6/8/10 Edition Twitter: THEAISLESEATCOM
Eastwood Favorites in High-Def
KELLY'S HEROES, Leone Westerns on Blu
Plus: Shout! Factory June Wrap-Up, Criterion & More
The Hughes Brothers’ third feature film -- and first since their 2001 Johnny Depp-Jack the Ripper tale “From Hell” -- is an uneven but ultimately satisfying post-apocalyptic sci-fi drama entitled THE BOOK OF ELI (***, 118 mins., 2010, R; Warner), starring Denzel Washington as a loner in a typical movie wasteland, navigating across a barren, hostile former United States of America.

Though “The Book of Eli” does boast its share of green-screen shots and special effects enhancements, this is otherwise a well-crafted, sturdy film that works best in its opening half-hour, wherein Washington’s Eli carries a tome that he, and only he, has access to. Striking cinematography and marvelous sound design, along with a leisurely but effective pace, make the picture’s opening immediately compelling, as we see Eli work his way through rundown homes and highways, come across dead bodies and meet with occasional gangs. Make no mistake – there’s nothing here you haven’t seen before in “The Road Warrior” and elsewhere, yet it’s refreshing to see a film where shots linger on for a minute or more, accentuating atmosphere, and isn’t cut to shreds like so many films in today’s modern movie climate are.

Once the film settles into its implausible story – wherein Eli clashes with a local village nutcase (Gary Oldman) who wants the book and his mistress’ young daughter (Mila Kunis), who eventually helps our hero – “Eli” becomes more of a mixed bag, with talky stretches occasionally livened up by a few explosions and slim supporting turns filled by the likes of Michael Gambon and Jennifer Beals (as Kunis’ mother). It doesn’t entirely work, and the pacing could’ve been improved, yet the ending, ultimately, is a surprisingly redemptive one – at least for this kind of film.

With strong work from Washington and a surprisingly modulated, effective performance from Oldman, “The Book of Eli” ought to satisfy genre fans on video, where Warner has packaged it in the form of a gorgeous looking and sounding Blu-Ray disc. The 1080p VC-1 encoded transfer is flawless on its own, but I think it’s surpassed here by a spectacular DTS Master Audio soundtrack, where activity comes at the viewer all throughout the sound field at every turn. This is a dynamic mix, one of the best I’ve yet heard in the medium, so audiophiles ought to have a field day with the presentation here.

Extras include less than a couple of minutes of deleted scenes (more like excised fragments), some picture-in-picture content, assorted featurettes (including a brief conversation with Allen Hughes and composer Atticus Ross) and a digital copy/DVD combo disc also included in the package.

New From MGM/Fox

Western fans (as well as video game players currently working their way through the sublime “Red Dead Redemption”) have reason to celebrate this month thanks to MGM’s pair of Blu-Ray retrospectives honoring the “Man With No Name” films of Sergio Leone as well as a box-set devoted to the Mirisch Corporation and United Artists’ “Magnificent Seven” series.

Elmer Bernstein's appropriately magnificent score remains a highlight of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (****, 128 mins., 1960), a John Sturges film that turned Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai" into an American western classic spawning three sequels, a belated CBS television series, and countless imitators.

The original, newly resurrected on Blu-Ray from MGM and Fox, stars Yul Brynner as a gunslinger who recruits a band of six others (Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, and James Coburn among them) to help defend a small Mexican town against villain Eli Wallach and his gang of mercenaries. A bona-fide film classic, MGM's Blu-Ray edition basically offers an HD reprise of the label’s 2006 Special Edition DVD, which was issued during that brief window when Sony was distributing the studio’s home video product. The AVC encoded transfer looks great, offering crisp detail and strong colors, while the occasionally brittle DTS Master Audio sound offers a re-channeled mix of the film’s original mono soundtrack (which is also on-hand).

Extras include the initial DVD’s commentary track featuring Eli Wallach, James Coburn, and producer Walter Mirisch, plus featurettes on Elmer Bernstein’s score (courtesy of comments from sage Jon Burlingame), a 45-minute retrospective documentary, trailers, and “Lost Images” from the movie. Curiously, neither Christopher Frayling’s commentary from the 2006 DVD nor an interview with the film historian have been retained from that release, though everything else has.

The movie’s three sequels are also included herein: RETURN OF THE SEVEN (the movie's actual on-screen title, even though the film is commonly known as RETURN OF THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN) was the mediocre, belated 1966 sequel with Brynner back as Chris, here defending yet another small town with a gaggle of new pals. Larry Cohen (!) scripted this follow-up, with western vet Burt Kennedy handling the action, shot on-location in Spain. Elmer's music once again graces the film (**½, 95 mins., 1966), here featured in an understandably more ragged looking transfer (particularly compared to the full restoration its predecessor received) that’s nevertheless satisfying in its AVC encode. The DTS Master Audio sound offers sparse stereo separation and seems to be little more than a tiny embellishment on the movie’s original mono mix. The trailer is also on tap.

George Kennedy replaced Yul in 1969's GUNS OF THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (***, 105 mins., 1969), a superior western than its immediate predecessor, with veteran gunslinger Chris Adams called in to break a Mexican revolutionary out of prison. Decent action and another stirring Elmer score mark this 1969 sagebrush saga, which looks mighty fine on Blu-Ray with its pleasing AVC encoded transfer and mono-sounding DTS Master Audio soundtrack.

The series concluded with 1972's THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN RIDE! (**, 100 mins.), a weak B-grade programmer that looks more like an episode of “Bonanza” than a big-screen western thanks to its obviously diminished budget, Hollywood backlot sets and lack of widescreen lensing. With Lee Van Cleef now in the lead, the movie feels like a “Seven” movie in name (and theme music) only, with only another Elmer score (performed by a notably reduced orchestra) and attractive female leads (Stefanie Powers, Mariette Hartley) making it palatable.

Predictably the AVC encoded transfer is the weakest of the lot here, the 1.85 frame lacking in high-def detail and color. The DTS Master Audio sound is a bit punchier than its immediate predecessors, and the trailer completes the release, one which ought to be essential for all western fans.   

THE MAN WITH NO NAME TRILOGY, meanwhile, offers HD versions of Leone’s unforgettable collaborations with Clint Eastwood, all in just superb new AVC encoded 1080p transfers and DTS Master Audio soundtracks (each film’s mono mix has also been retained). While “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” has been previously released, “A Fistful of Dollars” and “For a Few Dollars More” make their debuts in this release. Since the pictures need little introduction for most viewers, here’s a quick synopsis of each disc and its extras:

A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (***, 100 mins., 1964) marked Eastwood’s first appearance as the Man With No Name, in a 1964 Leone favorite that offers a solid, though not spectacular, transfer, mainly because the film wasn’t as extravagantly photographed as its follow-ups. Extras culled from the “Leone Anthology” DVD box-set include commentary by Christopher Frayling, “The Christopher Frayling Archives,” “A New Kind of Hero,”“A Few Weeks in Spain,” “Tre Voci,” “Location Comparisons,” Monte Hellman on the 1977 TV version of the picture, the network TV prologue with Harry Dean Stanton, trailers and radio spots.

FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (***, 132 mins., 1965) was filmed on the heels of its predecessor and looks even more impressive on Blu-Ray, principally because the picture was produced on a more elaborate budget. Once again, all the extras from MGM’s superb DVD set have been carried over, including another Frayling commentary, Eastwood interview, location comparisons, radio spots and trailers, featurettes, and profile of the U.S. release version.

THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY (***½, 161 mins., 1966) completed Eastwood’s association with Leone, the duo here signing off with the quintessential “spaghetti western” classic. MGM’s Blu-Ray (the same as the previously, individually released version) offers an impressive AVC-encoded transfer of this 1966 masterwork; although it’s not flawless, all the nuances of the film’s scope cinematography and its numerous visual riches are magnified by MGM’s 1080p transfer, with only a bit of that devilish “noise reduction” cropping up from time to time, smoothing over the image instead of preserving the film’s inherent crispness. The DTS Master Audio sound is also pleasing, with the original mono soundtrack (and a slew of foreign mixes) also on-hand. Since the Blu-Ray is again a basic HD reprise of the prior restored DVD, it goes without saying that the extras from that edition are on-hand here: commentaries from Richard Shickel and Christopher Frayling, the “Leone’s West” documentary, deleted scenes, other featurettes (including a look at Ennio Morricone’s classic score), the trailer and the proverbial “more” make for a feature-packed disc.

Fans should note that MGM has also newly issued a Blu-Ray edition of “Hang ‘Em High,” a 1967 Eastwood western directed by Ted Post, but did not send out copies for review.

Eastwood in High-Def

Clint Eastwood’s latest film, “Invictus” (which I reviewed a couple of columns ago), has spurred a retrospective of prior Eastwood pictures on Blu-Ray courtesy of Warner Home Video.

The most attractive of these new releases is undoubtedly the irresistible Double Feature pairing of WWII widescreen adventures KELLY’S HEROES (***, 143 mins., 1970, GP) and WHERE EAGLES DARE (***, 155 mins., 1968, PG; Warner).

Not only are both films vividly shot in Panavision and ideally suited to the high-def treatment for that reason, each has its own, distinct charms: the 1968 MGM adaptation of Alistair MacLean’s “Where Eagles Dare” being a straight-ahead, entertaining, old-fashioned star vehicle co-starring Richard Burton and Mary Ure, while more “counter-culture” attributes can be seen in “Kelly’s Heroes.” The latter, a 1970 WWII caper with a terrific supporting cast (Telly Savalas, Donald Sutherland, Don Rickles, Carroll O’Connor, Gavin MacLeod among them), sports occasional “mod” vernacular, an intermittently eclectic Lalo Schifrin score, and the immortal Mike Curb Congregation theme song “Burning Bridges.”

Both movies were directed by Brian G. Hutton yet offer contrasting pleasures to the viewer, making for a dynamite tandem (and a real steal under $20 retail). Each film looks and sounds dynamite on Blu-Ray as well: the double feature set presents each film on its own platter with crisp VC-1 encoded transfers and effective DTS Master Audio soundtracks. From the stereophonic opening blast of “Kelly’s Heroes” to Ron Goodwin’s sweeping score filling the soundstage on “Where Eagles Dare,” both mixes are satisfying given the age of their respective elements, while a few extras are also on-tap: trailers for both movies plus a vintage 12-minute “On Location” featurette for “Where Eagles Dare.”

In addition to the “Action Double Feature” combo, Warner has also released individual Blu-Ray discs for ‘80s-‘90s Eastwood vehicles “Heartbreak Ridge,” THE ROOKIE (**½, 121 mins., 1990, R) and ABSOLUTE POWER (**, 121 mins., 1997, R).

“The Rookie” didn’t perform particularly well at the box-office during the Christmas season of 1990, and while it’s not exactly Clint in his prime, the film is an entertaining enough formula yarn with Eastwood the grizzled veteran cop schooling young, by-the-book new partner Charlie Sheen while pursuing Los Angeles car thieves.

Raul Julia and Sonia Braga (who really heats up the screen with Eastwood in one particularly memorable sequence) make for an effective pair of villains here (the second of several on-screen pairings for the actors) while able support is filled by Lara Flynn Boyle and Tom Skerritt.

The picture undoubtedly suffered from comparisons to Joel Silver’s flashier, edgier cop movies of the era, but “The Rookie” isn’t all bad, especially once you acknowledge that the film isn’t going to provide anything unexpected throughout its two-hour duration. It also looks and sounds terrific in high-def, with Warner’s VC-1 encoded transfer and DTS Master Audio soundtrack comprising a robust technical presentation. Lennie Niehaus’ jazzy, infectious main theme is one of his better offerings for an Eastwood film, while the trailer completes the package.

“Absolute Power,” meanwhile, was a disappointing 1997 collaboration between Eastwood, stars Gene Hackman and Ed Harris, as well as writer William Goldman, who adapted David Baldacci’s bestseller about a career thief (Clint) who, during a Washington D.C. heist, watches the President (Hackman) commit murder.

One of several movies dealing with Presidential conspiracies produced during the Clinton administration (“Murder at 1600" and “The Shadow Conspiracy” were also made around the same time), “Absolute Power” is a slow-moving, well-crafted yet uninspiring effort considering all the talent involved. A fantastic supporting cast including Laura Linney (whose scenes as Eastwood’s estranged daughter are the film’s most effective), Dennis Haysbert, Melora Hardin, Scott Glenn, Judy Davis and E.G. Marshall make the film at least serviceable along with Eastwood’s frequent behind-the-scenes collaborators (composer Lennie Niehaus, production designer Henry Bumstead, Jack N. Green’s cinematography), yet the end result is a letdown, doomed by lethargic pacing and a muddled plot.

Warner’s Blu-Ray disc again looks and sounds terrific with a VC-1 encoded 1080p transfer and DTS Master Audio soundtrack.

Joining the Blu-Ray quartet on DVD is THE EASTWOOD FACTOR (88 mins., 2010; Warner), an extended edition of Richard Schickel’s new Eastwood documentary. Touching upon the actor-filmmaker’s vast career in front of and behind the lens, as well as his off-screen life, this insightful and well-rounded chronicle of all things Clint -- narrated by Morgan Freeman -- comes highly recommended. Warner’s DVD offers a full-screen 4:3 transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, and is also available on the “Invictus” Blu-Ray.

New From Shout! Factory

THE STEPFATHER Blu-Ray (***, 89 mins., 1987, R; Shout! Factory): Sleeper hit (which earned its share of critical kudos as well) boasts a taut script by novelist Donald E. Westlake and a terrific performance from future “Lost” star Terry O’Quinn as an unhinged new stepdad to troubled teen Jill Schoelen and mom Shelley Hack. Seems that O’Quinn has a knack of making his way into single-mother households and enjoying the American Dream, at least until his psychotic tendencies manifest themselves! Effectively directed by genre vet Joseph Ruben, “The Stepfather” is a superior genre entry from the mid ‘80s, with O’Quinn expertly balancing the story’s inherent horror with black humor, and the ever-underrated Schoelen making for a sympathetic heroine.
Shout!’s Blu-Ray disc follows on the heels of the label’s prior DVD edition from last fall, and like its standard-def counterpart, does not disappoint: the VC-1 encoded transfer is well-composed and is only limited by the film’s modest budget, while the Dolby TrueHD 2.0 stereo sound is perfectly acceptable as well. Extras include a half-hour retrospective on the picture boasting comments from Ruben, veteran producer Brian Garfield, Jill Schoelen and others (in HD), along with a commentary from the director, a still gallery and trailers for all three “Stepfather” movies (also in high-def).

At long last available on Blu-Ray in a top-notch presentation, “The Stepfather” should be on every self-respecting horror fan’s shopping list when it arrives in-stores next week.

Shout! also has a number of exciting vintage releases on tap for June. Here’s a rundown:

TALES OF THE GOLD MONKEY - Complete Series DVD (aprx. 1008 mins., 1982-83; Shout!/Fabulous Films): Don(ald P.) Bellisario produced this “Raiders of the Lost Ark”-wannabe about an American pilot in the South Pacific circa 1938 and his assorted adventures with bootleggers, Nazis, undercover agents and the like. Stephen Collins’ engaging lead performance made “Tales of the Gold Monkey” watchable enough, but like CBS’ similarly-themed “Bring ‘Em Back Alive,” the show failed to muster much of an audience and was canceled by ABC after just one season.

Shout and Fabulous Films have brought “Tales of the Gold Monkey” to DVD in a complete series box-set that’s a big disappointment in terms of its visual attributes. The transfers have clearly been mastered from a PAL source, as evidenced by time-compression; what’s more, the picture itself is grainy and poorly defined, making you wonder how long these masters were sitting in the vaults. Thin-sounding mono soundtracks, meanwhile, add further insult to injury.

It’s a pity, because the package otherwise is terrific: complete booklet notes include episode synopses and cast/crew information, while extras include a 26-minute Making Of retrospective sporting interviews with Collins and co-star Caitlin O’Heaney; five episode commentary tracks; still galleries; additional biographies and more.

GHOST WRITER: Season 1 DVD (1992, 14 hrs., Shout!): Engaging mid ‘90s PBS series from Children’s Television (Sesame) Workshop and the BBC arrives on DVD in a superb Season 1 DVD set from Shout!

This well-received children’s series follows the adventures of Jamal, a young Brooklyn boy, and his friends as they receive odd messages from his computer that help them solve assorted mysteries in and around their neighborhood. Guest stars including Samuel L. Jackson and Spike Lee appeared in a show that was intended to improve kids’ literacy and writing skills, but managed to entertain children enough to spur on a later sequel series and network syndication deal.

Shout!’s five-disc DVD box-set includes all eight cases (comprising 34 episodes) from “Ghost Writer”’s first season in satisfying full-screen transfers with a bonus 12-page “casebook” booklet enabling kids to write down clues plus an interactive “Ghostwriter” interactive game. Recommended!   

...Several years after Buena Vista ended their distribution deal with Roger Corman’s New World/New Horizons library, Shout! Factory has stepped up to the plate and issued a series of Corman classics on both DVD and Blu-Ray, with extras exclusive to these releases and carried over from the Buena Vista titles.

At the top of the list are two staples of ‘70s cult moviedom: the silly 1975 actioner DEATH RACE 2000 (**½, 78 mins., R) and the teen favorite ROCK ‘N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL from 1979 (***, 84 mins., PG).

“Death Race 2000" is best known as the movie in which David Carradine races Sylvester Stallone in a manic cross-country event set...of course...in the year 2000! (Cue the Conan O’Brien music here). Paul Bartel’s campy, deliberately off-kilter film was violent for its day, but today it’s pretty tame and unintentionally amusing whenever it’s not trying to be intentionally humorous. Shout!’s DVD and Blu-Ray platters boast a gorgeous new high-definition transfer and 5.1 stereo soundtrack (Dolby TrueHD on Blu), along with two feature-length commentaries (one with A.D. Lewis Teague and editor Tina Hirsch; another with Roger Corman and Mary Woronov, carried over from the prior DVD), an interview with David Carradine, a retrospective featurette ported over from the Buena Vista disc, a new interview with composer Paul Chihara, TV spots, radio ads, and the trailer, complete with John Landis commentary.

Allan Arkush’s manic “Rock ‘N’ Roll High School” stars “Halloween” vet P.J. Soles in the liberating tale of a group of cooky kids who rebel against the tyrannical rule of a new principal. Sole and her pals (Vincent Van Patten, Clint Howard among them) recruit The Ramones to strut their stuff in this highly entertaining pic, one of Corman’s most satisfying productions, co-produced and written by Joe Dante and Michael Finnell.

Shout!’s DVD includes a dynamic remastered 16:9 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack plus a massive supplemental section highlighted by three commentaries (two brand-new to this release), a new Making Of retrospective, extras culled from past laser/DVD edtions including audio outtakes, radio ads, the original trailer, a 16-page booklet and more.

Finally Shout! Has released -- only on DVD -- Penelope Spheeris’ chronicle of the early ‘80s punk scene in L.A. entitled SUBURBIA (**½, 95 mins., R; Shout!). The picture has been remastered in 16:9 with extras including a new commentary from Spheeris, producer Bert Dragin and actress Jennifer Clay (Spheeris’ previous commentary has also been included here) plus a still gallery and trailers.

LEAVE IT TO BEAVER: Season 3 DVD (1959-60, 17 hours, Shout!): Fans of the Beav have reason to rejoice this month since Shout! brings the legendary sitcom back to DVD in a complete-third season set. This fully remastered six-disc set includes all 39 episodes from “Leave it to Beaver”’s third (1959-60) season in excellent, remastered transfers culled from a brand new, high-def rendering of the original film elements. Extras include an audio interview with star Jerry Mathers and Frank Bank from Shokus Internet Radio’s “Stu Show.”

Also New on Blu-Ray

SUPERNATURAL: Season 1 Blu-Ray (aprx. 16 hours, 2005-06; Warner): Much like the WB/CW’s “Smallville,” “Supernatural” is a tremendously entertaining genre series that has flown under the radar since its debut, managing to last a number of years, generating modest ratings and a loyal fanbase in the process.

Extremely well-mounted with top-quality production values across the board, “Supernatural” follows the adventures of two brothers (“Gilmore Girls” vet Jared Padalecki and “Smallville” alumnus Jensen Ackles) fighting the otherworldly while simultaneously tracking down their father cross-country, who mysteriously disappeared while combating the evil that claimed the life of their mother.

Co-produced by McG, Robert Singer and series creator Eric Kripke, “Supernatural” started off heavy on the self-contained episodes that rehash (however effectively) all sorts of cinematic monsters -- especially restless evil spirits from beyond the grave. Alas, you can only recycle “The Ring” so many times, and midway through the year “Supernatural” began to enhance the principal mythology behind their dad’s disappearance and -- in so doing -- improve the series beyond the one-episode-and-out structure it carries through its initial batch of shows. Don’t get me wrong: even in its first group of episodes “Supernatural” is good fun, but if you stick with it, the program settles into its own groove, ending on a high note thanks to the terrific finale “Devil’s Trap.”

Warner’s six-disc Blu-Ray box-set offers the series’ 22 first-season episodes in excellent VC-1 encoded transfers and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks, the latter  sufficiently boisterous with both a well-selected batch of rock tracks and original scores provided by Christopher Lennertz among others (unlike some other older WB series, the songs actually fit the action more often than not).

Extras on the Blu-Ray platter include a format-exclusive Interactive map guide to urban legends, along with a Paley Festival panel discussion with cast and crew members. Other extras are reprieved from the prior DVD and include two fun featurettes, a gag reel, still gallery, episode deleted scenes, and two commentary tracks.

WHEN IN ROME Blu-Ray (**, 91 mins., 2010, PG-13; Buena Vista): Kristen Bell attempts to charm a group of suitors who’ve become magically attracted to her (including Will Arnett, Jon Heder, Dax Shepard and Danny DeVito) in this paper-thin, only fleetingly amusing rom-com from director Mark Steven Johnson.

As a NYC curator who takes a group of coins from the legendary Fontana de Amore in Rome, Bell tries valiantly to sell this Touchstone Pictures comedy, but the David Diamond-David Weissman script is just a dumb, stupid mess, veering from slapstick to “cute” romantic-comedy cliches and back again with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Josh Duhamel actually generates a bit of chemistry with Bell as well, but it’s too bad the two of them were stuck in the midst of this disposable release, which drummed up only modest returns at the box-office this past winter.

Buena Vista’s Blu-Ray disc at least looks the part: the AVC-encoded 1080p transfer and DTS-HD soundtrack are both vibrant, while extras include deleted scenes, two music videos and bloopers. Exclusive to the Blu-Ray release are an alternate opening and ending along with additional extended scenes and a cast/crew featurette.

UNTHINKABLE Blu-Ray (**, 97 mins., 2009, R and Unrated; Sony): Gratuitous suspense-thriller with a superb cast deservedly went right to video.

Samuel L. Jackson plays an interrogator who joins FBI agent Carrie-Anne Moss to prevent terrorist Michael Sheen (a former nuclear expert turned Islamic extremist) from blowing up three cities; the power play between the trio and their contrasting motives drive this Gregor Jordan-directed, Peter Woodward-written affair, which mixes a typical “24" story line with more explicit violence and language. All of it smacks of having been designed to drum up controversy, but the film leaves a sour taste with its in-your-face treatment of legitimate issues, which, again, any episode of “24" managed to examine so much more effectively.

Sony’s Blu-Ray disc is out next week and offers both Rated and Unrated versions of the movie (the latter with an alternate ending), a commentary with the director and MovieIQ BD-Live pop-up attributes. The AVC-encoded 1080p transfer and DTS Master Audio soundtrack are both solid.

Also New From Warner

The final six “Peanuts” specials from the 1970s have been released on DVD in a new, two-disc anthology dubbed PEANUTS: 1970's COLLECTION Volume 2 (Warner).

Five of the six specials have been released before, with the offbeat 1978 entry, “What a Nightmare, Charlie Brown,” making its domestic DVD debut here. “Nightmare” finds Snoopy as a sled dog and Charlie Brown as his musher in a crazy episode that sports a decent Ed Bogas score.

 "It's Your First Kiss, Charlie Brown," meanwhile, was one of the first specials I actually recall seeing as a young child. Watching it again on DVD, I can see why some Peanuts purists objected to the story, which focuses on Charlie Brown escorting the "little red-headed girl" to a dance following a school football game. While there are some laughs here, Charles M. Schulz's story actually gives the red-headed girl a name (Heather) and shows her on-screen -- thus losing some of the mystery behind Charlie Brown's lifelong crush, but still resulting in a pleasant enough special. The music by Ed Bogas and Judy Munsen, alas, lacks the magic of Vince Guaraldi, but works well enough in the concluding moments.

"Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown" is a cute, though not especially memorable, 1975 effort with Charlie Brown watching in angst as his classmates trade cards and tokens on Valentine's Day. Vince Guaraldi's score – one of his last -- is pleasant, while the set is completed by several other, previously-released Peanuts specials including “You’re a Good Sport, Charlie Brown,” “It’s Arbor Day, Charlie Brown” and “You’re the Greatest, Charlie Brown” (check the Aisle Seat archives for more detailed reviews of each special).

One new featurette, “You’re Groovy, Charlie Brown: A Look at Peanuts in the ‘70s,” is the lone extra on Warner’s latest Peanuts release. Meanwhile, fans should note the recently-announced Blu-Ray edition of “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” will be scaring up some tricks and treats in time for October 31st.

New From Criterion

Criterion’s slate of new releases for June is highlighted by a DVD edition of Jim Jarmusch’s MYSTERY TRAIN (110 mins., 1989).

Young Japanese tourists, an Italian widow, and a Brit immigrant find themselves drawn to Memphis, Tennessee in this typically eclectic Jarmusch concoction, sporting a wacky cast (Youki Kudoh, Masatoshi Nagase, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Nicolette Braschi, Joe Strummer, Elizabeth Bracco, Steve Buscemi, Tom Noonan) with references to Elvis and the legacy of Memphis’ musical heritage permeating the picture at every turn.

Fans of Jarmusch, predictably, will get the most mileage out of his 1989 “Mystyery Train,” with Criterion’s DVD sporting a new digital transfer (1.77 widescreen) of the picture in mono; a Q&A with Jarmusch responding to fan questions; excerpts from a 2001 documentary on Screamin’ Jay Hawkins; a documentary on the production; on-set photos; new subtitles and Criterion’s customary booklet notes.

Michelangelo Antonioni’s RED DESERT (117 mins., 1964) also receives the Criterion treatment this month.

This stark, groundbreaking “New Wave” work was Antonioni’s first in color, portraying a woman (Monica Vitti) who displays interest in her husband’s coworker (Richard Harris) in a barren world marked by power plants and electrical towers, symbolizing the rise of industry and technology in modern society.

The visuals alone provide “Red Desert” with some unforgettable imagery, and Antonioni aficionados will find Criterion’s DVD edition to be nothing short of spectacular. The remastered 1.85 transfer is exceptional, while commentary from Italian film scholar David Forgacs adds ample insight into the picture’s ahead-of-its-time social message. Archival interviews with Antonioni and Vitti are included, along with dialies from the original production, short documentaries by the filmmaker, and new, improved English subtitles.

Carol Reed’s “Lady Vanishes”-flavored WWII adventure NIGHT TRAIN TO MUNICH (90 mins., 1940) ought to satisfy Golden Age fans when Criterion issues the DVD later this month. With Red Harrison as a British secret agent helping a Czech scientist and his daughter (Margaret Lockwood) escape the Nazis across Europe, this cracking piece of entertainment and propaganda looks terrific in this remastered full-screen transfer. The disc also sports a video conversation between historians Peter Evans and Bruce Babington about Reed as well as Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, British vets who scripted the picture, as well as the film’s social and historical background.

Jan Troell’s EVERLASTING MOMENTS (131 mins., 2008) is also due out in a double-disc set from Criterion. Backed by gorgeous cinematography and a true, inspiring story, “Everlasting Moments” boasts a lovely high-def transfer with supplements including a short documentary, “Troell Behind the Camera,” shot during the production. Other extras profile photographer Maria Larsson, whose story forms the basis for the film, along with an hour-long documentary on Troell’s filmography and an essay from critic Armond White. 

Finally Abbas Kiarostami’s CLOSE-UP (98 mins., 1990) rounds out Criterion’s June assortment of releases.

Kiarostami, an Iranian filmmaker, is not a director I’ve been familiar with, but “Close-Up” is certainly an interesting picture, a pseudo-documentary based on a real-life event – a man who impersonated a well-known filmmaker – that utilizes his arrest as a springboard into a look at movies, identity and the essence of art.

Criterion’s DVD is a double-disc set sporting commentary from Kiarostami experts; the director’s first feature, “The Traveler”; a documentary on “Close-Up”’s central figure, Hossein Sabzian; a video interview with the director; a documentary on Kiarostami; a remastered 1.33 full-screen transfer and an essay from critic Godfrey Cheshire.

New From BBC

Filmed over 3,000 days in every continent and habitant imaginable, the BBC/Discovery Channel co-production LIFE (aprx. 473 mins., 2010; BBC and Discovery Store) arrived on both Blu-Ray and DVD last week, offering the same sort of miraculous high-definition footage that the BBC’s prior “Planet Earth” documentary boasted a couple of years ago.

The U.S. version of “Life” is narrated by Oprah Winfrey (David Attenborough performed the narration in the British version, which is available separately), who provides the backing information for an 11-part series exploring different animal and plant species and their basic fight for survival. Creatures both big and small, environments both harsh and lush, and animals of all kinds are profiled in this captivating series, which starts off a bit on the slow side (with an episode that provides an overview of the whole series), but quickly picks up with shows devoted to Reptiles & Amphibians, Mammals, Fish, Birds, Insects, Hunters and Hunted, Creatures of the Deep, Plants and Primates. A Making Of and deleted scenes are also on-hand.

With stunning detail and clarity, “Life”’s Blu-Ray edition is a winner. 1080p transfers adorn each of the Blu-Ray edition’s four discs, presented with DTS Master Audio soundtracks and the ability to watch the shows with Fred Karns and Richard Riocca’s music, sans narration. While the BBC’s Blu-Ray version is obviously the best way to appreciate the show’s high-def imagery, the DVD edition is also satisfying for those still utilizing standard-definition, with 16:9 transfers and 5.1 soundtracks available.

WAITING FOR GOD: Complete Collection DVD (aprx. 1304 mins., 1990-94; BBC): Graham Crowden and Stephanie Cole play a pair of elderly residents at the Bayview Retirement Village who opt to take on the system (namely, a lousy staff that looks down on its residents) in this enjoyable BAFTA-nominated British comedy. BBC’s complete series set of “Waiting For God” includes the series’ entire 1990-94 run with a pair of Christmas specials, cast biographies and featurette on Stephanie Cole also on-hand.

DOCTOR WHO - Monster of Peladon (146 mins.)
DOCTOR WHO - Curse of Peladon (97 mins.)
DOCTOR WHO - Masque of Mandragora DVD (98 mins., BBC): Three more classic Doctor Who episodes arrive on DVD in satisfying special edition packages from BBC.

Two of Jon Pertwee’s more memorable adventures as the Doctor – the 1972 “Curse of Peladon” and the 1974 “Monster of Peladon” – are included among the trio. The two-disc “Monster of Peladon” sports two different commentaries (one with cast/crew members, the other a fan commentary), a deleted scene “recreated from a surviving audio recording,” interviews, a photo gallery, and Making Of documentary; the “Curse of Peladon,” meanwhile, offers one cast/crew commentary, Making Of doc, storyboards, additional featurettes, PDF materials and more.

Tom Baker is also represented among the new releases with “The Masque of Mandragora,” a multi-part arc from 1976 that here includes commentary from Baker and assorted crew members; a half-hour documentary; a location featurette; PDF materials; photo gallery; and additional featurettes.

Full-screen 4:3 transfers and mono soundtracks adorn all three sets, which look as good as can be expected given the shows’ respective age and modest technical attributes.

New From Lionsgate

THE THREE MUSKETEERS/FOUR MUSKETEERS DVD (***½, 107 and 107 minutes, 1973-74, PG; Lionsgate): New double-disc Lionsgate DVD set essentially re-packages Anchor Bay’s prior release of Alexander Salkind’s “Musketeers” films, right down to (most of) its special features.

Prior to the Anchor Bay release, the two, star-studded films movies were never treated properly on video. Richard Lester's adaptation of the classic Dumas novel were previously released on DVD, back in the early days of the format, by Fox Lorber Home Video. To make a long story short, both transfers were blurry and banged-up, offering a compromised 1.66 aspect ratio that cropped off the sides of the original 1.77 frame. To make matters worse, the only "Four Musketeers" print Fox Lorber apparently had access to was a French one, resulting in all the credits being -- you guessed it -- in French! Although the AMC cable broadcasts of both pictures had been properly framed in 1.77 for years (and are owned by Warner Bros.), DVD fans had to wait a long while for a presentation of Lester's MUSKETEERS approximating what audiences actually saw in theaters back in 1973 and '74.

Lionsgate’s new DVD release, much like its 2003 Anchor Bay counterpart, sports good-looking 16:9 (1.77) and full-screen transfers as well as some choice extras.

Lester's films represent a wonderfully balanced mix of swashbuckling action and slapstick comedy. The cast is outstanding and remains one of the chief assets of both pictures: Richard Chamberlain, Michael York, Oliver Reed, and Frank Finlay are superb as the Musketeers, while appropriate menace is served up memorably by Charlton Heston and Faye Dunaway. You also have Raquel Welch as York's love interest, Christopher Lee as the villainous Count de Rochefort, and comedic antics from Spike Milligan among others.

Much has been discussed about how Alexander Salkind "divided" what was originally conceived as one long script by George MacDonald Fraser into two separate films during post-production. The end result was an adaptation that provides rollicking entertainment during its first half, and a somewhat more somber and less energetic concluding portion. Either way, the movies are best viewed in close proximity to one another, with everything being similar outside of the film scores: Michel Legrand provided one of his better scores for the first film, while Lalo Schifrin filled in somewhat less memorably for the sequel.

An examination of the movies is provided in the 2003 “Saga of the Musketeers” documentary, which has once again been split into two 25-minute segments on Lionsgate’s DVD. Then-recent interviews run the gamut from Michael York and Raquel Welch to Christopher Lee and Charlton Heston, along with producer Pierre Spengler and executive producer Ilya Salkind (who looks like he's joined a German '80s rock band!). An overview of the production covers the sweltering location shooting in Spain, the deaths of Oliver Reed and Roy Kinnear, and even the controversy -- and lawsuits -- that ensued once Salkind opted to cut the film into two halves. (No mention is made of the belated and ill-fated "Return of the Musketeers"). It's an excellent supplement on a disc that also includes a vintage "Making Of" featurette, but sadly leaves off the trailers from the Anchor Bay release.

TO PARIS WITH LOVE Blu-Ray and DVD (**, 93 mins., 2010, R; Lionsgate): Disappointing, standard-issue action vehicle from writer-producer Luc Besson and director Pierre Morel fails to recapture the magic of their recent box-office triumph “Taken.” In “To Paris With Love,” a bald John Travolta plays a special agent who teams up with an aide (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) to the U.S. ambassador to France in order to prevent a terrorist attack on Paris. A few well-executed set-pieces fail to compensate here for a one-dimensional story that feels by-the-numbers in tone and execution. Lionsgate’s DVD of “To Paris With Love” offers a commentary from Morel, a few featurettes, the trailer, a good-looking 16:9 (2.35) widescreen transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack; the Blu-Ray ups the ante with an even more impressive AVC-encoded 1080p transfer and DTS Master Audio soundtrack and the same extras, plus a few exclusives (Morel's commentary, a couple of brief featurettes and BD-Live connectivity).

SMALL TOWN SATURDAY NIGHT DVD (94 mins., 2010, R; Lionsgate): “Star Trek”’s Chris Pine stars as an aspiring country music star who wants to realize his dreams by going to Nashville; Bre Blair is the girl who may not want to go along with him in this independent drama from writer-director Ryan Craig. Lionsgate’s DVD sports a 16:9 (1.78) transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound and no extras.

RAIN FALL DVD (111 mins., 2009, R; Lionsgate): Barry Eisler’s novel follows a former U.S. Special Forces agent turned deadly assassin in this 2009 production starring Kippei Shina and Gary Oldman. In addition to a 16:9 (2.35) widescreen transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack, Lionsgate’s DVD sports cast and crew interviews.

GUNFIGHT AT LA MESA DVD (88 mins., 2010, PG-13: Lionsgate): Low-budget western from director/co-writer Chris Fickley hits DVD in a Special Edition from Lionsgate, offering two commentary tracks, outtakes, and a behind-the-scenes featurette, plus a 16:9 (1.78) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

CIRCLE OF PAIN DVD (89 mins., 2010, R; Lionsgate): Mixed Martial Arts star Tony Schiena is lured back into the ring by a crooked promoter in this direct-to-video effort co-starring Kimbo Slice, Heath Herring, and cameos from Dean Cain and Bai Ling. Lionsgate’s DVD includes a number of special features including commentary, behind-the-scenes interviews, fight choreography segments, a 16:9 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack.

HAPPY TEARS DVD (95 mins., 2010, R; Lionsgate): Mitchell Lichtenstein’s independent film offers enjoyable performances from Parkey Posey and Demi Moore, here starring as sisters saddled with dealing with their eccentric dad (Rip Torn). Ellen Barkin co-stars in this low-key indie which Lionsgate brings to DVD in a 16:9 transfer with 5.1 audio and a commentary from the writer-director.

WOLF MOON DVD (124 mins., 2010, R; Lionsgate): Small-town girl Ginny Weirick falls for a drifter (Chris Divecchio) with a curse in this extremely overlong, low-budget horror outing co-starring Maria Conchita Alonso, Chris Mulkey and Billy Drago, who have all seen better days, regrettably. Available on June 22nd, “Wolf Moon” (formerly titled “Dark Moon Rising”) sports a 16:9 (1.78) widescreen transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound and commentary from director Dana Mennie and actor Max Ryan.

COACH DVD (87 mins., 2009, PG-13; Lionsgate): Hugh Dancy plays an unemployed barfly, dumped by his gorgeous girlfriend, who takes a job coaching a local soccer team and finding a new romance in this direct-to-video little feature. “Coach” arrives in-stores this week, and sports a 16:9 (1.78) transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

JIM HENSON’S DOG CITY: THE MOVIE DVD (40 mins., 1989; Lionsgate): Jim Henson produced a live-action/animated series in the early ‘90s entitled “Dog City,” which initially got its start as a stand-alone episode of the “Jim Henson Hour.” That pseudo-pilot has been released on DVD from Lionsgate, offering a full-screen transfer and bonuses including original movie concept art and a behind-the-scenes gallery.

Capsule Quick Takes

THE SECRET LIFE OF THE AMERICAN TEENAGER Volume 4 DVD (516 mins., Buena Vista): Just as crazy as ever, creator-producer Brenda Hampton’s top-rated ABC Family domestic drama continues to generate big audiences among its target demographic.

This Volume 4 set offers the most recent assortment of episodes leading up to the series’ summer premiere, following Amy Jergens’ attempts to juggle being a teen mom with a high school student; her boyfriend Ben coming back from Italy with perhaps a different outlook on things; her parents (Molly Ringwald and Mark Derwin) trying to patch up their failing marriage; and her son’s father, bad-boy Ricky, flirting with going back to his truly difficult past.

Buena Vista’s DVD set includes 16:9 (1.78) transfers and 5.1 soundtracks, with bonus features including cast interviews.

POWER KIDS Blu-Ray (77 mins., 2010, R; Magnolia): Kung-fu shenanigans grace this short but effective blast of martial arts mania from Thailand. “Power Kids” finds a student at a Muay Thai school desperately needing a heart transplant; unfortunately, a group of terrorists have commandeered the local hospital, meaning that only a group of his fellow students can come to the rescue. At only 77 minutes there’s not a lot going on in “Power Kids” except a few well-choreographed action sequences, so those who enjoy this type of thing can likely do worse. Magnolia’s Blu-Ray disc includes a colorful 1080p transfer with DTS Master Audio sound and extras including a featurette and behind-the-scenes footage. Audio is on-hand in both Thai (subtitled) and English dubbed mixes.

SHINJUKU INCIDENT DVD (120 mins., 2009, R; Sony): Jackie Chan shifts gears a little bit in this taut tale of a Chinese laborer who moves to Japan seeking a better life, yet along with other illegal immigrants, is shunned from honest work and ends up becoming the head of a local mob. More character development and less fisticuffs than usual grace this 2009 Chan production, which arrives on DVD in a good-looking package from Sony, sporting a terrific 16:9 (2.35) widescreen transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound in both English dubbed and its original Chinese (English subtitled) mix. Extras include selected scenes with commentary from Chan and a behind-the-scenes featurette with the star.

BURN NOTICE - Season 3 DVD (704 mins., 2009-2010; Fox): Michael Westen is back for another season of action, humor and fun in this third season of the hit USA series. Fox’s Season 3 box-set includes all 16 episodes from “Burn Notice”’s third season in 16:9 transfers with 5.1 audio and extras including a 2009 Comic-Con featurette and profile of the series’ stunt units.

ELVIS - 75th BIRTHDAY COLLECTION (MGM/Fox): Birthday box-set for The King sports widescreen DVD editions of Elvis MGM and Fox vehicles “Clambake,” “Flaming Star,” “Follow That Dream,” “Frankie and Johnny,” “Kid Galahad,” “Love Me Tender” and “Wild in the Country.” For those who missed the prior releases of these Elvis faves, it’s certainly worth checking out.

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