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Memorial Day Edition
JOHN CARTER Dazzles in 3-D
Plus: LETHAL WEAPON, JOURNEY 2 and More Reviewed

The subject of countless articles over its stratospheric budget and poor advertising campaign, Disney’s JOHN CARTER
(***, 132 mins., 2012, PG-13; Disney) is poised to generate new fans when the much-ballyhooed picture hits video on June 5th. In fact, not only is director Andrew Stanton’s fantasy a great deal of fun, but it’s one central performance shy of being truly spectacular.

Adapting Edgar Rice Borroughs’ “A Princess of Mars” alongside writers Mark Andrews and Michael Chabon, Stanton – a Pixar animator here making his live-action directorial debut – does a fine job working familiar genre conventions into an exciting, occasionally enthralling, otherworldly adventure.

John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is a former Confederate soldier improbably whisked away to Mars, aka Barsoom, where a civil war rages between the kingdoms of Helium and Zodanga. Complicating matters further is a mysterious, and powerful, beam of energy that the lovely red Martian princess Deja Thoris (Lynn Collins) is close to unlocking the full potential of; in order to stop her, the evil Therns – puppetmasters of the planet – have decided to install one of their minions as King by having him marry Deja. It’s up to Carter to stop them, and also navigate the alien wilds of a planet populated with odd creatures, including the insect-like, green Martian “Tharks,” who ultimately aid our hero in his quest.

Packed with smashing action sequences and likeable characters (as well as a plot that’s perhaps a bit too convoluted for its own good), “John Carter” is one of those films that its studio, for whatever reason, simply didn’t seem to understand. Marketed as an “edgy” type of genre vehicle (with anachronistic rock music used in its trailers), the picture is really an old-fashioned, classically constructed fantasy in the obvious vein of, among other influences, “Star Wars” (with a dash of “Dune” rearing itself, notably in an unused opening to the film where the Princess, staring into the camera, introduces her alien world to the viewer). There are faithful sidekicks (the delightful, canine-like “Woola”), unlikely allies (the Thark leader, voiced by Willem Dafoe, among them), a good amount of humor and impressive special effects to match.

Perhaps Disney took a clue from the movie’s central performance in their marketing – the picture’s glaring weak point. Kitsch looks like he attended the “Christian Bale School of Batman Acting” here, delivering his lines in a hushed, monotone voice and offering not an ounce of charisma in a part that could’ve been a star-making performance for countless other young actors. Rarely ever cracking a smile, Kitsch’s Carter is brooding to the point where you have a hard time understanding what the princess (a lovely performance from Collins) actually sees in him. It’s an epic miscalculation that leaves the film with a black hole at its center, and leads one to also wonder why Disney has had such a hard time finding male leads to anchor its recent franchises (the similarly bland Garrett Hedlund was only slightly more effective in “Tron: Legacy”).

Despite Kitsch, “John Carter” is still an entertaining cinematic journey of the Saturday matinee variety, anchored by Michael Giacchino’s most satisfying score to date and a particularly awesome use of 3-D.

Although the film was converted to 3-D in post-production, the movie simply looks amazing in Disney’s 3-D Blu-Ray package: depth of field effects are evident in nearly every scene, with crisp detail and almost no ghosting whatsoever that I noticed. The movie manages to maintain its bright visual pallet and come across as demo-worthy material, making the fact that it wasn’t actually shot in 3-D a revelation.

The package also includes a regular Blu-Ray, DVD and digital copy. Special features include a half-hour look behind the scenes, a brief profile of Borroughs’ writing, a commentary with Stanton and fellow crew personnel, bloopers, an optional “Second Screen” interactive function, and a number of deleted scenes.

I’m not sure “John Carter” is ever going to be looked at as a classic, but it certainly doesn’t deserve the bad reputation it’s been saddled with. Once viewers get a chance to actually see the film and not just base their views based on its negative publicity, it’s likely to entertain sci-fi fantasy fans of all ages.

JOURNEY 2: THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND Blu-Ray/DVD/Digital Copy (**½, 94 mins., 2012, PG; Warner): Although it’s unlikely to evoke memories of Ray Harryhausen among older viewers, this easy-going sequel to the Brendan Fraser 3-D “Journey to the Center of the Earth” ought to entertain kids and undemanding fantasy fans.

Josh Hutcherson is the sole returning cast member from the original “Journey,” which substitutes Fraser with Dwayne Johnson as Hutcherson’s stepfather, the new husband of mom Kristin Davis. Hutcherson comes across a coded distress signal that sends he and Johnson to the island of Palau, where the duo, along with a local tour guide (Vanessa Hudgens) and her father (Luis Guzman), end up crashing on an uncharted island filled with giant insects, a gateway to the lost city of Atlantis, Captain Nemo’s tomb, and Hutcherson’s grandfather (Michael Caine).

Director Brad Peyton has packaged a straightforward, colorful entertainment that works in aspects of Verne’s “Mysterious Island” along with “Treasure Island” and “Gulliver’s Travels” (the original theme of Richard Outten’s spec script, which was reworked here into a “Journey” sequel by writers Brian and Mark Gunn) through its briskly-paced, effects-filled 94 minutes. Hutcherson and Hudgens are likeable (and produce some solid chemistry as well), while Johnson and Caine each look like they’re having a decent enough time. Ultimately, “Journey 2" delivers exactly what you’d anticipate from a sequel to the 2008 Fraser fantasy, and actually surpassed it at the box-office; unsurprisingly, a third film based on “From the Earth to the Moon” is now slated for release in early 2014.

Warner’s Blu-Ray edition of “Journey 2" includes a gorgeous 1080p transfer, DTS MA soundtrack, DVD edition and Ultraviolet copy as well. Special features include a gag reel, deleted scenes and an interactive map. Interestingly, a 3-D Looney Tunes short which preceded the film in theaters didn’t materialize here.

Also New on Blu-Ray

Exploitation fans, drive-in buffs, and aficionados of cult and obscure cinema have long regarded Synapse’s 42ND STREET FOREVER compilations as some of their favorite video releases. A retrospective of movie trailers culled mostly from the ‘60s and ‘70s – some for independent films, some for obscure studio product, and many hugely entertaining – this bestselling series has finally released its first Blu-Ray edition and the results do not disappoint.

If you’re a series fan, the content here won’t be a total surprise, the bulk of it coming as a mix of trailers previously released on the first two DVD editions. However, a few new surprises have been added in, with of course the enhanced benefit of having 1080p AVC encoded transfers that further transform your home theater set-up into a cavalcade of politically UN-correct gore, comedy, sleaze and sex.

At nearly four hours and with 89 trailers on-hand, it’s difficult to comment on them all, but here are a few of my favorites:

-Raiders of Atlantis: Hilarious “Road Warrior” rip-off with one of the all-time funniest decapitation scenes ever – and it’s in this trailer! (Incredibly, the film itself just surfaced on DVD, in 16:9 no less, as a part of Mill Creek’s 2011 “Sci-Fi Invasion” 50-movie bargain pack).

-Skatetown USA: Scott Baio, Epstein from “Welcome Back Kotter,” Marcia from “The Brady Bunch,” Ruth Buzzi, Flip Wilson and “introducing” Patrick Swayze? Someone tell me why this disco-skating flick isn’t on DVD!

-The Crippled Masters: A favorite from the earlier compilation, in full scope widescreen.

-Wicked, Wicked: Early ‘70s MGM B-movie offered the first – and last – usage of “Duovision,” a two-camera set-up that failed to sell this bizarre looking camp horror outing.

-Welcome Home, Brother Charles: ‘70s Black exploitation outing with a particularly memorable trailer.

As with the prior “42nd Street Forever” retrospectives, the trailers are grouped together by category, from soft-core sex flicks to biker pictures, martial arts outings, sci-fi and horror, with the occasional big-studio film worked into the mix (like, for example, MGM’s hysterical Japanese co-production “The Green Slime”).

The transfers are all superior to Synapse’s admittedly terrific DVD sets (with many in anamorphic widescreen), but are also a mixed lot in terms of their condition, as you’d anticipate from materials that aren’t pristine – but that only adds to the disc’s inherent nostalgic, and overall entertainment, value. In fact, I’ve found that playing just a few minutes of these trailers is perfect for certain houseguests and friends you might have over, who are certain to get a kick or two out of them. Commentary by exploitation fan/webzine authorities adds some insight to the fun as well. Here’s hoping Syanpse doesn’t wait so long to bring us a second volume!

Also New From Warner

Richard Donner's long-running LETHAL WEAPON series may have run its course by the time its fourth installment was released, but for action fans, they remain personal favorites -- the pinnacle of the Joel Silver-produced, stylized "buddy pictures" that became a permanent part of our movie-going culture during the 1980s.
Of course, it helped that Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, as a pair of mismatched L.A. cops, had splendid chemistry together on-screen, and also that Donner, who seemed to find his niche as an action filmmaker with the series, handled each picture with plenty of energy and distinction. Go ahead, say that two, maybe even three films in the series was enough -- but you won't find a lot of viewers who weren't at least mildly entertained by either the first or second entries in the series at least, while parts 3 and 4 made box-office chum of its counterparts financially if nothing else (though with the star profit participation and salaries, I'm not sure the studio made a whole lot of money in the process).       

After a lengthy delay (the European versions of this set have been available for well over a year), Warner has rolled out a 5-disc LETHAL WEAPON COLLECTION on Blu-Ray, offering improved 1080p transfers of the first two films (previously available only in awful-looking, standalone Blu-Ray platters), the debut of the later sequels, and a feature-length documentary. Each film is presented in its original theatrical version with a bevy of deleted scenes offered as extras.

LETHAL WEAPON (***, 109 mins., R) arrived in the fall of 1987 and was a box-office hit for all involved. Intriguingly, this first entry in the series -- written by Shane Black -- is markedly different than the sequels that followed. The tone is darker and edgier (Gibson's character, mourning the death of his wife, is outwardly suicidal), and the look of the movie, photographed by Stephen Goldblatt, also makes for an interesting contrast to the subsequent films. The movie, shot in 1.85, lacks the anamorphic, widescreen look of the following installments, but what the movie may lack in terms of the broad, sometimes cartoonish action trademarked by the sequels, it compensates for in more realistic writing and character development. Overall, it’s entertaining, though I didn’t think that it held up as well as its subsequent installment (Gary Busey’s generic “‘80s villain” also generates a few chuckles of the unintended kind these days).

In the sequel-filled '80s, it was just a matter of time before a follow-up was released, so within two years LETHAL WEAPON 2 (***, 114 mins., 1989, R) found its way into the blockbuster summer of '89 and became an even bigger success than the original. Gibson and Glover are here joined by Joe Pesci as a tough-talking trial witness, a role that energized Pesci's career (“Goodfellas” and “My Cousin Vinny” were right around the corner) and added plenty of outright comic relief to a picture that's bigger, louder, and superior to the original movie. The love interest here is Patsy Kensit, while Joss Ackland provides the villainy (with some of Donner’s political subtext thrown in for good measure).

With star salaries escalating (along with the filmmakers' fee), it took three years before the inevitable LETHAL WEAPON 3 (**½, 118 mins., 1992, R) was produced, and this time out the series showed signs of running out of gas. The motivations of Stuart Wilson's villain and the film's plot – credited to Jeffrey Boam (who wrote the second film) and "Karate Kid" scribe Robert Mark Kamen -- are so convoluted that the movie tends to jump from one set piece to the next with a minimum of character development and dramatic tension. While there are some inspired moments, as sequels go, this one feels creaky from the outset; the sequel's sole distinction is the addition of Rene Russo as Gibson's love interest,  some sparks to an otherwise stale plot.

LETHAL WEAPON 4 (**½, 127 mins., 1998, R), the belated fourth film in the franchise, is a minor improvement on its previous entry, though it’s even more over the top. All the principals returned for this swan song with the addition of Chris Rock (as Glover’s son in law Lee Butters!), whose often grating presence is a turn-off, and Jet Li, who utilizes his martial arts skills to give this last sequel a bit of life in spite of its overstuffed running time.

All the transfers here are quite good, and if you previously owned the old Blu-Ray or HD-DVD editions of the first two films, you’ll notice an appreciable improvement here, with stronger detail and better balanced colors. The third and fourth films fare even better, with DTS MA soundtracks on-hand for each picture. The music for the series -- original scores by Michael Kamen (in sort of his bland "action music" mode) with improvisations by Eric Clapton and David Sanborn – have never been favorites of mine, but they comes across well, with just a few sound effects having a tendency to be overly loud.

Extra features aren’t overwhelming – the main draw are the copious deleted scenes, some of which had been added to prior, director-unapproved “Extended Cuts.” Donner contributes commentary tracks that are, unfortunately, not all that interesting, dominated by long gaps of silence and with the director having to be prompted by an off-mike moderator at certain points. Music videos are also on-hand throughout the four movie platters, with the fifth disc reserved for a four-part, almost two-hour new documentary. I say “new,” even though this retrospective talk with the principal players (Donner, Gibson, Glover, etc.) was shot in the spring of 2010. It’s an engaging and fun look back at the series’ production, showing that the chemistry between the stars and director was, unsurprisingly, as strong off-camera as it was on-screen.

Even if the supplements are a bit light, this is still a recommended purchase for “Lethal Weapon” fans, though the international box-set release is considerably less expensive (and has the exact same content on it).

HONDO Blu-Ray (***, 83 mins., 1953; Paramount): Action-packed John Wayne western receives a Blu-Ray release that debuts, for the first time on home video, a proper widescreen presentation of “Hondo.”

Wayne plays a half-Indian Cavalry rider named Hondo who finds himself acting as a guardian angel to a frontierswoman (Geraldine Page, who garnered an Oscar nomination here in her first film role) whose husband has left her and their young son alone to fend for themselves in the New Mexico desert, where warring Apaches roam the landscape. Wayne favorite John Edward Grant adapted a Louis L’Amour story for this effective western, efficiently directed by John Farrow, with Ward Bond, Michael Pate and James Arness appearing in supporting roles.

Out of circulation for many years, “Hondo” was originally shot in 3-D but hasn’t reportedly been screened in its native format in years. While it’s disappointing that Paramount’s Blu-Ray edition isn’t in 3-D, “Hondo” nevertheless makes an impressive debut in high-definition despite highly varied elements. When the image is at its best, the transfer is spectacular, offering strong colors and fine grain. There are stretches of the picture, however, where the image is notably blurry and seemingly processed with noise reduction, likely a response to opticals and/or damaged source materials. That said, despite its occasional visual discrepancies, the image is exceptionally good on balance. The audio, meanwhile, is much less distinguished, being presented in either a 5.1 Dolby TrueHD track that sounds too airy and lacks power, or a superior 2.0 Dolby TrueHD mono mix that more capably delivers the dialogue. The score, credited to Emil Newman and Hugo Friedhofer, comes off well, but there’s a thinness to the dialogue that makes the 5.1 track in particular quite unappealing.

A variety of insightful features are carried over from Paramount’s prior DVD Special Edition, with an introduction from Leonard Maltin, commentary with Maltin and fellow Wayne experts, multiple featurettes and an HD trailer included. The original Intermission sequence has been retained as well.

GOON Blu-Ray (**½, 91 mins., 2011, R; Magnolia): Seann William Scott plays Doug Glatt, a Massachusetts bouncer and hockey enthusiast whose unlikely involvement in a brawl during a minor league game nets him an admirer: the coach of one of the teams watching the fight. After giving Glatt a tryout, it turns out this “Goon” has an abundance of fighting skills that makes him desirable around the league – if, of course, he can learn to skate.

Based loosely on a true story, “Goon” was a labor of love for writers Jay Baruchel (who co-stars in the film as Doug’s buddy) and Evan Goldberg, who have here made a foul-mouthed hockey comedy that’s definitely not for the faint of heart – between the movie’s violence and endless sexual references, “Goon” manages to make “Slap Shot” look tame by comparison. It’s also not quite in a league with George Roy Hill’s Paul Newman classic, and if anything, should’ve been toned down, enabling the characters more time to breathe. Still, hockey nuts who don’t mind their humor on the tasteless side will probably enjoy “Goon,” which hits Blu-Ray this week from Magnolia in a Special Edition. The 1080p transfer and DTS MA sound are fine, and extras include outtakes, deleted scenes, copious featurettes and a commentary with Baruchel and director Michael Dowse.

Foreign Picks of the Week

IN DARKNESS Blu-Ray (***½, 143 mins., 2011, R; Sony): Filmmaker Agnieszka Holland returns to form with this powerful drama, based on a true story, about a Polish sewer worker who finds that he can earn a living for his family by hiding Jews in the labyrinths under Lvov, a Nazi-occupied Polish city during WWII. As time progresses, however, Leopold Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz) finds his attention turning away from monetary reward and to moral conscience, as the Jewish men, women and children try and stay away from the Nazis during the waning months of the war.

Deservedly nominated for Best Foreign Film, “In Darkness” is compelling, moving, and well-directed by Holland, who relays a profoundly human tale of survival and growing compassion in one of her best films. Sony’s Blu-Ray includes a 1080p AVC encoded transfer of “In Darkness” with a fine DTS MA soundtrack. Extras include “An Evening with Holland” and a conversation between the filmmaker and real-life survivor Krystyna Chiger. Highly recommended!   

SUMMER INTERLUDE (96 mins., 1951; Criterion)
SUMMER WITH MONIKA Blu-Ray (97 mins., 1953; Criterion): Two of Ingmar Bergman’s earliest films have arrived on Blu-Ray this month from Criterion, each offering an exploration of themes that would become vital in the filmmaker’s body of work.

1951's “Summer Interlude” stars Maj-Britt Nilsson as a Swedish ballerina haunted by her past, right as she’s about to star in a new production of “Swan Lake.” In particular, Nilsson’s painful memories are revived after she’s sent the diary of her former love – a handsome yet withdrawn student played by Birger Malmsten – who died while the two were dating years before. Her recollections of their romance, how it impacted her life and continues to define her current relationships forms the basis of “Summer Interlude,” a film that Bergman later described as the first of his career in which he was acting independently, producing a film strictly on his own terms.

Criterion’s Blu-Ray of this impressive work includes a newly restored 1080p AVC encoded transfer, in B&W and Swedish with English subtitles, with extras including an essay from critic Peter Cowie in the set’s booklet notes.

Bergman’s “Summer with Monika” is a darker, probing piece, featuring the first appearance of Harriet Andersson in one of the director’s films. Andersson stars as a young, working class Stockholm girl who runs away with a boy (Lars Ekborg) to the romantic beachside of Sweden where the two have a carefree existence, apart from their families and the responsibilities of day-to-day life. Consequences, however, naturally ensue, both from their actions and their contrasting points of view. Regarded as one of the most daring films ever made at the time of its release (the US release was reportedly cut down, exploiting its nudity and sexual aspects in a version over 30 minutes shorter), “Summer With Monika” is a must for Bergmanites.

Criterion’s Blu-Ray is a full-fledged special edition, offering a new interview with Andersson; an introduction by Bergman; an interview with film scholar Eric Schaefer about the U.S. version of the film, which was entitled “Monika, the Story of a Bad Girl!”; a half-hour documentary including archival material, new interviews and a retrospective look at the picture; the trailer; and extensive booklet notes.

TV on DVD and Blu-Ray

TEEN WOLF: Season 1 DVD (521 mins., 2011; MGM/Fox). WHAT IT IS: With no relation to the Michael J. Fox ‘80s hit “Teen Wolf,” this “edgy” MTV series chronicles what happens to high school student Scott McCall (Tyler Posey) after he’s bitten and turns into a lycanthrope. Though clearly aimed at the “Twilight” market, this is a not-bad series from MTV and MGM Television, with fairly compelling story lines and decent performances from what I sampled. DVD RUNDOWN: MGM’s Season 1 set of “Teen Wolf” includes all of its 13 episodes, with the season finale in a never-before-seen extended version. Copious extras include deleted scenes, several featurettes (including a “shirtless montage” for its intended audience of teen girls), and cast commentary on selected episodes. The 16:9 transfers and 5.1 soundtracks are all top notch. AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: Renewed for a second season, “Teen Wolf” isn’t as bad as the concept of a “serious” reworking of the 1985 J. Fox comedy might lead you to believe.

WORKAHOLICS: Season 1 and 2 Blu-Ray (440 mins., 2011; Paramount). WHAT IT IS: Bargain-priced combo pack includes the first two seasons of the popular Comedy Central series about a trio of college grads (Anders Holm, Blake Anderson, Adam DeVine) who share a house and work together as telemarketers. Paramount’s uncensored Blu-Ray set includes the first 20 episodes of “Workaholics” in good looking 1080p AVC encoded transfers and Dolby TrueHD soundtracks, and ups the ante with a number of special features. BLU-RAY SPECS: In addition to the HD transfers and soundtracks, extras include a Season 1 behind the scenes, cast interviews, bloopers, deleted scenes, “Drunkmentary” commentaries on all episodes, “Inside the Writers Room Season 2" and other goodies.

THE TRIBE: Series 1, Part 2 DVD (10 hours, 1999; Shout!). WHAT IT IS: Kiwi import chronicles what transpires in a post-apocalyptic world where kids and teenagers have to fend for themselves after a virus wipes out all adults. “The Tribe” mixes “Lord of the Flies” with “Mad Max,” a bit of “Degrassi” and even an old ABC “Afterschool Special” as it shows how kids band together and attempt to survive in a world without parental supervision. This second batch of episodes from the series’ first season again follows its core group of kids as they try to avoid rival gangs and the potential of being enslaved in a future where Mad Mel Gibson would feel right at home. DVD RUNDOWN: Shout’s second volume of episodes from “The Tribe” includes an original “Making Of” special and 1.33 full screen transfers. AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: Sci-fi fans and especially younger viewers who enjoyed “The Hunger Games” should find “The Tribe” sufficiently compelling.

HEY DUDE: Season 3 DVD (aprx. 5 hours, 1990-91; Shout!). WHAT IT IS: One of Nickelodeon’s original cable hits, “Hey Dude” chronicles the wacky shenanigans at the Bar None Ranch, where Benjamin Ernest (David Brisbin) rounds up his motley crew of young people, including Christine Taylor as lovely lifeguard Melody. Though not one of the longer running Nick series of its era, “Hey Dude” has become something of a viewer favorite, and Shout’s DVD includes its complete third season in full-screen transfers and stereo soundtracks. AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: Just about the only Nickelodeon programming I watched when I was in high school was – and I plead guilty – reruns of family game show “Double Dare” with Marc Summers. “Hey Dude” is silly sitcom stuff, but with a wackier edge that most of the network’s shows had around that time. Fans of the program are sure to enjoy it.

CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM: Season 8 DVD (300 mins., 2011; HBO). WHAT IT IS: With Larry David’s divorce being finalized at the start of Season 8 of HBO’s hit comedy, the new bachelor finds himself running back into the dating scene, taking on the Girl Scouts, disrupting a Broadway show, and offending a variety of people and celebrities including Michael J. Fox and Mayor Bloomberg of the Big Apple. DVD SPECS: HBO’s DVD set of “Curb Your Enthusiasm”’s eighth season is a double-disc edition with extras including Leon’s Guide to NYC and a roundtable discussion with Larry and the Cast, recorded live at New York City’s 92nd Street Y. The 16:9 transfers and 5.1 soundtracks are all just fine. AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: David’s comedy might be an acquired taste, but for aficionados of his style of humor, “Curb Your Enthusiasm” has been hailed far and wide as one of the funniest shows on TV.

NEXT TIME: WHITE SQUALL 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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