5/25/10 Edition
WOLFMAN Howls on Blu-Ray
Creature Feature Bows in Director's Cut
A few pictures over the years have tried to evoke the mood of Universal’s classic monster movies of the ‘30s and ‘40s -- most meeting with mixed reaction from critics and fans. Universal’s oft-delayed remake of THE WOLFMAN (***, 119 mins [Director’s Cut] and 103 mins [Theatrical Version], 2010, R; Universal) underwent a turbulent production with extensive re-editing, and seemed destined to join the ranks of past disappointments like Stephen Sommers’ “Van Helsing."
Happily, this impressively mounted, atmospheric, serious and decidedly old-fashioned throwback movie is an entertaining and nostalgic return to the past, well directed by Joe Johnston and with excellent Rick Baker make-up and visual effects -- not all of which, thankfully, were enhanced by CGI.

In this interesting spin on Curt Siodmak’s original story, writers Andrew Kevin Walker (“Sleepy Hollow”) and David Self (“Mad Men”) turn tragic hero Laurence Talbot into a actor called home to his family’s rundown English manor after his brother is brutally killed. As essayed by a nicely understated Benicio Del Toro, Talbot is immediately greeted by his haunted, disconnected father (Anthony Hopkins) and his brother’s beautiful fiancee (Emily Blunt), all the while the villagers speak of an animal running through the moors, ripping out the throats of its victims while a full moon sits overhead. While an inspector from Scotland Yard (Hugo Weaving) is called in to assess the bloody murders, Del Toro is confronted with both demons from his past and the ones lurking within himself after he’s attacked outside a gypsy camp, thereby setting in motion the curse of the werewolf...

It only takes a few seconds for one to realize that despite all of its behind-the-scenes issues, director Joe Johnston got “The Wolfman” completely right in terms of duplicating the atmosphere of the Universal classics. Rick Henrichs’ production design and Shelly Johnson’s cinematography are absolutely pitch-perfect, capturing the light and shadows of the fog-ridden countryside and the general Gothic period atmosphere that fans pine for. This is a just gorgeous looking movie that is sure to become a Halloween viewing perennial for style alone, much in the same way that Tim Burton’s “Sleepy Hollow” hearkened back to the Hammer era with its autumnal visual pallet (it’s also no coincidence that Heinrichs designed the sets for both pictures).

The story is indeed serious, starts off a bit on the choppy side, and plays out with hardly any light moments (a bit of the old Universal “gallows humor” might’ve helped), but the Walker-Self script nevertheless takes proper time to develop its characters, allowing us to sympathize with Talbot’s plight. Del Toro is excellent as the tormented Talbot and Hopkins’ role plays right to the actor's strengths; the dynamic between the duo is modest at first but as the story opens up, their interplay becomes more emotionally charged. Blunt (who regrettably lacks chemistry with Del Toro) and Weaving offer able support, but the film is really the story of a father and son, though ultimately quite a different rendering of Siodmak’s original concept.

Considering the enormous amount of time the picture spent in post-production, it’s surprising how well-paced “The Wolfman” is. Johnston’s character-driven sequences are almost leisurely played, but he spices the picture up with an appropriate amount of crowd-pleasing action, and it’s here where the picture also shines. One sequence plays like a Victorian-era recreation of the monster's romp in "An American Werewolf in London," while genre great Rick Baker’s make-up is an elaborate spin on Jack Pierce’s legendary ‘40s “Wolf Man” design. Together with the visual FX, Johnston's film deftly combines the “old school” Lon Chaney look with occasional CGI to create a quite satisfying modern “Wolfman” that’s nevertheless firmly in the spirit of its predecessor.

Bodies fly, victims pile up, blood spurts out -- but it’s never sadistic and all of it is enhanced by a superb score credited to Danny Elfman that was reportedly augmented by work from orchestrator Conrad Pope. Pope was called in to work on the final cut after Paul Haslinger’s replacement score was axed -- this all coming after Elfman’s music was, also, originally replaced!

Some of the film’s issues have also been improved by Universal’s Blu-Ray edition, due out June 1st and offering not just the theatrical edit but an extended Director’s Cut, restoring some 16 minutes of footage that principally enhances the film’s opening half. From its CGI remake of the ‘30s Universal logo to a smoother pace and even a cameo from Max von Sydow as a mysterious passenger Del Toro meets en route to his ancestral home, there’s more atmosphere and superior character development in the Director’s Cut, which flows much more smoothly than its too frenetically paced theatrical counterpart.

In addition to a potent AVC encoded 1080p transfer and nicely textured DTS Master Audio soundtrack, the Blu-Ray also offers a pair of alternate endings (neither as satisfying as the ending that was utilized), several deleted scenes (including an amusing bit where the Wolfman crashes a masquerade ball in London), a few relatively brief featurettes (highlighted by a profile of Rick Baker), a digital copy for portable media players, and a way to stream the original 1941 “Wolf Man” via BD Live for a limited time (through the end of 2010).

“The Wolfman” is rich in tone and -- for those who us grew up on the Universal monsters -- entertainment. Despite its shortcomings, this is a satisfying revitalization of that genre, one that fans are likely to enjoy in spite of its not entirely promising pedigree. It may not be a classic, but this wolf didn’t turn out to be a dog after all.

Also New on Blu-Ray

ALICE IN WONDERLAND Blu-Ray/DVD (**, 109 mins., 2010, PG; Disney): Making one of the fastest theater-to-video transitions of all-time, Disney brings Tim Burton’s (uh-oh, here’s that word again) “re-imagining” of Lewis Carroll’s classic fantasy to video in an impressive Blu-Ray/DVD/digital combo set on June 1st.

This expensive looking but rather flat sequel to the classic story, scripted by Disney vet Linda Woolverton, offers fleeting pleasures but, given the director and cast assembled, comes off as a major letdown on the whole.

Mia Wasikowska essays Alice as a curious but somewhat disillusioned 19-year-old being proposed to by a fuddy-duddy upper-crust Englishman. She shakes off thoughts of an engagement by heading back into Wonderland, now a (surprise surprise) desolate kingdom overrun with Burton’s stylistic flourishes. The Mad Hatter (a predictably eccentric Johnny Depp performance) is even daffier than usual, the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) and her henchman (a wasted Crispin Glover) vie for control over the land’s destiny with the help of a monstrous beast named the Jabberwocky, all the while the White Queen (a bizarre Anne Hathaway) seems content to sit on the sidelines.

The major problem with this “Alice” is its pedestrian script, which is rarely ever magical, funny or compelling. I can’t imagine what it read like on the printed page, as it fails to give actors like Depp (who does nothing but act crazy) anything to work with. When you can basically tell someone everything that happens in the film in one sentence, it's a bad sign.

Even more strangely, other than lip-service references to the actual Alice story, this also has nothing, whatsoever, to do with Lewis Carroll, the old Disney movie, or anything else. It’s basically like watching Narnia or any other CGI’d fantasy film with Alice being a lead character -- making you think there was a major disconnect here between the script, director and source material (and the "breakdance" scene near the conclusion is utterly embarrassing).

It’s a particular surprise given Burton’s penchant for crafting offbeat and lyrical dark fairy tales. Visually the film offers just what you’d anticipate -- typically strong cinematography from Dariusz Wolski and Colleen Atwood costumes, though the color pallet is unattractively drab almost throughout (while the video lacks the picture’s 3-D as seen in theaters, the process added nothing to the film at all when I screened it theatrically). Danny Elfman’s score, at least, is one of his most inspired in some time, but it’s a shame his brilliant “Alice” theme was relegated to the tail end of the concluding credits, behind a (sigh) forgettable and anachronistic Avril Lavigne song.

Disney’s Blu-Ray of “Alice” does boast a terrific, eye-popping AVC encoded 1080p transfer with raucous DTS Master Audio sound. Extras are copious, spotlighting the creation of the individual characters with respective featurettes on Elfman’s music, the visual effects and production design, while a standard DVD and digital copy round out the release.

Overall, as much as I’ve enjoyed so many of Tim Burton’s past works, I felt his take on “Alice” was just short of a misfire. The source material has so much in the way of colorful characters and goofy humor that I felt it would've been a perfect marriage with his sensibilities -- unfortunately something went very wrong en route to the completed project, its massive box-office in-take (thanks in part to inflated 3-D ticket premiums) notwithstanding.

EDGE OF DARKNESS Blu-Ray (**½, 117 mins., 2010, R; Warner): Mel Gibson’s return to the screen as a leading man was the big news behind this so-so remake of an acclaimed 1985 BBC mini-series helmed by Martin Campbell (who returned to direct this updated Americanization), one which met with only modest box-office receipts last winter.
Gibson essays tough Boston cop Thomas Craven in the new “Edge of Darkness,” whose daughter, Emma (Bojana Novakovic), is gunned down by a bullet investigators believe was intended for him. After talking to her boyfriend, however, Craven finds out that the company Emma worked for was manufacturing nuclear weapons, and that the hit was ordered by someone on the inside.

“Edge of Darkness” is a movie that can best be described as indifferent. There are a few blasts of action and Campbell keeps the film moving along at a sub-two hour running time, yet it doesn’t quite gel for whatever reason. Despite the efforts of screenwriters William Monahan and Andrew Bovell to rework Troy Kennedy Martin’s original script, perhaps the story line was more suited to the ‘80s than today, while the ending comes across as a bit limp. The film has the look of quality with many top-notch technicians behind the scenes (Phil Meheux cinematography, film editing by Stuart Baird), but in the end “Edge of Darkness” is likely good for a one-time viewing and little more.

Warner’s Blu-Ray edition of “Edge of Darkness” is superb. The VC-1 encoded transfer makes good use of Meheux’s scope cinematography while the DTS Master Audio sound is well mixed, offering a serviceable score by Howard Shore, who replaced John Corigliano in post-production. Extras are comprised of a number of standard-issue featurettes plus additional/alternate scenes and a DVD/digital copy combo disc.

INVICTUS Blu-Ray (***½, 133 mins., 2009, PG-13; Warner): Morgan Freeman plays Nelson Mandela, recently released from prison and newly elected president of South Africa in 1994. Seeking to unite his country following years of apartheid, Mandela enlists the help of rugby team captain François Pienaar (Matt Damon), hoping that a victory on the field can bring together blacks and whites in a country devastated by racial divide.

Clint Eastwood directed “Invictus,” a well-crafted, leisurely-told, brilliantly acted piece with superb lead performances from Freeman and Damon. Anthony Peckham’s screenplay, based on a book by John Carlin, is authentic and layered with interesting detail, while Tom Stern’s cinematography captures the essence of sport brilliantly in the film’s climactic stretches. Yet “Invictus” aspires for more than just being a rah-rah sports movie, and it’s the subdued quality of the picture’s most poignant moments that stand out. This is a thoughtful, inspiring movie that comes highly recommended and, along with “Gran Torino,” ranks as one of Eastwood’s more impressive directorial achievements in some time.

Warner’s Blu-Ray edition of “Invictus” is exceptional. The 1080p VC-1 encoded transfer is just marvelous, while DTS Master Audio sound comes alive during the rugby sequences. Extras aren’t extravagant here, but do include the recent Richard Schickel documentary “The Eastwood Factor” plus picture-in-picture extras, an interview between Mandela and Freeman, and a digital copy/DVD combo disc.

CADDYSHACK Blu-Ray (***, 97 mins., 1980, R; Warner): The slobs take on the snobs in director Harold Ramis's 1980 comedy classic, a movie that features some of Rodney Dangerfield's best shtick, one of Chevy Chase's more enjoyable performances, and a few of Bill Murray's best lines. If “The Blues Brothers” was too excessive and “Animal House” just mildly amusing as opposed to raucously funny (the movie still peters out for me whenever John Belushi isn't on-screen), “Caddyshack” remains blissfully absurd in its depiction of morons ruining the posh country club lifestyle, and Ramis's direction enables all three stars – plus Ted Knight – to take the spotlight and generate a large quotient of bellylaughs. It's rarely mean-spirited despite being tasteless in parts and offers a tuneful soundtrack comprised of infectious Kenny Loggins songs and Johnny Mandel score.

“Caddyshack” makes its way to Blu-Ray on June 8th in a satisfying new package (not just a port of the prior HD-DVD edition) that’s bolstered by a superior high-def transfer. The HD-DVD of “Caddyshack” was something of a disappointment, offering (as memory serves) a hazy-looking transfer but the print seems to have been cleaned up considerably for this release, offering strong colors and contrasts plus an absence of noise reduction -- putting it on par with Warner’s excellent Blu-Ray catalog releases of late.

The supplements have also been improved. While the 1999 retrospective featurette “The 19th Hole” has been carried over, there’s also a more recent feature-length Biography Channel doc on-hand that’s exclusive to the Blu-Ray. Presented in HD to boot, this is one of those clip-filled, enjoyable A&E/Bio styled productions that fans should find of interest. The trailer rounds out the disc, while the audio is presented in a decent DTS Master Audio mix that only appreciably kicks into gear whenever music is being piped in.

SPARTACUS Blu-Ray (***½, 197 mins., 1960, PG-13; Universal): Kirk Douglas and Stanley Kubrick’s acclaimed historical spectacle recently landed on Blu-Ray courtesy of Universal. The good news is that the Blu-Ray boasts more extras than Universal’s previous HD-DVD edition (check the archives for the review), including deleted and alternate scenes from different release versions of the picture, archival interviews with Peter Ustinov and Jean Simmons, behind-the-scenes footage, image galleries and five vintage newsreels (some of these were included in Criterion’s DVD release, in fact).

The bad news is that the Blu-Ray hasn’t been remastered from that older HD-DVD release, with the film appearing not nearly as crisp and detailed as you’d hope. The DTS Master Audio sound fares better, offering a nice rendering of sound effects and Alex North’s classic score, but until a superior, fully remastered transfer comes down the line, some fans may opt to stick with whatever release of “Spartacus” they currently have -- even if on balance, and with its shortcomings, the Blu-Ray is still likely the best presentation of the 1960 film available.

THE STRANGER DVD and Blu-Ray (**, 90 mins., 2009, R; Anchor Bay): Steve Austin has no knowledge of his name or background – or even that he used to be a big-time pro wrestler – in this okay direct-to-video time-killer. (Formerly Savage) Steve is a total amnesiac who’s hunted by both the FBI and the Russian mob, all the while he attempts to piece his prior existence back together; typically routine action shoot-outs occur while Erica Cerra and Adam Beach co-star.

Anchor Bay brings “The Stranger” to both DVD and Blu-Ray on June 1st; the DVD’s 16:9 (1.78) widescreen transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack are both fine, but the Blu-Ray’s 1080p transfer is even niftier, backed by both 5.1 PCM and Dolby Digital sound options. Extras include a behind-the-scenes featurette and the trailer.

WILD THINGS: FOURSOME Blu-Ray (92 mins., 2010, Unrated; Sony): “Wild Things: Foursome” is the third (who’s counting?) entry in the basically unconnected list of continuations to John McNaughton’s highly entertaining 1998 erotic thriller/black comedy. This direct-to-vid concoction once again recycles a lot of the thematic concepts from the original film, but in such a bland, uninteresting manner that memories of Denise Richards, Kevin Bacon and Bill Murray are unlikely to surface while watching it.

Here, Ashley Parker Angel essays the son of a hotel entrepreneur who believes his low-down, no-good dad drove his beloved mom to death. After Pops perishes in a boating accident, detective John Schneider (so this is where you go after leaving “Smallville” and “The Secret Life of the American Teenager”?) hits the investigative trail, wondering how much Angel and a bevy of young femme fatales had to do with the supposed accident.

“Foursome” hits Blu-Ray next week in a nicely rendered 1080p transfer from Sony. The DTS Master Audio sound is alright given the film’s modest production, but extras fail to materialize.

ANIMATION EXPRESS Blu-Ray (aprx. 4 hours; Image): A generous selection of animated shorts from the National Film Board of Canada comprises this terrific Image Entertainment release.

“Madame Tutli-Putli,” “Forming Game,” “Hungu,” “Rosa Rosa,” “Rains,” “Retouches,” “Subservience,” “Spare Change,” “The Spine,” “The Man Who Slept,” “How People Got Fire,” “Robes of War,” “Drux Flux,” “Sleeping Betty,” “The Nekctie,” “Come Again in Spring,” “HA’Aki,” “Here and There,” “Flutter,” “Engine 371,” “Invasion of the Space Lobsters,” “Sainte Barbe,” “Paradise,” “Vive la Rose,” “Land of the Heads” and “Runaway” are the 26 shorts assembled in this Blu-Ray anthology, which also sports an additional 13 shorts exclusive to the platter. These latter shorts include the Sundance winner “Ryan” plus “At Home With Mrs. Hen,” “Nightmare at School,” “Cot Cot,” “Pimp My Boat,” “Stationary,” “Terra,” “The True Story of Sawney Beane,” “Roots,” the Oscar winner “The Danish Poet,” “Uncle Bob’s Hospital Visit,” “The Real Place,” and “Peggie Baker Four Phrases.”

This eclectic collection includes something for everyone, with a varied selection of moods and animation styles (from CGI to stop-motion and hand drawn), all presented in 1080p transfers and DTS Master Audio soundtracks. Recommended for all animation enthusiasts! (Available June 8th)


TCM CHARLIE CHAN COLLECTION DVD (Warner): Fans of Earl Derr Biggers’ detective would do well to check out this new, four-disc set from Turner Classic Movies and Warner Home Video.

These 1946 series entries were produced long after the Charlie Chan films had departed Fox for the more “economical” practices of Monogram Pictures, yet still manage to work effectively as efficient, briskly-paced B-programmers (with the possible exception of “The Trap,” which is bad no matter how brisk it is!).

Included in the box-set are three late Sidney Toler efforts as Chan: “Dark Alibi,” “Dangerous Money” and “The Trap” (Toler’s swan song as Charlie, with the actor appearing particularly frail) along with one of Roland Winters’ Chan performances, “The Chinese Ring.” The black-and-white transfers are in good condition given their age, while mono sound is as satisfying as can be expected.

For Chan fans this set is a godsend after a slew of past releases from Fox and one MGM set that offered a few Monogram efforts. With this TCM/Warner release, only a handful or so titles (most with Roland Winters, just a couple with Sidney Toler) remain locked in the vaults; hopefully sales will be robust so a future set will finish off the series’ proper retrospective on DVD. And, given how few catalog titles we’ve seen of late in the format (in comparison with the current trend towards studio-produced, “consumer direct” DVD-Rs), I certainly hope Golden Age fans support this package.

DROP DEAD DIVA:  Season 1 DVD (aprx. 567 mins., 2009; Sony): The breakout lead performance of Brooke Elliott is the saving grace of this amiable but not particularly well-written Lifetime original series.

In “Drop Dead Diva,” an airhead fashion model is killed in an auto accident – but given another chance to make a difference. Blonde, trim Deb is sent back to Earth to inhabit the body of “real size” attorney Jane, who finds adjusting to her new career and more capable brain to be nearly as much of a change as living with a curvier body.

Elliott, whose primary work was on Broadway prior to “Drop Dead Diva,” is just terrific in this series. She’s able to pull off playing a thin girl in a “plus sized” body brilliantly, shifting gears from comedy to drama at a moment’s notice, and the producers wisely tried to work in her vocal talents as the season went along. With the generally well-received series about to return for a second season shortly, they’d be smart to keep the spotlight on Elliott, since whenever she’s not on-screen, and the series attempts to mix up the comedy with lightweight, “Ally McBeal”-like courtroom dramatics, the program flounders.

Still, “Drop Dead Diva” is noteworthy for launching Elliott’s career, and one imagines she’ll be able to garner more substantial work once the series comes to a close.

Sony’s Season 1 DVD set of “Drop Dead Diva” arrives on disc next week, offering terrific 16:9 (1.78) transfers and 5.1 soundtracks. Extras include deleted scenes, a behind-the-scenes look at the show and other featurettes.

AQUA TEEN HUNGER FORCE - Season 7 DVD (127 mins., 2010; Warner): One of the Cartoon Network’s wackiest (and raunchier) series hits DVD again in a Season 7 set offering the episodes “Creature From Plaque Lagoon,” “Time Machine,” “2-and-a-Half Star Wars Out of 5,” “Fry Legs,” “Der Inflatable Fuhrer,” “The Last Last One Forever and Ever,” “Rubberman,” “Multiple Meats,” “Monster, “Rabbot Redux” and “Eggball.” Extras include a full range of equally offbeat featurettes, 16:9 transfers and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks. Though the show doesn’t get a lot of press these days its ratings continue to be quite strong and fans ought to be thrilled with this new DVD edition.

DEADLIEST WARRIOR - Season 1 DVD (387 mins., 2010; Spike/Paramount): Interesting Spike Channel series arrives on DVD in a complete Season 1 set.

“Deadliest Warrior” pits different soldiers from varying eras and cultures against one another with both science and fanciful speculation used in good measure; from CGI recreations to ballistic tests, viewers are treated to a fast-moving, entertaining examination of the tools different warriors -- from soldiers to individual historical figures -- utilized and how they would possibly stack up against each other.

Season 1 offers such diverse match-ups as “Apache vs. Gladiator,” “Viking Vs. Samurai,” “Spartan Vs. Ninja,” “Pirate Vs. Knight,” “Yakuza Vs. Mafia,” “Green Beret vs. Spetsnaz,” “Shaolin Monk vs. Maori Warrior,” “William Wallace vs. Shaka Zulu,” and “IRA vs. Taliban.” Widescreen transfers and stereo soundtracks are all present, with extras including post-fight analyses, a producers’ roundtable discussion and Season 1 wrap-up.

GHOST HUNTERS INTERNATIONAL Season 1, Part 1 DVD (Image): Syfy Channel’s “Ghost Hunters” continues to be a massive success, garnering big ratings and all-time high viewership levels over the past couple of seasons.

With no signs of slowing down, spin-offs have become commonplace, from “Ghost Hunters Academy” to this international variant, starring American TAPS members Robb Demarest, Dustin Pari and Brandy Green, alongside international ghost hunter Barry FitzGerald. The group here investigate a variety of haunted locales in Europe, from Chillingham Castle to haunted villages and more.

Fans of “Ghost Hunters International” are sure to enjoy this three-disc DVD set from Image, offering the first half of its inaugural season episodes (“Chillingham Castle,” “Evil Unearthed,” “Whispers From Beyond,” “Haunted Village,” “Fortress of Fear,” “Headless Haunting,” “Frankenstein’s Castle,” “Larnach Castle,” “Devil Dogs,” “Castle of the Damned” and “Shattered Spirit”). Full-screen transfers and 2.0 stereo soundtracks adorn the episodes with deleted scenes on-tap (no pun intended) for extras.

LIFETIME Movies on DVD (Lifetime/New Video): Five different Lifetime original movies have been recently released on DVD from NewVideo. Here’s a breakdown -

The Two Mr. Kissels ( 2008): John Stamos, Robin Tunney and Anson Mount star in this true story about millionaire siblings wrapped up in murder.

Girl, Positive (2007): Andrea Bowen from “Desperate Housewives” and Jennie Garth star in this cautionary tale about a high schooler who thinks she might have contracted HIV.

Racing For Time (2007): Charles S. Dutton essays an officer who starts a track program for female offenders at the Texas Correctional Youth Authority. Dutton also directed this 2007 outing.

More of Me (2008): Molly Shannon splits her personalities in this wacky tale of an overworked mom and environmental activist. Co-starring Steven Weber.

To Be Fat Like Me (2006): Kaley Cuoco pulls a “Just One of the Guys” for overweight teens as he dresses up as a pudgy student at a rival high school.

All discs sport full-screen transfers and stereo soundtracks.

CAKE BOSS Season 2 DVD (417 mins., 2009; TLC Store): Buddy Valastro runs Carlo’s Bakery in Hoboken, New Jersey, and he and his family have been profiled over the last couple of seasons in this amiable TLC reality series. Granted, there have been a glut of bakery/cake-themed reality shows scattered across the cable landscape lately, but “Cake Boss” is one of the more entertaining (I confess to having watched a few episodes that my wife happened to be viewing), with the charismatic Valastro and friends taking on all kinds of culinary creations plus crazed brides and unreliable suppliers.

TLC Store is exclusively selling the complete Season 2 of “Cake Boss,” which is presented on DVD in a double-disc set offering 18 episodes and numerous behind-the-scenes extras profiling more of Valastro’s recipes.

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