6/12/07 Edition -- The AISLE SEAT BLOG Is Now Online!

Saddle Up: Westerns!
Plus: BLACK SNAKE MOAN, New Paramount Titles and More

The 1970s saw a period of revisionism spread across all cinematic genres, particularly the western.

That period was marked by the debut of pictures like John Wayne’s old-fashioned “Big Jake” at its outset, while nearly ten years later, depressing westerns like Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate” would permeate the landscape, almost signaling the end of the genre altogether.

In between, Wayne himself began to break from convention, leading to his acclaimed final role in Don Siegel’s superb “The Shootist” in 1976.

Wayne’s role in Mark Rydell’s THE COWBOYS (***½, 1972, 134 mins., PG-13) marked the beginning of a new phase for the star, as this rousing tale of Wayne leading a cattle drive with a group of teenaged cowhands showed its aging lead as being human, capable of defeat and with physical limitations.

Without giving the film away (but shame on you if you haven’t seen it by now), “The Cowboys” is mostly an old-fashioned tale with an ending that, at the time, most viewers wouldn’t have seen coming. Wayne and Roscoe Lee Browne are trailed by a group of vile psychos including Bruce Dern, who inflict an amount of damage on Wayne’s character that was positively shocking at that point, particularly for viewers accustomed to seeing their hero playing a veritable group of Old West super-heroes.

The film is flavorful, beautifully shot (by Robert Surtees), and benefits immeasurably from a classic John Williams score. Williams’ memorable motifs and colorful orchestration (later adapted into a brilliant concert suite that became a Boston Pops staple) aid the picture at every turn, especially on disc where the music flows in full 5.1 Dolby Digital.

Warner’s Special Edition HD-DVD (the movie is also available on Blu Ray and standard DVD) offers a marvelous transfer (VC-1 encoded) of “The Cowboys,” retaining its Entra’cte, Intermission and Exit Music structure. The print may not be as sharp as “The Searchers” was in high-definition, but this is still a marvelous presentation of the picture that fans will savor, doing justice to Surtees’ gorgeous cinematography and Williams’ soundtrack.

Special features, available in all three versions, include a terrific, new 30-minute featurette, offering Rydell, Dern, Browne, A Martinez and others reflecting on the production. Packed with affectionate memories of “The Duke,” this is one of the more satisfying DVD featurettes I’ve seen of late, mixing in vintage footage with wonderful new interviews. It’s an absolute must for “Cowboys” fans.

Rydell also contributes an informative commentary track, while a vintage featurette and the theatrical trailer round out the disc.

Also new from Warner is a new Collector’s Edition of Howard Hawks’ Wayne western RIO BRAVO (***, 141 mins., 1959), surfacing again on HD-DVD (Blu Ray and standard DVD editions are likewise available).

This quintessential western offers a textbook genre script, with Wayne the noble sheriff who teams with a gimpy deputy (Walter Brennan), the town drunk (Dean Martin), and a young “whippersnapper” (Ricky Nelson) to ward off an attempt at springing a criminal from the town jail.

Angie Dickinson and Ward Bond star in this highly-regarded Hawks film, one that I’ve always respected but never been a particular fan of. True, all the performances are engaging, but the picture is slow-going and overlong at 141 minutes, and what might have seemed fresh in the Jules Furthman-Leigh Brackett script at the time comes across as being a little cliched and predictable today. “Rio Bravo” is a film that western fans consider one of the genre’s finest, and is unquestionably an influential picture as well (leading to works like “Assault on Precinct 13,” whose director, John Carpenter, talks on the disc’s commentary track), but it does, admittedly, take an awfully long time to reach its destination.

Warner’s HD-DVD disc does look nifty with a restored VC-1 encoded transfer, clear 1.0 Dolby Digital sound, and a good array of special features, including commentary with Carpenter and critic Richard Shickel; three featurettes examining the film, Hawks, and its shooting locales; and a trailer gallery for other Wayne productions.

New DVDs & HD-DVDs From Paramount

TRADING PLACES: Collector’s Edition (***½, 116 mins., 1983, R)
COMING TO AMERICA: Collector’s Edition (**½, 116 mins., 1988, R)
 NORBIT (*, 102 mins., 2007, PG-13)

There’s good news and bad news regarding Paramount’s release of the latest Eddie Murphy comedy, “Norbit,” on DVD. First for the positive spin: the success of “Norbit” has lead the studio to remaster two of Murphy’s most successful comedies, John Landis’ “Trading Places” and “Coming To America,” for both standard DVD and HD-DVD (as well as Blu Ray), each with extras. The bad? “Norbit” is being issued along with them, and it’s easily one of the star’s worst vehicles, ranking with “Pluto Nash” and “Holy Man” as the nadir of Murphy’s cinematic output.

Thankfully, though, better times are to be had with the Special Editions of both “Trading Places” and “Coming To America.”

Landis was in the midst of one of his hottest streaks when “Trading Places” was released in June of 1983. This tale of two conniving tycoons (Don Ameche, Ralph Bellamy) who conspire to replace obnoxious but hard-working trader Dan Aykroyd’s identity with down-on-his-luck street con artist Murphy, all for the purposes of a $1 bet, remains one of the ‘80s’ most satisfying comedies. The Timothy Harris-Herschel Weingrod script is filled with belly laughs and the chemistry between Aykroyd and Murphy is terrific, with sterling support turned in by Ameche, Bellamy, Paul Gleason, Denholm Elliott, and Jamie Lee Curtis, breaking her out of “scream queen” mold as a kind-hearted hooker. Landis was working at the top of his game with this picture, and it shows, while Elmer Bernstein’s fine score adds the requisite touch of class.

Paramount’s new release of “Trading Places” is available in standard definition, HD-DVD and Blu Ray. The HD-DVD release I screened boasts a wonderfully detailed, crisp picture with robust 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus sound. It is, for all intents and purposes, flawless, and one of the more satisfying catalog discs I’ve viewed to date on HD-DVD.

Extras on all three platforms include a 20-minute Making Of segment, offering new interviews with Landis, Aykroyd and Curtis, along with vintage clips, one deleted scene with Gleason (which was incorporated into expanded TV broadcasts), a pop-up trivia track offering all kinds of anecdotes, a featurette on the costume design, and a few other goodies. Highly recommended!

Landis reunited with Murphy for the genial 1988 comedy “Coming To America,” a film that wasn’t screened for critics on release day -- a move made not because the studio was hiding something (it ultimately received positive reviews), but rather because the filmmakers had to rush in order to meet the movie’s late June release date.

This tale of an African prince who arrives in New York to court a prospective queen is nice enough but hasn’t aged all that well. Some of the laughs are directly related to topical humor of the day (sweaty music videos, slobbering televangelists), while Murphy’s multiple roles often strain to be funny. However, a strong supporting cast keeps the material afloat (James Earl Jones, John Amos, Arsenio Hall, an amusing supporting performance from future “E.R.” star Eriq LaSalle, and an early role for Samuel L. Jackson as well). It may be a bit dated in its appearance, but Murphy’s good-natured performance and Landis’ comic timing deliver the goods, while Nile Rodgers’ score is pleasant as well (and be on the lookout for Ameche and Bellamy reprising their “Trading Places” roles!).

Paramount’s new Special Edition of “Coming To America” offers another Making Of segment stringing together recollections by Landis, featurettes on costume design, make-up and music (offering an interview with Rodgers, reflecting on his career and the score), plus vintage interview segments with Murphy and Hall. It’s all mildly interesting but not terribly comprehensive. The HD-DVD transfer is solid, though, and audio is again offered in 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus surround.

Murphy’s penchant for playing multiple roles worked for the comic-actor again in the “Nutty Professor” films of the ‘90s, but the recent “Norbit” seems to have exhumed all the unused material from those films in a desperate project that’s unquestionably one of Murphy’s most painful vehicles to sit through.

Murphy essays the title character, a nerd raised by an Asian-American, who marries an obese loudmouth named Rasputia, even though he’s still in love with his childhood sweetheart (Thandie Newton), who’s engaged to smarmy Cuba Gooding, Jr.

Brian Robbins directed this torturous exercise in would-be comedic shenanigans, packed with racial stereotypes that are patently offensive and performances from a supporting cast that looks like they’d rather be anywhere else (Newton and Gooding in particular). Visually the film looks alright and offers a nice David Newman score, but “Norbit” is a dud, and easily one of the worst films to ever gross north of $90 million at the box-office.

Paramount’s HD-DVD edition includes deleted scenes, a featurette on Rick Baker’s make-up, and a standard Making Of featurette. The Dolby Digital Plus sound is satisfying and the 1080p, VC-1 encoded transfer is just fine -- if only the film had any pleasing images to pack in it.

WELCOME HOME, ROXY CARMICHAEL (**½, 1990, 96 mins., PG-13; Paramount): One of Winona Ryder’s follow-ups to “Heathers” was this so-so 1990 high school comedy with the actress starring as an outcast hoping that the return of celebrity “Roxy Carmichael” to her small Ohio town breaks her out of the doldrums. Jeff Daniels co-stars in this watchable film from writer Karen Leigh Hopkins and director Jim Abrahams (of the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker trio), which flirts with -- but regrettably never gels into -- becoming an especially moving coming of age tale. Thomas Newman’s score does help this Paramount release, which has arrived on DVD in a decent 16:9 (1.85) transfer with 2.0 Dolby Stereo sound. No extras are present.

SHOOTER (**½, 2007, 125 mins., R; Paramount): Mark Wahlberg essays a former Marine sniper thrust back into action when Colonel Danny Glover explains that there’s a plot afoot to assassinate the President. Things, however, aren’t what they seem once Wahlberg is double-crossed and set up for the event. Director Antoine Fuqua’s decidedly “old school” action romp is overlong but highly watchable, fueled by effective action sequences and good work from the cast. Paramount’s DVD includes a commentary by Fuqua, seven deleted scenes, two featurettes, a fine 16:9 (2.35) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound. HD viewers should note that high-definition versions are due out on July 31st.

BLACK SNAKE MOAN: HD-DVD (***, 2007, 115 mins., R; Paramount): Terrific performances from Samuel L. Jackson and Christina Ricci put this emotionally charged, pulpy tale of redemption over the top. Director Craig Brewer’s follow-up to his “Hustle and Flow” follows Ricci as a wayward young woman whose boyfriend (Justin Timberlake) leaves for military service, prompting her to fall back on her sexual drives; Jackson is a man whose wife has left him (for his best friend, no less), prompting him to take her in and “tame” her. Both learn life lessons in Brewer’s atmospheric, well-filmed character study, which Paramount has brought to HD-DVD in a crisp, AVC-encoded MPEG4 transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus sound. Extras include commentary, deleted scenes (in HD), and three featurettes.

New Blu Ray Discs

SEVEN YEARS IN TIBET: Blu Ray (***½, 1997, 136 mins., R; Sony): Less hyped than Martin Scorsese’s “Kundun” but ultimately far more successful at the box-office, Jean-Jacques Annaud's sumptuous travelogue of an Austrian mountain climber's real-life relationship with the Dalai Lama during the 1940s makes for a most pleasing Blu Ray disc.

Brad Pitt has been lambasted for some of his performances, but he's surprisingly good in “Seven Years In Tibet” as a man searching for spiritual guidance after escaping from a British P.O.W. camp, only to have his wife divorce him and son grow up with another father while he attempts to enter Tibet during WWII.

Pitt is low-key, believable, and uses a great deal of restraint as the former Gold medalist Heinrich Harrer, while Annaud's usual specialty in bringing foriegn cultures to life on the big-screen is on full display here -- it's like watching a National Geographic special in its depiction of the Tibetan people and their culture, while breathtaking cinematography captures the Himalayas like few films have ever done before. Some were bored by the picture, but I was thoroughly captivated, with the sequences between Pitt and the Dali Lama being subtly poignant, never once reverting to Hollywood melodramatic cliches.

If the film is "emotionally aloof," it's probably because the movie is done with taste and a sense of realism, in keeping with the true-life story it cinematically recreates. It's all perfectly punctuated by a restrained, sublime John Williams score that really soars over the finale. Great entertainment all around!

Sony’s Blu Ray release sings in high-definition: the 1080p transfer marvelously captures Robert Fraisse’s cinematography, most especially during the exterior Himalayan sequences. I’ve written that Ridley Scott’s films translate spectacularly to the HD realm and, judging from “Tibet,” I’m sure that Annaud’s other works would likewise benefit from high-definition mastering (“Quest For Fire,” “The Name of the Rose,” and “The Bear” in particular).

Sound options here include uncompressed 5.1 PCM and a 5.1 Dolby Digital track, both of which do justice to the film’s sound design. No extras are included.

HELLBOY: Blu Ray (**½, 2004, 132 mins.; Sony): Guillermo Del Toro's adaptation of Mike Mingola's Dark Horse comic book is a valiant attempt at bringing the cult hero to the screen, though the end result is not entirely successful.

Ron Perlman is terrific as the title hero, a creature from the depths of hell whom professor John Hurt raises as his own son after he crosses over into our world during WWII. Raised to be good in spite of his demonic origins, Hellboy works alongside Hurt's paranormal team of heroes (including an aquatic gill-man dubbed Abe Sapien and FBI agent Rupert Evans) to eradicate monsters from terrorizing humanity.

Hellboy and Co. face a stiffer challenge than their typical creature of the week, however, when mad monk Rasputin (Karel Roden) appears on the scene, wanting to finish the job he started while working alongside the Nazis decades before. Rasputin needs Hellboy's power to open a portal and unleash hell on Earth, forcing our hero to question his origins and make the ultimate choice between good and evil.

"Hellboy" has some great moments and special effects to match, while Perlman makes the protagonist's struggle to come to grips with his history and do the right thing believable. His comedic quips help to distinguish the character from other, brooding super heroes, and lighten the action in comparison with similar movies like "X-Men."

Where "Hellboy" pales in comparison with the latter, however, comes in the film's uneven script and odd pacing, which spends too little time with the characters (Hurt and Perlman, for example, don't share enough scenes for their relationship to carry any weight) and too much with Hellboy and crew fighting the slimy, egg-laying creatures Rasputin has unleashed into the world. After the second or third fight between these monsters, I had seen enough, but Del Toro brings them back for subsequent battles that go on forever.

Also disappointing is the movie's love story, with Perlman and vanilla recruit Evans battling for the affections of Selma Blair's "Firestarter"-like heroine. Awkwardly shot and written (perhaps the partial result of Evans's bland performance), this aspect of the picture doesn't pay off at all. (Ditto for Roden's bad-guy, who is never as remotely interesting as the title character).

"Hellboy" works best when Perlman gets an opportunity to illuminate Hellboy's wild persona, but throughout, I kept thinking a better movie could have been made from Mingola's comic. It's diverting for the most part and Perlman is great, but the pacing is wildly inconsistent (some scenes feel oddly truncated, others play as if they'd never end) and Del Toro's claustrophobic direction accentuates the phoniness of the Prague locations (which are supposed to be NYC but look like the same sets Del Toro used for "Blade II").

Sony’s Blu Ray release of Del Toro’s 132-minute “Director’s Cut” looks very good for the most part, though the film is often so dark that “Hellboy” doesn’t quite benefit as much from its HD appearance as you might anticipate. There are also some intermittent artifacts (“ringing” around some objects) here and there, though for the most part “Hellboy” fans will be happy with the presentation. Audio options are again in 5.1 PCM and 5.1 Dolby Digital flavors.

Extras include a good assortment of extras, though not quite all of the extensive content found in the 3-disc standard-edition DVD from a couple of years back. The lengthy, 140-minute “Seeds of Creation” documentary takes you through the production step-by-step, while deleted scenes, commentary from the director, lighting/make-up tests, VFX How-To’s, and “Scott McCloud’s Guide to Understanding Comics” round out the disc.

BASIC INSTINCT: Blu Ray (**½, 128 mins., 1992, Unrated; Lionsgate): Paul Verhoeven’s sleek, stylishly made, and quite silly thriller makes its Blu Ray debut in a somewhat underwhelming presentation from Lionsgate. On the plus side, the film’s DTS audio is sensational, doing full justice to Jerry Goldsmith’s outstanding, haunting score in a way no previous video release has, and extras (reprieved from prior Special Edition discs) include a commentary from Verhoeven and cinematographer Jan De Bont; another track with feminist critic Camille Paglia; the trailer; screen tests; storyboards; a montage of TV edition scenes; and the documentary “Blonde Poison.” The disappointment comes in the disc’s new 1080p transfer, which suffers from an over-abundance of noise reduction and even visible “ringing” around certain objects and in the backdrop occasionally. One expects more from an HD transfer than what “Basic Instinct” provides, though it’s still superior to any version we’ve seen outside of a theater to date.    

New on DVD from Fox

Several additional vintage titles join Fox’s “Cinema Classics Collection” line-up this June.

Jack Benny stars as CHARLEY’S AUNT (***, 1941, 82 mins.) in this George Seaton-penned adaptation of the Brandon Thomas play (brought to the screen several times before and since).

Fox’s Special Edition DVD of this short, raucous comedy, playing off Benny’s shenanigans, includes a new B&W transfer with an informative commentary by historian Randy Skretvedt, a promotional short (“Three of a Kind”) and a still gallery.

Don Ameche, meanwhile, is the straight man to the antics of the Ritz Brothers in the entertaining, though slight, 1939 comic musical adaptation of THE THREE MUSKETEERS (**½, 1939, 72 mins.), with loads of pratfalls, musical numbers and a bit of swashbuckling derring-do making for a fine time for the whole family.

Fox’s DVD is one of the lighter “Cinema Classics” releases, offering only several Fox Movietone news reels, along with a color transfer. As with “Charley’s Aunt,” sound options include 2.0 stereo and mono soundtracks.

Meanwhile, the crew of the SSRN Seaview start off on their third season in the latest DVD anthology culled from VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA (1966, 507 mins., Fox).

Offering the first half of the episodes (basically the 1966 portion of the ‘66-‘67 season) from Season 3, “Voyage” heads towards the wild and woolly with more outlandish plots (giant sea monsters!) that the show’s fans still seem to be divided over. Yet it’s undeniably fun, full-color Irwin Allen escapist fare, with Fox’s theee-disc set including a David Hedison interview and various still galleries. Recommended!

NEXT TIME: BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA, GHOST RIDER, PRIMEVAL (for real this time) and more! 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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