6/28/11 Edition Twitter: THEAISLESEATCOM


Summer Arrival Edition
LORD OF THE RINGS Extended on Blu-Ray
Plus: New Twilight Time; Criterions; THE EAGLE and More!

A year after issuing the theatrical editions of Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy in high-def, New Line and Warner Home Video are back for the superior Blu-Ray package of THE LORD OF THE RINGS: EXTENDED EDITION. The 15-disc set – out this week – sports “The Fellowship of the Ring,” “The Two Towers” and “Return of the King,” all in their extended versions, presented in new AVC encoded 1080p transfers and 6.1 DTS Master Audio soundtracks.
THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING (***, 228 mins., 2001, PG-13; New Line) launched the series in 2001, meeting with positive acclaim and solid commercial box-office.  After watching the first three hours of Jackson's series, I initially wrote at the time that I had some mixed feelings – though overall, I felt that I had seen one of the few films that had succeeded in establishing its own visually realized universe and an epic quest that lures you in the way that great fantasy can.

As a standalone film, “Fellowship” is the kind of film that most genre fans loved, though even watching it a fourth time through on Blu-Ray, it's curious how repetitive the action is: the characters run into a monster or new supporting character, walk to another location, run into a monster or new supporting character, run to another venue, all the while staying ahead of the bad guys.

That's not to say that I wasn't entertained by the movie or enthralled by parts of it, because what I found most satisfying about “Fellowship” – and the series as a whole, ultimately – was the look of Jackson's film and the fact that he captured the essence of an epic adventure on-screen without getting sidetracked by the many supporting characters and subplots. When the characters travel through the mine of the dwarves, are pursued by a fire-spewing demon, and jump across a crumbling bridge, you truly feel as if you're in the middle of a great fantasy adventure, where each turn could lead down a different path to doom or discovery.
I also concluded my original review of “Fellowship” by writing: “Is this the next ‘Star Wars’? I think the jury is still out, but Jackson at least laid the foundation here to craft one of the fantasy genre's few epic cinematic works. Whether the remaining installments hit the dramatic heights that this one doesn't quite reach, or if it's all just a great-looking tease made unique only through its connection with the classic text, at least it seems apparent that it's going to be a journey worth taking.” A journey, indeed, that would be followed by superior sequels, released in 2002 and 2003.

From a technical angle, “Fellowship” was the weakest of the LOTR films visually on the theatrical Blu-Ray editions released a year ago. That much-criticized transfer appeared “flat” and lacked the kind of high-def detail you’d anticipate from an HD master, while other scenes did offer an appreciable upgrade on the DVD. The good news here is that the Extended Edition offers a superior HD image that’s an appreciable improvement over the prior package, although some fans have noted a greenish tint to the movie that it never had before (reportedly an intentional decision on the part of Jackson and DP Andrew Lesnie). The DTS Master Audio track, meanwhile, is robust at every turn, offering a sublime mix of ambient sound, effects and Howard Shore’s score.

The movies are all split between two Blu-Ray platters while the extras are contained on standard definition DVDs (three per-film). Anyone who owned New Line’s prior, beautiful Extended Edition DVD sets will instantly recognize the “Appendices” – the treasure trove of Making Of materials – from lengthy documentaries diving into literally every element of the series’ production, to Costa Bores’ raw-footage look at the creation of Jackson’s vision.

THE TWO TOWERS (***, 235 mins., 2002, PG-13, New Line) continues Tolkien’s story and, overall, comes across as a superior fantasy adventure than its predecessor.

This sequel picks up right from the end of “Fellowship” and is comprised of big action scenes, sprawling battles, and fascinating new creatures. Gollum is a tremendously articulated CGI character, and Andy Serkis' "performance" gives this second part of Peter Jackson's trilogy a boost of energy in all the scenes he appears. There are some amazing moments here, marked by the climactic tussle at Helm's Deep that will surely draw repeat viewing from action and FX enthusiasts for years to come. While I’ve never understood how Liv Tyler nabbed herself third billing on the credits (generating about a half-hour of total screen time between Parts 1 and 2 combined), the movie manages to deliver the goods most of the way.

In spite of some questionable narrative decisions and battle scenes that linger on a bit too long, “The Two Towers” is certainly an exciting piece of escapist fare and there's much to savor in the picture, with New Line’s Extended Blu-Ray again offering a superior HD presentation of the movie than the previous Blu-Ray. With less edge-enhancement/DNR than the theatrical release BD, the Extended Blu-Ray is an enhancement on its predecessor, and no issues are present in a brilliantly engineered DTS MA track which delivers sonic energy from start to finish.

Jackson concluded the series with his massive, overlong and Oscar-winning finale, RETURN OF THE KING (***, 263 mins., 2003, PG-13), which nicely wraps up the epic trilogy.

This particular installment, arguably the most satisfying of the three films, features some brilliant moments -- a marvelous climactic battle that surpasses anything in "The Two Towers," a chillingly effective confrontation with a giant spider, and a moving ending that sweetly concludes the adventure -- along with some of the same issues that have plagued each of Jackson's films. Like its predecessors, the first hour of "Return of the King" takes forever to get going, and along the way there are a few too many "operatic" slow-motion shots that build to an endless series of false crescendos. Jackson easily could have trimmed the movie by a good half-hour, and despite one unintentionally hilarious moment (when one character ends up on fire and runs off the edge of a castle), there's no denying the overall artistry involved in the production and its compelling central story. I also felt that Howard Shore's score was more balanced and introspective here than his work on "The Two Towers," with new themes nicely complimenting an adventure that didn't quite enthrall me as much as it did for other fans, yet remains an admirable stab at epic fantasy filmmaking few have attempted before.

Visually “Return of the King” is similar in appearance to the other Extended LOTR Blu-Rays, though if you had to rank all three, it would probably be at the top of the list overall, with the 6.1 DTS Master Audio sound once again outstanding.

All of the movies are housed in three separate black BD cases inside a larger, gold-tinted box, along with digital copies of the extended versions.

Overall this is a must-have for LOTR fans, with my only quibble being that the special features could’ve been offered on Blu-Ray discs instead of DVDs – even if all the materials were shot in standard-def, putting the extras on BD discs could still have cut down on the amount of discs contained in this 15-disc set. Otherwise, in terms of its technical attributes, Warner has done every bit the exceptional job as you’d hope here. For more information on this release (additional specs, etc.) visit the official site at lordoftherings.net

Also New on Blu-Ray

THE WARRIOR’S WAY Blu-Ray/Digital Copy (**½, 102 mins., 2011, R; Fox): Yet another mostly-CGI’d action fantasy failed to find an audience last December, when Relativity tried to launch “The Warrior’s Way” as holiday counter-programming. It didn’t work (returning just $5 million on a $45 mil budget), but this offbeat, colorful and intermittently disarming “ninja western” has enough things going for it to warrant a look for action fans on Blu-Ray.

Jang Dong Gun plays a ninja who wipes out his opponent and his entire clan save for a little baby girl whom he adopts. Trying to stay one step ahead of his former Master Ninja and his army of subjects, Gun heads to the U.S. and an Old West filled with carnival freaks, gunfighters and a sadistic villain (Danny Huston) preying upon the residents of a small town. The latter include spunky Kate Bosworth and a scenery-chewing Geoffrey Rush, both of whom were cast for would-be commercial appeal in this New Zealand-lensed, mostly Indian-financed production from Korean director Sngmoo Lee.

Unlike “300,” “Sin City” and other gritty, “green screened” works of recent years, “The Warrior’s Way” eschews grime for primary colors that dominate a pleasing visual pallet, while the outlandishly choreographed action scenes are fun...at least for a while. The story is a throwaway designed to provide a framework for the mayhem, and none of it registers dramatically, yet there’s an engaging playfulness to the film that makes it satisfying to a modest degree, while the oddball turns by Bosworth and Rush add some additional amusement.

Fox’s Blu-Ray of “The Warrior’s Way” offers a really nice 1080p transfer with DTS MA audio, the latter sporting a surprisingly good Javier Navarrete score. Extras are quite slim, comprised of a two-minute promo reel and some 12 minutes of deleted scenes, most of which are provided with unfinished animation (the film crew is plainly evident in several of them). A digital copy is also included.

SEASON OF THE WITCH Blu-Ray/Digital Copy (**, 95 mins., 2011, PG-13; Fox): Watchable but ultimately ho-hum medieval thriller stars Nicolas Cage and Ron Perlman fighting in the Crusades when they decide to stop killing for God and engage in a new mission: escorting an accused witch to a monastery, questioning along the way whether the girl (Claire Foy) is a danger or not.

Dominic Sena helmed what appears on the surface to be yet another check-cashing venture for Cage, though to be fair the movie is fairly well-produced and atmospheric, especially for a B-grade fantasy like this one. The problem is the story by Bragi Schut, which fumbles its chances to develop supporting players and offers loads of straight-faced, ridiculous dialogue that sounds like it wouldn’t have been out of place in a film from the 1950s.

Fox’s Blu-Ray boasts an AVC encoded 1080p transfer that’s fine although the film is so dark it’s tough to make out details. The DTS MA soundtrack is effective, while extras include an alternate ending, some deleted scenes, two featurettes, and a digital copy for portable media players.

ROBOT CHICKEN: STAR WARS EPISODE III Blu-Ray (44 mins., 2011; Warner): Seth Green’s latest homage to, and spoofing of, the Star Wars saga offers Darth Vader falling into a toilet; Boba Fett hawking a T-shirt cannon; Palpatine riding a Death Star escalator; and other colorful gags derived from all corners of the Lucasfilm universe. Star Wars fans ought to find plenty of yucks in this 44-minute, third “Robot Chicken” special episode from Green and his Adult Swim team, with Warner’s Blu-Ray boasting a 1080p transfer, Dolby TrueHD soundtrack, and plenty of extras, from an appearance by George Lucas to deleted scenes, commentaries, featurettes and more.

DINOCROC VS. SUPERGATOR Blu-Ray (87 mins., 2010; Anchor Bay): One of Roger Corman’s latest Syfy Channel affairs is definitely one of the better monster-fests of its type, with genetically-engineered crocodiles and gators facing off against one another in an over-the-top production from director Jay Andrews (none other than Jim Wynorski). Engagingly “colorful” dialogue and creature effects make for one of the more appealing Syfy Channel movies I’ve seen of late, and Anchor bay’s BD boasts a good-looking 1080p transfer with Dolby TrueHD audio and extras including an enjoyable commentary from Corman and Wynorski and the trailer.

MIRAL Blu-Ray (106 mins., 2011, PG-13; Anchor Bay): Freida Pinto gives a superb performance in Julian Schnabel’s film about a Palestinian girl who, during the Israeli-Arab conflict, finds herself in an orphanage that encourages peace through education and empowerment. Hiam Abbass is also excellent as Hind Husseini, the woman who helps Miral navigate through a difficult upbringing in this well-textured drama. Anchor Bay’s Blu-Ray includes deleted scenes, commentary, a filmmaker Q&A, a Making Of and other extras, plus a 1080p transfer and DTS MA audio.

New on DVD   

Twilight Time’s newest DVD release kicks things off this week on the limited-edition front, and what better way to fill your home theater than with the sweeping Cinemascope vistas of the Susan Hayward melodrama WOMAN OBSESSED (102 mins., 1959).

Playing a role a bit off the beaten path for the legendary Hollywood starlet, Hayward here essays a mother living in the gorgeous yet dangerous wilds of Saskatchewan. After her husband dies in a forest fire, Hayward struggles to make ends meet in spite of the best efforts from her young son (Dennis Holmes)...that is, until strong, yet strangely quiet, Stephen Boyd steps in to save the farm, falls for the lonely widow and act as a surrogate father to Hayward’s son, even if his haunted past ends up impacting his relationship with them.

Sydney Boehm’s script (based on a John Mantley novel) sets its characters’ struggles against a wilderness backdrop that parallels their tumultuous relationship. Hayward gives a good performance here but it’s Boyd who really shines as the tough “rustic” with a secret while Theodore Bikel is also terrific as an understanding country doctor. All of it is capped by excellent William C. Mellor/Leon Shamroy cinematography and a fine dramatic score by Hugo Friedhofer, both presented brilliantly here on DVD in a 16:9 (2.35) widescreen transfer with a robust 2.0 stereophonic soundtrack. Extras include the original trailer, an isolated stereo score track of Friedhofer’s music, and notes from Julie Kirgo that deftly analyze Twilight Time’s latest discovery from the Fox vaults.

New in the MGM/Fox line of manufactured-on-demand DVD-Rs this month are:

THE FOURTH WAR is an interesting, if flawed, 1990 John Frankenheimer thriller about an American colonel (Roy Scheider) and his dueling Russian counterpart (Jurgen Prochnow) facing off against one another on the German-Czechoslovakia border. Bill Conti scored this little-seen Cold War tale, which MGM has dusted off in a slightly-above average 16:9 transfer.

George Peppard, meanwhile, saddled up for the agreeable 1970 historical-western CANNON FOR CORDOBA (104 mins.), which is highlighted by a solid Elmer Bernstein score and wide Panavision cinematography. Both come across fairly well in MGM’s DVD-R edition, which includes a satisfying 16:9 transfer (2.35). A decidedly different sagebrush saga is on-hand in ANOTHER MAN, ANOTHER CHANCE (132 mins.) with James Caan and Genevieve Bujold finding love for the second time in Claude Lelouch’s offbeat 1977 film, here presented in 16:9 and mono sound (in French with English subtitles).

Finally there’s CALL ME BWANA (93 mins., 1963), the unlikely pairing of Bob Hope with James Bond producers Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli, which finds Bob wrapped up with Anita Ekberg, spies, and assorted African jungle animals! The 16:9 transfer looks its age here but this early ‘60s comedy isn’t bad, especially considering the other films Hope was turning out at the time.

New From Criterion

A highly eclectic trio of new films joins the Criterion Collection this month.

Louis Malle’s 1975 picture BLACK MOON (100 mins.) is flat out one of the strangest movies I’ve ever seen: an almost-indescribable “head trip” involving a young girl (Cathryn Harrison) who flees from an undefined war and ends up in a scenic countryside where she meets a farming family and sees visions that are at times horrifying and repellent.

“Black Moon” is one of those movies that could only have been made in the 1970s, and while it’s well shot by Sven Nykvist, it’s a very peculiar and ultimately off-putting film marked by surreal imagery. Even some Malle devotees may have a hard time making their way through this picture, which Criterion brings to Blu-Ray next week in one of their customary outstanding high-def packages: a newly restored HD transfer highlights the release along with an archival interview with Malle, an alternate French dubbed soundtrack, the trailer, a photo gallery, and an essay from scholar Ginette Vicendeau.

More traditional (and satisfying) Malle is evident in ZAZIE DANS LE METRO (92 mins.), a madcap comedy based on an “unadaptable” novel by Raymond Queneau that follows a 10-year-old (Catherine Demongeot) who heads to Paris for a weekend with her uncle (the great Philippe Noiret) and ends up generating much chaos in the process. A “New Wave” offering from Malle packed with jokes, sight gags, and somewhat frenetic pacing and camera work, this 1960 picture is at-times overly bombastic but certainly is filled with visual flair and heart. Criterion’s Blu-Ray includes interviews with Malle, Queneau, Demongeot, and screenwriter Jean-Paul Rappeneau; an audio interview with artistic consultant William Klein; a 2005 video piece on assistant director Philippe Collin; the trailer; and a restored HD transfer in French with English subtitles.

THE MUSIC ROOM (99 mins., 1958) was one of the defining films of Satyajit Ray, the acclaimed Bengali director, who spun this 1958 tale of a wealthy man (Chhabi Biswas) who sits alone in his crumbling estate’s music room, wanting to throw one last, lavish concert after a lifetime of seeing his decadence – and his family – fade away. Criterion’s Blu-Ray edition boasts a newly remastered HD transfer in 1.33 B&W, while extras include a 1984 documentary on Ray; new interviews with Mira Nair and Ray biographer Andrew Robinson; an extract from a 1987 French roundtable discussion with Ray, critic Michel Ciment and director Claude Sautet; plus extensive booklet notes and newly translated English subtitles.

Finally there’s PEOPLE ON SUNDAY (73 mins., 1930), a fascinating German silent film collaboration between young filmmakers who would go on to greater success –  Billy Wilder, Fred Zinnemann, Robert Siodmak, and Edgar G. Ulmer, who worked on this intrigiuing tale of Berliners heading to the country side to deal with assorted personal issues. This pre-WWII era film is fascinating for its portrait of the era and various filmmaking techniques, and Criterion’s Blu-Ray celebrates the film with a striking new digital restoration of the movie, presented in collaboration with the EYE Film Institute of the Netherlands. Two different scores are included (a traditional silent-era score by Mont Alto Orchestra as well as a modern one by Elena Kats-Chernin, performed by the Czech Film Orchestra); a 2000 documentary on the film’s production; a 1931 short, “Ins Blaue Hinein,” from the film’s cinematographer, Eugen Schufftan; new subtitles; and extensive booklet notes.

Also on Blu-Ray

THE EAGLE Blu-Ray/Digital Copy (***, 114 mins., 2011, PG-13; Universal): Surprisingly good sword-and-sandal adventure adapted from a Rosemary Sutcliff book by screenwriter Jeremy Brock and director Kevin MacDonald isn’t -- thankfully -- just another “Gladiator” rehash.

Although he sounds completely miscast, Channing Tatum is perfectly acceptable here as a decorated Roman soldier in 2nd century Britain trying to retrieve a lost Eagle medal that went missing – along with his father and an entire legion of Roman soldiers – nearly 20 years before. After having recovered from injuries sustained in a bloody battle, Tatum sets out with his slave Esca (Jamie Bell) to find the Eagle and discover what happened to the lost 9th legion of Rome in the wilds of Northern England.

For a movie that received mixed reviews and flew under the radar last spring, “The Eagle” is a pleasant surprise. Anthony Dod Mantle’s terrific cinematography superbly conveys its surroundings and director MacDonald is content to let the film breathe at times, eschewing an excessive use of shaky-cam action scenes. The relationship between Tatum and Bell is given time to develop, and even though the second half of the film isn’t nearly as entertaining as its early stages, I was still caught up in the picture and found it, ultimately, quite satisfying. Even Alti Orvarsson’s score isn’t at all bad.

Universal’s Blu-Ray edition of “The Eagle” looks and sounds great (AVC encoded 1080p transfer, 5.1 DTS Master Audio sound). Extras include an alternate ending (inferior to the finished film), deleted scenes, a featurette, commentary from the director, plus BD Live capabilities and a digital copy for portable media players.

SANCTUM 3-D Blu-Ray Combo Pack (**, 109 mins., 2011, R; Universal): Critics hated this 3-D adventure co-produced by James Cameron, which was doomed to fail after “Avatar” made all that money at the box-office in 2009. Audiences, meanwhile, likewise seemed indifferent to “Sanctum” as well, likely expecting far more with Cameron’s name attached than this modestly-budgeted Australian thriller delivered.

In actuality, “Sanctum” isn’t all that terrible: in spite of a less-than-convincing script and uneven performances, the movie provides effective use of 3-D and offers a few thrills as it follows an expert cave explorer (Richard Roxborough), his disgruntled son (Rhys Wakefield) and their team as they navigate their way through an elaborate system of underground caves in Papa New Guinea. Once the caves begin to flood, the group finds themselves rushing against the clock to find a way out, leading to a series of tense underwater sequences.

An independent Aussie film that Universal purchased for the U.S. market, “Sanctum” fails completely when it comes to characterizations, with laughable dialogue being served up in the John Garvin-Andrew Wright script. Some of the supporting cast (including the usually reliable Ioan Gruffudd) flounder with overwrought performances and uncertain American accents as well. Still, for 3-D enthusiasts “Sanctum” offers enough thrills under the water, and David Hirschfelder’s fine score gives the picture a much-needed touch of class.

Universal’s 3-D Blu-Ray nicely reproduces the movie’s three-dimensional effects, though in 2-D, the film’s digital-video cinematography does not translate all that well to the small screen (the movie frequently looks soft and a bit unfocused). The DTS Master Audio is superbly rendered, while extras include deleted scenes, commentary from the filmmakers, featurettes, and a digital copy for portable media players.

UNKNOWN Blu-Ray/DVD/Digital Copy (**, 114 mins., 2011, PG-13; Warner): Tolerable, by-the-numbers thriller attempts to put Liam Neeson back in ‘action mode’ after his breakout success in the Luc Besson-produced hit “Taken.”

Neeson essays Dr. Martin Harris, an American professor traveling to a conference in Berlin with his wife (January Jones). No sooner do the couple check into their hotel does Neeson realize he left his briefcase back at the airport; after hailing a taxi, both he and the cab driver (Diane Kruger) end up in a near-fatal accident that puts Neeson into a coma. Upon awakening, Neeson only recalls fragments of what transpired in the days before the event, and what’s more, his wife doesn’t recognize him – and he has seemingly been replaced by another “Martin Harris”! (Aidan Quinn)

“Unknown,” for a good amount of its running time, comes across as a pedestrian retread of Roman Polanski’s “Frantic,” which starred Harrison Ford as an American doctor in Paris whose wife goes missing and who spends most of the film searching for her with the help of a local woman (here, Neeson plays an American doctor in Berlin trying to figure out why his wife doesn’t recognize him with the help of a local woman). The twists and turns in Oliver Butcher and Stephen Cornwall’s script (adapted from a novel by Didier Van Cauwelaert) don’t come nearly fast enough to off-set a languid pace established by director Jaume Collet-Serra, with Neeson gritting his teeth in an “intense” performance that ultimately ends up going where season viewers will expect (only during the film’s climactic moments does the picture seem to show any signs of life). It all makes for standard-issue thriller fare, decent enough for a one night rental but quickly forgotten thereafter.

Warner’s Blu-Ray combo pack offers a nice 1080p transfer with 5.1 DTS Master Audio sound, sporting a tired, routine score by John Ottman and Alexander Rudd. Very slim extras are limited to a couple of featurettes, while a digital copy and DVD edition combo disc are also bundled within. For more details on this release, visit the official site online here.

CEDAR RAPIDS Blu-Ray (**½, 87 mins., 2010, R; Fox): Ed Helms from “The Office” executive-produced this minor yet affable comedy that feels like an extended episode of the NBC series with a few raunchy jokes.

Playing a man-child insurance agent who’s never left the confines of the Midwest and who thinks attending a convention in Cedar Rapids (“the big city”) is like traveling to Vegas, Helms finds himself in over his head as he tries to nab the coveted “two diamond” award for his agency – while having a fling with Anne Heche and partying along with wild man John C. Reilly.

Directed by Miguel Arteta (another “Office” alum), “Cedar Rapids” is lightweight fare that’s worth a view if you’re a fan of any of the stars. Helms’ performance is pretty close to Andy Bernard territory, but he plays off Reilly well; there are also nice character bits for Kurtwood Smith, Stephen Root and Sigourney Weaver as Helms’ older lady friend, who doesn’t deem their relationship nearly as important as Helms does. At under 90 minutes, Phil Johnston’s script never overstays its welcome and while the picture never yields the big laughs you might expect it to, “Cedar Rapids” is a pleasant enough little time-killer.

Fox’s Blu-Ray/digital copy combo pack includes deleted scenes, a gag reel, a slew of featurettes, an AVC encoded 1080p transfer and 5.1 DTS MA audio.

DIARY OF A WIMPY KID: RODRICK RULES Blu-Ray/DVD/Digital Copy (**½, 99 mins., PG; Fox): The best-selling kids’ book series by Jeff KInney, which first hit theater screens a year ago, is back in this OK comedy reuniting the same cast and many crew members. Here, our young hero Greg notches another grade to his resume, befriends the new girl in town and, of course, continuously battles with his older brother Rodrick. Fox’s Blu-Ray set includes a 1080p transfer, 5.1 DTS MA soundtrack, a gag reel, 10 deleted scenes, alternate ending, seven “My Summer Vacation” shorts, commentary from Jeff Kinney and director David Bowers, plus a DVD and digital copy.

BIG MOMMAS: LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON Blu-Ray/DVD/Digital Copy (*½, 107 mins., 2011, PG-13/Unrated; Fox): Belated third entry in Martin Lawrence’s slapstick comedy series tried – unsuccessfully – to relaunch the material as a vehicle for his young co-star Brandon T. Jackson, who plays Lawrence’s stepson and who – improbably – also ends up undercover in drag as part of Lawrence’s latest assignment. Pretty desperate, even compared to its predecessors. Fox’s Blu-Ray combo pack includes both an Unrated extended version plus the PG-13 theatrical cut, commentary, deleted scenes, a gag reel, music videos, featurettes, a digital copy and standard DVD for good measure.

YOU’VE GOT SERVED: BEAT THE WORLD Blu-Ray (91 mins., 2011, PG-13; Sony): “Stomp the Yard” screenwriter Robert Adetuyi jumps franchises for this latest direct-to-video sequel in the hip-hop dancing series about a trio of dancing crews fighting their way to the International Beat the World contest in Detroit. On-stage there’s plenty of energy; off-stage less so, but viewers who enjoyed the previous films in this series ought to entertained by the performances of worldwide troupes like Flying Steps and Pink Ladies Crew. Sony’s Blu-Ray edition of “You Got Served: Beat the World” includes an AVC encoded 1080p transfer, 5.1 DTS MA soundtrack, and one behind-the-scenes featurette.

New From CBS

A handful of catalog titles have sprung up from CBS on Blu-Ray, all offering excellent transfers at attractively low prices ($10 at Walmart, between $10-$15 in most locales).

A MAN CALLED HORSE (***, 114 mins., 1970, R) starred Richard Harris in the first of three westerns about an Englishman who comes to live with and respect the Sioux after being abducted by them.

Elliot Silverstein's film, written by Jack DeWitt, was intended to meticulously recreate the setting of the period and the Sioux way of life, going so far as to recruit National Geographic and other historical societies to ensure the film's authenticity. Harris' fine performance, the look of the picture, and Leonard Rosenman's interesting score make “A Man Called Horse” a rock-solid adventure picture, though things go a little – well, psychedelic, frankly, once Harris is initiated into the tribe during the film's infamous "Sun Vow" sequence.

This gory, sadistic set piece – which apparently isn't entirely accurate, according to certain historical accounts – was violent enough to get this formerly PG-rated film re- rated "R" by today's standards. Not only that, but while Harris' Lord John Morgan is tortured to prove his manhood, he begins to hallucinate – '60s style – with eye-popping colors and trippy visuals. He's even able to talk to his Sioux bride-to-be (one-time Miss Universe Corinna Tsopei, who's quite easy on the eyes), even though he speaks not one word of their language. It all culminates in a standard action climax, where Harris' colonial training comes in handy during a raid on his tribe's village by rival Indians.

While most buffs consider "Return of a Man Called Horse" to be a superior film in some regards, the original is certainly an excellent movie worthy of re-appraisal on Blu-Ray. CBS’ older DVD was quite good, but the Blu-Ray is tremendously rendered in a crisp 1080p transfer sans excessive use of DNR. The 5.1 DTS MA soundtrack even has a few surround effects, and gives a little more oomph to Rosenman's score than the regular 2.0 soundtrack.

Two other new CBS Blu-Rays offer John Wayne westerns certainly more in line with the Golden Age: John Wayne's 1970 reunion with Howard Hawks, the mildly entertaining yet uninspired RIO LOBO (**½, 114 mins., G), along with BIG JAKE (***, 109 mins., PG-13, 1971), which stars the Duke in one of his more watchable later vehicles.

Even in “Big Jake,” though, the western formula has been somewhat shifted to accommodate the needs of audiences in the early '70s: the Harry Julian Fink-R.M. Fink story is set at the tail end of the Old West, with Wayne essaying a rancher whose young grandson is kidnapped by a brutal killer (Richard Boone, in a typically entertaining performance). With his sons in tow, Wayne leaves his wife (a too-brief appearance by Maureen O'Hara) and home behind in an effort to track down Boone and pay off the ransom he's demanding – and then exact a little revenge while he's at it.

The story and action are standard, but the trappings and engaging performances are what make “Big Jake” worthwhile – particularly the Panavision cinematography (which is exceptional) and the production design that’s evocative of the period. Elmer Bernstein's score, meanwhile, is a gem, with a memorable, rousing main theme helping one overcome the movie's draggier spots. And, of course, there are the performances of Wayne, Boone, and O'Hara, among many familiar western vets who can be glimpsed in supporting roles.

“Rio Lobo,” by comparison, feels too much like a retread of “Rio Bravo” and the star’s prior films with the director, further hampered by a weak supporting cast (Jorge Rivero and Jennifer O’Neill?) and lethargic pacing. Only a seasoned score by Jerry Goldsmith perks things up, but frankly it’s not one of Goldsmith’s best in the genre either. It’s perfectly watchable, but “Big Jake” still offers a good deal more fun.

“Rio Lobo” looks to have been derived from source material more dated than the other westerns reviewed here, but it’s still perfectly acceptable (1.85 AVC encoded 1080p with 5.1 DTS MA audio). “Big Jake,” meanwhile, looks even healthier here in its 1080p Blu-Ray transfer, with the 5.1 DTS MA soundtrack only boasting a stereophonic presence whenever Elmer’s score pops up.

Finally, Paramount has also issued a great-looking Blu-Ray presentation of Steve McQueen's cult fave LE MANS (***, 108 mins., 1971, G), a troubled production that nevertheless looks and sounds great in high-def.

McQueen's pet project, which he intended to make years earlier as "Day of the Champion," saw the star taking the role of a Grand Prix race car driver primarily so he could play around with the actual automobiles used in the event. This lead to squabbles over the movie's insurance, the film's budget spiraling out of control, and McQueen's partner, director John Sturges, walking out while shooting went on and on out (he was ultimately replaced by TV veteran Lee H. Katzin). Harry Kleiner's script, meanwhile, was never finished, and apparently was being re-written each day on set. According to reports, none of Sturges' footage even ended up in the final film, with Katzin and McQueen re-shooting the entire movie from scratch.

Despite all the arguments, technical challenges, and overall hellish aspect of the production, “Le Mans” ended up being a thrilling pseudo-documentary on the race itself. McQueen and his crew had over a dozen Panavision cameras set up to capture every aspect of the event, which results in some dazzling racing sequences still unsurpassed on- film. Sure, while Sturges' repeated warnings to McQueen that the story wouldn't work turned out to be true (long stretches go by with no dialogue at all in the final cut), the movie actually benefits from the lack of emotional investment one has in the characters. It's all about the moment, Le Mans itself, and from that angle, the movie is one of the top sports films made for its authenticity alone.

Shot in Panavision, “Le Mans” looks grand on Blu-Ray. The 1080p transfer is crisp and clear, while the 7.1 DTS MA soundtrack is the best of this batch due to the utilization of the stereo format in the original recording. Cars veer from one channel to the next, with even a few surround effects employed along with Michel Legrand's sparse but effective score. Extras include a cable documentary on the making of the movie plus the original trailer.

While none of the CBS western titles include trailers, the overall presentation of the films compensates for the lack of extras. The great news for movie buffs is that each movie looks and sounds great in HD...hopefully “Scrooge” and “The Reivers” will follow soon!

Also New on Blu-Ray

OF GODS AND MEN [Des hommes et des dieux] Blu-Ray/DVD Combo (***, 123 mins., 2010, PG-13; Sony): A group of Cistercian monks, living in the solace of the Algerian mountains in 1993, see their way of life threatened when civil war breaks out and an Islamic fundamentalist group massacres foreign workers in their region. The monks (including Lambert Wilson and Michael Lonsdale) have to face a choice to leave with military protection or stay and provide care for the Muslim populace around them in this acclaimed French film that earned numerous accolades in its native country along with the 2010 Grand Prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival.

Xavier Beauvois’ solemn film is ultimately extremely affecting, with a moving story augmented by authentic atmosphere and fine performances from the cast. Sony’s Blu-Ray disc offers up a superb AVC encoded 1080p transfer with 5.1 DTS MA audio in French with English subtitles. Extras include “The Sacrified Tibehirine: Further Investigation” and the Augustine Dialogue at Merrimack College with author John W. Kiser.

SPIDER-WOMAN: AGENT OF S.W.O.R.D/IRON MAN: EXTREMIS Blu-Ray (Shout!): Agreeable double-feature Blu-Ray package offers both “Spider-Woman: Agent of S.W.O.R.D.” as well as “Iron Man: Extremis,” the latter an adaptation of Warren Ellis and Adi Granov’s graphic novel that blends 2D and 3D animation for an involving “motion comic” styled take on their “revisionist” Marvel book. Shout’s BD includes a behind-the-scenes featurette, visual history of Iron Man, music video, interview with Granov and more.

“Spider-Woman,” the latest “Marvel Knights” direct-to-video short feature follows the oddball Marvel heroine, Jessica Drew, as she seeks to inflict revenge on the Skrulls who replaced her on Earth. Shout!’s BD also includes a visual history of Spider-Woman, plus a music video, trailers, and a behind-the-scenes segment.

Colorful AVC encoded 1080p transfers and DTS HD soundtracks make this an attractive title for Marvel fans with BD players.

THE NESTING Blu-Ray (103 mins., 1981, R; Blue Underground): Blue Underground dusts off this rarely-screened early ‘80s haunted house chiller, which I recall renting at some point in high school on VHS in one of those cool, old “clam shell” plastic cases Warner Home Video used to use.

This is a relatively minor, but surprisingly well executed, supernatural tale starring Robin Groves as an agoraphobic novelist who leaves the city in an attempt to clear her mind and rents an old Victorian home with a tragic past and an ability to produce a series of grizzly murders. John Carradine and Gloria Grahame make appearances in “The Nesting,” which is leisurely paced by director Armand Weston and delivers the kind of murders you’d expect from a film of the era. It’s nothing spectacular but for a night’s rental, “The Nesting “ is certainly not bad at all for horror fans.

Blue Underground’s Blu-Ray edition of “The Nesting” looks utterly terrific considering the age and relative obscurity of the picture. DTS MA 7.1 audio is also on-hand plus deleted/extended scenes, trailers, TV spots, and a poster and stills gallery.

WAKE WOOD Blu-Ray (**, 90 mins., 2010, R; Dark Sky/MPI): Independently produced Irish chiller received nominal distribution under the Hammer brand name, which has so far yielded Matt Reeves’ disappointing remake “Let Me In” along with the tepid Hilary Swank thriller “The Resident.”

“Wake Wood” plays out like “Pet Sematary” meets “The Wicker Man,” with young parents Aidan Gillen and Eva Birthistle losing their nine-year-old daughter – only to find out that the small town they just moved to harbors a group of dark arts practitioners (including Timothy Spall) who can bring the dead back to life for a period of three days. Naturally there are consequences to such actions, particularly after their sunny little girl turns out to be something less than happy once she’s resurrected.

Director David Keating’s movie is unnerving and packs a few jolts, but “Wake Wood” is so unrelentingly unpleasant from start until its finish that it’s both hard to care about any of its characters or invest in how the picture is going to play out. The film’s modest budget is partially compensated by an effectively low-key Michael Convertino score (it’s a shame his talents are being wasted on films like this), and I suppose some horror fans might enjoy it – I guess I’ve just moved on from finding this type of film entertaining in any regard.

Dark Sky/MPI’s Blu-Ray looks acceptable in its 1080p BD transfer, though its digital-video photography doesn’t necessarily translate to an eye-popping visual experience in HD. The 5.1 Dolby Digital sound is just OK, while extras include deleted scenes and the trailer.

SPORTS ILLUSTRATED - SWIMSUIT 2011 3-D EXPERIENCE 3-D Blu-Ray (30 mins., 2011, Sony): Julie Henderson, Alyssa Miller and Irina Shayk are a few of the Sports Illustrated super-models who appear in this short but nicely rendered (indeed, in more ways than one) look behind-the-scenes at the 2011 SI Swimsuit Issue photo shoot. The 3-D is fairly effective but since the program is so short and content so slim, its repeatability is likely limited. Sony’s 3-D BD is also compatible with 2-D displays and offers 5.1 DTS MA audio as well.

POIROT: THE MOVIE COLLECTION Set 6 (Acorn): David Suchet’s latest cases as Agatha Christie’s brilliant detective Hercule Poirot include “Three-Act Tragedy,” where the sleuth teams up with an old actor-friend (Martin Shaw) to find a killer; “The Clocks,” with Anna Massey guest-starring; and “Hallowe’en Party,” which finds a crime novelist (Zoe Wanamaker) calling in Poirot to help uncover the murderer of a young girl at a costume party. 1080p AVC encoded transfers and 2.0 PCM stereo tracks make this a terrific high-def package for Agatha Christie fans.

Also well worth tracking down is MARPLE: SERIES 5, with Julia McKenzie starring as Agatha Christie’s super-sleuth in several mysteries: “The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side,” “The Secret of Chimneys,” The Blue Geranium,” and an earlier 2010 edition of “The Pale Horse.” Joanna Lumley leads a superb supporting cast in this fine new adaptation of the character, which Acorn brings to Blu-Ray in a four-disc set including 1080p transfers and 2.0 PCM stereo tracks. Extras include a bonus program, “Agatha Christie’s Garden,” which profiles the late author’s secret retreat.

New on DVD

THE HERCULOIDS: COMPLETE SERIES DVD (374 mins., Warner Archives): Zandor, Tara and Dorno defend their prehistoric planet from the likes of Pod Creatures, Mutoids and other villainous creatures in this Hanna-Barbera series which initially ran on CBS in 1967. Along the way, the family gets help from Zok the flying dragon, the ape-like Igoo (who looks like a combination of Ben Grimm and an extra from “Planet of the Apes”), Tundro and the wacky blob-like Gloop and Gleep.

It’s amazing how a show that was re-run consistently over the years actually only produced 18 episodes, but Warner Archives’ exclusive manufactured-on-demand release includes them all in this two-disc set, now available through the WB Shop. The full-screen transfers and mono soundtracks are all perfectly acceptable.

ELEKTRA LUXX DVD (100 mins., 2010, R; Sony): Carla Gugino leads a better-than-the-material-deserves cast in this oddball, occasionally funny farce from her real-life boyfriend, director-writer-producer Sebastian Gutierrez.

Gugino plays the title character, Elektra Luxx, an ex-porn star trying to leave her past behind her (and teach sex ed. at a local community college!) until an old friend (Marley Shelton) comes back and gets her involved with a group of story lines in a follow-up to Gutierrez’s previous film “Women in Trouble.” A quite fetching array of leading ladies (Malin Akerman, Emmanuelle Chiriqui, Adrienne Palicki among them) pop up, as do Joseph Gordon-Levitt (as a blogger fanboy of Elektra’s) and Timothy Olyphant in an at-times overly labored comedy that attempts to push the director’s outings further into cult territory. Judging from the film’s meager box-office receipts, he’s got a ways to go, but the picture isn’t a total wash either.

Sony’s DVD includes deleted scenes, a 16:9 transfer (1.78) and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack.

NEW FROM BBC: Volume 9 of the BBC series MI-5 (473 mins., 2010) follows the team as they track a suspected terrorist after the death of Ros and butt heads with the CIA over mysterious hackers. BBC’s multi-disc DVD set boasts 16:9 transfers and 5.1 soundtracks...Peter Davison’s 1984 arc as DR. WHO: THE AWAKENING (50 mins) arrives on DVD in a single-disc set preserving this brief, two-episode story set in the then-present day. Commentary from the director Michael Owen Morris and other crew members; location comparisons; cutting room floor materials; isolated score; PDF materials; visual effects featurettes; and other goodies are on-hand in this latest “Dr. Who” BBC release...William Hartnell, meanwhile, is represented by DR. WHO: THE GUNFIGHTERS (95 mins.), another time-travel story arc that finds Doc heading into Tombstone, Arizona, circa 1881, where he gets involved with the Clantons, Doc Holliday and other legendary figures from the Old West. Commentary from Shane Rimmer (who appears in the episode as Seth Harper) and other cast members; a 43-minute documentary about the series’ “turbulent” third year; PDF materials and more comprise a particularly compelling new title for Dr. Who fans, arriving on DVD on July 12th.

NEW FROM LIONSGATE: Tyler Perry’s HOUSE OF PAYNE Vol. 8 (480 minutes) offers episodes 149-172 from the TBS comedy series, presented in 1.33 full-screen with 5.1 and 2.0 Dolby Digital soundtrack options...the forthcoming EMPIRE OF ASSASSINS (93 mins., 2011, R) offers a Hong Kong feudal drama with Li Yuan and Sun Huining. Lionsgate’s 16:9 (1.78) transfer and 5.1 soundtrack (in both English dubbed or Mandarin with subtitles) comprise the DVD release...a Colombian immigrant finds love with a Russian immigrant in the romantic comedy-drama IMMIGRATION TANGO (92 mins., 2010, R), which arrives on DVD in a 16:9 (1.78) transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound and extras including commentary from director David Burton Morris and the trailer...Luke Goss stars in WITCHVILLE (89 mins., 2010, Not Rated), a Syfy Channel original movie that looks a bit like the recent Nicolas Cage check-casher “Season of the Witch.” Lionsgate’s DVD includes a 16:9 (1.78) transfer and 5.1 audio...Cory, Topanga and the gang are back in the Sixth Season of BOY MEETS WORLD (528 mins.), the long-running ABC “TGIF” sitcom that makes its DVD debut in a multi-disc, 22-episode anthology with full-screen transfers and 2.0 stereo tracks...the second and final season of THE PJ’s (432 mins.) also arrives on DVD shortly for the first time from Lionsgate. This animated small-screen comedy offering the voices of Eddie Murphy, Loretta Devine and Cassi Davis managed to win a trio of Emmys as it chronicles the residents of the Hilton-Jacobs housing community. Lionsgate’s DVD includes full-screen transfers and 2.0 stereo tracks...Jim Belushi is also back in the fourth season of the almost decade-long running ABC sitcom ACCORDING TO JIM (594 mins., 2011), which hits DVD in a multi-disc set sporting a pair of featurettes, 16:9 (1.78) transfers and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks.

NEW FROM E ONE: Shinya Tsukamoto’s “Tetsuo” trilogy finishes up with TETSUO: THE BULLET MAN (72 mins., 2009, Not Rated), which chronicles the transformation of an American worker in Japan whose son is killed, and whose rage turns him into a bizarre, machine-like weapon. Shot in English this 2009 Japanese import arrives on DVD from IFC with a 16:9 (1.78) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound...ERASING DAVID (80 mins., 2009) is a British documentary of sorts profiling David Bond’s efforts to “go off the grid” for a month, leaving his wife and daughter behind. An interesting premise is stifled by uncertain execution in this UK import, which offers an interview with Bond, short movies, a Q&A session and the trailer, plus a 16:9 (1.85) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound...MUSIC VIDEO EXPOSED: THE COLLECTION (503 mins., 2009) is a highly entertaining collection of 33 vintage ‘80s music videos from the likes of Russell Mulcahy and others, ranging from AC/DC rock tracks to Spandau Ballet and David Bowie and Mick Jagger, whose hilariously awful video for “Dancing in the Street” was recently grilled on an episode of “Family Guy.” Interviews with Duran Duran, Bon Jovi, Metallica and others are included along with bonus extended interviews and more in a terrifically nostalgic set for fans. 2.0 stereo soundtracks and both 4:3 (the videos themselves) and 16:9 (special features) transfers are included...Dean Cain goes up against MANEATER (91 mins., 2009, R), with the ex-Superman essaying a small town sheriff battling a local serial killer. E One’s DVD is 4:3 widescreen only with stereo sound...WAKING MADISON (89 mins., 2008, R) offers Sarah Roemer as a young woman with psych issues who tries to cure her split personalities by locking herself in an apartment for 30 days. Elisabeth Shue, Taryn Manning and Imogen Poots co-star in Katherine Brooks’ 2008 indie drama, which boasts commentary from the director, interviews with the cast and deleted scenes, along with a 16:9 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

NEW FROM NEWVIDEO: Hayden Panettiere plays accused killer AMANDA KNOX: MURDER ON TRIAL IN ITALY (92 mins., 2011), a recent, better-than-average Lifetime cable movie that co-stars Marcia Gay Harden as Knox’s mother. A documentary on the real-life, still on-going case is included in NewVideo’s DVD plus a 16:9 transfer and 2.0 stereo audio...Two volumes from AMERICA: THE STORY OF US have been released separately by NewVideo: REBELS profiles the early American settlers while MILLENNIUM takes a look at the turbulent last few decades in American history. Both 90-minute programs include widescreen transfers and 2.0 stereo soundtracks.

NEXT TIME: More July titles! Until then, don't forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards and direct any emails to our email address. Cheers everyone!

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