5/17/11 Edition Twitter: THEAISLESEATCOM
May Spectacular, Part 2
Plus: New Criterion Titles, NO STRINGS ATTACHED and More

It’s easy for some to overlook how great a film George Lucas’ AMERICAN GRAFFITI (****, 113 mins., 1973, PG) is, especially when you consider that when Lucas’ name pops up these days, it’s inevitably connected with “Star Wars” and why he continuously tinkers with its special effects.

A little movie that Lucas made after the commercial failure of “THX-1138,” “American Graffiti” became one of the biggest box-office hits of all-time upon its initial release, single-handedly launching the careers of many of its stars and igniting an entire genre of ‘50s/early ‘60s films and TV series in the process.

Lucas’ script, co-authored with film school pals Gloria Katz and Willard Huyuck, profiles a group of high schoolers in early ‘60s northern California and their last night together before one of them – pensive writer Richard Dreyfuss – leaves for college. The group (which also includes Ron Howard, Paul LeMat, and Charles Martin Smith) encounters all kinds of colorful characters as they cruise the streets, whether it’s hot-rodder Harrison Ford or a mysterious blonde (Suzanne Somers) Dreyfuss spends some time trying to find. All the while, Lucas’ heavily autobiographical script functions as of the movies’ most durable coming-of-age stories, both for its characters and American culture at that time, prior to JFK’s assassination, the Vietnam war and the turbulent ‘60s that lay ahead.

“American Graffiti” has been often imitated but never duplicated in terms of its vivid atmosphere and sense of time and place. Lucas mostly shot the picture in Petaluma, California, with only a couple of days filming in San Rafael utilized to show  assorted cars of the era cruising down its principal streets; Haskell Wexler contributed a few days as a “visual consultant” and it’s clear which sequences are his (as Lucas mentions in the Blu-Ray’s new video commentary, Wexler’s scenes are brighter and have deeper focus). The brilliantly designed soundtrack, comprised entirely of the era’s songs and Wolfman Jack’s DJ voice-overs, is a dreamy soundscape that weaves in and out of each scene, intentionally designed so that it sounds as if the same songs are emanating from each car’s speakers. It’s as integral to the picture’s allure as the characters themselves.

Every performance feels right, whether it’s Dreyfuss’ superb turn as the film’s central voice, Curt Henderson, or the numerous familiar faces that populate the female ensemble (Cindy Williams, Mackenzie Phillips, Candy Clark and Kathleen Quinlan, then a local high school student, among them). Filled with humor and poignancy, “American Graffiti” is a classic movie that is just as impressive a work today as it was back in 1973, when Universal wisely opted to jettison their plans to air it on TV and release the picture theatrically – resulting in the movie becoming one of the most profitable films ever in the process.

Now in high-definition for the first time, “American Graffiti” has received a satisfying AVC encoded 1080p transfer from Lucas (who apparently supervised it expressly for this release) and Universal. No DNR is apparent in this superbly detailed transfer, though because the film was shot in low light, the source material has always seemed a bit rough around the edges at times, and there seems to be some edge enhancement in the transfer as well. Nevertheless, I can’t imagine the movie looking any more detailed than it does here, and indeed, I found the HD upgrade to be appreciable over the prior DVD edition. The movie’s stereophonic soundtrack (which was first remixed in 1978 for its financially successful “Director’s Cut” re-issue) is beautifully rendered here as well in a DTS Master Audio 2.0 track.

For extras, the BD includes a couple of brand-new additions, including a video commentary from George Lucas that spans most of the disc with only a few gaps here and there, plus several minutes worth of full screen tests for the cast, presented from their 16mm source origins. There’s also an interactive feature listing all the songs in the movie with a connection to itunes where (of course) you can instantly download them. The original DVD’s solid Making Of doc and the trailer are also on-hand in a disc that beautifully preserves one of the great films of the 1970s, and one of the finest films about its era – and about growing up regardless of its setting – ever made.

Also New on Blu-Ray

THE ILLUSIONIST Blu-Ray/DVD (***, 80 mins., 2010, PG; Sony): French animator Sylvain Chomet’s latest production is a beautifully rendered, though not entirely satisfying, tale of a French magician who, upon traveling to Scotland to perform in a small village, befriends a young girl working in a local tavern. She ends up tagging along with him to Edinburgh where he ends up working in assorted odd jobs to support them.

Based on an unproduced screenplay by the great French comedian-filmmaker Jacques Tati, and mostly told without any dialogue, “The Illusionist” works best in its portrayal of a lonely old soul who finds his craft being supplanted by rock music and the rise of television in a world he’s slowly growing apart from. Chomet’s backgrounds are gorgeous, the character animation beautifully rendered and the sense of the era strong; where “The Illusionist” doesn’t function as well is in the melancholy aspects of the magician’s relationship with the girl and her eventual interest in a young man who begins courting her. At times the picture feels like a clash between an animated Tati film and a Chomet work, with another downbeat ending clouding over its central charms. As such, the picture doesn’t entirely click emotionally, but has some magical moments and superb design which ought to captivate animation lovers just the same.

Sony’s Blu-Ray looks just perfect with its 1080p AVC encoded transfer and offers a nicely layered DTS MA soundtrack with a score composed by Chomet himself. Extras include a Making Of featurette and a look at the movie’s animation mock-ups, plus the standard def DVD platter bundled within.

NO STRINGS ATTACHED Blu-Ray (**, 107 mins., 2011, R; Paramount): Mediocre romantic-comedy with a dash more “adult humor” than usual works to a small degree because of a seasoned supporting cast and sure-handed, veteran direction from Ivan Reitman. Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman play long-time acquaintances who decide to break out of their purely platonic relationship enough so that busy doc Portman can have sex; eventually, something else blossoms outside of intercourse (as you might expect). Kevin Kline and Cary Elwes add some veteran presence to this predictable outing that grossed a healthy $70 million earlier this winter at the box-office; Portman and Kutcher generate some chemistry together and Reitman handles it all with some humorous touches along the way, though it ultimately doesn’t amount to much. Paramount’s Blu-Ray edition of “No Strings...” includes a good-looking AVC encoded 1080p transfer with DTS Master Audio and extras including commentary from Reitman, deleted scenes and a number of featurettes, plus a DVD and digital copy as well.

THE RITE Blu-Ray/DVD/Digital Copy (**½, 114 mins., 2011, PG-13; Warner): It’s not “The Exorcist,” but director Mikael Hafstrom and writer Michael Petroni – working from a non-fiction book by Matt Baglio – have fashioned a not half-bad supernatural thriller that’s almost as interested in its lead character’s journey of faith as it is in possession and creepiness. I say almost, because a film that went all the way with that mixture would’ve been more interesting than the mostly routine narrative that the filmmakers ultimately spin.

“The Rite” finds seminary student Colin O’Donoghue questioning his beliefs while he travels to Rome and becomes involved with a veteran priest (Anthony Hopkins) and a nefarious demon. The performances are solid, and Hafstrom, coming off the Stephen King chiller “1408,” knows how to craft effectively spooky scenes; it’s just a shame there wasn’t more punch to the central story, since there are elements of it that work rather well.

Warner’s Blu-Ray edition of “The Rite” includes a strong 1080p AVC encoded transfer with a fully effective DTS Master Audio soundtrack. Extras include an alternate ending plus a few deleted scenes and a making of featurette profiling Father Gary Thomas, the Vatican-ordained exorcist whose story inspired the film. A standard DVD and digital copy round out the package.

GNOMEO & JULIET Blu-Ray/DVD (**½, 84 mins., 2011, G; Touchstone): Cute, if forgettable, animated offering initially began its life as a Disney animated feature until Pixar took over that division and axed the project. Eventually produced by Starz Animation Studios in Canada and released under Disney’s Touchstone label, “Gnomeo & Juliet” still managed to gross nearly $100 million last winter domestically and ought to entertain the little ones with its colorful tale of feuding gnomes who find two of their own falling for one another. A few vintage Elton John songs (he also produced the film) pop up here and there, the almost all-Brit voice cast (including James McAvoy, Emily Blunt, Michael Caine, Maggie Smith and Jason Statham among others) is terrific, and the picture has sporadic laughs, though ultimately there’s not much memorable about it. Disney’s Blu-Ray looks spotless, as you might expect, with a brilliant 1080p AVC encoded transfer; the animation of the gnomes is actually quite good for what became a modestly budgeted film, while DTS Master Audio is employed to good effect throughout. Extras include two alternate endings, numerous deleted scenes, several featurettes and a music video, plus a standard def DVD offering some (but not all) of the same extras.

I AM NUMBER FOUR Blu-Ray/DVD/Digital Copy (**½, 109 mins., 2011, PG-13; Touchstone): Fairly well-produced sci-fi thriller for teens stars Alex Pettyfer as an alien outcast on Earth supervised by a guardian named Henri (Timothy Olyphant) who’s trying to protect him from other aliens still cruising the planet looking to eliminate what’s left of their race. This Michael Bay production, based on a popular young adult novel by Pittacus Lore, offers lots of special effects from ILM, well-textured cinematography from Guillermo Navarro, and a script credited to genre vets Alfred Gough and Miles Millar (“Smallville”) and Marti Noxon (“Buffy”). So why is “I Am Number Four” mostly just okay as opposed to truly inspired? Perhaps some of that blame has to go to director D.J. Caruso, who seems more interested in maintaining the picture’s pace and the action sequences instead of cultivating the characters. That said, the movie is reasonably entertaining for what it is, and has a few interesting touches (like Pettyfer’s seemingly ordinary canine companion). Touchstone’s Blu-Ray disc looks excellent, as you’d anticipate, with its 1080p (1.85) transfer and DTS MA soundtrack, backed by a potent score provided by Trevor Rabin. Extras include bloopers, a Making Of featurette, along with BD-format exclusive deleted scenes; the package also includes a standard DVD edition and digital copy for good measure.

THE HIT LIST Blu-Ray (90 mins., 2011, R; Sony): I’m not entirely sure at what point Cuba Gooding, Jr. took over the mantle of direct-to-video action king from the likes of Wesley Snipes and Steven Seagal, but at least “The Hit List” finds the one-time Oscar winner in a more comfortable spot than his last couple of small-screen affairs. In “The Hit List,” Gooding stars as a cold, detached hit man who, upon listening to the whims of washed out white collar guy Cole Hauser, decides to literally rub out all the people on his imaginary hit list. What follows is a pretty standard issue action vehicle with Hauser attempting to prove his innocence and stop Gooding from making good on his promises. William Kaufman’s independent production was picked up by Sony, who in turn have released the film in a good looking 1080p AVC encoded (1.78) transfer with DTS Master Audio sound. While not offering any extras, “The Hit List” isn’t at all terrible for what it is, and at least stands out more than other films in its genre.

New From Criterion

Four impressive Blu-Ray packages comprise Criterion’s May offerings.

A new edition of Andrei Tarkovsky’s SOLARIS (166 mins., 1972) highlights the quartet; this moody, long, oft-discussed Russian science fiction drama isn’t for all tastes but the impressive scope cinematography and atmosphere that the director establishes can be appreciated by all cinephiles.

It had been a while since I first saw “Solaris” in college (in Criterion’s earlier laserdisc release, no less), so this new AVC encoded 1080p Blu-Ray transfer was impressive to say the least. Colors, contrasts and grain are all preserved in a crisp and detailed presentation with monaural uncompressed sound on the audio side. Extras include a commentary from Tarkovsky scholars Vida Johnson and Graham Petrie; nine deleted/alternate scenes; video interviews with star Natalya Bondarechuk, DP Vadim Yusov, art director Mikhail Romadin, and composer Eduard Artemyev; and a documentary extract about author Stanislaw Lem, who wrote the novel on which the film was based.

Charlie Chaplin’s THE GREAT DICTATOR (125 mins., 1940) is regarded as one of Chaplin’s finest features; a controversial, biting satire about the Hitler-like dictator of Tomainia and the Jewish barber mistaken for him (with the director, of course, essaying both roles).

Criterion has brought the film to Blu-Ray in a hugely satisfying new B&W, full-screen transfer. Commentary from Chaplin historians Dan Kamin and Hooman Mehran adds enormous insight into the picture’s creation, while a 2001 documentary, “The Tramp and the Dictator,” examines the movie’s historical significance with comments from Ray Bradbury and Sidney Lumet among others. Other goodies include color production footage shot by Chaplin’s half-brother; two featurettes with Chaplin archivist Cecilia Cenciarelli and biographer Jeffrey Vance; the barbershop sequence from Sydney Chaplin’s “King, Queen, Joker” and a deleted sequence from Chaplin’s 1919 film “Sunnyside.” Booklet notes and a re-release trailer round out the disc.

Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1955 French classic DIABOLIQUE (117 mins.) is a landmark thriller that has also been beautifully restored to HD in a 1.33, full-screen B&W transfer matched with uncompressed mono sound; a selected scene commentary from critic Kelley Conway; a video introduction from Serge Bromberg, the co-director of Clouzot’s “Inferno”; a new interview with British film critic Kim Newman; the trailer; and a booklet offering an essay from Terrence Rafferty.

Clouzot’s absorbing tale of two women (Simone Signoret’s neglected wife, Vera Clouzot’s teacher) who conspire to (seemingly) murder Paul Meurisse’s cruel headmaster set the standard for many a thriller to follow, with Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac’s script oft-imitated but seldom duplicated.

Finally, Japanese filmmaker Masahiro Shinoda’s PALE FLOWER (96 mins., 1964) joins the Criterion Collection this month as well. This smoky B&W tale of a yakuza (Ryo Ikebe) who meets a gorgeous gambler (Mariko Kaga) that drags him further down the wrong path as they engage in a mutually destructive relationship is regarded as one of the stronger noirs from its native country.

Certainly the movie looks the part in Criterion’s Blu-Ray, which boasts a beautiful 2.35 AVC encoded 1080p transfer, augmented by new English subtitles. Toru Takemitsu’s impressive score fares well in the disc’s uncompressed PCM mono soundtrack, with extras including a new conversation with Shinoda; a selected-scene commentary from Peter Grilli, co-producer of the “Music for the Movies” documentary on Takemitsu; and the original trailer.

Well worth seeking out for Japanese film enthusiasts.

Also New on Blu-Ray
BEVERLY HILLS COP Blu-Ray (***½, 105 mins., 1984, R; Paramount): What most people don't remember about Eddie Murphy’s Christmas ‘84 blockbuster is that it wasn't just originally conceived as a Sylvester Stallone project, it was also cast with the "Italian Stallion" in mind.

The straightforward story of a Detroit cop who travels to Beverly Hills to seek out the men responsible for the death of a friend still feels like it could have been a Stallone vehicle, with its blaring shoot-outs and action sequences, though fortunately enough, Eddie Murphy's presence meant the comedic elements were accentuated just enough to find the right balance between gags and guns.

The slick cinematography, interplay between Beverly Hills cops Judge Reinhold and John Ashton (both terrific), and chart-topping soundtrack – featuring the well-known Harold Faltermeyer score and hit songs by Glenn Frey, Patti Labelle, and the Pointer Sisters – all combined to make “Beverly Hills Cop” a smash hit, sending Murphy on his way into super-stardom as a leading man and spawning a pair of sequels that failed to reach the heights of the original, either comedically or financially.

Paramount’s Blu-Ray edition of the movie is one of the studio’s most satisfying catalog releases in some time. The AVC encoded 1080p transfer includes an appreciable gain in detail over DVD editions, while retaining its cinematic sharpness – unlike “48 Hrs.” and some other Paramount discs we’ve seen recently, there’s next to no DNR on-hand here, thankfully. The DTS Master Audio sound is potently remixed from the original Dolby Stereo soundtrack as well.

A good array of supplements have been carried over from the 2002 DVD, including a revealing 30-minute documentary backed up with tasty anecdotes, featuring then-new interviews with Judge Reinhold, Lisa Eilbacher (whose character was originally the love interest for Stallone), John Ashton, producer Jerry Bruckheimer, director Martin Brest, and writers Danilo Branch and Daniel Petrie, Jr. This is a surprisingly frank and fun featurette that looks at the oft-discussed production of the film, from its original conception as a Pacino/Eastwood cop thriller, to a more comedic vehicle for Mickey Rourke and -- later -- Stallone, through to its final resting place as Murphy's biggest big-screen success. Separate featurettes look at the casting and music (though Faltermeyer is nowhere to be seen), with Brest also contributing an informative audio commentary track, though at times he seems to be pausing to watch the film. The original trailer is also on-hand in HD.

Also new this month from Paramount is a no-frills yet decidedly good-looking edition of THE FIRM (***, 154 mins., 1993, R), Sydney Pollack’s adaptation of the John Grisham best-seller starring Tom Cruise which hit the box-office at exactly the right moment, taking advantage of both the author’s popularity and its leading man’s.

Years later, the picture is most noteworthy for its abundant supporting cast, from Ed Harris and Holly Hunter to Jeanne Tripplehorn and Gene Hackman, who shunned billing on the film’s advertising but who deftly plays the devil to Cruise’s Harvard Law grad. The movie is lengthy and straightforward, but it has an old-fashioned type of appeal in its filmmaking – the work of a master craftsman like Pollack – that has enabled it to gracefully weather the years.

Paramount’s Blu-Ray disc is another winner – the 1080p AVC encoded transfer is sharply rendered without the type of DNR we’ve seen from the studio in the past. The Dolby TrueHD audio is mostly a low-key mix (Dave Grusin’s piano score is seldom more than serviceable), and no extras are included outside of the trailer, but this is still a fine Blu-Ray worth taking a look at.

PAPILLON Blu-Ray (***, 150 mins., 1973, PG; Warner)
GRAND PRIX Blu-Ray (**½, 176 mins., 1966, PG; Warner): A couple of superb new catalog discs arrive this month from Warner Home Video.

An acclaimed, uncompromising chronicle of Henri Charriere’s time spent on Devil’s Island, his inhumane treatment and eventual escape, Franklin J. Schaffner’s taut 1973 “Papillon” offers tremendous performances from Steve McQueen (in one of his finest roles) and Dustin Hoffman as fellow prisoner Louis Dega. Shot in Jamaica and Spain, “Papillon” is a slow-moving, harrowing chronicle of Charriere’s true-life story, authentically brought to the screen by Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple, Jr. in a story that eschews standard Hollywood romanticism for a tough, gritty portrait of prison life, one that leaves you feeling more relieved for Charriere’s outcome more than spiritually uplifted.

That said, Jerry Goldsmith’s grand score, Fred J. Koenekamp’s cinematography and the compelling lead performances make for a superb picture, and Warner’s Blu-Ray disc presents “Papillon” in a fine 1080p AVC encode that generally looks very good with little in the way of noise-reduction filtering going on. Extras include the trailer and a vintage 12 minute promotional featurette.

John Frankenheimer’s 1965 offering “Grand Prix,” meanwhile, also makes its way to Blu-Ray at long last after being issued on HD-DVD several years ago.

The camera work and racing sequences in this Super Panavision-shot MGM production are outstanding and look marvelous in Warner’s 1080p presentation here, but the movie sags whenever it’s not in motion. The Robert Alan Arthur script spins a weak soap opera triangle involving James Garner, Eva Marie Saint and Brian Bedford, while other drivers including Yves Montand and Antonio Sabato also find life outside the track to be nearly as turbulent. Viewers, meanwhile, might feel compelled to hit fast-forward whenever the movie’s great looking car sequences and use of the wide Panavision frame aren’t going on.

In addition to a terrific 1080p transfer and DTS Master Audio soundtrack (highlighting Maurice Jarre’s score), Warner’s disc includes five featurettes and the original trailer.

Also new this month from Warner is a nicely packaged Digibook Anniversary edition of Stanley Kubrick’s seminal A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (***½, 137 mins., 1971, R), starring Malcolm McDowell in Kubrick’s vividly rendered adaptation of the Anthony Burgess classic.

Previously released on DVD and Blu-Ray (as well as HD-DVD), this new two-disc set includes what appears to be the same transfer from its prior release (1.66 1080p) with AVC encoding plus DTS Master Audio in place of the earlier BD release’s uncompressed PCM soundtrack. Technically, the disc does not seem to be an upgrade, though there are new extras, including a recent interview with McDowell and a freshly produced featurette on the film’s cultural impact. There’s also a second disc with Jan Harlan’s excellent feature-length doc “Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures” and a similarly lengthy profile of McDowell, “O Lucky Malcolm!”, also directed by Harlan. Prior extras from the BD/DVD release, including McDowell and Nick Redman’s superb commentary, have all been retained here as well.

Accompanying the new edition of “A Clockwork Orange” on DVD is NEVER APOLOGIZE: A PERSONAL VISIT WITH LINDSAY ANDERSON (111 mins., 2008), an intriguing narrative spun by Malcolm McDowell as he recalls working with Anderson on five projects from “This Sporting Life” through to “The Whales of August,” and sounding off on other contemporary topics of note as well. Warner’s DVD includes a 1.33 full-screen transfer and 2.0 stereo soundtrack for this 2008 production from director Mike Kaplan.

Finally, Warner next week releases a pair of Digibook BD packages for both Ronald F. Maxwell’s 1993 TNT mini-series-turned-theatrical feature GETTYSBURG (***½, 271 mins.) as well as its 2002 follow-up (prequel) GODS AND GENERALS (***, 280 mins.), both of which have been re-edited for their 150th Civil War commemorative editions, restoring footage cut for their initial theatrical releases.

“Gettysburg” arrives on video for the first time (save for a limited edition laserdisc set that included a real Civil War bullet!) in its original 271-minute version, adding in 17 minutes of material cut for its standard theatrical release print. In the case of “Gods and Generals,” it’s an even more elaborate restoration, adding an hour of excised material involving John Wilkes Booth and the battle of Antietam, as well as a thorough re-editing of the entire picture. Grander in its technical scope but not as satisfying as “Gettysburg” despite returning numerous cast members, “Gods and Generals” is still a worthy production that works infinitely better in this longer cut, even if its length means watching it – along with “Gettysburg” – in multiple viewings.

Warner’s Blu-Ray packages house liner notes, comments from director Maxwell, and some historical information on each picture. The AVC encoded 1080p transfers are a bit of a mixed bag; “Gods and Generals” is clearly the superior presentation (2.40) of the duo, with “Gettysburg” looking like it may have been derived from an older master. The DTS Master Audio sound is likewise stronger on the newer production, while extras include the prior DVD commentary on “Gettysburg” plus its original special features (Making Of featurette, the vintage scope short “The Battle of Gettysburg,” the trailer), while “Gods and Generals” includes a new introduction from Maxwell and producer Ted Turner plus a fresh commentary with the director and historical advisors, and another DVD with the prior release’s extras contained within (three featurettes, the Bob Dylan music video and the trailer). Recommended!

THE DORM THAT DRIPPED BLOOD [aka PRANKS] Blu-Ray/DVD (*½, 88 mins., 1981, Not Rated; Synapse): Slasher fans will get the most mileage out of Synapse’s loving restoration of this low-budget 1981 genre entry, which offers a starring role for young Daphne Zuniga and also was one of the first films scored by Christopher Young.

Jeffrey Obrow and Stephen Carpenter’s film, initially released on the Media Home Entertainment label back in the heyday of VHS, is awfully pedestrian in its execution, however. From its threadbare story involving a college dorm stalked by a killer with a penchant for utilizing an interesting array of tools to carry out his crimes, to its amateurish production values, “Dorm” feels like the kind of genre relic that should’ve been left buried, yet genre buffs might enjoy the poor performances and threadbare visuals, along with some uncensored gore here restored to its original proportions.

Synapse’s Blu-Ray is certainly a robust package highlighted by terrific new interviews with Christopher Young and FX artist Matthew Mungle, along with an isolated score track, trailers, and a commentary from Obrow and Caprenter. A nice reversible cover includes artwork from the film’s alternate title, “Pranks,” while a standard DVD is also included. The DTS MA 2.0 audio (on both the film and the isolated score track) is surprisingly good, though the AVC encoded 1080p transfer is clearly inhibited by the modest (meager?) nature of the picture itself.

VANISHING ON 7TH STREET Blu-Ray/Digital Copy (*½, 91 mins., 2010, R; Magnolia): An apocalyptic blackout creates an uncertain, scary future for a handful of survivors (Hayden Christensen, Thandie Newton and John Leguizamo among them) in Brad Anderson’s new thriller – one which begins well and boasts some effective scenes as “the darkness” preys upon our characters, but ultimately collapses under its own weight with an inconclusive ending. Magnolia’s Blu-Ray disc does offer an impressive, effective DTS Master Audio soundtrack plus a respectable 1080p AVC encoded transfer. Extras include alternate endings, a whole range of featurettes, interviews, commentary from Anderson, and a digital copy for portable media players.

MAO’S LAST DANCER Blu-Ray (***, 117 mins., 2009, PG; Fox): Bruce Beresford directed this biography of Li Cunxin, a Chinese dancer chosen at a young age to attend the Beijing Dance Academy, but who, years later, wants to stay in the U.S. after meeting, and falling for, an American woman. “Mao’s Last Dancer,” which generated decent buzz on the art house circuit (and performed especially well internationally), is a well-crafted, if dramatically obvious, film that works best when Beresford concentrates on showing Li’s craft in its ballet sequences. The story comes across as somewhat superficially told, but the superb visuals and Christopher Gordon’s fine dramatic underscoring ultimately make it worthwhile. Fox’s Blu-Ray disc is, for now, a Target exclusive that will be available nationally in July; the 25gb single-layer platter includes a 1080p transfer with a DTS MA 5.1 soundtrack and one Making Of featurette on the supplemental side.

THOR: TALES OF ASGARD Blu-Ray/DVD (77 mins., 2011; Lionsgate): The latest Marvel animated direct-to-video production finds Thor and brother Loki embarking on a quest to find the legendary Lost Sword of Surtur. Along the way they run into the Warriors Three, who saddle up for a simple treasure hunt that ends up becoming something far more dangerous. Colorful animation and a straightforward story make for a routine 77-minute video production that, at least, doesn’t overstay its welcome and ought to entertain young kids as well as undemanding comic book fans – though there’s little (if any) resemblance to the hugely entertaining new “Thor” live-action movie from Marvel and Kenneth Branagh.

Lionsgate’s Blu-Ray disc includes a crisp 1080p AVC encoded transfer and 7.1 DTS Master Audio sound. A number of extras include a Making Of, two different commentary tracks, a DVD copy, and a bonus episode from the new “Avengers” cartoon (which I previously reviewed in our prior Aisle Seat column).

New on DVD

SOLDIER IN THE RAIN DVD (***, 87 mins., 1963; Warner Archive): Blake Edwards and Maurice Richlin wrote this 1963 Allied Artists production that chronicles the relationship between veteran army officer Jackie Gleason and his young supply sgt. Steve McQueen, from running scams to picking up girls. “Soldier in the Rain” wasn’t directed by Edwards, even though Henry Mancini scored the B&W film and the picture, like some of Edwards’ output, runs the gamut from high comedy to heavy drama, with most of the latter occurring during the film’s final third.

The movie itself doesn’t entirely mesh, but the performances of Gleason and McQueen, along with a supporting cast including Tuesday Weld (as the girl Gleason tries to hook McQueen up with), Tony Bill, Tom Poston, and Ed Nelson, help to compensate for the shifts in tone.

Available exclusively through the Warner Archive, “Soldier in the Rain” has made its long-overdue debut on disc in a 16:9 (1.85) transfer that doesn’t carry the “remastered” tag sometimes associated with Archives titles, but nevertheless looks quite sharp.

Also newly available this month from the Warner Archive is CHUCK NORRIS: KARATE KOMMANDOS (110 mins.), the 1986 Ruby-Spears animated series – produced in response no doubt to “G.I. Joe”’s success – that finds a cartoony Chuck and friends battling the evil terrorist organization dubbed VULTURE.

Pretty much standard fare, “Karate Kommandos” ought to appeal to those of us who grew up in the ‘80s and who still admire the simplistic sorts of animation Ruby-Spears provided on Saturday mornings (it’s odd, though, to see Ruby-Spears’ logo supplanted by Hanna-Barbera on the packaging, since HB actually had nothing to do with the series!).

THE UNKNOWN WAR: WWII AND THE EPIC BATTLES OF THE RUSSIAN FRONT DVD (17 hrs., 1978; Shout): Shortly after “The World At War” was broadcast, the Russians – feeling they had received short shrift in that landmark British documentary series – produced their own chronicle of WWII: “The Unknown War,” a 1978 program running 20 parts (aprx. 50 minutes each) that detailed the Soviet military’s efforts in combating Hitler from 1941 through the Russians march into Berlin in 1945. As with “The World at War,” it’s a scholarly presentation augmented with narration (and hosting segments) by Burt Lancaster and music by Rod McKuen, but with an obvious focus on Russia’s involvement. In fact, McKuen adapted the screenplay for “The Unknown War”’s U.S. broadcasts, which were curtailed in the late ‘70s when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and tensions between USA and USSR were high.

Shout! Factory brings the little-seen series to DVD for the first time in the form of a superb 5-disc box-set offering its complete run with extras including an interview with McKuen and an analysis from Willard Sunderland, associate professor of Russian history at the University of Cincinnati.

LEMONADE MOUTH DVD/Digital Copy (107 mins., 2011; Disney): “The Breakfast Club” came together with “High School Musical” for this top-rated Disney Channel TV movie about a group of freshmen who, after spending time in detention, find out they share several things in common in terms of music. Disney’s DVD edition is a 2-disc combo pack sporting a digital copy, a 16:9 (1.78) transfer, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, an extended music scene and a rock-along optional interactive feature.   

MLB BLOOPERS Double Header DVD (125 mins., 2006, 2010; A&E/NewVideo): Some priceless MLB blooper footage is on-tap in this enjoyable double feature offering the 2006 “Funny Side of Baseball” (narrated by SNL alumnus Chris Kattan) and the 2010 “Baseball’s Best Blunders,” both offering an hour-plus of wacky hilarity from the diamond.

PRIME 9: MLB HEROICS DVD (aprx. 3.5 hours. 2011; A&E/NewVideo): Nine episodes from the MLB Network’s “Prime 9" series offer half-hour profiles in baseball history, including “Greatest Home Runs,” “Unbreakable Feats,” “Hitting Seasons,” “Best World Series,” “All-Star Moments,” “Comebacks,” “Pitching Seasons,” “Regular Season Catches” and “Plays at the Plate.”

NEXT TIME: LEGEND in High Definition. 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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