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Universal's Latest 100th Anniversary Discs

George Roy Hill’s 1973 Oscar winner, THE STING (****, 129 mins., PG), lands a Blu-Ray release on June 5th from Universal as part of their 100th Anniversary Blu-Ray/DVD combo packages.

The movie remains a delight, with Paul Newman and Robert Redford rekindling their “Butch Cassidy” chemistry as Chicago con men during the early ‘30s; Robert Shaw co-stars alongside a marvelous supporting cast (Charles Durning, Ray Walston, Eileen Brennan, Harold Gould and Dana Elcar among them) in a witty script by David S. Ward that became a box-office smash and celebrated critical triumph.

Universal’s 1080p AVC encoded transfer does seem to boast some processing, especially during any scenes involving opticals (the opening credits are blurry), but on balance is quite good, marked by crisp detail and pleasantly saturated colors. The DTS MA soundtrack effectively renders Marvin Hamlisch’s acclaimed adaptation of Scott Joplin’s ragtime pieces, while extras have been carried over from the last Special Edition DVD release.

Then-recent interviews with Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Charles Durning, Ray Walston, David S. Ward and Marvin Hamlisch highlight an hour-long documentary from Charles Kiselyak, which is split into three separate segments (“The Perfect Script,” “Making a Masterpiece,” and “The Legacy”). Among the revelations is how Ward initially balked at director Hill’s suggestion of using Joplin’s music on the soundtrack. When he worried that the film’s 1920s setting was too late an era for ragtime, Hill told Ward that about five people in the audience would even notice, much less care. There are also comments by Redford about why he wanted Hill to direct the film (instead of Ward, who Redford felt was too inexperienced at the time), the movie’s development and widespread acclaim (and massive box-office receipts) after it was released.

A previously released featurette on Universal’s restoration techniques is also included along with a segment on the studio’s 70s output, a look at Universal’s back lot, the original trailer, and a DVD copy in the hardbound Digibook package.

Two other Universal 100th Anniversary packages are due out on June 5th:

SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT (***, 96 mins., 1977, PG) came in second to “Star Wars” at the box-office back in ‘77, serving to launch a series of redneck-road flicks and a number of awful Burt Reynolds comedies that would follow for years thereafter (not to mention two terrible sequels of its own). We’ll cut it a bit of slack, at least, since the original “Smokey” is good fun, with Burt, Sally Field, Jackie Gleason, Jerry Reed and Paul Williams having a grand time in Hal Needham’s smash hit. Previously available on HD-DVD, “Smokey” makes its way to Blu-Ray in the same VC-1 encoded 1080p transfer as its earlier HD package; that transfer was one of Universal’s better catalog efforts for the format, with a bit of edge enhancement present, but also a nice amount of detail on-hand and strong colors. The DTS MA soundtrack is fine and extras include two featurettes and the same Universal retrospective extras that are in the Blu-Ray package of “The Sting” above, plus a DVD and digital copy.

Julia Roberts’ Oscar winning performance carries Steven Soderbergh’s superb ERIN BROCKOVICH (***½, 2000, 132 mins., R; Universal), starring the actress as a feisty single mom who becomes a legal assistant for an attorney (Albert Finney) and ultimately goes after a power company polluting a local water supply. Susannah Grant’s script and Roberts’ portrayal go hand-in-hand in this highly satisfying entertainment, which Universal brings to Blu-Ray for the first time domestically, sporting the same VC-1 encoded transfer as its HD-DVD edition, as well as the same extras (deleted scenes, the trailer and a pair of Making Of featurettes). Also on-hand are a digital copy, DVD, and two “100 Years of Universal” extras.

Another excellent Blu-Ray catalog release is on tap from Fox: the 1983 Aussie import THE MAN FROM SNOWY RIVER (***½, 105 mins., PG).

This enchanting western, an expansion of the A.B. (“Banjo”) Paterson poem from writers John Dixon and Fred Cul Cullen, was one of the most successful Australian productions of the ‘80s. Director George Miller (the “other one” of “Neverending Story” fame) fashioned a stirring adventure with Tom Burlinson as a young man from the Australian highlands who has to prove his mettle to rancher Kirk Douglas after the death of his father. Burlinson falls for Douglas’ daughter (Sigrid Thornton) while trying to retrieve his steed, who joined the “brumbies,” a collection of stampeding horses who roam the countryside.

Gorgeously shot, “The Man From Snowy River” is a romantic, old-fashioned film with a beautiful score by Bruce Rowland that supports every aspect of the picture. This is a decided throwback to the genre’s early days – not a revisionist western – and on that level, nearly every aspect of the movie works. Burlinson and Thornton are likeable and generate sufficient chemistry, and even though Douglas and fellow top-billed cast member Jack Thompson were mostly added for name value, their performances are likewise amiable (Douglas in a dual role that was later recast – with Brian Dennehy – in the 1988 sequel “Return to Snowy River”).

Fox’s 1080p AVC encoded Blu-Ray transfer is just spectacular as well: crisp, detailed, and perfectly rendered. In fact, I’d go so far to say this is one of the best catalog discs I’ve seen in the last couple of years. The 2.0 DTS MA soundtrack is a bit problematic with sound effects that frequently overwhelm the dialogue, but it’s still acceptable. The original trailer is the sole extra.

Also New on Blu-Ray and DVD

THE WOMAN IN BLACK Blu-Ray (**, 95 mins., 2012, PG-13; Sony): Well mounted, creepy and atmospheric adaptation of Susan Hill’s book from screenwriter Jane Goldman and director James Watkins ranks – for a while – as one of the better supernatural films in recent memory...that is, until an awful ending puts a damper on the whole show.

Daniel Radcliffe is fairly effective here as a lawyer in Edwardian era London who’s sent to the countryside to help settle the affairs of a recently deceased member of a rural village. It doesn’t take long before Radcliffe realizes an evil spirit is at work, lurking in the shadows and preying upon the children of the town. Determined to unravel the mystery, Radcliffe’s investigation is hindered by local residents who don’t want to talk about the terrifying “Woman in Black.”

Though leisurely paced, the opening half of “The Woman in Black” is effectively handled, accentuating sound and cinematography over violence and gore. A throwback to classic British chillers like “The Innocents,” the movie builds up a head of steam that ends up being squashed by a denouement that’s less than satisfying. In fact, the last five minutes absolutely ruin the film, failing to play by the logic (such as it is) established in the genre in favor of a cheap last-second scare. The picture still might be worth a viewing for genre aficionados – especially of the old-school variety – but it’s a crushing letdown.

Sony’s Blu-Ray includes a solid 1080p transfer, commentary from Watkins and Goldman, two featurettes and a very nicely mixed DTS MA soundtrack filled with creaky floors, spooky sounds and a fine score by Marco Beltrami. An Ultraviolet digital copy is also on-hand.

SAFE HOUSE Blu-Ray/DVD/Digital Copy (**, 115 mins., 2012, R; Universal): Overly familiar thriller wastes the considerable talents of a good cast. Denzel Washington stars as a former agent turned (alleged) criminal being held in South Africa in a CIA safe house after turning himself in. After being attacked, rookie agent Ryan Reynolds takes him captive, only to have Washington toy with his belief system as the duo sort out a conspiracy that leads, predictably, up the chain of command.

David Guggenheim’s convoluted, unlikeable script is a big disappointment, as is the film itself on balance. Washington seems like he’s on auto-pilot here while Reynolds fills the thankless role of the idealistic newcomer who learns the hard way about “the system.” Daniel Espinosa, meanwhile, directs with every cliched hallmark of “The Bourne Identity” on hand, leading to an unsatisfying ending.

Universal’s Blu-Ray combo pack includes a 1080p AVC encoded transfer, DTS MA soundtrack, Ultraviolet digital copy and a number of mostly fluffy featurettes.

AQUAMARINE Blu-Ray (**½, 103 mins., 2006, PG; Fox): Not-bad teenage flick adapted from Alice Hoffman’s book finds Emma Roberts and Joanna “Jojo” Levesque as best friends who stumble across a mermaid (Sara Paxton) and promptly compete for the affections of a local lifeguard. Sunny summer hyjinks for young girls, not-too-obviously shot in Australia (with “Road Warrior”’s Bruce Spence showing up as an irritable caretaker). Fox’s Blu-Ray includes a fine 1080p transfer with DTS MA soundtrack and ample extras carried over from the DVD (commentaries, deleted scenes and featurettes).

TV On DVD and Blu-Ray

FALLING SKIES Season 1 Blu-Ray (440 mins., 2011; Warner). WHAT IT IS: Enjoyable variation on “War of the Worlds” from executive producer Steven Spielberg finds a group of survivors struggling to maintain their existence in a post-alien invasion Boston. Noah Wylie stars as one of the de facto leaders of a resistance movement intended to stop the aliens, who mostly leave the deserted suburban areas of Massachusetts alone outside of occasional patrols, but who also abduct younger humans for their own – as of yet unknown – reasons. Wylie often clashes with military veteran Will Patton over balancing the group’s safety with trying to make a dent against the extraterrestrials, all the while taking care of his family, including three young sons. SCI-FI IMPACT: Though familiar, “Falling Skies” is entertaining stuff, mainly because the quality production values are matched with a strong human component. Wylie, so good for many years as John Carter on “ER,” makes for a perfect everyman – a professor reluctantly thrust into battle, who often finds himself reflecting on the group’s predicament in the context of history – and he’s matched by a fine supporting cast including Patton, Moon Bloodgood  and Sarah Carter. Fine special effects and a satisfying mix of sci-fi action and human drama make “Falling Skies” well worth checking out. BLU-RAY SPECS: Warner’s Blu-Ray edition of “Falling Skies” looks terrific with 1080p transfers and DTS MA soundtracks. A good selection of extras include commentaries, a San Diego Comic-Con featurette, behind the scenes featurettes, a sneak peak at Season 2 and a BD exclusive look at the Dark Horse comic book. AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: In some ways “Falling Skies” comes off feeling like Spielberg’s second stab at “War of the Worlds,” but the series ultimately works better thanks to better fleshed out, and more likeable, characters. Before Season 2 hits the TNT airwaves this summer, newcomers would do well to check out Warner’s Blu-Ray Season 1 release when it streets on June 5th.

THE RIVER Season 1 DVD (344 mins., 2012; Buena Vista). WHAT IT IS: When a wildlife TV host (Bruce Greenwood) goes missing, his family – including wife Leslie Hope (best known as Jack Bauer’s belated wife Teri on “24") and estranged son Joe Anderson – heads to the Amazon in search of his wherabouts. Unbeknownst to them, the region is filled with dead spirits and similar supernatural forces. FEAR FACTOR: Steven Spielberg recruited “Paranormal Activity”’s Oren Peli and Michael R. Perry to help bring this ABC series to life, yet the program fizzled in the ratings, despite receiving mostly positive reviews. The show is well-produced and certainly has its share of jolts, yet its brevity – only eight episodes were produced – and a lack of conclusion make a recommendation for “The River” tough to generate. DVD BREAKDOWN: Buena Vista’s DVD includes the entire series of “The River” in strong 16:9 transfers with 5.1 soundtracks. Extras include a commentary on the episode “Magnus” by producers Michael Green, Zack Estrin and director Jaime Collet-Serra; another commentary on “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”; deleted scenes; and a Making Of featurette. AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: Audiences might run out on an annual basis for the latest “Paranormal Activity” sequel but getting them to devote weekly time to a horror-based TV series proved to be too much of a task for this short-lived program. Genre aficionados might want to check it out regardless, but seeing that the show has been canceled, a rental is the wisest course of action.

DROP DEAD DIVA Season 3 DVD (561 mins., 2011; Sony). WHAT IT IS: Brooke Elliott’s winning performance as Jane Bingham, a former model reincarnated as a plus-sized attorney, is still the main reason to check out this fluffy Lifetime series. In Season 3, Jane mixes her personal life with a number of cases torn from the headlines, with the requisite amount of musical dream sequences and female personalities showing up as guest stars (the B-list roster of which includes LeAnn Rimes, Kathy Griffin, Wendy Williams and Paula Abdul among others). Elliott manages to be effective at both comedy and drama, and the show works whenever she’s able to carry it – yet the series falls apart whenever she’s off camera, and the writing has been on a steady decline now since Season 2. DVD SPECS: Sony’s three-disc set includes the 13 episode second season of “Drop Dead Diva” in satisfying 16:9 transfers and 5.1 soundtracks. AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: Hopefully Elliott will find another vehicle to strut her stuff. “Drop Dead Diva” is lightly entertaining but the show seems to have run its course, even though a fourth season of the program will begin airing on Lifetime next month.

THUNDERCATS Season 1, Book 2 DVD (182 mins., 2012; Warner). WHAT IT IS: The ‘80s animated series has been resurrected in a new, “grittier” take on the material that’s still aimed at kids. All the principal characters are back as Prince Lion-O attempts to ascend to the throne while battling Mumm-Ra with his fellow Thundercat friends. DVD SPECS: Warner’s Season 1, Book 2 release from the reborn “Thundercats” includes 16:9 transfers and 5.1 soundtracks, along with eight episodes and an Ultraviolet streaming copy for good measure. AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: My college friend Brandon Easton was one of the writers on this new breed of “Thundercats,” and both fans of the old series, and young viewers unfamiliar with the material, ought to find the show sufficiently entertaining for what it is.

TOMAHAWK TRAIL DVD (62 mins., 1957): A West Point grad (John Smith) joins with a grizzled veteran sergeant (Chuck Connors) to combat an apache outbreak – whenever they’re not fighting with each other – in this so-so 1957 UA programmer. Part of MGM’s Limited Edition DVD-R releases (sold at Amazon among other venues), “Tomahawk Trail” offers an acceptable 1.33 transfer and mono soundtrack.

THE JUNGLE BUNCH - THE MOVIE DVD (58 mins., 2012; Universal): Colorful animated feature for kids features the voice of John Lithgow as a penguin who was raised in the jungle and believes himself to be a tiger. Cute animation sells this hour-long production which hits DVD from Universal with 26 bonus shorts on hand.

New From IFC

Ewan McGregor and Eva Green play a would-be couple whose romance coincides with a global epidemic that causes humans to lose their sensory perceptions in THE PERFECT SENSE (92 mins., 2011, R), a bizarre romantic drama that plays out against an apocalyptic backdrop. David Mackenzie’s film doesn’t work on any level – despite good performances – but indie viewers might want to give this IFC Blu-Ray a spin, the disc including a 1080p transfer, featurette, the trailer, and a 5.1 DTS MA soundtrack.

New From A&E/NewVideo

Season 2 of Brad Meltzer’s DECODED (aprx 8 hours, 2011) includes all 13 episodes from the series’ sophomore stanza. Meltzer, a best-selling author who has written books on a variety of historical subjects, here turns his attention to a number of disparate topics including Houdini’s death, the Vatican’s secrets, Mount Rushmore, and Fort Knox. Widescreen transfers, 2.0 soundtracks and additional footage are on-hand in the four-disc DVD set...DOG THE BOUNTY HUNTER: TAKING IT TO THE STREETS (157 mins., 2010) includes four episodes from the most recent season of the A&E reality show (“The Ice Man,” “Trouble in Paradise,” “Mano-a-Mano,” and “The Comeback Kid”) on a single-disc DVD...AMERICAN PICKERS: VOLUME THREE DVD (aprx. 6 hours, 2011) once again follows Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz as they travel the backroads of the U.S.A. searching for treasures with historical, collectible and pop culture value. A trip to a century-old amusement park is one of the highlights in this third volume of episodes from the massively popular History series, presented here in widescreen and 2.0 stereo soundtracks.

NEXT TIME: 42ND STREET FOREVER in HD! 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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