7/15/08 Edition -- The AISLE SEAT BLOG Is Also Live

Universal On Blu-Ray
Reviews of the studio's first discs
Universal’s first batch of eagerly awaited Blu-Ray titles hits stores next week, and judging from the first group of discs I’ve taken a look at, fans have plenty to be excited about:

THE MUMMY: Blu-Ray (***, 125 mins., 1999, PG-13; Universal)
THE MUMMY RETURNS: Blu-Ray (**½, 130 mins., 2001, PG-13; Universal)
THE SCORPION KING: Blu-Ray (**, 92 mins., 2002, PG-13; Universal)

I admit that I’m just a pushover for a movie like “The Mummy.” The sort that you could routinely find on the outer ends of the UHF dial when you were a kid, where monsters lurked around every turn and dialogue was silly and often obvious ("you'll have to run for it!") -- but that, always, was part of the fun.

Stephen Sommers's 1999 revamp for one of the staple characters in the Universal Monsters roster is a good, old-fashioned formula entertainment that provides plenty of action, great special effects, and engaging performances. It's a movie that acknowledges its origins, spoofs them to a mild degree, but more often than not revels in the kind of monster mayhem and "safe scares" that made the old Universal movies so appealing while adding, of course, that degree of high-tech effects work that its predecessors completely lacked. It's not “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (though it IS more entertaining than “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”), but then again, few films are, and for kids who have never heard of Boris Karloff or even the "Creature Double Feature" from my time, the new “Mummy” movies ably fulfill the quotient of “fun-fright” movies for a whole new generation.

Brendan Fraser, as an American adventurer, and Rachel Weisz, as a bumbling librarian, are quite likeable as the protagonists who unwillingly resurrect and then try to stop the villainous Imhotep, a mummified Egyptian (Arnold Vosloo, late of “24") wrecking havoc on 1920s Cairo by invoking the plagues of his native country. Thus, there are scampering beetle attacks, fireballs falling from the sky, blood pouring forth from water fountains, resurrected armies of the undead and, best of all, a living Mummy wanting to be reunited with his beloved, who killed herself centuries before when the Paraoah discovered her liaison with Imhotep. Following through on the original storyline, and before you can say sarcophagus, Imhotep realizes that he needs Weisz to fulfill a ritual sacrifice in order to resurrect his lost love, which leads Fraser and her brother (John Hannah) on a rescue mission before the slowly-regenerating villain brings back his lady-corpse-love and takes over the world.

Writer-director Sommers used the original “Mummy” films as a springboard for his movie, one that's pointedly tongue-in-cheek from start to finish. Sommers may not be Steven Spielberg or even John Milius, but at least he understands the spirit this kind of popcorn-munching entertainment demands and managed to made a sensational looking adventure that should appeal to the young and those of us who have yet to outgrow this kind of picture. His script has its fair share of big laughs (surprisingly so, in fact) and the use of ILM effects in the movie -- from the opening shots of ancient Egypt to the Undead Soldiers Imhotep resurrects -- is consistently impressive in scope. More over, Fraser, Weisz and Hannah, along with Vosloo, do a good job keeping the movie from becoming overly melodramatic or campy, enabling “The Mummy” to exist right in the middle of both extremes. It's comic book but engaging, and Weisz and Fraser build up some credible chemistry along the way.

If you have never been captivated by monster movies, Saturday matinee-styled adventures, or the sight of creepy creatures from the classic days of Universal horror, this picture will feel as lifeless as a mummified corpse in the bottom of King Tut's tomb. For those who are, and have an affinity for this kind of B-movie spectacle (done up in A-grade trimmings),”The Mummy” still provides a rousing good time, fully deserving of its huge box-office in-take.

Universal’s 50GB Blu-Ray edition of “The Mummy” sports a VC-1 encoded transfer that seems basically identical to the studio’s superb HD-DVD edition of a year ago. Though encoded at a higher bit-rate you’d be hard pressed to identify many differences between it and the HD-DVD, but the sound is superior -- a robust DTS Master audio track that outdoes its predecessor’s Dolby Digital Plus soundtrack, doing justice to Jerry Goldsmith’s alternately romantic and tedious soundtrack (the lush romantic theme Goldsmith wrote for the picture is superb; his action music, regrettably, feels sluggish and tired). Extras are mostly rehashed from prior releases (commentaries, deleted scenes) but some new content is on-hand, including a two-part documentary (“An Army to Rule the World”) on the first two “Mummy” films, interactive “U-Control” picture-in-picture content, and a sneak peek of the forthcoming “Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” sequel.

Somers followed up the “Mummy” with another blockbuster hit, the 2001 sequel THE MUMMY RETURNS.

Saying that there's a lack of surprise involved with this bigger sequel is a bit absurd, given that there wasn't much in the way of originality in its predecessor. This time out, writer-director Somers cuts down on the labyrinthine, claustrophobic settings of his original and produces a broader, more expansive adventure with exciting fight sequences and a brisker pace in the process.

The plot revolves around the bracelet of one Scorpion King (wrestler The Rock, on-screen for less than a handful of minutes), the resurrection of our old pal Imhotep (Vosloo again), and the quest for control of an army of the undead which could give the Mummy -- or the Scorpion King -- power over the entire world. In order to save us all, Brendan Fraser is back with wife Rachel Weisz, Egyptian warrior Oded Fehr, and brother-in-law John Hannah, all of whom are not only after the bracelet but Fraser and Weisz's wise-acre eight-year-old son, whom Imhotep has kidnapped. Also back in a more prominent role is Patricia Velasquez as the latest reincarnation of Imhotep's beloved, Aksunamon.

“Returns” is more Indiana Jones-like in its execution than the original -- meaning it's even less like the vintage Universal horror series it loosely originates from -- but I liked the fact that there was, simply, more to this sequel. Adrian Biddle's colorful cinematography, ILM's special effects (which range from merely-adequate to excellent), and Sommers' set-pieces are all more elaborate than the original film, meaning there's a lot less of Fraser wandering around corridors and more scenes of warring armies, lush forests in the middle of the desert, and flashbacks to ancient Egypt.

Alan Silvestri's able, romantic score tops Jerry Goldsmith's soundtrack from the original, and the actors fit comfortably back into their roles, with the addition of Fraser's young son being far less of annoyance than Kevin J. O'Connor's inane comic relief from the previous installment.

“The Mummy Returns” is old-fashioned escapist entertainment, enthusiastically handled by filmmakers and a cast that don't seem to be simply going through the motions. Still, I didn’t think it held up as well on repeat viewing as its predecessor did, with the whole Scorpion King/Mummy relationship feeling like a missed opportunity. I'd have rather have seen more of the Mummy and his quest for eternal love -- further developing the character's tragic, somewhat sympathetic qualities more than Sommers did in the first two pictures.

Universal’s 50GB Blu-Ray disc recycles its prior supplements (commentary, Making Of featurettes, outtakes) with new “U-Control” picture-in-picture extras and the second half of the “Army to Rule the World” documentary. The VC-1 encoded transfer looks exceptionally good while DTS Master Audio sound again tops the prior HD-DVD’s Dolby Digital track.

A 2002 spin-off of sorts, the big-screen “Scorpion King” also arrives on Blu-Ray this week, though it’s certainly the weakest entrant in the new cycle of “Mummy” films. Chuck Russell’s “prequel” follows The Rock in the Scorpion King’s younger days, fighting with less CGI-enhanced creatures and romancing Kelly Hu in the process.

Arriving with another strong VC-1 encoded transfer and DTS Master Audio sound, “The Scorpion King” doesn’t get as lavish a treatment as its predecessors, with only one supplement (commentary with the director) and U-Control vignettes available on the single-layer 25GB disc.

DOOMSDAY: Blu-Ray (**½, 113 mins., 2008, Unrated; Universal): Absolutely bonkers salute to “Escape From New York,” “The Road Warrior” and other ‘80s genre favorites from writer-director Neil Marshall.

Rhona Mitra makes for a fetching action heroine as a cop sent to find a cure for a plague, once established in a post-apocalyptic Scotland, and now infiltrating London. Loads of high-octane action scenes, outrageous stunts and a keen sense of humor don’t necessarily make for a brilliant movie, but for those who grew up on the sorts of films Marshall is clearly emulating here, “Doomsday” comes across as a guilty pleasure in every facet.

Universal’s Blu-Ray disc looks exceptionally good, with a rollicking DTS Master Audio soundtrack complimenting the aural side of things as well. Extras are limited to a commentary with Marshall and several cast members, plus the “U-Control” picture-in-picture vignettes, on the single-layer 25GB disc.

New on DVD From Criterion
Another eclectic array of titles compliments Criterion’s upcoming slate of releases.

Claude Jutra’s MON ONCLE ANTOINE (104 mins., 1971) leads the way: a slow-moving but haunting effort from the National Film Board of Canada. Jutra’s film focuses on young Benoit, who watches as adults around him in the Quebec countryside during the 1940s generally display the hardships of life during one harsh Christmas that’s not exactly filled with mirth and merriment.

Jutra’s not much of a visualist -- in fact the picture is crudely shot with an over-reliance on zooms -- but “Mon Oncle Antoine” has always been a critical darling of film buffs and it’s not hard to see why: the pacing, characterizations and attention to detail make this a memorable and unique work, one which Criterion has brilliantly brought to DVD.

The new digital transfer, supervised by cinematographer Michel Brault, is sensational, presented in 16:9 (1.66) widescreen and mono sound. Extras on the double-disc set include the trailer; a 2007 documentary on the production of the movie; a 2002 documentary on Jutra’s legacy, with interviews including Brault as well as Canadian actors Saul Rubinek and Genevieve Bujold; a 1957 experimental short, “A Chairy Tale,” co-directed by Jutra; and extensive booklet notes.

Carl Theodor Dreyer’s incredibly bizarre 1932 effort VAMPYR (73 mins.) also receives a careful restoration courtesy of Criterion.

Dreyer’s film is packed with amazing effects for its time and demands to be seen by horror scholars, though truth be told, it’s a bit on the slow side and is better appreciated for its technical aspects than its narrative.

That said, Criterion’s double-disc DVD is a huge improvement on older transfers I recall seeing in college, and is loaded with supplements: commentary from scholar Tony Rayns; both the original German version (via its 1998 restoration) and a newly created edit with English text; a 1966 documentary on Dreyer; a visual essay on Dreyer’s influences in crafting his work; and a 1958 radio broadcast of Dreyer reading an essay about his films.

Also new from Criterion this month:

TRAFIC (97 mins., 1971): Jacques Tati’s Monsieur Hulot returns in this later effort in the filmmaker’s career. Criterion’s double-disc set includes a new digital transfer; a French TV interview from 1971; a 1973 episode of a French series on Tati; the theatrical trailer; and a two-part documentary on Hulot from 1989. The 1.33 full-screen transfer is highly satisfying, with optional English subtitles on-hand.

HIGH AND LOW (143 mins., 1963): Toshiro Mifune stars in Akira Kurosawa’s 1963 adaptation of Ed McBain’s novel “King’s Ransom” as a industrialist whose family gets involved with a kidnapper. Sounds like the Mel Gibson effort “Ransom,” but “High and Low” is far more entertaining, a big-budget Toho production presented here on DVD in a stunning Criterion dual-disc release. A new 16:9 (2.35) transfer, 4.0 Dolby Digital sound and commentary from Kurosawa critic Stephen Prince grace disc one, while the second platter includes a 37-minute documentary on the picture’s production, plus an interview with Mifune, trailers, and a new video interview with co-star Tsutomu Yamazaki.

Also New on Blu-Ray

BATMAN BEGINS: Blu-Ray (***, 140 mins., 2005, PG-13; Warner): It’s easy to see why filmmakers have had such a difficult time trying to capture the exploits of Bob Kane’s Dark Knight on-screen. The inherent psychological aspects of the Bruce Wayne character, his inner-demons and guilt over the death of his parents, and the curious costume he wears are all obstacles one faces in trying to make a filmed adaptation of the DC Comics hero. From the campy Adam West-Burt Ward ‘60s TV show to Tim Burton’s uneven though entertaining box-office hits and Joel Schumacher’s poorly-received, decadent sequels, the live-action Batman productions have all illustrated -- to one degree or another -- the problems that bringing the super-hero’s adventures to the screen entail.

Christopher Nolan’s 2005 “Batman Begins” managed to duck many of the problems from previous adaptations, and Warner’s new Blu-Ray release finally gives fans a chance to soak up the movie’s splendid visuals the same way HD-DVD owners have for over a year now.

An epic “re-imagining” of the hero that captures some of the essence of Frank Miller’s superb “Batman: Year One” comic book, “Batman Begins” is a deadly serious, ambitious, at-times enthralling entertainment that falters a bit during its final third, and does suffer from some pacing issues, including a lengthy backstory that takes a little long to play out.

First the good news: Christian Bale makes for a superb Bruce Wayne, who we meet at the beginning as a young man searching for his soul. Having left Gotham City and his name to the point where he’s believed dead, Wayne encounters a mysterious man named “Ducard” (Liam Neeson) while serving time in a Far East prison. In a sequence reminiscent of “The Shadow,”Ducard tutors Wayne in the ways of the “League of Shadows,” a group attempting to bring justice to the world by tilting the axis of power in various global locales.

Wayne leaves the group behind, though, after he refuses to execute a criminal, and returns to find Gotham City in the same, depleted condition one will recall from the old Tim Burton films. Criminals run amok, including a city mobster (a miscast Tom Wilkinson) and an Arkham Asylum shrink (Cillian Murphy) who has more up his sleeve than just treating his patients. One good cop -- Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) -- attempts to fight the injustice along with Wayne’s childhood pal-turned-D.A. Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), but their efforts are thwarted by a ring of corruption that extends to every nook and cranny of the dank metropolis.

Meanwhile, back at Wayne Manor, trusty butler Alfred (the wonderful Michael Caine) attempts to pick the troubled Bruce up by his bootstraps by indulging in his master’s latest interest: combating evil by becoming a one-man wrecking crew. Armed with weapons from Wayne Industries engineer Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), Bruce springs into action and fights his childhood traumas by becoming Batman, or -- as Murphy at one point intones -- “The Bat-Man!”

Impressively shot in widescreen in a way that looks more like the work of Ridley Scott than Burton or Schumacher’s efforts, Nolan’s “Batman Begins” starts well, if not a bit leisurely. Bale looks the part and is given the opportunity to carry the picture courtesy of Nolan and co-writer David S. Goyer. His interplay with Caine -- who’s given one of his best roles in years -- is tremendous, and being able to see veterans like Caine and Freeman together on-screen is worth the price of admission alone.

Nolan effectively illustrates Wayne’s guilt over his parents’ murder and perfectly sets up the springs that set his transformation into Batman in motion. Heck, we even get to see Batman doing some detective work -- a cornerstone of the comics that was almost entirely lost amongst the bombastic action and effects of the previous “Batman” films.

Though hailed by some as one of the genre’s all-time finest works, “Batman Begins” does boast its share of flaws, from an opening that takes too long to get going, to a crazy and not always effective climax. After doing such an impressive job setting up the plot, Nolan and Goyer come up with an overbearing finale where the villains attempt to turn Gotham’s residents against one another by contaminating the water supply. Their method? A chemical that -- once sprayed through the air and in concert with the poisoned liquid -- makes its victims hallucinate poor make-up effects.

This results in a weird, choppy climax that almost feels like “Escape From Gotham City,” except with Batman filling in for Snake Plissken. What’s worse is that the special effects are substandard -- the affected Gothamites see Batman as a blurry figure with glowing eyes and light emitting from his mouth, much the same way that Michael Mann depicted vampires in “The Keep.” Needless to say it clashes with the quality of drama that came before it, while the “demise” of the nefarious Scarecrow is a bit funny -- and not in an intended way, either.

The cast is also a mixed bag. Bale and Caine work so well together that they help to off-set some of the picture’s curious, and less effective, performances. Tom Wilkinson, a great British actor, seems misplaced here as an inner-city mobster. Cillian Murphy seems far too young as the shady Dr. Crane, with his over-the-top “look out for the Bat-Man!” line providing a few unintended chuckles for the audience I screened the movie with. What’s worse, Katie Holmes comes off as a complete lightweight against the likes of Bale, Caine, and Freeman, and her final scene with Bale is too pat and predictable, playing out like every other scene where Kirsten Dunst complains to Tobey Maguire in the “Spider-Man” films (Holmes has wisely been replaced by Maggie Gyllenhaal in the “Dark Knight” sequel).

Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard’s “tag team” soundtrack also doesn’t entirely click. Though propulsive and at times effective (thankfully in a less blaring way than Elliot Goldenthal’s excessive scores for the Schumacher films), it’s also highly forgettable. There’s no central thematic material to grasp onto, and their tiresome cue for the Batmobile chase -- which sounds like what Samuel Barber might have come up with in an “Adagio For Batman” -- stands as a miscalculation.

Ultimately, Nolan is enough of a craftsman and artist that the pros of “Batman Begins” outweigh the cons. Always exciting to watch and with strong central performances from Bale and Caine, this is a flawed but fascinating (if overly serious) take on the comic book legend -- better than the Schumacher films and essentially as satisfying as Burton’s efforts. Which is to say, it’s entertaining, but not quite the classic some fans proclaimed it to be upon its original release.

After being available on HD-DVD for over a year, Warner’s new Blu-Ray disc serves up the same, excellent VC-1 encoded transfer and Dolby TrueHD soundtrack that graced its predecessor. Wally Pfister’s cinematography really sings in the high-definition format, which is better able to handle the picture’s darker sequences with enhanced clarity than its standard-definition counterpart.

For extras, the Blu-Ray boasts one major exclusive new feature, the “Dark Knight”’s IMAX-produced prologue, presented in HD and running about seven minutes. This bonus alone ought to whet fans’ appetites for this week’s “Dark Knight” release, as well as entice HD-DVD owners to “double dip” for this otherwise identical BD edition.

Other supplements are replicated from the prior HD-DVD, including the theatrical trailer and a slew of short featurettes that, all told, comprise roughly 105 minutes of documentary materials. These take you through the production of “Batman Begins” via numerous cast and crew interviews, though truth be told, they’re far from the most compelling supplements I’ve seen, while an “In-Movie Experience” picture-in-picture track boasts additional comments and interviews (this function is available only on BD-Live or “Bonus View” equipped players).

THE LOST BOYS: Blu-Ray (**½, 97 mins., 1987, R; Warner): Back in the mid ‘80s the teen horror genre briefly blossomed with several different vampire efforts competing for audience dollars. While I’ve always preferred Tom Holland’s superb “Fright Night” over Joel Schumacher’s dated ‘80s MTV-esque “The Lost Boys,” there are more fans of this big-haired, loud, glitzy slice of hokum, with brothers Jason Patric and Corey Haim moving to quaint Santa Clara, California with mom Dianne Wiest, only to find out a group of garish looking bloodsuckers, led by nefarious Kiefer Sutherland (I wonder what Jack Bauer would think of his alter-ego’s look here), stalk the town.

On the plus side, the movie boasts Jami Gertz at her ‘80s best (she never looked better than here), plus a good assortment of laughs, but “The Lost Boys” is most definitely a product of its era (in a bad way), and under Schumacher’s direction, the Janice Fisher-James Jeremias-Jeffrey Boam script is light on scares and heavy on stylized lighting, rock music and other tricks of the time. It might still provide some viewers with a blast of nostalgia, but one wonders what viewers new to its charms will think of it.

For fans, though, Warner’s Blu-Ray edition is top-notch. The 1080p transfer captures all the flashy elements of Michael Chapman’s cinematography while the Dolby TrueHD audio is likewise superb. Extras ported over from the prior DVD Special Edition include additional scenes, commentary, numerous featurettes and the trailer.

THE RUINS: Blu-Ray and DVD (*½, 93 mins., 2008, R; Dreamworks): Aptly-titled teen horror outing based on Scott Smith’s novel finds a group of vacationing college students discovering that they shouldn’t have investigated an ancient Mayan ruin, where a certain kind of poisonous plant life (with a possible relationship to Audrey II from “Little Shop of Horrors,” sadly minus the singing and dancing) is looking to break out.

Interminably paced by director Carter Smith, this good-looking studio horror film (co-produced by Ben Stiller) boasts superb cinematography by Darius Khondji but one of the dullest, dreariest plots seen in this genre in ages. It takes nearly 50 minutes for something to actually happen in “The Ruins,” and then the two Smiths decide to throw such creepy things as ringing cell phones and CGI-enhanced vines at us...it all culminates in an ending that’s as unspectacular as everything else that’s come before it. Outside of seeing former child star Jena Malone blossoming here into an attractive leading lady, there’s precious little to recommend.

Paramount’s DVD and Blu-Ray disc offer an unrated cut of the movie with a slightly different ending than what appeared in theaters. That original theatrical ending is on-hand along with a slightly amusing alternate conclusion in the supplement, plus other deleted scenes, commentary, and three featurettes. Visually, the regular DVD’s 16:9 (2.35) transfer is strong but the Blu-Ray’s 1080p transfer does a better job replicating Khondji’s crisp visuals, while both the standard 5.1 (DVD) and Dolby TrueHD (Blu-Ray) soundtracks are solid, if nothing special.

MAD MEN Season 1: Blu-Ray and DVD (2008, 13 Episodes; Lionsgate): Top-notch AMC dramatic series follows the lives, loves and professional competition between a group of Madison Ave. advertising execs during the 1950s. Flavorful atmosphere, a slowly-unfolding story line (which takes a bit of time to play out in its middle sections), superb performances and smart, incisive scripts make “Mad Men” one of the better bets on television today.

Lionsgate’s Blu-Ray release of “Mad Men”’s first season is one of the best TV on DVD releases I’ve seen in ages: commentaries, deleted scenes, ample Making Of content and excellent AVC-encoded transfers grace a comprehensive package all around, while DTS Master Audio soundtracks round out the audio end of things.

The studio’s standard DVD is housed in a neat “lighter” package and is more collectible, to be sure, for fans of the series, which returns for a second season later this month on cable.

THE BANK JOB: Blu-Ray and DVD (***, 110 mins., R; Lionsgate): Refreshingly “old fashioned” action film from pro Roger Donaldson, working from a Dick Clement-Ian La Frenais script that’s based on an infamous, real-life early ‘70s bank robbery that remains something of a mystery to this day. Jason Statham is excellent as an East Ender who gets wrapped up in a scheme to rob a local bank’s safe deposit vault; alas, there’s more to this mere robbery than meets the eye, with political and government ramifications coming into play as well. Certainly “The Bank Job” is entertaining and stylish, and unafraid to actually develop its characters – something that comes as a refreshing change in this day and age of ADD filmmaking. Lionsgate’s Blu-Ray and DVD editions are first-rate, with extras including commentary (involving Donaldson, actress Saffron Burrows and composer J. Peter Robinson), deleted and extended scenes, two featurettes and the trailer. Visually the Blu-Ray’s AVC encoded transfer is appreciably stronger than the standard DVD, while robust DTS Master Audio (BD) and Dolby Digital (DVD) soundtracks are available as well.

SHUTTER: Blu-Ray (*½, 89 mins., 2006, Unrated [was PG-13]; Fox): Late entry into the fortunately dying-out “American remakes of Asian horror flicks” genre made a modest sum at the box-office last spring.

Photographer Joshua Jackson (welcome back from the dead, Pacey!) and Rachael Taylor play a married couple who move to Japan for his new assignment, but soon a spectral spirit begins popping up in their Kodaks -- and the possibility is raised that Jackson might be hiding something...

Masayuki Ochiai directed this Regency produced remake of the Thai original “Shutter,” mostly shot with a Japanese crew as well. Sadly they’re no more effective than the American hacks who have paraded out the endless line of Americanized “J-Horror” over the years. “Shutter” is little more than a badly-acted, pedestrian rendering of “What Lies Beneath” for the teen horror market, with a  hysterical final shot likely to generate more unintended yucks than send shivers up your spine.

Fox’s Blu-Ray disc boasts a really nice AVC-encoded transfer with DTS-HD Master Audio sound, as well as a fine array of extras from commentary to numerous Making Of featurettes, alternate and deleted scenes, and Japanese “spirit photography” videos that are more interesting than anything in the movie itself.

COLLEGE ROAD TRIP: Blu-Ray and DVD (**½, 83 mins., 2008, G; Disney): Inoffensive Disney live-action comedy is at least energetic enough, perhaps no surprise under the direction of one-time “Cruel Intentions” auteur Roger Kumble. Raven-Symone stars as a high school senior who’s domineering police-chief dad (Matin Lawrence) wants to send her to Northwestern; Raven, on the other hand, has her sights set on Georgetown, leading to a typical father/daughter clash as he follows her and her girlfriends on a college tour. Donny Osmond generates a few laughs in a supporting part in this okay time-killer, which ought to generate some smiles among kids -- especially for the movie’s cute little pig who often steals the show from its stars. Disney’s Blu-Ray and DVD editions are both excellent, featuring fine transfers (the Blu-Ray in particular offering a crystal clear AVC encoded transfer), Dolby Digital audio (uncompressed PCM on the high-def side; standard 5.1 on the DVD), and extras including deleted scenes, a gag reel, a discarded opening and ending, two commentaries and more.

STEP UP 2: THE STREETS: Blu-Ray and DVD (**, 98 mins., 2008, PG-13; Touchstone): Briana Evigan (Greg’s daughter) stars as a rebellious dancer at the Maryland School of the Arts who teams up with a capable male dancer (Robert Hoffman) to win a dance-off competition. Barely a sequel to its box-office hit predecessor, this watchable effort from director Jon Chu boasts some exciting dance numbers but a lame story that acts as filler between the dance routines and little more. Still, Evigan is easy on the eyes and “Step Up 2" isn’t the worst movie I’ve seen this year, so that counts for something, right? Buena Vista’s DVD edition boasts a fine 16:9 (1.85) transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound and a number of extras, including deleted scenes, music videos, outtakes and other featurettes; the Blu-Ray edition, encoded in AVC and offering a Dolby TrueHD soundtrack, naturally looks and sounds even better in high-definition.

Also New on DVD

WARGAMES: 25th Anniversary Edition (***½, 113 mins., 1983, PG; MGM/Fox): John Badham’s slick, highly entertaining thriller makes its way back to DVD in a much-improved edition than its previous digital counterpart.

This tale of an early ‘80s high schooler who unknowingly hacks into a defense department simulation and causes all kinds of panic for its confused personnel may appear dated with its period politics and ancient technology (I always wished I owned a personal computer that made those “beeping” noises every time I typed!), but “WarGames” still entertains due to its performances. Matthew Broderick is perfect as the naive David Lightman, with Ally Sheedy, John Wood, Dabney Coleman and Barry Corbin likewise making the most of their roles in the perfectly-pitched Lawrence Lasker-Walter F. Parkes script, which manages to walk the fine line between a teen picture and a nuclear holocaust thriller, with some effective comedy mixed in between.

It’s a balance, though, that nearly didn’t happen: “WarGames” was beset by production problems, most notably the fact that Martin Brest (soon to hit the big time with “Beverly Hills Cop”) was originally installed as the film’s director. Brest began shooting the movie, only to have United Artists executives panic after seeing his darker, less humorous take on the material. Badham replaced him a few weeks into production, and began lightening the tone -- from recruiting Parkes and Lasker to work from an earlier, pre-Brest version of their original screenplay, to having cinematographer William A. Fraker literally lighten the film’s visual pallet. In the new DVD’s documentary, Badham notes how hard he had to work to get Sheedy and Broderick to change their approach to certain scenes, the duo both wondering if they too would be replaced since the movie wasn’t working in the eyes of Hollywood suits.

The 45-minute “Loading WarGames” documentary is the major new ingredient of MGM’s 25th Anniversary DVD edition, and it’s a keeper, pulling no punches in terms of discussing the extent of Brest’s involvement (he increased Sheedy’s role and did all the research on the film’s tech) and how much even the completed film owes to his work. Yet it’s also clear that Badham’s touch was the reason for the picture’s enormous commercial success, his humanity and sense of humor crafting more dimensional characters than what might have ended up had Martin Brest completed his own vision of the film.

Interviews with Badham, the writers, Broderick, Sheedy, Corbin, William A. Fraker, composer Arthur B. Rubinstein and others make this a compelling featurette filled with anecdotes, including the revelation that Tom Mankiewicz was called in to write a memorable scene -- in one day -- between Broderick and Sheedy prior to the film’s climax. Outside of some needless “talking head” comments from Harry Knowles and other critics, this is easily one of the better Making Of docs we’ve seen of late on DVD.

Other extras include the original trailer, two other featurettes, and a much-improved 16:9 (1.85) transfer with both 5.1 Dolby Digital and 2.0 Dolby Surround soundtracks. Finally, ported over from the prior DVD is a fine commentary with Badham, Lasker and Parkes discussing the film.

Out later this month from MGM is WARGAMES: THE DEAD CODE (100 mins., 2007, PG-13), an okay made-for-video production that’s a basic remake of the original, just updated with inferior actors and modern technology. MGM’s DVD of the latter includes both 16:9 (1.85) and full-screen transfers with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, commentary from veteran director Stuart Gillard, a Making Of featurette and a production stills gallery.

Hopefully a Blu-Ray release of the original “WarGames” will follow in the near future.   

MEET THE BROWNS :Blu-Ray and DVD (**, 101 mins., 2008, PG-13; Lionsgate): Tepid Tyler Perry effort follows Angela Bassett on a journey that Stella probably wouldn’t be envious of, traveling with her kids down to Georgia to meet the family she never knew. It’s mediocre, over-the-top comedy best left for Perry’s fans. Lionsgate’s DVD and Blu-Ray releases both sport superb transfers (the edge obviously to the Blu-Ray version, needless to say, which also includes 7.1 DTS Master Audio sound) with loads of extras including Making Of featurettes and a standard-def digital copy for portable media players.

SHINE A LIGHT (121 mins., 2008, PG-13; Paramount): Martin Scorsese directed this concert documentary of the Rolling Stones, filled with archival footage and new performances, including Mick and the boys jamming with special guests Jack White III, Christina Aguilera and more. Robert Richardson’s cinematography is probably the strongest asset of this lengthy affair, which is, unsurprisingly, best appreciated by Stones aficionados. Paramount’s DVD includes four bonus musical performances cut from the released version, a 16:9 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

ANDRE TECHINE: 4-Film Box Set (Lionsgate): Superb box-set from Lionsgate couples four films from the French filmmaker: Catherine Deneuve in the 1981 effort “Hotel America”; the 1991 “I Don’t Kiss”; Deneuve and Daniel Auteuil in “My Favorite Season” from 1993; and the 1994 effort “Wild Reeds.” All films are presented in 16:9 widescreen with optional English subtitles.

New TV on DVD

We’ve got a load of TV on DVD releases this month to get to, so without further delay, here’s a rundown of the latest box-set editions of small-screen fare:

BIRDS OF PREY: Complete Series (2002-03, 541 mins., Warner): Fresh off the success of “Smallville,” the WB Network attempted to create another contemporary comic-book series with “Birds of Prey.”

Set in a future Gotham City where Batman has vanished, “Birds” is comprised of a wheel-chair bound Batgirl (Dina Meyer) as well as a young teen with mysterious powers (Rachel Skarsten) and none other than the offspring of Batman and Catwoman: Helena Kyle (Ashley Scott). Together the trio attempt to restore some order to the city’s rampant crime caused by goons, thugs and crazy shrink Harley Quinn (Mia Sara), and aided with the occasional help of a police detective (TV veteran Shemar Moore).

Despite having Brian Robbins and Mike Tollin from “Smallville” involved, the magic from their reworking of Clark Kent’s teenage years failed to rub off on “Birds of Prey.” The series’ 13 episodes are often disjointed and fail to take advantage of its intriguing premise, while the cast is a mixed bag of performances that work (Meyer, Scott) and those that fail to click (Sara). The WB gave the series an expensive budget and “Birds of Prey” looks the part, but it’s simply routine and rarely ever fun. Meanwhile, comic book buffs gave the show a major thumbs down for the liberties it took with its apparently superior source material.

That said, “Birds” has a small cult following it seems (either that or Warner is just looking to capitalize on this week’s release of “The Dark Knight”) and those fans can rejoice with the release of the complete series on DVD. Presented in good-looking full-screen transfers with 2.0 Dolby Stereo sound, this is a nice package from Warner, complimented by 30 episodes of the web series “Gotham Girls” as well as the show’s original unaired pilot, featuring Sherilyn Fenn in the role that Sara later took over.

COMEDY CENTRAL’S TV FUNHOUSE (2000-01, 176 mins., Paramount): “Triumph the Insult Comic Dog”’s Robert Smigel was one of the cohorts behind this short-lived but hilarious Comedy Central series, each episode focusing on a group of “Anipals” and their weekly adventures. Live-action content is mixed with Smigel’s typical Saturday Night Live sketches (the “law firm” of Anne Heche, Margot Kidder and Robert Downey, Jr. is uproarious) in an uneven but satisfying brew that’s downright hysterical when it hits the mark. My favorite moments: a “VH1 Behind the Music” parody focusing on George Washington, and a memorable episode where Triumph leads the Anipals to Atlantic City where they get wasted with pal Robert Goulet. Paramount’s terrific DVD box-set is uncensored and packed with content, including commentaries, outtakes and more. Highly recommended!

TRANSFORMERS CYBERTRON: Ultimate Collection (2008, 1114 mins., Paramount): Complete collection of the recent “Transformers” animated series, once again following our heroic Autobots as they race across the galaxy to find “Cyber Planet Keys” that the Decepticons want as well, in order to create the ultimate Transformer robot. Paramount’s DVD box-set includes ample animated fun spread across seven jammed platters in full-screen format and 2.0 Dolby Digital sound.

THE HILLS: Season 3 (570 mins., 2007-08, Paramount): The girls from “The Hills” are back in Season 3 of the MTV reality series. For fans, Paramount’s box-set offers unedited episodes with deleted scenes, cast interviews, commentary, and “Virtual Hills” content among other DVD bonuses.

BALDWIN HILLS: Season 1 (2007, 400 mins., Paramount): BET Channel reality series takes a different approach in its portrayal of young African-American teens: instead of painting a bleak portrait of the inner-city, “Baldwin Hills” follows a group of Beverly Hills youths living with more than modest means. Paramount’s DVD set includes casting tapes, bonus interviews and other extras.

RENO 911! Season 5 (352 mins., 2008, Paramount): More shenanigans from the Comedy Central series offers the complete Season 5 of “Reno 911" in full-screen format with loads of extras including 40 minutes of deleted scenes, commentary from the ensemble cast, and a “Cop Psychology: Inside the Minds of Reno’s Deputies” featurette.

MANSWERS: Best of Season 1 (91 mins., 2007, Paramount): Spike TV late-night comedy series hits DVD in a single-disc anthology of its “Top 25" moments with full-screen transfers and Dolby Stereo sound.

BEVERLY HILLS 90210: Season 5 (1994-95, 24 hours, CBS/Paramount): With Shannen Doherty having departed, Aaron Spelling, Darren Star and company sought to recapture the magic that had marked the Fox night-time soap’s prior four seasons. Their answer to Doherty’s absence was to bring in former “Saved By the Bell” heroine Tiffani-Amer Thiessen as the conniving “Val.” Sort of (but not quite) how “Cheers” improved after Shelley Long left the cast, “90210" was actually quite entertaining in its later years, and especially in Season 5, which finds Brandon & Kelly dating and Steve “The Man” Sanders going out with Claire (the still under-appreciated Kathleen Robertson, recently seen in “Tin Man”). It’s also the last real go-around for Luke Perry’s Dylan, who only popped up in guest stints from this point on -- making it kind of a last hurrah for the original cast. CBS’ DVDs look just fine in full-screen though some music may have been altered (predictably) for the home video version.

GIRLFRIENDS: Season 4 (2003-04, 8 hours, CBS/Paramount): Popular and actually quite funny WB sitcom was unceremoniously canceled in the midst of its eighth season, leaving fans on a limb as to how it concluded. Until those viewers get a satisfying resolution, they can at least take solace in Paramount’s new edition of the Kelsey Grammer-produced series’ fourth season, which offers 16:9 widescreen transfers and Dolby Digital stereo sound.

NEXT TIME: THE DARK KNIGHT Reviewed! 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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