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Early Summer Spectacular
Cannon "Classics" Ride High on Blu-Ray
Plus: Twilight Time, SHERLOCK HOLMES, GHOST RIDER & More!

Growing up in the ‘80s, The Cannon Group was a frequent part of Friday night video rentals, birthday parties and sleepovers in my life. Those wild and wacky Israeli filmmakers, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, gave us countless movies to hoot and hiss at, and the legacy of their Cannon label remains (almost) untouched in the annals of B-grade cinema over the last few decades. This month marks the first wave of Blu-Ray titles from the Cannon vaults to hit the HD format, both here and in Germany, where a number of Golan-Globus films have also been resurrected in 1080p. Domestically, MGM and Fox have just issued a trio of Chuck Norris vehicles as Walmart exclusives with several of Charles Bronson’s “Death Wish” sequels (Parts II-IV to be exact) due out in August.

THE DELTA FORCE (***, 129 mins., 1986, R) is undoubtedly one of the best Cannon films – and a movie that’s surprisingly well-made, particularly considering its kitchen-sink cast. Norris and Lee Marvin play members of the elite U.S. military squad who are sent to Beirut after Lebanese terrorists (lead by a superb Robert Forster) hijack an American plane. On board are a number of tourists (including Martin Balsam, Joey Bishop, Lainie Kazan and Shelly Winters), an American priest (George Kennedy) who’s traveling with a young nun (Kim Delaney), several American marines and families as well – a premise based on a real, harrowing 1985 event involving a hijacked TWA plane.

Menahem Golan himself directed “The Delta Force,” which jumps right into a somewhat silly flashback sequence involving Norris and the Delta squad, leading you to believe the whole film is going to be an over-the-top ‘80s action flick. However, this is no “Invasion U.S.A.,” as the movie then proceeds to spend time developing the various passengers on the hijacked flight. Golan doesn’t have much of a visual eye – the film is straight-ahead, no-frills in its presentation like many Cannon pictures – but to his credit, he receives believable performances from a cast whose diversity could’ve easily sent the film down to the depths of a lower-level Irwin Allen film (Robert Vaughn, Bo Svenson, Hanna Schygulla, and Susan Strasberg also appear). The “cheese factor” is also surprisingly low, at least until the film’s rousing finale, wherein Chuck and Marvin take down the terrorists, all to the strains of a catchy, if dated, Alan Silvestri synth score. Still, “The Delta Force” is a surprisingly well modulated film considering the cast, director and studio, and one of the better Cannon pictures all told.

I’m not sure if “The Delta Force” was ever issued in 16:9 on DVD, so it’s possible this 1080p AVC encoded Blu-Ray presentation marks the first widescreen release of the film, in the U.S., since its theatrical release. Either way, the disc’s transfer is just splendid: detailed, colorful, and minus any obvious use of DNR. The 2.0 DTS MA stereo audio is fine, especially if spread out into Pro Logic, and the trailer is also on-hand.

Less satisfying but still moderately entertaining are two of Norris’ earlier Cannon films, MISSING IN ACTION (**½, 101 mins., 1984, R) and MISSING IN ACTION 2: THE BEGINNING (*½, 95 mins., 1985, R), starring the Chuckster as the Rambo-like Braddock, who heads back to Vietnam in order to rescue his missing brothers in the “original” film, while the “prequel” chronicles the sadism and torture Braddock earlier endured while being a POW.

While the two movies were shot back-to-back, Part 2 is really Part 1 – and not just because of its title. The original “Missing In Action” boasts the unusual writing credit “Based on Characters Created By...,” since the film was really the second half of a two-picture deal. However, after having seen both movies, and realizing that the first part was the weaker installment (plus, they could get a head start on the similarly-themed “Rambo II”), Golan-Globus made the wise decision to release what would’ve been the sequel first....then issue the inferior original movie as a prequel the following year. Neither film is great but “The Beginning” certainly isn’t much fun, filled with violence and a depressing tone that makes it something less of a “Rambo” clone and more of a poor man’s “Deer Hunter” Vietnam sequence. If you’re new to the movies, watch “The Beginning” first (or not at all), then “Missing in Action,” which is more consistently entertaining and action-packed in the traditional “Cannon style.”

Both movies have again been treated right on Blu-Ray by MGM and Fox. The 1080p AVC encoded transfers are satisfyingly clean and freed from DNR; the 2.0 DTS MA mono soundtracks are passable, and trailers round out the releases.

If you’re looking for “Braddock: Missing in Action III,” it’s due out later this summer in Germany, where, surprisingly, a handful of other Cannon catalog titles have also just sprung up from Ascot Elite Entertainment. These include the undeniably entertaining “Enter the Ninja” and “Revenge of the Ninja” (the sublime “Ninja III: The Domination” is also coming shortly), plus the musical-dance programmers “Lambada” and “Salsa.” All the films have English audio and non-forced subtitles, though they’re all locked to Region B, so you’ll need a region-free player in order to view them. If you’re a Cannon aficionado, however, you’ll want to import all four, and also head down to Walmart where the Norris Blu-Rays are an attractively inexpensive $7.99 a pop.

New From Twilight Time
Sure to be one of Twilight Time’s hottest sellers to date, AS GOOD AS IT GETS (***½, 138 mins., PG-13) kicks off the latest pair of limited-edition Blu-Ray releases sold exclusively at Screen Archives.

One of director James L. Brooks’ best films, “As Good as It Gets” chronicles the lives of cranky author Jack Nicholson, hard-working waitress Helen Hunt, and gay artist Greg Kinnear, whose brutal beating lands him in the hospital – and his dog into the care of the misanthropic writer. That fateful moment, and subsequent bonding between Jack and Kinnear’s canine, leads Nicholson to begin reconnecting with other humans, striking up a relationship with Hunt and seeing Kinnear through his recovery.

Brooks wrote “As Good as it Gets” with Mark Andrus, peppering the picture with intelligent, incisive dialogue that’s warm and witty, also funny and poignant. The film was a smash hit upon release, earning Oscars for Nicholson and Hunt in the same year that “Titanic” basically won everything else, and remains a heartwarming picture – up there with Brooks’ best – with a trio of marvelous performances.

Limited to 3000 copies, it’s highly likely that Twilight Time has – much like “Fright Night” – a candidate for a relatively quick sell-out here. The 1080p AVC encoded transfer and DTS MA soundtrack are both on par with Sony’s typically strong catalog presentations, with the sole extra being an isolated score track of Hans Zimmer’s music and Julie Kirgo’s customary booklet notes.

Also new from Twilight Time this month is a decidedly more obscure title: the 1957 Twentieth Century Fox filming of John Steinbeck’s THE WAYWARD BUS (89 mins.), an ensemble drama concerning a collection of passengers heading down to Mexico and learning something about themselves in the process. Among the travelers are Jayne Mansfield as a former stripper trying to turn her life around; Dan Dailey as a salesman who becomes her love interest; and the bus driver (Rick Jason) with an alcoholic wife (Joan Collins) who has to guide them on their journey through both emotional and physical turmoil.

Finely modulated performances – critics rank “The Wayward Bus” as one of Mansfield’s best – and a crisp, gorgeous Cinemascope lensing make for a compelling melodrama that Twilight Time has delivered splendidly in high-def. The 1080p AVC encoded transfer is natural and satisfying, while extras include Leigh Harline’s score isolated on an alternate channel, the trailer, Julie Kirgo’s booklet notes, and an insightful, welcome commentary from authors Alain Silver and James Ursini.

Also available from Screen Archives on DVD is TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN: KA SHEN’S JOURNEY, a wonderful profile of Nancy Kwan from our friend Brian Jamieson, who wrote, produced and directed this fascinating chronicle of Kwan’s life, from her Hong Kong childhood to breakout performances in “The World of Suzie Wong” and “Flower Drum Song.” Her subsequent journey, heartbreaks and triumphs are outlined in a moving, personal documentary narrated by Nick Redman and available on DVD from Redwind Productions. For more information, visit www.kashensjourney.com

Also New on Blu-Ray

SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS Blu-Ray/DVD/Ultraviolet Combo Pack (**½, 129 mins., 2011, PG-13; Warner): Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Dr. Watson (Jude Law) are back in this bombastic sequel to the equally boisterous Guy Ritchie hit, which once again trades wit and actual detective work for action scenes, visual effects and a convoluted plot.

This time out Holmes and Watson once again do battle (literally) with nefarious Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris), who initially targets Watson and his fiancee, but has grander designs on taking out Holmes – and ruling Europe – altogether. The duo team up with a gypsy (Noomi Rapace) as well as Inspector Lastrade (Eddie Marsan) and Holmes’ brother Mycroft (Stephen Fry) in an effort to stop Moriarty before, of course, it’s too late.

“A Game of Shadows” is sure to please fans of the original movie, but for everyone else, this mediocre sequel just offers more of the same: explosions, fisticuffs, great escapes, comedic disguises, and not nearly as much engaging character-driven interplay as there ought to be given the material and the actors. Watching this film I kept recalling how much more entertaining the “revisionist” 1988 comedy “Without a Clue” was, with Michael Caine as a stage performer acting out the “role” of Holmes as concocted by Ben Kingsley’s Dr. Watson. Here we have a pair of talented stars in Downey and Law, who work well together whenever the film takes a breath – but that seldom happens until late in the game, by which point Ritchie’s film had already given me a headache.

Warner’s Blu-Ray combo pack of “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” includes a dynamic 1080p AVC encoded transfer deftly rendering Philippe Rousselot’s richly textured cinematography, which is one of the film’s strongest assets. The DTS MA audio is constantly active (as is Hans Zimmer’s hard-working score), while extra features include a “Maximum Movie Mode” interactive function with picture-in-picture segments, storyboards, focus points, still galleries and introductions with Downey, along with a movie app that offers more interactive content. A DVD and Ultraviolet copy round out the release.

GHOST RIDER: SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE 3-D Blu-Ray/Blu-Ray Combo Pack (**, 95 mins., 2012, PG-13; Sony): A sequel made strictly to fulfill Sony’s contractual obligation to Marvel Comics (in order to retain rights to the “Ghost Rider” character), this otherwise totally unwanted follow-up brings Nicolas Cage (always eager for another check) back as Johnny Blaze, the stunt rider with a demonic skeleton alter-ego who swallows the souls of the wicked.

This time out, in a story concocted by David S. Goyer, Johnny finds himself – and the Rider – in Eastern Europe, where the devil wants a young boy (Johnny Witworth) for his own nefarious purposes. Recruited by a priest played by Idris Elba, Blaze tries to protect the boy
and his mother (Violante Placido) from the bad guys while dealing with his own schizophrenic issues, including the true identity of the powerful monster inside him.

Shot on a notably reduced budget with the involvement of a number of foreign investors onboard, “Spirit of Vengeance” might have made for good, trashy fun under the right circumstances, but the dull script and indifferent direction from the usually spastic Neveldine/Taylor (of the “Crank” pictures) kiboshes any hope of a guilty pleasure early on. Cage does get a few chances to overact, but the tedious visual trappings – there are times the film resembles any generic Syfy Channel original movie, just with better effects – and tired nature of the entire film weigh it down. “Ghost Rider” fans and Cage fanatics might find some intermittent moments of entertainment here, but they’re few and far between.

Sony’s 3-D Blu-Ray package includes the standard Blu-Ray (with its deleted scenes, six-part documentary and expanded Neveldine/Taylor visual commentary) alongside its 3-D platter (which, for extras, only includes one 10-minute look at the picture’s use of 3-D). Though this “Ghost Rider” was always intended to be seen in 3-D, the movie’s budget, European location shooting and directors’ love of handheld camera made shooting it in 3-D practically, and financially, untenable. The film was subsequently converted to 3-D in post-production, but while the transfer is sound, the 3-D doesn’t add much – just some depth-of-field effects are all most viewers are likely to notice here. The DTS MA audio includes an unmemorable score by David Sardy, while the package is capped by an Ultraviolet digital copy.

Also on the Nic Cage front, SEEKING JUSTICE (**½, 105 mins., 2011, R; Anchor Bay) hits home video shortly, and it’s at least a far more interesting film than “Ghost Rider” Deux. Shot as “The Hungry Rabbit Jumps,” this thriller from veteran director Roger Donaldson is competently shot (credit goes to cinematography David Tattersall) if nothing else. Cage here plays a devoted family man whose patience and sanity are put to the test when his gorgeous wife January Jones is attacked. Hoping for vengeance, Cage is approached by a mysterious man (Guy Pearce) who offers him the opportunity to do what the justice system cannot, but with a catch: Pearce may call on him, down the line, for a favor...

Despite a script with more than its share of holes, “Seeking Justice” is fairly compelling due to Donaldson’s sure-handed direction and Cage’s off-kilter performance. The film may be many things, but as has often been said about the star’s recent work, it’s never boring – and warrants a lukewarm recommendation for action fans. Anchor Bay brings “Seeking Justice” to Blu-Ray on June 19th in a combo pack including a 1080p transfer, Dolby TrueHD soundtrack and a behind-the-scenes featurette on the supplemental side. A DVD is also included.

MEATBALLS Blu-Ray (***, 91 mins., 1979, PG; Lionsgate): Ivan Reitman’s 1979 comedy hit stars Bill Murray, who effortlessly parades around campgrounds and cliches found in many a kids' outdoor comedy, in this warm and satisfying summer-camp classic, packed with all the genre hallmarks one would anticipate. You may have seen other movies like it, but “Meatballs” is still the seminal camp movie, with its semi-raunchy humor (you'd never see a PG rated kids comedy now with as much adult material as this), fun mix of Elmer Bernstein score and songs (many written by Elmer and Norman Gimbel), and steady stream of laughs making for a good time for one and all.

Surprisingly, “Meatballs” had something of a turbulent post-production process. Reitman’s original version of the film focused mostly on the adventures of the various camp counselors, but when the director went to cut the film down, taking out nearly an hour of footage, he found himself with a 70 minute feature that needed “more.” The director then decided to develop more material around the relationship between Murray’s counselor and young Chris Makepeace, resulting in an enhanced emotional center at the heart of the picture (those added scenes also stand out since Makepeace looks noticeably older).

An independent production that’s bounced around various video labels over the years, “Meatballs” was last issued by Sony in a Special Edition DVD that included a decent retrospective documentary. That edition was supposed to be released on Blu-Ray but never happened, leaving fans to wait until this excellent new Lionsgate HD package materialized. While the BD lacks the Sony documentary and other extras (it does retain a fascinating commentary track with Reitman and co-writer Dan Goldberg), the 1080p transfer is spectacular: crisp, colorful, and freed of DNR. The DTS MA stereo audio is likewise fine, and the original Paramount logo is retained (Paramount beat Fox and Universal for the rights to distribute the film theatrically in 1979). For Murray fanatics and comedy fans, this is a terrific catalog release that comes highly recommended.

Also new from Lionsgate this month are pair of DVDs for new parents: THE HAPPIEST TODDLER ON THE BLOCK and THE HAPPIEST BABY ON THE BLOCK are a pair of titles from pediatrician Harvey Karp, M.D. The two volumes are intended to help parents both get their babies to sleep faster, as well as calm toddlers down and increase their patience levels. Both discs run over an hour and also include Dr. Karp answering over 25 commonly asked questions from parents.

SPIDER-MAN Blu-Ray/Ultraviolet (***½, 121 mins., 2002, PG-13)
SPIDER-MAN 2 Blu-Ray/Ultraviolet (****, 128 mins., 2004, PG-13)
SPIDER-MAN 3 Blu-Ray/Ultraviolet (***, 140 mins., 2007, PG-13; Sony): Remastered Blu Ray editions of the first two “Spider-Man” films are on tap this month from Sony (in transfers that seem to be at least somewhat improved over their prior BD releases) as well as a re-issue of the first disc of the previously released “Spider-Man 3" – perfectly timed to coincide with the new “Amazing Spider-Man” film hitting theaters on July 3rd.

Why "Spider-Man" has remained an enduring character -- and why so many people found themselves identifying with Peter Parker over the years -- is simple: of all the super-heroes, Spider-Man is arguably the most "human" of them all. Yes, he has super powers, but his real-life problems are ones all young people have: trying to fit in and grow up, earn the respect of one's peers, and become a responsible adult. Spider-Man's sense of humor and Peter Parker's maturation are simply easier to identify with than the comparatively cosmic issues other heroes have to grapple with.

Those elements were wonderfully captured by director Sam Raimi in his trilogy, starting with the original 2001 hit SPIDER-MAN, which is filled with eye-popping, colorful action and appealing characters. It's aided immeasurably by one of the more perfectly assembled ensembles to ever grace a comic-book flick cast (with the possible exception of a certain 1978 movie starring The Man Of Steel) as well.

For a detailed synopsis of the film you’re welcome to read my original review, but in terms of this new Blu Ray release Sony has served up a strong visual package -- a fresh 1080p AVC encoded transfer that’s superior to the prior Blu-Ray, which while decent for it time, wasn’t nearly as impressive as it should have been. This transfer is appreciably more detailed and satisfying, while the DTS MA sound captures the raucous sound design splendidly. All kinds of extras have been brought over from the original DVD release, including screen tests, a gag reel, webisodes, a featurette, historical documentary, Raimi profile and other goodies, though not every one of the featurettes was carried over.

Raimi followed the film with the outstanding SPIDER-MAN 2 in 2004. Whether it's the fully-developed characters, more laid back tone, the added dashes of humor and warmth, or the sheer fact that “Spider-Man 2" has a genuine story to compliment its dazzling action scenes, the bottom line is that this first Spidey sequel is a sensational follow-up that's not only superior to its predecessor but also one of the finest comic book films ever made.

Not that the original "Spider-Man" isn't a terrific example of comic-book filmmaking, but Raimi's follow-up is even more satisfying. Thanks to a terrific screenplay by two-time Oscar winner Alvin Sargent that goes beyond the "origin story" confines of the original, "Spider-Man 2" is one of the rare sequels that improves upon its predecessor, perfectly capturing the essence of both the comic book's wild action and the very human story of Peter Parker at its core.

For more on the film check out my original 2004 review of the sequel here. As far as the Blu Ray release is concerned, Sony has again served up a superlative AVC-encoded 1080p transfer with DTS MA audio, while bringing in some (though not all) of the extras left off the prior Blu-Ray release: three commentaries, a blooper reel, 12-part documentary, VFX breakdowns, and both the 136-minute extended version and the 127-minute theatrical release are on-hand here.

Rounding out the box-set is SPIDER-MAN 3, the third and weakest entry in the series that was a bit unfairly maligned by fans, and has certainly been treated as the weak sister in this set.

Though this bloated and occasionally uneven sequel certainly has its share of problems (Peter Parker crying over a break-up?), the movie isn’t as bad as its reputation among fans would lead one to indicate, with some exciting set-pieces, a nicely understated performance from Thomas Haden Church as the Sandman, and some eclectic Raimi humor making for a film that, on balance, is entertaining if nothing else. For my original, in-depth review of the movie, click here.

“Spider-Man 3" was previously released in a two-disc Blu-Ray set; this release contains an exact duplicate of the first disc in that package, meaning the second disc of extras is not offered here. The AVC encoded 1080p transfer and Dolby TrueHD/PCM soundtracks are both still excellent, while extras include two commentaries (one from Sam Raimi, another with assorted crew members including producers Laura Ziskin and Avi Arad), bloopers, and a music video. All three discs also include Ultraviolet copies and a $10 voucher good towards a ticket to the “Amazing Spider-Man,” albeit only at select theater locations.

ACT OF VALOR Blu-Ray/DVD/Digital Copy (***, 111 mins., 2012, R; Fox): Independently produced feature from the “Bandito Brothers” (Scott Waugh and Mouse McCoy) is an exciting chronicle of a US Navy Seal unit assigned to rescue a CIA operative (Roselyn Sanchez), recently abducted in Costa Rica by a local drug smuggler. After a brutal firefight, the seals uncover the kingpin’s association with a number of suicide bombers trying to infiltrate the U.S. by way of Mexico – and from there, it’s a race against the clock (and around the globe) to prevent a number of terrorist attacks from taking place.

“Act of Valor” stars a number of real US Navy Seals in the picture, something that gives the film added novelty – but even without that component, this is still a straight-ahead, well-executed action film. There’s not much pause for how or why – the film is all from the Seals’ point of view, and Waugh and McCoy, along with writer Kurt Johnstad, bring a certain level of authenticity to the picture with its high-tech gadgets and grounded (if unsurprisingly one-note) performances from a cast of actual soldiers.

Fox’s Blu-Ray boasts a number of interesting extras include commentary, interviews with the Seals, deleted scenes, a number of featurettes, a digital copy and standard DVD as well.

MACHINE GUN PREACHER Blu-Ray/DVD/Digital Copy (129 mins., 2011, R; Fox): Gerard Butler received acclaim for his role as a former drug dealer whose change of conscience leads him to East Africa; there, he takes on a local militia making life a living hell for local impoverished children. Fox’s Blu-Ray of “Machine Gun Preacher” includes a 1080p transfer, DTS MA soundtrack, two featurettes, a DVD and digital copy as well.

JEFF WHO LIVES AT HOME Blu-Ray/Ultraviolet (**½, 82 mins., 2012, R; Paramount): The latest tale of disaffected thirtysomething suburbanites from writer-directors Jay and Mark Duplass, “Jeff Who Lives At Home” stars Jason Segel as the title character – a pot-smoking slacker who believes that he’s learned the secret to turning his life around and proceeds to help brother Ed Helms deal with his wife Judy Greer’s infidelity.

Some poignant and comedic moments occur along with predictable moments of embarrassment in the Duplass’ latest effort, which gets by due to the performances of Segel and Helms, who work extremely well together, as well as Susan Sarandon as their ever-frustrated mom. “Jeff...” doesn’t amount to a whole lot, but it’s appealing enough if you’re a fan of any of the stars.

Paramount’s Blu-Ray disc is light on extras but does include a nice 1080p transfer, DTS MA soundtrack and Ultraviolet digital copy.

BIG MIRACLE Blu-Ray/DVD/Digital Copy (**½, 107 mins., 2012, PG; Universal): Well-meaning film, based on a true incident detailed in Thomas Rose’s book “Freeing the Whales,” stars Drew Barrymore as a Greenpeace volunteer trying to save a pod of Grey Whales stuck in the ice near the Arctic circle. John Krasinski, meanwhile, co-stars as the TV reporter who first sheds light on their plight, leading to an international collaboration to free the whales.

Veteran filmmaker Ken Kwapis directed “Big Miracle,” which failed to find an audience upon its theatrical release last winter. In comparison with the superior family picture “A Dolphin Tale,” the movie earned just a third of the gross of that fall sleeper hit, but it’s still a well-crafted – if overlong – picture that older kids and their parents might enjoy (it’s likely too slow and “adult” for the little ones, which might explain its tepid box-office performance). Cliff Eidelman’s pleasant score and John Bailey’s crisp widescreen lensing give the film a touch of class, while an A-grade supporting cast (Kristen Bell, Dermot Mulroney, Tim Blake Nelson) ably assist Barrymore and the always-affable Krasinski.

Universal’s Blu-Ray is a combo pack including a Blu-Ray and DVD copy on the same disc, plus both an Ultraviolet and standard digital copy. Extras include deleted scenes, commentary with Kwapis and one featurette.

THE YANKLES Blu-Ray (116 mins., 2009, PG-13; Magnolia): Amusing, offbeat baseball film/culture-clash comedy stars Brian Wimmer as a major leaguer who, after being sentenced to community service for being a repeat DUI offender, ends up coaching a Jewish orthodox yeshiva baseball team. The inevitable ‘fish out of water’ jokes ensue in this low-budget but lightly entertaining film co-starring Don(ny) Most from “Happy Days.” Magnolia’s Blu-Ray includes deleted scenes, a featurette, commentary with director David Brooks and co-writer Zev Brooks, baseball cards, extended musical scenes and the trailer.

THE FP Blu-Ray (83 mins., 2011, R; Drafthouse Films/Image): The “FP” is Frazier Park, the heart of a future, post-apocalyptic world where rival gangs fight for their lives in the video game “Beat-Beat Revelation.” After Jason Trost’s older brother is slain by a gang leader, Trost vows never to dance again until the livelihood of all around him are threatened unless he wins another competition. This off the wall premise is given a thorough workover in the Trost Brothers’ 2011 cult film, which hits Blu-Ray (with a bonus digital copy) in a “Drafthouse Films” release from Image Entertainment. Ample extras include a commentary, Making Of, featurette, trailer, and 16 pages of admiration for the film from Trost aficionados Rob Zombie and “Crank” directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor. The 1080p transfer and DTS MA soundtrack are both top notch given the low-budget parameters of the production.


Growing up I was never a massive fan of the Three Stooges. In fact, even though the boys were around thanks to constant UHF afternoon programming all during my childhood (one local station, TV38 WSBK out of Boston, even aired the rare 3-D Stooges shorts one year), I usually preferred the antics of Abbott & Costello to Moe, Larry and Curly. That being said, Sony has produced a magnificent DVD box-set that’s a love letter to all Stooges fans, and one that might earn a convert or two (myself included) along the way.

THE THREE STOOGES: THE ULTIMATE COLLECTION is a massive box-set offering all of the team’s 190 Columbia Pictures shorts – remastered – as well as three bonus discs featuring solo outings with Joe Besser, Joe DeRita and Shemp Howard. As if that wasn’t enough, two other features, “Rockin in the Rockies” and “Have Rocket, Will Travel” are also packed into the set, which offers an enormous amount of value for the money (Sony previously released eight individual “Three Stooges Collection” DVD sets, which are reproduced in their entirety here, including those two 3-D shorts with glasses included).

Stooges fans who owned the prior DVD editions may balk at upgrading here, but the bonus “Rare Treasures” discs are exclusive to this release and offer a wealth of content previously unavailable. Best of all is the price, with Best Buy currently listing it for $45 (Amazon has it at $90). Highly recommended!

New From Acorn

MURDOCH MYSTERIES Season 4 (624 mins.) arrives on Blu-Ray in a three-disc HD presentation from Acorn. The fourth season of the Canadian lensed series, set in Toronto during the 1890s and based on a series of novels by Maureen Jennings, follows detective William Murdoch (Yannick Bisson), who adopts then-cutting edge techniques like finger marks and forensics to track down a costumed killer, mobsters, and a would-be vampire, while still contemplating his affections for old flame Dr. Julia Ogden (Helene Joy). 1080p HD transfers and 2.0 uncompressed PCM stereo tracks adorn the set, which also includes some 15 minutes of behind-the-scenes featurettes and two minutes of ‘alternate love letters.’

MONROE Season 1 (274 mins.) Is an enjoyable British medical procedural in the vein of “House” that works best as a vehicle for star James Nesbitt. The “Murphy’s Law” alumnus here plays a tough neurosurgeon whose home life is decidedly rougher than his work with a scalpel (sound familiar?). It’s predictable yet well-executed, with Acorn’s DVD offering the program’s first six episodes on two discs with 16:9 transfers and 2.0 stereo oundtracks.

Finally, “Poirot” fans have had much to celebrate recently thanks to Acorn’s Blu-Ray releases of the original POIROT mysteries. Set 5, which arrives later this month, includes the 1993 cycle from the David Suchet years, with “The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb,” “The Underdog,” “Yellow Iris,” “The Case of the Missing Will,” “The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman,” “The Chocolate Box,” “Dead Man’s Mirror” and “Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan” all included. The 1080p transfers (in the series’ original 4:3 aspect ratio) and uncompressed PCM stereo soundtracks are all top notch.


PRETTY LITTLE LIARS Season 2 DVD/Ultraviolet (1093 mins., 2011-12; Warner): A year after the death of Alison, friends Aria, Emily, Hanna and Spencer have to move their friendship off the QT in order to avoid questions and constant suspicion from the omnipresent “A,” who threatens the group with inside information on the quartet.

ABC Family’s “Pretty Little Liars,” based on Sara Shepard’s best-selling book series, has become a breakout hit for the network, recently beginning its third season and generating solid ratings on Monday nights. Fans of the series will want to check out Warner’s newly-released, second-season DVD edition, which includes all of its 25 episodes in 16:9 transfers and 5.1 soundtracks, as well as a number of extras: the featurettes “Fashion’s Guilty Pleasure” and “Men of Mystery,” plus unaired scenes.

FRANKLIN & BASH: Season 1 DVD (422 mins., 2011; Sony): Surprising TNT hit brings together Breckin Meyer and Mark-Paul Gosselaar as eccentric lawyers who get a shot at the big time when their unconventional methods are noticed by  high-powered attorney Malcolm McDowell, who asks the duo to join his firm. What follows is a standard but likeable, and also lighthearted, show that thankfully lacks the heavy-handed approach of producer David E. Kelley in his myriad of legal procedural series. Sony’s first-season DVD set of “Franklin & Bash” offers a gag reel, seven featurettes and three commercials, plus 16:9 transfers and 5.1 soundtracks.

WHITE COLLAR Season 3 DVD (689 mins., 2011-12; Fox): Matt Bomer returns in the third season of the popular USA series as FBI consultant Neal Caffrey, trying to help partner Peter Burke while staying a step ahead of the feds. Fox’s four-disc set includes all 16 episodes from “White Collar”’s third season, with extras including a gag reel, deleted scenes, commentary on the finale, trivia challenge with the cast, and one featurette. The 16:9 transfers and 5.1 soundtracks are just fine across the board.

BURN NOTICE Season 5 DVD (774 mins., 2011; Fox): Season five of the top-rated cable series finds Michael Westen reinstated by the CIA, but any hopes of stability for our hero are quickly dashed once Michael is framed for murder and blackmailed. Fox’s four-disc set includes all 18 episodes of “Burn Notice”’s fifth season in vibrant 16:9 transfers and 5.1 soundtracks. Special features include an extended version of “Army of One,” deleted scenes, a villains featurette, gag reel, and commentary on the episode “Fail Safe.”

New From E One

Lisa Kudrow stars in the first season of WEB THERAPY (266 mins., 2011), a Showtime original series with the former star of “Friends” essaying an online therapist who treats her patients in three minute web chats. Some of her frustrated clients include Lily Tomlin, Jane Lynch, Courtney Cox and Alan Cumming in this first season of “Web Therapy,” which E One brings to DVD in a multi-disc set including commentary on all episodes, a behind-the-scenes featurette, outtakes and a preview of season two. 16:9 transfers and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks are also on-hand...REEL LOVE (86 mins., 2011), meanwhile, is a CMT original movie with LeeAnn Rimes as a Southern belle who returns home to take care of her ailing father (Burt Reynolds) and falls for a new country boy in town (Shawn Roberts) in the process. E One’s DVD includes a 16:9 transfer, 5.1 soundtrack and interviews with Rimes and Reynolds.

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