6/26/07 Edition -- The AISLE SEAT BLOG Is Now Online!

Riding With The GHOST
Sony's Newest Blu Rays Reviewed, Including THE PATRIOT

Back in the good o’l days of the ‘70s and ‘80s, when comic books were actually called comic books -- not “graphic novels” -- there were certain characters who never really reached the apex of popularity that, say, your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man attained. Sure, some of them might have starred in a “Marvel Team-Up” with more popular super-heroes like Spidey, for example, but they were strictly on the “B” scale in terms of notoriety.

Now that Marvel has seemingly launched through their litany of heroes on the big screen and struck gold with all kinds of fare from the “Spider-Man” movies to the “X-Men” franchise (the only real blemishes seem to be “Elektra” and the weird, offbeat adaptation of “The Punisher”), it stands to reason some of the “lower-tier” books are now making their way to the screen. 

Case in point is GHOST RIDER (**, 2007, 123 mins., Unrated; Sony), a comic I always remember seeing in the rack at the local drug store growing up -- but usually glanced right past. The tale of a motorcycle-riding daredevil named Johnny Blaze, who makes a deal with the devil and promptly becomes a skeleton with “Human Torch”-esque heat powers, always struck me as cool-looking (who doesn’t love a skeleton on fire riding around on a Harley?) but rather silly, even by Marvel Comics standards.

And yet, here we are in 2007, and “Ghost Rider” hasn’t just made it to the screen: it’s the latest, $100-million plus budgeted genre blockbuster starring no less than Nicolas Cage, whose super-hero fetish lead him to nearly star as Superman in Tim Burton’s aborted project years back (a movie that sounded horrible...until Bryan Singer made his own version), not to mention having been rumored to play the Green Goblin in “Spider-Man” and the title character in “Iron Man” as well. Cage, though, is apparently a legitimate “Ghost Rider” fan, which means this overlong but mildly diverting slice of hokum at least has its heart in the right place.

Written and directed by Mark Steven Johnson, who helmed the under-rated cinematic adaptation of Marvel’s “Daredevil,” “Ghost Rider” stars Cage as Johnny Blaze, who opts to sell his soul to Old Scratch himself (Peter Fonda) in exchange for his father’s ailing health. Naturally, the devil removes Blaze’s pop’s sickness, only to claim his life in an accident the next day...and curse the young Johnny with the designation of being the “Ghost Rider,” who collects souls for his master that are destined for hell.

Complicating things is Johnny’s lifelong love Roxanne (the easy-on-the-eyes Eva Mendes), who re-enters his life just as the Ghost Rider is set to do battle with Blackheart (Wes Bentley), the devil’s own adversary, who wants to claim Hell as his own residence and set up franchises all over Earth, too.

“Ghost Rider” does not, admittedly, offer much in the way of clever dialogue or a particularly interesting plot. Johnson populated “Daredevil” with a colorful gallery of heroes and villains, but “Ghost Rider” is kind of dreary and one-note all the way through, from Cage’s disappointingly restrained performance (I was hoping for an all-out “Wicker Man” kind of part for the star) to a bland villain in Bentley and an overly protracted set-up. Perhaps it’s because this 123-minute “Extended Cut” is some 13 minutes longer than the theatrical edit, or the result of poor pacing, but whatever the case, the movie seems to take forever to get going (we don’t even see the “Ghost Rider” until the 45-minute mark or thereabouts). Mendes and Cage, meanwhile, seem to have some real chemistry together but the movie doesn’t take enough advantage of it, while Sam Elliott and particularly Donal Logue are nearly totally wasted in supporting roles.

Where “Ghost Rider” shines is in its visuals – particularly on Blu Ray, where the movie’s high-definition transfer is simply spectacular.

One thing Johnson gets right is the movie’s look and feel: the animation of character (via Sony Pictures Imageworks FX) is right on-target, and the sequences of Blaze’s alter-ego zooming up and down tall buildings with a single push of his mystical motorcycle’s acceleration are pretty much “awesome” as kids would say. The final half-hour also boasts a good amount of action, which both kids and comic book buffs ought to enjoy -- as well as high-def aficionados looking for some neat demo-worthy sequences to show off on their HDTVs.

Of course the film is ridiculous and could likely have used some humor -- it seems as if it’s a given in the genre that most adaptations take themselves overly seriously these days.

Yet at the same time, I can’t get too worked up about “Ghost Rider” departing from its source origins or being too silly. It is, after all, a comic book that’s never really been a best-seller, popping up in various Marvel revivals over the years but never breaking through to the “big time” of renowned super-heroes. As a film, it’s likely better than it probably had any right to be in the first place (apologies extended to life-long “Ghost Rider” fans, wherever you may be), and its success has already ensured a sequel...proving the character’s worth even if Johnny Blaze never reached #1 in his time on the Marvel circuit.

Sony’s Blu Ray disc offers Johnson’s extended version of the movie in a glorious 1080p transfer that’s just about perfect at every turn. The Dolby TrueHD and uncompressed 5.1 PCM soundtracks are certain to give your home theater a work-out, while special features include three fairly good “Making Of” documentaries along with a pair of commentary tracks. (The disc seems to feature the complete contents from the Extended Edition 2-disc standard DVD set, with the exception of a history of “Ghost Rider” comics).

Coming Soon on Blu Ray

Roland Emmerich’s Revolutionary War adventure THE PATRIOT (***½, 175 mins., 2000, R; Sony) is due out next week from Sony on Blu Ray, and viewers can chalk it up as yet another winner for the format.

Beautifully shot by the great Caleb Deschanel ("The Black Stallion," "The Right Stuff") and spectacularly scored by John Williams (in what ranks as one of the maestro's most satisfying works of recent years), “The Patriot” is an old-fashioned, enormously satisfying film that was written off by many at the time of its release as being an Americanized “Braveheart,” right down to the presence of star Mel Gibson.

Yet “The Patriot” is far more than that, anchored by Gibson’s terrific performance (no, he doesn't go around shouting "freedom!") as a family man reluctantly thrust into the conflict between American colonists and the British army, overseen by the stuffy but far from cartoonish General Cornwallis (the terrific Tom Wilkinson), whose one particular general -- the truly dastardly Jason Isaacs -- does enough damage to Gibson's clan to lure the former solider back into the military fray.

With equal parts intensity and sympathy, Gibson reminds us how effective and wide-ranging his performances can be, and grounds “The Patriot” with a personal touch amongst the epic backdrop. In that category, director Emmerich succeeds in telling a historical drama with just enough actual people and events that will lure curious viewers to seek out more information on the subject matter ("read more about it", as they used to say on CBS Saturday morning TV).

The real heroes of the movie, in addition to Gibson, are Deschanel, whose vivid photography paints a picture in nearly every scene, and Williams, who contributes a winning, rousing score perfectly complimenting the emotion and expansiveness of the drama. It’s sweeping Americana, uplifting "Liberty Fanfare," and "Born on the Fourth of July" all at once, with a sumptuous love motif and stirring main theme. Since the film’s release some seven years ago, Williams’ almost criminally-unheralded work on “The Patriot” seems to only improve with time.

While could argue that Robert Rodat's screenplay never quite dives into the intricate reasons as to why anyone other than Mel was fighting this war, at almost three hours in length, it's unlikely that the movie's pacing wouldn't have been slowed down further by drawing-room histrionics.

With sterling support turned in by Heath Ledger (as Gibson's eldest son), Chris Cooper (as an American war general) and Tcheky Karyo as a French soldier, “The Patriot” provides rousing entertainment with a marvelous visual gloss, ranking as one of the more intelligent Independence Day “blockbusters” released in recent history.

Sony’s Blu Ray disc is derived from the Expanded, 174-minute cut of the film, which restores nearly 10 minutes of footage cut from the theatrical version. Like the Superbit release of the film, extras have been dropped from previous DVD editions (including a commentary track), though two Making Of featurettes remain (“The Art of War” and “The True Patriots,” totaling nearly 20 minutes).

What will spur viewers to the Blu Ray disc is quite obviously its marvelous transfer. Deschanel’s richly textured cinematography seems to have been tailor-made for high-definition, and “The Patriot” does not disappoint in HD, with only a few sequences exhibiting a hazy grain in the image. For most of its duration the transfer is crystal clear, razor sharp and gorgeous. The sound is offered in both 5.1 Dolby Digital and uncompressed PCM, and packs a potent punch as well.

Highly recommended, particularly as patriots nationwide celebrate July 4th next week.

WILD THINGS: Blu Ray (***, 1998, 115 mins., Unrated; Sony): John McNaughton’s nasty little thriller has remained a cult favorite since its original release. One would anticipate that, as time passes, its mix of young stars (Neve Campbell, Denise Richards), '80s leading men (Matt Dillon, Kevin Bacon), and veterans like Bill Murray and Robert Wagner will continue to make the movie a particular favorite among viewers, not to mention the movie's quirky humor and widescreen cinematography.

Sony’s standard-definition DVD of "Wild Things" boasted a group commentary track and a few deleted scenes, several of which have been incorporated into the studio's unrated Blu Ray edition. This expanded cut runs nearly seven minutes longer than the theatrical version, and while it restores a bit of fleeting nudity and sexual content, it's not quite as racy as you might have anticipated it being.

Nevertheless, fans will appreciate the Blu Ray disc’s new high-definition transfer, which easily surpasses any prior presentation of the film on DVD. Some issues that have always been inherent in the source material remain here and there (a few curiously drab sequences early on, some “shaking” in the image), but for the most part the new HD transfer is eye-popping and makes the film’s abundant visual assets even more appealing. An uncompressed 5.1 PCM track and a standard 5.1 Dolby Digital track are included on the audio side, while, disappointingly, no extras are provided of any kind.

FLATLINERS: Blu Ray (*½, 1990, 114 mins., R; Sony): Tepid, typically over-directed, music-video styled thriller from Joel Schumacher wastes an attractive, of-the-moment cast (Kiefer Sutherland, Julia Roberts, Kevin Bacon) as med student Kiefer convinces his buddies to participate in an experiment to find out what happens when you die. The answers aren’t worth the journey in this box-office bust from the summer of ‘90, packed with over-reaching performances (Roberts in particular is less than convincing) and a Peter Filardi script that ends up being trite and repetitive. Sony’s Blu Ray presentation offers a slick new 1080p presentation and uncompressed 5.1 PCM audio, but like the movie, it’s all style and no substance. No extras are included.

PREMONITION: Blu Ray (**½, 2007, 96 mins., PG-13; Sony): Not-bad thriller (which became a surprising, modest success at the box-office) stars Sandra Bullock as a devoted wife and mother whose husband dies in a car accident. The next day, she wakes up to find him (Julian McMahon) alive and her perspective of time completely amiss. Writer Bill Kelly’s “Twilight Zone” styled story isn’t hugely surprising or suspenseful, but with Bullock’s credible, nicely modulated performance carrying the action, “Premonition” fits the bill for escapist fare, while director Mennan Yapo presses all the requisite buttons on the visual end. Sony’s Blu Ray disc offers a nifty 1080p HD transfer with uncompressed 5.1 PCM audio and a good amount of extras including an alternate ending, deleted scenes, several featurettes, commentary with Yapo and Bullock, and a gag reel. (Available July 17th)

Also New On DVD

THE MANY ADVENTURES OF WINNIE THE POOH: The Friendship Edition (***, 1977, 74 mins., G; Disney): Though best known for being Disney’s first feature foray into the world of A.A. Milne’s beloved characters, “The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh” is actually an anthology film compiling three of the studio’s prior, self-contained short segments starring Pooh and the Hundred Acre Wood gang: “Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree,” “Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day,” and “Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too!,” which were produced and released independently from 1966-74.

This 1977 feature does add brief live-action segments to bridge the segments together, but uses them only to link the three separate tales, which remain arguably the most satisfying of all of Disney’s Pooh adventures.

Disney’s new “Friendship Edition” DVD of “The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh” supplants the studio’s prior disc offering, sporting a new, remastered transfer (in its intended 1.33 ratio) that does seem brighter and sharper than its predecessor. The 5.1 remastered sound is also just fine, and superb extras (mostly carried over from the prior disc) sweeten the pot for kids and fans alike. The latter include a 25-minute Making Of featurette, “The Story Behind The Masterpiece,” the 1983 short “A Day For Eeyore,” the debut episode from the Disney Channel series “My Friends Tigger & Pooh,” an art gallery, and numerous interactive games for the little ones.

In all, the improved transfer makes this a recommended upgrade for “Pooh” fans, preserving a poignant, wonderful trio of Milne tales with Pooh, Eeyore and the gang for viewers both young and old to savor.

New From Fox

STEPHEN KING COLLECTION: 4-DVD Box Set (MGM/Fox): Special packaging of four Stephen King features (released to coincide with the recent debut of the new King adaptation, “1408") offers MGM’s previously-available versions of “Misery” (***½), “The Dark Half” (**), “Needful Things” (**½), and “Carrie” (***), all bound in their original, standard DVD packaging. The low price for the set makes it a worthwhile pick-up for King aficionados who’ve never owned the respective discs previously.

THANK YOU, JEEVES!/STEP LIVELY, JEEVES! Double Feature (Fox): Single-disc “Cinema Classics Collection” Fox presentation pairs together Arthur Treacher’s two performances as P.G. Wodehouse’s servant, which make for dated but amusing “Golden Age” drawing room comedy. The set offers the 1936 “Thank You, Jeeves!” (co-starring David Niven and Virginia Field) along with its 1937 follow-up “Step Lively, Jeeves!”, finding the butler coming to America. Solid studio production values and a few laughs populate these short (57 and 69 minutes, respectively) features which are fun for what they are, but also illustrate why the series didn’t continue on past them. Special features on Fox’s set include a pair of featurettes on Wodehouse and restoration comparisons; the black-and-white transfers look just fine and 2.0 mono soundtracks are included on the audio side.

HOME RUN DERBY, Volume 1 (MGM/Fox): Old-time baseball fans will love this compilation of segments from the “Golden Age” TV series “Home Run Derby,” which pitted stars of the day against one another in footage here filmed in 1959 at Los Angeles’ Wrigley Field. Mickey Mantle carries most of the action as he battles Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, Jackie Jensen, Harmon Killebrew, plus Rocky Colavito, Ken Boyer, Jim Lemon and Hank Aaron are on-hand as well. Great fun for MLB enthusiasts -- here’s hoping more volumes follow from MGM in the near future. (available July 10)

Also New On DVD

BATFINK: The Complete Series (1966-67, 8 hours, Shout! Factory): Produced as a parody of the “Batman” live-action series, “Batfink” aired as a collection of some 100 five-minute shorts from the ‘60s through the ‘80s. Growing up in the ‘80s, I fondly remember seeing these hilarious shorts in a compilation show with other cartoons of the era, and Shout! Factory is sure to reignite warm feelings of nostalgia among viewers with their four-disc DVD box set.

Compiling the entire collection of “Batfink” shorts, Shout’s package (available this week) sports the complete adventures of Batfink -- the almost Dark Knight -- who com-bats (sorry) a collection of nutty villains with sidekick Karate in tow. Loads of slapstick and amusing dialogue permeate these silly, entertaining shorts, which ought to please both nostalgic viewers and kids new to the material alike.

Packaging is colorful with the discs housed in two slim line cases, and while extras aren’t on-hand, the solid presentation ought to be enough to make this a must-have for all “Batfink” fans – even those who might’ve forgotten all about his famous exploits. Highly recommended!

NEXT TIME: A Fourth of July special with THE BIG LEBOWSKI in HD! 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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