dolby Digital stereo sound.

PARANORMAL STATE: Season 1 (2008, aprx. 8 hours; A&E): The breakout success of the Sci-Fi Channel’s “Ghost Hunters” has lead to a number of similarly-themed cable shows, including this A&E series that follows around a paranormal research group based at Penn State University. These young investigators might have a bit more “scholarly” background than my fellow Ocean State residents who hunt for spirits, but their series is a lot harder to digest, with the group looking not only at ghosts but also supposed demons and other beasties. Some heavy-handed narration and a sense that the producers might be pulling your leg makes this reality series a lot less believable than “Ghost Hunters,” with A&E’s DVD set offering the complete first season in fine widescreen transfers with a number of extras, including commentaries and behind-the-scenes featurettes, on-hand.

NEXT TIME: More of the latest reviews! Until then, don't forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards, check out the newly relaunched Aisle Seat Blog, and direct any emails to our email address.  Cheers everyone!

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