5/8/07 Edition -- The AISLE SEAT BLOG Is Now Online!

A Trip Into Del Toro's LABYRINTH
Plus: THE THIRD MAN Resurrected!
Blu Ray Round Up, BLOOD & CHOCOLATE and More

The DVD debuts of two of last year's most acclaimed films lead off this week's Aisle Seat.

Guillermo Del Toro’s PAN’S LABYRINTH (120 mins., 2006, R; New Line) will be at the top of the list for most movie buffs on May 15th, when New Line’s eagerly-awaited, double-disc DVD set arrives in stores.

Del Toro’s beautifully crafted dark fantasy centers on a young girl named Ofelia (played with restraint by Ivana Baquero), who encounters a fairy-tale world -- populated by mystical and bizarre creatures -- where she’s given three tasks in order to prove her worth to the king of the dark kingdom. The fantastic, though, is balanced by the harsh reality of Ofelia’s “real” world existence in war-torn, 1944 Spain, where her pregnant and sick mother takes her into the countryside, where her new stepfather is a vile commandant working for the fascist government.

“Pan’s Labyrinth” is that rare fantasy that works on multiple levels: as a tale of a child who feels threatened and abandoned retreating into a world that could possibly be of her own making, or as a veritable film of the fantastic, a fairy-tale (out of the real Grimm’s works) with good combating evil, drawing parallels to the real world while offering its own doses of the supernatural.

I found the film a little slow-moving at times, but the design, visual effects, and cinematography combine to stamp “Pan’s Labyrinth” as Del Toro’s strongest work to date. The movie is graphic at times, disturbing and enchanting at others, and it’s a mix that certainly will prove to be enthralling for those willing to take the journey on DVD (note that this is not a film for kids, obviously).

New Line’s two-disc “Platinum Series” release of “Pan’s Labyrinth” includes a commentary and introduction from Del Toro, in addition to three featurettes which chronicle the production. These aren’t as exhaustive as the lengthy extras Del Toro gave us on the “Blade 2" and “Hellboy” DVDs, but they do provide a casual overview of the film’s creation. An additional Charlie Rose Show interview offers Del Toro alongside Alfonso Cuaron and “Babel”’s Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, while a “Director’s Notebook” includes additional still galleries and Del Toro comments. Additional storyboards, multi-angle features and production galleries round out the supplements, while the film itself is presented in a fine 16:9 (1.85) transfer with 6.1 DTS-ES and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

New Line has also recently released Todd Field’s haunting domestic drama LITTLE CHILDREN (137 mins., 2006, R) on disc.

Field, whose previous credits include the over-rated “In the Bedroom,” focuses again on the domestic complications of modern suburban Americans, specifically two couples -- Kate Winslet and Gregg Edelman, Jennifer Connelly and Patrick Wilson -- as well as a potential child predator (Jackie Earle Haley from the “Bad News Bears” pictures) recently released from prison, living in their quaint New England neighborhood.

If “Little Children” sounds like yet another tale of suburban malaise a la “American Beauty”and “In the Bedroom,” there’s a good reason for that, but there’s a notable difference here: while the picture has its melodramatic moments, it’s also funnier and somewhat less depressing than Field’s previous work. The characters are better-rounded and more realistic, living each day as we all do with various expectations, small victories and disappointments. Some of the characters make better decisions than others, and while the movie speaks of the disconnect that can occur between couples, there’s a surprising, almost-redemptive element to the story that makes it more worthwhile than other, similarly-themed films we’ve seen of its kind in recent years.

Kudos go out to the performers as well as Field, who co-wrote with Tom Perrotta (adapting his novel), with Thomas Newman’s patented introspective score (which at times sounds like a “Desperate Housewives” soundtrack when applied to this setting!) and Antonio Calvache’s warm cinematography adding top-notch production values to the preceding.

New Line’s DVD offers an excellent 16:9 (2.35) transfer as well as a 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack. Regrettably, other extras aren’t on-hand, leading one to believe a Special Edition version may be following down the road.

New From Criterion

Carol Reed’s THE THIRD MAN (1949, 104 mins.) doesn’t require much of an introduction for any serious film buff.

This crackling noir remains one of the all-time great cinematic achievements, with Graham Greene’s story following American novelist Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), who ventures to “old Vienna” to help out a friend named Harry Lime (Orson Welles). However, when Holly arrives, he finds out that Harry is dead, leading the novelist into a tangled web of racketeers, stuffy British government officials, and one of Harry’s old flames (Alida Valli) en route to deciphering the mystery of his death.

From the striking (and then quite-atypical) zither score by Anton Karas to the cinematography of Robert Krasker (undoubtedly influenced by Welles’ “Citizen Kane” and “Lady From Shanghai” triumphs), “The Third Man” is a pure cinematic feast that has lost none of its appeal over the years.

Criterion’s new double-disc Special Edition includes a wealth of new supplements, including a restored transfer; an introduction from Peter Bogdanovich; a pair of commentaries (one from Steven Soderbergh and Tony Gilroy, another featuring historian Dana Polan); an abridged recording of Graham’s treatment for “The Third Man”; the alternate U.S. opening; a 90-minute “Shadowing The Third Man” documentary as well as a 30-minute Austrian TV documentary on the film (subtitled); a 1968 BBC “Omnibus” episode on Greene; several radio specials; illustrated production histories, trailers, and an extensive set of liner notes.

Even if you owned Criterion’s previous DVD edition, this is an essential upgrade with top-notch new features that comes unquestionably recommended!

Also new from Criterion this month is a deluxe package of Kenji Mizoguchi’s haunting SANSHO THE BAILIFF (1954, 121 mins.).

This mid ‘50s Japanese masterwork chronicles the tragic events that befall a well-meaning governor who’s cast off by a feudal lord, subsequently leading to his family being enslaved and separated en route to his place of exile. Years later, his oldest son tries to reunite his fragmented family, in spite of his neglect of his father’s own teachings.

Criterion’s new DVD edition includes a restored transfer (1.33 full-frame black-and-white), commentary from Japanese literature professor Jeffrey Angles; new video interviews with key personnel including actress Kyoko Kagawa on the making of the film; and a new subtitle translation. A full-length book includes an essay from scholar Mark Le Fanu and two versions of the story on which the picture was based. Strongly recommended for Japanese cinema enthusiasts.

New on Blu Ray from Sony

BLOOD AND CHOCOLATE (**, 98 mins., 2007, PG-13; Sony):Agnes Bruckner continues to be one of the Aisle Seat's fave "under the radar" actresses, though she’s at least established herself as a leading lady in B-grade horror films like Lucky McKee’s superb “The Woods” and this forgettable teen genre flick, which was released to small box-office revenues last January.

Bruckner plays a young American woman living in Budapest who falls for graphic novel writer Hugh Dancy. Little does Dancy know that his new lady-friend is part of a pack of werewolves, one of whom (the dastardly Olivier Martinez) doesn’t like humans and wolves mixing it up.
Ehren Kruger and Christopher Landon (credited with just one other project, J. Lee Thompson’s “Ice-Cold in Alex”) adapted Annette Curtis Klaus’ popular teen novel for this watchable enough popcorn-filler, directed with sufficient visual flair by German filmmaker Katja von Garnier. The hideous title aside, “Blood and Chocolate” plays like a younger, PG-13 version of “Underworld” with werewolves substituting for vampires, and an accent on romance that was intended to target a more female-skewing demographic. It’s not particularly inspired and certainly could have been better but I’ve seen worse, particularly recently (“The Covenant,” anyone?).

Sony’s Blu Ray disc edition, available May 29th, offers a solid enough transfer (2.35), though the movie wasn’t shot with a large budget and has that drab, washed-out look so many modern films do. For that very reason, “Blood and Chocolate” isn’t a title you’ll be reaching for in terms of showing off its high-definition assets, and even the uncompressed PCM 5.1 sound lacks the kind of pop we’ve been hearing from HD audio tracks (the soundtrack is generic synths and orchestra with choral wailing).

Special features include 11 minutes of deleted scenes (in standard definition) and a commentary with Von Garnier and Martinez. Genre fans ought to at least give it a rental spin.

DONNIE BRASCO: Extended Cut (**½, 147 mins., 1997, R; Sony): Disappointing 1997 vehicle from writer Paul Attanasio and director Mike Newell has one of the rarest of things: a weak performance from Johnny Depp, who stars as an FBI agent infiltrating the mob and becoming overly friendly with hitman Al Pacino in the process.

Granted, the movie itself is also to blame, but Depp’s performance as a guy attempting to balance his growing bond with the mob with his “normal” life at home (with wife Anne Heche) doesn’t have the intensity or sense of credibility so much of the actor’s work typically does -- you never understand why Depp’s Joseph Pistone is motivated to do what he does, nor do you really believe the duality in his day-to-day life.

It’s a problem that the film can never overcome, despite an interesting premise, a somewhat subdued performance from Pacino, and numerous other character actors (Bruno Kirby, Michael Madsen, James Russo) adding strong support.

Certainly this Extended Version of the movie doesn’t alter the film all that much; it adds nearly 20 minutes onto the theatrical cut, but I didn’t feel any differently about the picture this time than I did the first time around. Extras include two featurettes and trailers; note that Newell’s commentary from the “standard” DVD release hasn’t been ported over to this new edition (which is also available on standard-definition DVD).

Visually, the HD transfer (2.35) is very strong, while the 5.1 Dolby Digital uncompressed PCM sound is also effective enough, offering a competent, though unmemorable, Patrick Doyle score.

STOMP THE YARD (**, 114 mins., 2007, PG-13; Sony): Box-office sleeper hit from earlier this winter will probably be remembered years from now the same way we look back on the Cannon Group’s “Breakin 2: Electric Bugaloo” today.

Energetic dance moves were obviously the selling point of this low-budget tale of a street dancer (Columbus Short) who heads to college, only to be courted by two warring fraternities who want his moves for their own. Director Sylvain White coaxes appealing enough performances from the cast, but the script by Robert Adetuyi is so relentlessly predictable and heavy-handed that it’s hard to take the film seriously at all.

Sony’s Blu Ray disc is the first of the studio’s titles to include a Dolby TrueHD track in addition to the studio’s customary, uncompressed 5.1 PCM audio. Visually, the HD transfer (2.35) is exceptionally vivid, and extra features include one deleted scene, two extended dance sequences, commentary, gag reel, and a Making Of featurette.

HAPPILY N’EVER AFTER (*½, 87 mins., 2007, PG; Lionsgate): The law of diminishing returns finally caught up with this umpeenth variation on “Shrek,” which bombed out to minuscule box-office last January.

Here, Cinderella (voiced by Sarah Michelle Gellar) is the one who has to rally a fairy-tale kingdom in order to take on her wicked stepmother (performed by Sigourney Weaver) in a typically cartoonish, modern “Fractured Fairy Tale” outing from Lionsgate, Vanguard and Odyssey Entertainment.

Kids might enjoy some of the shtick, but adults are advised to steer clear of the same tired gags and “rude humor” made popular by the original Dreamworks monster smash (which returns to theaters in its third installment next week), while the animation and execution are below even last year’s so-so hit “Hoodwinked.”

Lionsgate’s DVD does include a beautiful HD transfer (1.85) with DTS HD Master audio, deleted scenes, commentary, interactive games, and three featurettes on the production. A splendid visual package for a movie undeserving of its presentation.

New on HD-DVD

FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS: 2-Disc HD-DVD Edition (**½, 132 mins., 2006, R; Dreamworks/Paramount): Clint Eastwood’s first half of his WWII double-bill is a somber, slow-moving account of three “heroes of Iowa Jima” who hoisted the flag in the indelible Joe Rosenthal/AP photograph, leading to a public relations parade -- and numerous adjustment issues -- when they returned home from the war.

Eastwood’s meditation on the nature of combat, heroism and its exploitation offers some strong sequences but it’s a long, somewhat disjointed film broken into various segments (the war, its aftermath, and present-day sequences), capped off by unappealing, desaturated cinematography from Tom Stern and a lethargic score written by Eastwood himself that grows increasingly tiresome as the film progresses.

Well-intended but nowhere near as dramatically effective as one hoped it would be, “Flags Of Our Fathers” was a box-office disappointment that was initially offered on DVD in a plain, bare-bones disc from Dreamworks.

That presentation has been quickly surpassed by Dreamworks’ new 2-disc HD-DVD edition, which offers a perfectly detailed high-definition transfer. The 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus sound is excellent, and a second platter of special features gives added meaning to Eastwood’s film, looking at the production of the film, the real men who inspired it, visual effects, the trailer, and an introduction from Eastwood -- all presented in high definition as well.

New on DVD
CREEPSHOW 3 (*, 104 mins., 2006, R; HBO): No Stephen King, no George Romero, and not much in the way of entertainment, either.

This pedestrian, made-for-video, and in-name-only “sequel” to the so-so ‘80s horror anthologies (which presaged the eventual television resurrection of “Tales From The Crypt”) is a lame assortment of gore-ridden stories with mostly lightweight plots, barely connected by having characters tied together from one sequence to another.

Independent production house Taurus Entertainment previously produced a follow-up to “Day of the Dead” that wasn’t well-received (to put it lightly), and it’s a no-brainer that “Creepshow 3” will be greeted with the same level of derision from fans. Aside from an animated opening and ending sequence (which doesn’t amount to anything), there’s no connection here with “Creepshow” or “Creepshow 2” (which itself was pretty awful), while the production values -- from the performances to the settings and cinematography -- create the impression that you’re watching an expensive home movie. How, when or why this company was able to nab the “Creepshow” license is shocking given how bad this disaster is across the board.

HBO picked up the rights to “Creepshow 3” even though the film was completed last year and allegedly had difficulty finding a distributor (can’t imagine why!). The label’s presentation is better than the movie deserves, with an okay 16:9 (1.85) transfer showing the limitations of the picture’s production throughout. On the audio side, the Chris Anderson score does little to enhance the D.O.A. stories and direction by Ana Clavell and James Dudelson, and it’s (tellingly) presented in 2.0 Dolby Stereo only. Bonus features includes some behind-the-scenes interviews with production personnel. You’ve been warned!

THE SIEGE: Martial Law Edition (**½, 1998, 116 mins., R; Fox): Special Edition package of the fairly forgettable 1998 Edward Zwick drama about bombings in NYC and the subsequent response from the various authorities in charge (Denzel Washington as an FBI agent, Annette Bening as a CIA operative, Bruce Willis as an army colonel) is noteworthy mainly for its pre-9/11 premise about a Big Apple besieged by terrorism. The Lawrence Wright-Menno Meyjes-Edward Zwick script is pretentious and talky, and while the performances are first-rate, this slow-moving  film (which had been bumped around the 1998 release schedule and re-titled several times) likely wouldn’t be given a second glance these days if it weren’t for its newfound topicality. Fox’s new DVD edition includes three featurettes and a commentary track by Zwick and executive producer Peter Schindler, with a superb 2.35 (16:9) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack on the technical end.

M*A*S*H: Goodbye, Farewell and Amen (1983, 120 mins., Fox): Special Edition, three-disc set of the immortal last episode for the long-running series offers ample content that will appeal to M*A*S*H fanatics. Included among the extras are the superb A&E “Biography” look at the production of the series; a 30th Anniversary Reunion documentary; blooper reel; “Memories of M*A*S*H” documentary; promo spots; cast interviews from the last day of filming; public service announcements; an unproduced episode script, “Hawkeye on the Double”; and a “Fan Base” featurette. Highly recommended!
THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN: Season 2 (1999-2000, 584 mins., Fox): The second season of the fan-favorite -- but short-lived -- CBS version of the classic film brings back Michael Biehn, Ron Perlman, and Eric Close leading a fine ensemble cast for the final group of “Magnificent Seven” episodes. Decent production values and the chemistry between the actors made for a memorable series that finishes up here in Fox’s three-disc Season 2 box set, including full-screen transfers and 2.0 Dolby Stereo soundtracks.

PORKY’S: The Ultimate Collection (Fox, available May 22nd): Three-disc box-set of the seminal ‘80s teen comedy series offers the new “One Size Fits All Edition” of the original (and hugely successful, having raked in over $100 million in 1982 dollars) “Porky’s,” with a bittersweet new commentary from director Bob Clark, who recently perished (along with his son) in a car accident. Clark is also featured in a featurette looking back at his creation, while the 16:9 (1.85) transfer seems improved from the prior DVD. Also included in the set are “Porky’s II: The Next Day” and the DVD debut of the especially bad final installment, 1985's “Porky’s Revenge,” both of which are offered in 16:9 (1.85) widescreen with mono sound and trailers.

SUMMER SCHOOL: Life’s a Beach Edition (***, 97 mins., 1987, PG-13): Carl Reiner's formulaic but often funny 1987 comedy returns to DVD in a new Special Edition from Paramount.

Tailored as a starring vehicle for Mark Harmon, "Summer School" boasts a script by "Full House" creator Jeff Franklin and a supporting cast including Kirstie Alley (as a fellow teacher Harmon tries to woo) and Courtney-Thorne Smith as a surfer girl forced to attend Harmon's summer class. It sounds like a TV sitcom, and it's structured like one, but the execution is energetic and Reiner's direction keeps the pacing and timing of the various gags right on target.

Paramount's new “Life’s a Beach Edition” DVD includes a fresh commentary track by Reiner and Harmon that’s a good deal of fun, while two featurettes include new interviews with Reiner, Harmon, Franklin and pretty much everyone save for Alley and Thorne-Smith.

Visually, the disc includes the same sunny, solid 1.85 widescreen transfer as its previous DVD release, with a perfectly acceptable 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack. The movie sports one of Danny Elfman's earliest scores, and while it's not one of the composer's more memorable works, it suits the film just fine whenever it's not competing with a myriad of typical late '80s rock songs.

Overall, the DVD is a blast of nostalgic fun, taking you back to the kinds of movie summers when small-scale comedies like this one would be supported and released by studios (sigh).

CHAMPIONS (***, 114 mins., 1984, PG; Lionsgate): Excellent true story about British steeplechase jockey Bob Champion (John Hurt), who heroically fought cancer and eventually returned to the winner’s circle with his horse Aldaniti. Sincere, top-notch performances from Hurt, Edward Woodward (as Champion’s understanding boss), Jan Francis and Ben Johnson add credibility to John Irvin’s wonderfully made film, capped by a superb score by Carl Davis. It’s great to see Lionsgate dusting off archival films like “Champions” on DVD, and the presentation is excellent, with a sharp 16:9 (1.85) transfer and 2.0 Dolby Stereo soundtrack. Highly recommended! (Available May 29th)
New From Tartan

GHOST (94 mins., 2006, Not Rated; Tartan)
ARANG (98 mins., 2006, Not Rated; Tartan)

A pair of above-average South Korean chillers have recently made their way onto DVD courtesy of Tartan.

“Ghost” is a reasonably effective chiller in the standard Asian horror vein, with a long-haired spirit (where have we seen that one before?) stalking several young girls, one of whom harbors a major secret. An interesting ending and efficient direction mark this “Ring”/”Grudge”-influenced production as one that fans of the genre ought to find sufficiently entertaining, if not original. Tartan’s DVD includes cast interviews, a behind the scenes featurette, trailers, English and Spanish subtitles, DTS sound and a 16:9 (1.85) transfer.

“Arang,” meanwhile, isn’t quite as satisfying, offering up another similarly supernatural antagonist, this time calling out from the grave to a pair of detectives. Predictable and not as well-executed as “Ghost,” though it’s not the worst of its kind that we’ve seen of late, either. Tartan’s DVD includes a 16:9 (1.85) transfer with DTS sound plus ample extras, including commentary (subtitled), deleted scenes, interviews, the original trailer and other goodies.

NEXT TIME: SPIDER-MAN 3! More reviews! 'Nuff said! Until then, don't forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards, check out the new Aisle Seat Blog, and direct any emails to the link above

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