7/29/08 Edition -- The AISLE SEAT BLOG Is Also Live

High-Def Wrap Up
Jack Ryan, Starship Troopers hit Blu-Ray

It's become easier over the years to share one's guilt for counting STARSHIP TROOPERS (****, 130 mins., 1997, R) as a personal favorite.

Paul Verhoeven's gleefully entertaining 1997 gung-ho sci-fi epic offers so much in the way of entertainment -- from spectacular effects and action to big satirical laughs and an attractive (if intentionally bland) cast -- that you can easily overlook the movie's strained attempts at being ironic. From Basil Poledouris' rousing score down to the movie's tense finale, the movie has always held the potential for being a cult classic, even if its initial box-office performance turned out to be lackluster.

One of the first DVDs that truly took advantage of the medium's potential, “Starship Troopers”’ 1998 release offered deleted scenes, featurettes, screen tests, and Verhoeven's commentary. This new Blu-Ray effort from Sony ups the ante with new features o'plenty – mostly from the 2002 Special Edition DVD re-issue -- and a superlative AVC encoded transfer backed by a rollicking Dolby TrueHD soundtrack.

Even if the 30-minute documentary from Automat Pictures (produced for the 2002 release) disappointingly turns out to be a forum for Verhoeven's wild rants about Nazism, totalitarianism, dictatorships, and the futuristic government that Robert A. Heinlein's original novel contained (in short, it accentuates everything some viewers didn't like about the film to begin with), the extras are terrific. A new picture-in-picture track includes additional “pop up” interviews with the cast and crew, while additional Blu-Ray Live features will be enabled around the time of the disc’s August 5th release.

Supplements ported over from prior DVDs are also in abudance: deleted scenes, screen tests, storyboard comparisons, vintage Making Of materials and more make for a fine presentation all around, while the HD transfer (in 1.85) appears just a bit crisper and more satisfying than even an international Blu-Ray disc Buena Vista issued overseas (which featured a PCM soundtrack and extras from the 1998 DVD release). The lone disappointment is somewhat of a major one, however: the isolated score track with comments from composer Basil Poledouris has not been retained on the Blu-Ray disc, making this yet another high-def release that fails to carry over its music-only content. A shame.

Otherwise, Sony’s effort here is packed with content, looks great and sounds dynamic: “Starship Troopers” is best enjoyed without thinking about it too much, and just on the level of a huge, sprawling sci-fi film that satirically mocks WWII propaganda, it still works tremendously well.

Also coming on Blu-Ray on August 5th is the horrid 2004 made-for-video sequel “Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation” as well as the debut of the all-new STARSHIP TROOPERS 3: MARAUDER (**, 105 mins., 2008, R; Sony).

This small-screen affair is a substantial improvement on its immediate predecessor, at least, with Casper Van Dien returning as Johnny Rico, now a colonel fighting the vile bugs while a group of soldiers -- including the lovely Jolene Blalock, who looks great with or without her Vulcan ears -- struggle to survive with the bugs surrounding them on a remote planet.

Much closer in tone to the original movie than “Starship Troopers 2,” “Marauder” tries valiantly to mix in humor, satire, action and effects, yet it can’t quite shake its small-screen origins. Ed Neumeier, who penned both the first movie and “Hero of the Federation,” this time wrote and directed this occasionally amusing sci-fi adventure, which loses its way with its oddball commentary on religion, which essentially comprises the later stages of the action. The claustrophobic look of the picture doesn’t help either, with a bland visual design recalling the second movie more than the original at least in that regard.

Still, die-hard “Starship Troopers” fans ought to appreciate the tone of “Marauder,” which at least fits the bill as an adequate rental. It’s not particularly effective yet it doesn’t embarrass itself either.

Sony’s Blu-Ray release looks splendid with its AVC transfer and Dolby TrueHD audio, the movie offering a routine Klaus Badelt score that’s no substitute for Basil Poledouris’ original soundtrack (or even the Stromberg/Morgan score from the second film). Extras include two commentaries, picture-in-picture interviews, bonus featurettes and more.

Coming from Paramount this week is the Blu-Ray package of THE JACK RYAN COLLECTION, an eagerly awaited release for fans since last summer’s HD-DVD editions were delayed at the last minute (never to be formally re-issued) due to mis-marked specs on the packaging. Though the HD-DVDs have become quite the collector’s items in recent months, in truth the discs were disappointments due to that lack of extra content -- supplements that had been promised on the packaging failed to materialize on the discs themselves.

Paramount’s new Blu-Ray discs rectify the situation, porting over the relatively recent Making Of featurettes, trailers and occasional commentaries from the last DVD editions, in addition to reprieving the HD-DVD’s transfers and Dolby TrueHD soundtracks.

The first and finest of the Ryan series is John McTiernan’s 1990 blockbuster THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER (***½, 135 mins., PG-13), offering Sean Connery as Russian submarine captain Marko Ramius, wanting to defect to American waters and Alec Baldwin as CIA analyst Jack Ryan, understanding Ramius’ motives and trying to prevent a nuclear catastrophe from occurring once his superiors (as well as Ramius’ Russian counterparts) conclude that the “Red October” has actually been sent to attack the U.S.

An amazing supporting cast (Tim Curry, Peter Firth, Scott Glenn, James Earl Jones, Jeffrey Jones, Sam Neill, Joss Ackland, Stellan Skarsgard, and Richard Jordan) ably supports Connery (in one of his finest roles) and Baldwin, who fills the shoes of Clancy’s hero more appropriately than either of his successors (the too-old Harrison Ford and overly bland Ben Affleck) in the following three Jack Ryan pictures.

Graced with atmospheric cinematography from Jan DeBont and a stirring Basil Poledouris score, “The Hunt For Red October” is taut and enormously entertaining studio filmmaking, and Paramount’s Blu-Ray edition, like its HD-DVD predecessor, does justice to the film’s visuals. Since much of the film was shot in tight, dark confines, the movie’s cinematography has always proven difficult to adapt to the home video medium. Fortunately the studio’s HD transfer does unquestionably the finest job to date of translating DeBont and McTiernan’s visuals outside a theater, the movie here looking as sharp as possible with new details emerging in the shadows throughout. There are still some sequences that seem overly “soft” yet it’s entirely possible these sorts of issues had to do with how the movie was originally photographed.

Even more satisfying is the Blu-Ray’s Dolby TrueHD audio. Beautifully mastered with spectacular sound effects and a broad stage for Poledouris’ music, the soundtrack is magnificent and rates as the disc’s strongest asset.

Extras culled from the last DVD include a commentary from McTiernan, the theatrical trailer in HD, and a “Beneath the Surface” retrospective featurette.

A variety of issues circumvented Baldwin from continuing on as Jack Ryan, but Paramount did manage to land Harrison Ford to carry on the role in two glossy, Phillip Noyce-directed sequels: 1992's PATRIOT GAMES (***, 116 mins., R) and 1994's CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER (**½, 141 mins., PG-13).

I admit that I’m in the minority on the Ford films, finding the atmospheric and suspenseful “Patriot Games” superior to the longer and less effective “Clear and Present Danger,” though one could attribute the latter’s stronger box-office gross (the highest of the series) to its PG-13 rating, whereas “Patriot Games” was saddled with an R (mainly due to Polly Walker’s nude scene).

“Patriot Games”’ more straightforward story and manageable running time makes it the superior of the Ford films for me at least, finding Ryan an international hero after thwarting a terrorist attack on a member of Britain’s Royal Family. After returning home to the U.S., though, with wife (Anne Archer) and daughter (Thora Birch) in tow, Ryan finds himself being hunted by the same IRA splinter group, led by Patrick Bergin, whose brother died in the film’s opening moments.

Top notch action scenes (including an ending that was re-shot late in the game) make this sequel to “Red October” a flawed but still entertaining ride, while the bigger-isn’t-always-better “Clear and Present Danger” feels like the work of too many cooks in the kitchen by comparison.

Marred by some tough-to-swallow plot developments and uneven writing (the script is attributed to Donald Stewart, Steven Zaillian and John Milius, each seeming to offer their own political bent and the film deviating from Clancy’s original story significantly) make “Clear and Present” a sometimes-preachy affair, particularly whenever Ryan combats a fuddy-duddy President (played with a heavy hand by Donald Moffat).

Both movies again offer excellent Dolby TrueHD soundtracks on Blu-Ray, with James Horner filling in for Poledouris somewhat unevenly on the two sequels (his dreary, if atmospheric, score for “Patriot Games” heavily recycles “Aliens” while the thematically stronger “Clear and Present Danger” is a stark departure from its predecessor). The 1080p transfers show some grain at times but are for the most part quite satisfying, particularly “Patriot Games” with Donald McAlpine’s top-notch cinematography looking better than ever in high-definition.

Extras on the two discs include HD trailers and a pair of retrospective featurettes, which mostly skirt the off-camera issues that occurred on both movies.

In fact, the turbulent production of “Clear and Present Danger” -- in particular its constant re-writes -- lead Harrison Ford to depart the series in spite of its robust financial in-take, and producer Mace Neufeld to take a few years off before oddly “re-booting” the series with a younger Jack Ryan in the present day.

That resulting picture, 2002's generally under-rated THE SUM OF ALL FEARS (***, 123 mins., PG-13) is quite good, after you get past its strange connection with the previous films and aside from the fact that Ben Affleck's bland Jack Ryan is the least interesting figure in the film.

Director Phil Alden Robinson's slick adaptation still provides solid entertainment, with the Paul Attanasio-Daniel Pyne scrip concerning a dormant nuclear weapon being sold to a shady individual in Damascus whose clients plan on using it to lead America and Russia into a war with one another. To save the day comes CIA analyst Jack Ryan (Affleck), here just starting out under the guidance of director Cobb (Morgan Freeman). If you sound confused, you should be, as the movie is a semi-prequel with a young Jack Ryan, yet set in the present day with its own set of characters. “The Sum of all Fears” in some ways resembles past Clancy pictures, but its central story line ends up playing out like “Black Sunday” by way of “WarGames,” with both sides ultimately on the offensive until Ryan can convince them that war isn't a game worth playing.

The film boasts a multitude of characters and events that eventually intersect, with solid performances from Freeman, James Cromwell as the President, Alan Bates and Colm Feore as the film's antagonists (standard-issue European neo-nazis substituting for the book's Middle Eastern bad guys -- something that would have been more realistic yet not politically correct, apparently), and Liev Schrieber as a CIA operative.

Schrieber's role -- the same one Willem Dafoe essayed in “Clear and Present Danger” -- and performance are so interesting, in fact, that they turn Affleck's cardboard hero into the film's weakest element. Just like in "Pearl Harbor," the actor is totally out of his element, lacking the conviction and believability this kind of material demands. While watching Affleck struggle to convey Ryan's contrasting inexperience and heroic qualities (not to mention the complete lack of chemistry between him and Bridget Moynahan in the Anne Archer role), I kept thinking that any moment he was going to lurch into a wisecrack like he was in a Kevin Smith film.

In fact, Affleck is likely the reason why the Jack Ryan franchise ended (for the time being) with this movie: in spite of strong box-office receipts, the series went into another hiatus, foregoing the possibility of future sequels with its new star.

That said, nearly everything else in “The Sum of All Fears” reeks of class, from the widescreen cinematography to Jerry Goldsmith's hauntingly elegiac score -- one of the maestro's finest late works. This is a strong score superior to many of his efforts from the era and more than substitutes for Horner's outings from its predecessors. (There is, however, one moment when Goldsmith's horns seem like they're trumpeting the arrival of Rambo, and when set to slow-motion photography of Affleck running through a flame-ravaged street, come off as a bit much).

Robinson, though, deserves credit for a making a thought-provoking thriller that at least exhibits some intelligence at a time when too many studio blockbusters have nothing on their minds at all. Despite its flaws and weak central performance, “The Sum of All Fears” is worth viewing for that alone.

Paramount’s BD release looks the best of the four films, the 1080p transfer appearing well-detailed and the Dolby TrueHD sound again packing an appropriate wallop when called upon. Extras include two commentary tracks (one with Robinson and Tom Clancy; another with Robinson and cinematographer John Lindley), plus two Making Of featurettes and the trailer in HD.

Also new from Paramount on Blu-Ray is Tony Scott's TOP GUN (***, 109 mins., 1986, PG), a movie which I’ve never been crazy about but fans still celebrate as an iconic film of the ‘80s. This blockbuster Tom Cruise smash offers the star trying to fly his way to the top of the Navy's elite fighter pilot program, backed to a rockin' Harold Faltermeyer/Kenny Loggins/Berlin soundtrack and performances from the likes of Kelly McGillis, Val Kilmer and Anthony Edwards.

Back in the old days of laserdisc, it seemed as if a new release of "Top Gun" appeared every few months. It wasn’t that way on DVD, though, with the first true Special Edition popping up in 2004 courtesy of Scott Free and producer Charlie de Lauzirika, while an HD-DVD release last year shunned all the extra features that made that disc so satisfying.

Again reprieving the HD-DVD’s transfer and soundtrack, “Top Gun” looks brilliant here in 1080p, framed in the 2.35 Super 35 aspect ratio of its theatrical exhibition (many previous releases offered a 1.85 frame that showed the entire picture area that was shot). Even better is the wonderfully layered 6.1 DTS-Master Audio surround (a 5.1 Dolby TrueHD track is also on-hand), which brilliantly captures the sonic oomph of the movie's original sound design.

For supplements, the BD release offers all the extras the HD-DVD lacked. De Lauzirika has packaged a two-hour plus documentary, "Danger Zone: The Making of 'Top Gun'," split into six different segments. Offering new interviews with producer Jerry Bruckheimer, director Tony Scott, stars Val Kilmer and Rick Rossovich (Cruise appears only fleetingly), and composer Harold Faltermeyer among others, this is an insightful and entertaining look at the creation of the film and logistics involved in utilizing the various jets and carriers, all of which necessitated the cooperation of the U.S. Navy. Faltermeyer, meanwhile, appears along with singer Kenny Loggins in dissecting the creation and massive success of the score (and the soundtrack album).

There's also vintage behind-the-scenes featurettes (including a videotaped interview with Cruise), TV spots, four classic music videos, and commentary from Bruckheimer, Scott, and the Naval veterans who offered their sage advice to the filmmakers. Highly recommended for all "Top Gun" buffs, and easily the most comprehensive packaged ever assembled for '86's #1 box-office hit. 

Finally out on BD this week from Paramount is Robert Zemeckis' latest sojourn into the realm of computer-generated features, BEOWULF (**, 114 mins., PG-13; Paramount), a mediocre, action-oriented take on the Old English poem, scripted by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary and offering visuals that occasionally seem more akin to an Xbox 360 game than mind-blowing 3-D animation.

Granted, some of the background and creature rendering is impressive, but just like Zemeckis' last "film" -- "The Polar Express" -- the film strikes out when it comes to its human characterizations, with vanilla facial expressions and movement, making one wonder what the filmmaker is trying to achieve here. How does a computerized Angelina Jolie supply any benefits over the real thing? Ditto for Anthony Hopkins and some of the other actors whose likenesses are animated here (other stars, meanwhile, look little like their real-life counterparts, including top-billed Ray Winstone and Crispin Glover, trying to pull an Andy Serkis here in his "performance" as Grendel). The script, meanwhile, doesn't help matters either, with leaden dialogue that's often unintentionally amusing as well.

Paramount's Blu-Ray edition, as you might anticipate from a digital film, looks absolutely sensational, with a flawless visual presentation all around. The Dolby TrueHD sound also packs a hugely potent punch, while picture-in-picture segments offered during the film are supplemented by extra featurettes and deleted scenes, all of them in high-definition as well. In comparison, Paramount’s HD-DVD only included a Dolby Digital Plus soundtrack and extras spread across two platters, though visually, both movies look identical.

Also New on Blu-Ray

STARGATE: CONTINUUM (98 mins., 2008; MGM/Fox): Feature-length continuation of the long-running, popular cable series reunites the SG-1 unit (including Ben Browder and Amanda Tapping) as they head back to Earth, only to discover that an alien villain has erased the discovery of the Stargate and thrown our world into utter chaos. Special cameos from original stars Richard Dean Anderson and Michael Shanks are on tap in this agreeable spin-off of the show, presented on Blu-Ray in a superb AVC encoded transfer (16:9 widescreen) with DTS HD Master Audio sound. Extras include commentary from producer/writer Brad Wright and director Martin Wood, plus three different featurettes.

21 (**½, 123 mins., 2008, PG-13; Sony): Box-office hit from earlier this spring offers Jim Sturgess as a MIT student who along with a few peers (including Kate Bosworth) and professor Kevin Spacey decides to try and statistically turn the casinos of Las Vegas upside down. Alas, Laurence Fishburne is on their trail in this entertaining, glossy film from director Robert Luketic, loosely based on a true story and offering okay performances from its veteran co-stars Spacey and “The Fish.” Sturgess, though, doesn’t fare as well in the lead, and he and Bosworth generate chemistry that can be described as limp at best. It’s all quickly forgotten but “21" still provides enough fun to warrant as a decent summer rental, with Sony’s Blu-Ray disc including a vibrant AVC-encoded transfer and Dolby TrueHD soundtrack. Extras include commentary from Luketic, a Making Of featurette and other segments that intend to show a bit more of card trickery on display in the film itself.

New TV on DVD

One of my favorite mini-series growing up was the tremendously entertaining 1984 NBC production of THE FIRST OLYMPICS: ATHENS 1896, which at long last arrives on DVD courtesy of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

First broadcast in late May of 1984 -- just a short time before the Los Angeles Olympics -- this upbeat, spirited look at the first organized modern Olympics, from the perspective of an international assembly of athletes -- the Americans in particular (including a young David Caruso) -- as well as benefactors of the event is a gloriously entertaining, old-fashioned affair with a superb cast and fine production values across the board.

While likely not the most historically accurate effort on the block, director Alvin Rakoff and writers Gary Allison and William Bast have fashioned a sterling tribute to those first Olympians, mixing in humor with colorful characters and situations. The cast is also superb, from the young athletes (Caruso, Hunt Block, Alex Hyde-White, Nicos Ziagos) on all sides of the competition to David Odgen Stiers as a Princeton professor who champions the event and a number of “Guest Star” cameos (Angela Lansbury, Louis Jourdan, Bill Travers, Virginia McKenna, Honor Black and Gayle Hunnicutt) lending further enjoyment to the drama.

Add in a rousing, marvelous early score from Bruce Broughton and you have a perfect DVD to pick up in time for the forthcoming Beijing Olympiad.

Sony’s DVD presentation is equally satisfying, presenting the program as it aired in two installments on two discs (Part 1 is two hours; Part 2 ran for three hours, with commercials), in healthy full-screen transfers and with mono sound. Highly recommended!

Warner, meanwhile, has a pair of major TV on DVD box sets headed our way.

Actress Yancy Butler’s downward career spiral came during the later stages of her TNT series WITCHBLADE, which Warner is issuing as a Complete Series box-set this week.

This adaptation of the Top Cow comic book stars Butler as Sara Pezzini, a New York City detective who is granted the supernatural powers of the mysterious “Witchblade,” enabling her to fight evil. Sadly the ‘Blade also brings out the worst in a rogue’s gallery of villains who show up, wanting to consume the power for their own.

“Witchblade” apparently wasn’t especially faithful to its comic book origins but it nevertheless garnered decent ratings for TNT during its two seasons (2000-01, ‘01-‘02) on the air. Sadly, Butler’s off-camera problems and eventual check-in to a rehab center took their toll on the show, and many have speculated that the real reason for the series’ abrupt cancellation was due to her issues and not because of fading ratings.

That said the series has generated a fair amount of fan interest over the years, and Warner’s DVD box-set offers all 24 episodes (including the pilot movie) in very strong 16:9 (1.85) transfers and 2.0 Dolby Stereo sound. Extras are also in abundance: several Making Of featurettes chronicle the production, while casting tapes are on-hand for the series’ leads. Fans should note that the show also “features an all-new soundtrack selected by the executive producer,” meaning whatever “contemporary” songs appeared on the soundtrack have likely been altered substantially for home video.

More satisfying is the Complete First Season of TERMINATOR: THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES (Warner, 2008, 394 mins.), a briskly-paced, surprisingly good series that doesn’t so much tie in with the later “Terminator” sequels as it offers an “alternate universe” premise where Sarah Connor (Lena Headey)  is alive and well and still trying to protect son John (Thomas Dekker) from another round of future assassins. This time out the duo are helped in their fight by a future Terminator who resembles a sexy young high school student, and is played quite effectively by Summer Glau (from the “Firefly” movie “Serenity”).

Packed with action and story lines that effectively work in various aspects of the “Terminator” mythos, Josh Friedman’s series steers clear of teasing the forthcoming “Terminator-Salvation” sequel (which will offer Christian Bale as John Connor) by having Sarah and John time travel as part of the show’s premise. This enables them to forget that “Terminator 3" happened and offers an “alternative” time line where the show can exist on its own terms.

For a weekly TV series, this Fox offering is top-notch with strong production values, good performances, a dash of humor and teen romance all added to the mix.

Warner’s DVD box set includes the complete (albeit fairly short) first season (just nine episodes) of “The Sarah Connor Chronicles” in excellent 16:9 (1.85) transfers and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks. Extras include three commentaries, a three-part documentary on the series’ production, both a broadcast version and extended cut of the seventh episode “The Demon Hand,” cast audition tapes, deleted scenes, a gag reel and more.

The studio is also slated to release a Blu-Ray version, which we’re looking forward to reviewing as soon as it arrives.

Also New on Blu-Ray   

Director Alex Proyas showed with “The Crow” that flashy directorial technique and a sense of style can overcome any deficient plot. In his 1998 follow-up DARK CITY (****, 103 and 110 mins., R; New Line), Proyas concocted a fascinating science-fiction thriller with a story that lives up to the evocative settings and dense noir atmosphere surrounding it.

Rufus Sewell stars as a man who can't remember his name and is plagued by apparent memories of a life that might have included the murder of several prostitutes. Meanwhile, the world in which he lives is a setting that vaguely incorporates elements from disparate times and places, from the '40s through a bleak future that recalls “Blade Runner” and “Metropolis.” After Sewell are a group of otherworldly "strangers," led by Richard O'Brien, bald and clad in “Hellraiser”-style black costumes, and detective William Hurt, who follows Sewell's (former?) wife Jennifer Connelly around, trying to find out the truth about what's going on.

Keifer Sutherland also appears as a scientist who may just hold the key to the puzzling city surrounding the characters, while Patrick Tatopoulos’ design of “Dark City”’s cityscapes and the amazing cinematography by Dariusz Wolski are nothing short of breathtaking. “Dark City” is a mood piece, an intricate puzzle along the lines of classic film-noir thrillers, but it's also a sci-fi yarn whose imagination is singularly unique, not merely a second-rate pastiche of other genre films.

As he did with “The Crow,” Proyas fills each scene of his movie with stunning visual effects, setting his film in a compelling, strange yet enthralling world that is so rarely realized in the cinema now. The lighting, photography, effects, production design, and comic-book styled editing all combine to produce a movie where you often feel that you’re watching something truly special. Trevor Jones's excellent musical score adds to the drama, while the cast provides uniformly excellent performances across the board. Particular standouts include Sewell, Hurt, and particularly Sutherland, in a finely hued “character actor” type of performance.

The film's denouement is fully satisfying as well, and while it doesn't give you all the answers, it provides enough of an explanation so that you don't need to know any more.

As I wrote back in 1998, “‘Dark City’ is a sci-fi film that undoubtedly will be discussed among devotees for years, long after many of today's pre-fab "blockbusters" are but a distant memory on video store shelves. Even if Proyas hasn’t followed through on his potential after making this movie (at least to date), he’s at least given us a bona-fide classic with “Dark City.”

New Line’s long-awaited Special Edition Blu-Ray release boasts a new Director’s Cut of the movie that restores about eight minutes of unseen footage and, most importantly, dumps the studio-mandated, completely unnecessary Sutherland monologue which opened the theatrical release and spoiled the entire film right at the start.

I had the good fortune of walking into the theater late -- when Sewell first wakes up in a bath tub -- and seeing the picture as the filmmakers originally intended it to unfold, which is something that can now be duplicated thanks to the longer Director’s edition. If you’ve never seen the film before, this expanded cut is the only way to go.

The theatrical cut is also on-hand here, along with numerous extras: new commentaries from Proyas and his co-writers Lem Dobbs and David S. Goyer, plus Patrick Tatopoulus and Dariuz Wolski, in addition to Roger Ebert’s commentary from the earlier DVD; new documentaries recounting the production; the trailer; a Director’s Cut “fact track”; the trailer; text essays; galleries; a Neil Giaman review of the film, ported over from the prior DVD; and a dynamic VC-1 encoded transfer with 7.1 DTS Master Audio sound. The high-definition transfer tremendously captures the movie’s visuals while the DTS mix offers a broad stage for the film’s involving sound design. And finally, a bonus second disc includes a digital copy for portable media players.

A spellbinding sci-fi mystery thriller, “Dark City” is unique, potent, splendidly performed and masterfully told. Don’t miss it -- and avoid the theatrical version at all costs.

Also New on DVD

BRAND UPON THE BRAIN! (99 mins., 2006, Criterion): I’m not familiar with the work of Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin, but one assumes there are a sufficient number of fans of the director when the Criterion Collection champions one of his efforts -- and one produced just a couple of years ago at that.

To say that Maddin’s “Brand Upon the Brain” is unusual is putting it mildly: this mostly black-and-white effort looks and feels like a silent movie at times with its 8mm produced flickering images. The story, involving a character named “Guy Maddin” who returns to his home -- a dank lighthouse on a gloomy island -- in order to paint it is bizarre, but “Brand Upon the Brain” was originally intended to be a cinematic “event” more than a standalone film experience: originally shown with live music and foley work, and narration from actors like Crispin Glover, “Brand Upon the Brain!” is a celebration, it seems, of filmmaking technique and the sensory experience more than anything else.

Criterion’s DVD does the best it can to replicate that experience, including utilizing a number of different narration tracks for the viewer to choose from (including Glover, Isabella Rosselllini, Eli Wallach and others), plus a digital transfer of the movie’s 16:9 (1.85) aspect ratio, a documentary on Maddin’s work, two short films from Maddin created for Criterion’s release, a deleted scene, the trailer, and booklet notes.

Maddin’s work is most definitely not for all tastes but those who appreciate his work will find this to be a satisfying DVD with strong supplemental content.

Also new from Criterion this month is Keisuke Kinoshita's film TWENTY-FOUR EYES (156 mins., 1954), a moving and unusual story of a Japanese school teacher's life beginning in the late '20s and following her through the war years in a rural island community.

Long, leisurely paced but earnest and worthwhile, Criterion presents this little-screened Japanese picture in a superb, full-screen black-and-white transfer with additional video interviews featuring Japanese critic Tadao Sato discussing the movie, plus theatrical trailers and a booklet giving additional information on the picture.

MUHAMMAD ALI: MADE IN MIAMI (60 mins., 2008; PBS/Paramount): New PBS documentary documents Muhammad Ali’s time spent in Miami during the early ‘60s, from his training to become World Champion to his affiliation with, and conversion to, Islam. Gaspar Gonzalez and Alan Tomlinson’s hour-long work focuses as much on Ali’s friendship with Malcolm X as well as his boxing victories, charting how many of his most life-altering moments both in and out of the ring occurred while he was in Miami. Ample amounts of interviews and archival footage combine to make this a worthy addition to the Ali biographies already on the market. Paramount’s DVD includes a superb 16:9 transfer with a bonus conversation with the producers.

NEXT TIME: More news and notes! 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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