5/6/08 Edition -- The AISLE SEAT BLOG Is Also Live

Indiana Jones & The Re-Released DVDs
Paramount's New Box Set Reviewed
Plus: Blu-Ray, Fox Westerns & more

With “Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull” looming just a few weeks away, it’s no surprise that we’re seeing a new edition of the original Indy trilogy on DVD to coincide with its release.

Paramount's new “Adventure Collection” three-disc box-set offers mostly identical transfers and soundtracks (as well as menus) to the 2003 DVD editions, dropping the fourth bonus disc (with its ample Making Of content) from that release and adding a number of new, but mostly lightweight, featurettes on each respective film’s platter.

As far as the films themselves, is there any reason by this point to re-analyze these Saturday Matinee classics? Each movie is immeasurably entertaining on its own respective merits, though fans can still quibble about which one is best -- and hope that the new, belated fourth entry in the series belongs in their company.

RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (****, 115 mins., 1981, PG) thankfully still retains its original on-screen title (despite its new packaging as "Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark"), and remains a classic of the action-adventure genre. With a smart Lawrence Kasdan script (from a George Lucas-Philip Kaufman story), classic stunts and Spielberg working at the peak of his talent, “Raiders” is unbridled, awesome fun, with Ford introducing us to the centerpiece role of his career and Karen Allen easily providing the best female love interest of the series.

The first sequel, INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (***½, 118 mins., 1984, PG) was controversial in its day (along with another Spielberg production, "Gremlins," it helped create the PG-13 rating, which was initiated before the summer of '84 was out), and even now it's still a violent ride compared to the other Indy adventures. The script by Lucas pals Willard Huyuck and Gloria Katz ("American Graffiti") is silly and more excessive than either "Raiders" or "The Last Crusade," and Kate Capshaw's whiny Willie Shaw is a comedown from Karen Allen's Marion -- so much so that it's tough for "The Temple of Doom" not to be compared unfavorably with its counterparts. The graphic violence comes across as a major miscalculation on Spielberg’s part, while one wonders what Dan Aykroyd was doing in a throwaway cameo early in the picture. Still, the movie's final third is a blast, and John Williams' majestic, triumphant score may be his most inspired of the series: his themes for the Indy-Willie romance, Short Round's Theme, the mine cart ride, and the regal music that accompanies our heroes through the jungles of India are simply outstanding, and when combined with the original "Raiders March," create a phenomenal underscore that effortlessly carries the audience through the sequel's rough spots.

The problems with the second film were rectified with the 1989 blockbuster follow-up INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE (****, 126 mins., PG-13), which on a surface level sounds like a "Raiders" rehash but is actually, for this critic at least, the most sophisticated and durable entry in the series. This is undoubtedly due to Sean Connery's magnetic performance as Indy's father, Dr. Henry Jones, who comes along for another bout with Nazis and a search for the Holy Grail. Connery is magnificent and his interplay with Harrison Ford is gentle, amusing and poignant, giving the movie a warm, human center that was completely absent from the amusement-park action of "Temple of Doom" and even surpasses the level of character development found in "Raiders." John Rhys-Davies and Denholm Elliott return from the original in a story (written by Jeffrey Boam from a story credited to Menno Meyjes and Lucas) that entertainingly reprises the quest-styled plot of the first film. Williams' score is again top-notch, and while "The Last Crusade" may lack the freshness that the original contained, it's my favorite film of the series to revisit -- Connery and Ford are so good together that the film's strengths are only magnified on repeat viewing (indeed, Spielberg said this film played the best with audiences of all three pictures).

Paramount’s DVD transfers again look solid in 2.35 widescreen (16:9 enhanced), and the 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks effectively remix and re-work the original Dolby Surround mixes. In doing a comparison with the 2003 DVD box-set, I noticed these new transfers seem just a little sharper than their predecessors, as if some noise-reduction had applied to the last release. It’s not a night-and-day difference by any means, and in terms of colors and composition, these seem to be struck from the exact same masters, so most will find little incentive to upgrade on that front until a Blu-Ray release follows hopefully in the near future.

Fans are also warned on the supplemental side: this new box-set disposes of the earlier release’s fourth bonus disc, which is noteworthy since it contained a 126-minute production on the entire series that was filled with new interviews, priceless screen tests (including Tom Selleck, Tim Matheson and Sean Young) and behind-the-scenes footage. Neither that, the trailers, the featurette on John Williams nor the ILM effects have been reprieved here.

In their place are a number of new, short featurettes that include recent comments from Spielberg and Lucas, storyboards, a playable level of the “Lego Indiana Jones” video game (for PCs) and other extras that feel quite a bit lighter in weight than the original set.

Overall, this new “Adventure Collection” offers a somewhat stripped-down presentation of the original trilogy on DVD with less supplemental content but comparable (if not slightly sharper) transfers and soundtracks.

Also new from the Spielberg stable is a new Special Edition Blu-Ray and DVD release of the 1996 box-office smash TWISTER (***, 110 mins., 1996, PG-13; Warner).

Few summer blockbusters have embodied the oft-utilized “rollercoaster ride” term better than this Michael Crichton-penned tornado movie that's thoroughly mindless but highly entertaining just the same. You get Bill Paxton, Helen Hunt, Cary Elwes, Jami Gertz, and in the role of his life (at least circa 1996), Philip Seymour Hoffman, as storm chasers risk their lives to get a tornado to "suck up" a new scientific device so forecasters can learn more about predicting the formation of the nasty twisters -- not to mention flying cows and plenty of debris along the way.

Jan DeBont directed from Crichton’s script (penned with his then-wife Anne-Marie Martin, co-star of “Sledge Hammer”), but the real star of the movie are ILM’s tornadoes, which steal the show much the same way that the dinosaurs ripped “Jurassic Park” away from Sam Neill and Laura Dern. In fact, the film’s tremendously effective use of special effects marked another major milestone in the evolution of CGI during the ‘90s, and its visuals still hold up some 12 years later, turning what could’ve well been just another disaster film into a thrilling and great-looking piece of escapist entertainment. The story is still ridiculous (the “bad guys” drive black trucks!), but it’s quickly forgotten once the sound and effects start to swarm around you.

Warner's original DVD release came at the outset of the DVD format and its early pressings had some technical problems that future editions corrected; a later DVD offered an improved transfer and a respectable assortment of extras, most of which comprise this new Special Edition.

Reprieved from the prior release are a technically-oriented commentary track with Jan DeBont and his special effects supervisor; a 13-minute, promotional “Making Of”; both of the film’s impressive theatrical trailers; and a Van Halen music video.

Exclusive to this release is a 30-minute retrospective documentary, offering new interviews with Bill Paxton, Jan DeBont, and most of the visual effects team, while a History Channel special on tornadoes rounds out the new content. Visually, the new HD transfer on Blu-Ray looks exceptionally good. VC-1 encoded and backed by a potent Dolby TrueHD soundtrack, this is one of the more impressive HD catalog titles I’ve covered in some time.

“Twister” ranked behind only “Independence Day” as the top grossing film of 1996, and it’s still an enjoyable, if brainless, blockbuster with an exceptional transfer and Dolby TrueHD soundtrack that should please all fans of the film.

Also New in High Definition

NATIONAL TREASURE (***, 131 mins., 2004, PG; Disney)
NATIONAL TREASURE 2: BOOK OF SECRETS (***, 125 mins., 2007, PG; Disney): Hitting Blu-Ray for the first time this month are the original “National Treasure” and its 2007 sequel, both good-looking action-adventure yarns that provide solid escapism for viewers of all ages.

Nicolas Cage gives a typically offbeat leading man performance in the original “Treasure” as Ben Franklin Gates, a treasure hunter who's been raised to believe the elusive Knights Templar fortune exists -- and marked on a map found on the back of the Declaration of Independence! While Ben's hunt takes him to Washington, Philadelphia, and Boston, he's doggedly pursued by an arch-rival (Sean Bean), an FBI agent (Harvey Keitel), and assisted by a treasury employee (Diane Kruger) and a crazy sidekick (Justin Bartha). All the while, Ben's father (Jon Voight) refuses to get involved after spending a lifetime trying to pursue his family's previously-futile dreams of finding the missing loot.

The Jim Kouf-Cormac and Marianne Wibberley script manages to incorporate a few historical references, which alone makes the plot more substantial than your typical Jerry Bruckheimer production. Make no mistake, however -- this IS a product of the producer: the slick editing and cinematography from Bruckheimer's works are on full display, but this time out, director Jon Turtletaub manages to slow the pace down enough to sustain viewer interest in the story and the characters. The result is a less-frenetic Bruckheimer piece that still manages to include the regulation action and humor you've come to expect from most of the producer's output.

"National Treasure" may not provide much more than fluffy escapism, but it's a good-humored, enthusiastic entertainment just the same, and Disney's Blu-Ray release likewise proves satisfying, if not quite flawless.

Boasting a new AVC transfer and uncompressed PCM sound, the Blu-Ray disc looks good but does appear a little grainy in places, while simultaneously offering a rollicking soundtrack on the audio end. Extras have been cobbled together mostly from a myriad of prior DVD editions (deleted scenes and an alternate ending with the director’s commentary, plus short featurettes), but there are some new, BD-exclusive extras, including a commentary with Turtletaub and co-star Justin Bartha, as well as a featurette on the Declaration of Independence itself.

The sequel -- last December’s “Book of Secrets” -- offers more of the same and few surprises, but it’s still fun, with Gates this time getting wrapped up in another long-lost book with Abraham Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth and the current President of the United States all somehow involved. With the entire original cast and Turtletaub returning, this is an entertaining second installment that looks even better than its predecessor on Blu-Ray, with a potent Dolby TrueHD soundtrack likewise outperforming the original on Blu-Ray.

A huge assortment of extras includes deleted scenes (two of which are exclusive to the Blu-Ray version), commentary (this time with Turteltaub and Jon Voight), bloopers, a number of Making Of featurettes, and some historical background on the picture. The Blu-Ray disc also offers a “Fact and Fiction”-exclusive featurette while the standard DVD looks as good as it possibly can in 16:9 (2.35) widescreen and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE LION, THE WITCH & THE WARDROBE: Blu-Ray (***½, 143 mins., 2005, PG; Disney): Spectacular adaptation of the C.S. Lewis children’s classic hits all the right dramatic beats, thanks to surprising direction by Andrew Adamson that perfectly balances the fantasy’s more spectacular moments with surprisingly sensitive and quiet passages.

Certainly the remarkable performances of the four youngsters (Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes, William Moseley and Anna Popplewell) who portray the Pevensie children go a long way in making this adventure one that adults can enjoy as much as children. Lewis’s beloved story follows the siblings as they’re whisked away, out of WWII London, to the countryside where they improbably find a fantasy world in the closet of an old professor (Jim Broadbent). There, an evil queen (Tilda Swinton) battles for control of Narnia with the sensitive, sage lion king Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson), who believes that the Pevensie children are the fulfillment of an ages-old prophecy meant to restore goodness to the land.

What impressed me the most about “Narnia” wasn’t its epic battle scenes (of which there are a good amount in the final half-hour) but rather how beautifully Adamson sets the story up. Young Lucy’s first arrival in Narnia is enchantingly handled in an old-fashioned manner -- no thunderous music, no ADD-accented, MTV-styled editing, and no CGI monsters flying into every corner of the frame. Instead, Adamson lets the moment play out poignantly, and delicately, the snow falling gently from the sky, letting the moment breathe and capturing Lewis’ prose splendidly. Similarly quiet, introspective moments occur at times, with the movie actually taking the time to develop its characters in a deliberate but effective manner far removed from most of today’s over-styled and hyper-edited entertainment.

Disney’s 2-disc Blu-Ray edition -- issued with “Prince Caspian” due out in a couple of weeks -- boasts a beautiful, AVC-encoded transfer with uncompressed PCM audio. Needless to say this is a superlative presentation with immaculate visuals and a soundtrack that’s quite aggressive when called upon. Commentaries are offered during the film while a whole second-plate of extras include numerous featurettes on the production -- mostly culled from the prior DVD editions -- making for a superb disc all around.

SHALL WE DANCE: Blu-Ray (**½, 106 mins., 2004, PG-13; Buena Vista): The 1996 hit Japanese import "Shall We Dance?" was remade into an American vehicle for Richard Gere, Jennifer Lopez and Susan Sarandon in 2004 with uneven results.

In Peter Chelsom's film, Gere plays a typically harried Chicago businessman who's never able to see his wife (Sarandon) and longs for something more out of life. One day while riding the train, Gere gazes upon a dance studio run by an ex-budding ballroom champion Jennifer Lopez. Upon signing up for lessons, Gere finds his life re-energized, though his wife suspects he may be cheating on him. Thus begins a circle of confusion, with Sarandon using a private detective (Richard Jenkins) to track Gere's whereabouts down, Gere not wanting to reveal his cha-cha-cha nightlife and the promise of an upcoming competition waiting in the wings.

Audrey Wells adapted Masayuki Suo's 1996 film somewhat faithfully, though despite pleasant performances and some charming moments, the American "Shall We Dance" suffers from the same, fragmented feel of director Chelsom's last Miramax comedy: the disposable John Cusack vehicle "Serendipity." The film is overloaded with supporting players (most of whom have little to do) and thinly-drawn subplots which should either have been further developed or excised altogether, since the story's momentum never feels like it's in the right gear. Gere and Sarandon's relationship fares best in the film, though Lopez's role seems flat and under-written.

It's curious how Chelsom made a name for himself thanks to charming, offbeat imports like the wonderful "Hear My Song," but has struggled to maintain consistency in his Hollywood work. It's as if he's trying too hard to make "Shall We Dance" quirky and unpredictable, when it would have been sufficient to simply keep the focus on Gere and his relationships with Sarandon and Lopez. Less, here, would have been more.

At least Gabriel Yared's soothing score is a bright spot (though Chelsom's past collaborator John Altman shares the composer credit here), and sounds fine in Buena Vista's Blu-Ray disc. The HD transfer is solid, though not spectacular, and the uncompressed PCM sound is likewise fine. Extras ported over from the prior DVD edition include commentary by Chelsom and a handful of deleted scenes, including an elaborate, discarded alternate opening. Three standard Making Of featurettes are included along with a Pussycat Dolls music video.

P.S. I LOVE YOU (**½, 127 mins., 2006, PG-13; Warner): Hilary Swank attempts a new kind of role -- that of a romantic lead -- in this appealing bit of fluff from director Richard LaGravenese.

Swank plays a happily married wife whose husband (Gerard Butler) dies of a brain tumor. Distraught and unable to move on, she begins to receive a series of letters written by Butler when he was still alive, challenging her to take on one task after another in a globe-trotting adventure.

LaGravenese and Steven Rogers adapted the Cecelia Ahern novel, and it’s a pleasant, forgettable, but upbeat drama with adequate performances from Swank and Butler. The two-time Oscar winner doesn’t quite have the touch that, say, a Sandra Bullock might have in this kind of role, but the movie is certainly entertaining and recommended for a “date night” kind of rental.

Warner’s Blu-Ray disc sports a fine VC-1 encoded transfer with Dolby TrueHD audio. Extras include additional scenes, a James Blunt music video, and two featurettes (an interview with Ahern included) in high-definition.

New From Fox on Blu-Ray

MASTER AND COMMANDER: THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD Blu-Ray (***½, 138 mins., 2003, PG-13; Fox): Rich, rewarding adaptation of Patrick O’Brian’s seafaring novels from director Peter Weir gets a long-overdue and mostly satisfying Blu-Ray release courtesy of Fox. While the AVC-encoded transfer is an appreciable upgrade on the prior DVD edition (though certain scenes look a little grainy still), the big draw here from a technical standpoint is the marvelous DTS Master Audio sound, which offers so much ambiance that listeners may feel they’re on the HMS Sophie itself. In addition to the truly outstanding audio -- one of the most effective soundtrack mixes I’ve yet heard in HD -- Fox has included a historical/geographic pop-up trivia track in addition to a map giving location background. Regrettably, the only extras ported over from the superb 3-disc DVD box-set are a group of deleted scenes presented in standard-definition. That said, fans of the film will be quite satisfied with the transfer and outstanding sound design perfectly captured by this Blu-Ray release.

MRS. DOUBTFIRE: Blu-Ray (**½, 125 mins., 1993, PG-13; Fox): High-def Special Edition of the 1993 holiday box-office smash with Robin Williams in drag as a nanny to his own kids after his estranged wife (Sally Field) falls for another man (Pierce Brosnan). Overlong and preachy, I didn’t personally care for this Chris Columbus film at the time, but fans are sure to enjoy this Blu-Ray edition, sporting deleted/extended or alternate scenes, loads of new featurettes examining the production, plus numerous vintage promotional materials from shorts to trailers -- basically everything that comprised the standard-definition Special Edition from earlier this year. The AVC-encoded transfer is terrific and the DTS Master Audio sound likewise satisfying.

BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID: Blu-Ray (***, 1969, 110 mins., PG; Fox): Director George Roy Hill’s celebrated 1969 “revisionist” western has always felt slightly over-rated in my eyes and overly reliant on the chemistry between stars Robert Redford and Paul Newman, despite its four Oscar wins (for William Goldman’s script, Conrad Hall’s cinematography, and the one-two punch of Burt Bacharach’s score and the classic song “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head”). Nevertheless, Fox’s Blu-Ray release represents a must-have for Butch & Sundance fans, as it’s jammed with most of the supplements from the 2006 “Ultimate Edition” DVD release, including the previous commentary track with Hill, Hall, Hal David and Robert Crawford Jr.; a new commentary with William Goldman; no less than three featurettes (including the previous “Making Of” documentary), trailers, one deleted scene, a good-looking MPEG-2 transfer and DTS Master Audio sound that’s a nice upgrade from the prior mono and barely-stereophonic DVD mixes (the original mono track is still available for purists). Regardless of how you feel about the movie, this is a superb catalog release from Fox, offering the majority of extras from its last DVD incarnation.

Fox: Classic Westerns and 24 Revisited

It’s hard to believe that by the time “24" returns to the airwaves this January, some two years will have passed between season premieres of the Kiefer Sutherland action series.

To whet fans’ appetite for the show’s eventual return (a major victim of the writers strike due to the series’ inherent serialized nature), Fox is issuing a brand-new Special Edition of 24's first season.

Housed in a deluxe tin with a countdown clock embedded in the front packaging, this Fox seven-disc set includes a number of new special features, including commentary from director Stephen Hopkins and his frequent cinematographer Peter Levy on the premiere episode; commentary from Hopkins and co-star Leslie Hope on the season one finale; extended and deleted scenes; the much-discussed alternate ending to the last episode; a new documentary, “The Genesis of 24,” offering interviews with the creative team on the show’s background; and superb widescreen transfers (1.78) and 2.0 Dolby Digital soundtracks.

May is also a good time to be a western fan as Fox has several releases lined up for buffs.

At the top of the list is the premiere of the “Fox Grandeur” 70MM version of the archival western THE BIG TRAIL (1930, 122 mins.), noteworthy for being one of the earliest widescreen films in history and, likewise, one of the first to star John Wayne, who top lines this tale of Midwestern pioneers heading to the Pacific Northwest. It’s all a bit creaky and dated, but it’s nevertheless a cinematic milestone and Fox’s 2-disc DVD Special Edition certainly pays proper tribute to its place in genre history.

The double-platter DVD includes both the 70mm (2.10) print and the picture’s corresponding Academy-ratio (1.33) version, both looking as well as can be expected given their age, as well as mono and slightly-stereophonic soundtracks. Extras include an informative commentary from Richard Schickel, a profile of director Raoul Walsh, an examination of the Grandeur process, and where the film sits in the annals of the western genre.

“The Big Trail” is available as a standalone two-disc release or as part of a new box-set, JOHN WAYNE: THE FOX WESTERNS. This set also includes 1960's “North to Alaska,” the 1961 western “The Comancheros” and the 1969 Wayne starrer “The Undefeated,” all in widescreen but decidedly lighter on supplements (just trailers and Fox Movietone news reels) than “The Big Trail.”

Also new from Fox is a three-disc anthology, FOX WESTERN CLASSICS, which has been issued as part of the studio’s superlative “Cinema Classics Collection.”

Included here are the 1950 Gregory Peck production “The Gunfighter,” presented in full-screen and with several featurettes and the original trailer; the 1951 Henry Hathaway film “Rawhide,” starring Tyrone Power and Susan Hayward, with extras including a featurette on Hayward, interactive pressbook and other goodies; and the 1954 Technicolor scope epic “Garden of Evil,” with Hayward, Gary Cooper and Richard Widmark, another Hathaway epic with a memorable Bernard Herrmann score.

An isolated track of Herrmann’s score is here complimented by a superb commentary by John Morgan, William Stromberg, Nick Redman and Steven C. Smith, which will provide a special treat for Golden Age film music fans. Other extras include featurettes on Hathaway and the picture’s production, while the 16:9 (2.55) transfer and 4.0 Dolby Digital soundtrack are exceptionally good. Highly recommended for “Garden of Evil” alone!

New From Criterion

A pair of films from French auteur Louis Malle join Criterion’s library this month.

Malle’s THE LOVERS (90 mins., 1958) caused an enormous international stir when it opened in the late ‘50s. Writer Louise de Vilmorin and Malle fashioned a then-daring account of a Parisian wife (Jeanne Moreau), bored with her husband, who falls for a young man she meets after her car breaks down.

A look at sexual freedom and emotional desires, “The Lovers” is beautifully shot in 2.35 widescreen and acted perfectly by Moreau. In terms of its content, the film’s impact has been diluted as the years have gone on, and today its story may not seem like any great shakes to modern audiences. That said, it was certainly a major milestone in its day, as a Cleveland, Ohio theater owner was convicted of screening obscene material because he showed it! (It was later overturned by the Supreme Court).

Criterion’s DVD includes a new, high-definition transfer of the uncensored version with a selection of archival interviews with Malle, Moreau, de Vilmorin and co-star Jose Luis de Villalonga. A gallery of promotional material and a newly translated English subtitle stream compliment the package.

Malle would later follow up his “Lovers” triumph with THE FIRE WITHIN (1963, 108 mins.), a dark and penetrating portrait of a depressed writer (Maurice Ronet) who decides to kill himself and takes the next day attempting to make amends with those he lost touch with.

Criterion’s DVD of this acclaimed, moody 1963 work will find a number of extras in Criterion’s typically strong DVD presentation, including archival interviews with Ronet and Malle; “Malle’s Fire Within,” a featurette on the film’s impact; a 2005 documentary about the picture and the source novel, Pierre Drieu La Rochelle’s “Le Feu Follet,”; and improved English subtitles. The 1.66 widescreen transfer is excellent.


CHEERS: Season 9 (1990-91, aprx. 11 hours; Paramount): Another sterling, post-“Diane” season for the long-running NBC comedy finds the main plot line dominated by Kirstie Alley’s Rebecca being proposed to by billionaire Robin Colcord (Roger Rees). Meanwhile, the rest of the gang gets mixed up in home shopping, the “Miss Boston Barmaid” contest and other local events. Paramount’s five-disc DVD set, much like their previous releases, offer uncut broadcast episodes (the usual disclaimer is listed about music alterations and such) in highly satisfying full-screen transfers and 2.0 stereo soundtracks. The complete episode list includes “Loves Is a Really, Really Perfectly Okay Thing, “Cheers Fouls Out,” “Rebecca Redux,” “Where Nobody Knows Your Name,” “Ma Always Liked You Best,” “Grease,” “Breaking in is Hard to Do,” the hour-long 200th Episode special, “Bad Neighbor Sam,” “Veggie-Boyd,” “Norm and Cliff's Excellent Adventure,” “Woody Interrupts,” “Honor Thy Mother,” “Achielles Hill,” “The Days of Wine and Neuroses,” “Wedding Bell Blues” (two-part episode), “I’m Getting My Act Together,” “Sam Time Next Year,” “Crash of the Titans,” “It’s a Wonderful Wife,” “Cheers Has Chili,” “Carla Loves Clavin,” “Pitch It Again, Sam,” “Rat Girl,” “Home Malone” and “Uncle Sam Wants You.” Highly recommended and long overdue for “Cheers” fans!

DVD Capsule Takes

OVER HER DEAD BODY (**, 95 mins., 2008, PG-13; New Line): “Desperate Housewives” cutie Eva Longoria Parker tried to make the leap to feature-film leading lady in this disappointing romantic comedy from earlier this winter. Sort of a comedic rendering of “Ghost” (and, to a lesser degree, the Jennifer Love Hewitt CBS series “The Ghost Whisperer”), Longoria Parker plays a bride who tragically dies on her wedding day; her husband (Paul Rudd, in a basically thankless part) attempts to move on, but his new romance with a psychic (Lake Bell from “Surface”) is undercut by his late wife’s ghostly apparition, which pops up just in time to thwart their budding relationship. John Bailey’s cinematography gives this Jeff Lowell film a glossy cinematic sheen, but the script is awfully tired and the picture offers few surprises at all. New Line’s DVD also includes a 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack.

GRACE IS GONE (***, 84 mins., 2007, PG-13; Genius/Weinstein): Sincere drama with John Cusack as a father whose wife, serving for the military in Iraq, dies in combat. Distraught and unprepared for how to handle the situation, Cusack packs up his children and heads for an impromptu vacation -- one last blast of childhood fun before he tells them of his wife’s passing. James C. Strouse wrote and directed this sad, truthful story that basically refrains from political commentary and instead focuses on the plight of Cusack’s character. At only 80 minutes and with few superfluous supporting characters, the film basically rests on Cusack’s shoulders, and he delivers with a moving, understated and believable performance, ranking as one of his finest. Genius’ DVD includes several Making Of featurettes and the trailer, while the 16:9 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack are both fine -- the movie sporting a low-key score written by none other than Clint Eastwood!

SENIOR SKIP DAY (83 mins., 2007, Unrated; First Look): Not-bad teen comedy about a group of seniors who do battle with their dastardly principal (Larry Miller) days before high school graduation. A surprising assortment of former TV stars, from Lea Thompson to Ted Lange, pop up in this serviceable raunch-fest from director Nick Weiss and writer Evan Wasserstrom, which pushes the requisite buttons effectively for a no-brain comedy with (a little more than) T&A on its mind. First Look’s DVD includes a 1.78 widescreen transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

BELLA (***, 91 mins., 2006, PG-13; Lionsgate): Moving and heartwarming film about a New York City waitress (Tammy Blanchard) who finds out that she’s pregnant and her relationship with a chef (Eduardo Verastegui) makes for a splendid picture from director Alejandro Monteverde. “Bella” is a “little” movie filled with heart and genuine emotion, with Verastegui and Blanchard perfectly fitting their roles and the director striking all the right notes behind the lens. Lionsgate has belatedly brought this acclaimed 2006 feature to DVD in an excellent package with commentary with Monteverde, behind the scenes featurettes, trailers and a music video, plus a 16:9 transfer and 5.1 soundtrack.

A COLLECTION OF 2007 ACADEMY AWARD NOMINATED SHORT FILMS (Magnolia): Highly entertaining package couples all the nominees and winners of this past year’s Short Film category, including live-action and animation. Included in the latter group are “Peter & The Wolf” (winner, Animation) from the UK and Poland; “Madame Tutli-Putli” from Canada; and “Even Pigeons Go to Heaven” from France. Live-action nominees include Denmark’s “At Night,” France’s “The Mozart of Pickpockets” (the winning entrant), the Italian effort “The Substitute,” Belgium’s “Tanghi Argentini,” and England’s “The Tonto Woman.” Transfers and soundtracks are all top notch.

DRAWN TOGETHER: Season 3 (2006-07, 308 mins.; Paramount): Comedy Central animated series returns to DVD in a double-disc set preserving all of its 14 third-season episodes. Extras include audio commentaries, a karaoke sing-along and network promos, plus extended, uncensored versions of every episode, featuring additionally raunchy gags and uncut dialogue tracks.

STRANGE WILDERNESS (**, 84 mins., 2008, R; Paramount): Brainless Adam Sandler-produced comedy (is there any other kind?) offers Steve Zahn as the host of a wildlife TV series who takes to finding Bigfoot in order to drive up ratings. Justin Long, Allen Covert, and Jonah Hill are a few of his cohorts in this box-office bust from earlier this winter, which sports the requisite raunchy gags and occasional appearance from veteran stars (in this case, Joe Don Baker and Ernest Borgnine) to spice up the predictability. Paramount’s DVD includes deleted scenes and numerous feaurettes plus an okay 16:9 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

NEXT TIME: More of the latest reviews! Until then, don't forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards, check out the newly relaunched Aisle Seat Blog, and direct any emails to our email address.  Cheers everyone!

Get Firefox!

Copyright 1997-2008 All Reviews, Site and Design by Andre Dursin