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Summer Sizzler Edition
OUTLAND, BRAINSTORM Headline Sci-Fi Faves on Blu-Ray
Plus: Twilight Time's Latest, New Criterions and More!

Fans of STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION have eagerly anticipated CBS/Paramount’s much-discussed conversion of the second Star Trek series to high-def, having painstakingly gone back not to the series’ videotape broadcast masters but its original film elements to give the program an appearance it never had before. The results – following a single-disc Blu-Ray teaser released back in January – are simply stunning, with the full Season 1 BD from CBS set hitting stores next week.

The "taped" look to the show is completely gone and there's a clarity in the image – obviously since it's coming from the film negatives and not the old broadcast tape master – that is immediately noticeable and will be even more obvious the larger your TV is. Suffice to say, it looks dynamic, and enhances the whole impact of the program. The special effects – which were originally edited on video tape – have been repurposed for HD, giving them more depth yet still appearing as if they’re of the era. There's been no obvious attempt I can discern at "rethinking" them along the lines of the original series’ HD remastering -- these are basically the same concepts, same TNG effects as before, simply "recomposited" for HD. The DTS MA audio, meanwhile, is fine, though it often sounds a little flat in terms of the music (there's little surround activity), which makes me think they essentially took the original stereo tracks and just “moved” them into 5.1 without peforming any other remastering.

The first season of TNG itself is akin to witnessing many well-known series' inaugural years: there are scattered excellent, individual moments, but the program had yet to really hit its stride. Too often, the well-documented bickering behind-the-scenes lead to wildly uneven plots, many of which were disappointing remakes of the original series' adventures, and too many others that had yet to capitalize on the program's fine cast – marred by hackneyed TV writing that was far from TNG's best. Indeed, just when it seemed that TNG got its act together during the first season with a superior effort, there's a clunker of an episode that followed, cementing the inconsistency that plagued the show during its early years.

Right off the bat, disc one illustrates this point: the 90-minute premiere, "Encounter At Farpoint," isn’t great but is at least entertaining enough (introducing John DeLancie's running "Q" character), but its immediate follow-up – the dreadful "Naked Now" –  was enough to make some viewers instantly lose interest in the series. What they would miss during the remainder of the first season wasn't anything extraordinary, but all of it remains a fascinating precursor to the terrific later seasons that TNG enjoyed down the road.

Also on-hand here are the terrible "Code of Honor," the early Ferengi episode "The Last Outpost," the solid "Where No One Has Gone Before," "Lonely Among Us" (D.C. Fontana's "revision" of her classic original episode "Journey To Babel"), "Justice," "The Battle" (another Ferengi episode), "Hide and Q" (a remake of the old show's second pilot, with Riker gaining God-like powers a la Gary Mitchell), "Haven" (one of the infrequent Troi episodes, featuring Majel Barrett-Roddenberry as her mother), "The Big Goodbye" (easily one of the best TNG programs from season one, thanks to Patrick Stewart's performance and a good script by Tracy Torme), "Datalore" (another mediocre original series update, this time of "The Enemy Within"), "Angel One," "11001001" (arguably season one's finest hour), "Too Short A Season," "When The Bough Breaks," "Home Soil" (a lame rip-off of "The Devil In The Dark"), "Coming Of Age," the entertaining Klingon entry "Heart Of Glory," "The Arsenal of Freedom," "Symbiosis," "Skin of Evil" (Tasha Yar's quick exit), "We'll Always Have Paris” (two seconds of which had to be edited in from the standard-definition master), "Conspiracy," and the underwhelming season finale, "The Neutral Zone."

Extras include a look at how the new TNG HD masters were produced (“Energized! Taking The Next Generation to the Next Level”) as well a three-part examination of the series’ first season (both in HD), plus full “Archives” extras, with episodic promos, featurettes from the prior DVD release, and a gag reel also on-hand in the six-disc package. TNG fans will be thrilled with the presentation and ought to be left hoping it doesn’t take long for CBS to beam down their Blu-Ray of Season 2.

Sci-Fi Catalog on Blu-Ray

Warner Home Video has just released a number of sci-fi/fantasy films on Blu-Ray for the first time, from Sean Connery’s 1981 starring turn in Peter Hyams’ underrated “Outland” to a pair of early ‘80s pictures that riff on time-honored themes of “mad scientists” pushing beyond the boundaries of metaphysics and popular belief...and suffering the consequences as a result.

OUTLAND Blu-Ray (***, 109 mins., 1981, R; Warner): Writer-director Peter Hyams’ “space western” stars Sean Connery as a marshal assigned to a desolate mining colony on Io, one of Jupiter’s moons. There, he finds a surprising number of workers perishing in a number of apparent suicides – but after uncovering evidence, Connery determines that their deaths are caused by a lethal drug being smuggled into the station by corrupt company man Peter Boyle. Connery and Boyle end up butting heads when the marshal decides he’s not willing to play along with the latter’s schemes, leading to a number of sharp-shooters being brought in to knock off the intergalactic man of the peace.

Hyams’ original script pays obvious homage to “High Noon” and is certainly structured more like a western than a typical ‘80s genre film. It does, however, look like a post-“Alien” piece, with the entire appearance of the film evoking the production design of Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic (Hyams confirms as much in the Blu-Ray’s new audio commentary). There are some logistical gaps in Hyams’ screenplay, and a fair amount of the dialogue is leaden, but Connery is both believable and sympathetic here, giving a finely tuned performance that encompasses the marshal’s steadfast pursuit of justice as well as empathic scenes involving his wife and son, the former deciding that Io is no place to raise a kid early on. Frances Sternhagen is excellent as the good doctor who grudgingly comes to Connery’s aid (she’s the only one who does), while James B. Sikking chips in an effective, if brief, supporting turn as Connery’s right hand man who’s also, unsurprisingly, on Boyle’s payroll.

Hyams generates a fair amount of suspense throughout – the countdown clock anticipating the arrival of a shuttle with the hired guns goes hand in hand with Jerry Goldsmith’s tense score in keeping first-time viewers engaged – and the film culminates in a satisfying, if expected, conclusion. “Outland” may not be a classic film but it’s still entertaining and compelling, one of Hyams’ stronger works, and certainly one of Connery’s more memorable non-Bond vehicles.

Warner’s Blu-Ray is undoubtedly going to help the film’s reputation, seeing as their original U.S. DVD was 4:3 and mastered from elements that looked like they were derived from their 1990s laserdisc release. This new 1080p AVC encoded transfer is an immeasurable enhancement over that monstrosity, doing as much for the cinematography as Hyams’ penchant for shooting in low light allows. The DTS MA sound is robustly mixed, and an original trailer is included along with Hyams’ new commentary track. The director discusses working with Connery and the Ladd Company, and contributes an insightful talk that interested viewers should find sufficiently enlightening.

ALTERED STATES Blu-Ray (**½, 103 mins., 1980, R; Warner)
BRAINSTORM Blu-Ray (**½ , 106 mins., 1983, PG; Warner): Two troubled, early ‘80s genre movies also arrive on Blu-Ray this month from Warner.

“Altered States” was based on Paddy Chayefsky’s only novel, scripted for the screen by the author and slated to be directed for Columbia Pictures by Arthur Penn. Shortly before production was to start, Columbia axed Penn and dumped the project outright, leading Warner Bros. to pick up the film for British auteur Ken Russell. Russell’s penchant for outlandish visuals came along with it – much to the chagrin of Chafeysky, who despite having written the script, took his name off the picture, leaving the pseudonym “Sidney Aaron” attached to the credits.

Certainly “Altered States” is one unusual movie: a chronicle of scientist William Hurt’s pursuit to find other forms of being via halluciongenic drugs and a sensory-depravation tank. This being the late ‘60s, Hurt’s Eddie Jessup wasn’t the only one rushing to unlock the “ultimate head trip” of the time, but he probably was the only one to tap back into the genes of primordial man and regress into a neanderthal – which he does here, along with witnessing bizarre religious (Jesus with a goat’s head!) and assorted ghastly imagery.

“Altered States” is essentially two movies: a dull, talky drama with plenty of scientific mumbo-jumbo dialogue delivered at breakneck pace by the cast, and a bonkers, wild sci-fi/horror picture that, unsurprisingly, plays more to Russell’s strengths. “Exorcist” great Dick Smith produced some fascinating make-up effects (many of which weren’t used in the final product) that, along with Jordan Cronenweth’s cinematography and John Corigliano’s avant garde score, make this somewhat unpleasant picture a compelling sensory experience if nothing else. The performances, from Hurt to Blair Brown, also add serious conviction to Chayefsky’s story, which basically exists on a simplistic dramatic level with Russell’s jolts providing its memorable aspects.

Warner’s 1080p AVC encoded Blu-Ray transfer of “Altered States” is impressive, doing justice to the film’s visual design with just a bit of DNR added to the image. The DTS MA sound effectively renders a potent sound mix and the original trailer is the disc’s sole extra.

Award-winning special effects genius Douglas Trumbull’s “Brainstorm,” meanwhile, underwent behind-the-scenes turbulence of its own kind: after having nearly completed filming, co-star Natalie Wood mysteriously drowned, leading its studio (MGM/UA) to file an insurance claim with Lloyd’s of London in an effort to junk the film. (It’s incredibly ironic this disc is being released right after the L.A. coroner’s office newly designated the cause of Wood’s death as “undetermined” as well). Trumbull – who produced and directed the film – fought to get the picture finished, and while he ultimately won (the insurance company gave him $3 million to complete post-production), the battle ended up driving him away from ever wanting to direct another feature.

The finished film is a bit disjointed, as one might anticipate, yet retains enough of Trumbull’s fascinating technical wizardry to warrant a recommendation for interested viewers. Christopher Walken stars as a research scientist working with Louise Fletcher to design what would be, today, seen as the first “virtual reality” device: a headset that records the images and thoughts of a human being, enabling another to relive their experiences. Devised for any kind of human interaction, the device naturally attracts the interest of devious government agents who want to utilize it for their own military applications; Walken, though, becomes obsessed with finding out what Fletcher experienced after she used the device to record her own death.

Bruce Joel Rubin (“Ghost,” “Dreamscape,” “Jacob’s Ladder”) wrote the original story for “Brainstorm,” but Robert Stitzel and Philip Frank Messina were credited with the film’s final screenplay. It’s hard to envision that Rubin’s original script wouldn’t have been more compelling than the uneven dramatic situations that “Brainstorm” eventually throws at viewers, with limp dialogue and obvious improvisation on the part of Walken clashing with the otherwise dry performances of Wood, Fletcher and Cliff Robertson. Stories about Trumbull being unable to handle the actors and creating tension on set are unsurprising when you see the finished product, but much like “Altered States,” the film works best as a technical showcase in the first place. Trumbull’s interest in human perception and experience – and ultimately bridging science with the spiritual – still comes across in the film, with a few affecting moments provided along the way.

Trumbull initially envisioned “Brainstorm” as a showcase for a new technical process he dubbed “Showscan,” yet ultimately decided – for practical and economic reasons – to shoot the film in both 35mm (roughly 1.85) for its “real world” scenes and 70mm widescreen (2.35 with full stereo sound) for its “Brainstorm” sequences. The effectiveness of this approach naturally works best on a large theater screen, though Warner has opted to utilize a straight 2.35 aspect ratio for “Brainstorm”’s Blu-Ray release. This means most of the film is 1.78 in a 2.35 aspect ratio (with black on all four sides of the image) with the exception of the “virtual reality” sequences, which blast into 5.1 DTS MA and full 2.35. The effect isn’t as potent as it would be in a theater, yet after awhile, the home viewer can still gain an appreciation of Trumbull’s intentions.

Some of the movie’s visual effects and early CGI are interesting for their time – particularly during the movie’s intriguing, if obviously compromised, ending, which seems to have been cut around Wood’s death. James Horner’s effective early score is a major plus to the film, which ended up underperforming in theaters upon its eventual release in September, 1983.

Warner’s Blu-Ray looks quite good with a satisfying 1080p AVC encoded transfer and DTS MA soundtrack. The original three-minute theatrical trailer is also included, featuring some interesting special effects footage that didn’t make it into the final cut.

COMA Blu-Ray (***, 113 mins., 1978, PG; Warner): Michael Crichton’s sturdy adaptation of Robin Cook’s bestseller also hits BD this month from Warner. Genevieve Bujold stars as a Boston doctor trying to figure out why so many seemingly healthy patients are ending up on life support; Michael Douglas essays her hotheaded doctor boyfriend in an eerie 1978 MGM release with an effective Jerry Goldsmith score. Warner’s Blu-Ray looks as strong as “Coma” is ever likely to, with a natural appearance and little use of DNR on display. The mono sound is merely serviceable and the trailer is the only extra.

THE ASTRONAUT’S WIFE (No Stars, 106 mins., 1999, R; New Line/Warner): When I saw “The Astronaut’s Wife” back in 1999, I wrote that “I felt bad for Johnny Depp, because he's talented. I felt terrible for Charlize Theron, because she's hot. I felt sympathy for composer George S.Clinton, because he wrote a good score and he's a nice guy. But all of these things cannot make me feel anything but utter contempt for ‘The Astronaut’s Wife,’ which after having sat through every painful second of it, has to be one of the prime candidates for Worst Late Summer Movie of the Millennium. How bad is this movie? Try unpleasant enough that I started counting the number of surround speakers equipped on the wall of my local multiplex.”

Theron plays the title character, of course, whose husband (Depp) travels into outer space and returns under a cloud of suspicion. NASA advisor Joe Morton knows something's up once he sees the medical tests, but once Morton is let go and Depp moves with Theron to New York to work on some never-quite-explained aerospace project, Theron is all by herself, hearing noises and suspecting that something isn't right with Depp and the twins she's carrying.

Writer-director Rand Ravich obviously attempted here to make a psychological horror film like “Rosemary’s Baby” with a sci-fi twist, but he's ultimately undone by a script with unappealing characters, gaping plot holes that never elaborate upon the alien scenario (what's up with the whole radio-wave thing, and the project Depp is working on?) or explain much of anything (like the groaner of an ending), and a deadening pace that often grinds the movie down to the speed of slow-motion.

Theron gets to cry and performs an embarrassing dance sequence, while Depp's one-note spaceman is so subdued that you can't tell any difference from the man who leaves for the great beyond and the apparently-extraterrestrial one who returns. Allen Daviau of E.T. shot the movie, but aside from that there's no relation to the Spielberg classic. Indeed, “The Astronaut’s Wife” is in a galaxy all its own – one that's far, far, far away from anything resembling a good movie.

Warner’s Blu-Ray edition of the film has a generally pleasing 1080p AVC encoded transfer with DTS MA audio and the trailer; alas (thankfully?), no extras are on-hand, not even one of multiple alternate endings that have surfaced on other international releases (and Youtube) over the years since its release.

SPAWN Blu-Ray (*½, 94 mins., 1997, R; New Line/Warner): Todd McFarlane's celebrated, demonic comic-book hero got the shaft twice in 1997, first in a series of lame made-for-HBO cartoons, then later in this static big-screen adaptation, featuring Michael Jai White as the hellish protagonist, Martin Sheen as a government bigwig, Nicol Williamson reprising his Merlin role from “Excalibur” and John Leguiziamo as a fat midget clown. The ILM animated sequences of hell and the various servants of Lucifer provide the fireworks, but surrounding these FX shots are totally uninteresting, blandly filmed live-action scenes that feel like a bad "USA Original Movie" premiere. Director Mark Dippe was once an ILM employee, so it's no wonder the film has visual (albeit dated) snap in the action scenes, but someone else should have been brought into handle the actual story and characters, thinly drawn as they are (that Dippe’s career went straight to video thereafter is no shocker). New Line’s Blu-Ray boasts the extended “Director’s Cut” (one minute longer than the PG-13 theatrical release) of “Spawn” as well as its extras from its prior DVD release, plus a 1080p AVC encoded transfer and DTS MA soundtrack.   

FREQUENCY Blu-Ray (**½, 118 mins., 2000, PG-13; New Line/Warner): Gregory Hoblit's "Frequency" was a 2000 box-office sleeper hit for New Line-- a "Twilight Zone"-esque time-travel thriller with Jim Caviezel as a police officer who is improbably able to contact his firefighter dad (Dennis Quaid) who died some 30 years before. Their communication is able to change the past but triggers a series of deadly murders which end up changing Caviezel's present in an equally tragic manner in the process. Written by Toby Emmerich, "Frequency" is a convoluted sci-fi thriller with so many twists and turns that ultimately you lose faith in the movie as a viewer, and no amount of goodwill on the part of the actors can compensate for it. Still, the movie was popular with audiences and Warner’s Blu-Ray edition ought to impress its admirers with a good-looking 1080p AVC encoded transfer and DTS MA soundtrack. Extras are ported over from New Line’s “Platinum Series” DVD including deleted scenes, commentary tracks from Hoblit and actor Noah Emmerich, a documentary on the movie's science (plus animated solar galleries), the original trailer, and an isolated score of Michael Kamen's soundtrack with composer commentary when the score isn't running.

Twilight Time’s July Releases

In the wake of Michael Todd’s “Around the World in 80 Days,” studios tried to keep pace with a number of wacky “race pictures” involving period settings and international casts. Whether it was Blake Edwards’ “The Great Race” or Ken Annakin’s enjoyable Fox romp THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES (***, 138 mins., 1965), audiences were greeted by several, lengthy tales of competitive races set before or after the turn of the (20th) century.

“Those Magnificent Men...” reportedly did much better at the box-office than Edwards’ film, which benefited enormously from a wonderful Henry Mancini score, but wore out its welcome at a bloated, near-three hour running time. The comparatively shorter “Magnificent Men” doesn’t push as hard to sell its comedic antics, with a cast of familiar faces from around the world (Stuart Whitman, James Fox, Sarah Miles, Robert Morley, Gert Frobe, Terry-Thomas, Benny Hill, Jean-Pierre Cassel and Alberto Sordi among others) partaking in a London-to-Paris skirmish set during the earliest days of aviation. The movie takes a lengthy time getting going – the first 45 minutes seem to go on forever – but provides breezy entertainment once its characters actually get off the ground.

Annakin, who managed to sell Fox on the picture during production of “The Longest Day,” wrote this amiable lark with Jack Davies, recruited Ronald Searle to provide animated opening credits, and brought Ron Goodwin along to write a stirring score for this audience favorite, which Twilight Time has brilliantly brought to Blu-Ray this month. The 1080p AVC encoded transfer from the Fox vaults is just dazzling: virtually perfect with exceptional detail, warm colors and a thankful lack of heavy noise reduction making this one of the best catalog releases of the year to date. The 5.0 DTS MA soundtrack is fine, and extras include an isolated score track, Annakin’s commentary from earlier laserdisc/DVD releases, and trailers and TV spots.    

Also new from Twilight Time this month is COVER GIRL (107 mins., 1944), an early – and notable – musical from Columbia Pictures starring Rita Hayworth as a chorus girl who ends up gracing a popular magazine cover and Gene Kelly as the nightclub owner who loves her, even after she starts her climb to the top. Hayworth is almost the whole show in this Charles Vidor-directed vehicle, which sports an okay Ira Gershwin-Jerome Kern score (not a lot of hits here, outside of “Long Ago And Far Away”), some fancy footwork from Kelly, sage comedic supporting turns from Eve Arden and Phil Silvers, and splashy Technicolor cinematography.

“Cover Girl” does seem creaky at times but for musical lovers the picture was particularly noteworthy for its integration of songs with plot – as a result, the film functions more like the kind of musical we’d routinely see in the late ‘40s and ‘50s as opposed to early genre offerings where flimsy story lines were just an excuse for the stars to sing a litany of popular hits. Even if the story of “Cover Girl” isn’t all that interesting, the chemistry of the stars and the pleasant nature of the entire production add appeal to a musical that was, to a degree, ahead of its time. The AVC encoded 4:3 transfer from the Sony vaults is exceptionally good here, particularly considering the age of the picture. The DTS MA 1.0 mono sound is also just fine, while Julie Kirgo’s booklet notes – as always – do a perfect job putting the film in proper historical and societal context.

New From Criterion

THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO Blu-Ray (***½, 113 mins., 1998, R; Criterion): Whit Stillman’s 1998 film “The Last Days of Disco” remains one of his best pictures – a refreshing, intelligent, and often subtly hilarious look at shallow yuppies living, clubbing, and loving at the tail end of the Disco era (i.e. "the very early 1980s"). The demure Chloe Sevigny and the bitchy Kate Beckinsale play a vastly different pair of publishing assistants who decide to room in a New York railroad apartment while they hit the highlife at night with a colorful group of supporting characters -- not the least of which include advertising man Mackenzie Astin (who needs the disco to attract clients), club bouncer Chris Eigeman (a Stillman regular), and assistant district attorney Matt Keeslar (who perhaps has both the hots for Sevigny, and ulterior motives for visiting the disco himself).

The performances are uniformly on target, each character believably echoing the frivolous nature of the music, but also the genuine feeling for the time and place they do share. Stillman provides seemingly every character with a vital scene or line of dialogue, and comes down hard on their essentially materialistic ideals while never condemning them or turning the picture into a broadly comic spoof. Sevigny's character, in particular, is a credible portrait of a young girl lost in the big city, emotionally if nothing else, and Beckinsale creates one of the most effectively obnoxious (but believable!) women you're ever likely to see on the big screen, years before the actress dedicated most of her time to becoming a plastic action figure.

They all speak Stillman's prose, which is funny, insightful and hip, making “The Last Days of Disco” engaging and fun, filled with an enjoyable soundtrack, while the director handles each turn -- dramatic and (predominantly) comic -- with an unabashed love for the era. It may not have a gigantic, thought-provoking point, but then again, neither did the early '80s.

Criterion’s Blu-Ray of “The Last Days of Disco” is basically a HD reprise of their 2009 DVD edition, with the added surplus of an excellent 1080p AVC encoded transfer and DTS MA soundtrack. Extras include a commentary from Stillman, Sevigny and Eigeman; four deleted scenes; the trailer, a behind-the-scenes featurette, stills gallery, and an audio recording of Stillman reading a chapter from his book “The Last Days of Disco, with Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards.”

DOWN BY LAW Blu-Ray (107 mins., 1986; Criterion): Jim Jarmusch’s 1986 follow-up to his breakthrough hit “Stranger than Paradise” follows three inmates in a Louisiana prison (Tom Waits, John Lurie, Roberto Benigni) with impressionistic cinematography by Robby Muller and songs from Waits himself. Criterion’s Blu-Ray includes a new digital transfer supervised by the director; a 2002 interview with Jarmusch; footage from the 1986 Cannes Film Festival; sixteen outtakes; a Waits music video; a Q&A with Jarmusch; recordings of phone conversations between Jarmusch, Waits, Benigni and Lurie; an isolated music track; production stills; an optional French dub track with Benigni; an AVC encoded 1080p transfer and DTS MA mono soundtrack.

JEAN GREMILLION DURING THE OCCUPATION DVD (Criterion): Criterion’s “Eclipse Series” turns its attention to French filmmaker Jean Gremillon, and in particular three of his films made during WWII: “1941's “Remorques,” 1943's “Lumiere D’Ete,” and 1944's “Le Ciel Est a Vous.” 1.33 transfers and English subtitles adorn the three-disc DVD box-set.   

Also New & Noteworthy

CASA DE MI PADRE Blu-Ray (***, 84 mins., 2011, R; Lionsgate): Deadpan spoof of Mexican “telenovelas” generates a fair quotient of laughs provided you tap into its goofy spirit. Will Ferrell stars in this all-Spanish language tale of a Mexican rancher who has to defend his father’s land after his no-good brother (Diego Luna) shows up having owed a debt to a drug lord (Gael Garcia Bernal). Andrew Steele apparently wrote “Casa De Mi Padre” in English, but the film is a faithful Mexican soaper all the way through, and one’s familiarity with the genre probably will dictate how much of the film you’ll find funny. Though I’m certainly not a constant viewer of Univision, there are some inspired moments here along with several amusing songs penned by score composers Andrew Feltenstein and John Nau. Lionsgate’s Blu-Ray of this barely-released comedy hits stores on the 17th with commentary with Ferrell, Steele and director Matt Piedmont on-hand; deleted scenes; commercials; a featurette; music video; and interview with the late Pedro Armendariz, Jr., who co-stars in the film. The 1080p transfer is fine (English subs run on the picture itself as opposed to below it) and the DTS MA audio is nicely engineered.

SALMON FISHING IN THE YEMEN Blu-Ray (**½, 107 mins., 2011, PG-13; Sony): Palpable chemistry between stars Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt helps overcome some dramatic unevenness in “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,” the latest romantic drama from director Lasse Hallstrom, which chronicles the efforts of a Sheikh to bring salmon fishing to his desert kingdom; McGregor is the British fisheries expert recruited by the Sheikh’s assistant (Blunt) to make the impossible possible, and sparks naturally fly between the two. Simon Beaufoy’s script strains credibility at certain points but this is still a likeable film worth seeing for rom-com fans in particular. Sony’s Blu-Ray includes two featurettes, a lovely 1080p transfer and DTS MA soundtrack offering a pleasant score by Dario Marianelli.

FOOTNOTE Blu-Ray (***, 106 mins., 2011, PG; Sony): Oscar-nominated for Best Foreign Film, Joseph Cedar’s picture follows two Israeli professors – a father seeking academic validation and a son who already has it – after the tables are turned when the elder finally receives accolades for his life-long work. Gently funny and enormously perceptive, this insightful picture – the kind we rarely see released on Blu-Ray these days – receives a quality 1080p AVC encoded transfer from Sony with DTS MA audio (in Hebrew with English subtitles) and two extras: “An Evening With Joseph Cedar” and a behind-the-scenes featurette.

THE FLOWERS OF WAR Blu-Ray (**, 142 mins., 2012, R; Lionsgate): Excessively long Chinese epic from director Zhang Yimou stars Christian Bale as a renegade American – posing as a priest – who tries to save a group of kids and courtesans from the Japanese during their assault on Nanking in the late ‘30s. Wild swings of emotion and violence make “The Flowers of War” a well-meaning but muddled epic worth seeing only for interested history buffs. Lionsgate’s Blu-Ray sports a 1080p transfer, DTS MA soundtrack and a number of behind-the-scenes featurettes.

INTRUDERS Blu-Ray (**, 100 mins., 2011, R; Millennium): “Rec” auteur Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s latest thriller stars off well – with two children in different countries being visited by a faceless being dubbed “Hollow Face” – but grows more convoluted as it connects its two apparently isolated events en route to a tepid ending. Clive Owen puts on a game face in this Spanish-produced thriller which was misleadingly marketed as a horror film when its biggest shock is a poorly written screenplay (credited to Nicolas Casariego and Jaime Marques). Millennium brings “Intruders” to Blu-Ray this month in a satisfying 1080p transfer with Dolby TrueHD audio and extras including two featurettes.

SILENT HOUSE Blu-Ray/DVD/Digital Copy (*½, 86 mins., 2012, R; Universal): Indie horror film was purchased by Open Road and released to poor word of mouth last spring, right after Chris Kentis and Laura Lau’s picture was re-edited, with its last 10-15 minutes reportedly re-shot. Whether or not their original version of “Silent House” was more interesting remains to be seen (no deleted scenes are included here), but the released film is another one of these “high concept” affairs (here, most of the film was hyped as being shot in one long continuous take) that fizzles out thanks to a dumb, uninteresting story involving troubled girl Sarah (Elizabeth Olsen) being stalked in her family’s vacation home – or is she??!? A couple of moderately effective scares pop up in an otherwise pretty limp “thriller” that Universal brings to Blu-Ray later this month with a 1080p transfer, DTS MA soundtrack and commentary with Kentis and Lau, plus a DVD and digital copy.

ON THE INSIDE Blu-Ray/DVD (90 mins., 2010, R; Anchor Bay): Routine thriller most notable now for Olivia Wilde’s co-starring turn, “On the Inside” stars Nick Stahl (currently MIA in real-life) as a college professor sentenced to a psychiatric hospital, where he meets a female inmate (Wilde) who bonds with him as well as a genuine crazy (Dash Mihok) with a checkered past. Writer/director D.W Brown contributes a commentary in Anchor Bay’s Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack, the high def portion of which includes a Dolby TrueHD soundtrack and 1080p transfer.      
HIJACKED Blu-Ray/DVD (90 mins., 2011, R; Anchor Bay): “Expendables” co-star Randy Couture stars in this direct-to-vid actioner about a government agent who has to save a plane of passengers – including a wealthy industrialist – after they’re hijacked by a crime syndicate dubbed “The Tribe.” Based on a story by “Scoop Waserstein” (now there’s a name!), “Hijacked” serves up adequate thrills for what it is, with Couture co-starring with Gina Philips, Tiffany Dupont, Dominic Purcell and Vinnie Jones. Anchor Bay’s 1080p AVC encoded transfer and Dolby TrueHD soundtrack are both fine.

MARGARET Blu-Ray/DVD (150/186 mins., 2011, R; Fox): Kenneth Lonergan’s latest emotional drama is one long sit, and even longer if you choose its extended version on DVD. Fox’s combo pack includes the latter, plus the theatrical version on Blu-Ray with a 1080p transfer and DTS MA soundtrack.

FRIENDS WITH KIDS Blu-Ray (107 mins., 2011, R; Lionsgate): Jon Hamm’s off-screen girlfriend Jennifer Westfeldt wrote and directed this disappointing romantic comedy with a cast of familiar faces including Hamm, Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Edward Burns and even Megan Fox. Lionsgate’s Blu-Ray boasts commentary, deleted scenes, a pair of featurettes, a 1080p transfer and DTS MA soundtrack.

THE MONITOR DVD (96 mins., 2011, R; Lionsgate): Noomi Rapace stars in a Norwegian thriller that Lionsgate imports to DVD this month. A 16:9 transfer, 5.1 soundtrack and deleted scenes are on tap.

BOSS - SEASON 1 Blu-Ray (450 mins., 2011; Lionsgate): Kelsey Grammar won a Golden Globe for his performance as tough Chicago Mayor Tom Kane, who fights political battles as well as wages war on his own failing health – namely a brain disorder that’s slowly eating away at his memory. “Boss” earned a number of critical kudos on the Starz network, where it’s set to return for Season 2 in August; in the meantime, viewers can get caught up on Season 1 thanks to Lionsgate’s Blu-Ray, which offers all eight episodes of “Boss” in 1080p transfers and DTS MA soundtracks. Extras include commentaries with executive producer Fahad Safinia and other crew members, plus one behind-the-scenes featurette.

THE INBETWEENERS DVD (aprx. 432 mins., E One): British comedy series about four high schoolers hits DVD from E One in a Special Edition with over three hours of extras, including cast/writer commentaries; video diaries with cast members; numerous featurettes; outtakes and deleted scenes; 16:9 transfers and 2.0 stereo soundtracks.

Also New From E One this month: Willem Dafoe and Shanyn Leigh find that the apocalypse isn’t so much fun in 4:44 LAST DAY ON EARTH (82 mins., 2011, Not Rated), the latest from director Abel Ferrera that ends up doing as much (which isn’t much) for its actors as the Steve Carell misfire “Seeking a Friend For the End of the World” just did for its producers. E One’s Blu-Ray includes a 1080p transfer and 5.1 DTS MA soundtrack; no extras except for the trailer...Stephen Dorff goes through a “Saw” like scenario as a secret service agent being tormented by a group of psychos looking for the presidential emergency bunker (I figured they were hunting for a Howard Johnson’s) in BRAKE (91 mins., 2011, R), a new thriller co-starring Chyler Leigh and Tom Berenger. E One’s Blu-Ray includes a commentary from producer-director Gabe Torres, a featurette, music video, the trailer, a 1080p transfer and 5.1 DTS MA soundtrack...Finally, Brian Geraghty, Josh Peck and Alice Eve star in ATM (90/85 mins., 2011, R), a harrowing tale of three office co-workers who end up being trapped – you got it! – inside an ATM booth in yet another reworking of the “Saw” series from director David Brooks. E One’s Blu-Ray includes a theatrical version plus a Director’s Cut that’s five minutes shorter, a 1080p transfer, 5.1 DTS MA soundtrack and the trailer.

Vintage Shocks

Hammer fans have had a decent go of things over the last year thanks to Studio Canal UK’s Blu-Ray release of “Dracula: Prince of Darkness” as well as Synapse’s “Vampire Circus.” Now Don May, Jr.’s label is back with the first-ever HD presentation of 1971 “Karnstein” vamp entry TWINS OF EVIL (***, 87 mins., Not Rated), starring centerfolds Mary and Madeleine Collinson as identical twins Maria and Frieda Gellhorn – two gorgeous young lassies who head to a small rural village to live with their puritanical uncle (and local witch hunter) played by Peter Cushing. Unfortunately for Frieda, she falls under the spell of a local count (Damien Thomas, essaying the generic Hammer, non-Christopher Lee vampire role) and begins to develop a craving for all things red and juicy.

Though it lacks the zest of the finest Hammer films, “Twins of Evil” is unquestionably one of the better efforts from the studio in its later years, with a good amount of sex appeal and familiar horror aspects (particularly through Cushing’s appearance) making for a rousing good time.

Certainly Synapse has done the film, and Hammer fans, justice with this terrific Blu-Ray/DVD double pack, offering a very strong 1080p transfer, DTS MA mono audio and loads of extras, including an all-new, highly interesting 84-minute documentary on the production of the film; the trailer; and BD-exclusive featurettes on Hammer props; a motion still gallery; deleted scene; isolated music and effects track; and TV spots. Highly recommended!

LISA DVD (*½, 96 mins., 1990, PG-13 MGM Limited Edition Manufactured on Demand Release): Forgettable 1990 “thriller” from “Poltergeist III”’s Gary Sherman stars “My Two Dads” leading lady Staci Keanan as a teen who gets more than she bargained for when she crosses paths with a killer. Cheryl Ladd co-stars in this pedestrian effort that here receives a MOD release from MGM with stereo sound and a solid 16:9 transfer.

WINDOWS DVD (**, 94 mins., 1979, R; MGM Limited Edition Collection): A genuine curio, this barely-seen (at least since its original theatrical run) thriller presaged “Fatal Attraction” with crazy Elizabeth Ashley terrorizing shy Talia Shire in the directorial debut of famed cinematographer Gordon Willis. Ennio Morricone scored “Windows,” a poorly-written but compellingly made thriller with slasher elements that lesbian groups apparently disliked (for good reason) at the time of its original release. MGM never released the film on VHS at all, making this limited-edition DVD-R the first appearance of “Windows” on American domestic home video. The 16:9 transfer and mono soundtrack are both acceptable.

BORIS AND NATASHA: THE MOVIE DVD (87 mins., 1990, PG; MGM Limited Edition Collection): One of the higher profile productions of its day to end up going straight to cable TV, this misfired attempt to turn Jay Ward’s animated “Rocky and Bullwinkle” villains into a live-action comedy hits DVD for the first time as part of MGM’s Limited Edition series. Sally Kellerman (who also produced) and Dave Thomas play the scheming, no-good couple with director Charles Martin Smith also providing narration for a feeble farce that’s, at least, not that much worse than Robert DeNiro’s embarrassing “Rocky and Bullwinkle” bomb from a few years back. MGM’s DVD includes a 16:9 transfer and stereo soundtrack.

NEW YEAR’S EVIL DVD (86 mins., 1980, R; MGM Limited Edition Collection): Standard-issue ‘80s slasher from the Cannon Group ought to appeal to undemanding horror aficionados thanks to its no-nonsense direction and score from “In Search Of...” composers W. Michael Lewis and Laurin Rinder. A 16:9 transfer and mono soundtrack are included.

Label Round-Up: New From Acorn

Weren’t the ‘70s a great time to be alive? What other decade could’ve given us THE KENT CHRONICLES, a trio of TV mini-series produced by Universal and syndicated to local channels shortly after America’s Bicentennial celebration.

Based on John Jakes’ bestsellers (the same author of “North & South,” whose books would be more memorably brought to TV several years later), each mini-series (roughly three hours in length) follows the journey of Frenchman Philippe Carboneau – aka Philip Kent – and his descendants, from the original Kent’s (Andrew Stevens) trip to the New World and run-ins with Paul Revere (William Shatner!), George Washington (Peter Graves!) and Ben Franklin (Tom Bosley!) among others – and by others, I mean a who’s who of famous and bit-part actors from Patricia Neal to a young Kim Cattrall, Buddy Ebsen, Harry Morgan, Donald Pleasance and Olivia Hussey. The story was continued in “The Rebels” – with Kent engaging in the American Revolution – and the less entertaining, western-set “The Seekers,” though a fetching, young Delta Burke, at least, makes an appearance in this final installment of the “Kent Family Chronicles.”

Long out of print on home video, Acorn brings all three mini-series to DVD in the form of a three-disc box-set. Fans who’ve wanted to see these hard-to-find productions ought to be sufficiently entertained by the hokey backlot production values and actors playing themselves more than the historical figures they’re supposed to embody – but, in this instance, that’s also part of the charm. The 4:3 transfers and mono soundtracks are all adequate across the board. Also new from Acorn this month:

THE STORY OF THE COSTUME DRAMA DVD (225 mins., 2008; Acorn): Lengthy profile of British costume dramas from “Upstairs Downstairs” and “The Forstye Saga” to “I Claudius,” “Jewel in the Crown” and “Horatio Hornblower” ought to satisfy admirers of the stately UK productions, with this five-episode ITV series offering copious film footage and interviews.

JAMES MAY’S 20TH CENTURY DVD (174 mins., 2007-08; Acorn): The “Top Gear” host looks back through the 20th century at various societal innovations in this six-part series with an accompanying three-hour series, “James May’s Big Ideas,” also included in Acorn’s multi-disc set. 16:9 transfers and stereo soundtracks are also included alongside a 12-page viewer’s guide.

BILL MOYERS ON ADDICTION DVD (304 mins., 1998/2003; Acorn): Bill Moyers looks at substance abuse in this acclaimed, five-part PBS series, which Acorn brings to DVD this month with extras including a profile of former addict David Lewis; a 16-page guide with an introduction from Moyers; 4:3 full-screen transfers and stereo soundtracks.

New Mill Creek Releases

Mill Creek’s latest releases are heavy on bargain-priced triple pack DVDs from Buena Vista’s back catalog. Since I’ve reviewed many of these films individually over the years, I urge you to use the Aisle Seat archives for more detailed information on the specific titles. All DVD sets include 16:9 transfers (some of these titles were non-anamorphic in their earlier DVD releases) and Dolby Digital soundtracks, and retail for about $10 (and under) at Amazon and elsewhere.


Also new from Mill Creek are SHARK DIVERS (3 hours), Danny Mauro’s four-part profile of marine scientists and their work with sharks, presented in 1080i with DTS MA soundtracks; EARTH FROM ABOVE (3 hours), a well-meaning but labored documentary from Yann Arthus-Bertrand that offers some nice 1080i HD footage but a lot of environmental preaching; and HE-MAN AND THE MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE: 20 EPISODE COLLECTION (7 hours), a “Best Of” compilation of 20 episodes from seasons one and two of the ‘80s cartoon. Extras include two commentary tracks and a pair of featurettes.

New from BBC

MADAME BOVARY DVD (158 mins., 2012; BBC): Well-mounted adaptation of the Flaubert classic stars Frances O’Connor as Emma Rounault and Hugh Bonneville as the husband/doctor who is unable to fulfill her romantic fantasies. BBC’s DVD includes a profile of Flaubert, a 16:9 transfer and 2.0 stereo soundtrack.

MICHAEL WOOD’S STORY OF ENGLAND DVD (353 mins., 2012; BBC): Michael Wood profiles the village of Kibworth in Leicestershire, from its earliest days living through the Roman occupation through the Black Death, Civil War, Industrial Revolution and WWII. Over 2000 years of British history are examined in this compelling BBC production which hits DVD this month with 16:9 transfers and 2.0 soundtracks.

LAST OF THE SUMMER WINE VINTAGE 1992 DVD (290 mins., 2012; BBC): Long-running British comedy series returns to DVD in a two-disc set featuring its entire 1992 run with the Christmas special “Stop that Castle” also included. 4:3 transfers and stereo soundtracks adorn this new BBC release.

DOCTOR WHO: DEATH TO THE DALEKS DVD (1974, 98 mins., BBC): Two new “Doctor Who” Special Edition DVDs are also on-tap from Warner this month.

In “The Krotons,” Patrick Troughton’s Doctor is trying to put an end to a tyrannical group of Krotons who rule a world of the Gonds. This Robert Holmes arc, which originally ran in late December ‘68 through mid January ‘69, includes commentary with cast/crew members; a 50-minute retrospective on Troughton’s time as the Doctor; an interview with co-star Frazier Hines from 2003; a photo gallery; PDF materials and other extras.

The Jon Pertwee era is represented in “Death to the Daleks,” a 1974 story written by Terry Nation that likewise receives a Special Edition treatment with commentary from director Michael E. Briant, actor Julian Fox and others; a half-hour Making Of; photo gallery; other Dalek extras; and PDF materials all present and accounted for. Both discs include 4:3 transfers and mono soundtracks.


FATHER DOWLING MYSTERIES Season 2 DVD (10 hrs., 1989; CBS): Tom Bosley starred as Father Frank Dowling in this easy-going variation on “Murder, She Wrote,” which paired the wise priest alongside a streetwise nun (Tracy Nelson) as the duo investigated crimes occurring near their Chicago parish. NBC canceled “Father Dowling” after its first season but the series was revived on ABC the following year – those 13 second-season episodes are on-hand in CBS’ second-season DVD set (I can assure you Fox had nothing to do with “Father Dowling”), which offers clean 4:3 transfers, stereo soundtracks and original episode promos.

THE UNTOUCHABLES Season 4, Volume 1 DVD (1963-64, aprx. 11 hours; CBS)
THE UNTOUCHABLES Season 4, Volume 2 DVD (aprx. 13 hours; CBS): Season four of the classic “Untouchables” starring Robert Stack as Eliot Ness hit DVD in two different four-disc sets featuring episodes that “may have been edited” from their broadcast versions and possible music alterations as well.    
TOUCHED BY AN ANGEL - Season 5 DVD (aprx. 21 hours, 1998-99; CBS): One of CBS’ Sunday night staples for many years, season five of “Touched By an Angel” also receives the DVD treatment from CBS this month – the 7-disc set sporting all 27 episodes in 4:3 transfers and stereo soundtracks.

BONANZA - Season 3 DVD (911 mins., CBS): Once again split into two separate volumes (but sold together here), “Bonanza” fans have had to wait a while for the third season of the classic western series to hit DVD – but their patience has been rewarded with a good-looking collection of the show’s third season.

THE GLADES Season 2 DVD (565 mins., 2011; Fox): Matt Passmore is back for a second season of the popular A&E series, one that finds the Chicago cop navigating more Floridian crimes and pursuing a relationship with Callie. Fox’s four-disc set includes all 13 episodes from “The Glades”’ second season with 16:9 transfers, 5.1 soundtracks and a number of extras, including an extended version of “Family Matters,” deleted scenes, commentary on the “Moonlighting” episode, gag reel, and several featuretes. 

EUREKA Season 5 DVD (aprx. 9 hours, 2012; Universal): Fifth and final season of the goofy Syfy Channel series offers guest star bits from Wil Wheaton and Felicia Day, plus the holiday episode “Do You See What I See,” a gag reel, deleted and extended scenes, a behind the scenes look at the episode “Jack of All Trades,” commentary on the final episode, and “A Fond Farewell” to the series for fans from the cast. 16:9 transfers and 5.1 soundtracks are on-hand throughout.

ALPHAS Season 1 DVD (aprx. 8 hours, 2011; Universal): David Strathairn stars in this super-hero police procedural about five powerful individuals who team up to fight crime in this recent, fairly well received Syfy series. Season 1 of “Alphas” offers guest star turns from Lindsay Wagner, Summer Glau and Brent Spiner, with Universal’s DVD set offering the complete Season 1 on DVD in 16:9 transfers and 5.1 soundtracks. Extras include deleted scenes and an extended premiere episode, plus a Q&A with cast and crew members.

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