5/13/08 Edition -- The AISLE SEAT BLOG Is Also Live

Korda, Rozsa & a Thief
Criterion's Latest DVD Reviewed
Plus: SNL, MST3K, The Muppets & More

Since the advent of high-definition DVD technology, movie buffs have long asked when the Criterion Collection would begin releasing titles from their catalog in HD. Official word came down only last week when the label sent out a company email to consumers, noting that the first group of Criterion Blu-Ray discs will begin rolling out this October.

Among those in Criterion’s first foray into high-definition are the following:

-The Third Man
-Bottle Rocket
-Chungking Express
-The Man Who Fell to Earth
-The Last Emperor
-El Norte
-The 400 Blows
-Gimme Shelter
-The Complete Monterey Pop
-For All Mankind
-The Wages of Fear

“Walkabout” will be issued in a brand-new special edition on DVD as well with fresh supplements, while “The Last Emperor” will be packaged in a box-set as well as a standalone theatrical version on both formats.

The company is, naturally, promising all their customary supplements to compliment the Blu-Ray releases, and best of all will be the price: the label is promising to “match the pricing” of their standard DVD releases! This news should come as a happy development to all Criterion fans, and we’ll be sure to keep you updated and posted with the latest reviews as we have for all Criterion product over the years.

In the meantime, Criterion has issued a Special Edition of THE THIEF OF BAGDAD (****, 106 mins., 1940) in a sparkling new standard-definition presentation.

Alexander Korda’s sumptuous Technicolor fantasy, completed in 1941 after several years in production, is one of the marvels of the genre: a magical tale about a prince (John Justin) expelled from his kingdom, needing the help of a pesky young thief (Sabu) to take down the vile sorcerer Jaffar (Conrad Veidt). Along the way there are magic carpet rides, a genie, creatures and romance with a princess (June Duprez), plus a gorgeous Miklos Rozsa score, vivid cinematography and fun for viewers of all ages.

This timeless Korda production, directed by a team of filmmakers including Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell and Tim Whelan, was issued on DVD domestically by MGM some years ago but Criterion’s new transfer is superlative, with richer colors, deeper blacks and superior encoding.

Supplements abound, providing nearly as many riches as the film itself: commentary from Criterion regular Bruce Eder gives a thorough account of the production, while a secondary track splices together comments from Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, both avowed fans of the film. An isolated music and effects track is on-hand, while a full second platter of extras is highlighted by the Korda war-time propaganda film “The Lion Has Wings.” This 1940 effort, filmed when “Thief” went into a hiatus, is a fascinating piece with Ralph Richardson, Merle Oberon and a who’s-who of ‘40s British cinema appearing in various parts, presented fully restored here as a bonus feature on the second disc.

Also new to DVD is “Visual Effects,” a look at the benchmark established by “The Thief of Bagdad” spotlighting comments from modern F/X master Dennis Muren and the great Ray Harryhausen; a stills gallery; audio extracts from a 1976 radio interview with Rozsa and portions of a tape featuring Michael Powell making dictations for his autobiography.

In all this is a spectacular package for a film one hopes receives the full high-definition treatment on Blu-Ray one day. Bravo!

Speaking of Coppola, it’s been some time since Francis left the vineyard and sat behind the director’s chair. His personal pet project, YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH, was screened -- to highly negative reviews -- at various international film festivals before the filmmaker reportedly reworked it.

Only screened in limited release, Coppola’s final cut (**, 125 mins., 2007; R) is an extravagant looking, high-minded film that simply gets lost in a confusing story involving an elderly linguist, his age-defying regression into a younger man, lost loves and knowledge found. Tim Roth stars as the protagonist at the center of Coppola’s complicated maze of time periods, mixed up characters and plot threads, all of it beautifully filmed by Coppola and cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. on a modest budget.

“Youth Without Youth” is ultimately a narrative misfire (it’s only a notch more satisfying than Darren Aronofsky’s recent, similarly themed time-traveling flop “The Fountain”), but Coppola’s direction is always assured in spite of the story’s numerous indulgences. This is a stylish and good-looking film that ought to keep the director’s fans satisfied, even if as a coherent piece, it’s among the least of his works.

Sony’s DVD looks superb in 16:9 (2.35) widescreen with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, but it’s easily trumped by the Blu-Ray’s high-definition AVC-encoded transfer, one that truly does justice to the film’s visuals, which are easily its strongest asset. On the audio side, the Dolby TrueHD audio likewise packs more of a punch than the standard 5.1 track as well. Extras on both platforms include a commentary track with Coppola and a number of Making Of featurettes, but no deleted scenes (an entire subplot was reportedly trimmed by editor Walter Murch at some point).

New From Universal

Sci-fi fans had to do some legwork to pick up copies of Universal’s “Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection” DVD box-sets.

Previously issued over the last couple of years in limited quantities and sold only at Best Buy chain locales, these compilations of some of the studio’s more beloved B-movie fare from the ‘50s ended up becoming hot commodities on the secondary market, with many fans bemoaning their lack of widespread availability.

That all changes this week with Universal issuing a combined box-set with both of those releases, THE CLASSIC SCI-FI ULTIMATE COLLECTION Volumes 1 & 2.

Attractively priced around $50 or less in most outlets, this somewhat awkwardly-packaged box (two cardboard fold-outs, identical to the previous releases of these sets, are a bit tightly packed inside a plastic slipcover) features six platters of nostalgic ‘50s “Creature Features” in satisfying transfers. No extras are on-hand, but at the price, it’s tough to complain.

To recap, the following Universal-International efforts are on-hand here:

-The enjoyable Jack Arnold-directed “Tarantula,” presented in full-screen
-John Agar, Cynthia Patrick, Hugh Beaumont and Alan Napier in “The Mole People.” (full-screen)
-Arnold’s classic “The Incredible Shrinking Man,” easily the jewel of the set, offered in 16:9 widescreen (1.78 aspect ratio)
-The intriguing “Monolith Monsters” with Grant Williams and Lola Albright (full-screen)
-“Monster on the Campus,” an unintentional hoot again directed by Arnold (full-screen)
-Albert Dekker in the Ernest Schoedsack-directed 1940 Paramount thriller “Dr. Cyclops” (full-screen)
-Faith Domergue in “Cult of the Cobra” (16:9 widescreen, 1.85)
-The widescreen fantasy “The Land Unknown” with Jock Mahoney (16:9 widescreen, 2.35)
-Craig Stevens and William Hopper in the giant creature flick “The Deadly Mantis” (full-screen)
-Colleen Gray, Grant Williams and Gloria Talbot in “The Leech Woman” (16:9 widescreen, 1.85)

For those who grew up on these movies, having seen them in theaters or on Saturday afternoon local TV broadcasts, this set is a wonderful trip back to a different era of filmmaking that’s recommended for viewers of all ages.

Fans of classic TV also have a must-have purchase this week as Universal issues the Complete Third Season of SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE (1977-78).

With the Not Ready For Primetime Players (Garrett Morris, Laraine Newman, Jane Curtin, John Belushi, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Gilda Radner) here in peak form, Season 3 offers another round of eclectic hosts and terrific musical guests, including the following:

-Steve Martin with Jackson Browne (9/24/77)
-Madeline Kahn with Maj Mahal (10/8/77)
-Hugh Hefner with Libby Titus (10/15/77)
-Charles Grodin with Paul Simon & The Persuasions (10/29/77)
-Ray Charles (11/12/77)
-Buck Henry with Leon Redbone (11/19/77)
-Mary Kay Place with Willie Nelson (12/10/77) – reportedly so bad that it was pulled from syndication
-Miskel Spillman with Elvis Costello (12/17/77)
-Steve Martin with Randy Newman (1/21/78) – usually cited as one of the series’ funniest shows
-Robert Klein with Bonnie Raitt (2/28/78)
-Chevy Chase with Billy Joel (2/18/78)
-O.J. Simpson with Ashford & Simpson (2/25/78)
-Art Garfunkel with Stephen Bishop (3/11/78)
-Jill Clayburgh with Eddie Money (3/18/78)
-Christopher Lee with Meat Loaf (3/23/78)
-Michael Palin with Eugene Record (4/8/78)
-Michael Sarrazin with Keith Jarrett & Gravity (4/15/78)
-Steve Martin with the Blues Brothers (4/22/78)
-Richard Dreyfuss with Jimmy Buffett & Gary Tigerman (5/13/78)
-Buck Henry with Sun Ra (5/20/78)

Special features include “Things We Did Last Summer,” an NBC period special with interviews and sketches, a brief wardrobe test with Belushi and musical director Howard Shore, plus bonus postcards in Universal’s “limited edition” package. As with all SNL shows some of the episodes have held up better than others, but being able to see them in their original, uncut versions is a real treat for those who grew up on the series. Highly recommended!

Also new from Universal are a pair of cult titles newly re-issued and available on DVD for the first time in quite a while:

THE CAR (**½, 97 mins., 1977, PG; Universal): Well-shot, odd and sometimes unintentionally funny 1977 thriller about a killer auto that causes all kinds of trouble for a sleepy southwestern town. James Brolin, Kathleen Lloyd and Ronny Cox are a few of the folks attempting to find out who or what could possibly be driving the title vehicle, while the tech credits -- score by Leonard Rosenman and cinematography by Gerard Hirschfeld -- are superior than the film deserves. Universal’s new remastered DVD proves to be a significant step-up from Anchor Bay’s older, out-of-print disc, sporting a good-looking 16:9 (2.35) transfer with 2.0 Dolby sound and the highly amusing original trailer rounding out the disc.

MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000: THE MOVIE (**½, 75 mins., 1996, PG-13; Universal): MST3K fans rejoice as the uneven but beloved theatrical “Mystery Science Theater” film -- cut to shreds by its distributor, left for dead in limited national release back in 1996 --  arrives on DVD again after being initially issued years ago by Image Entertainment. Universal’s DVD includes a superior 16:9 (1.85) transfer with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, but regrettably no extras, even though a slate of deleted scenes exist from a longer cut of the film on various online venues. The movie is a real hit-or-miss affair, ribbing the highly respected ‘50s Universal sci-fi fantasy “This Island Earth” -- and for the most part would rank as just another, possibly sub-par episode of the series…but it’s still fun in fits and starts, and comes best recommended for aficionados of the show.

More Classic TV on DVD

Muppet fans have been eagerly anticipating more of THE MUPPET SHOW on DVD, and Disney will abide by their wishes on May 20th with the release of the show’s Third Season.

Another spirited assortment of episodes comprises this third year (1978-79, 612 mins.) of the syndicated series, offering ample musical numbers, spoofs, skits and, of course, countless celebrity guests.

Included in the list of guest hosts are Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge, Leo Sayer, Roy Clark, Gilda Radner, Pearl Bailey, Jean Stapleton, Alice Cooper (a fan-favorite), Loretta Lynn, Liberace, Marisa Berenson, Raquel Welch, James Coco, Helen Reddy, Harry Belafonte, Lesley Ann Warren, Danny Kaye, Spike Milligan, Leslie Uggams, Elke Summer, Sylvester Stallone, Roger Miller, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Lynn Redgrave, and Cheryl Ladd -- all of whom join in for some timeless TV fun for the whole family.

As with their prior DVD editions Disney has included a solid array of supplements including classic Muppet ads for Purina Dog Chow and two featurettes: “A Company of Players,” profiling the numerous members of Henson’s troupe, and “Muppets on Puppets,” a 1969 hour-long examination of Henson and his puppeteers.

Various episodes may have some alterations from their original broadcast runs, but I’ll leave it to die-hard fans to dissect whatever changes have been made (we’re told there are fewer of them than the Season 1 box-set).

New From Fox

MARVEL HEROES: 8-DVD Set (Fox): With “Iron Man” kicking off the summer movie season in style, Fox has issued a box-set that’s perfect for Marvel Comics aficionados.

The eight-disc “Marvel Heroes” set offers X-MEN, X-MEN 2 (or X2), X-MEN: THE LAST STAND, DAREDEVIL: The Director’s Cut, ELEKTRA (theatrical version), FANTASTIC 4 (theatrical version), FANTASTIC 4: RISE OF THE SILVER SURFER, and the animated FANTASTIC FOUR: WORLD’S GREATEST HEROES Volume One, all in new slim-line packaging with a bonus “Marvel Collectibles” featuring two “X-Men” comic reproductions, a custom-designed lobby card, and a “Silver Surfer” digital comic book.

Fans who already own these respective titles on DVD may find little relevance here for themselves (everything is in 16:9 widescreen but most lack their extras from prior releases), but this is still a convenient package with an affordable price (a bit over $50 in most outlets) for those viewers who haven’t yet taken the plunge.

DIE HARD: Ultimate 8-Disc Collection (Fox): The previously “retired” Five-Star DVD box-sets of the original “Die Hard” trilogy are back in yet another repackaging of the action series, thankfully more complete herein than its last incarnation a year ago.

Offered here are the original “Die Hard,” “Die Hard 2,” “Die Hard with a Vengeance,” and “Live Free or Die Hard,” each in 2-disc Special Editions. This means the first three films include all the extras from their original, out-of-print double-disc DVD editions, with numerous documentaries, deleted scenes and other featurettes on-hand. Most of those extras disappeared when the movies were re-released last year in single-disc DVDs, so seeing them again here will be highly appreciated by series fans. “Live Free or Die Hard,” meanwhile, is presented in its PG-13 rated theatrical cut.

Fox has released these films so often that yet another compilation might come across as ho-hum to most viewers. That said, they’ve done it right this time, with the extensive extras that graced the first “Five Star” collection sets returning here at a bargain price. Recommended!

THE SECRET OF SANTA VITTORIA (***, 140 mins., 1969, PG-13; MGM/Fox): Long-overdue DVD of Stanley Kramer’s 1969 film sports a larger-than-life performance from Anthony Quinn, playing the larger-than-life mayor of a small Italian village during WWII that attempts to conceal their large stash of wine from treacherous nazis, including commander Hardy Kruger. William Rose and Ben Maddow adapted Robert Crichton’s novel for this overlong work which is alternately charming and melodramatic in places, but also feels somewhat uneven in tone, as if the freedom filmmakers had with the new ratings system in the late ‘60s made an impact on Kramer (indeed, the film was recently re-rated PG-13 by modern standards for some language and mild sexual content). It results in a film that’s a bit more “adult” than the old-fashioned fare you may anticipate it being, with strong performances and marvelous scope cinematography from Giuseppe Rotunno adding the icing to the cake. MGM’s DVD offers a quite satisfying 16:9 (2.35) widescreen transfer with healthy, if not quite overpowering, stereo and mono soundtracks, sporting a fine score by Ernest Gold.

New From Warner Home Video

TOM SELLECK WESTERN COLLECTION: 3-DVD Box Set (Warner): A trio of Tom Selleck’s more popular TNT westerns are compiled in a new Warner box-set being issued just in time for Father’s Day next month. On the docket here are “Crossfire Trail,” with Selleck as a drifter who protects a frontier widow (Virginia Madsen) from a nefarious landgrabber (Mark Harmon); Elmore Leonard’s “Last Stand at Saber River,” co-starring Suzy Amis and Haley Joel Osment (remember him?); and a remake of “Monte Walsh,” previously brought to the screen with Lee Marvin, directed here by Simon Wincer of “Lonesome Dove” and “Quigley Down Under” fame, the latter starring Selleck himself. Full-screen transfers and stereo soundtracks are all fine across the board.

THE NEW MAVERICK (92 mins., 1978; Warner): James Garner reprieved his classic television role of Bret Maverick not once but twice after the series ended: first in the 1978 pilot film “The New Maverick,” which Warner is issuing this week on DVD. This NBC Movie of the Week is a thinly-disguised set-up for a new series, with Garner back as Bret and Jack Kelly reprieving his old role of brother Bart, who together team up with their young cousin Ben (Charles Frank) in a new adventure. Frank would later reprise his role in the short-lived series “Young Maverick,” while Garner returned some three years later in the NBC series “Bret Maverick,” which was canceled due to mediocre ratings after airing for one full season. Warner’s transfer of this laid back, easy-going TV film looks just fine in standard-def while mono sound sports a decent score by John Rubinstein.

SINATRA (238 mins., 1992; Warner): Emmy and Golden Globe-winning CBS mini-series arrives on DVD at long last for fans of the Chairman of the Board. This biography of Frank from his daughter, executive producer Tina Sinatra, stars Philip Casnoff as Sinatra in a straightforward chronicle of his life, times and music. Although one might think “Sinatra” would only render a glowing portrait of the master entertainer, it’s more than honest thanks to (overly) lengthy, numerous “dark” passages, coming across at times more as a “tell all” than a balanced portrait of Sinatra himself. That said, there’s loads of music -- the real thing -- along with mostly strong performances, making for a top-notch production all around. Warner’s DVD includes a fine full-screen transfer with stereo sound.

Also New on DVD

STARTING OUT IN THE EVENING (***, 111 mins., 2007, PG-13; Lionsgate): Marvelously acted, perceptive drama gives Frank Langella a plum role as a novelist in the twilight of his years, struggling to finish one last book, and the relationship he has with a young grad student (Lauren Ambrose) who seeks to bring his work back to the masses. Andrew Wagner’s indie film is a quiet, understated piece with uniformly fine work from Langella, Ambrose, Lili Taylor (as Langella’s daughter) and Adrian Lester (Taylor’s boyfriend); the movie spends its time developing its characters, showing us the creative process, and how its protagonists’ lives are changed in Wagner’s film, scripted by the director with Fred Parnes from a novel by Brian Morton. Lionsgate’s DVD includes a crisp and satisfying 16:9 (1.78) widescreen transfer with 5.1 and 2.0 Dolby Digital soundtracks. Extras include commentary from Wagner, plus the original theatrical trailer and a TV spot.

TEETH (**, 94 mins., 2007, R; Dimension/Genius Products): Jess Weixler plays a prim, proper high school student who finds out that she has a killer set of jaws on what Oprah would call her “vajayjay.” Yes, “Teeth” is “that” movie, and although Mitchell Lichtenstein’s satiric horror yarn would like to be more than just an exploitive teen horror movie, “Teeth” is all over the map when it comes to tone and style, being uncomfortable to watch with fleeting flashes of humor and inspiration. Weixler is terrific here, though, and is likely to rise above this material in future roles -- if nothing else she’ll always be able to tell people her big break was the “killer vagina movie”! Dimension’s DVD is an R-rated affair (no unrated cut -- thankfully) with commentary from the director, deleted scenes, trailers, and a behind-the-scenes featurette. The 16:9 (1.85) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack are both excellent.

NEXT TIME: SEMI-PRO and More! 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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