7/14/09 Edition
July Mania Edition
Plus: PEANUTS '60s Collection & More!

“Watchmen,” Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ original graphic novel, has had a well-documented, rocky road to the silver screen. Directors from Terry Gilliam to Darren Aronofsky and Paul Greengrass tried their hands at developing the project over the years, only to see it squelched due to budgetary and other concerns from a myriad of different studios involved in its production.

A groundbreaking, genre-twisting work, one that helped establish its medium as a forum for mature stories aimed at adults, the “Watchmen” comic was also a product, for the most part, of its time: philosophical, violent, introspective...a work of fiction and art that enabled the reader to draw their own conclusions from what was on the printed page.

Thanks to today’s digital technology, filmmaker Zack Snyder, the auteur behind “300,” possessed the visual tools to bring “Watchmen” to the screen -- but despite being slavishly faithful to its source material for the most part, the long-awaited WATCHMEN (**, 186 mins., R, 2009; Warner) movie doesn’t produce a compelling argument that Moore and Gibbons’ work should have been made into a film at all. 

Snyder’s adaptation, scripted by David Hayter and Alex Tse, adheres to the Moore-Gibbons comic so much that the picture, itself, suffers as a result: the movie opens with the death of the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), follows a group of super-heroes (Malin Akerman’s Laurie Jupiter/Silk Spectre II; Patrick Wilson’s Night Owl; Jackie Earle Haley’s Rorschach, who also narrates the film; and Billy Crudup’s ethereal Dr. Manhattan)  around, investigating his offing in an “alternate universe” 1980s where “freelance” heroes are outlawed, Richard Nixon has abolished term limits and remains in office, and the US is under a constant threat of nuclear attack from the Russians; and culminates in an apocalyptic finale (one of the only aspects of the picture changed from the original) where the fate of humanity sits in the balance.

The movie is packed with great visuals (all of which look phenomenal in HD), but the film is soulless and needlessly explicit. Snyder has essentially taken every aspect of the original “Watchmen” plot and blown it up to suit the needs of a large-scale blockbuster, which means it’s not enough that the Comedian is killed: we also have to witness a bone-jarring, fisticuff-laden fight leading up to it. It’s not enough that the Comedian rapes the original Silk Spectre (Carla Gugino) -- we have to see every moment of him beating her before the assault and unzipping his pants. Add in an embarrassing sex scene between Spectre’s daughter and Night Owl that’s uproariously funny in all the wrong ways (set, inexplicably, to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”), and you have a movie that basically “translates” its source material to the big-screen at the price of providing an effective dramatic work of cinema. Pretentious and humorless to a fault, the picture is also filled with an endless parade of songs (we go from Nat King Cole’s “Unforgettable” to Bob Dylan’s "The Times They Are A-Changin'” to Simon & Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence” in the first half-hour alone) that often crop up, ironically, during grizzly moments of sadism, sex and violence. Yes, some of that sex and violence was present in the graphic novel as well -- but the majority of its most explicit passages were either implied or occurred off-panel. Snyder, alas, isn’t a good enough filmmaker to take the subtle approach here, and constantly fills in the blanks where they’re not always necessary.

With its one dimensional characters and gratuitous elements, this is an unsatisfying film that lingers on forever, to the degree where I couldn’t wait for it to finish. In the end, Snyder captured the core story of “Watchmen” on-screen but never gives anyone but its fans, who already know the material by heart, a reason to care.

Warner brings “Watchmen” to Blu-Ray next week in a package that’s predictably first-rate: from its VC-1 encoded 1080p transfer to the well-designed DTS Master Audio soundtrack, this is a marvelous looking and sounding disc on every front. Fans should note that the Blu-Ray only includes the Director’s Cut of the movie, which extends the film by some 24 minutes over its theatrical edition (a five-disc set is supposed to be released later this year that re-incorporates the “Tales from the Black Freighter” animated sequences -- previously issued in a standalone video release -- into the film itself).

Aside from a “Maximum Movie Mode” that offers Snyder popping up with vignettes during the film itself, other featurettes (in HD) are included on a second platter: “The Phenomenon: The Comic That Changed Comics,” “Real Super Heroes, Real Vigilantes,” “Mechanics: Technologies of a Fantastic World,” all 11 Watchmen video journals, a music video, and other BD-Live extras are on-tap, plus a third platter with a digital copy DVD for portable media players.

Aisle Seat DVD Pick of the Week

Warner Home Video has done an excellent job remastering the original Peanuts specials and issuing them on DVD over the last couple of years. The label’s newest retrospective, PEANUTS 1960's Collection, offers the entire ‘60s selection of Lee Mendelson and Bill Melendez’s CBS prime-time specials in newly restored transfers, two of which are making their DVD debuts in the U.S.

In addition to the previously-released classics “A Charlie Brown Christmas” (1965), “Charlie Brown’s All-Stars” (1966), “It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” (1966), and “You’re in Love, Charlie Brown” (1967), the set includes the terrific 1968 special “He’s Your Dog, Charlie Brown” -- where Snoopy packs up and joins Peppermint Patty after being sent off to obedience school by his owner -- and “It Was a Short Summer, Charlie Brown” (1969), the first of several specials to deal with the Peanuts gang in a summer camp setting.

The disc also includes a brand-new featurette, “The Maestro of Menlo Park,” focusing on the legacy of the great Vince Guaraldi.

Clocking in at just over 35 minutes, this is the most substantive and satisfying of the new featurettes Warner has included in their Peanuts DVDs to date, giving a fine overview of Guaraldi, from his childhood to recording career and eventual collaboration with Lee Mendelson on the Peanuts shows. With comments from his son David Guaraldi, Lee Mendelson, prior musical collaborators and admirers like current Peanuts composer David Benoit, this is a marvelous examination of Guaraldi’s life and times, leading up to his premature death in 1976 at age 47. There’s also a discussion of how the Peanuts sound changed after his passing, before Benoit brought back Guaraldi’s themes -- and the jazz piano scoring -- during his work in the ‘80s specials.

It’s a fitting tribute to a man whose music will be forever celebrated any time one of the classic Peanuts specials is played on TV or DVD. Highly recommended!

Also New on Blu-Ray & DVD

CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON (***, 120 mins., 2000, PG-13; Sony)
CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER (**½, 114 mins., 2006, R; Sony)
HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS (***, 119 mins., 2004, PG-13; Sony)

Admirers of Asian cinema are sure to appreciate Sony’s new Blu-Ray box-set offering “Curse of the Golden Flower,” “House of Flying Daggers” and the BD debut of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” which for the moment is exclusive to this three-disc compilation. Here’s a breakdown of each film:

CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON: Ang Lee's highly acclaimed martial arts epic was deemed one of the greatest cinematic adventures of its time, and yet, despite some wonderful, ballet-like fight sequences, I found a great deal of the dramatic element in this hugely successful 2000 film to be stilted and slow-moving.

While Michelle Yeoh and Chow Yun Fat topline the film, this tale of forbidden love, forgotten love, and personal freedom centers around a spoiled princess who -- without giving away the entire plot -- comes into conflict with a wanted female bandit named Jade Fox, a stolen sword, and a choices in her life that could lead to enlightenment, happiness, or personal self-destruction.

Working again with collaborator James Schamus (who scripted the film with Wang Hui Ling and Tsai Kuo Jung from a novel by Wang Du Lu), Lee's movie is a surprisingly uneven affair, veering from breathtaking fight sequences to creaky drawing-room character interplay that never really hits a strong emotional chord. Yun Fat's character receives a perfunctory amount of screen time and, subsequently, the character never comes across as the strong, individual figure Lee wants him to be. Yeoh, on the other hand, does a credible job conveying a strong female warrior in the middle of an unrequited relationship with Yun Fat.

The much-lauded fight sequences are breathtaking if not somewhat outlandish, while the pacing in “Crouching Tiger” doesn't flow as cohesively as one might anticipate. A lengthy desert flashback disrupts the main narrative and drags on without enhancing the emotional content of the drama -- action could have taken place off-screen in this sequence and been just as effective, if not more so, dramatically; tellingly, the movie feels as if it runs almost a half-hour longer than it actually does. (For a Hong Kong comparison from the same period, check out the fantastical but also more dramatically potent "Bride With White Hair" by Ronny Yu, which mixes equally outlandish fight scenes with a tragic love story to a more effective end).

What does work in the movie is the look and feel of the picture. Peter Pau's cinematography and the Tan Dun music score are highly effective, and Yeoh's performance conveys the emotion that Lee's film tries valiantly to convey.

Even if the drama falls a bit short in relation to the film's lofty artistic goals, at least most of “Crouching Tiger” contains sights and sounds you've never seen before (at least it did, until a myriad of other genre offerings followed in its wake), and at a time when the cinema is severely lacking in originality or visual imagination, the movie fits the bill as a unique adventure and another intriguing entry into Lee's diverse filmography.

Sony’s Blu-Ray edition of “Crouching Tiger” offers a gorgeous AVC-encoded transfer with Dolby TrueHD audio (in English-subtitled Chinese, or English dubbed) plus commentary with Lee and James Schamus, a photo gallery, interview with Yeoh, and a Making Of featurette. The disc is presented in its own separate packaging, leading one to assume a standalone release will eventually follow (for now, it’s only available in this set).

CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER: Zhang Yimou’s exquisitely shot 2006 Tang Dynasty epic -- centering on the fractured relationship between the Emperor Ping (Chow Yun Fat), his wife (Gong Li), and their inner-circle inside the royal family -- offers typically elaborate battle sequences but a plot that drags and isn’t entirely compelling. That said, aficionados of Asian cinema may warm to the film, which Sony has presented on Blu-Ray with an exceptional AVC-encoded transfer with uncompressed 5.1 PCM audio. Extras include a Making Of featurette and footage of the movie’s L.A. premiere.

HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS: Zhang Yimou’s viscerally satisfying action epic is set in 9th century China and revolves around the relationship between Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro), a government agent, and the blind dancer (Zhang Ziyi, who also appeared in “Crouching Tiger” and “Hero”) he’s investigating for her possible connection with a revolutionary movement. The two fall in love while Jin has to answer to his fellow officer, Leo (Andy Lau), who forms the other part of the triangle in Yimou’s script, which was co-authored by Li Feng and Wang Bin.

After “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Hero,” it seemed that American audiences had seen enough of the new wave of martial arts epics from overseas by the time “House” was released in 2004. Granted, the picture has a thinly-drawn story, a leisurely pace, and a predictable tragic outcome -- reasons all, perhaps, why the movie didn’t catch fire at the box-office like its predecessors. Nevertheless, fans of the genre will find the cinematography and fight sequences here to be nothing short of spellbinding. The wide spectrum of colors in Zhao Xiaoding’s cinematography alone makes this a more compelling experience than “Hero,” even if it’s more successful on a visual level than a narrative one.

Sony’s Blu-Ray disc looks fantastic in its AVC-encoded 1080p transfer and boasts an effective 5.1 Chinese PCM soundtrack (a far less satisfying English dubbed version is also included), with optional English subtitles. Slim extras include a 45-minute visual FX featurette and storyboards.

REPULSION DVD (***½, 105 mins., 1965; Criterion): Roman Polanski’s 1965 classic receives the Criterion treatment this month.

Polanski’s study of a young woman (Catherine Deneuve) alone and haunted in a London flat by horrors both imagined and a product of her own mind needs little introduction for most cinephiles. It’s a disturbing and powerful film that remains one of the director’s crowning achievements, and which Criterion is due to release shortly on DVD with a new 16:9 (1.66) transfer approved by Polanski; commentary with Polanski and Deneuve; a 2003 documentary on the making of the film, “A British Horror Film,” offering interviews with Polanski, cinematographer Gilbert Taylor and others; a 1964 French television documentary on the making of the film; original trailers; and an essay on the picture’s production.

12 DVD (***, 160 mins., 2007, R; Sony): Acclaimed Russian director Nikita Mikhalkov helmed this loose reworking of “12 Angry Men,” transplanted to his native land but following the core premise of the original Sidney Lumet classic.

In Mikhalkov’s adaptation (written with Alexander Novototsky-Vlasov and Vladimir Moiseenko), a Chechen teenager is put on trial for the murder of his stepfather, and a jury of 12 is swayed in a different direction after carefully considering the facts involving the youth and his past in war-torn Russia.

Well-acted and absorbing, but a bit too heavy on the symbolism at times, “12" hits DVD this week in a fine presentation from Sony, with a superb 16:9 (2.35) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound (in Russian only with English subs).

ECHELON CONSPIRACY DVD and Blu-Ray (*½, 105 mins., 2009, PG-13; Paramount): Low-rent rip-off of “Eagle Eye” stars Shane West as a regular guy who receives a cell phone message that promises him untold wealth -- but of course there’s a catch, here involving a conspiracy and assorted government types who unrelentingly come after him.

Ed Burns, Ving Rhames, Jonathan Pryce and Martin Sheen co-star in this effort from director Greg Marcks, which was intended for theatrical play but ended up going straight to video instead -- and with good reason. Paramount has brought “Echelon Conspiracy” to both DVD and Blu-Ray this month, the former offering a 16:9 (1.85) widescreen transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, the latter sporting a superior VC-1 encoded 1080p transfer with Dolby TrueHD audio. No extras are included.

SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE - GET FIT: Cardio Funk DVD (116 mins.) and Tone and Groove DVD (109 mins., 2009; Paramount): Dancers from the popular “So You Think You Can Dance” Fox series star in these two separate, lengthy workout videos from Paramount, each offering a trio of separate regiments. Behind-the-scenes interviews and bonus dance routines are on-tap on each disc, plus the ability to select your level of expertise with slow, medium or fast routines.

Blue Underground July Blu-Rays

Blue Underground has a pair of cult items lined up for release this month.

The 1978 Avco-Embassy release CIRCLE OF IRON (**½, 97 mins., R) was initially intended to be an epic for writer-star Bruce Lee.

When the martial arts master prematurely passed away, it became a vehicle for David Carradine, Jeff Cooper, Christopher Lee and guest stars Roddy McDowall and Eli Wallach (who bizarrely essays “The Man In Oil”), who star in this alternately surreal and ridiculous kung fu adventure. Director Richard Moore’s film, scripted by Stirling Silliphant and Stanley Mann from a story credited to Lee, his pal James Coburn and Silliphant, is set in a kingdom where warrior Cooper sets out to find a book belonging to bad guy Lee. Along the way Cooper has to survive a series of trials, mostly involving Carradine, who essays no fewer than four different roles.

A good amount of action helps to compensate for a story that’s a bit muddy, offering ample doses of Lee’s Zen philosophy and mysticism, not to mention numerous goofy sequences. Bruce Smeaton’s fine orchestral score also adds an assist, but it’s martial arts fans who will find this to be of the most interest, and it helps if they also share a taste for the offbeat, which “Circle of Iron” (aka “The Silent Flute”) certainly has its moments of.

Blue Underground’s excellent Blu-Ray disc of “Circle of Iron” sports a nice 1080p transfer with both DTS Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD audio tracks. Extras include commentary with director Moore, an interview with the late Carradine, a conversation with producer Paul Maslansky and martial arts coordinator Joe Lewis, an audio chat with Sitrling Silliphant, trailers and TV spots as well.

Blue Underground also has BAD BOY BUBBY (114 mins., 1993, Not Rated) slated for Blu-Ray this month, writer-director Rolf De Heer’s oddball tale of a man (Nicholas Hope) who spends his life in depraved conditions with his insane mother, and eventually finds out that “the real world” isn’t quite ready for him -- or is it?

Blue Underhround’s Blu-Ray presentation contains an excellent 1080p transfer with both DTS Master and Dolby TrueHD audio tracks, plus interviews with De Heer and Hope, a short movie “Confessor Caressor” with Hope, and the trailer comprising the extras.

New TV on DVD

GREY GARDENS (104 mins., 2009; HBO): The life and times of "Big Edie" and "Little Edie" Bouvier Beale, eccentric New York socialities and cousins of Jackie O., are retold in this terrific HBO telefilm starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore, both superb in essaying the reclusive mother and daughter whose oddball existence was first chronicled in a 1975 documentary on the duo. Michael Sucsy's telefilm is a first-class production all the way, from the cast (Malcolm Gets, Daniel Baldwin, Jeanne Tripplehorn and Ken Howard co-star) to Rachel Portman's score. HBO's DVD is out this week and includes a fine 16:9 (1.78) transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound and extras including commentary with Sucsy and fellow executive producers Lucy Barzun Donnelly and Rachael Horovitz, plus a comparison with the 1975 documentary on the Beales.

CBS also has a host of new titles due out this month for TV aficionados.

Lucille Ball’s follow-up to the legendary “I Love Lucy,” THE LUCY SHOW (aprx. 13 hours, CBS), may not be remembered as being on the same pedestal by viewers today, yet this series nevertheless enjoyed a six-year run with tremendous ratings on CBS, with our redheaded star playing a widower with a teenager daughter (Candy Moore) and son (Jimmy Garrett), who shares a home with best friend divorcee Vivian Vance and her son (Ralph Hart).

Fully remastered from the original negatives, “The Lucy Show” looks terrific in its B&W transfers in CBS’ excellent new DVD release. Sporting all 30 Season 1 episodes on a four-disc set, the package is also rich in extras: new interviews are on-hand with Lucie Arnaz and Jimmy Garrett, plus vintage opening, closing and cast commercials which haven’t been since the series’ original run (1962-63), along with outtakes, production notes, clips from the “Opening Night Special,” and cast biographies. Highly recommended!

ABC and producer Aaron Spielling, meanwhile, brought Arthur Hailey’s HOTEL (aprx. 20 hours, CBS) to the small-screen in 1983, starring James Brolin, Connie Sellecca, and Anne Baxter as the caretakers of San Francisco’s St. Gregory Hotel (Baxter’s role was originally intended for Bette Davis, who appeared in the pilot movie [included herein], but health issues lead Davis to withdraw from the series proper). Sort of like “The Love Boat on Land,” though with a more serious accent (and the occasional “suspense” subplot), this is old-fashioned ‘80s TV entertainment with a bevy of guest stars and story lines that range from serious to seriocomic, all presented in a good-looking, though extras free, complete Season 1 DVD set with restored transfers and mono soundtracks.

CBS also brings us the Complete Season 3 of MATLOCK (aprx. 17 hours; CBS) on DVD this month, with Andy Griffith back as the good o’l country lawyer in the long-running NBC/ABC series. CBS’ five-disc DVD set (no breaking up of episodes here, thankfully!) includes all 20 third-season “Matlock” episodes in satisfying full-screen transfers and stereo soundtracks. Episodes include “The Lemon,” the two-part “The Ambassador,” “The Mistress,” “The Captain,” “The D.J.,” “The Vendetta,” the two-part “The Mayor,” “The Black Widow,” “The Other Woman,” “The Starlet,” “The Psychic,” the two-part “The Thief,” “The Thoroughbred,” “The Model,” “The Cult,” “The Blues Singer,” and “The Priest.”

Fans of the popular ‘90s CBS series EARLY EDITION (aprx. 17 hours; CBS) also have reason to celebrate this month as the second-season of this enjoyable, low-key series about an average Joe (Kyle Chandler) who receives tomorrow’s newspaper today hits DVD. CBS’ DVD includes all 22 episodes of “Early Edition”’s second-season in fine full-screen transfers with stereo soundtracks and episode promos for extras.

Finally, CBS is also releasing the complete Season 2 of THIS AMERICAN LIFE (aprx. 3 hours), Showtime’s televised version of the popular Chicago Public Radio series. Ira Glass hosts this sophomore year of “This American Life,” which arrives on DVD with its six episodes in widescreen and Dolby Stereo sound, plus commentaries, an extended episode, and segments of the show’s live theater presentation for supplements.

SUPER WHY: JACK AND THE BEANSTALK (100 mins., PBS/Paramount): Popular PBS Kids series arrives on DVD offering four episodes from the colorful, reading-is-fundamental powered show: “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “The Princess and the Pea,” “The Three Little Pigs,” and “Little Red Riding Hood.” Extras include interactive games, music videos, printable coloring pages and activities, and a parents’ resource guide.

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

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