6/24/08 Edition -- The AISLE SEAT BLOG Is Also Live

More Cult Faves on DVD
THE SENDER, PHASE IV Back in Circulation!
Last month I wrote extensively about a variety of superb -- and mostly obscure -- Paramount catalog titles that had recently been issued on DVD by Legend Films. A fresh batch of titles is newly on-tap from the label, two of which will be exclusive to Best Buy locations, at least for the time being.

At the top of the list is the long-awaited DVD debut of THE SENDER (***, 92 mins., 1982, R), a genuinely creepy, disturbing early ‘80s thriller that’s been hampered in becoming a cult classic since it’s been out of circulation for some time.

Hopefully Legend’s DVD will rectify those matters, as it presents a crisp new 16:9 (1.85) mastering of this Edward S. Feldman production, starring Zeljko Ivanek as a disturbed young man who appears in the dreams of a psychiatrist (Kathryn Harrold) assigned to his case after he’s found trying to commit suicide.

Eschewing a shlock horror approach, “The Sender” is more mature and disturbing than most of the typical horror fare of its day. Director Roger Christian worked on the sets of sci-fi classics like “Star Wars” and “Alien” and brings a truly creepy visual sensibility to Thomas Baum’s original script, while the performances of Harrold, Shirley Knight, and Ivanek (recently seen as Ted Danson’s doomed attorney on “Damages”) are all spot-on. On a technical level, Roger Pratt’s cinematography and Trevor Jones’ score add further class to a movie that never plays all of its cards, suggesting several possible explanations for its supernatural goings-on but leaving it to the viewer to decide what actually happened.

Legend’s DVD presents a fine print of “The Sender” with 2.0 Dolby Digital stereo sound, which is fairly basic (and mixed quite low during dialogue passages) but does boast a stereophonic presence whenever Jones’ fine score kicks into gear. Highly recommended!

Another genre curiosity -- though a far less satisfying film as a whole -- also hits DVD from Legend next month: veteran film credits designer Saul Bass’ lone feature directorial outing, the 1974 “environmental horror” PHASE IV (**½, 84 mins., 1974, PG).

This completely weird, slow-going yarn pits a team of scientists against a super-colony of intelligent ants, who begin to design structures and patterns after an inexplicable cosmic event alters them, giving them super-intelligence...and a quest for global domination!

If National Geographic ever wanted to make a “2001" knock-off it probably would have ended up something along the lines of “Phase IV,” which offers ample documentary-styled footage of ants, up close and more personal than you’re ever likely to see them. The story (credited to Mayo Simon) is weak, the characters aren’t especially interesting, and the film has that cold, clinical tone many of its genre brethren did at the time (“The Andromeda Strain” immediately comes to mind), while the movie’s bonkers ending is likewise a product of its era.

Visually, at least, “Phase IV” proves to be an intriguing view, particularly now that Legend has dusted off a good-looking print and issued it in 16:9 (1.85) widescreen. Some folks have claimed that a longer version exists (with an even wackier, Kubrick-inspired ending), but Legend and Paramount have here utilized the same 84-minute print that was previously available on VHS (and infamously screened as part of “Mystery Science Theater 3000" a decade ago).

Both “The Sender” and “Phase IV” will be available exclusively at Best Buy stores this July along with the Amicus-produced, pre-Irwin Allen disaster epic “The Deadly Bees.”

More widespread in its availability is THE ONE AND ONLY (**½, 98 mins., 1978, PG), a cute if uneven comedy that was intended to capitalize on star Henry Winkler’s blossoming popularity as The Fonz on “Happy Days.”

“Arthur” writer-director Steve Gordon penned this ‘50s-set tale of a struggling young actor (Winkler) who ends up becoming a pro wrestler to make ends meet, much to the consternation of wife Kim Darby. Alas, director Carl Reiner tends to over-sell the zaniness and heavy-handed characters -- something that Gordon might’ve had a better handle on -- resulting in a flawed film that grossed decent dollars but ultimately did little to parlay Winkler into a cinematic leading man.

Legend’s DVD looks just fine with its 16:9 (1.85) transfer and mono sound, boasting a pleasant score by Patrick Williams.

New on DVD & Blu-Ray

A well-crafted fantasy from a top-flight creative team (co-producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall; editor Michael Kahn; cinematographer Caleb Deschanel; production designer Jim Bissell; composer James Horner; visual effects by ILM), THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES (***, 102 mins., PG; Paramount) tells of a magical book, a mysterious ancestral home, and a pair of twin brothers who attempt to thwart a goblin invasion of our world.

Though there have been numerous “juvenile fantasy” films in recent years -- some (the original “Narnia”) better than others (the second “Narnia,” “The Golden Compass”) -- “Spiderwick” sits near the top of its genre.

The Karey Kirkpatrick-David Berenbaum-John Sayles script condenses the children’s books by Tony DiTeruzzi and Holly Black into a single feature, following Jared Grace and his twin brother (both played by Freddie Highmore), his sister and mother (Mary-Louise Parker) as they move into an old family house. There, Jared finds a journal belonging to one Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn), who chronicled the strange, magical creatures around his estate, only to find out that an evil goblin king (Nick Nolte) still lurks about, wanting to get his hands on Spiderwick’s Field Guide so he can break free and cast his evil spells on the “outside” world.

Directed by Mark Waters, “The Spiderwick Chronicles” has a deliberately old-fashioned look and feel -- more “Jumanji”-like than most of today’s CGI-dominated fare, with a sweeping (if not particularly memorable) James Horner score and beautifully natural cinematography from Deschanel (don’t you just wish he had shot the latest “Indiana Jones” film?). The story initially unfolds at a leisurely pace but kids ought to enjoy the action as well as the magical creatures in the story (voiced by Martin Short and Seth Rogen), though very young children may be scared by some of the more violent sequences -- so much that it’s surprising the film only earned a standard PG rating.

That aside, “Spiderwick” held my attention more than most of the recent glut of effects-filled kid pictures, managing to not overstay its welcome at 100 minutes, and steering clear of excessive juvenile humor as well. It’s no classic, but the picture is certainly entertaining and works for its intended audience.

Paramount’s DVD and Blu-Ray sets both offer a good amount of supplements, from several Making Of featurettes to deleted scenes and other tidbits which the movie’s young fans should particularly savor. The 16:9 (2.35) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks are both excellent on the double-disc DVD edition, but the AVC encoded Blu-Ray transfer really sings, bringing additional clarity and crispness to Deschanel’s widescreen compositions. The Blu-Ray disc also sports a Blu-Ray “enhanced” version of Spiderwick’s Field Guide, offering trivia that optionally pop-ups during the movie.   

BE KIND REWIND: Blu-Ray and DVD (**½, 102 mins., 2008, PG-13; New Line): Michel Gondry, director of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” brings us a kinder, gentler comedy with this amusing -- though quite uneven -- tale of a pair of video store clerks (Jack Black and Mos Def) who succumb to remaking some of the films they rent out in order to placate their #1 customer (Mia Farrow), who’s showing signs of dementia, near their rundown New Jersey store. Gondry’s patented, offbeat filmmaking sensibilities have been dialed down here, but his script remains something of an enigma, offering some physical laughs in the form of numerous “home” versions (dubbed “sweded” remakes) Black and Def make, lampooning everything from “2001" to “Rush Hour” in amusing, no-tech movie fashion, all the while never finding a consistent or satisfying tone. The picture weaves in and out of comedy and drama, and while it’s always watchable and entertaining for movie buffs, I just got the nagging sense something was missing all the way through. New Line’s Blu-Ray disc boasts a nifty VC-1 encoded transfer with 7.1 DTS Master Audio sound and numerous extras, including Making Of featurettes, a musical tribute to Fats Waller (whose birthplace is the supposed home of the picture’s fictional store locale), “Sweded” movie themes and other mostly comical segments.

Upcoming From Criterion

Criterion chronicles the work of Japanese playwright/author Yukio Mishima with next week’s release of Mishima’s own short feature PATRIOTISM as well as Paul Schrader’s visually arresting 1985 film MISHIMA: A LIFE IN FOUR CHAPTERS.       

Co-produced by Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, “Mishima” is a highly stylized account of Mishima’s life, infused with a structure that adapts some of his works (in gorgeous color courtesy of cinematographer John Bailey), profiles his upbringing (in black-and-white) and later the events that lead up to his own, self-inflicted death. It’s a strange, surreal film that isn’t a biography in the traditional sense, but captures his life from a number of angles -- literary, artistic, political and personal -- in a vibrant visual presentation, with almost all of the dialogue in Japanese save for English voice-over by Roy Scheider (Ken Ogata, who stars as Mishima, performs the same service in the Japanese language track, both of which are on-hand here). 

Criterion’s new, double-disc DVD edition sports a commentary by Schrader and producer Alan Paul; a newly restored, director-approved transfer in 16:9 (1.85) widescreen and 2.0 Dolby Stereo sound; interviews with Mishima biographer John Nathan and friend Donald Richie, plus John Bailey, Philip Glass (who composed one of his traditional “minimalist” scores for the film), a BBC documentary on Mishima, plus a booklet containing information on the film’s censorship in Japan and photographs of Eiko Ishioka’s sets and costumes.

Mishima himself dabbled in filmmaking only once, with the 1966 short feature PATRIOTISM, depicting the life and suicidal death of an Army officer -- events that uncomfortably tie in with Mishima’s own life.

The film was banned in Japan and all prints were destroyed following Mishima’s death in 1970, but the negative survived and Criterion’s new DVD edition features both Japanese (27 minutes) and English (29 minutes) versions with respective intertitles, each in full-screen black-and-white. Extras include a 49-minute recording of Mishima at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan; a 50-minute Making Of documentary; interview excerpts featuring Mishima discussing WWII and death; and an extensive booklet featuring Mishima’s original short story and his own notes on the picture’s production.

Also New on DVD

THE STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO, Season 2, Volume 1 (1973, aprx. 10 hours; CBS/Paramount): The first-half of the Quinn Martin-produced series’ second season hits DVD shortly from Paramount, in a three-disc edition sporting satisfying full-screen transfers and mono sound -- though no extras.

Episodes include “A Wrongful Death,” “Betrayed,” “For the Love of God,” “Before I Die,” “Going Home,” “The Stamp of Death,” “Harem,” “No Badge For Benjy,” “The 24 Karat Plague,” “Shield of Honor,” and “The Victims,” all covering the 1973 portion of the series’ 1973-74 season.

As with before the show remains a solid police procedural best remembered for the performances of stars Karl Malden and Michael Douglas.

PERSEPOLIS: DVD and Blu-Ray (***, 95 mins., 2007, PG-13; Sony): Unusual, compelling animated feature from Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud looks at the life and times of a young Iranian girl during the Islamic revolution. Based on Satrapi’s personal experience, the film is told in flashback as Marji grows up in Iran through the ‘70s and ‘80s, her experiences in the west and eventual return to her homeland -- at least for a time. Splendidly articulated characters mesh with a honest evaluation of Iran’s turbulent history and its main character’s attempts to remain faithful to her upbringing while eventually clashing with the international culture surrounding her. Sony’s Blu-Ray disc includes a brilliantly crisp AVC-encoded transfer with Dolby TrueHD audio and a number of extras, including selected-scenes commentary from Satrapi and the other filmmakers; several Making Of featurettes; a 2007 Cannes Film Festival press conference; and both French (English subtitled) and English soundtracks, the latter boasting the involvement of Sean Penn, Gena Rowlands, and Catherine Deneuve among others.

NEXT TIME: 10,000 B.C.! Until then, don't forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards, check out the Aisle Seat Blog, and direct any emails to our email address.  Cheers everyone!

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