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Lions, Aliens & Juno
Andy Reviews The Latest on DVD & Blu-Ray
Plus: A&E's Superb AMERICA AT WAR Box-Set

I compared the original “Alien Vs. Predator” with the later films in the Universal “Golden Age” horror cycle. Once long-standing franchises like Frankenstein, Dracula and the Wolf Man began to fade in their appeal at the box-office, producers decided to drum up business by combining those classic monsters in silly, entertaining B-grade brawlers like “Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man,” “House of Dracula” and “House of Frankenstein.” Those films weren’t made with the same production attributes as their more esteemed predecessors, yet were quite endearing in their own right for the action and no-brain fun that they offered.

While one can argue that the “Alien” and “Predator” franchises had not been exhausted to the degree that the Universal Monsters had (the two-film “Predator” series in particular), Fox nevertheless decided to make their own modern-day “monsterfest” with the first “Alien Vs. Predator.” The 2004 film carried a more kid-friendly PG-13 rating and raked in big bucks, totaling $80 million domestically and even more overseas as it mixed the Dan O’Bannon-Ronald Shusett created “Alien” franchise with Jim and John Thomas’ lizard-like intergalactic hunter.

It made sense that a sequel would follow, but the big surprise was how ALIENS VS. PREDATOR: REQUIEM (*½, 102 mins., 2007, Unrated and R; Fox) would make its predecessor look like a cinematic masterpiece by comparison.

Bloodier and more graphic with its “R” rating (which many believe lead to the film failing to come close to its predecessor’s box-office in-take), yet amateurishly written, flatly acted and even tasteless in sections, this nightmarish mess feels like a bad Sci-Fi Channel original movie masquerading as a major-studio theatrical release.

Shane Salerno’s script picks up literally right where the original left off, with an alien/predator hybrid popping out of the entrails of the slain Predator who finished off the Alien Queen at the end of its predecessor. No sooner does the ship crash back on Earth -- this time near a Colorado mountain town -- than the “PredAlien” runs amok, laying alien eggs and causing trouble for its human populace, including a pizza delivery man (Johnny Lewis) beaten up by his would-be girlfriend’s beau, his older brother (Steven Pasquale), and a military vet (Reiko Aylesworth) recently welcomed home by her husband and young daughter. Meanwhile, another Predator is dispatched to take down the PredAlien and anything else that stands in its way.

The “Brothers Strause” made their feature debut with “AVP2,” playing up the gore and special effects which the first “AVP” admittedly took its time unveiling. Seeing that there’s no longer any surprise to the appearance of these creatures, that’s perfectly understandable, but as a result there’s no tension, shocks or scares of any real kind here either. What’s arguably even worse is Salerno’s screenplay, a pedestrian assembly of scenes (“aliens in the swimming pool,” “aliens in the diner,” “predator in the graveyard,” and on and on) linked by some of the least appealing and poorly developed characters you’ll ever see in a film of this kind. The no-name cast lacks charm, charisma and any kind of empathy, with former “24" star Aylesworth (the only recognizable face) completely wasted in what could have been a Ripley-like female lead.

Indeed, the picture is only successful in cultivating the occasional, unintentional laugh, most of which involve the Predator who’s trying to clean up the mess. It figures that, of all the Predators in the galaxy, they send the one who couldn’t even use a Wii remote effectively, with a particularly hilarious moment ensuing when the Predator can’t even hit one little alien with his rocket launcher -- causing instead an explosion at the power facility that leads to a community-wide blackout. While it might have been even funnier if a studio audience laugh track had been applied to the sequence, it’s still amusing as played.

“Requiem,” then, rarely delivers the goods that one would’ve anticipated from the first-ever arrival of Aliens in a suburban Earth setting, and what’s more, manages to be tasteless and gross when the creatures hit a maternity ward late in the film. By that point it’s clear how desperate the filmmakers had become, and how understandable it might be for viewers to hit the eject button on their remotes.

Fox’s 2-disc DVD and Blu-Ray disc offer the movie’s 94-minute R-rated theatrical cut as well as a 102-minute Unrated version. As is usual with these “Unrated” cuts, almost none of the added footage is gore-related, instead adding some development to the characters, though some of the maternity ward sequence is even more graphic and thus to be avoided in the extended version.

Both sets are packed with mostly-promotional flavored extras, including a pair of commentaries (one by creature experts Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff, Jr., plus the Brothers Strause and producer John Davis on an alternate track), a whole group of featurettes, trailers, and a bonus second disc sporting an official “downloadable” digital copy for portable media players.

Visually, the Blu-Ray disc offers a splendid AVC-encoded transfer with a typically active DTS Master Audio digital track, while Fox’s standard DVD includes a superb 16:9 (2.35) transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Arnold on Blu-Ray

In lieu of AVP2’s release, Fox has finally issued the original “Predator” on Blu-Ray, as well as a few other high-definition Arnold-centric catalog titles from both Fox and Sony.

PREDATOR: Blu-Ray (***½, 107 mins., 1987, R; Fox): The original, slam-bang 1987 extraterrestrial brawlfest is still one of the best outings for both star Arnold Schwarzenegger and director John McTiernan, offering tense, well- choreographed action, superb effects, and a rousing story line encompassing the best of the decade’s action filmmaking.

Fox previously released “Predator” three times on DVD in the U.S., the last time in a two-disc Special Edition offering a substantial amount of extras, including commentary from McTiernan, an on-screen text commentary by historian Eric Lichtenfeld, a half-hour featurette on the creation of the film, a vintage promo featurette from 1987, the original trailer, a deleted scene in workprint form, special effects featurettes, and other goodies.

Sadly, Fox’s Blu-Ray disc is more in line with their first wave of BD catalog titles (it even bears 2007 copyrights) than some of their better efforts, offering only a very basic presentation of the movie -- on a single-layer 25GB disc no less -- with an okay MPEG-2 transfer and DTS Master Audio sound. The film has always looked grainy and while it goes without saying this is the “best the film has ever looked” on video, the film still appears “dirty” at times, as if the BD release was derived from an older HD master. The lack of extras (outside of the terrible trailer) is also hugely regrettable -- shouldn’t the original “Predator” be more worthy of a deluxe presentation than “Aliens Vs Predator - Requiem”?

COMMANDO: Blu-Ray (**½, 90 mins., 1985, R; Fox): Another so-so BD catalog effort from Fox, boasting a decent MPEG-2 transfer and DTS Master Audio sound, but none of the extras (outside of the trailer) from the movie’s recent Extended Edition DVD. The latter also boasted commentary and other extras, none of which have been ported over to this high-definition release, though at least the film’s brief running time enables it to have a higher bit-rate than “Predator” on a 25GB single-layer BD disc.

THE SIXTH DAY: Blu-Ray (***, 123 mins., 2000, PG-13; Sony): One of Arnold’s better late-career vehicles was this crackerjack, crowd-pleasing sci-fi thriller well-directed by Roger Spottiswoode ("Under Fire," "Tomorrow Never Dies") with, believe it or not, a good script and action to spare.

In the near future, human cloning is outlawed but that doesn't stop a greedy billionaire (Tony Goldwyn) from dabbling in science to a Frankenstein-kind of degree. A mix-up during a terrorist attack ends up having gizmo-mogul and family man Arnold replicated, but Schwarzenegger himself isn't happy when he gets home to find out Arnold #2 is enjoying his birthday cake.

Diving into the mystery surrounding Goldwyn's medical industry, Arnold finds out that sending in the clones is one of their most consistent activities, even though the firm's chief medical practitioner (Robert Duvall) tries to use some form of ethics while running off another copy of someone's DNA.

Of course, it all ends with effects and action, but there's a fair amount of wit in the screenplay and Spottiswoode handles the vehicle accentuating the goofy and yet possibly realistic future settings (involving replication for your favorite pets and juvenile "sim" friends for your kids) while having fun with the usual Arnold shoot 'em up.

It doesn't take a brain surgeon to figure out that Arnold and his clone will be tag-teaming at some point, but it IS good fun when it happens, and the movie's engaging premise and quick pace should keep viewers interested. Along with some choice Arnold one-liners, “The Sixth Day” offers a solid package of entertainment undeserving of being designated as "just another Schwarzenegger clone,” in spite of its weak box-office returns.

Sony’s Blu-Ray disc offers most of the extras from the movie’s prior 2-disc DVD set, including over nine behind-the-scenes featurettes, storyboards, and a Showtime Making Of, plus a splendid AVC-encoded transfer and Dolby TrueHD sound (note the isolated score track has been dropped for this release).

Also New on Blu-Ray

JUNO: Blu-Ray (***, 96 mins., 2007, PG-13; Fox): Endearing little comedy became a surprise box-office hit, grossing over $140 million, earning all kinds of critical raves and garnering a succession of Oscar nominations in the process.

Ellen Page is a revelation as sassy Juno MacGuff, an eccentric teen who becomes pregnant and subsequently seeks out the best route for her baby’s future: should she have it, should she keep it, or should she agree to adopt it out to a pair of parents (Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman) who can’t have kids.

Diablo Cody’s script is on-the-money with its incisive dialogue, even if some of Juno’s riffs seem a little wise for her years. Page’s performance was deserving of an Oscar while J.K. Simmons is marvelous as Juno’s dad, Allison Janey right on-target as her oddball stepmom, Michael Cera pitch-perfect as Juno’s nerdy boyfriend, and Garner and Bateman both splendid as a couple with more going on underneath the surface than it appears. Right when you think the picture is going in one direction it surprises you by heading in another, making for an unpredictable, yet believable story with fully likeable and three-dimensional characters.

“Juno” may have been a little overpraised in a year that, let’s face it, wasn’t chock full of classics, but it certainly is a confident, well-directed and heartwarming film that manages to be poignant and upbeat in a way that’s low-key and surprising for a Hollywood picture with its subject matter.

Fox’s Blu-Ray disc sports a flawless AVC-encoded transfer with 5.1 DTS Master Audio sound, including a bouncy and memorable soundtrack of songs and Mateo Messina score. Extras abound, including commentary by Reitman and Cody, deleted scenes, screen tests, gag reels, Fox Movie Channel specials and a number of other special features.

ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS: Blu-Ray (**, 91 mins., 2007, PG; Fox): Unlikely box-office behemoth (over $200 million domestic and $356 million worldwide) is an innocuous kiddie effort with Jason Lee as Dave Seville, who uncovers a pop music phenomena in a trio of chipmunks named Alvin, Simon and Theodore.

Director Tim Hill previously directed the second “Garfield” film and certainly has the expertise to fashion a CGI kids romp, which “Alvin” most definitely is. Lee, David Cross and Justin Long are just the straight men basically for the Chipmunks, whose colorful antics pushed this slight and only occasionally goofy effort into smash-hit territory. Still, kids ought to warm to it on video just as they did in theaters.

Fox’s Blu-Ray disc is a 25GB effort but the AVC-encoded transfer is top-notch and the film is so short that it’s unlikely the transfer could’ve been any more impressive than it is here. The DTS Master Audio sound is also excellent and a pair of short featurettes round out the package.

New on DVD

LIONS FOR LAMBS (**½, 92 mins., 2007, R: MGM/Fox): Robert Redford’s latest bombed in theaters -- much as all the Iraq-war films have -- though it’s a watchable, if decidedly one-sided, chronicle of the battle’s consequence from the viewpoint of a college professor (Redford), a flashy senator (Tom Cruise) and a TV journalist (Meryl Streep) watching it from domestic sidelines. MGM’s DVD includes commentary from Redford, trailers, and two standard Making Of featurettes.

MUSIC WITHIN (***, 94 mins., 2007, R; MGM/Fox): An excellent performance by Ron Livingston makes this biopic worthwhile. Livingston here essays Richard Pimentel, a Vietnam vet deafened in combat who returns home and is recruited by the U.S. government to help create a program to hire the disabled. Superb work is also turned in by Rebecca DeMornay (as his mother), Melissa George and Hector Elizondo in this well-meaning and compelling film with a solid sense of humor.
Steven Sawalich’s film arrives on DVD in a fine 16:9 (1.85) transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, commentary, deleted scenes and a pair of Making Of featurettes including an interview with Pimenetel.

SHIRLEY TEMPLE Volume 6 (Fox): Fox’s latest anthology of Shirley Temple classics hits DVD in two weeks, comprised of the 1936 release “Stowaway,” 1937's “Wee Willie Winkie,” and 1940's “Young People.” The restored black-and-white transfers appear remarkably fresh. 

New From A&E

AMERICA AT WAR: The History Channel Megaset (33 hours., A&E/New Video): If you’re looking for an early Father’s Day present you couldn’t do any better than this massive set from A&E, comprising every major American military conflict from the Revolutionary War through the Iraq conflict, in over 30 hours of top-notch History Channel programming.

This 14-disc set includes The History Channel’s superlative 1994 chronicle of the American Revolution, presented on three discs; a single-disc compilation on The Alamo; two discs of “Civil War Combat” narrated by Roger Mudd; a disc devoted to WWI; two superb volumes of content on WWII dubbed “The Death of Glory”; four specials on the Korean War; another four programs on the Vietnam War; three Gulf War specials; and two discs on the Iraq War that round out the set.

Superb packaging, four different bonus programs on the Gulf and Iraq conflicts, and excellent transfers make this a thrilling and comprehensive survey of the United States’ involvement in a succession of military conflicts both internal and external. For the price ($179 but lower in many outlets) this is as excellent a package as one could find for the history buff. Highly recommended!

Aisle Seat Mail Bag

From Erik Chapin:


It's not the movie that is overrated, it's your film critic skills. You have the nerve to call the film pretentious and self indulgent, when it is far from being so. You trashed one of the best films of last year, giving it two and a half stars. Even worse, you gave Unbreakable one and a half stars. Yet, you gave the Water Horse and The Chipmunk Adventure three stars each! The fact that you found two incredibly stupid children's films more interesting and entertaining than two incredibly profound and intelligent adult films says more than enough about your tastes. Maybe you should go write for a Nickelodeon or Disney publication instead.

You review each film for what it is trying to accomplish, not against one another. That's a basic movie critic "rule" as it were. The standards of an animated kids movie are far different than a serious dramatic work. Yet, you don't dock the former simply for what it is when the latter attempts a higher degree of difficulty.

So, THE CHIPMUNK ADVENTURE is given three stars for being a fairly good children’s film (it’s also far better than the live-action “Alvin” movie which I reviewed above). Now, I personally would rather sit through THERE WILL BE BLOOD again, even though I had serious issues with it, but the function of a critic is to review each film for what it’s trying to do and how well it does it. (And as far as "serious dramatic works" go I've raved about NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and THE ICE STORM in recent weeks. I'll take either over THERE WILL BE BLOOD any day, but again, that’s just my opinion).

One of my favorite conversations on this very issue happened back in the summer of ‘87 on Siskel & Ebert. In one of their most engaging, heated debates, Ebert gave “Benji the Hunted” thumbs-up while giving thumbs-down to Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket.” Siskel then attacked Ebert, who responded by saying his counterpart violated the very credo of their show!

While the whole episode isn’t available online, you can see those two reviews by doing a search for the individual pictures on  the Siskel & Ebert show archives. Sadly the portion where Siskel & Ebert really got into it isn’t available online as Buena Vista didn’t include the full episodes in the archive -- a major disappointment. Perhaps that's something we can both agree on?

From Michael Contreras:

Well, let me throw in my 2 cents regarding Unbreakable.  You and I usually agree on the merits of movies, but I have to tell you I think you're way off the mark with this one.  Easily one of the best movies of the last 10 years, it's also M. Night at his most creative, story and directorial.  I've seen this movie at least 5 times and it never fails to completely enthrall me from the opening moments of the baby's cries to its chilling revelation at the end.  I do agree that the movie did not need the tacked on subtitles, but that's the only few moments that aren't some of the most assured filmmaking I've ever seen.  I'm not even a comic book fan, but I'm aware of its lore enough to appreciate what's going on in this movie.  As for Willis and Jackson, their acting is both compelling and believable and I absolutely adore James Newton Howard's score.  Unbreakable made me believe, much as Batman Begins, that the possibility of real superhero may not be as far-fetched as we imagine. **** stars. Thanks for your time and I enjoy your web site and column.

Michael no two people will ever agree on everything. There’s just something about UNBREAKABLE that doesn’t agree with me, what can I say?

NEXT TIME: CLOVERFIELD! 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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