7/12/11 Edition Twitter: THEAISLESEATCOM


July Mania Edition
Twilight Time's First Limited Blu-Ray Reviewed
Golden Age fans ought to head on over to Screen Archives to pick up Twilight Time’s first limited-edition Blu-Ray: a spectacular high-def presentation of the Fox Cinemascope period drama THE EGYPTIAN (139 mins., 1954), which is limited to 3000 units (and is also available in a separate, limited DVD run).

Those who enjoyed “The Robe” are likely to appreciate this Michael Curtiz-Darryl F. Zanuck production, which isn’t as nearly as satisfying as its predecessor but nevertheless offers the same type of old-fashioned pageantry and entertainment as Edmund Purdom (neither a household name then nor now) becomes a court doctor to the Pharaoh Akhnaton (Michael Wilding), who has turned heads by embracing monotheism. Along the way he meets a variety of characters in ancient Egypt: Peter Ustinov’s faithful one-eyed servant; Victor Mature as his friend and confidant; top-billed Jean Simmons as the “good girl” in love with our hero; Gene Tierney as the Pharoah’s bored sister; Judith Evelyn as their mother; and a miscast Bella Darvi (though at least she looks the part) as a seductress who tries to tempt our hero and who, off-screen, reportedly forced original star Marlon Brando to bow out of the project single-handedly in pre-production.

Based on a novel by Mika Waltari, “The Egyptian” was a spectacularly budgeted film for its time, intended to capitalize on the success of “The Robe” and feed audiences’ newfound desire for sprawling Cinemascope spectacles. It’s a bit of a slog from a narrative standpoint, though, taking a long time to reach its destination and offering alternately solid or embarrassing performances (Purdom isn’t at all bad given his rep, but Darvi most certainly is). The good news is that the cinematography, production design and the majestic Alfred Newman-Bernard Herrmann score will lead most Golden Age fans past its shortcomings, and those aspects have been enhanced immeasurably by Twilight Time’s Blu-Ray edition.

Working from a recent Fox HD master, the 1080p AVC encoded transfer is exceptionally good, deftly replicating the original Cinemascope dimensions without obvious digital processing popping up. The DTS MA audio is likewise robust, while extras include an isolated score track (in DTS MA 2.0) of the rare joint composer collaboration, the trailer, more enlightening booklet notes from Julie Kirgo and running commentary from historians Alain Silver and James Ursini.

Next up from Twilight Time on DVD is the terrific Irvin Kershner rural comedy “The Flim-Flam Man” with George C. Scott, Sue Lyon, Michael Sarrazin and a great Jerry Goldsmith score. Can’t wait!

Coming Next Week

An ‘80s cult classic has reached Blu-Ray at last: Savage Steve Holland's high school comedy BETTER OFF DEAD (***½, 97 mins., 1985, PG; CBS), which I recall being released not once but twice locally in Rhode Island during 1985. The first time was a late August trial run before its eventual October nationwide roll-out, which boasted a different ad campaign (this happened again for no apparent reason years later with "The Lawnmower Man," which opened three weeks ahead of time in the Ocean State than it did around the rest of the nation. For what it’s worth, we were also the only market that received a theatrical run of Larry Cohen’s “A Return to Salem’s Lot” too).

John Cusack netted his first lead role here as Lane Meyer, a typical high schooler who loses the girl of his dreams to an obnoxious jock -- and spends the rest of his life trying to summon the will to go on. Naturally, he does, winning the affection of a beautiful French exchange student trapped with an insane family next door, and attempting to beat the pretty boy ski team captain at his own game.

The plot may sound familiar but Holland -- who wrote and directed the film -- throws in absurdist humor, stop-motion animation, and knowingly satirizes high school in one memorable scene after another. My favorite sequence comes when Cusack is called upon to answer a geometry question in Vincent Schiavelli's class, filled with suck-up geeks who laugh at the teacher's every move (it definitely wasn't hard for me to identify with the young protagonist in this scene -- it's something you've had to have lived through to understand!). Curtis Armstrong is hysterical as Cusack's wacky best friend, Diane Franklin is ideal as the cute French girl, while David Ogden Stiers is great as Cusack's befuddled dad -- the sequences with Cusack and Stiers reacting to mom Kim Darby's Christmas presents is yet another gem in a film filled with smart observations and big laughs.

CBS’ Blu-Ray of “Better Off Dead” looks terrific. There’s a bit of dirt and noise here and there but the image itself is freed from any heavy use of DNR. The movie’s 5.1 DTS MA track seems to have been remixed from a mono source as a lot of it sounds flat, but it’s fine overall, and the original trailer is included. Hopefully Warner will get to a Blu-Ray edition of “One Crazy Summer,” this film’s semi-sequel, sooner than later!   

More late ‘70s/early ‘80s comedy madness is on-tap in a trio of new Blu-Rays from Universal.

Leading the way is FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH (***½, 1982, 90 mins., R, Universal), which finally makes its Blu-Ray debut on August 9th from the studio.

Amy Heckerling and Cameron Crowe’s seminal comedy remains at the pinnacle of the 1980s teen movie craze, boasting memorable lines, a bouncy soundtrack, career-making performances (from Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold, Phoebe Cates plus brief turns from Nicolas Cage, Forest Whittaker and Anthony Edwards among others), and lots of big laughs.

“Fast Times” was previously issued on DVD a few times, most recently in a 2004 Special Edition with copious supplements (commentary, documentary) and DTS sound, and that edition was reprieved on one side of Universal’s HD-DVD combo disc. Several years after that release, we now have a Blu-Ray that utilizes the exact same transfer (VC-1) – and while it has a fair amount of noise (the film was also fairly low-budget and shows), it also offers an appreciable enhancement on the DVD edition, with nice colors and detail. With Phoebe Cates never looking better than she does here coming out of the swimming pool (anyone who knows the movie is familiar with this sequence!), I give the Blu-Ray a passing grade, though it’s disappointing that Heckerling won’t let viewers see the movie’s terrific deleted scenes, which were reinstated for Universal’s syndicated TV airings (and which Crowe himself laments are absent here). Most of the other extras (documentary, trailer) from the prior Special Edition DVD/HD-DVD have at least been brought over, with the addition of an effectively remixed DTS-MA track.

Another HD-DVD conversion, NATIONAL LAMPOON’S ANIMAL HOUSE (***½, 109 mins., 1978, R), arrives on Blu-Ray this week. There’s not a lot to say about John Landis’ ‘70s comedy classic that hasn’t already been written, with the Blu-Ray retaining the majority of its extras from prior releases on DVD and HD-DVD. Unfortunately, though the movie boasts DTS MA audio (for the first time), the 1080p VC-1 encoded transfer is the same as its HD-DVD edition, which wasn't all that outstanding to begin with.

Faring better, thankfully, is the first HD release of John Landis’ THE BLUES BROTHERS (***, 148 mins., 1980, R), which serves up an outstanding AVC encoded 1080p transfer that does full justice to this uneven, often bloated but nevertheless entertaining musical comedy with John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd reprising their SNL characters.

While the disc includes only a standard 5.1 DTS soundtrack, the mix is wonderful, offering a broad soundstage for the rollicking songs and sound effects. Extra features include the older, hour-long DVD documentary on the picture; a 15-minute look at the film’s musical legacy; a brief tribute to Belushi; and the original trailer. Viewers should note that both the movie’s original theatrical cut and its extended, not-quite-“Roadshow” edition are both included here as well, with the latter offering some obvious visual shortcomings when its reinstated footage appears.

For more on the creation of Landis' classic comedies, be sure to check out my 2005 interview with the director here.

New From Shout! Factory

If there’s one thing that Shout! Factory’s splendid new Blu-Ray of the 1977 Fox sci-fi flop DAMNATION ALLEY proves, it’s that even the bad movies of decades past are infinitely more entertaining than today’s cinematic mediocrity. If nothing else, this is a hugely entertaining misfire with one terrific Jerry Goldsmith score.

A troubled production with a reported budget of at least $10 million (a huge chunk of change back in the mid ‘70s), “Damnation Alley” was at one time viewed by its studio as having brighter box-office prospects than another, less expensive film they had in their pipeline: “Star Wars.” George Peppard, Jan-Michael Vincent and Paul Winfield play Air Force officers living in a bunker after the apocalypse, where the Earth’s axis has tilted, causing giant scorpions to roam the deserts and our heroes to drive around in a massive “Landmaster” (a cross between the Jawa Sandcrawler and a Winnebago), trying to find any survivors.

Alan Sharp and Lukas Heller adapted a novel by Roger Zelazny for Jack Smight’s film, which is only 91 minutes long and shows obvious evidence of post-production tinkering – including an appearance by an uncredited Murray Hamilton, seen in a few shots but uttering not one word of dialogue at the film’s beginning (apparently Mayor Vaughn’s role ended up almost completely on the cutting room floor).

You can’t help but think trying to speed the movie along wasn’t a bad idea, however, since even in the finished film nothing happens until 15 minutes in, when Peppard and Vincent finally set out on the wasteland to find survivors Dominique Sanda (of “Caboblanco” non-fame) and Jackie Earle Haley, the young thesp coming off his “Bad News Bears” triumph the previous year. A hilarious run-in with killer cockroaches, some hugely uneven optical effects, and a rousing finale (complete with a gorgeous Goldsmith climactic cue) end up making for a delectable, dated ‘70s genre brew for cult movie aficionados.

Shout! Factory has brought “Damnation Alley” to Blu-Ray (and DVD) this month in a simply sublime package. The AVC encoded 1080p transfer preserves the film’s erratic visual appearance without any kind of digital noise reduction – making for a satisfyingly unadulterated transfer that looks like real film, warts and all (and there a lot of those given the ramshackle nature of the optical effects). The audio is surprisingly robust, presented in 7.1 uncompressed PCM and 6.1 DTS-MA; whether this has been derived from the movie’s original “Sound 360" track or was remixed for this presentation, I’m not sure, but it’s quite well done.

Extra features add even more enjoyment to the film. Producer Paul Maslansky’s audio commentary is highly interesting, with Maslansky talking about the film’s shortcomings and revealing all kinds of behind the scenes anecdotes (Maslansky discusses how Goldsmith agreed with him that there didn’t need to be music over the nuclear bomb detonation; he also believes that Goldsmith’s music was deserving of an Oscar nomination). There are also 10-15 minute, separate interviews with writer Alan Sharp as well as producer Jerome Zeitman, along with a look at the Landmaster with stunt coordinator-car designer Dean Jefferies. A trailer and brief TV spot round out another marvelous Shout! release.       

BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS (**, 104 mins., 1980, PG), meanwhile, serves up one of Roger Corman’s bigger box-office hits: a blatant “Star Wars” rip-off that uses the “Seven Samurai” to set up its tale of dashing intergalactic hero Richard Thomas scouring the galaxy to find a motley crew (Robert Vaugh, George Peppard among them) to help save his planet from vile John Saxon.

James Horner scored the film, James Cameron co-designed the production and John Sayles wrote the script – but “Battle” isn’t as much fun as other New World productions of the era (“Piranha,” etc.), as its prolonged running time is salvaged mainly by some seriously competent special effects (later recycled in seemingly dozens of other Corman films) and a few fun performances.

Shout’s Blu-Ray of “Battle” looks terrific, as all of their other BD offerings have – the unadulterated 1080p transfer is dynamic, while the DTS MA audio strongly backs Horner’s score. Extra features include commentaries from Sayles and Corman, plus another track with production manager (and future Cameron associate) Gale Anne Hurd; an insightful new conversation with Richard Thomas; trailers and radio spots; and a look at the film’s physical production featuring many effects/make-up gurus (Robert and Dennis Skotak, Alec Gillis and others).

New on DVD from Shout! is the 1985 Concorde Pictures (Roger Corman) production STREETWALKIN’ (84 mins., R), one of the earliest films for “Fighter” Oscar winner Melissa Leo as a teen runaway who runs into pimp Dale Midkiff in NYC and learns the hard life of a prostitute in Joan Freeman’s film, co-starring Antonio Fargas, Julie Newmar, and Khandi Alexander. The DVD includes a new 16:9 (1.78) transfer with commentary from Freeman and her co-writer/producer Robert Alden.

OBLIVION, meanwhile, is a 1994 direct-to-video alien/western production from the waning days of Charles Band’s Full Moon Entertainment. The cult casting offers everyone from Julie Newmar to George Takei, Carel Struycken, Meg Foster and Andrew Divoff in a watchable, low-grade affair with a decent score by Pino Donaggio. Shout’s DVD includes a 4:3 full-screen transfer and stereo sound of the 94-minute, PG-13 film.
Finally, MST3K fans can rejoice over the release of Shout’s new limited-edition MST3K VS. GAMERA box-set, which includes the hilarious five episodes devoted to Godzilla’s competition back in Japan during the ‘60s. “Gamera,” “Gamera Vs. Barugon,” “Gamera Vs. Gaos,” “Gamera Vs. Guron,” and “Gamera Vs. Zigra” all offer an abundance of laughs with Joel and the gang, with extra features including a retrospective look back at the episodes; a Gamera history from kaiju authority August Ragone; Japanese trailers; MST Hour wraps; and five mini-posters from artist Steve Vance. It’s all housed in a sleek hardcover, limited-edition tin that’s a must for MSTies.

Also New on Blu-Ray

LIMITLESS Blu-Ray/Digital Copy (**½, 104 mins., 2011, Unrated/PG-13; Fox): Box-office hit from this past spring stars Bradley Cooper as a down-on-his-luck writer whose chance run-in with his ex-wife’s brother turns him onto a new super-drug that enhances his mental abilities. Not only does it help Cooper finish his new novel and learn an abundance of languages, but it gets him in hot water with a high-powered businessman (Robert DeNiro) once he breaks into the world of stock trading.

Neil Burger’s film starts off quite entertainingly with Cooper effortlessly carrying the picture as his brain expands to its full potential. Burger changes the film’s color scheme to reflect Cooper’s state of mind, shifting from drab, washed-out hues to primary colors in an interesting visual presentation. Once the movie digs in with its “thriller” plot, though, “Limitless” bogs down with a story that’s not nearly as engaging, and the ending fizzles out as a result.

Nevertheless, “Limitless” is moderately entertaining for a good chunk of its running time, and Fox’s Blu-Ray boasts a highly satisfying 1080p AVC encoded transfer with DTS MA audio. Extras include an Unrated cut of the movie, digital copy, an alternate ending, commentary from Burger, and the standard Making Of featurettes.

TAKE ME HOME TONIGHT Blu-Ray/Digital Copy (**½, 97 mins., 2011, R; Fox): Long-delayed Topher Grace comedy (the film was completed in 2007) finally got off the shelf just in time for a token theatrical release last spring. In spite of its pedigree, “Take Me Home Tonight” is a reasonably funny ‘80s comedy with Grace starring as an MIT graduate relegated to Suncoast Video employment after college. Just as his more popular sister (Anna Faris) toys with the idea of grad school and his best friend (Dan Fogler) ends up being fired from his car salesman job, Grace ends up meeting his high school crush (Teresa Palmer) and attempts to woo her during one big, final party at the home of Faris’ obnoxious boyfriend.

The first half of “Take Me Home Tonight” offers a number of laughs, many provided by Fogler as Grace’s highly intoxicated buddy, and the entire film doesn’t wallow in ‘80s nostalgia the way some of its contemporaries have – the picture may be set during the decade, but there aren’t any joke cameos or references thrown in just for the sake of appealing to those who grew up during the decade. In this regard, the film is substantially more satisfying than the recent “Hot Tub Time Machine,” though the laughs – and the fun – die down during a lackluster final third, which dampens the entertainment considerably.

Fox’s Blu-Ray disc looks and sounds just fine (1080p AVC encoded transfer; 5.1 DTS MA audio) with slight extras including a few minutes of deleted scenes (in HD), a brief featurette, trailers, a digital copy, and the ability to jump right to scenes where a handful of ‘80s pop tunes appear.

BOYZ N THE HOOD Blu-Ray (***½, 112 mins., 1991, R; Sony): John Singleton’s breakthrough film receives a top-notch Blu-Ray release from Sony.

“Boyz N The Hood” remains a powerful statement about violence and the harsh conditions of South Central L.A. – and the effect it has on young people impacted by its social and economic realities. Uniformly outstanding performances from Larry Fishburne, Ice Cube, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Morris Chestnut, Angela Bassett, Nia Long, and Regina King punctuate Singleton’s realistic, heartbreaking picture, which rode the crest of the early ‘90s “New Black Cinema” and has, at least for me, held up far better than many of Spike Lee’s “Joints” from the same era. This is a durable, still-relevant, honestly-made film with no easy answers to back its many questions.

Sony’s Blu-Ray disc of “Boyz N The Hood” looks great considering the film’s age and modest nature of its production. Colors, contrasts and sharpness levels are all top notch. The DTS MA audio is fine, while the disc includes not just previously released extras (commentary from Singleton, deleted scenes, audition tapes, music videos and a documentary) but also a BD exclusive extra “The Enduring Significance of ‘Boyz N The Hood’.” Recommended!       

JUMPING THE BROOM Blu-Ray (***, 112 mins., 2011, PG-13; Sony): Breezy, likeable romantic comedy-drama follows the trials and tribulations of two African-American families from different backgrounds – one a wealthy clan from Martha’s Vineyard, the other a blue-collar group from Brooklyn – who come together for the wedding of Paula Patton and Laz Alonso.

Shot mostly in Nova Scotia (doubling for the Vineyard), “Jumping the Broom” is an amiable film with engaging performances turned in by the likes of Angela Bassett (as the MV matriarch) and Loretta Divine, who spar over their offspring’s wedding plans in a movie that’s predictable and yet populated by contrasting characters who keep you entertained. Elizabeth Hunter and Arlene Gibbs’ script is developed enough by director Salim Akil to allow the cast to generate believable chemistry with one another, and it all goes down as nice and easy as a cooling afternoon sea breeze – especially if you need a date movie to off-set the amount of times you’ve taken your significant other to a super-hero flick this summer (yes, I am speaking from personal experience).

Sony’s Blu-Ray, out August 9th, includes a fine 1080p AVC encoded transfer, 5.1 DTS MA soundtrack, and extras including a pair of behind-the-scenes featurettes and a director/cast commentary.

LEON MORIN, PRIEST Blu-Ray (117 mins., 1961; Criterion): Jean-Paul Belmondo plays a priest in a small French village during the Nazi occupation in this 1961 Jean-Pierre Melville drama. Marked by stark black-and-white cinematography by Henri Decae, “Leon Morin” finds a group of women lusting after Belmondo’s man of the cloth, but it’s Emmanuelle Riva’s communist widow who is ultimately drawn to him – initially renouncing religion, but then discussing theology with Belmondo and converting to Catholicism in a talky yet compelling film that offers interesting performances and a sincere discussion of personal beliefs.

Criterion’s Blu-Ray includes a selected-scene commentary from historian Ginette Vincendeau; deleted scenes; a 1961 French television interview with Melville and Belmondo; the trailer; Criterion’s customary booklet notes and improved English subtitles. The 1.66 AVC encoded 1080p transfer is tremendous, capturing all of Decae’s work brilliantly in a highly detailed transfer.

Also new this week from Criterion is a Blu-Ray edition of Todd Solondz’s latest film, LIFE DURING WARTIME (97 mins., 2010), intended as a follow-up to the director’s 1998 film “Happiness,” but with a different cast (Shirley Henderson, Allison Janney and Ally Sheedy as divergent sisters; Ciaran Hinds as a pedophile and Janney’s incarcerated husband). I’ve never been a huge fan of Solondz so it’s safe to say that his devotees will get the most mileage out of “Life During Wartime,” which arrives on Blu-Ray in a 1080p AVC encoded transfer supervised by DP Ed Lachman. Extras include an audio Q&A with Solondz; a documentary about the making of the film; interviews with Lachman; the trailer; and booklet commentary from critic David Sterritt.

New From BBC

DOCTOR WHO - SERIES SIX, PART 1 Blu-Ray (310 mins., 2011; BBC/Warner): The latest seven episodes of the BBC’s time-and-space-bending hero introduces Matt Smith as the latest incarnation of the good doctor.

Smith has been generally greeted with enthusiasm by Dr. Who fans, though there’s a bit of unevenness to his inaugural episodes on-hand here -- “The Impossible Astronaut,” “Day to the Moon,” “The Curse of the Black Spot,” “The Doctor’s Wife,” “The Rebel Flesh,” “The Almost People,” and “A Good Man Goes to War,” the latter setting the table for new episodes coming this fall on BBC America.

BBC’s Blu-Ray edition of “Dr. Who - Series Six, Part 1" ought to satisfy Dr. Who’s hardcore fans as well as those who want to catch up on the program before it returns later this year. Many viewers, however, may opt to wait for the inevitable complete Series Six box-set, since this barebones package offers no extras – just satisfying 1080i transfers, DTS HD soundtracks and “Monster Files” that are included in the two-disc BBC set.

More vintage Dr. Who DVD goodness, meanwhile, is upcoming from BBC on August 9th:

THE SUN MAKERS offers a Tom Baker arc with the TARDIS landing on Pluto where human residents are exploited, taxed and abused by the nefarious Company. This 1977 Baker story includes a number of wonderful extras for Dr. Who fans: commentary from Baker and others; a 25-minute documentary; the second part of a profile on composer Dudley Simpson; outtakes; a photo gallery; and PDF materials.

PARADISE TOWERS, meanwhile, offers a similar theme involving a utopian community that isn’t quite all it’s cracked up to be. This later Sylvester McCoy arc from 1987 gives viewers the ability to watch the 97-minute compilation with an alternate, unused music score; ten minutes of deleted scenes; commentary; PDF materials; a 20-minute featurette on the Dr. Who “Girls” of the Eighties; and a 34-minute look at the episode.

ZEN: Vendetta, Cabal, Ratking Blu-Ray (265 mins., 2011; BBC): Top-notch new BBC mystery series, which aired recently as part of PBS’ “Masterpiece” (Theater), stars Rufus Sewell as Italian detective Aurelio Zen. This trio of tales adapted from Michael Dibdin’s books includes “Vendetta,” “Cabal” and “Ratking,” each presented in 1080i transfers and 2.0 stereo soundtracks. Extras include a behind-the-scenes featurette.

New on DVD and Blu-Ray
EASTBOUND AND DOWN - Season 2 Blu-Ray (210 mins., 2011; HBO): Jody Hill, Danny McBride and Ben Best’s HBO comedy series stars McBride as a baseball star whose time has come and gone, but still harbors hopes of a comeback. Here, McBride’s Kenny Powers seeks solace south of the border in Season 2, where he hooks up with a local nightclub singer (Ana de la Reguera) and tries to put the pieces of his career back together – while being, of course, his own worst enemy.

Season one of “Eastbound and Down” was acclaimed by most critics but was, for the most part, best appreciated by McBride fans. Season two goes one step further in that direction, with more scattershot laughs and plot developments – despite appearances by Matthew McConaughey and John Hawkes (as McBride’s brother), “Eastbound” Season 2 is highly uneven, ending on a cliffhanger for a third season that hopefully will be more cohesive than this one.

HBO’s Blu-Ray edition of the show’s second season includes good-looking 1080p transfers, DTS MA soundtracks, deleted scenes, outtakes, episode commentaries and two featurettes.

Also new from HBO is Tracy Morgan’s BLACK AND BLUE (60 mins., 2011) stand-up special, offering the comedian riffing on a number of hot-button topics. Morgan’s shtick can be funny in small doses but this special is likely best left for his fans. HBO’s DVD includes a 16:9 transfer and 15 additional minutes of bonus footage.

JESSE STONE: INNOCENTS LOST DVD (91 mins., 2011; Sony): Tom Selleck’s latest turn as ex-cop Jesse Stone starts off on a maudlin note as a teenage girl and friend of Jesse’s is found dead. Out of work, Stone turns to the Boston police department for assistance and gets roped into another murder-homicide case – while running into numerous familiar faces from prior entries in Selleck’s adaptations of Robert B. Parker’s literary character (Kathy Baker, Kohjl Sudduth, William Sadler, Saul Rubinek and William Devane among them).

Selleck and Michael Brandman wrote and produced “Innocents Lost,” which for devotees of the Jesse Stone films ranks as another solid entry in what’s become a dependable franchise for its star – remarkable at a time when network TV movies are fast becoming extinct. Sony’s DVD includes a satisfying 16:9 (1.85) transfer and 5.1 soundtrack.

Also new from Sony is the highly engaging documentary EXPORTING RAYMOND (85 mins., 2011, PG), a profile of “Everybody Loves Raymond” creator Phil Rosenthal’s travels to Russia where he attempts to adapt his long-running CBS sitcom for Russian television. Revealing and funny, this is a truly unique documentary arriving on DVD in a Special Edition offering commentary from Rosenthal, deleted scenes, the trailer, and comparisons between the domestic “Raymond” and its Soviet counterpart, “Everyone Loves Kostya.” The 16:9 (1.78) transfer and 5.1 soundtrack are both just fine.

Blu-Ray Releases from MGM/Fox

Both MGM/Fox and Lionsgate have dipped into the well for a number of low-cost Blu-Ray catalog titles (these were exclusive to Target for a time earlier this year). Here’s a brief rundown:
THE CUTTING EDGE Blu-Ray (***½, 97 mins., 1992 PG; MGM/Fox): Tony Gilroy’s delightful romantic comedy remains a classic of its kind with the 1992 film – which stars Moira Kelly as a figure skater in need of a new pairs partner and D.B. Sweeney as the former hockey star who finds skating to be a bit more difficult than he anticipated – having aged quite well over the years. MGM’s AVC-encoded 1080p transfer is satisfyingly free of DNR and looks quite satisfying on balance; the DTS MA 2.0 stereo audio is just fine too. Extras include the trailer and a 10-minute retrospective produced for the last DVD release.

FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL Blu-Ray (***, 118 mins., 1994, R; MGM/Fox): Mike Newell and Richard Curtis’ romantic-comedy was a sleeper hit at the box-office in ‘94. These days it gets by due to the chemistry between Hugh Grant and Andie MacDowell, with Rowan Atkinson providing laughs as a hapless preacher. MGM’s Blu-Ray includes all the extras from prior releases (commentary, deleted scenes, a featurette, documentary) plus a satisfying, if not spectacular, 1080p AVC encoded transfer with 5.1 DTS MA audio.

HONEYMOON IN VEGAS Blu-Ray (**, 96 mins., 1992, PG-13; MGM/Fox): Andrew Bergman was on a roll for a while making well-received comedies like “The Freshman” until he stalled out with this entirely disposable rom-com with Nicolas Cage following girlfriend Sarah Jessica Parker to Hawaii where she ends up the prize in a poker game won by mobster James Caan (commanding top billing for one of the final times). Nothing in this 1992 Castle Rock comedy comes together, with the farce feeling labored at every turn – when even David Newman’s “manic” score is grating, you know you’re in for a bumpy ride. Perhaps expectedly, MGM’s AVC encoded 1080p transfer is the worst in this batch of catalog Blu-Rays, offering an ugly, soft appearance that barely looks better than DVD. You’ve been properly warned!

OVERBOARD Blu-Ray (***, 112 mins., 1987, PG; MGM/Fox): Kurt and Goldie’s Christmas ‘87 comedy did moderately well at the box-office in its day, but it was the endless showings on cable TV that solidified Garry Marshall’s “Overboard” as a fan favorite. MGM’s Blu-Ray boasts no extras, but the 1080p AVC encoded transfer is decent, offering enough detail to make it an upgrade over the DVD.

DONNIE DARKO: 10th Anniversary Blu-Ray (**, 132 mins., 2004, R; Fox): Some cult movie fans have turned Richard Kelly’s indie fave into a full-blown phenomenon, though my viewing of the “Director’s Cut” of “Donnie Darko” only confirmed my hesitation towards Kelly’s original theatrical version: namely, what’s the deal? This intentionally weird jigsaw puzzle of a film -- complete with ‘80s tunes, pop culture references and a giant rabbit -- gives you so little to go on that it’s not even up to sub-Lynchian standards, though some critics have already proclaimed it a masterpiece so judge for yourself. Fox’s new, four-disc box-set is really just a repackaging of its prior Blu-Ray Special Edition with a standard DVD edition and digital copy this time included in the bundle. This means the set includes both the longer version of the film (which fleshes out the story more than the theatrical version) as well as the original cut, plus commentaries from Kelly and Kevin Smith, Kelly and star Jake Gyllenhaal, and yet a third track with assorted cast and crew members, plus on a second standard-def disc, a production diary, additional featurettes and the Director’s Cut trailer. The AVC encoded transfer may be acceptable but it’s far from spectacular, suggesting that the film’s cinematography and murky look don’t take all that well to the benefits of HD, while the limp DTS Master Audio sound only sporadically makes you take notice of its presence.

DYLAN DOG: DEAD OF NIGHT Blu-Ray (**, 108 mins., 2011, PG-13; Fox): Barely-released adaptation of an international comic from Tiziano Sclavi offers Brandon Routh as a supernatural detective who joins with partner Sam Huntington to solve a number of crimes involving werewolves, zombies and vampires, who populate the world of the living in this forgettable indie film from director Kevin Munroe. Fox’s Blu-Ray includes a 1080p AVC encoded transfer, 5.1 DTS MA soundtrack and nothing in the way of extras.

BURN NOTICE: THE FALL OF SAM AXE Blu-Ray (89 mins., 2011; Fox): One-shot TV-movie chronicles "Burn Notice"'s Sam Axe's final mission as a Navy SEAL. Bruce Campbell is great as Sam, but this extended cut of the USA movie is only intermittently entertaining. Fox's Blu-Ray includes deleted scenes, commentary and a featurette, plus a 1080p AVC encoded transfer and 5.1 DTS MA soundtrack.

New From Lionsgate

CHOCOLAT Blu-Ray (***½, 122 mins., 2000, PG-13; Lionsgate): A pleasant, enjoyable fairy tale with gypsy Juliette Binoche transforming a repressed French village into a town of free-thinkers during Lent in the late '50s. Alfred Molina, Judi Dench, Lena Olin, and Johnny Depp lend able support to this Lasse Hallstrom-directed, Robert Nelson Jacobs-scripted adaptation of the Joanne Harris novel, a critical and commercial darling that garnered a fistful of Oscar nominations in 2001. Rachel Portman's catchy score and Roger Pratt's expert lensing all contribute to a classy production that's as delectable as its title. Lionsgate’s Blu-Ray boasts a healthy AVC-encoded 1080p transfer, 5.1 DTS MA audio, and extras from the prior DVD including commentary, deleted scenes and several featurettes.

BRIDGET JONES'S DIARY (***½, 94 mins., 2001, R; Lionsgate): This charming 2001 adaptation of Helen Fielding's novel with Renee Zellweger, Colin Firth and Hugh Grant was immeasurably more entertaining than its lame follow-up “Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason.” Lionsgate’s Blu-Ray basically offers a HD edition of its second DVD release, which included then-new featurettes "The Bridget Phenomenon," "The Young and the Mateless," and “Portrait of the Makeup Artist.” Supplements retained from the original DVD, meanwhile, include commentary with director Sharon Maguire, a behind-the-scenes featurette, deleted scenes and a fine AVC encoded 1080p transfer with DTS MA audio.

THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PAJAMAS Blu-Ray (**½, 94 mins., 2008, PG-13; Lionsgate): Adaptation of John Boyne’s book about a young boy who befriends a Jew on the other side of a concentration camp fence is well-acted and produced, with a mostly subdued James Horner score. However, the quasi-fairy tale tone of writer-director Mark Herman’s adaptation makes for an odd film-going experience with a bleak ending that makes it best left for older children with parental supervision. The messages are commendable but as a movie it’s not entirely satisfying. Lionsgate’s Blu-Ray includes deleted scenes, commentary and a Making Of featurette, plus a fine AVC encoded 1080p transfer with DTS MA audio.

AMELIE Blu-Ray (***½, 122 mins., 2001, R; Miramax): French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jeunet abandoned his nightmarish visions from "The City of Lost Children" and "Alien: Resurrection" for a kinder, gentler fantasy that smashed box-office records in its home country and garnered critical acclaim around the world. From its opening, offbeat scenes of young Amelie growing up to the satisfying conclusion, “Amelie” is a light and airy -- and visually beautiful -- film that boasts one alternately hilarious or heartwarming scene after another. Audrey Tautou's charming lead performance sustains the tone for the Jeunet-Guillaume Laurant script to operate on, with excellent performances turned in by a terrific cast.       

“Amelie”’s Blu-Ray looks dazzling, enhancing the cinematography and art direction throughout. Lionsgate’s HD package also seems to include most of the extras from the old Miramax two-disc DVD edition, which sported audio commentary (in both English and French) by Jeunet, a handful of featurettes spotlighting everything from cast auditions to how the picture's look was achieved, two lengthy interviews with the director, a Q&A session with the cast, storyboards, production stills, trailers and TV spots for both domestic and international releases, and more. Yann Tiersen's flavorful score is also served well in the disc’s DTS MA soundtrack.

SPY KIDS Blu-Ray (***, 91 mins., 2001, PG; Lionsgate)
SPY KIDS 2 Blu-Ray (***, 100 mins., 2002, PG; Lionsgate)
SPY KIDS 3: GAME OVER Blu-Ray (**, 83 mins., 2003, PG; Lionsgate): How can you not like a movie with Alan Cumming playing a Willy Wonka for the multimedia generation, Teri Hatcher as a bald villainess, a mix of music by the varied likes of Danny Elfman and Los Lobos, and director Robert Rodriguez perfecting his always-flamboyant visual style in a clean, PG-rated James Bond movie for kids? This charming, goofy, off-the-wall 2003 adventure -- a major box- office hit in the U.S. -- is both familiar and fresh, thanks to colorful cinematography and a dash of imagination on Rodriguez's part, two things commonly not found in most modern children's pictures.

Robert Rodriguez's fast-paced original film felt like a breath of fresh air in the family movie genre, and he carried it over to an entertaining, immediate follow-up in 2002. Despite “Spy Kids 2” being overlong, there’s more action, more characters, and more effects in this follow-up, which -- like its predecessor -- also avoids the temptation to preachify and turn the adventure into a bloated Afterschool Special. Steve Buscemi is terrific as the insane, befuddled genius at the heart of the sequel, while Ricardo Montalban makes an appearance as Grandpa.

Regrettably, the third time wasn’t the charm in 2003's “Spy Kids 3.” Despite earning the most cash at the box-office, with adult stars like Antonio Banderas and Carla Gugino relegated to cameo status here (despite their top billing), this sequel focuses on the adventures of ex-kid secret agent Juni Cortez (Daryl Sabara), who is lured back into the fold when his sister (Alexa Vega, who doesn't appear until the 50-minute mark herself) goes missing while investigating a new video game designed by an insane toy manufacturer (Sylvester Stallone). It turns out that Sly wants to take over the minds of his juvenile game players, and only Juni and grandfather Ricardo Montalban stand in the way of his plan.

With an abbreviated running time but nowhere near the energy or inventiveness of its predecessors, this effects-laden fantasy was one of the first 3-D offerings of the last decade (a dubious distinction indeed), and comes across as charmless compared to its predecessors.

Lionsgate brings the entire run of “Spy Kids” films to Blu-Ray this August, in time for the release of the fourth film in the franchise. 1080p transfers and 5.1 DTS MA soundtracks are uniformly fine, and the discs all reprieve the supplements from their respective DVD editions. Digital copies are also included.

New From Echo Bridge

VENOM (**, 85 mins., 2005, R; Echo Bridge): Director Jim Gillespie nabbed a taste of success with “I Know What You Did Last Summer” but had the misfortune of helming two subsequent projects that were essentially bypassed by their studios: the ill-fated (and under-rated) Sylvester Stallone thriller “D-Tox” was sold off by Universal and went straight to video in the U.S. (under the hideous title “Eye See You”), while the would-be horror franchise origin “Venom” was dumped by Miramax as part of their Weinstein fire-sale in 2005. Making matters worse, this Louisiana swamp romp came out just days after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Southwest, leading to hostile critical notices that seemed to be harsher than they needed to be.

Truth be told, “Venom” is a stylishly-shot and efficient teen horror flick, no worse than most of the genre junk being cranked out these days (at least it’s better than the “Jeepers Creepers” movies). Gillespie and producer Kevin Williamson (“Dawson’s Creek”) had hoped to launch a new genre villain with this picture -- a town outcast who turns into an unstoppable monster after a baker’s dozen crate of snakes with evil spirits invades his body via a local voodoo ritual.

Alas, their efforts were squashed by bad timing and a bland script, credited to video game scribes Flint Dille and John Zuir Platten, who originated this story as a game (dubbed “Backwater”) that has yet to see the light of day. Save for attractive Agnes Bruckner, the kids are interchangeable parts who serve only to get picked off one-by-one by the Voodoo Man, and there’s little dramatic development since the movie hits its end credits by the 80 minute mark.

Still, “Venom” offers solid special effects and atmospheric Bayou locales, well-shot by Steve Mason and directed by Gillespie, who seems to deserve better than helming material like this. That being said, genre addicts could still do a lot worse than to check it out.

Echo Bridge’s Blu-Ray is a step-up from some of their past Miramax catalog releases, because the 1080p transfer is at least solid (albeit offered not in 2.35 but a 1.78 ratio preserving the full Super 35 frame) and the audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital. The unremarkable but competent score by James L. Venable is one of those “Themes by John Debney” deals; special features are even carried over from the DVD and include cast audition tapes, a Making Of featurette that details the movie’s origins as a video game, and storyboard comparisons.

Also upcoming from Echo Bridge:

THE LOOKOUT: Blu Ray (**½, 99 mins., 2006, R; Echo Bridge): Long-time, acclaimed screenwriter Scott Frank made his directorial debut with this well-reviewed (though little-distributed) heist tale that gave former "Third Rock" star Joseph Gordon-Levitt one of his first "adult" roles.

Gordon-Levitt plays a one-time aspiring hockey player whose career is cut short in an accident, leading him to take a job at a bank....where a former friend comes calling, wanting him to aid in a robbery of his new employer. Well-acted and directed, "The Lookout" is tense and involving, but Frank's story ultimately unravels with a few holes that, in the end, make little sense (I won't go into spoilers here but not all the elements ultimately click); nevertheless, Gordon-Levitt's understated performance is worth seeing, as is "The Lookout" on balance.

Echo Bridge’s Blu-Ray is a step down from Buena Vista’s prior, out of print BD, which contained an uncompressed soundtrack and a 2.35 1080p transfer. EB’s BD is 1.78 (shot in Super 35, so the aspect ratio opens up on the top and bottom of the frame) and only 2.0 Dolby Digital. Extras are the same (featurettes, commentary).

DEAD MAN Blu-Ray (**½, 121 mins., 1995, R; Echo Bridge): Johnny Depp stars in Jim Jarmusch’s stylized B&W western; Echo Bridge’s BD of this 1995 cult offering sports a 1080p 1.78 transfer with 2.0 Dolby Stereo audio and extras including deleted scenes and a music video.

PROPHECY 3: THE ASCENT Blu-Ray (84 mins., 2000, R; Echo Bridge): Third entry in the apocalyptic horror series with Christopher Walken receives a no-frills BD from Echo Bridge, serving up a 1080i transfer (1.85) with 5.1 Dolby Digital audio and no extras.

TWIN DRAGONS Blu-Ray (89 mins., 1999, PG-13; Echo Bridge): Jackie Chan plays twins in this Tsui Hark-Ringo Lam offering plenty of martial arts action and a running time reduced from its HK source material. The good news, at least, is that Echo Bridge’s BD includes a full 1080i (2.35) transfer with 2.0 stereo sound and a Chan interview as a bonus feature.

NEXT TIME: A cinematic rundown of Summer '11 releases! 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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