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Twilight Time's Latest

Twilight Time’s latest offerings ought to have a great deal of appeal for movie buffs as the rousing 1954 Fox sequel to “The Robe,” DEMETRIUS AND THE GLADIATORS (***, 101 mins.), along with Richard Brooks’ marvelous Columbia western-adventure BITE THE BULLET (****, 131 mins., 1975, PG), join the label’s limited edition releases this month.

“Demetrius” was put into production before the first-ever Cinemascope spectacular, “The Robe,” was even released. At 100 minutes, the film is about a half-hour shorter than its statelier and more “reverent” predecessor, finding Victor Mature’s Demetrius sparring with the crazed Emperor Caligula (an over the top, and highly amusing, Jay Robinson) who’s still trying to track down the elusive robe, and the temptations of the sensuous, Isis-worshipping Messalina (top-billed Susan Hayward), wife of Caligula’s decidedly less flamboyant uncle Cladius (Barry Jones). Soon Demetrius finds himself falling back on his pre-Christian lifestyle, telling Messalina that they don’t need any God and going against his non-violent stance by battling in the gladiator’s arena after a young Christian woman (Debra Paget) is attacked in front of him.

With Cinemascope splendor, action, sex, a wide range of performances (including early turns from Ernest Borgnine, future “Blacula” William Marshall and Anne Bancroft), and a regal Franz Waxman score (incorporating some of Alfred Newman’s themes from “The Robe”), “Demetrius and the Gladiators” reworks the more satisfying elements of its predecessor while being, if anything, livelier. Michael Rennie was one of several “Robe” veterans – including writer Philip Dunne – who returned to reprise their roles in “Demetrius,” yet this picture also owes a debt to director Delmer Davies, whose pacing results in an exciting widescreen epic from Fox’s Golden Age that’s ultimately more fun than the film that preceded it.

Twilight Time’s Blu-Ray houses a 1080p AVC encoded transfer from the best-available elements that exist in the Fox vaults. Certain online pundits have complained about the movie’s appearance, yet there are no faults to be found in the transfer. The obviously-aged elements, however, are nowhere near the pristine condition that “The Robe” was in, so viewers anticipating that kind of HD clarity will be disappointed. That being said, the film is still an appreciable upgrade in every way over its DVD counterpart, and Blu-Ray owners with larger screens will see an immediate, and obvious, enhancement in the presentation. The movie’s four-channel stereo sound, meanwhile, is in more robust condition thanks to a DTS MA track (also isolated) that does wonders for Waxman’s scoring. The original trailer and Julie Kirgo’s insightful notes, which chronicle the film’s unusual production, complete a package that any fan of the picture is urged to pick up.

One of the last great movie westerns, Richard Brooks' marvelous BITE THE BULLET looks simply spectacular in high-def, with Twilight Time’s Blu-Ray flawlessly preserving the dimensions of its original Panavision aspect ratio -- and the gorgeous scope cinematography of Harry Stradling, Jr.

Gene Hackman, James Coburn, Candice Bergen (in a subplot that doesn’t provide much of a payoff), Ian Bannen, Ben Johnson, and Jan-Michael Vincent are contestants in a turn-of-the-century, 700-mile cross-country race that takes its toll on both participants and their horses. The plot is familiar, but the performances and Brooks' direction make the material fresh, aided considerably by scenic locales and an outstanding Alex North score.

While “Bite the Bullet” is humorous and entertaining throughout, the film also feels like a sometimes-uneasy mix of old-fashioned filmmaking with ‘70s “realism”: the graphic scenes of horses breaking down are powerful, and give the film an edge that earlier Saturday matinee-type fare lacked (it’s a credit to Brooks that the horses in the film were, according to him, not injured by the stunts shown in the picture).

As long as you're prepared for the occasional disparity in tone, the picture is just marvelous, featuring a rousing (and satisfying) ending, great southwestern locations, and appealing performances by a game cast. From one of Hackman’s best roles to North’s scoring, “Bite the Bullet” is a Blu-Ray must for western aficionados.

Another phenomenal presentation from Sony’s Columbia vaults, “Bite the Bullet” looks dazzling on Blu-Ray: the DNR-free, 1080p AVC encoded transfer offers fine details, lush colors and exceptional clarity. Even better, the film’s original mono recording has been brilliantly remixed to a 5.1 DTS MA soundtrack that enhances every aspect of North’s score far beyond the limited parameters of its original audio. The trailer, Kirgo’s booklet notes, and an isolated score track, assembled as always by the great Mike Matessino, put a cap on one of the year’s best BD catalog titles to date.

Also New on Blu-Ray

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - GHOST PROTOCOL Blu-Ray/DVD/Digital Copy (***, 131 mins., 2011, PG-13; Paramount): Prior to the fourth installment in Tom Cruise’s “Mission: Impossible” series, I hadn’t been crazy about the franchise as a whole. Brian DePalma’s 1996 original was a poorly-scripted adventure with some memorable, if outlandish, action set-pieces; John Woo’s 2000 sequel (a worldwide smash) was a guilty pleasure for some (I count myself in that camp), but again silly and much more of a Woo picture than a “Mission: Impossible” story; and J.J. Abrams’ serviceable, though not overly inspired, 2006 third entry proved to be good enough to produce another sequel though not much more (it also performed well under its predecessors at the box-office).

With Cruise’s interest seeming to pick up every few years, I’m not sure audiences were, initially, that excited about “Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol,” but this exciting and playful sequel proved to be an enormous hit – grossing over $600 million worldwide and ranking as the most satisfying picture in the entire series.

It’s also as close to a throwback to the original TV series – and the old James Bond movies – as we’re ever likely to see. The globe-trotting plot once again finds Ethan Hunt (Cruise) escaping from a Russian prison in time to reunite with his team (here comprised of Paula Patton, Simon Pegg, and series newcomer Jeremy Renner) for a mission requiring them to infiltrate the Kremlin. Unfortunately, the complex is bombed, with the IMF team being framed as terrorists responsible for the crime, sending all on the run in a hunt for the actual villain: a mysterious figure named “Cobalt” who killed an IMF agent (“Lost”’s Josh Holloway) in the film’s opening prologue.

“Ghost Protocol”’s tone and sense of fun are undoubtedly due to director Brad Bird, an animator best known for his work on “The Incredibles” and “The Iron Giant” (and going further back, the “Family Dog” episode of Spielberg’s “Amazing Stories”). A sense of humor? Check. Gadgets? Check. International locales and dynamic set-pieces? Check (the entire Dubai sequence is inspired from start to end). While it’s disappointing that it took Cruise nearly four films to get the formula right – here Hunt actually has a team, not fragments of one – Bird adds a noteable visual dynamic that was absent from the third film, resulting in a picture that’s thoroughly energetic and big fun.

What’s also impressive is the film’s tone. This sequel is almost completely devoid of profanity, which in this day and age is something to be admired. The violence is likewise toned down, the worst of it occurring off-camera. At a time when PG-13 movies feel more like R's (“Hanna” I'm looking right at you), “Ghost Protocol” is also old-fashioned in the best sense of the word.

The only drawbacks are overlength (like a lot of the Bond films, the fun seems to run out about 20 minutes before the end), and Michael Giacchino’s hardworking but unmemorable score, which does, at least, recycle some of Lalo Schifrin’s themes from the old series. Outside of that, “Ghost Protocol” was one of last year’s biggest cinematic success stories, a critical darling and global hit that ought to ensure future sequels for either Cruise or Renner – whichever star decides to accept the next mission.

Paramount’s Blu-Ray combo pack is superlative. The AVC encoded 1080p transfer and DTS MA soundtrack are both stellar as you’d anticipate. Special features are housed on a second disc (exclusive to Best Buy), comprised of a number of HD featurettes taking viewers behind the scenes, running the gamut from a look at the special effects to Giacchino’s scoring. There are also 15 minutes of deleted scenes with Bird’s commentary – some of which are interesting but none essential – along with trailers. A DVD and digital copy (Ultraviolet and itunes/pc compatible) round out a disc that ought to be on the shopping list of many home video consumers in 2012.

ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS: CHIPWRECKED Blu-Ray/DVD/Digital Copy (**, 87 mins., 2011, G; Fox): Third go-round for Alvin and the boys plays up the CGI shenanigans of the Chipmunks and the Chipettes, who find themselves on a tropical island after getting tossed off their “Love Boat”-like ocean cruise. This, at least, enables top-billed Jason Lee (again playing “Dave”) to appear as little as possible in a dumb, innocuous feature that ought to entertain the same youngsters who enjoyed the previous films, though this sequel didn’t perform nearly as well as its $200-million-plus grossing predecessors at the box-office. Fox’s Blu-Ray looks great and is filled with featurettes and behind-the-scenes content, along with extended scenes, a DVD and digital copy. The DTS MA soundtrack and 1080p transfer are both excellent. 

New From BBC

More “Doctor Who” Special Editions highlight the BBC’s slate for April. Here’s a rundown:

DOCTOR WHO: CARNIVAL OF MONSTERS DVD (98 mins., 1973) is a multi-part arc from early 1973 with Jon Pertwee’s Doctor and Jo (Katy Manning) investigating a traveling showman named Vorg who’s arrived on Inter Minor with an “intergalactic peepshow” called the Miniscope. “Carnival of Monsters” includes two commentaries with Manning, producer Barry Letts and other cast/crew members; a longer, unrestored edit of the second episode; a 23-minute Making Of featurette on Ian Marter; the director’s amended ending; PDF materials; visual effects featurettes and plenty more.

Another Pertwee arc is on-tap in DOCTOR WHO: THE DAEMONS (122 mins., 1971), with the Doctor, Jo and UNIT trying to prevent an ancient daemon from causing too much havoc in the peaceful village of Devil’s End. Commentary from Manning and director Christopher Barry; a half-hour Making Of; a half-hour retrospective of co-writer Barry Letts; a 1992 colorization test episode; a corresponding behind-the-scenes piece on that episode; photo gallery; PDF materials and other goodies comprise another essential “Dr. Who” program for fans.

Also new from BBC is a Blu-Ray edition of TORCHWOOD: MIR
ACLE DAY (530 mins., 2011), the fourth “series” of the BBC Worldwide production (itself a “Dr. Who” spin-off) that aired domestically on the Starz network, in a co-production with the American broadcaster.

Here, CIA agent Mekhi Phifer joins up with the Torchwood group to investigate why, suddenly, nobody on Earth can die – it’s a premise that at times feels padded in this 10-episode program co-starring John Barrowman, Eve Myles, Alexa Havins and Bill Pullman, appearing as a child killer who survives his own execution. Unlike prior series of “Torchwood,” numerous Americans were also employed behind the scenes at times, including “Buffy” writer Jane Espenson.

BBC’s Blu-Ray includes the complete “Miracle Day” in solid 1080i transfers with DTS HD soundtracks and plenty of extras including commentary, deleted scenes, character profiles and other extras.

New From HBO

HBO’s telefilm CINEMA VERITE (90 mins., 2011) is an interesting account of the first “reality” TV series: the groundbreaking PBS documentary “An American Family,” which follows Pat and Bill Loud (Diane Lane, Tim Robbins) and their family through the prism of a documentary crew led by producer James Gandolfini and his younger filmmaking crew (Patrick Fugit, Shanna Collins). For those of us too young to have seen “An American Family,” “Cinema Verite” is an effective portrayal of a ‘70s suburban clan with submerged issues, marked by excellent performances by a fine cast. The script by David Seltzer (of “The Omen” fame) is compelling though one wishes the film offered more development than its 90-minute running time allows.

HBO’s Blu-Ray includes a commentary with directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini with Diane Lane, plus a Making Of, 1080p transfer and DTS MA soundtrack.

Also new from HBO is the complete second season of TREME (674 mins., 2011), the ensemble account of New Orleans residents trying to move on after Katrina. Season 2 boasts some exclusive Blu-Ray content including a look at the music and culture of New Orleans; a music featurette; “Art of Treme,” a Tulane University symposium dedicated to the show; a look at the food profiled in the series; Behind the scenes featurettes; audio commentaries and music commentaries, plus a DTS MA soundtrack and 1080p transfers.

NEW FROM E ONE/MPI: The upcoming release of Tim Burton’s “Dark Shadows” movie have lead to a number of home video releases from MPI including a limited-edition set of the series’ complete series (retailing for $600). More frugal “Dark Shadows” fans might be interested ina pair of compilation DVDs from the label instead: DARK SHADOWS: THE GREATEST EPISODES COLLECTION is comprised of two different DVD sets. “The Best of Barnabas” offers nine episodes drawn from the series’ lengthy run, while “Fan Favorites” includes nine different episodes culled from the program. New introductions are on hand in each episode...A young man (Sean Clement) finds out that his late mother’s addiction-treatment center houses both the cure for everything and the birth of “mutant offspring” in the silly HIDDEN (81 mins., Not Rated), a Canadian-lensed chiller now on DVD...Luke Perry is back as John Goodnight in the latest entry in the popular Hallmark series GOODNIGHT FOR JUSTICE, entitled THE MEASURE OF A MAN (87 mins.), co-starring Cameron Bright. E One’s DVD includes interviews with the stars plus a 5.1 soundtrack and 16:9 transfer...DONALD GLOVER: WEIRDO (105 mins., 2011) includes the comic in a concert taped at New York City’s Union Square Theater. This special, which originally aired on Comedy Central, hits DVD with a bonus “taxi cab” interview with Glover...Werner Herzog’s latest, INTO THE ABYSS: A TALE OF DEATH, A TALE OF LIFE (107 mins., 2011, PG-13), profiles the death penalty in Texas, from interviews with a 28-year-old inmate on Death Row, to the state’s executioners. MPI’s Blu-Ray includes a 1080p transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack.

NEW FROM A&E/NewVideo: The deciding game from last year’s fall classic, BASEBALL’S GREATEST GAMES: 2011 WORLD SERIES GAME 6 features the multiple improbable comebacks by the champion St. Louis Cardinals over the Texas Rangers in a one-of-a-kind finale. A&E’s Blu-Ray includes a broadcast-worthy 1080i transfer with DTS MA 5.1 audio, plus the ability to listen to the original radio play by play....Season 4 of BILLY THE EXTERMINATOR (aprx. 5 hours; 2011) finds Billy leaving town, wrestling giant pythons in the Everglades, taking on Texas gators, and battiling a 30-pound goose in North Carolina in this high-rated (go figure) A&E series. A&E’s Season 4 DVD set includes widescreen transfers and stereo soundtracks...TOP SHOT: THE GAUNTLET (aprx. 10 hours) includes all 12 episodes from the series’ third and fourth seasons on DVD along with bonus footage and supporting features...Season 5 of ICE ROAD TRUCKERS (aprx. 12 hours) has Hugh, Alex, Lisa and Jack racing against the clock, Mother Nature, and one another in this collection of 16 episodes. NewVideo’s DVD set includes additional footage, widescreen transfers and stereo soundtracks. 

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