5/12/09 Edition
STAR TREK returns
Andy Reviews The New Film
Plus: EDDIE COYLE, T2, BLU-Rays & more

The Summer of ‘09 is off to a great start thanks to J.J. Abrams’ dynamite “alternate universe” vision of STAR TREK (****), which confidently blasted into theaters last weekend and reinvigorated Gene Roddenberry’s sci-fi franchise with humor, action, effects, a compelling story and the return of the original Enterprise crew in the form of a talented young cast.

It’s a marvelous entertainment, the best “summer blockbuster” we’ve seen in years and a picture so finely tuned that not one sequence in it feels unnecessary. Without divulging all of its plot elements, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman’s script opens with a deranged Romulan named Nero seeking vengeance against the Federation and one particular Vulcan as well for the destruction of his home world. Nero (Eric Bana) has traveled back in time in his quest and disrupted the space/time continuum in the process, causing the premature death of James T. Kirk’s father and thereby altering the universe of Kirk, Spock and the Federation that we’ve watched and been entertained by for decades. What follows from there is a telling of the first voyage of the Enterprise, its captain Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood), first officer Spock (Zachary Quinto), Doctor Leonard “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban), and a group of young crew members including Sulu (John Cho), Chekov (Anton Yelchin), Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and, last but not least, a brash cadet named James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) who’s on suspension following his famed Kobayashi Maru test -- but filled with the dogged determination of saving the planet Vulcan from an impending attack by Nero and his ship.

It’s been years since the Trek franchise ended without so much as a whimper, thanks to the under-performance of the TV series “Enterprise” and the tepid “Next Generation” feature film “Star Trek - Nemesis,” so there’s naturally been a hunger among both casual fans and hard-core Trekkies for a new Trek project of any kind. And it would have been so easy for director J.J. Abrams and his crew to adhere to the current pop culture fad and turn their version of “Star Trek” into a dark, brooding adaptation similar to what Ron Moore did with “Battlestar Galactica” and Christopher Nolan has with his two Batman films.

What Abrams has done, brilliantly, here is not just make a new, exciting Star Trek movie with its own style and substance, but also tap back into what made the original series -- and principally the relationships between Kirk, Spock and the other members of the Enterprise -- so compelling and beloved by viewers. Abrams’ characters aren’t total reinventions of William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley and company -- they’re respectful new incarnations of them, resurrecting  the humor and personality quirks that defined “The Original Series.” Therefore, this is a movie that’s wisely more in tune with the ‘60s series and the human dynamic between Kirk and Spock, and the interplay of the crew, as opposed to the colder, more techno-babble ridden approach that came to be synonymous with the Rick Berman era “Trek.”

It helps that the cast clicks in every category: Chris Pine has his own take on Kirk but manages to tap into the same energy and charisma that Shatner brought to the role (and indeed, audience members applauded when Pine introduced a dash of “Shat” in the concluding scene). He’s perfectly matched by Zachary Quinto, who may not have the gravitas that Nimoy brought to Spock but seems to grow in the role as the film moves along (having seen Quinto on TV’s “Heroes” as the serial killer Sylar I was nervous about him being able to tap into Spock’s repressed human side, but the young actor does a commendable job). The supporting performances are nothing short of miraculous: Urban really is Bones McCoy; Cho’s Sulu and Yelchin’s Chekov deftly reprise the distinguishing traits of both Enterprise crew members, while Zoe Saldana is picture (and pitch) perfect as Uhura and Simon Pegg brings an enormous amount of energy to the table as Scotty. All of them recreate the dynamic of the original cast – with their own stylistic flourishes – in a wonderful collection of performances, while the veteran casting of Bana, Greenwood and Nimoy as Spock “Prime” blend extremely well with their younger counterparts.

There are big dramatic moments in this “Star Trek,” thanks to a story that never seems to stop moving. Thankfully, unlike most modern cinematic blockbusters, there’s enough character development and an intriguing story here so that the pacing doesn’t feel like a two-hour movie trailer. The film mixes humor and action so effortlessly that you can feel the picture’s extended stay in post-production being a real asset: this is as polished a major studio blockbuster that I’ve seen in ages.

And sure, maybe there’s a bit too much “shaky-cam,” which makes some of the larger-scale action scenes seem less expansive than they should be, and perhaps Michael Giacchino’s serviceable but somewhat frantic score comes off as being just a tad generic in its thematic material (his main theme sounds more like a Batman fanfare than a majestic Trek motif). Yet these are just minor quibbles with a movie that has its act together on nearly every front and rousingly entertains the viewer from start to finish. Bring on the sequels, warp factor five! (126 mins., PG-13).

New From Criterion

A taut, exciting portrait of a small-time Boston hood (Robert Mitchum) trapped between going back to prison and informing the government of other criminal activity he's aware of, THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE (102 mins., 1970) is a film that many buffs have been clamoring to see for years, if not decades.

Criterion’s DVD, out next week, finally gives viewers the opportunity to check out director Peter Yates’ flavorful crime thriller (
which somehow has never been available on video before), shot entirely on location in venues that Bostonians will certainly recognize and which anyone who remembers the era will fondly appreciate: this is a movie that simply oozes atmosphere, backing up a straight, no-frills account of Mitchum’s dealings with a government agent (Richard Jordan) trying to illicit information from as many crooks as he can find, to a local bartender (Peter Boyle) who might know more than he’s letting on. Familiar faces (including Alex Rocco and Mitchell Ryan) pop up, Dave Grusin’s score lends a typical period assist (but never gets in the way), and Yates gets enormous mileage out of Mitchum’s on-target performance. This is one of Mitchum’s finest roles and even if the ending seems pre-ordained (and ends up playing out in a patently matter-of-fact, abrupt “‘70s” manner, following priceless footage of the Bruins and Bobby Orr playing at the old Boston Garden), “Eddie Coyle” is a terrific character study highly recommended on DVD.

Criterion’s restored DVD includes a crisp, effective new 16:9 (1.85) transfer with mono sound -- for a movie of that era recorded entirely on location the sound mix is surprisingly strong, while a commentary from Yates (appreciative that the movie is being resurrected after years of requests), a photo gallery, and comments from critic Kent Jones round out one of Criterion’s most satisfying DVD releases of the year to date.

Also new from Criterion this month is a release of the little-screened, bizarre 1979 John Huston film WISE BLOOD (106 mins.), an adaptation of a Flannery O’Connor novel about a troubled young man named Hazel Motes (Brad Dourif) who attempts to open a church of his own -- without Jesus -- in New Orleans after coming home from the war and running into a group of eccentrics, including a blind preacher (Harry Dean Stanton).

Produced independently on a low budget with an influx of foreign money, “Wise Blood” is a strange film with memorable sequences and certainly a group of offbeat performances (in addition to Stanton there’s Ned Beatty, Amy Wright and Daniel Shor), as well as a low-key score by Alex North. “Wise Blood” may not be for every taste but it’s certainly a unique late entry in Huston’s filmography and Criterion has splendidly brought it to DVD.

In addition to a new 16:9 (1.78) transfer, the DVD includes fresh interviews with Dourif, writer Benedict Fitzgerald and writer-producer Michael Fitzgerald; an archival audio recording of O’Connor reading one of her stories; a 1982 Bill Moyers TV retrospective on Huston; the trailer; and booklet notes from Francise Pross.

Finally, Japanese film fans will appreciate Criterion’s new, three-film retrospective of Shohei Imamura films: PIGS AND BATTLESHIPS (1961, 108 mins.), THE INSECT WOMAN (1963, 123 mins.) and INTENTIONS OF MURDER (153 mins., 1964).

Dubbed “Pigs, Pimps & Prostitutes,” the box-set includes a trio of Imamura’s works from the early ‘60s, all shot in vivid black-and-white and 2.35 widescreen. The three pictures include newly restored high-def digital transfers, plus conversations between Imamura and critic Todao Sato; a 1995 French TV retrospective on “The Free Thinker”; interviews with scholar Tony Rayns on all three movies; a number of essays; and improved English subtitle translations.

New on DVD & Blu-Ray

David Fincher’s THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON (**½, 165 mins., 2008, PG-13) is a haunting, eloquently filmed and yet hollow adaptation of an F. Scott Fitzgerald story -- a fanciful tale of a man born at an old age who spends his life growing younger, trapped in a body that defies time yet forming relationships in a manner that all of us do as we experience life.

It’s a tale that’s often sad and made worthwhile by the performances of Brad Pitt as Benjamin, Cate Blanchett as Daisy -- the love of his life, whom he “meets in the middle” of their lifetimes -- and Taraji P. Henson as Queenie, the New Orleans woman who becomes his caretaker and de facto mother after Benjamin’s father (Jason Flemyng) leaves him on her doorstep. Fincher’s film, as adapted by Eric Roth, passes the decades through the prism of Benjamin’s diary, as being read by Blanchett’s daughter (Julia Ormond) at her mother’s hospital bed, prior to Hurricane Katrina coming ashore in New Orleans.

“Benjamin Button” is a beautifully filmed picture that, coming on the heels of “Zodiac,” reaffirms Fincher as one of the few cinematic “master craftsmen” working today. Each shot is intelligently designed, the film flowing in and out of the years like some kind of day dream, while Alexandre Desplat’s eloquent, beautiful score adds a level of wistfulness and heart that the story itself never quite matches.

In spite of its many worthwhile elements, the picture is also a flawed one, particularly in lieu of its final hour. The cumulative impact of its story line, its almost frustrating even-handed level of emotion, and its climax -- after everything we’ve watched -- simply don’t amount to very much. Benjamin is more of a cipher than a character we come to fully care about, and the almost greeting-card level of poetry in Eric Roth’s script (this is the same screenwriter of “Forest Gump,” let’s not forget) never matches the artistry of its filmmaking. The movie is excessively overlong considering where it ends up, and indeed, other films have examined the cycle of life and its meaning far more powerfully and poignantly (and in a shorter duration of time) than this one. The garbled accents (it’s difficult to make out the elder Blanchett’s inflection, especially at the beginning) and the ultimate pointlessness of its framing story are a further distraction.

“Benjamin Button” is one of those films that’s never likely to be considered as a masterpiece, but due to Fincher’s direction, the score and cinematography, is likely to remain a favorite of certain viewers in spite of its shortcomings. The film does cast a spell over the viewer, and is certainly worth a viewing (or two) -- it’s just unfortunate that there wasn’t a story here satisfying enough to match its strong filmmaking foundation.

Both Paramount and Criterion have brought “Benjamin Button” to DVD and Blu-Ray. Shot almost entirely on digital video, it goes without saying that Criterion’s AVC encoded 1080p transfer is just spectacular, filled with detail, strong colors and an overall presentation that does total justice to Fincher and cinematographer Claudio Miranda’s visuals. The DTS Master Audio soundtrack is likewise impressive. On the two-disc DVD edition, the 16:9 (2.35) transfer is exceptional for standard-definition, and is backed by a 5.1 Dolby Digital mix.

Both versions include an informative commentary from Fincher and a full second disc of extras. The Making Of featurettes include nearly three full hours of documentary materials, profiling everything from how the movie’s effects and make-up were achieved to a 15-minute chronicle of Desplat’s score. Prior to this score I wasn’t as sold on Desplat’s previous works as other listeners have been, but there’s no denying this was the finest film score of 2008 in my mind. Extensive still galleries and an appreciative essay from Kent Jones round out both platforms.

It’s a tremendous package for a movie that many cinephiles will find to be worthwhile, in spite of its disappointing aspects.

MY BLOODY VALENTINE 3-D (***, 103 mins., 2009, R; Lionsgate): Now here’s a surprise: a remake of a cult favorite ‘80s slasher that doesn’t turn its subject matter into a modern “torture porn” remake, but rather a knowing, enjoyable modern update of its predecessor.

Director Patrick Lussier’s 3-D remake of the early ‘80s horror staple “My Bloody Valentine” once again follows a pick-axe killer with a penchant for murdering young teens on the loose in the quaint town of Harmony. Armed this time with three-dimensional effects (rendered here in anaglyph format 3-D, with four pairs of glasses), Lussier trots out every genre trick in the book, but does so in a free-wheeling, entertaining manner that ought to please old-school horror movie fans. It’s gory but good fun, never takes itself too seriously and offers the same sorts of pleasures the best movies of its kind used to back in the genre’s heyday.

Lionsgate’s Blu-Ray disc offers both 3-D and 2-D versions of the movie in superb AVC encoded transfers. As I’ve written before, the 3-D we’re saddled with at home can’t compare to the polarized versions seen in theaters but when seen in 1080p the Blu-Ray’s separation effects are hands down the best I’ve seen with the “old-style” red/blue/green glasses. The DTS Master Audio sound is excellent while extras include a commentary track, deleted scenes, a gag reel, an alternate ending and a brief Making Of featurette. Lionsgate’s standard DVD includes a similar package (both 3-D and 2-D versions and four pairs of glasses) spread across two discs, with a 16:9 (2.35) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack comprising the technical presentation.

Also forthcoming from Lionsgate is the tepid Renee Zellweger "fish out of water" comedy NEW IN TOWN (**, 97 mins., 2009, PG; Lionsgate), starring Zellweger as a "high powered executive" from Miami who heads to Minnesota to oversee a manufacturing plant. Naturally, she has problems adjusting to the climate and the locals (of course), including wacky J.K. Simmons and a union rep played by Harry Connick, Jr., whom (of course) she also falls for. This innocuous comedy is a passable time-killer but it says something about Zellweger's career that she's regressed to taking parts in bland fare like this. Lionsgate's Blu-Ray disc does boast a nice 1080p transfer, DTS Master Audio sound, deleted scenes, commentary, and Making Of featurettes.

New on Blu-Ray

TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY Skynet Edition (***, 137/154/156 mins., 1991, R; Lionsgate): Souped-up Blu-Ray package from Lionsgate improves immeasurably upon their first, disappointing HD release, just in time for the release of “Terminator: Salvation.”

Nearly everything here has been reprieved from prior DVD variants of T2, but it’s the first time these extras have been offered on Blu-Ray. The goodies include a scene-specific commentary by James Cameron and William Wisher recorded for the “Extreme Edition” DVD, as well as an older commentary that was produced for the old deluxe laserdisc package. A full array of theatrical trailers (newly minted in HD) and a couple of deleted scenes are available, while most of the supplements are contained as “Visual Implants” (an on-screen picture-in-picture track), while additional pop-up trivia, the script and storyboards can also be viewed while the film plays out. There are also seamless branching options for additional featurettes as well, mostly (from what I sampled) culled from the prior laserdisc and DVD supplements, but presented in a nifty new visual package that should satisfy fans of the movie. Extensive BD Live extras (requiring a 2.0 profile player) are supposed to offer games, quizzes and other goodies.

The Blu-Ray offers both the Special Edition of the film and the theatrical version, as well as the “extended Special Edition” with the “conclusive” futuristic ending that was excised shortly before the film’s release -- as with the original DVD edition, the mode can be accessed by pressing 82997 (“Judgment Day”) on the remote.

Visually, Lionsgate has produced a glossy new VC-1 encoded transfer with DTS Master Audio sound. T2's HD history has been a bit of a checkered one, with the best 1080p transfers we’ve seen coming from international HD-DVD editions. Fortunately the new BD master is more satisfying than the studio’s prior MPEG-2 presentation, and the improved audio and extras should make this an easy purchase for Terminator fans when the “Skynet Edition” is released later this month.

CSI: Season 1 (2000-01, 17 hours; CBS/Paramount): CBS’ long running night-time crime drama continues to crank out season after season (much like its New York and Miami spin-offs), though the recent departure of star William L. Petersen may have taken a little bit of life out of the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced series (Laurence Fishburne may be a capable replacement, but by the time you hit Season 8 and beyond, it’s only natural for any series to start to show its age).

Season 1, though, of “CSI” spotlights the program at its best, and Paramount has delivered a terrific package for Blu-Ray fans: a splendid HD edition of the show’s first year (2000-01), when it wowed critics and garnered massive audience ratings simultaneously. While Paramount’s prior DVD edition boasted superb 16:9 transfers, the Blu-Ray ups the ante with clean, crisp 1080p transfers and full 7.1 DTS Master Audio soundtracks, besting the 5.1 Dolby Digital mixes from the show’s original broadcasts.

If that wasn’t enough, a cavalcade of extras includes a director’s cut of the pilot episode with commentary, a gag reel, a number of deleted scenes and outtakes, episodic promos, and a pair of Making Of featurettes, one of which (“Rediscovering the Evidence”) is even presented in HD as well. Recommended for Blu-Ray enthusiasts and “CSI” lovers!

HOTEL FOR DOGS (***, 100 mins., 2009, PG; Dreamworks/Paramount): Cute, appealing family movie follows orphans Emma Roberts and Jake T. Austin as they opt to start up a hotel for abandoned, orphaned canines with their young friends.

This adaptation of a Lois Duncan book is filled with heart-tugging moments and appealing canines who -- refreshingly -- bark instead of talk. Roberts and Austin are both fine, Don Cheadle lends some support as a social worker trying to help the kids, and Lisa Kudrow and Kevin Dillon add comedic relief as a pair of inept foster parents. “Hotel For Dogs” isn’t exactly “Waiting for Godot” but at the same time, this is a superior kids’ movie with a lot of emotion and a fine score by John Debney that gives the story a proper “fairy tale” feel.

Dreamworks’ Blu-Ray edition is top-notch, sporting a gorgeous AVC encoded transfer and Dolby TrueHD soundtrack. Extras include a cast/crew commentary, deleted scenes and numerous Making Of featurettes, all in high-definition as well. Recommended for young viewers and dog lovers alike.

UNDERWORLD: RISE OF THE LYCANS (*½, 92 mins., 2009, R; Sony): Maybe it’s because Kate Beckinsale isn’t running around...check that, it IS partially because of Beckinsale’s absence that this tedious prequel to the events seen in Len Wiseman’s big, goofy “Underworld” films just seems to be missing a certain something.

Granted, fill-in heroine Rhona Mitra is always easy on the eyes, but “Rise of the Lycans” feels awfully tired as it chronicles the backstory of the Lycan movement (as embodied by their eventual leader Lucian, played by Michael Sheen) and its relationship with the vampiric “Death Dealers,” led again by the villainous Viktor (Bill Nighy). Mitra’s character Sonja is a vampire but she’s secretly in love with Lucien, leading to some brief love scenes and a lot more talk than expected in the script, credited to original writer Danny McBride, Dirk Blackman and Howard McCain (from  a story by McBride and Wiseman).

Effects-meister Patrick Tatopolous directed (and again created the creature F/X for) “Rise of the Lycans,” which boasts a quality production with most of the same creative talent behind the scenes from its predecessors, and yet I was never engaged by the movie, which tellingly feels a lot longer than it actually is. Die-hard “Underworld” fans might still generate some excitement from it, but most viewers are likely to pass it by without a second glance -- and understandably so.

Sony’s Blu-Ray disc looks a little grainy here and there, but that’s likely a result of the movie’s low-light, dark hued cinematography. The Dolby TrueHD audio throbs with another score by Paul Haslinger and an endless assault of sound effects, while extras include a commentary track by numerous members of the creative team, a few Making Of featurettes, a BD exclusive picture-in-picture track and BD Live bonuses as well.

ENEMY AT THE GATES (***, 131 mins., 2001, R; Paramount): Jean-Jacques Annaud's lavish epic is a true story of a Russian sharpshooter (one of Jude Law’s best roles), popularized by military propaganda, whom the Germans decide to rub out by bringing in a vicious marksman (Ed Harris) while the Battle of Stalingrad rages on in the wintry Russian landscape of WWII.

Annaud is one of the few directors currently working who can make a classically-constructed film that feels like it could have been made exactly the same way 15 or even 30 years ago, and the 2001 “Enemy at the Gates” is a well-mounted, powerful piece of filmmaking that's flawed in its pacing and certain narrative decisions (the Rachel Weisz love interest angle should have either been augmented or cut completely), but is striking in how it details the direct conflict between two individuals while thousands are dying in the battle surrounding them.

Backed by a superb James Horner score and individual set-pieces that inspired a litany of WWII video games (the “Call of Duty” series in particular), “Enemy at the Gates” has aged well and arrives this month on Blu-Ray in a highly satisfying presentation from Paramount.

The 1080p HD transfer surpasses an older German HD-DVD import, with a stronger blend of colors and heightened detail. The Dolby TrueHD sound, meanwhile, offers a masterful mix of Horner's highly effective original score (it works great once you put the "Schindler's List" influence aside) and potent sound effects.

Extras reprieved from the original DVD include two documentary featureettes: a promotional featurette on the production as well as a more interesting, 22-minute piece consisting of interviews with the cast and Annaud, who dives into greater detail surrounding the historical background of the actual event. A handful of interesting, but not integral, deleted scenes are included along with the excellent theatrical trailer in HD.

THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (***, 117 mins., 1975, R; Paramount): Sydney Pollack’s taut conspiracy thriller needs little introduction to most devotees of ‘70s cinema, offering a taut Lorenzo Semple-David Rayfiel script (adapted from a James Grady novel), a groovy score from Dave Grusin, vivid scope cinematography by Owen Roizman and terrific performances from a marvelous cast (Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway, Cliff Robertson, Max Von Sydow and John Houseman among them). Paramount’s first domestic HD release of “Three Days of the Condor” sports a fine VC-1 encoded transfer that looks a bit better than the international HD-DVD release from Studio Canal that had been exclusive to that late format; the Dolby TrueHD sound is predictably limited in its fidelity but the theatrical trailer does look nifty in HD.

MAJOR LEAGUE (***½, 106 mins., 1989, R; Paramount): Seminal baseball comedy remains firmly ingrained in the minds of sports fans everywhere. This chronicle of the Cleveland Indians' rise from cellar-dwellers to championship contenders mirrored the actual Tribe for a while, offering colorful characters and big laughs: Tom Berenger is the veteran catcher who's seen it all, Charlie Sheen the brash pitcher who can't hit a barn door, Wesley Snipes the cocky rookie, while Bob Uecker is the wackiest broadcaster this side of -- well, Bob Uecker!

David S. Ward wrote and directed this memorable 1989 release, which has since become something of a sports movie classic over the years. With amusing lines and a surprisingly good love story (which landed Rene Russo on the map), “Major League” offers a veritable home run of entertainment.

Paramount’s Blu-Ray presentation of “Major League” looks to have been culled from the same master as its 2007 Special Edition DVD, boasting strong colors if not vivid detail. The Dolby TrueHD sound is likewise fine, sporting a sturdy, early score by James Newton Howard.

Extras, also from the 2007 DVD, include a 25-minute Making Of sporting then-new interviews with stars Tom Berenger, Charlie Sheen, Corbin Bernsen and Dennis Haysbert (as the voodoo-practicing Pedro Cerrano), plus director David S. Ward and producer Chris Chesser, who also contribute a new audio commentary. An unused ending is also on-hand, plus a talk with “Harry Doyle” himself Bob Uecker and comments from 2007-current Cleveland Indians players on the movie’s legacy among real major leaguers.

If you’re a baseball fan it’s tough not to love “Major League.” The movie has big laughs, a lot of heart, and a terrific ensemble cast clearly having a good time. Forget about Ward's lousy 1994 sequel and give this one another spin as we head towards the summertime. (And while you're at it, give "Major League: Back to the Minors" a chance. The underrated, little-seen 1998 third installment is a huge improvement on the second film and is also worth a look).

WAYNE'S WORLD (**½, 94 mins., 1992, PG-13; Paramount)
WAYNE’S WORLD 2 (**, 95 mins., 1993, PG-13; Paramount): I guess we can blame Wayne and Garth for the long line of terrible Saturday Night Live movies we've received in the wake of these two, amiable comedies, which ruled the box-office in 1992 and, to a lesser extent, in the 1993 sequel.

But, taken on their own terms, the “Wayne’s World” movies provide some laughs that hold up fairly well today -- references to now-defunct rock groups notwithstanding. Penelope Spheeris' original film brought the antics of Illinois' favorite public access TV hosts -- rocking metalheads Wayne and Garth -- into a feature film that enabled stars Mike Myers and Dana Carvey to use their comic skills in a sketch-styled format filled with spoofs, references to movies and TV commercials, and pop culture in general.

Clearly, the magic was with the original film, where Wayne and Garth are offered a slot at a network TV shot by bigwig Rob Lowe (in a surprisingly amusing performance). Tia Carrere, Donna Dixon, and Lara Flynn Boyle provide the eye candy for our two heroes in the picture, along with a host of cameos.

“Wayne’s World 2" followed in 1993, but the Mike Myers-Bonnie and Terry Turner script isn't as fresh or funny as its predecessor, with Wayne and Garth trying to stage their own rock concert and attempting to stop evil music mogul Christopher Walken, who stands in the way of success for Wayne's girlfriend (Carrere again) in the recording industry. There are more (and sometimes funnier) star cameos here, but also an over-reliance on head-bashing, early '90s rock-and-roll, particularly at the end.

Both movies make their way to Blu-Ray this week with pleasing VC-1 encoded 1080p transfers and Dolby TrueHD soundtracks and a few extras, including director commentaries and 20-minute retrospectives (featuring recent interviews with Myers and Carvey) on each title.

PAYCHECK (**½, 118 mins., PG-13, 2003; Paramount): Agreeable albeit lightweight futuristic thriller stars Ben Affleck as an engineer who works for a shady corporation overseen by Aaron Eckhart. The projects Affleck works on are so top secret that the company "wipes" his memory clean when he's completed his job. The result are big paychecks and a slew of recorded Red Sox games for Ben to catch up on -- at least until the newest project he's completed finds him being wanted by the FBI and targeted for assassination by the same folks who hired him.

While director John Woo brings his usual stylistic touches to this 2003 adaptation of a Philip K. Dick story, "Paycheck" is only a modest sci-fi effort (shot in Canada) with some fisticuffs but few large-scale action scenes. Those anticipating another "Face/Off" may be disappointed, but on the other hand, "Paycheck" is a definite step-up from Woo's prior American outing, the tortuous "Windtalkers." Picking up the slack from the small-scale action are engaging lead performances by Affleck (nicely dialed down here a few notches) and Uma Thurman as the girl he falls for but can't remember. Paul Giamatti, Joe Morton, and the always imposing Colm Feore add strong support, as does a superlative score by John Powell that simultaneously manages to be action-packed and melodic, thanks to a nifty mix of orchestra and synth percussion.

"Paycheck" will not go down as an especially memorable outing for the cast or the director, but it's a harmless, entertaining enough adventure that will likely play better on video than it did in theaters.

Paramount's Blu-Ray disc serves up a crisp, excellent VC-1 transfer that looks colorful and constantly well-composed, with just a touch of grain here and there. The Dolby TrueHD sound design is as bass-heavy and elaborate as you'd anticipate from the subject matter, and there are a few nice extras on the disc, reprieved from the prior DVD. Several deleted scenes are included with an interesting alternate ending among them, plus separate commentary tracks by Woo and writer Dean Georgaris, and a pair of Making Of featurettes that are mostly promo filler.

Also out on Blu-Ray is another Ben Af
fleck offering, the moderate 2002 box-office hit CHANGING LANES (**, 98 mins., 2002, R; Paramount). 

Roger Michell’s movie offers a one-note plot courtesy of writers Chap Taylor and Michael Tolkin -- sort of an update of the mediocre Michael Douglas movie "Falling Down" to a certain degree -- and dramatic situations became tiresome after the first half-hour, despite solid work from leads Affleck and Samuel L. Jackson as two strangers who end up in an accident that brings their two worlds together. The film constantly gives off the impression that it’s more important than it really is, and while it seems to reach a satisfying ending, it rambles onto a seemingly tacked-on coda I could’ve lived without.

Paramount’s Blu-Ray release of this 2002 Scott Rudin production includes a stylish VC-1 encoded HD transfer and Dolby TrueHD audio, sporting a decent score by David Arnold. Extras reprieved from the original DVD include commenary from Michell, several deleted/extended scenes, a pair of featurettes and the trailer in HD.

THE MACHINIST (**½, 101 mins., R, 2004; Paramount): Weird is just the first word that pops into your mind when describing Brad Anderson's offbeat thriller. Christian Bale -- who literally didn't eat for weeks to prepare himself for the role (and believe me, it shows!) -- essays a tortured soul who can't seem to remember his recent past and what Big Event turned his life into a living hell. Obviously made to capitalize on the success of "Memento," Anderson’s mind-bending thriller might have worked better as a short film (or even an episode of “The Twilight Zone”), but despite a solid effort from Bale, this Spanish-produced mystery doesn't quite work.

Paramount's Blu-Ray disc offers a fine 1080p transfer with Dolby TrueHD audio and several extras: commentary from Anderson, deleted scenes, and an interesting look at how the independent film was produced, with two of the featurettes also presented in HD.

WITHOUT A PADDLE (**½, 98 mins., 2004, PG-13; Paramount): One of 2004's surprise box-office hits, "Without a Paddle" stars Seth Green, Matthew Lillard and Dax Shepard as three childhood friends who take a trip to the Oregon woods after their best friend dies in a tragic accident. Steven Brill's comedy offers colorful, scenic Pacific Northwest vistas in full widescreen, plus engaging supporting turns from Burt Reynolds as a forest sage and Ethan Suplee and Abraham Benrubi as marijuana farmers whom the boys run afoul of. Speaking of which, Green, Lillard, and Shepard make for an amusing trio, though after a strong start, the Jay Leggett-Mitch Rouse script runs out of energy, with a typical chase-movie framework substituting for some of the movie's stronger gags early on. Though the laughs are likely to be best appreciated by younger viewers, there's too much adult content in the PG-13 rated film for parents to feel comfortable letting their kids watch it.

Paramount's Blu-Ray disc sports a good-looking HD transfer with an energetic Dolby TrueHD soundtrack, which includes a fun collection of pop tunes and Christophe Beck score. Special features offer some 13 deleted scenes (some of which could have helped the movie feel less disjointed), plus an MTV Making Of and "Interstitials" which ran on the channel. The theatrical trailer is also on-hand, as are a pair of fun commentary tracks.

DEXTER: Season 2 (11 hours, 2007; Paramount): Showtime-produced series gained more fans through its first-season episodes being aired (in edited form) on CBS over the last couple of years, drawing visibility to this cult favorite show. Paramount’s Season 2 Blu-Ray box-set sports the complete second season of the oddball series about a serial killer (who’s the good guy) in 1080p HD transfers and DTS Master Audio soundtracks, both of which outdo the comparable standard definition DVD release from 2007.

PASSENGERS (**½, 93 mins., 2008, PG-13; Sony): Anne Hathaway essays a young psychiatrist assigned to help a group of survivors from a plane crash cope with the accident in this barely-released supernatural chiller, just making its way to Blu-Ray this month from Sony.

“Passengers” is a difficult movie to review because the performances of Hathaway, Patrick Wilson (as a survivor who falls for our heroine), David Morse and Andre Braugher are all top-notch, and Rodrigo Garcia’s direction is assured throughout. This is a well-performed and quite watchable movie, but the central conceit of Ronnie Christensen’s script is so predictable and tired -- you just know what the “twist” is after just a few minutes -- that there’s really nowhere for the movie to go. Perhaps if you’ve never seen an episode of “The Twilight Zone” or “The Sixth Sense” then the revelations of “Passengers” will come as a massive shock;  for seasoned movie-goers this is a passable time-killer that’s sincerely made but completely bereft of any surprises (much like the recent “The Uninvited,” which I reviewed last time out).

Sony’s Blu-Ray release is terrific, at least, with a potent AVC encoded transfer and Dolby TrueHD audio, the latter sporting a decent score by Edward Shearmur. Extras include a director/cast commentary, a few deleted scenes and two Making Of featurettes.

BRIDE WARS (**, 89 mins., 2009, PG; Fox): Tepid romantic comedy finds Kate Hudson (in yet another lousy “chick flick”) and Anne Hathaway as best friends who start feuding when they book the same date for their wedding nuptials.

This recycled studio fare would like to be this year’s “27 Dresses” (the surprise Katherine Heigl box-office hit of 2008), but “Bride Wars” lacks any of the charm of that earlier comedy, with both actresses lost in strident, one-dimensional roles. There’s not much heart and a whole lot of fabricated plot devices on-hand, while director Gary Winick struggles to reach the 89-minute running time with a flurry of frantic, would-be laughs. “Bride Wars” may not be the worst movie of 2009 but it’s a difficult movie to like on most every level.

Fox’s Blu-Ray disc does sport a lovely AVC encoded transfer and DTS Master Audio soundtrack, plus a bonus DVD and digital copy disc for portable media players. Extras include deleted scenes, improvisations, a pop-up trivia track, two featurettes, two Fox Movie Channel interviews with the stars, and other supplements.

INCENDIARY (*½, 100 mins., 2008, R; Image): Half-baked Euro thriller with a miscast Michelle Williams as a young mother, cheating on her spouse, who loses her husband and child in a terrorist bombing. Williams uses the journalistic talents of her lover (Ewan McGregor) to uncover the truth about the soccer stadium attack while getting some help from a police captain (Matthew MacFadyen) who presents another love option for our suddenly single mom.

I’m sure “Bridget Jones” director Sharon Maguire had her heart in right place when she wrote “Incendiary,” but this barely-released British import is a mess, from its heavy-handed screenwriting to the TV Movie of the Week romantic triangle between Williams, McGregor and MacFadyen. The performers try their best to sell the material, but “Incendiary” is mostly ridiculous in spite of its intentions.

Image’s Blu-Ray disc includes a top-notch 1080p HD transfer with DTS Master Audio sound, a group of stills and the original trailer.

New TV on DVD

One of the many things I could depend on while taking a break from college classes was that a DESIGNING WOMEN episode would be playing somewhere on cable when I returned to my dorm room. It didn’t seem to matter what time of day, either -- between local channels playing a syndicated package of Linda Bloodworth-Thomason’s sitcom, or Lifetime or some other cable outlet broadcasting their own, there always seemed to be an episode of “Designing Women” running, and you only had to look at star Delta Burke’s size to know what season the show you were watching originated from.

“Designing Women” didn’t start off as my favorite sitcom, either, mainly due to its often preachy, well-intentioned but heavy-handed social aspects (typical conversation starter: “Suzanne, did you know an unwed teenage mother gives birth every 90 seconds?”), but when it stuck to sheer comedy the series was hard to resist, and for that reason (and of course the constant barrage of re-runs I watched in college), I have to confess it grew on me. It also helped, of course, that Bloodworth-Thomason had four aces up her sleeve: a tremendous ensemble cast comprised of Dixie Carter, Delta Burke (whose character actually became more interesting when she started getting heavier), Annie Potts and Jean Smart, whose distinct personalities crafted a memorable collection of women in the “new South” and provided the foundation for the series’ long (if turbulent) run on CBS.

Fans have demanded a formal Season 1 set of the show for years, but only now has Shout! Factory stepped up to the plate and delivered a fairly no-frills four-disc set offering its complete first season (1986-87, 535 mins.). The episodes seem to be in solid condition but extras are limited to a reunion of the creator and the stars from 2006, opening the door for what hopefully will be future season sets -- and more supplements -- in subsequent releases (here’s hoping this release sells well enough to let it happen).

Also newly released on DVD and Blu-Ray from HBO is the Complete First Season of TRUE BLOOD (720 mins., 2008-09; HBO), “Six Feet Under” creator Alan Ball’s new series about vampires living among us in the deep South (thanks to a new, synthetic form of blood that’s supposed to cure them of attacking humans) and a mystery involving a group of murders and a young waitress (Anna Paquin) with ESP powers who tries and get to the bottom of the trouble.

Ball adapted the popular “Sookie Stackhouse” books by Charlaine Harris for this HBO series, which offers colorful characters, fine ensemble performances, and a plot that, at least in its initial episodes, is slow to get going. Fortunately, if you stick with it, “True Blood” is an engaging entertainment that offers romance, horror, a bit of blood ‘n guts and wacky characters who you eventually warm to. Paquin provides a strong heroine at the center of it all, while the moody, swampy atmosphere makes for a series that ought to please those who appreciated shows like “American Gothic” years ago.

HBO’s Season 1 DVD box-set of “True Blood” sports excellent 16:9 transfers, 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks, six audio commentaries and several bonuses, including a vampire mock-u-mentary, fake PSA’s and other goodies for fans.

GUNSMOKE, Season 3, Volume 2 (1958, aprx. 9 hours; CBS/Paramount): CBS’ latest anthology of episodes from the long-running western offers the latter half of “Gunsmoke”’s third season. The 20 episodes include “Claustrophobia,” “Ma Tennis,” “Sunday Supplement,” “Wild West,” “The Cabin,” “Dirt,” “Dooley Surrenders,” “Bottleman,” “Laughing Gas,” “Texas Cowboys,” “Amy’s Good Deed,” “Hanging Man,” “Innocent Broad,” “The Big Con,” “Widow’s Mite,” “Chester’s Hanging,” “Carmen,” “Overland Express,” and “The Gentlemen.” The full-screen, black-and-white transfers are all fine, and original sponsor spots are also on tap.

THE MOD SQUAD, Season 2, Volume 2 (1969-70, aprx. 11 hours; CBS/Paramount): Second compilation of shows from the second season of the late ‘60s cop drama with Peggy Lipton, Clarence Williams III, Michael Cole and Tige Andrews sports the latter 13 episodes from the sophomore season of “The Mod Squad.” Episodes include “The Debt,” “Sweet Child of Terror,” “The King of Empty Cups,” “A Town Called Sincere,” “Exile,” “Survival House,” “Mother of Sorrow,” “The Deadly Sin,” “A Time for Remembering,” “Return to Darkness, Return to Light,” “Call Back Yesterday,” “Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot”, and “The Loser,” all in remastered full-screen transfers and crisp mono soundtracks.

New From Acorn Media

Acorn Media has a number of exciting new releases which we’ll be covering over the forthcoming weeks of late spring and early summer. First up this month are three British series, several of which are hitting DVD for the first time domestically:

PIE IN THE SKY, Season 1 (1994, Acorn): Familiar character actor Richard Griffiths took center stage as a veteran detective – and restaurant owner – in this breezy mid ‘90s BBC series co-starring Malcolm Sinclair and Maggie Steed, with guest stars including Pete Postelthwaite, Andy Serkis and other recognizable faces. “Pie” ran for some five reasons before handing in its badge, but the series is just hitting DVD in Region 1 thanks to a superb box-set from Acorn.

Acorn’s DVD sports fine full-screen transfers and several bonuses, including an interview with star Maggie Steed, production notes, and a biography of Richard Griffiths.

HALLELUJAH! Complete Collection (1981-84, Acorn): A feisty Salvation Army captain (Thora Hird) attempts to drum up some support in the working-class towns of Brigthorpe and Blackwick in this engaging early ‘80s ITV series. Broadcast between 1981 and 1984 (and during the ‘90s on some public television channels here in the U.S.), “Hallelujah!” is an old-school British comedy in the best sense of the word, and Acorn’s DVD ought to be highly pleasing for all of its fans.

Acorn’s DVD includes the entire series (three seasons and 15 total episodes) in full-screen transfers culled from the finest surviving elements, plus a history of the Salvation Army.

FALLEN ANGEL (2007, Acorn): Emilia Fox plays a psycho who attempts to unravel the reasons for her state of (in)sanity in this highly-regarded recent British limited series. Charles Dance, Clare Holman, Niamh Cusack and Emma Fielding co-star in this adaptation of writer Andrew Taylor’s “Roth Trilogy.”

Acorn’s DVD box-set includes the complete, three-episode “Fallen Angel” in excellent 16:9 widescreen transfers and stereo soundtracks, as well as a 47-minute behind-the-scenes special.

Coming Soon on DVD

THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALENCE (123 mins., 1962; Paramount)
EL DORADO (126 mins., 1967; Paramount): Two ‘60s westerns from a pair of legendary directors are the latest entries in Paramount’s double-disc “Centennial Collection” Special Editions.

John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Lee Marvin and Vera Miles starred in John Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence,” presented here on DVD with a new commentary from Peter Bogdanovich, who presents some of his archival audio recordings with Ford and Stewart, along with a selected scene commentary from Dan Ford with archival recordings with his father, plus Stewart and Marvin; a seven-part documentary, “The Size of Legends, The Soul of Myth,” plus the trailer, still galleries and an eight-page booklet.

For Howard Hawks’ amiable “El Dorado,” which this time paired Robert Mitchum and James Caan with The Duke in Hawks’ first reworking of “Rio Bravo,” Paramount has again assembled two new commentaries: one with Peter Bogdanovich, and another with Richard Schickel, Todd McCarthy and Ed Asner; another extensive Making Of, “Ride, Boldly Ride: The Journey of ‘El Dorado’,” plus two additional featurettes, the trailer, production galleries and a booklet that puts the cap on a pair of enticing new releases for Golden Age western fans.

RUSSELL BRAND IN NEW YORK CITY (61 mins., 2009; Paramount): The foul-mouthed British comic makes his American concert debut in this Comedy Central special, here presented on DVD in an uncut and extended edition. Bonus features include Brand’s infamous MTV Video Music Awards monologue and a pair of other featurettes.

JO ROY: DON’T MAKE HIM ANGRY (43 mins., 2009; Paramount): Jo Roy, one of the younger, more popular comics working the stand-up circuit today, toplines this new Comedy Central special. Paramount’s unrated DVD includes a bonus Comedy Central special, interviews and other extras.

JEEVES & WOOSTER: THE COMPLETE SERIES (1990-93, aprx. 20 hours; A&E): Hilarious Clive Exton adaptations of the P.G. Wodehouse books solidified the reputation of Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry as two of the funniest talents on the planet. Grenada TV’s three terrific series have been compiled in this new, affordable box-set release from A&E, offering perfectly acceptable full-screen transfers and stereo sound. Extras are limited to a Wodehouse biography.

THE UNIVERSE, Season 3 (10 hours, History Channel/New Video): Four-disc set offers the third season of the History Channel’s popular, visual effects-intensive chronicle of our galactic surroundings. Series three focuses on topics as varied as “Deadly Comets and Meteors” to “Sex in Space” (!), “Parallel Universes,” and the hypothetical “Planet X,” all in nifty widescreen transfers, with stereo soundtracks, a “Universe Facts” bonus and a photo gallery also on-hand.

PREHISTORIC COLLECTION (aprx. 17 hours; A&E/New Video): Jurassic fans (not elderly viewers, but fans of the prehistoric era!) should enjoy this New Video anthology of four best-selling DVD releases from the History Channel: the entertaining “Jurassic Fight Club,” “Prehistoric Megastorms,” “Journey to 10,000 B.C.,” and “Clash of the Cavemen.” All mix scholarly interviews with ample speculation and an array of CGI enhanced visual effects, which should engage younger viewers as well as older members of the family. A bonus “Asteroid Apocalypse” episode and additional footage round out the package.

SCHWARZENEGGER: 4-Film Collector’s Set (Lionsgate): Specially-priced four-disc set offers the remastered DVD editions of “Total Recall,” “Red Heat” and “The Running Man,” along with the “Extreme Edition” of “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.” All four movies are presented in their original DVD packaging inside a new, exterior cardboard case.

8 SIMPLE RULES: Season 2 (528 mins., Lionsgate): John Ritter’s passing didn’t stop ABC from trying to continue his last project in his absence, the sitcom “8 Simple Rules,” by adding guest stars like James Garner and David Spade into the original cast. The results didn’t quite come off, but fans should appreciate Lionsgate’s Season 2 box-set, offering 16:9 (1.78) transfers and 2.0 stereo audio.

NEXT TIME: TERMINATOR SALVATION and More! Until then, don't forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards and direct any emails to our email address.  Cheers everyone!

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