6/5/07 Edition -- The AISLE SEAT BLOG Is Now Online!

June Arrival Edition
Universal's New HD-DVD Slate, Sony's Blu Rays Reviewed

June is finally here, fellow Aisle Seat readers, and the last week has seen more interesting new developments in the realm of high-definition DVD.
Toshiba kicked things off by dropping prices on their respective HD-DVD players for a promotion offered at several major chains, both online and in retail venues. The highpoint came when Amazon’s offering of Toshiba’s fine A2 HD-DVD player hit #1 in not just DVD player sales but all electronics altogether on Memorial Day, with the price discounted to a highly attractive $237 shipped (with 5 free discs via a separate promotion applied on top of it). That deal hit even Yahoo’s front page for a short time, as it marked the lowest entry price-point for either hi-def DVD format to date. (The promo is still on-going, albeit now for Toshiba’s higher-end XA2 and A20 players, at Amazon, Costco, and other retailers).

This week we start off with reviews of all of Universal’s new HD-DVD discs, along with the latest Blu Ray offerings from Sony, plus Fox’s latest standard-definition DVDs, including the long-overdue “Al Pacino Collection.”

New on HD-DVD

LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA: HD-DVD (***, 140 mins., 2006, R; Warner Home Video): “Letters From Iwo Jima,” Clint Eastwood’s second half of his WWII double-bill, is certainly a more satisfying effort than “Flags of Our Fathers.”

Following the Japanese side in the days leading up to the fateful battle, “Letters” was called an “art house film” by some, but in reality, this is a more traditional war movie than “Flags,” Eastwood’s disappointing film chronicling the American effort in the battle (and the subsequent aftermath for several of its participants) which under-performed at the box-office.

“Iwo Jima” certainly does take the unusual tact of showing the losing side of the fight (at least when it’s produced by a filmmaker originating from the “winning” country), but does so without getting involved in the reasons behind the conflict. It never dives into who was “right” or “wrong,” so it is certainly not a revisionist film, even if the moments in which American soldiers appear as the “villain” will seem quite foreign to domestic viewers. The focus in the script by Iris Yamashita (in collaboration with Paul Haggis) is on the individual men who fought for their country, their drives and ambitions, and courage in the face of certain, impending death. At the forefront of the film is Ken Watanabe’s superb, empathetic performance as General Kuribayashi, whose tactics prolonged the battle and gave the Japanese far more of a fighting chance than they had otherwise.

The movie is leisurely paced and predictable (we know the individuals who want to return home to see their families will surely never do so), but it is superbly directed by Eastwood and well-acted by the entire cast, speaking in their native language. The score by Kyle Eastwood and Michael Stevens is also superior to Eastwood’s own score from its predecessor, while Tom Stern’s desaturated cinematography tends to work better here since this movie doesn’t recall “Saving Private Ryan” in the same manner that portions of “Flags Of Our Fathers” did.

Warner’s HD-DVD edition boasts a crisp and highly satisfying 1080p transfer with Dolby TrueHD and Dolby Digital Plus sound. Extras include a fair amount of Making Of featurettes which, while not entirely comprehensive, do give a solid overview of the production. The original trailer, a look at the Japanese premiere, and the standard-DVD edition (on the disc’s flip side) round out the disc. (also on Blu Ray)

THE 40 YEAR OLD VIRGIN: HD-DVD (***, 2005, 133 mins., Unrated; Universal): Raucous box-office hit stars Steve Carrell as an electronics store employee who has never “gone all the way.” With his co-workers stunned by this breaking news, Carrell is quickly set up with a bevy of potential candidates to end his virginity, but instead falls for a divorced mom (Catherine Keener) who runs an eBay-selling service across the street.

Director Judd Apatow co-wrote this silly but surprisingly sweet tale (with star Carrell) of an affable guy with a few quirks who navigates through a succession of “crazy” people before meeting someone with hang-ups of her own -- sex just not being one of them. The movie manages to work in the requisite raunchy laughs with a strong amount of character development for this sort of thing, plus numerous observations that had me in stitches (such as the Circuit City/Best Buy-esque store broadcasting an endless stream of Michael McDonald concert videos). The picture is a little long and isn’t especially cinematic -- at times it almost looks like an R-rated movie of the week -- but the comedy and performances (especially from Carrell and Keener) make the ultimately appealing story a crowd-pleaser that’s hard to resist.

Universal’s HD-DVD release ought to be one of the format’s stronger sellers here in the early going of “the format wars,” even if the VC-1 encoded, 1080p transfer (with Dolby Digital Plus sound) can only go so far to enhancing the picture’s modest visuals. It’s good looking and an improvement on the traditional DVD, but nevertheless, you won’t be reaching for this disc to show off the benefits of high definition.

The cut presented on the HD-DVD is the Unrated extended cut of the film, offering 17 additional minutes of footage. While I found the film a bit overlong to begin with, some of the newer scenes are quite amusing, and after sitting through it again recently, I found it compares favorably with the theatrical version.

The extensive supplements from the standard DVD have also been ported over, including a commentary track with Apatow, Carrell, and other cast members, plus deleted scenes, rehearsal footage, Comedy Central and Cinemax featurettes, a vintage ‘70s sex education film, and a preview for “Knocked Up,” which was produced by the same creative team and released to widespread acclaim last weekend.

THE FRIGHTENERS: HD-DVD (**½, 1996, 123 mins., R; Universal): A box-office flop released during the summer of ‘96, Peter Jackson’s “The Frighteners” hits HD-DVD with all the supplements intact from its 1998 “Signature Collection” LaserDisc box set  -- a release that once fetched over $100 (and several hundred more if you count the Ebay auctions it went for over the years!), at least before a Director’s Cut DVD was issued in 2005.

Jackson’s first “Hollywood” movie might be worth a view today considering the success and acclaim the filmmaker received for his later “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, but “The Frighteners” isn’t particularly noteworthy by itself: this scare-comedy starts off with few laughs and scenes that feel like outtakes from “Ghostbusters 2,” rambles a bit with over-the-top supporting performances (from Jeffrey Combs, Jake Busey and Dee Wallace Stone to name a few), and then settles into a more compelling, and serious, second half with star Michael J. Fox being pursued by a cloaked figure that resembles The Grip Reaper itself.

Despite excellent special effects for their time, an engaging performance from Fox, and atmospheric cinematography, “The Frighteners” is only intermittently entertaining: the mix of comedy and horror worked for Jackson far more effectively in “Dead Alive,” and the filmmakers weren’t at all helped by their attempts to go for a PG-13 rating. The movie plays like it’s being aimed at kids (and was, in fact, shot for a PG-13), but the MPAA found the film too intense and gave it an R regardless -- something that hurt the picture at the box-office.

Though the movie isn’t a classic, Universal ought to be commended for issuing a HD-DVD that does full justice to the film. The 1080p transfer isn’t eye popping but is sharp and well-detailed, with an effective 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus soundtrack complimenting a busy Danny Elfman score.

As far as extras go, this also one of those rare cases where the supplements outshine the film. In 1998, Jackson packaged together a fascinating, four-hour (!) “Making Of” documentary for Universal’s Laserdisc box set, which also offered an extended version of the movie itself. Coming in the final days of the Laserdisc medium, this “Signature Collection” was produced in limited quantities and, as such, became a prized possession of collectors over the years.

Now, for just over $20 a pop, you can experience in high-definition everything that the pricey, bulkier laserdisc contained: the Director’s Cut (123 minutes) of “The Frighteners,” along with Jackson’s original 1998 commentary from the laserdisc release (which discusses how “King Kong” was shelved nine years ago out of concerns for competition from “Godzilla” and “Mighty Joe Young”), plus the four-hour documentary that touches upon every aspect of the production. There are numerous interviews with the cast (though few with Fox himself), special effects artists, producer Robert Zemeckis and composer Danny Elfman among others, in addition to outtakes and candid behind-the-scenes footage -- the kind that you rarely see in most studio-produced DVD featurettes.

It’s a sensational package presented uncut (and with detailed chapter stops) on HD-DVD, making it an essential view for Jackson and Fox fans.

DRAGONHEART: HD-DVD (***, 1996, 103 mins., PG-13; Universal): I’ve always been lukewarm on this box-office underachiever which Universal hoped would become one of 1996's biggest hits. 

Much to my surprise, this Rob Cohen-directed fantasy adventure, scripted by Charles Edward Pogue (“The Fly,” “Kull the Conqueror”) has aged rather well, and is helped immeasurably on HD-DVD where Universal’s stunning, flawless high-definition transfer improves the picture at every turn.

ILM’s effects and Sean Connery’s performance as Draco, the last remaining fire-breathing dragon in a medieval kingdom, are the key assets to “Dragonheart,” which stars Dennis Quaid as a knight who teams with Draco to take down a nefarious ruler (an engaging, dastardly turn from David Thewlis) who was once trained by Quaid and saved as a teenager by Draco’s powers. The duo hope to restore balance to the kingdom, save the requisite damsel in distress (in this case, Dina Meyer, soon to complete her big one-two genre punch in “Starship Troopers”), and preserve Draco’s legacy as the last of his kind.

Though the story is basic, “Dragonheart” comes from a very different and old-fashioned sensibility than most blockbusters we see today. It’s amazing to see how much has changed in studio filmmaking, and not for the better, over the last 11 years: Cohen’s film is leisurely paced and offers few surprises, but it’s refreshing to see a film that doesn’t try to overstay its welcome, isn’t riddled with A.D.D.-editing, and doesn’t have music in every single scene. It’s telling how in 1996 some accused Randy Edelman of over-scoring movies, when in fact his “Dragonheart” score (undoubtedly one of his finest, and ultimately more popular than the movie itself) seems, if anything, downright subtle compared to what we hear in most “blockbusters” these days.

The film is entertaining and satisfying, and once you know the picture’s bittersweet conclusion (one which likely didn’t sit well with young viewers, though it is tipped off well in advance of its arrival), it makes it easier to accept on repeat viewing. The articulation of the dragon (courtesy of ILM’s animating of Connery’s “performance”), meanwhile, keeps the visuals on a high caliber even with the advances in technology since its release.

Universal’s HD-DVD offers one of the most satisfying transfers I’ve yet seen in the medium, aiding “Dragonheart” immeasurably as a visual experience. David Eggby’s cinematography seems far more colorful than drab, previous video editions indicated, while the print looks positively pristine. The Dolby Digital Plus sound is likewise excellent, and extras have been carried over from prior Special Editions, including a typically excellent commentary by Rob Cohen, a full Making Of, the trailer, and two brief deleted scenes.

Strongly recommended for HD enthusiasts, and perhaps worth another look for those who might’ve written it off as just another silly fantasy upon its original release as well.

LOST IN TRANSLATION: HD-DVD (***, 2003, 102 mins., R; Universal): Sofia Coppola's ode to alienation and travelers "lost" both physically and psychologically in a foreign land -- in this case, Tokyo, Japan -- won major critical kudos and a slew of Oscar nominations. It's certainly a great honor for Coppola, who once was hissed off the screen (not entirely deserved, in my opinion) for her starring role in "The Godfather Part III," but has established herself as one of the more unique voices working in film today.

"Lost in Translation" isn't an extraordinary movie or an example of gripping dramatic filmmaking. It is, on the other hand, a smartly observed "mood movie" that finds Bill Murray as an American actor making a few million as a spokesman for a Japanese whiskey, and Scarlett Johansson as a young wife whose rock photographer husband (Giovanni Ribisi) leaves her to toil around the streets of Tokyo while he's away at work.

Both Murray and Johansson find themselves in a hotel overlooking the cityscape of Tokyo, and end up striking a friendship in a land where they have little to connect with but each other.

It's a keenly-written travelogue and a quietly poignant, amusing movie that gets a lot of mileage out of the realistic performances of Johansson (nicely understated) and Murray, playing his usual droll, dour self to fine effect. All of it is vividly photographed by Lance Acord and nicely paced by Coppola, who gets inside the heads of her characters but then, about midway through the movie, backs off and loses a bit of dramatic momentum in the process. True, the movie is obviously striving to be "real," but at what point do you stop the pseudo-documentary approach and build drama and tension? Coppola doesn't seem to find a comfortable balance in that regard, and the movie fizzles out a bit as a result (the concluding scene is satisfying, however).

Despite my reservations about the picture's second half, "Lost in Translation" is well worth a look for its atmosphere and performances, both of which are markedly well captured in Universal's HD-DVD. The 1080p, VC-1 encoded transfer is splendid, the Dolby Digital Plus sound perfectly satisfying, and extras include a segment with Coppola and Murray discussing the movie (in lieu of a commentary track), several extended/deleted scenes, a behind-the-scenes documentary and a music video.

MIDNIGHT RUN: HD-DVD (***½, 127 mins., 1988, R; Universal): Top-notch ‘80s action/buddy comedy with bounty hunter Robert DeNiro tracking down an accountant (Charles Grodin) who just embezzled a whole bunch of cash from the mafia and gave it to charity. Martin Brest (“Beverly Hills Cop”) warded off studio hopes of seeing Cher and Robin Williams (among others) cast in Grodin’s role, and the result is a crackerjack mix of action and comedy, with a tight script by George Gallo (“29th Street”) and a dynamite score by Danny Elfman rounding out the fun. Universal’s HD-DVD looks a little bit grainy at times but is certainly more pleasing than any previous standard DVD release, with 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus sound, the original trailer, and a vintage Making Of segment capping off the disc.

THE RIVER: HD-DVD (***, 124 mins., 1984, PG; Universal): One of several “farm” movies produced in 1984, Mark Rydell’s “The River” is flawed but has held up better than some of its counterparts thanks mainly to Vilmos Zsigmond’s outstanding cinematography and John Williams’ evocative score, which ranges from full-scale orchestral statements (the trailer-staple track “The Ancestral Home,” heard over the climax) to a smaller ensemble with equally poignant themes, intertwining a jazzy, heartfelt sound in between. Mel Gibson and Sissy Spacek essay the couple trying to make ends meet in Robert Dillon’s script, which is predictable at times and uneven at others, but offers enough strong scenes and visuals to off-set some of its deficiencies. Universal’s HD-DVD edition is highly satisfying, enhancing the movie’s visuals and offering a robust 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus soundtrack. Regrettably the disc is devoid of any extras.

New on Blu Ray Disc

THE MESSENGERS: Blu Ray (**½, 90 mins., 2007, PG-13; Sony): Surprisingly watchable little supernatural chiller from Sam Raimi’s Ghost House Pictures became a sleeper hit at the box-office over the winter, managing to rake in over $35 million.

This U.S. debut for Asian cinema auteurs Danny and Oxide Pang isn’t exactly the next “Poltergeist” (and reportedly necessitated re-shoots from Mexican filmmaker Eduardo Rodriguez before its release) but as most of these recent PG-13 supernatural chillers have gone (from the dismal “Grudge” movies to “Pulse,” etc.), “The Messengers” is at least moderately entertaining and stylishly made.

Kristen Stewart is excellent as the distraught teen daughter of non-fun couple Dylan McDermott and Penelope Ann Miller, who relocate their family -- including a toddler son -- to a North Dakota farm hoping to turn things around. There Stewart finds that only she and her brother can see creepy-looking ghosts haunting their new abode. Meanwhile, John Corbett plays a neighbor who looks like he may well have more to do with the mysterious goings-on than just planting crops.

Well-shot by David Geddes and scored by Joe LoDuca (one of the better scores I’ve heard in recent months, in fact), “The Messengers” is interesting enough and refreshingly old-fashioned, though it all falls apart in its final frames with a tepid, predictable climax. Until then, the picture’s early scenes of spectral spirits and empty landscapes makes for a pleasing visual package, particularly in Sony’s new Blu Ray edition.

The 1080p transfer is spot-on with not a blemish to be found, while the uncompressed 6.1 PCM sound and 5.1 Dolby Digital tracks are packed with atmosphere. Extras include a commentary with Stewart and several Making Of segments totaling 37 minutes.       

RESCUE ME - Complete Season 3: Blu Ray (2006, 572 mins., Sony): One of cable’s top rated dramatic series is also one of its most acclaimed, offering raunchy laughs, domestic drama and suspense in equal measure as it follows Denis Leary and his band of firefighters through travails in and out of their harrowing work. Sony’s Blu Ray release of “Rescue Me”’s third season marks one of the inaugural TV series to hit Blu Ray to date, presenting the series in vibrant 1080p transfers with uncompressed PCM 5.1 sound as well as traditional Dolby Digital 5.1. Numerous extras include five featurettes, 14 deleted scenes, bloopers, a set tour, additional behind-the-scenes segments, and a sneak preview of the show’s fourth season. Highly recommended and hopefully the start of more series to follow in high-definition.

CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER: Blu Ray (**½, 114 mins., 2006, R; Sony): Zhang Yimou’s exquisitely shot Tang Dynasty epic -- centering on the fractured relationship between the Emperor Ping (Chow Yun Fat), his wife (Gong Li), and their inner-circle inside the royal family -- offers typically elaborate battle sequences and a plot that drags and isn’t particularly compelling. That said, aficionados of Asian cinema may warm to the film, which Sony has presented on Blu Ray in a gorgeous 1080p transfer with uncompressed 6.1 PCM and Dolby Digital 5.1 sound. Visually this is a sumptuous disc and one of the better Blu Ray transfers I’ve recently seen at that. Extras, similar to the previous standard DVD edition, include a Making Of featurette and footage of the movie’s L.A. premiere. 

Upcoming From Criterion

Lindsay Anderson’s IF... (1969, 112 mins., Criterion) has been analyzed as an allegory, a social satire, a movie of its time, a commentary on conformity and youthful rebellion, and a critique of stifling authority figures. In many ways, it is all of those things, and yet at the same time, viewers can pull their own interpretations from this tale of rebellion brought on by a student (Malcom McDowell) at a British school -- something that marks the best cinema of the ‘60s and ‘70s.

Criterion’s double-disc set of “If...” arrives in a two-disc set on June 19th and boasts an excellent array of supplements.

First off, the great Miroslav Ondricek and editor Ian Rakoff supervised the movie’s new HD-based 16:9 transfer (1.66), resulting in an exceptionally crisp and detailed standard-definition image. Ondricek and Anderson utilized shifting color and black-and-white schemes to purposefully throw viewers off-balance with the movie’s meshing of reality and fantasy, and Criterion’s new transfer aids the picture immeasurably in conveying its original artistic vision.

An excellent commentary track features critic/historian David Robinson reading from prepared notes, along with comments from Malcolm McDowell, recounting his memories of the production.

The set’s second disc includes a 2003 episode from “Cast and Crew,” a Scottish television series, offering then-recent interviews with McDowell, Ondricek, and others (including Stephen Frears, who was Anderson’s assistant on the picture); a video interview with actor Graham Crowden; and a 1954 Oscar-winning documentary, “Thursday’s Children,” which Anderson shot concerning deaf children.

Extensive booklet notes compliment an exceptional package for fans of this late ‘60s cinema landmark.

New From Fox & MGM

DIE HARD COLLECTION: Die Hard (***½), Die Hard 2 (***½), Die Hard With a Vengeance (**), Fox, due out June 19th.

The upcoming release of the fourth “Die Hard” film (which will eschew numbers in favor of the spectacularly silly title “Live Free or Die Hard”) is undoubtedly the occasion for Fox’s new, four-DVD anthology of the original series films, with a free voucher to the upcoming sequel and a new bonus disc on-hand .to sweeten the package.

That’s the good news -- the bad is that the set only offers the single-disc editions of the original “Die Hard” films, meaning just commentaries are included on the three respective pictures. None of “Disc 2" extras from the prior double-disc editions (deleted scenes, featurettes, Making Of materials) are on-hand because, well, there aren’t any second discs!

The transfers appear identical to those previous 2-disc editions as well, meaning they’re solid (16:9) with multiple audio options (5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital sound).

The new bonus disc offers trailers for the upcoming sequel plus two fresh featurettes: a 40-minute retrospective on the making of “Die Hard” with new interviews with John McTiernan, Joel Silver, co-stars Reginald Veljohnson, William Atherton and others, as well as a 13-minute featurette that splices together a new Renny Harlin interview (recalling his work on “Die Hard 2") with EPK footage of McTiernan from the release of the third movie (easily my least favorite in the series).

Together, they provide a solid enough overview of the series (though far from a comprehensive documentary), but minus the second-disc extras from each of the prior two-disc editions, the release overall is lacking. Hopefully Fox will get it right with their upcoming Blu Ray editions of the “Die Hard” series, which are touted as “Coming Soon” in the package.

AL PACINO COLLECTION (Fox, due June 19th): After nearly two years of delays, Fox’s unique Al Pacino box-set has finally seen the light of day, minus two of the films that were to be released in conjunction with it (“Panic in Needle Park” and “Author! Author!,” due out separately).

The four-disc anthology is highlighted by two movies which have never been widely circulated: Pacino’s 2000 adaptation of Ira Lewis’ play “Chinese Coffee,” co-starring Jerry Orbach, which is a talky (as one might anticipate) and static affair recommended only for seeing Pacino and Orbach working together; and the 1990 hour-long “The Local Stigmatic,” with Pacino acting opposite Paul Guilfoyle. The set is capped by Pacino’s well-regarded ensemble piece “Looking For Richard,” with Winona Ryder, Kevin Spacey, Kevin Kline and others in a pseudo-back stage examination of “Richard III”; and “Babbelonia,” a conversation touching upon all facets of Pacino’s career, from his stage roots to his few directorial ventures and better-known studio fare.

Eschewing Pacino’s more commercial films in favor of three “actor’s” movies (two of which have never been widely available to the viewing public), Fox’s set is worth a casual view for most movie-goers but a must for Pacino die-hards.

FANTASTIC FOUR: Extended Edition (**½, 125 mins., 2005, PG-13; Fox): Though the DVD market has been deluged with extended versions of all sorts of movies recently, Fox’s double-disc edition of the “Fantastic Four” is one of the better “upgrades” I’ve seen in a while. 20 minutes of previously cut footage have been added back into the movie, making it a bit meatier in length (still only 125 minutes), while extensive extras include numerous commentaries, additional deleted scenes, Making Of documentaries, multiple featurettes, and an excellent 16:9 (2.35) transfer with 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital sound. The set is also packaged with a free ticket (or at least $8.50 off) to the upcoming “Fantastic Four” sequel, while the theatrical cut is also on-hand via seamless branching.

STONE COLD (**, 1991, 92 mins., R; MGM/Fox): Back in 1991 I attended a sneak preview of the soon-to-be-blockbuster “City Slickers,” which was paired back in those days with the showing of another film. This unique 2-for-1 (which we rarely see anymore) enabled you to sit back after the preview was over and catch another movie gratis.

Naturally, it seemed like you’d never get a decent movie on the end of the double bill (I recall walking out once “Forest Gump” was over since, ironically enough, “City Slickers 2" was the free movie following it), and back in ‘91 this totally seemed to be the case: after Billy Crystal’s comic-western hit was over, the next flick was none other than ex-football star Brian Bosworth’s one-and-only-starring effort, “Stone Cold.”

Not to be confused with wrestler Steve “Stone Cold” Austin, the movie “Stone Cold” was a box-office flop that looked like a pile of pedestrian action filmmaking. Or so I thought.

As I was preparing to watch MGM’s new DVD of “Stone Cold,” I checked up online to see if this film has any signs of life in terms of a cult following. As amazing as it may seem, there truly seems to be a little bit of DEMAND for this DVD: out of print VHS releases command a small dollar, and five-star reviews from the movie’s fans permeate its listing on Amazon. Could I have actually missed a good time by walking out after “City Slickers” finished?

After watching a few minutes of “Stone Cold” -- which is out from MGM and Fox next week on DVD -- I can safely say I made the wrong call (especially since I was 16 when the movie was released).           

This deliriously entertaining guilty pleasure plays like one of the last films to come from The Cannon Group: a no-holds-barred action flick with loads of one-liners, an appropriately demented performance from Lance Henriksen as a psycho villain, and an appropriately stiff, one-note performance by “The Bos” as an FBI agent who infiltrates a biker gang.

Director Craig R. Baxley knew how to make a decent B-movie back at the time (remember the memorable Dolph Lundgren-Brian Benben semi-classic “I Come In Peace”?), and “Stone Cold” is a movie right up his alley. From Sylvester Levay’s patented electronic score to the thrilling (?) courthouse climax, this is basically B-movie heaven for action-seeking bad movie fans.

Fox and MGM’s DVD edition sports a decent 16:9 (1.85) transfer as well as a full-screen version on dual sides of a single disc. The 2.0 stereo sound is adequate enough. No extras are included.

52 PICK UP (**½, 110 mins., 1986, R; MGM/Fox): Long-overdue on DVD in the U.S., this taut and under-rated (though still flawed) John Frankenheimer adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s novel was one of the few bona-fide “A list” titles from The Cannon Group. Roy Scheider plays a businessman who cheats on his wife (Ann-Margaret) and pays the price after he’s blackmailed by a psycho (John Glover from “Smallville”) with footage of him in bed with another woman. Top-notch production values and fine performances from Scheider and Glover help, but “52 Pick Up” is a little uneven in its pacing, with lots of talk and not a whole lot of action. Still, Leonard fans may enjoy seeing this 1986 vehicle dusted off in MGM’s new 16:9 (1.85) transfer with 2.0 Ultra Stereo sound, offering an okay synth score from Gary Chang.

CRIMINAL LAW (*½, 1989, 117 mins., R; MGM/Fox): Boston criminal defense attorney Gary Oldman (boasting a none-too-convincing American accent) finds out that his client (Kevin Bacon) is actually guilty of the crime he’s been convicted of in this unbelievable, unsatisfying thriller from director Martin Campbell, featuring one of Jerry Goldsmith’s all-time least appealing scores. MGM’s DVD sports an appropriately unimpressive 16:9 transfer that’s soft and blurry throughout; the 2.0 stereo sound is only marginally more effective.

THE RAT PATROL: Complete Season 2 (26 Episodes, 1967-68; MGM/Fox): Second and final season for the adventures of an Allied tank unit fighting Rommel’s forces in North Africa during WWII hits DVD. Fox’s three-disc set features the final 26 episodes of “The Rat Patrol” in uncut, solid fullscreen transfers with 2.0 mono soundtracks. Series fans ought to be pleased with the no-frills package, which completes the series on DVD on last.

New From BCI Eclipse

Brentwood Home Video’s latest round of nostalgic Saturday morning fare is highlighted by the DVD debut of JASON OF STAR COMMAND (1978-79), a spin-off from the earlier Filmation series “Space Academy” that stripped down the moralizing from its predecessor and concentrated mostly on pure, unadulterated Saturday morning action. “Jason” started off in 15 minute segments of the anthology “Tarzan and the Super 7" before becoming a ratings smash, necessitating its own half-hour block the following year. It’s good fun for kids with decent effects for their time, and the appearance of James Doohan in a supporting role gives the show more novelty value alone than its predecessor ever had.

BCI’s three-disc set offers all 28 episodes of “Jason” in healthy full-screen transfers. Extras are bountiful, including commentaries from star Craig Littler; a half-hour documentary on the series; demo reels; special effects featurettes; an art gallery for a proposed animated spin-off; DVD-ROM scripts and more.

Also fresh from the Filmation vaults is HERO HIGH (1981), a series which aired as segments of NBC’s “Kid Super Power Hour with Shazam!” in the early ‘80s. This frothy show is actually pretty entertaining as period Saturday morning series go, and offers occasional cameos from fellow Filmation stars Isis and Shazam! among others (here’s hoping BCI gives us a full “Shazam!” set in the near future; “Isis,” meanwhile, is due out this July).

BCI’s two-disc set includes the complete “Hero High” in good-looking full-screen transfers with two commentaries; 20 minutes of live-action “Kid Super Power Hour” action; DVD-ROM materials (scripts, etc.); and various art galleries.

MISSION: MAGIC (1973), meanwhile, predates both “Jason” and “Hero High,” giving us a truly dated, early ‘70s nostalgia ride as Mrs. Tickle takes her six students on various magical adventures into the past, future, and alternate worlds. Did I mention that Rick Springfield (!) is also along for the ride to provide a few tunes -- along with a canned laugh track?

“Mission: Magic” was a little bit before my time (and was gone from the airwaves by the time I was old enough to watch TV), but fans will love this enjoyable set, preserving the complete series (16 episodes) in okay transfers with numerous extras, including interviews with Filmation’s Lou Scheimer, a half-hour documentary, image galleries, DVD-ROM script galleries and extensive booklet notes.

Lastly BCI has issued the highly entertaining late ‘60s NBC/King Features-Hearst series COOL McCOOL (1966) on disc in a three-disc set likewise packed with extras.

This teaming of “Batman” creator Bob Kane and comic Chuck McCann resulted in a satisfying kids’ parody of James Bond and the ‘60s spy craze by way of Maxwell Smart-styled humor. Pleasing animation and colorful slim-line packaging make this one of BCI’s best efforts to date (among many fine titles), with extras including various commentaries and interviews with McCann, who recounts his career in addition to his work on the series, introductions to each episode from Cool himself; and a music video by Wally Wingert boasting McCann’s participation to boot. Great fun!

NEXT TIME: GHOST RIDER, PRIMEVAL 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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