5/12/11 Edition Twitter: THEAISLESEATCOM
May Spectacular, Part 1
Legend Films' Paramount Blu-Rays Reviewed
Plus: Bargain Priced Catalog Titles from Echo Bridge & Mill Creek

Back in January I broke the news that Legend Films was about to release a series of Blu-Ray double features offering HD versions of several Paramount catalog titles the label had released in 2008. The first batch of them (minus a planned Vincent Price double-feature, which was nixed due to elements that were deemed not good enough to make the jump to high-def) have at last hit Amazon and other retailers this month. Here’s a look:

STUDENT BODIES (**, 86 mins., 1981, R)
JEKYLL & HYDE: TOGETHER AGAIN Blu-Ray Double Feature (**½, 87 mins., 1982, R; Legend Films): ‘80s horror buffs ought to get a kick out of this double-feature offering a pair of spoofs from early in the decade.

“Student Bodies” was a cable staple that hit DVD for the first time in Legend’s 2008 package – a horror parody with a few scattered laughs that plays out like a standard teen slasher movie with a lunatic named “The Breather” on the loose, preying upon young couples. Mickey Rose wrote and directed this reportedly troubled (producer Michael Ritchie had his name removed from the credits) and uneven comedy that presaged “Scream” by nearly 20 years; while no great shakes, for nostalgic viewers who grew up on the movie, it’s still fun to see it back in circulation at long last. Legend’s AVC encoded 1080p transfer is similar to their “Mandingo” disc in that the source Paramount provided to Legend was released, warts and all, without any type of DNR. The result is a crisp transfer that looks like a real movie, with grain and all intact throughout, and 2.0 stereo sound on-hand.

“Jekyll & Hyde Together Again,” meanwhile, was an absolutely bonkers, raunchy 1982 comedy with Mark Blankfield as Henry Jekyll, whose split personality turns him into a crazy “macho man” in a hit-or-miss spoof produced by Joel Silver and directed by comedy guru Jerry Belson (Belson and Monica Johnston, Albert Brooks’ frequent collaborator, were two of the film’s co-writers). Blankfield is amusing and the lovely Bess Armstrong is on-hand to lend support in this early ‘80s cult comedy favorite, which likewise looks satisfying with its healthy, unadulterated cinematic appearance on-hand here. And you have to love the last shot of Robert Louis Stevenson rolling in his grave!   

THE SKULL (***, 83 mins., 1965)
THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH Blu-Ray Double Feature (**½, 92 mins., 1959; Legend Films): A pair of frightful late ‘50s/early ‘60s British horror outings from Amicus and Hammer, respectively, combine for an appealing double-feature BD duo.

“The Skull” was a terrific period horror piece that marked a major success for Milton Subotsky’s Amicus Productions – an adaptation of a Robert Bloch story starring Peter Cushing as a doctor who purchases a skull belonging to the Marquis de Sarde. “Guest star” Christopher Lee shows up as a fellow doctor who tries to talk Cushing out of his latest pick-up, but soon the supernatural preys upon Cushing’s psyche and begins floating around -- with some visible wires holding it together! Freddie Francis’ direction and constant use of the wide Techniscope frame make this a good deal of fun for horror buffs, with Legend’s AVC encoded (2.35) transfer nicely capturing the dimensions of the picture’s original exhibition, though some side-to-side “shaking” in the image can be seen at times throughout.

“The Man Who Could Cheat Death,” meanwhile, was a 1959 Hammer programmer starring Anton Diffring as a doctor seeking to stay young by stealing the glands of unsuspecting donors. A remake of the 1945 film “The Man in Half Moon Street” from Hammer stalwarts Terence Fisher (who directed) and Jimmy Sangster (who scripted from Barre Lyndon’s play), with familiar faces like Hazel Court and Christopher Lee also on-hand, this is a respectable early effort from the studio that’s been splendidly preserved here in its original 16:9 (1.78) widescreen presentation.

HOUDINI Blu-Ray Double Feature (***, 107 mins., 1953; Legend Films): A Tony Curtis double-bill couples “Those Daring Young Men in their Jaunty Jalopies” with the earlier studio-biopic “Houdini.”

One of the last entries in the “period race” genre made famous by the likes of “Around the World in 80 Days,” “The Great Race” and “Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines,” “Those Daring Young Men” is a follow-up of sorts to the latter, bringing back producer-director Ken Annakin, composer Ron Goodwin and others for another international race involving a (what else?) colorful collection of wacky characters. Tony Curtis headlines but is often upstaged by British comics like Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Terry-Thomas and others in a fun tale accentuated by an appropriately jaunty score from Goodwin (with a title tune performed by Jimmy Durante) and title design from the great Ronald Searle. It might seem a bit less “epic” than “Magnificent Men,” but the film is a bit tighter and more focused, and thereby a tad more entertaining as a result. The wide 2.35 transfer (it’s mistakenly listed as 1.78 on the back jacket) looks great and the 2.0 stereo sound is modestly effective.

“Houdini” is a standard studio telling of the legendary magician’s life offering one of Curtis’ best performances and strong support added by Janet Leigh. Regrettably, this 1953 George Pal production has the weakest transfer in this batch of Legend titles, not because DNR was applied but rather that the print itself seems to have been too far removed from the original source. The 1.33 frame is colorful enough and I think Legend did the best they could with what they had, yet there’s just not a lot of fine detail on-hand, particularly in comparison with the other titles reviewed above.

Overall, despite the lack of extras (some of the titles’ corresponding DVDs had trailers), Legend has done a terrific job with these double feature packs: more than affordable at under $15 each and with transfers (taken, admittedly, from elements that often show their age) that present the prints as is, without any excessive processing, this is a strong start to the BD medium from Legend, and here’s hoping they get enough consumer support to generate the release of more titles like them in the near future.

Meanwhile, Mill Creek Entertainment has acquired the rights to numerous films from the Touchstone/Hollywood/Disney library and has begun releasing them on Blu-Ray in terrific, low-cost packages (many as low as $5 at Deepdiscount and Buy.com in fact). Here’s a rundown:

MY FATHER THE HERO Blu-Ray (***, 90 mins., 1994, PG, Mill Creek): Breezy, agreeable 1994 American remake of a French comedy provided Gerard Depardieu with one of his few U.S. leading roles. Depardieu actually starred in the original “Mon Père Ce Héros” as well, so he was well-versed with this story of a divorced dad who takes his precocious teen daughter (a young Katherine Heigl) on vacation to the Bahamas, where she spins a yarn that dear old pops is really her boyfriend. Francis Veber and Charlie Peters adapted Gerard Lauzier’s original screenplay for this engaging Touchstone comedy which also boasts a superb supporting cast (Lauren Hutton, Faith Prince, and a late cameo from Emma Thompson) and earned modest dollars at the box-office in the dead of winter back in 1994. Depardieu also comes off as laid back and even charming in a film that’s little more than an updating of sorts of “Superdad” for the ‘90s, but no less entertaining if you’re in the mood for that type of thing. Mill Creek’s Blu-Ray has one of the best transfers of the bunch (1080p AVC encoded widescreen) with 2.0 DTS MA stereo sound, the latter offering a pleasant David Newman score.

ANOTHER STAKEOUT Blu-Ray (**½, 108 mins., 1993, PG-13; Mill Creek): Diverting but utterly predictable sequel to John Badham’s surprise 1987 box-office smash once again finds Richard Dreyfuss and Emilio Estevez as cops on a stakeout trying to track down a mob witness, joined this time by Rosie O’Donnell and her dog. Badham brought back most of the original production team including writer Jim Kouf and composer Arthur B. Rubinstein, but “Another Stakeout” seemed to be too little, too late as it fizzled at the box-office during the summer of ‘93. Seen now, it’s not a bad rental, with the stars having a good time and original leading lady Madeline Stowe brought back in a bookending cameo to provide a nice ending to her relationship with Dreyfuss. Shot in scope, “Another Stakeout” boasts a generally pleasant AVC encoded 1080p transfer with an occasionally active 2.0 DTS MA soundtrack.

BETSY’S WEDDING Blu-Ray (***, 94 mins., 1990, R; Mill Creek): Amiable ensemble comedy was the last of Alan Alda’s directorial outings – on that scale, it’s not as funny as “Sweet Liberty” or “The Four Seasons,” but at least fares better than his mediocre “A New Life.” Alda and Madeline Kahn play the parents of progressive bride-to-be Molly Ringwald in this 1990 comedy, which almost overcomes an uneven script thanks to a terrific cast that also includes Ally Sheedy, Joe Pesci, Catherine O’Hara and Joey Bishop as Alda’s deceased father. Bruce Broughton contributes a nice score too. Mill Creek’s AVC encoded 1080p transfer seems a bit worn but generally looks acceptable while another standard 2.0 DTS MA soundtrack comprises the audio end of things.

GROSS ANATOMY Blu-Ray (**½, 109 mins., 1989, PG-13; Mill Creek): Enjoyable, if formulaic, Touchstone release finds Matthew Modine, fresh off “Vision Quest,” as a offbeat med student who clashes with tough professor Christine Lahti and falls for by-the-book lab partner Daphne Zuniga in Thom Eberhardt’s 1989 drama-edy. “Gross Anatomy” is certainly by-the-numbers but Mark Spragg and Ron Nyswaner’s script enables the stars to craft some memorable performances, and Modine is quite good in one of his numerous roles from the era. The so-so 1080p transfer of “Gross Anatomy” isn’t as strong as some of the other Mill Creek discs I’ve watched but it’s still not-bad for the $10 (or less) you’ll spend on it, while 2.0 DTS MA audio is merely okay – a function of the film’s limp original mix.

AN INNOCENT MAN Blu-Ray (***, 113 mins., 1989, R; Mill Creek): One of Tom Selleck’s few strictly-dramatic turns, this absorbing Peter Yates-directed thriller chronicles (you guessed it!) “An Innocent Man” framed by two cops during a drug-bust set-up gone wrong, and his subsequent time in the big house where he fights for survival and justice in proving his innocence. Selleck is solid and F. Murray Abraham lends strong support in this taut and well-shot 1989 drama, photographed by William A. Fraker and scored by Howard Shore. Mill Creek’s Blu-Ray boasts a decent 1080p 1.85  widescreen transfer with 2.0 DTS MA audio.

Among Mill Creek’s other Buena Vista licensed Blu titles are the forgettable Penelope Ann Miller comedy THE GUN IN BETTY LOU’S HANDBAG; the disastrous Kathleen Turner would-be franchise starter (more like a killer!) V.I. WARSHAWSKI; Alan J. Pakula’s interesting CONSENTING ADULTS;  Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin in the disappointing comedy BIG BUSINESS; and the ‘90s John Cusack box-office under-achiever MONEY FOR NOTHING.

While Lionsgate has acquired the distribution rights to numerous films from the Miramax library (including the “Scream” and “Spy Kids” series), Echo Bridge has also partnered with Miramax to bring numerous films from their vaults to Blu-Ray for the first time. Alas, the results are somewhat mixed, despite bargain pricing around the $10-$15 mark for most of their titles. Here’s a glimpse at some of their new releases:

TEXAS RANGERS Blu-Ray (**, 89 mins., 2001, PG-13; Echo Bridge): You have to feel bad for the people who made “Texas Rangers.”

The film was on the shelf so long that half of its teen cast were no longer teenagers by the time the movie was unceremoniously dumped into a few hundred screens (presumably to fulfill contractual obligations) in 2001. By that same time, the picture – which reportedly once ran well over two hours – was edited down to 80 minutes minus credits, and both of its screenwriters (John Milius and Ehren Kruger) opted to have their names removed from the final print.

Adding insult to injury is that “Texas Rangers” spent eons in development hell as one of Milius' pet projects, and was intended to be one of the last, great cinematic stabs at a sprawling western saga -- things that you would be hard-pressed to tell from watching the final product, which plays like a Cliff Notes version of a two-minute movie trailer!

James Van Der Beek (TV's “Dawson Creek”) stars as a young man whose family is wiped out by a group of bandits (lead by Alfred Molina and Vincent Spano) in 1875, post-Civil War Texas. Van Der Beek decides to saddle up with the Texas Rangers –  lead by real- life figure Leander McNelly (Dylan McDermott) – in an effort to track down the murdering, cattle-stealing thieves across the Mexican border, with a motley assortment of new recruits (including Ashton Kutcher and R&B star Usher Raymond) in tow.

The movie is filled with talented performers in blink-and-you'll-miss-them supporting parts (Robert Patrick, Randy Travis, Tom Skerritt, and even Oded Fehr from "The Mummy" in an especially worthless bit), but then again, every bit of character development here seems like it was sliced away in the editing room. Looking for some interesting historical anecdotes about the Rangers' mysterious Mexican liaison? Read the press notes, since the character pops up in a couple of shots for a grand total of one minute. How about some good, old-fashioned movie romance? Watch the trailer, because it's the only place you'll see Rachael Leigh Cook pick between Van Der Beek and his goofy pal Ashton Kutcher. (Cook's final scene has been laughably cut to the point where it seems like it's been assembled by a five-year-old).

There are times when you watch a three-hour movie that feels like it's 90 minutes. On the other hand, you can often run into 90 minute movies that feel like they're over three hours. “Texas Rangers” is one of those occasions where hack-and-slash editing stripped away not only the running time, but also the motivations and backgrounds of characters who – at least in its 89-minute form – we never get to know. In doing so, it only made what's left –  a tedious assortment of montages, cliches, and brief dialogue exchanges – completely pointless and frustrating to watch, since there's nothing there to care about.

Nevertheless, due to the cast, the good-looking scope cinematography and Trevor Rabin’s surprisingly robust orchestral score, “Texas Rangers” remains something of a curio for western fans, and Echo Bridge’s Blu-Ray does a nice job presenting the film in a strong 16:9 AVC encoded transfer (it’s framed properly at 2.35, despite being listed as 1.78 on the back cover).

The big problem, as with most of Echo Bridge’s Miramax Blu-Rays, is the soundtrack, which ought to be 5.1 but is encoded as 2.0 DTS Master stereo. The effects and Rabin’s score deserve a stronger sound stage than they receive here.

DUPLEX (*½, 88 mins.,  2003, PG-13)
MY BOSS’S DAUGHTER Blu-Ray Double Feature (**½, 90 mins., 2003, PG-13; Echo Bridge): Two comedies which languished on the Miramax shelves for some time before being released to marginal (or, in the case of “My Boss’s Daughter,” non-existent) box-office returns in 2003 have been coupled on one Blu-Ray platter from Echo Bridge.

“Duplex” was an Drew Barrymore-Ben Stiller comedy that finds the couple as newlyweds who buy a NYC apartment, only to find out that their picture-perfect new home is being tormented by an elderly neighbor (Eileen Essel) who refuses to turn down her TV at night and generally ruins their lives. The couple then try every which way to dispose of the old bat, to predictably wacky results, in this Danny DeVito-directed effort that's tired and forced at every turn.

There's nothing original or subtle about "Duplex," which gets by due to the energy of Stiller and Barrymore, even though the duo have little chemistry with one another. DeVito tries valiantly to recapture the magic of his early hits like "Throw Momma From the Train," but Larry Doyle's script doesn't measure up, and the movie is quickly forgotten once it's over.

“My Boss’s Daughter,” on the other hand, was “Airplane!” vet David Zucker's tasteless yet surprisingly amusing ensemble comedy that plays like "Noises Off!" meets "American Pie."

Ashton Kutcher plays a junior executive in grumpy mogul Terence Stamp's Chicago company. Kutcher's in love with Stamp's daughter (Tara Reid), which leads to him accepting her invitation to house-sit the family's posh home. While father and daughter are out at a party, Kutcher gets into all kinds of predicaments, from a fired secretary (Molly Shannon) looking to reclaim her job, Stamp's cast-off son (Andy Richter) trying to fend off his drug habit, a burglar (Michael Madsen) looking for the latest score, and a next-door neighbor (Jeffrey Tambor) who thinks Kutcher is his daughter's blind date.

David Dorfman's script is utterly ridiculous and the laughs often low-brow (there's even a totally gratuitous Carmen Electra wet T-shirt scene), yet former "Airplane!" vet Zucker throws in a few very funny gags reminiscent of the good old Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker days -- enough so that you can partially forgive the movie's lapses in good taste. More over, the cast is amusing, especially Shannon, Richter, and Stamp's funny, straight-faced turn as the company CEO.

"My Boss's Daughter" (originally titled "The Guests" and released under that name in certain international territories) is not a great film by any means – and reportedly sat on the Miramax shelves for nearly two years – but for a movie with that pedigree it's certainly better than expected. The end credits list the Farrelly Brothers at the top of the thank you acknowledgments, and one can sense their brand of humor having been a major influence.

Echo Bridge’s matching AVC encoded 1080p (1.78) transfers both look superb, and in this instance the 2.0 DTS MA stereo tracks aren’t a big drawback given the subdued nature of their mixes.

EQUILIBRIUM Blu-Ray (**½, 107 mins., 2002, R; Echo Bridge): Back in 2001
Dimension Films decided to grant a wide theatrical release to “They,” a terrible chiller "presented" by Wes Craven. At the same time, they sent a pair of far superior genre pictures -- David Twohy's "Below" and the Jan DeBont-produced ”Equilibrium” -- into scant distribution prior to releasing both films on video.

A film that has since generated a decent cult following, “Equilibrium” is a goofy but constantly watchable and well-performed hybrid of "Fahrenheit 451" and "The Matrix." The movie is more comfortable in the ways it mimics Ray Bradbury's classic sci-fi tale than it does the Wachowski Brothers, throwing in a variety of brainless (though vividly filmed) fight sequences in an obvious attempt to pander to the under-25 demographic that "The Matrix" especially appeals to.

In a post-WWIII future, human emotion has been outlawed, as has anything related to it. We're not talking about just books, but also paintings and -- yes -- puppy dogs. Christian Bale, giving a good performance under the circumstances, plays a "Cleric" who enforces the laws in a pseudo-Orwellian metropolis concocted by writer-director Kurt Wimmer. After he takes down his book-loving partner (Sean Bean), Bale begins to question whether or not he should continue to clamp down on the human spirit. Although the city's residents are forced to take an "anti-emotion" drug, Bale decides to opt out of the law and begins to "feel" -- especially after he meets Emily Watson, in an underwritten role as a woman sentenced to death for playing LP records. Eventually, Bale has to confront the law's chief officer (Angus MacFadyen) and join the resistance in an attempt to overthrown the government.

The movie is stylishly shot by Dion Beebe and designed by Wolf Kroeger, and on those grounds alone the movie is worth a look for sci-fi fans. Wimmer was obviously influenced by the likes of Orwell and Bradbury in creating the film's post-apocalyptic story, and yet there's a whole lot of "Matrix" going on in terms of the movie's action sequences – too much, as it turns out. Just when Wimmer introduces us to the main characters, along comes a jarring hand-to-hand combat scene guaranteed to make you wonder if you're not watching Keanu or "The Fish" flying through the air. It's a strange, odd element to the film that never seems to mesh with anything else about it –  it's almost as if the Weinstein Brothers told Wimmer "look, we'll let you make your movie. Just throw a bunch of fights in there to draw the kids." Sure, the Hong Kong styled scenes are nicely choreographed, but their presence seems to be a completely arbitrary element – either that, or just a distraction to make you overlook the under-developed aspects of the script (particularly the whole relationship with Bale and Watson).

Nevertheless, “Equilibrium” has enough juice going for it to warrant a rental if nothing else. While undoubtedly shot on a modest budget, the film also looks accomplished, though Klaus Badelt's relentless synth score doesn't live up to the film's potential.

Sadly, Echo Bridge’s Blu-Ray is severely hampered by its 2.0 DTS Master stereo soundtrack, which should’ve been 5.1 and sounds constrained by the two-channel treatment it receives here. The movie’s Super 35 cinematography, shot at 2.35, has been opened up for 1.78 as well, but it’s not nearly as much of a problem as the audio since the AVC encoded transfer is actually fairly good. The sole extra is the prior DVD’s Making Of featurette.

HALLOWEEN: H20 Blu-Ray Double Feature (**, 85 mins., 1998, R; Echo Bridge): Disappointing double-feature couples the last “real” entry in the original “Halloween” series – the severely-compromised yet quite watchable 1995 “Halloween” VI with an ailing Donald Pleasence taking on Michael Myers one last time with the help of a young Paul (Stephen) Rudd – with the 1998 box-office hit “Halloween: H20,” which brought Jamie Lee Curtis back as heroine Laurie Strode in a film more influenced by “Scream” than its John Carpenter-directed original.

As with the above Echo Bridge titles, the fact that each film’s prior 5.1 mixes have been reduced to 2.0 DTS MA stereo tracks here is a major disappointment. What’s more, even though it’s a Super 35 title, “Halloween: H20"’s 2.35 cinematography has been reframed as 1.78 and looks all the worse for the wear, likely because director Steve Miner had the wider frame in mind when he shot the picture.

“Halloween” fans interested in these two pictures would do well to track down Alliance’s Canadian Blu-Ray triple-feature which includes both movies (plus “Halloween: Resurrection”) on one disc. The transfers are either the same or superior (“Halloween: H20" is 2.35) while the soundtracks are 5.1 DTS Master and substantially more satisfying as a result.

FROM DUSK TILL DAWN (108 mins., 1995, R)
FROM DUSK TILL DAWN 2: TEXAS BLOOD MONEY Blu-Ray Double Feature (88 mins., 1998, R; Echo Bridge): Fans of Quentin Tarantino’s 1995 blood-soaked “From Dusk Till Dawn” ought to feel fortunate that the picture has made it to Blu-Ray in a quite good 1080p (1.78) widescreen transfer that actually includes a full 5.1 DTS MA soundtrack – the only one of Echo Bridge’s batch to receive that treatment. It’s been coupled here with its first direct-to-video sequel, the lame 1998 “Texas Blood Money,” which is 1080p but again only 2.0 DTS MA.
CHILDREN OF THE CORN 666: ISAAC’S RETURN Blu-Ray Double Feature (82 mins., 1999, R; Echo Bridge): Double-feature platter brings together the 1998 fifth (!) entry in the “Children of the Corn” series along with its superior 1999 offering, which returns original star John Franklin to his role as “Isaac.” Both movies look fine in their AVC encoded (1.78) transfers, but again, the audio is a drawback with its straight 2-channel DTS MA.

HELLRAISER: BLOODLINE (85 mins., 1996, R)
HELLRAISER: INFERNO Blu-Ray Double Feature (100 mins., 2000, R; Echo Bridge): Last but not least among the Echo Bridge Miramax titles is this “Hellraiser” double bill which, outside of its 2.0 DTS MA mixes, ought to be please Pinhead devotees. The wacky “Bloodline” was the last halfway decent film in the franchise (along with the last to see a theatrical release), even if the picture was taken away from director Kevin Yagher in post-production (with Alan Smithee being used as a pseudonym). It’s offered here alongside the lame 2000 direct-to-video “Hellraiser: Inferno” with Craig Sheffer running afoul of Doug Bradley’s anti-hero. 1080p (1.78) AVC encoded transfers are matched here with 2.0 DTS MA stereo soundtracks.

NEXT TIME: AMERICAN GRAFFITI in Part 2 of the May Spectacular! 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!

Copyright 1997-2011 All Reviews, Site and Design by Andre Dursin