6/19/07 Edition -- The AISLE SEAT BLOG Is Now Online!

Mid-June Wrap Up
Reviews From WELCOME BACK KOTTER to New HD Discs
Plus: BREACH, BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA, Criterions & More!

Misleading marketing campaigns don’t happen all that often in this day and age at the movies. Between the myriad of cinema-centric websites to all sorts of message boards, newspapers and publications, it’s difficult for a studio to completely pull the wool over the eyes of audiences, and especially so when it happens not once but twice during the same period, from the same studio no less!

Amazing as it may seem, Disney managed to pull the trick twice in as many months earlier this year for a pair of films that couldn’t possibly be more different.

BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA (***½, 2007, 96 mins., PG), a co-production with Walden Media, was labeled as coming from “The Studios That Brought You ‘The Chronicles Of Narnia,’” and sold on the special effects of the picture’s fantasy sequences. To most viewers unfamiliar with its source material (a Newbery Medal-winning children’s novel penned by Katherine Paterson), the film didn’t look any different than a Junior-sized version of “Lord of the Rings” or a less elaborate “Narnia,” with trailers showing its youthful protagonists battling creatures in a far-off fairy tale land.

But “Terabithia” is actually a far better, richer and emotional story than its advertising indicated: a tale of a young boy (Josh Hutcherson) growing up on a small farm, teased by kids at school, and slow to befriend his new classmate -- and next-door neighbor -- played by AnnaSophia Robb. Eventually the two form a close relationship, exploring the woods nearby and creating a fantasy world dubbed Terabithia, where the two retreat and use the power of their imaginations to make the kingdom’s various inhabitants come to life.

Paterson’s 1978 book, adapted here by Jeff Stockwell and David Paterson (the author’s son) for the screen (a poorly-received 1985 PBS adaptation starred Annette O’Toole), is a true “rites of passage” tale, with Hutcherson’s Jess Aarons experiencing the gamut of emotions, from feeling a first crush (on a music teacher played by Zooey Deschanel) to having a life-changing friendship and experiencing death for the first time. Without divulging all of the film’s plot elements, the movie takes a sudden and sad turn in its final third -- the kind of development that might’ve shocked parents who went into the film expecting an easy-going, PG-rated adventure for the little ones.

Fortunately, director Gabor Csupo and the performances of the leads keep “Terabithia” from becoming overly saccharine and maudlin. The film is indeed emotional but works on every level since the direction is so sensitively handled. At the same time, the dialogue, interaction between characters, and movement of the story all combine to craft a surprisingly moving and authentic-feeling film that, ironically, only falls a little flat during its special effects sequences. Although they’re intended to show the power of creativity, too often they get in the way of the movie’s core story (though it’s possible the film would’ve been far too much for younger viewers to bare without them).

“Bridge To Terabithia” is, then, that rare children’s film that doesn’t talk down to its audience, doesn’t try and add in pseudo-hip sarcastic humor (like every other film designed at its age group usually does), and doesn’t sugarcoat its subject matter. It’s well performed, poignant and easily one of the finest family films of recent years.

Disney’s DVD and Blu Ray releases both offer some basic extra content: two featurettes examine the effects and the themes of Paterson’s novel, respectively, while both also offer a music video for a song performed by Robb and two commentary tracks (one from Csupo and other production personnel, the other with Hutcherson and Robb).

The differences lie in the transfers, for as solid as the 16:9 (1.85) transfer and 5.1 sound are on the standard DVD, Disney’s Blu Ray (1080p) high-definition transfer and uncompressed 5.1 PCM sound blow the regular release away. The colors are magnificent and there’s not one flaw to be found in the transfer, making “Terabithia” one of the finest presentations seen in either high-def DVD format to date.

The other oddly-advertised Buena Vista film was PRIMEVAL (**½, 2007, 94 mins., R), a box-office bust from January which was rushed to theaters to beat the release date of a similarly-themed thriller named “Rogue” (which Dimension is scheduled to release later this summer).

“Primeval”’s promotional campaign made the film look like a generic serial killer movie, with its original poster showing a group of skeletons and a tag-line referencing the amount of victims the killer has claimed.

What the ad didn’t tell you is that the film wasn’t a standard slasher movie at all, but rather a veritable “Creature Feature” with the monster in this case being a giant crocodile named Gustave, who preyed on bodies both dead and alive in South Africa during a time of civil unrest in the ‘90s.

John Brancato and Michael Ferris’ script follows an American news team (Dominic Purcell, Orlando Jones, Brooke Langton) sent to cover the crocodile’s work, only to run afoul of a local warlord at the same time.

“Primeval” isn’t a great movie by any means, but for a total flop that received almost unanimously bad reviews, it’s shockingly watchable and even downright entertaining as B-movies go. Arguably better than “Lake Placid” on the killer crocodile scale (though no match for the Lewis Teague-John Sayles “Alligator”), “Primeval” boasts atmospheric widescreen lensing by Edward Pei and a nicely textured score by John Frizzell, working in orchestral beats with ethnic arrangements. For dumb summer fun, “Primeval” isn’t bad at all, and is best viewed with popcorn and plenty of pop by your side.

Disney’s Blu Ray release boasts a nifty 1080p transfer that shows off the film’s authentic locales, while the sound is offered in uncompressed 5.1 PCM and Dolby Digital sound. The Blu Ray presentation is a marked upgrade on the standard DVD edition, which includes its own 16:9 (2.35) transfer and 5.1 sound. Extras on both releases include commentary from director Michael Katleman, deleted scenes, and a featurette on the film’s CGI effects.

New Universal HD-DVDs

Universal’s latest batch of HD-DVD titles include a good amount of catalog fare for high-def enthusiasts, even if the transfers are somewhat of a mixed bag this time out.

MONTY PYTHON’S THE MEANING OF LIFE: HD-DVD (***, 1983, 106 mins., R; Universal): Universal’s HD port of their 2003 double-disc “Meaning of Life” Special Edition offers a satisfying, though not pristine, VC-1 encoded transfer of this final Monty Python feature; there’s a softness and general “grain” inherent in the image, though fans will still appreciate the heightened clarity of the new transfer (and it’s possible this may be the best the film will ever look). The 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus sound, meanwhile, is excellent (there's also a hysterical "Soundtrack For the Lonely” option, which is definitely fun for a few minutes if nothing else).

“The Meaning of Life” doesn’t try and tell a singular story like previous Python features, but rather links a group of loosely connected sketches and musical numbers together in order to make a little commentary on the nature of human existence. Some of the sequences work better than others, but the ones that do are uproarious, and the delightful, tuneful songs by John DuPrez and Eric Idle foreshadow their later work on “Spamalot.”

For the HD-DVD edition, Universal has carried over most of the extras from the previous Special Edition, and they’re bountiful, though some fans may be disappointed that the movie is only offered in its 106-minute theatrical cut (the 2-disc edition offered seamless branching for a 112-minute “Director’s Cut”).

Commentaries from Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam compliment the film, while several deleted scenes are also on-hand, including the sequences from the “Director’s Cut” (albeit with some narration from Jones over them, with frustratingly no option to it off). There’s also a terrific 50-minute documentary on the making of the movie, highlighted by fresh interviews with Jones, Gilliam, Michael Palin, John Cleese, and Eric Idle. The featurette also sports vintage production footage and a candid analysis of what worked and what didn't in the film, though Cleese seems a bit overly critical of the movie's sketch nature.

The movie's wonderful soundtrack is also given time in the spotlight, with a ten-minute featurette looking at the production of the film's musical numbers (among the chorus girls is Jane Leeves, better known as Daphne from "Frasier"). Three other, odd segments include Idle and Jones re-recording the original songs, while copious trailers, TV spots, and brief comedic bits newly shot by the Pythons round out the disc.

BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY: HD-DVD (**, 1989, 145 mins., R; Universal): Oliver Stone’s overwrought biopic of Vietnam vet Ron Kovic, his injury in combat and difficult adjustment after returning home from the war, has two strong components going for it: John Williams’ powerful, memorable score, and Robert Richardson’s evocative cinematography. The latter adapts extremely well to the HD format, with Universal’s VC-1 encoded transfer only showing the limitations of the source material here and there. Williams’ music, meanwhile, packs a potent presence in 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus surround.

“Born on the Fourth of July” remains one of Stone’s best-looking but heavy-handed films, with Tom Cruise giving it his all as Kovic, and an interesting array of supporting faces (Willem Dafoe, Kyra Sedgwick, Tom Sizemore, Lili Taylor and others) attempting to balance the melodramatic, often over-the-top elements of Stone and Kovic’s script. It’s ultimately a losing battle, but the film’s positive attributes make it worth at least a viewing.

SNEAKERS: HD-DVD (**½, 1992, 126 mins., PG-13; Universal): “High concept” thriller from “WarGames” scribes Walter Parkes and Lawrence Lasker became Phil Alden Robinson’s follow-up to his 1989 hit “Field of Dreams.” Robert Redford leads a top-notch ensemble cast (Sidney Poitier, River Phoenix, Mary McDonnell, Ben Kingsley, Dan Aykroyd, David Strathairn) through a breezy but overlong tale of hackers blackmailed by nefarious government types into obtaining a secret “black box.” James Horner’s score is terrific and the performances are engaging, though the sluggishly-paced film never becomes much more than moderately entertaining. Universal’s VC-1 encoded HD transfer is an improvement on the standard DVD, to be sure, but it’s not a title you’ll be reaching for in terms of showing off its high-def assets. The 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus sound is more satisfying, and extras include commentary with the filmmakers, the trailer, and a Making Of segment.

DAYLIGHT: HD-DVD (**½, 1996, 116 mins., PG-13; Universal): Mildly enjoyable disaster pic from director Rob Cohen stars Sylvester Stallone as a former emergency worker who leads the charge to save a number of commuters (including Amy Brenneman, Claire Bloom and Danielle Harris) trapped after a NYC tunnel collapses. Leslie Bohem’s script is predictable but functions well enough to get the job done, while ILM effects lend able support to reasonably entertaining (if claustrophobic) set-pieces and Randy Edelman’s score services the film just fine.

Universal’s HD-DVD edition sports a new VC-1 encoded transfer, but the movie still appears grainy and overly sharp, just like its previous DVD incarnations. It’s not bad, but viewers may be expecting more of the transfer. The 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus sound is excellent, and extras include a Making Of, Cohen commentary, vintage featurette, trailers, and the music video for the David Foster-produced ballad “Whenever There Is Love” featuring Donna Summer and Bruce Roberts.

LIAR, LIAR: HD-DVD (**½, 1997, 87 mins., PG-13; Universal)
BRUCE ALMIGHTY: HD-DVD (**½, 2003, 102 mins., PG-13; Universal)
Two of Jim Carrey’s biggest comedy hits have also been newly mastered in high-definition from Universal this month on HD-DVD.

The Spring ‘97 smash “Liar, Liar” worked the manic Carrey comedy formula into an amusing though somewhat sentimental vehicle, with its star essaying a workaholic attorney who has to tell the truth for 24 hours after his son’s birthday wish improbably comes true. Tom Shadyac’s direction keeps things moving along, while in his 2003 reunion with Carrey -- the $240-million grossing “Bruce Almighty” -- Carrey plays God for a time after the Mighty One himself (Morgan Freeman) agrees to give Carrey’s Buffalo TV reporter carte blanche to do what he pleases. Jennifer Aniston is on-hand to flesh out Carrey’s love interest in a feel-good comic fantasy that overindulges in saccharine pretentiousness in its final third (one hopes Shadyac learned his lessson for the upcoming sequel “Evan Almighty,” with Steve Carrell reprising his “Bruce” supporting role, yet the film’s ungainly budget has already made it one of the most expensive comedies of all-time!).

Universal’s HD-DVD versions of both pictures look fairly crisp (though not spectacular) in VC-1 encoded transfers and 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus audio. Extras on “Liar, Liar” include one delete scene, outtakes, commentary from Shadyac, the trailer and a Making Of featurette; while supplements on “Bruce” include over 35 minutes of deleted scenes and outtakes, a featurette on Carrey and another director commentary with Shadyac.

BREACH: HD-DVD (***, 2007, 111 mins., PG-13; Universal): Taut, exciting thriller from director Billy Ray chronicles the real-life story of American operative Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper), who was convicted in 2001 of selling secrets to the Soviets over a period spanning several decades. Billy Ray’s leisurely paced film slowly mounts the tension as it pulls young agent Eric O’Neill (Ryan Phillippe) into Hanssen’s world, culminating in a satisfying finale. Excellent support is turned by Laura Linney (as Phillippe’s boss), Dennis Haysbert, Caroline Dhavernas, Gary Cole and Kathleen Quinlan as Hanssen’s wife; an atmospheric score by Mychael Danna and cinematography by Tak Fujimoto also lend a firm assist to Ray’s script, co-written with Adam Mazer and William Rotko. Universal’s HD-DVD release is a “combo” disc also including the standard definition version, plus numerous extras including alternate and deleted scenes, a Dateline NBC segment on Hanssen, a terrific commentary with Ray and the real Eric O’Neill discussing the film’s authenticity, and other “U-Drive” interactive featurettes. Highly recommended!

Also Available on HD-DVD & Blu Ray from Magnolia Home Entertainment

Magnolia Entertainment has issued a number of their catalog titles on HD-DVD and Blu Ray, both formats offering the same 1080p transfers, supplements and soundtracks (though the HD-DVD versions generally offer a Dolby TrueHD option not contained on the Blu Ray side). Here’s a quick synopsis:

DISTRICT B13 (2005, 84 mins., R): Luc Besson-produced futuristic thriller offers some nifty action that looks spectacular in HD. Both formats include a Making Of segment, outtakes and an extended fight scene, plus English and French dialogue (subtitled in English).

THE LOST CITY (2005, 144 mins., R): Andy Garcia’s uneven, overlong but heartfelt examination of Havana in 1958, its music and mounting revolution sports an eclectic cast (Garcia, Dustin Hoffman, Bill Murray) and lovely cinematography. Magnolia’s HD-DVD and Blu Ray discs include deleted scenes, commentary, an “extended” Making Of, and other bonus features.

BUBBLE (2006, 73 mins., R): Steven Soderbergh “experiment,” a co-production with HDNet, is offbeat enough to entice the director’s fans to give it a view, but others may want to steer clear of this short, weird relationship story. Magnolia’s HD-DVD includes options for 3.0 DTS and Dolby Digital sound, plus commentary and Making Of segments from the HDNet series “Higher Definition.”

THE WORLD’S FASTEST INDIAN (2005, 127 mins., PG-13): Top-notch biopic of New Zealand speed demon Burt Munro (boasting one of Anthony Hopkins’ finest recent performances) was a labor of love for writer-director Roger Donaldson, who also helmed a documentary on Munro in 1971. Magnolia’s HD-DVD and Blu Ray discs both include a gorgeous 1080p transfer of “The World’s Fastest Indian” with 5.1 TrueHD (HD-DVD) and Dolby Digital Plus sound, deleted scenes, Making Of segments, commentary, and even Donaldson’s 1971 documentary “Offerings to the God of Speed.” Highly recommended!

THE ARCHITECT (2006, 82 mins., R): Another Magnolia co-production with HDNet Films, Matt Tauber’s urban drama offers strong performances from Anthony LaPaglia, Isabella Rossellini, Viola Davis and Hayden Panettiere. Magnolia’s DVD includes commentary, deleted scenes, and an HDNet “Higher Definition” Making Of episode.

Also New From Universal

The release of the poorly-received new “Nancy Drew” movie has at least led to a pair of inviting new DVD releases of prior adaptations of the teen sleuth: Warner’s “Nancy Drew Collection” (which we’ll hopefully cover next week) and Universal’s Season 2 box-set of THE HARDY BOYS/NANCY DREW MYSTERIES, this time with the “Nancy Drew” name blown up to roughly twice the size of Joe and Frank’s moniker.

Also a little puzzling is the decision to promote only Pamela Sue Martin’s performance as Nancy Drew, when the actress ended up falling out with the show’s producers and departed the series rather abruptly midway through the season. Her replacement, Janet Louise Johnson, lasted for only a few episodes late in the year before the Nancy Drew character was dropped altogether for the series’ abbreviated third season.

That being said, this five-disc anthology of the series’ sophomore season offers some of the show’s best episodes, particularly the teaming of the Hardys with Nancy Drew in the memorable “Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew Meet Dracula” and “Mystery of the Hollywood Phantom” multi-part episodes. Guest stars include appearances from Kim Cattrall, Melanie Griffith, Valerie Bertinelli, Maureen McCormick, Rick Springfield and Casey Kasem among others, while inbetween mysteries, Shaun Cassidy ends up crooning a few tunes that sent teenage girls into a swoon.

This is a satisfying DVD package from Universal that comes highly recommended for series fans. Hopefully the studio will close out the series by releasing the Hardy-only, 10-episode Season 3 in the near future.

New From Criterion

One of the great joys of covering titles from the Criterion Collection is that each time I receive a package from the label, one can never predict what’s inside. You could possibly get a deluxe edition of a major studio film like “Brazil,” a foreign classic like “The Seven Samurai,” a “Golden Age” gem like “The Third Man,” or something just altogether weird like Dusan Makavejev’s WR: MYSTERIES OF THE ORGANISM and its follow-up, SWEET MOVIE.

These two, single-disc Criterion releases offer a fascinating exploration of the Yugoslavian filmmaker’s controversial, ‘70s “documentaries,” which tore up art-house theaters and were in fact banned in the filmmaker’s home nation.

Both projects are almost indescribable but basically amount to exploring the common theme of sexual liberation in any form possible. Some of the images are graphic and many viewers (I confess I was one of them) may have to rely on the liner notes and extensive supplements to get a gauge of what makes Makavejev tick, but it’s certainly an interesting journey to say the least (and makes for a perfect pair of eclectic titles for Criterion’s catalog as well).

“WR” includes a restored transfer approved by the director, plus a commentary “assembled” from Raymond Durgnat’s 1999 book on the film; a 1994 Makavejev short produced for the BBC; new and vintage interviews with the filmmaker; and an essay from critic Jonathan Rosenbaum. The 1.33 transfer and mono sound are both just fine.

“Sweet Movie,” meanwhile, includes video interviews with Makavejev; actress Anna Prucnal singing a song from the film; and more essays, this time from David Sterritt and Stanley Cavell.

‘70s TV on DVD Flashback

Warner Home Video has opened up the TV vaults for a highly entertaining pair of vintage series box-sets that comedy aficionados ought to be excited about.

Gabe Kaplan’s seminal ‘70s sitcom WELCOME BACK, KOTTER makes its long-overdue full season debut with Warner’s release of the smash ABC sitcom’s inaugural 1975-76 season on DVD.

This James Komack-produced program was one of the most memorable of all situation comedies that aired in a decade filled with unforgettable series, thanks mainly to the fact that it’s actually funny. Kaplan’s dry delivery as a teacher and former “Sweathog” from Brooklyn who returns to his school to instruct the new generation of kids pegged as under-achievers (led by Vinnie Barbarino himself, John Travolta) forms the centerpiece of the show, while the chemistry between the cast and the quality of the writing keeps the material fresh and amusing even today.

Having grown up on the series via re-runs in the ‘80s, it’s gratifying to see “Kotter” finally on DVD in an excellent package from Warner. The four-disc Season 1 set includes uncut episodes with perfectly acceptable transfers (the series was videotaped so this is as good as it can look), and two extra features: a 23-minute retrospective offering new interviews with Kaplan, co-stars Ron Palillo, Marcia Strassman, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs and Robert Hegyes, while additional screen tests are also on-hand.

Also newly available from Warner is the Hanna-Barbera animated prime-time sitcom WAIT TILL YOUR FATHER GETS HOME (1972-73), which hits DVD in its 24-episode, Complete Season 1 box set.

This “generation gap” comedy is animated more like a Mad Magazine Dave Berg panel than traditional Hanna-Barbera series, sporting Tom Bosley vocalizing a dad trying to adapt to the changing times: his hippie eldest son, overweight and socially conscious teen daughter, and savvy youngest son, with an understanding mom trying to lend support. 

The show addresses all kinds of “flower power” issues from Women’s Lib to the sexual revolution, but does so in a surprisingly even-handed manner that balances both sides of the issue. It’s not knee-slappingly funny (and has a canned laugh track), but it is, at least, amusing and has held up better than you might anticipate.

Fans of the program will enjoy Warner’s assembly of the show’s first season in decent transfers and mono sound. Extras include a brief, six-minute look back at the creation of the series, including interviews with animators and other production personnel, as well as another featurette examining the cultural influences on the series and how it reflected its era.

For those who might’ve thought “adult” animation in prime-time began with “The Simpsons,” this is a fascinating program well worth a view for its content and design alone.

Also new from Warner this month are the eagerly-awaited debuts of the vintage Filmation BATMAN and SUPERMAN animated series, each in a pair of two-disc sets.

“The New Adventures of Superman” launched in 1966 and marked Filmation’s first of many super-hero forays to come. Well received by fans, the series is offered here on DVD in its initial 36 episodes, finding the Man of Steel battling Lex Luthor, Brainiac, the Toyman and others in a reverent set of comic book adventures, somewhat limited in their animated design but still entertaining for fans. (Viewers should note that the series originally included “Superboy” episodes that have been excised from this set due to contractual problems of some kind).

After a well-regarded late ‘60s “Batman” cartoon (still unreleased on DVD), Filmation brought back the Dark Knight -- though he’s not especially dark -- in the free-wheeling 1977 series “The New Adventures of Batman,” with ‘60s heroes Adam West and Burt Ward returning to voice Batman and Robin, respectively.

The stories are mostly lightweight but younger viewers (as well as nostalgic DC Comics buffs who grew up on the series) ought to be pleased with the set, which includes the complete ‘77 Filmation “Batman” in some 16 episodes totaling over 360 minutes.

Extra features on both DVDs include a pair of retrospective featurettes with interviews with Filmation’s Lou Scheimer among others.

New From Lionsgate

THE MANHATTAN PROJECT: Special Edition (***, 118 mins., 1986, PG-13; Lionsgate): Aaah, the summer of '86. I still have Fox's ad touting their slate of big sci-fi/fantasy films that were all released within a period of three short months: “Aliens,” “Big Trouble in Little China,” “Spacecamp,” “The Fly,” and “The Manhattan Project,” Marshall Brickman's entertaining "WarGames" clone that manages to promote a no-nukes message at the same time that it wants us to sympathize with its brilliant yet misguided teen protagonist who builds an atomic bomb with materials stolen from befuddled scientist John Lithgow's secret Ithaca, N.Y. lab.

Brickman, who worked with Woody Allen on several of his earlier films, walks a fine line between condemning the teen "hero" (the not-very-appealing Christopher Collet) and glorifying his actions, but “The Manhattan Project” still works because of Lithgow's sympathetic performance and a few memorable scenes (including the whiz kid's escape from an NYC science fair), not to mention Philippe Sarde's rich, melodic score, which does, admittedly, play at odds with the action in several sequences (especially when the bomb itself is constructed -- trust me, you'll know it when you see it!). Sequences like those make this film best viewed today as an escapist entertainment instead of a commentary on juvenile disillusionment (particularly considering post-Columbine/9-11 sensibilities), but fortunately Brickman incorporates enough comedic touches to make “The Manhattan Project” more than a dated slice of '80s paranoia.

Lionsgate has taken over “The Manhattan Project” from MGM though the transfer is curiously identical to the previous 16:9 presentation included on the 2002 DVD, right down to the MGM logo being included! (The film was theatrically released by Fox and also included the Gladden logo over sound effects, which again has been eliminated here).

What’s even more odd is the disc’s commentary track with director Marshall Brickman. Though sold as a “filmmaker/cast commentary” on the back jacket, the track only includes Brickman, in what appears to be a totally unedited conversation at that! Several times Brickman asks the disc’s unidentified producer what he ought to be talking about, and in a few places the filmmaker laments that he has nothing else to say. When he asks about “dead space,” the producer tells him Lithgow and visual FX supervisor Bran Ferren will be added into the commentary at a later date...though obviously something went amiss on the way to that happening!

It’s actually fascinating to listen to, even if Brickman seems to think the film has some problems and wouldn’t helm it in the same manner today. Inbetween moments of silence, he also discusses meeting Philippe Sarde and offers some revealing comments on the nature of modern-moviemaking circa 2007.

Two Making Of featurettes include recent interviews with Brickman and Ferren, who’s best known for bungling the FX in “Star Trek V,” while the original trailer and a worthless “80s trivia track” offers fleeting “Almanac” styled tidbits about what was going on in 1986.

Still, this is a decent upgrade for fans of the movie, particularly for the strange commentary alone!

THE NIGHTCOMERS: Special Edition (**, 1972, 97 mins., R; Lionsgate): You have to give Lionsgate credit for not just releasing this 1972 misfire on DVD (for the first time in the U.S.), but for adding some exclusive special features to compliment the picture as well. Marlon Brando gives one of his wackiest performances in this completely unnecessary “prequel” to “The Turn of the Screw” as Quint, the gardener who engages in salacious activities with newly-arrived governess Miss Jessel (the buxom Stephanie Beacham), much to the detriment of her young charges (who would go onto haunt Deborah Kerr in “The Innocents”). Director-producer Michael Winner never gives us one reason to care about anyone or anything in this flaccid film, noteworthy only today for Brando’s appearance and its connection with its superior source origins. Lionsgate’s DVD includes a new 16:9 (1.85) transfer with 2.0 Dolby Digital mono sound and two extras: a brief introduction with Winner and a commentary track with the director, who engages in some lengthy but entertaining stories that are infinitely more interesting than the film itself.

THE 4 MUSKETEERS (2005, 180 mins., R; Lionsgate): Two-part French theatrical “re-imagining” of the Dumas novels comes to DVD, sadly in a cut-down and English dubbed edition, managing to drain the fun out of seeing Emmanuelle Beart’s portrayal of Milady Winter...as a demonically possessed villainess, no less! Weird “Matrix”-like fight sequences try and jazz up the action, but Peter Hyams did this far better in his “The Musketeer,” which itself met with mixed reaction. Lionsgate’s DVD includes a 16:9 presentation with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, but the inability to hear the original French dialogue is a major turn off, to say the least.

THE TOMB (2006, 81 mins., R; Lionsgate): Bad (and not as in “so bad it’s good,” just plain bad), boring, tepid horror offering from “Boogeyman” auteur Ulli Lommel has more to do with the “Saw” series than it does H.P. Lovecraft, whose name adorns this slapdash made-for-video dreck. Lionsgate’s DVD includes a 16:9 transfer, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound and no extras to speak of...which is just fine by me!

FIRE SERPENT (2007, 89 mins., R; Lionsgate): Wacky casting nearly puts this Sci-Fi Channel movie over-the-top; “Buffy” alumnus Nicholas Brendon joins Sandrine Holt, Randolph Mantooth and Robert Beltran for this mostly-tedious programmer about a fire-breathing demon that comes to life after a fireball from the sun crashes into Earth. “Star Trek” historian-scribes Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens authored this silly sci-fi effort, “created” and executive produced by William Shatner as well! Lionsgate’s DVD includes a 1.78 (16:9) transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

THE ABANDONED (2006, 98 mins., R; Lionsgate): Eerie and well-produced film about an American filmmaker who returns to her ancestral roots -- in this case, a remote Russian farm -- only to find her long-lost sibling and ghosts in tow. Spanish filmmaker Nacho Cerda’s direction is assured and the script (credited to several writers including Richard “Dust Devil” Stanley) is intriguing, though the picture is so leisurely paced that it’s not always edge-of-your-seat viewing. Lionsgate’s DVD includes a Making Of featurette, 16:9 (2.35) widescreen and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Also New On DVD

MISS POTTER (**½, 2006, 93 mins., PG; Weinstein/Genius): The life of J.M. Barrie proved to be a moderate box-office success for Johnny Depp in “Finding Neverland,” but the stately, well-performed and ultimately unremarkable “Miss Potter” turned out to be a flop for stars Renee Zellweger and Ewan McGregor. “Babe” director Chris Noonan’s movie is respectful and earnest, but at 93 minutes it’s nothing more than a pleasant way to kill off an hour and a half, despite all the visual trappings (and two credited composers in Nigel Westlake and Rachel Portman) in this biopic of Beatrix Potter, quite obviously patterned after “Finding Neverland.” Genius’ DVD includes commentary with Noonan, two featurettes and a music video, plus a fine 16:9 (2.35) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL: THE CONCERT (2007, 57 mins., Disney): The “High School Musical” phenomenon continues with this live concert event, sporting most of the tele-film’s original cast performing the show’s songs. Young fans ought to enjoy it, with several extra features on-hand to add more value to the concert’s hour-long running time.

NEXT TIME: DRIVING LESSONS, Stephen King Collection from MGM, GHOST RIDER (yes, for real, I swear!) 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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