7/11/07 Edition -- The AISLE SEAT BLOG Is Now Online!

David Fincher's Latest Reviewed
Plus: HD-DVDs, New Criterion Releases and More!

Two years ago, Walter Hill tweaked his 1979 cult classic “The Warriors” for a Special Edition DVD that drew raves for its remastered transfer and sound, as well as a few criticisms for Hill’s slight editorial changes -- namely comic-book styled freeze-frames and a prologue that established this controversial favorite as a futuristic, comic book updating of a Greek myth.

Living with the alterations might have been a compromise for some, but the aesthetic trade-off is even more tempting now thanks to Paramount’s high definition mastering (available on HD-DVD and Blu Ray) of THE WARRIORS (***½, 1979, 93 mins., R), which boasts a blemish-free, outstanding new HD presentation that makes Andrew Laszlo’s striking, stylized cinematography even more impressive than before.

The movie -- chronicling the odyssey of a New York City gang as they attempt to get back home to Coney Island after a “gang conclave” among rival groups goes seriously wrong -- remains highly entertaining, and the HD-DVD reprises all the extras from the 2005 DVD, most notably Laurent Bouzereau’s excellent documentary. Offering new interviews with Hill, cast members James Remar, Deborah Van Valkenburgh, composer Barry DeVorzon and others, this four-part documentary expertly chronicles the production of this viewer fave -- which is still due for a remake in the near future (sigh).

The only disappointment is that the 10 or so minutes of added footage seen in various broadcast TV airings aren’t present here -- nor is the original theatrical cut. Instead, Hill mentions the alternate introduction and why it was axed -- the kind of thing that drives a viewer crazy (can’t we see it and make up our own minds?). For that reason, aficionados may want to hang onto the old, original DVD (now out of print) and their copy of the TV version for the complete “Warriors” experience...though in terms of transfer and sound, the HD-DVD cannot be rivaled and comes unquestionably recommended for fans of the film.

Also new from Paramount on HD-DVD is Brian DePalma's THE UNTOUCHABLES (****, 119 mins., R, Paramount), the 1987 box-office smash that still ranks as one of the finest films for its director, writer David Mamet, as well as stars Kevin Costner, Robert DeNiro, and Sean Connery, who deservedly copped an Oscar for his role here as tough Chicago cop Jimmy Malone.

The studio’s HD transfer (also available on Blu Ray) isn’t quite as pristine as “The Warriors” but is nevertheless a hugely satisfying presentation, capturing Stephen H. Burum’s sensational cinematography to a degree no standard-definition version ever has. The Dolby Digital Plus sound is superb but the 6.1 DTS mix is even more impressive here, layered with sonic texture and Ennio Morricone’s rich, memorable score.

The disc is capped by Laurent Bouzereau's four-part, 2005 Making Of featurette ("The Script, The Cast"; "Production Stories"; "Reinventing the Genre"; "The Classic"), which includes new interviews with DePalma, producer Art Linson, co-star Charles Martin Smith, and cinematographer Stephen Burum.

Running about an hour all told, this is a solid Making Of that examines the production from DePalma's initial attachment to the script through casting (Mel Gibson was interested at one point) and box-office success. The new interviews are interspersed with vintage clips of Costner, Connery, etc. on the set, and some revealing anecdotes are passed along, including how Bob Hoskins was paid off after the studio insisted on DeNiro taking the role of Al Capone. DePalma, meanwhile, discusses working with maestro Morricone, whose score "lifted" Smith, Costner, and Garcia out of their seats at a preview screening in New York. The original trailer and vintage featurette ("The Men") round out this essential HD-DVD purchase.

Coming Soon on DVD from Paramount

ZODIAC (***, 157 mins., 2007, R; Paramount): David Fincher’s latest film is an absorbing, taut adaptation of Robert Graysmith’s book, a chronicle of his own pursuit into finding the Zodiac killer who claimed the lives of several Bay Area victims in the late ‘60s.

In Fincher’s ensemble piece (adapted by James Vanderbilt from Graysmith’s tome), Jake Gyllenhaal plays Graysmith, a cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle who becomes fascinated with the case as it plays out around him. Graysmith is essentially the viewer’s point of reference into this period tale, as we watch the divorced single father and editor Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.) work with their peers when the “Zodiac” instigates communications with the paper after the killings pick up in frequency and visibility. Meanwhile, the criminal investigation is headed by San Francisco detective David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), whose precinct becomes involved after the serial killer’s final slaying occurs within the city limits.

Opening with the vintage Paramount logo, “Zodiac” is layered with the atmosphere of the time, from rock standards on the soundtrack to authentic production design by Donald Graham Burt and moody cinematography by Harris Savides. The film lacks the overly-stylized (some would say “pretentious”) appearance of some of Fincher’s early works, but the benefit is a more mature and realistic work from its auteur, who concentrates not so much on the killings or the motives or its psychological impact but rather the investigation -- both from the police’s angle and Graysmith’s dogged, unflinching home work, which comes into play during the film’s second half.

The movie was criticized as not having an ending (since the investigation itself never uncovered the killer), but it’s a satisfying ride back into a time when police departments didn’t have fax machines and when local -- and not national -- media could play such a prominent role in an investigation such as they did here. The performances are all on-target, from Gyllenhaal to Ruffalo, while excellent support is turned in by Anthony Edwards as Ruffalo’s partner and Brian Cox as Bay Area attorney Melvin Belli.

“Zodiac” is a film that’s hard to take your eyes off, and Paramount’s DVD (available July 24th) includes a razor-sharp, highly satisfying 16:9 (2.35) transfer that looks ideal, capturing every menacing and well-composed shot of the widescreen frame. The 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack is likewise intelligently composed with sound effects and David Shire’s unobtrusive (though also relatively thankless) score.

Extras are non-existent, but the DVD is nevertheless well worth savoring, especially since the HD-DVD and Blu Ray versions aren’t due out until September 18th.

PERFUME (**½, 2006, 147 mins., R; Dreamworks/Paramount): High-class Euro adaptation of Patrick Suskind’s 1985 novel follows the life of one Jean-Baptiste Grenouille (Ben Wishaw), a French peasant who discovers a number of amazing fragrances...which he concocts by murdering various women and experimenting on their remains!

Alan Rickman, Rachel Hurd-Wood, and a completely miscast Dustin Hoffman co-star in this Bernd Eichinger production, which Eichinger wrote with Andrew Birkin and the film’s director -- “Run, Lola, Run” auteur Tom Tykwer -- whose visual style accentuates the dirt and grime of 18th century France for all to see. It’s a spellbinding film to look at, but the movie only intermittently engages you emotionally, dragging on and then ending with a bizarre final stanza that will only satisfy readers of Suskind’s novel.

Dreamworks’ DVD includes a superb 16:9 (2.35) transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound and a Making Of featurette. Interesting enough to warrant a viewing, and lifted immeasurably by a haunting music score composed by Tykwer, Johnny Klimek and Reinhold Heil that’s easily the best thing about the film.

THE RAINMAKER: Special Collector’s Edition (***, 1997, 135 mins., PG-13; Paramount): New Special Edition of the Francis Ford Coppola-lensed adaptation of John Grisham’s novel includes deleted scenes (an alternate ending among them), screen tests, featurettes, and an amusing commentary with Coppola and co-star Danny DeVito. “The Rainmaker” may not rank with Coppola’s finest or more ambitious directorial ventures, but it’s a sturdy and well-performed tale that’s one of the best of the numerous Grisham legal thrillers we saw in the ‘90s.

BEAUTY & THE BEAST: Complete Second Season (1988-89, 18 hours., Paramount): Year two for the unlikely cult favorite TV series carries on the relationship between attorney Catherine (Linda Hamilton) and Vincent (Ron Perlman), the noble beast who dwells under the New York City streets. Paramount’s DVD box-set offers the complete second season (22 episodes) of “Beauty and the Beast” in satisfying full-screen transfers with stereo sound. Fans should note that there is a disclaimer for episodes that “may be edited” from their original network broadcasts (likely for music replacement issues).

New From Universal on HD-DVD

Universal’s HD-DVD catalog titles this week run the gamut from action-adventure to comedy, giving high-def owners a good variety of choices to choose from.

DANTE’S PEAK (***, 1997, 109 mins., PG-13; Universal): First and best of 1997's volcano disaster films closely echoes the premise of “Jaws” (!) as scientist Pierce Brosnan and Mayor Linda Hamilton try and save a Pacific Northwest vacation hotspot from certain doom after various seismic events begin to occur in town, putting residents and vacationers alike in jeopardy. Director Roger Donaldson’s efficient genre movie sports solid special effects and an exciting second hour as Brosnan and Hamilton try and get out of harm’s way as quickly as possible, while Leslie Bohem’s script punches all the requisite buttons...with a volcano in place of a shark! Universal’s HD-DVD edition features a sharp VC-1 encoded transfer along with 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus sound; despite some grain here and there, this is certainly a better looking disc than most of Universal’s HD-DVD releases from a couple of weeks ago, while extras include commentary from Donaldson and cinematographer Dennis Washington, a Making Of and the original trailer.

BILLY MADISON: HD-DVD (**, 1995, 90 mins., PG-13; Universal): First solo-starring vehicle for Adam Sandler is a hit-or-miss, mostly juvenile affair with the comic starring as an overgrown kid who’s sent back to school in order to collect his inheritance. As silly Sandler comedies go, this one’s a notch under “Happy Gilmore” but still offers a few choice moments, including a memorable gag where Sandler attempts to make things right with a childhood acquaintance (Steve Buscemi) he used to pick on. Universal’s HD-DVD, VC-1 encoded transfer is top-notch and the 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus sound also just fine, while extras include over 25 minutes of deleted scenes, outtakes, and commentary with director Tamra Davis.

THE WEDDING DATE: HD-DVD (*½, 2005, PG-13, 90 mins.; Universal): Disappointing romantic comedy is an over-written, tired affair, despite the presence of stars Debra Messing and Demot Mulroney -- both capable of far better. Messing, from TV’s “Will and Grace,” plays a harried exec who pays Mulroney to be her wedding date at her sister’s London nuptials...and if you need any more plot description than that, you’ll probably find this film from writer Dana Fox and director Clare Kilner to be a boatload of laughs and surprises. Everyone else -- even “date movie” aficionados -- are likely to be let down by this forced, unappealing comedy, which isn’t especially funny or romantic. Universal’s HD-DVD includes a colorful, bright VC-1 encoded transfer with Dolby Digital Plus sound. Extras include deleted scenes, an interview with Messing, and a surprisingly tedious commentary with the actress, who’ll need to pick better projects than this if she hopes to have any career beyond the small screen.

THE WAR: HD-DVD (**, 1994, 126 mins., PG-13; Universal): Heavy-handed allegory from director Jon Avnet stars Kevin Costner as a Vietnam vet who returns home and tries to pick up the pieces of his life, along with imparting life lessons to his young son Elijah Wood, who’s involved with a “war” of his own with a local group of bullies. A nice score from Thomas Newman and sincere performances can’t quite shake a pretentious script by Kathy McWorter with sentiment that’s often laid on thick. Universal’s HD-DVD offers a so-so VC-1 encoded transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus sound and no extras.

New From Criterion

Three very different new films mark the latest releases from the Criterion Collection.

Billy Wilder followed his “Sunset Boulevard” triumph with the 1951 commentary ACE IN THE HOLE (***½, 111 mins.), a scathing indictment of media over-exposure that’s perhaps even more relevant today (through our 24-hour news channels) than it was upon its initial release, when the film bombed in theaters and Paramount promptly changed its title (to “The Big Carnival”) in an effort to drum up business.

Kirk Douglas is ideal here as a gruff newsman, relegated to the quiet media dumping grounds of Albuquerque, New Mexico when a new scoop miraculously comes his way: a miner gets stuck in a cave, and Douglas’ Chuck Tatum promptly gets the scoop of a lifetime manipulating it to his advantage.

Wilder wrote this caustic, fascinating examination of The Media Circus with Lesser Samuels and Walter Newman, and while the film has apparently been rarely screened over the years, Criterion’s new double disc set is cause for celebration for all Wilder buffs: a restored transfer is on-hand along with commentary by Neil Sinyard, while a second disc offers a 1980 documentary on Wilder, a 1984 interview with Douglas, clips of a 1986 AFI appearance with Wilder, an audio interview with Newman, a video interview with Spike Lee, and essays from Molly Haskell and others.

Coming on July 24th from Criterion is a new edition of Jean Cocteau and Jean-Pierre Melville’s collaboration LES ENFANTS TERRIBLES (1950, 106 mins.), a surreal and strange adaptation of Cocteau’s own novel about an unhealthy, wicked relationship between a sister (Nicole Stephane) and brother (Edouard Dermithe) who play a series of odd games secluded from the world around them, and the inevitable fate that befalls each once they venture outside into the “real” world with others beyond their intricate social circle.

Criterion’s single-disc edition of this offbeat, bizarre Cocteau/Melville production includes a commentary from journalist Gilbert Adair; interviews with Stephane and other film personnel; a 2003 video on Cocteau and Melville’s creative collaboration; the trailer; a new 1.33 black-and-white transfer with newly translated English subtitles; and extensive booklet notes.

Finally, the label will soon be issuing a fine presentation of Andrei Tarkovsky’s IVAN’S CHILDHOOD (95 mins., 1962), an early work from the director who would later bring us the art-house classic “Solaris.”

Criterion’s single-disc edition of this strikingly-shot 1962 tale of a boy’s life before and after WWII includes a restored, full-frame black-and-white transfer; a video appreciation of Tarkovsky and the film from author Vida T. Johnson; interviews with actor Nikolai Burlyaev and cinematographer Vadim Yusov; and another superlative set of essays and background materials on the picture itself.

New On DVD from Fox & MGM

Golden Age fans have plenty of reasons to celebrate this month as MGM and Fox unroll a series of Film Noir favorites.

Edward G. Robinson stars in three of the offerings: the crackling 1946 viewer favorite THE STRANGER, co-starring Orson Welles (who also directed) and Loretta Young; Fritz Lang’s 1944 effort THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW (99 mins.), written and produced by Nunnally Johnson and also starring Robinson, this time as a professor who flirts with Joan Bennett and inadvertantly commits a crime; the exciting 1952 John Payne effort KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL (99 mins.); ands the 1955 Robinson-George Raft tale A BULLET FOR JOEY (87 mins.) from director Lewis Allen.

Several of these films have never seen an “official” Region 1 DVD release, popping up on budget/public domain labels instead in inferior transfers. I can’t compare these new discs with those older, cheap presentations, but “The Stranger” looks markedly good, with only a few sequences seeming a bit dark, and the other transfers likewise appearing crisp and healthy. Noir fans ought to be thrilled with each of these atmospheric, well-made suspense offerings, which hit store shelves this week.

Also new from MGM and Fox is the HAPPY HOOKER TRILOGY, combining all three of Cannon’s ‘70s exploitation comedies that are now a whole lot less “controversial” than you might anticipate them being.

Robin Moore and William Richert were two of the writers credited with the script for the original “Happy Hooker,” which starred Lynn Redgrave as Xaviera Hollander, a Dutch woman who immigrates to the U.S. and promptly becomes the title character. Xaviera would return in the form of Joey Heatherton in the 1977 sequel “The Happy Hooker Goes To Washington,” co-starring George Hamilton, Ray Walston, and David White; while the series concluded in the 1980 effort “The Happy Hooker Goes Hollywood,” offering Martine Beswick as Xaviera and co-stars including Adam West, Phil Silvers, Richard Deacon, Edie Adams and Army Archerd himself.

16:9 (1.85) transfers and 2.0 English and stereo tracks grace these silly, forgettable sex comedies, which would today nearly net closer to a PG-13 than an R!

That’s certainly not the case with SHOWGIRLS (**, 131 mins., 1995), Paul Verhoeven's much-maligned 1995 opus which stars Kyle MacLahlan along with top-billed Elizabeth Berkley and Gina Gershon in a silly, cliched story of a girl who rises to fame and fortune but finds out, when she gets there, that she never should have bothered trying.

The first (and last?) NC-17 release from a major studio, ”Showgirls” was the movie that you had to flash your ID at the door or else a group of zit-faced 13 year-old ushers wouldn't allow you in. Still, for a movie that promised tons of T&A and remarkably stupid dialogue, I found it disconcerting when the matinee I attended was filled with women primarily over the age of 65!

Verhoeven set out to -- okay, I'm not sure what he or writer Joe Eszterhas (who worked together on the overheated “Basic Instinct”) were smoking when they concocted this romp, but just the same,”Showgirls” provides a fair degree of entertainment, even if the picture isn't ever as sexy, titillating, or unintentionally funny as you wished it would be. More often than not, the movie is rather routine, with Berkley -- who actually was more appealing back on "Saved by the Bell" -- and MacLahlan both giving terribly uninteresting performances. Only Gershon was able to parlay this project into bigger success elsewhere (in the Wachowski Brothers' overrated lesbian thriller “Bound”), while Robert Davi gets a few laughs in a supporting part.

If “Showgirls” failed to deliver on its intended goods in theaters (there are more R-rated movies with seedier sex than this one), at least it has weathered the storm somewhat on video and is dating a bit better now that the expectations are gone.

MGM’s new “Fully Exposed Edition” of “Showgirls” is the third variation of the film I’ve covered on DVD to date, and it’s basically a repackaging of the DVD from the “VIP” box-set (the one with the shot glass and blindfold, remember?), featuring the NC-17 rated cut of the film along with a humorous commentary by David Schmader, video commentary and lap dance tutorial from the World Famous Girls of “Scores,” a featurette and trivia track. The 16:9 (2.35) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound will surely tide fans over until the inevitable Blu Ray HD edition comes barreling at us.

NEXT TIME: More HD reviews and the latest DVDs as well! 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 . Happy 4th of July everyone!

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