7/1/08 Edition -- The AISLE SEAT BLOG Is Also Live

Fourth Of July Edition!
BATMAN - GOTHAM KNIGHT debuts on disc
Plus: Mid-Season Summer Box-office Report
Thus far it’s been a decent summer at the movies, fueled primarily by the success of “Iron Man” and the box-office receipts of the otherwise disappointing “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” (that title still doesn’t roll off the tongue, does it?).

Taking a look at the sheer dollars, here’s a quick rundown on the performance of this summer’s films so far (all grosses are U.S. domestic tallies as of 6/25):

1. IRON MAN (Marvel/Paramount), $306 million: Coming into 2008, few thought one of this year’s top-grossing films would be an adaptation of a secondary Marvel Comics super-hero that starred Robert Downey, Jr. and had Jon Favreau directing it. Then again, that was before they saw the actual movie -- a rousing comic-book fantasy that’s grounded in reality more than most of its counterparts and boasts a turn from Downey, Jr. that’s unquestionably one of the finest performances you’ll ever see in a movie of this type. The picture is fast, funny, thoroughly likeable and terrific for both adults and kids alike -- and when was the last time you saw a super-hero movie where its lead character didn’t walk around sulking about their powers for two hours?

2. INDIANA JONES & THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL (Lucasfilm/Paramount), $293 million: Obviously this fourth go-around for George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford was going to rake in the bucks regardless of its actual quality, and indeed, the film may end up being the summer’s highest-grossing if it edges out “Iron Man” by a hair. That said, it’s unsurprising how few fans actually like this movie, which is sure to be the brunt of jokes for years to come for its weak story, over-reliance on CGI and limp dialogue. Hopefully we’ll be spared any standalone installments of “Mutt Jones” with Shia LaBeouf in the lead....hopefully.

3. KUNG FU PANDA (DreamWorks), $164 million: Jack Black as a fuzzy panda who practices kung fu? Yep, must be a DreamWorks animated feature, though admittedly, it seems both audiences and critics alike have taken more of a shine to “Kung Fu Panda” than they did to the rotten “Shrek 3,” its box-office dollars notwithstanding. The movie is a sure bet to finish well over $200 million and possibly edge out Pixar’s “Wall-E” for the title of the summer’s #1 kids flick.

4. SEX AND THE CITY (New Line), $136 million: I had zero interest in this picture, but admittedly, I’ve never seen a full episode of this long-running HBO program either. Regardless, the “Sex” movie has been a huge hit, opening big, taking an (expected) drop in its second weekend, but retaining a good chunk of its audience week-to-week since then. Expect the inevitable sequel, probably sooner than the gap between the end of the show and this film’s release as well.

5. CHRONICLES OF NARNIA - PRINCE CASPIAN (Disney), $135 million: Was it the change of season? Bad reviews? Competition from Iron Man and Indy? Any way you slice it this sequel to “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” was a box-office disappointment, though not nearly as big a flop as Warner’s catastrophic “Speed Racer.” Disney was already committed to filming another installment prior to its release, which is good for the series because if this picture’s receipts were going to dictate whether or not the show would go on, it’s possible “Narnia” might have ended here.

6. THE INCREDIBLE HULK (Marvel/Universal), $104 million: With Marvel self-financing both “Iron Man” and this smart “re-boot” of the Hulk series, the comic book company is now in charge of determining how most of its characters will be portrayed on the big screen. For the big green one, that means forgetting that Ang Lee’s “Hulk” film from 2003 ever happened, and starting over with Edward Norton as Bruce Banner in a sequel to an origin movie that was never made! The apparently rocky relationship between Norton (who ended up re-writing portions of the script and demanded more control in the editing room than he ultimately received), director Louis Leterrier and Marvel aside, the finished product is a lot of fun, and a far more appropriate “Hulk” movie for both fans and kids alike than its predcessor. So far the box-office grosses are solid but not spectacular, though; it seems some of the bad karma from the Lee movie may be preventing “Incredible” from finding a larger audience, though a final gross around $150 million would at least set up a sequel.

7. DON’T MESS WITH THE ZOHAN (Sony), $87 million: You’d have to drag me into the theater to sit through this latest Adam Sandler romp, but at least he has more box-office mojo than fellow comedian Mike Myers, whose even-worse looking “The Love Guru” has (thankfully) crashed and burned at the summer box-office, taking in a meager $18 million to date.

8. WHAT HAPPENS IN VEGAS (Fox), $77 million: Few may remember this Cameron Diaz-Ashton Kutcher comedy months from now, but it will at least go down in history as a film that managed to ultimately outgross its opening weekend competition -- the uber-expensive Wachowski Brothers bomb “Speed Racer” -- nearly by a 2:1 margin at that.

9. GET SMART (Warner), $62 million: This seemingly unnecessary modern updating of the old Mel Brooks-Buck Henry TV series hasn’t embarrassed itself in its early-going box-office receipts...though I still find the teaming of Steve Carrell with the much-younger Anne Hathaway to be, umm, kind of icky myself (not to mention ineffective; why cast a star best known for playing a gawky, awkward character on “The Office” with an actress best known...for playing a gawky, awkward character in “The Princess Diaries”?).

10. THE HAPPENING (Fox), $54 million: Another fast-fading thriller from M. Night Shyamalan, which opened big and has dropped like a rock each weekend since its opening. That said the movie seems to be now attracting the kind of “so bad it’s good” cult following that helped turn the immortal Nicolas Cage “Wicker Man” flop into an unintentional comedy favorite. If nothing else “The Happening” could have a long shelf life in the latter genre.

Obviously plenty of big guns remain in the summer race, from the Will Smith super-hero fantasy HANCOCK (which has been getting trashed in early reviews, however) to this past weekend’s well-received WALL-E and WANTED, plus Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins” follow-up, THE DARK KNIGHT, coming on July 18th. Even new installments of THE X-FILES and THE MUMMY may surprise as well. We’ll be here to give you a further rundown in a few weeks, so stay cool and stay tuned!

New on Blu-Ray

GANGS OF NEW YORK (***½, 166 mins., 2002, R; Buena Vista): Though nominated for 10 Oscars and the recipient of a Golden Globe for its director, "Gangs of New York" received mixed a reaction from audiences and didn't quite become the massive success its filmmakers intended. The film grossed north of $70 million domestically (surely nothing to sneeze at), but the masses and Academy voters chose the safer "Chicago" as 2002's most celebrated film, leaving Scorsese to celebrate Oscar with the release of the over-rated “The Departed” in 2006.

For this critic, in spite of its flaws, “Gangs of New York” is the superior film to his later teaming with star Leonardo DiCaprio, and does all the things a great historical movie should: transport you to a time and place (1860s New York), convey bits of actual information our school systems no longer teach children (the drafting, rioting, and overall hideous treatment of immigrants from Ireland and all over the world), and create memorable characters to frame the action around. In the latter category we have DiCaprio and Daniel Day-Lewis, both in sensational performances as a young man trying to avenge the murder of his father, and the New York City mob leader whose corruption extends through every facet of the fledgling metropolis.

It seems to me that many people criticized the movie as much for its off-screen reputation (long delays, editorial re-cuts, arguments between Scorsese and the Miramax executives) as for what it lacked on-screen. True, there are times when the three-hour picture seems to have been cut down from something much longer, but overall, I was absolutely captivated by the history, period settings, attention to detail, and rich performances of the two leads. In a larger-than-life role that’s a clear precursor to his Oscar win this past year on “There Will Be Blood,” Day-Lewis was deserving of a similar honor here, and even Robbie Robertson's assembling of the soundtrack -- comprised of modern pop-rock, ethnic music, and an unreleased Howard Shore concert piece -- works splendidly. After hearing this potpourri soundtrack, it's easy to surmise that an original score of any kind may have been more cliched, though we’ll soon find out courtesy of Varese Sarabande’s highly-anticipated release of Elmer Bernstein’s rejected score for the picture (can’t wait!).

"Gangs of New York" may have worked better as a true, four or five-hour epic, but the end result is that still one of those rare three-hour films that goes by faster than many movies that run half its length.

It leaves you wanting more, though you won't find any deleted footage in Buena Vista’s new Blu-Ray disc, which is a virtual reprise of their earlier DVD release. There's a commentary track with Scorsese that's interesting though sporadic, with the director talking about the long gestation of the production, casting, filming, and the post-production process. He does discuss the soundtrack -- calling it a "Goodfellas" like compilation of "period music" on the part of supervisor Robertson -- but makes no direct mention of Bernstein's dumped score. He also avoids talking about the feuds with Miramax over the different cuts of the film, staying on the straight and narrow throughout (maybe someday we'll hear the real story, but alas, it's not here). An informative, albeit brief, Discovery Channel documentary covers the real-life historical elements that served as the basis for the script, while featurettes on the costume design and sets are well-produced and informative. A historical segment on the "Five Points" is also included.

As far as the transfer goes, “Gangs” has had a checkered history on DVD so far, with the prior disc appearing satisfactory for standard-def but far from pristine. The new Blu-Ray release is unquestionably superior yet seems to have been culled from similar elements, with digital “noise reduction” employed that produces an image that’s often appreciably “smooth” and occasionally detracts from the added image clarity that high-definition affords. Overall it’s certainly watchable and an appreciable upgrade on the standard DVD, though it’s not quite as satisfying as one may have hoped.

The uncompressed PCM soundtrack fares better; like many Scorsese films, the sound is rich and detailed with surround effects, music, and ambient sounds, so crank it up and be prepared to be transported back in time.

10,000 B.C. (**½, 109 mins., 2008, PG-13; Warner): Looking for a bad movie that’s plenty  entertaining, packed with gorgeous HD visuals, and given first-class treatment on DVD and Blu-Ray?

Look no further than Roland Emmerich’s critically-lambasted epic “10,000 B.C.,” an extravagant caveman odyssey that performed moderately well ($94 million domestic) at the winter box-office though, considering its expensive price tag, ranked as something of a disappointment overall.

In terms of its narrative, Emmerich’s latest piece comes off as a poor man’s “Apocalypto” set in the stone age, with visuals cribbed together from a myriad of other, better movies, whether it’s “Troy” or the filmmaker’s own “Stargate.” Emmerich and his co-writer -- composer Harald Kloser -- have fashioned a simplistic (that’s putting it mildly) story of a prehistoric protagonist (Steven Strait) who goes on an adventure across a varied climate to save his girl (Camilla Belle), who’s been abducted by the evil tribespeople from the south. A few run-ins with sabertooth tigers, woolly mammoths and gigantic birds follow en route to a rousing climax where “D'Leh” takes on a group of fey bad guys who look like a cross between Jaye Davidson in “Stargate” and the villains of David Lynch’s “Dune.”

Nobody is ever going to mistake “10,000 B.C.” for a good movie, but truth be told, Emmerich knows how to pace his films and this good-looking comic-book saga is quite diverting for the most part, improving steadily as it moves along. Reviewers savaged the movie, which is understandable, but how many great dramas have ever originated from caveman movies in the first place? With Omar Sharif on-hand to narrate the movie, “10,000 B.C.” resembles a B-grade Hammer costumer like “Prehistoric Women” from decades back dressed up with a huge budget...which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, depending on your point of view.

The picture makes for silly, no-brain summer fun, especially on Blu-Ray where Warner’s VC-1 encoded transfer is sensational. The movie’s warm cinematography by Ueli Steiger comes across brilliantly in high-definition, while Dolby TrueHD audio packs a decent (if not spectacular) punch on the aural side.

Minimal extras include a pair of Making Of featurettes and several deleted scenes (including an alternate ending with Sharif on-screen), which are also included on the standard-definition DVD, which boasts matching 16:9 (2.35) and full-screen transfers on a double-sided DVD with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

BATMAN: GOTHAM KNIGHT (76 mins., 2008, PG-13; Warner): The latest DC Universe animated movie is an anthology of Batman stories, directed by six different Japanese animators, and set in a time frame between Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins” and the upcoming “The Dark Knight.”

Though obviously intended to capitalize on the release of the new sequel, this is a superb, if predictably uneven, set of self-contained tales, which are each presented in its director’s own visual style.

Among the better tales are Shoujirou Nishimi’s opening piece “Have I Got a Story For You,” with a group of kids offering their own “interpretations” on the Dark Knight’s appearance; Yasuhiro Aoki’s “In Darkness Dwells,” written by “Batman Begins” co-author David S. Goyer, in a piece that feels like a continuation of Nolan’s movie in terms of its narrative; Toshiyuki Kubooka’s “Working Through Pain”; and the concluding segment, Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s “Deadshot,” which boasts some nifty visuals.

Voices are provided by “Batman: The Animated Series”’ Kevin Conway and David McCallum among others, while several stories introduce a pair of detectives who will be featured in “The Dark Knight.”

Warner’s VC-1 encoded, 16:9 (1.78) transfer is nifty though the plain 5.1 Dolby Digital sound is far from remarkable. Extras include featurettes on Bob Kane and “A Mirror for the Bat,” commentary from Kevin Conroy and DC Comics editors, a preview of the upcoming “Wonder Woman” animated movie and four bonus episodes from the “Animated Series,” presented in full-screen. (Also available on double-disc DVD with a 3-D cover).       

VANTAGE POINT: Blu-Ray (**, 90 mins., 2008, PG-13; Sony)
IN THE LINE OF FIRE: Blu-Ray (***, 128 mins., 1993, R; Sony): A pair of presidential assassination thrillers make their way to Blu-Ray this week courtesy of Sony.

This spring’s box-office hit “Vantage Point” is a slick-looking but empty-headed thriller involving an assassination attempt on the American president (William Hurt) during a summit on terrorism in Spain. Writer Barry L. Levy’s script opens with a news report on these events, then flashes back to re-tell the story from a number of different angles, including a pair of secret service agents (Dennis Quaid, Matthew Fox) and an American man who just happens to be shooting the events with a camcorder (Forest Whittaker). It all culminates in a “big twist” that was absurdly tipped off in all of the film’s pre-release theatrical trailers, plus a fairly involving finale.

Director Pete Travis has a top-notch crew supporting him here (cinematographer Amir Mokri and veteran editor Stuart Baird included), but “Vantage Point” never engages the viewer with its one-note, stereotypical characters. Reduced to playing types instead of fully realized protagonists, the performances run the gamut from sympathetic (Whitaker) to competent (Quaid), over-the-top (Fox) and embarrassing (Sigourney Weaver, who’s completely unbelievable as a TV director in the movie’s first 15 minutes). Even at 90 minutes “Vantage Point” is tedious and feels repetitive, though once the movie drops the “Rashomon” approach it’s partially redeemed by an effective, slam-bang car chase climax that at least ends the film on a positive note.

Sony’s Blu-Ray edition of “Vantage Point” includes a superlative AVC encoded transfer with Dolby TrueHD audio and some okay extras, including commentary from the director, outtakes, cast and crew interviews, a Making Of featurette, and a Blu-Ray exlcusive “Vantage Viewer GPS Tracker” following each character’s location throughout the movie.

Far more entertaining is 1993's “In the Line of Fire,” offering Clint Eastwood in his last starring role for another director (as of now, at least).

Wolfgang Petersen’s thriller -- released in July of ‘93 -- may be predictable, but it’s top-notch Hollywood filmmaking all the way through, following Eastwood’s aging secret service agent as he tracks a psycho (one of John Malkovich’s more memorable roles) who’s threatening to kill the president. Rene Russo co-stars in this perfectly-shot (by John Bailey) and edited (kudos to Anne V. Coates) picture that’s entertaining from start to finish, even if Jeff Apple’s script ultimately offers few surprises and Ennio Morricone’s score is likewise by-the-numbers. Eastwood, Malkvoich and Russo are all terrific -- and there’s palpable chemistry between Eastwood and Russo as well -- while John Mahoney, Fred Dalton Thompson, Gary Cole and Dylan McDermott lend strong support.

Sony’s Blu-Ray release includes a fine AVC-encoded transfer with Dolby TrueHD audio and numerous extras reprieved from the previous DVD, including commentary with Petersen, deleted scenes, the “Ultimate Sacrifice” documentary and a number of Making Of featurettes.

DRILLBIT TAYLOR (**, 110 mins., 2008, Unrated; Paramount): Overlong, lifeless teen comedy would like to be a “My Bodyguard” for today’s generation (right down to that movie’s star, Adam Baldwin, appearing in a cameo), but it flounders under the direction of Steven Brill.

Owen Wilson fails to inject much energy into this predictable tale of three high school freshmen who place a want-ad for a bodyguard after they run afoul of their school’s resident bully. Wilson plays a homeless former Army ranger who initially takes the gig just to rip the boys off, but ultimately has a change of heart en route to a completely predictable climax.

John Hughes -- under the pseudonym “Edmond Dantes” -- is credited as one of the film’s writers, but the final product was produced by Judd Apatow’s company and co-written by none other than Seth Rogen, resulting in a film that’s a mess of styles (heartfelt teen drama, raunchy coming of age comedy, etc.) with a little bit of each but ultimately not enough of either. If this was a project Hughes worked on years ago, then it’s unfortunate the film wasn’t made back during the producer’s heyday, when “Drillbit” might have benefitted from the casting of, say, a Bill Murray type in the lead. Here, Wilson tries to employ his usual easy-going charm to carry the preceding, but he’s so likeable that you never believe for a second that he’s actually going to stiff the young charges who believe in him.

What’s more, the movie is endless -- and rarely ever funny. The opening half-hour could have been slashed in half, while Leslie Mann (wife of producer Judd Apatow) appears in a thankless, needless supporting part that could have also been axed completely. With Rogen listed as one of the final screenwriters, it’s surprising “Drillbit Taylor” doesn’t at least boast a few bellylaughs, but the entire picture comes off as a lazy, tired affair that is likely to bore both adults and its intended teenage audience alike.

Paramount’s DVD is an Unrated Extended edition boasting a pair of commentary tracks, deleted and extended scenes, and a gag reel, along with a fine 16:9 (2.35) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack. The studio’s Blu-Ray release is even better, with a vibrant AVC-encoded transfer and Dolby TrueHD audio track proving to be far superior to the standard-def version and a similar assortment of extras (plus the “Unrated” cut of the film) also on-hand.

POINT BREAK (**½, 1991, 122 mins., R; Fox): A modest box-office success that became a favorite on video, Kathryn Bigelow's well-shot 1991 action thriller "Point Break" gets a new high-definition edition courtesy of Fox.

This slick-looking, silly but fun early ‘90s studio effort finds rookie cop Keanu Reeves assigned to track down a ring of surfing robbers who dress up in masks of former presidents and are lead by none other than Patrick Swayze himself.

Fox’s Blu-Ray release, out this week, offers an HD-upgrade on their Special Edition DVD of two years ago. The AVC-encoded 1080p transfer is excellent, offering just enough grain so the film retains its “cinematic” appearance, while DTS-Master Audio sound does justice to the sound design and Mark Isham’s original score.

Extras include three featurettes (with one major retrospective, "It's Make or Break") and eight deleted scenes ported over from the prior DVD release.

New on DVD

XANADU: Magical Musical Edition (*** for bad movie buffs; 96 mins., 1980, PG; Universal): Buoyed by its recent Broadway musicalization (!), the camp classic Olivia Newton-John musical is back on DVD in a new “Magical Musical Edition” from Universal.

If you have any kind of affinity for musicals, bad movies, Olivia Newton-John, Gene Kelly (or Michael Beck, for that matter), you owe it to yourself to watch this 1980 box-office flop, which was regarded for years as one of the final nails in the musical genre’s coffin.

As time has passed, though, “Xanadu” has attracted legions of fans who groove to the movie’s seriously-not-bad soundtrack, offering hits like “Suddenly,” “Magic,” and a bunch of Electric Light Orchestra tunes. Even when the music isn’t so great, it’s still infectious and impossible to forget, like the somewhat out-of-tune duet between Newton-John’s magical heroine, Kira, and a wise old former bandleader, played by an incessantly happy Gene Kelly. Roller-skating, bad fashions, a Don Bluth animated sequence, and an ending that has to be seen to be fully believed (Kelly clapping -- and skating at the same time!) make “Xanadu” a heaven for camp aficionados.

Universal’s new “Magical Musical Edition” was clearly intended to capitalize on the success of the Broadway show, even offering a 20% admission coupon inside the package. Visually, the 16:9 (1.85) transfer is appreciably improved from the former anamorphic DVD, while the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack seems on-par with its predecessor’s satisfying Dolby 4.0 mix. Extras include a copy of the original soundtrack CD (with, alas, no new music), a fresh Making Of featurette recounting the film’s production, plus a photo gallery and the amusing original theatrical trailer.

STOP-LOSS (**, 111 mins., 2008, R; Paramount): Iraq war-themed movies have almost completely died at the box-office, coming too close to a situation that is still playing itself out overseas and offering little insight into an event that we’re already well aware of. This well-acted but heavy-handed film about a soldier (Ryan Phillippe) who returns home from combat and re-adjusts to small-town Texas life -- only to get sent back to Iraq via a “Stop-Loss” order -- is preachy and tired, playing out like a liberal treatise more than a fully-rounded, human drama. Paramount’s DVD, available July 8th, includes deleted scenes, a Making Of featurette, and commentary by director Kimberly Peirce and her co-writer, Mark Richard. The 16:9 (1.85) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack are both perfectly acceptable.
SUPERHERO MOVIE (*½, 82 mins., 2008, PG-13; Genius): Blah spoof of super-hero movies is a bit more amusing than “Meet the Spartans” or most of these recent “___ Movie” satires, but that’s faint praise indeed. At least writer-director Craig Mazin tried here to evoke memories of this genre’s better days by casting “Airplane!” stars Robert Hays and Leslie Nielsen in supporting roles (producers David Zucker and Robert K. Weiss are also veterans of that genre-defining staple), but “Superhero Movie” still boasts a total of 10 minutes of actual comedy along with an hour of filler, following Drake Bell as he becomes a costumed crimefighter after being bitten by one of crazy industrialist Christopher MacDonald’s genetically-engineered dragonflies. It’s all forced and quickly wears you out, with gag after gag piled upon the viewer, giving what little comedy there is no time to breathe whatsoever. Genius’ DVD includes unrated footage, deleted scenes, an alternate ending, commentary, a 16:9 (1.85) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack.

THE BATMAN: Complete Season 5 (272 mins., Warner)
TEEN TITANS: Complete Season 5 (299 mins., Warner): If the release of “Gotham Knight” wasn’t enough, DC Comics enthusiasts can also check out Warner’s latest releases from both the WB animated series “The Batman” as well as the Cartoon Network, anime-styled “Teen Titans.” Both of these series complete their runs on DVD in double-disc sets with full-screen transfers, 2.0 Dolby Stereo sound, and a couple of featurettes on “The Batman” set.

CITY OF MEN (106 mins., 2007, R; Buena Vista): “City of God” producer Fernando Meirelles returns to the streets of Rio de Janeiro for this follow-up, directed by Paulo Morrelli and chronicling a pair of teens as they try and navigate their way through the mean streets, gang wars and other violence in the urban jungle surrounding them. Buena Vista’s DVD includes a Making Of featurette plus a 16:9 (1.85) transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital audio and optional English subtitles.                           

NEXT TIME: MAD MEN on Blu-Ray! Until then, don't forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards, check out the Aisle Seat Blog, and direct any emails to our email address.  Cheers everyone!

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