8/14/07 Edition -- The AISLE SEAT BLOG Is Now Online!

Aisle Seat FLASH-back Edition
Universal's New FLASH GORDON Reviewed
Plus: New Blu Ray, HD-DVDs and YEAR OF THE DOG

Following the release of “Star Wars,” everyone and anyone rushed to jump in on the sci-fi craze of the late ‘70s -- from a rash of Italian clones to James Bond himself, the genre became saturated with space operas set in galaxies far, far away, even if most failed to resemble George Lucas’ original classic in tone or execution.

Of course, Lucas himself was influenced by a myriad of sources, including the old-time serials of the 1930s and ‘40s. It stood to reason that someone would rush out and gobble up the rights for characters like Flash Gordon, relaunching the original hero as a modern day product ripe for audiences still hungry for anything space-related.

In this case, it was Dino DeLaurentiis who snapped up the option to bring Alex Raymond’s comic-strip (and later Saturday matinee) hero to the screen, resulting in a 1980 film of FLASH GORDON (***, 111 mins., PG; Universal) that seemed to please camp aficionados more than general audiences, who turned the film into a box-office disappointment at the time of its release.

The film actually follows the plot of Raymond’s strip and the original Buster Crabbe serials faithfully, chronicling the adventures of Flash (ex-athlete Sam J. Jones), Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) and scientist Hans Zarkov (Topol) after they crash on the planet Mongo, controlled by the vile Ming the Merciless (Max von Sydow), who’s about to unleash his plan to conquer the Earth...and the whole galaxy for that matter. On Mongo, Flash meets a variety of colorful allies, from the dashing Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton) to sensuous Princess Aura (Ornella Muti) and the high-flying Hawk Men, including their leader, Prince Vultan (Brian Blessed). Together they attempt to thwart Ming’s nefarious plans as Mongo inches closer to Earth.

No doubt there are some major problems with the movie: leads Jones (a former football player who fills the role of Flash with minimal success) and Anderson are plastic; writer Lorenzo Semple’s script is light on dramatics and seemingly more concerned with camp humor and innuendo; and the much-lauded (if somewhat inappropriate) contribution of Queen to the soundtrack actually results in just a memorable, opening blast of rock over the main titles, since it’s mostly Howard Blake’s orchestral score that carries much of the film.

In terms of character development and dramatic interest, “Flash Gordon” has never been satisfying, but when taken as sheer eye candy with a liberal amount of laughs, you can at least see why the film remains a cult favorite. Danilo Donati’s sets and costumes are simply eye-popping, packing each frame with color and fascinating artistic design. At the same time, Gil Taylor (then fresh off “Star Wars”) captures the action in comic book styled cinematography that’s perfect for the material, while director Mike Hodges makes up for the bland lead casting with supporting performances -- especially von Sydow, Blessed and Dalton -- that are delightfully energetic.

“Flash Gordon” was previously released on DVD only in the format’s early days, and in a tepid, non-anamorphic transfer at that.

Universal’s new “Saviour of the Universe” edition marks the first time the film has been available domestically in many years, and the new 16:9 (2.35) transfer does not disappoint, nor does the rollicking 5.1 Dolby Digital sound. (Here’s hoping Universal revisits the title on HD-DVD in the near future, though, giving the film the high-definition respect it deserves).

On the supplemental side, Universal’s disc includes an interview with writer Lorenzo Semple, who discusses the problems inherent with writing for DeLaurentiis (he memorably describes the producer asking him to write the script...going off, handing it in, and then having it shot with no changes made!). There’s also an interview with comic artist Alex Ross plus the original trailer and the first episode of the original 1936 Buster Crabbe serial, which as I mentioned previously is strikingly similar to the 1980 film.

It all makes for a perfectly acceptable Special Edition, though fans should note that Momentum Pictures’ Region 2 (UK) Silver Anniversary DVD features more substantive supplements: namely, two commentaries from Mike Hodges and Brian Blessed, respectively, along with a lengthy interview with Hodges and the addition of DTS sound to the film.

Visually, that Region 2 disc is less grainy than Universal’s new Region 1 effort as well, though the colors and contrast seem better balanced on the new Universal disc (the Region 2 release seems overly bright, a little washed out and pink-ish by comparison).

With that in mind, fans with multi-region players may want to pick up the UK import to add to their “Flash Gordon” experience.

New on Blu Ray Disc

WILD HOGS: Blu Ray (**½,, 2007, 100 mins., PG-13; Touchstone): Unbelievable box-office smash ($168 million and still going) hits high-definition this week in a solid Blu Ray effort from Buena Vista.

Sort of like a motorcycle-riding variant on "City Slickers," "Wild Hogs" offers Tim Allen, John Travolta, Martin Lawrence and William H. Macy as four middle-aged guys who hit the road, seeking to find something more than their average day-to-day suburban lives afford. Marisa Tomei and Jill Hennessy (a nice combination there if I do say so myself) are two of the lovely ladies the group meets along the way, along with crazy cop John C. McGinley and Ray Liotta as the head of a real biker gang.

"Wild Hogs" isn't especially gut-busting and the credits of its filmmakers illustrates why (director Walt Becker helmed the mediocre "Van Wilder"), but the chemistry of the stars is such that the movie connected with audiences in a big way...apparently, some folks are starved for comedies (how else to explain "Knocked Up"'s similar $150 million gross) and the pickings have been slim. (One other conspiracy theory is that teens bought tickets for "Wild Hogs" in order to sneak into "300"...a phenomenon last believed to have occurred when "Bean" took in a healthy sum at the same time "Starship Troopers" was released).

Either way, Buena Vista's Blu Ray disc offers a blemish-free, ideal presentation of the film in high-definition with 5.1 uncompressed PCM and Dolby Digital sound. Extras are right on-par with the standard DVD and include commentary; deleted scenes; outtakes; an alternate ending; and two Making Of featurettes.

THE LOOKOUT: Blu Ray (**½, 99 mins., 2006, R; Miramax): Long-time, acclaimed screenwriter Scott Frank made his directorial debut with this well-reviewed (though little-distributed) heist tale that gives 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.

Miramax's Blu Ray disc sports a nifty high-definition transfer that captures the subtle nuances of Alar Kivilu’s cinematography, plus PCM and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound. Extras include commentary with Frank and Kivilo plus a pair of Making Of featurettes.

ARLINGTON ROAD: Blu Ray (**, 1999, 118 mins., R; Sony): Well-directed but relentlessly depressing and one-note, this 1999 thriller with Jeff Bridges and Tim Robbins will leave most audiences wanting to take a shower as soon as the credits roll.

Bridges plays a professor at George Washington University who thinks his squeaky-clean, WASP-y neighbor (Tim Robbins) may be a hiding a secret. Himself an expert in political conspiracies (you just know he'd love to hold a cookout with Oliver Stone), Bridges believes that the past bombings of government buildings -- generally pegged on one or two suspects with little prior criminal activity -- is the work of a secret society of anti-government types who shield themselves by putting on the facade of lovable small-town Americans.

Naturally, nobody believes Bridges until it's too late, and like all of the formulas and cliches inherent in thriller genre conventions, “Arlington Road” boasts more than its share of stupid plot points -- including an incredible ending that, never mind showing the work of anti-government fiends, has “anti- audience” written all over it (and indeed it did, as the film failed to attract viewers in theaters).

Bridges and Robbins are both fine but the real star that intermittently shines in the film is director Mark Pellington, who deftly utilizes widescreen, filter-filled cinematography and Angelo Badalamenti's bass-heavy, pounding score to gloss over the movie's sour (and often silly) screenplay.

Pellington would later fine-tune his talents in the under-rated Richard Gere supernatural thriller “The Mothman Prophecies” (here’s hoping we see a Blu Ray release one day!), but his style can only carry “Arlington Road” so far.

Aside from sporting some hideous new cover art, Sony’s Blu Ray disc offers a solid 1080p (2.35) high-definition transfer with 5.1 uncompressed PCM and Dolby Digital sound. Extras include commentary from Bridges and Pellington, a Making Of featurette, and an alternate ending.

VACANCY: Blu Ray (**, 2007, 85 mins., R; Sony): Fairly mediocre, not to mention predictable, little thriller (which failed to garner much of an audience in theaters) gets by as a decent enough rental due to sincere performances from its leads and workmanlike helming from Hungarian filmmaker Nimrod Antal.

Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale are a newly married couple who end up spending a night in a rundown motel managed by creepy Frank Whaley. With nothing else to do but listen to the odd noises around them, Wilson and Beckinsale opt to turn on the closed-circuit late-show -- which turns out to be a vividly gory horror movie that’s not really a movie at all...

At 85 minutes, “Vacancy” is the kind of film you check in and out of, watch once and then never give another thought towards. The movie isn’t especially scary and Paul Haslinger’s often obnoxious score doesn’t do the film any favors, but Beckinsale and Wilson do a fine job (better than the material deserves) as a couple you can pull for, even as the picture spirals out of control at the end.

Sony’s Blu Ray disc sports a fine 1080p transfer (2.40) with some deleted material, extended “snuff films,” and a Making Of featurette.

THE LIVES OF OTHERS (***, 2006, 138 mins., R; Sony): Those looking for something a little different to compliment their Blu Ray libraries may do well to check out Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck’s acclaimed 2006 character-study/political thriller. Deleted scenes, an interview and commentary with the director, and of course a superb new HD (2.35) transfer (along with uncompressed PCM and 5.1 German dialogue) make this a rewarding, and mostly definitely different, sort of film to soak up in high-definition than most of the action-heavy flicks available in Blu Ray so far.

New on HD-DVD

WHAT DREAMS MAY COME: HD-DVD (**, 114 mins., 1998, PG-13, Universal): Vincent Ward's 1998 film is certainly a triumph of visual effects and production design, and yet, like his previous films, what it offers in sheer visceral imagination it lacks in emotion and heart.

Robin Williams plays a doctor for whom tragedy is no stranger -- his young children were both killed in a car accident (referred to over the movie's opening credits), and when he tries to assist in another auto collision, he loses his own life as well. Eventually, Williams awakens in a Heaven where your thoughts and dreams provide the after-life surroundings; for the doctor who has left his long-suffering wife (Annabella Sciorra) behind, his world is marked by her paintings, which results in gorgeous visual effects of paint dripping off trees and vividly colored skies filling the screen. While adapting to life after death, Williams is tutored by an angelic type (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) while Sciorra has trouble coping with living without her family, and her eventual course of action forms the quest element that comprises the rest of the story.

Based on a novel by Richard Matheson, “What Dreams May Come” is sort of like what would have happened to “Ghost” if its sentiments and preachiness became too maudlin. Ronald Bass's script has little humor, which is not surprising given the melancholy tone of this fantasy, and yet there's not enough romance or passion either, something that Matheson's own “Somewhere in Time” (which was adapted from his novel "Bid Time Return") had in spades.

The second-half narrative "quest" becomes so reliant on the relationship of Williams and Sciorra that the movie's ultimate failing is clearly its inability to create a couple whom the audience cares about; their montage sequences feel like something out of “Ghost” (with the spectral Williams leaning over his mournful wife), but brief montage clips do not substitute for scenes that delineate fully developed characters. Furthermore, the dialogue is often painfully preachy and obvious, with Gooding's statements about living life and letting go of reality feeling like they were ripped off a Hallmark card. The ultimate "disguise" of several afterlife characters ultimately comes off as a contrived element in the script as well, being reprised no less than three times over the course of the film. Meanwhile, Williams's performance, with his "serious" and earnest demeanor, will make most folks recall his uncertain dramatic work in “Hook” and the gooiest moments of “Dead Poets Society”, while Gooding's act feels more suited to a "Very Special Episode" of “Touched By An Angel” than the dense fantasy of this film.

Despite its narrative problems, Ward, whose previous credits include “The Navigator” and “Map of the Human Heart” (as well as the initial story for the ill-fated “Alien 3") nevertheless brings his penchant for audacious visuals to the film. Looking like a cross between the classic '40s British fantasy “Stairway to Heaven” and Terry Gilliam's “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen”, the scenes of Williams venturing into this netherworld are startling and glorious to behold, especially on HD-DVD. The problem, though, is that there's not enough emotion, not nearly enough heart, for a movie that should be built on characters and relationships. It's as if the epic tone of the picture overwhelmed Ward, which shouldn't come as a surprise since visual design, and not narratives, has always been his strong suit. What ultimately happens is that you're stuck watching a movie with pretty pictures, but nothing underneath the surface to lure you into its decidedly human struggles.

Michael Kamen's score is gently romantic and certainly works hard to provide an uplifting element to the proceeding, but ultimately it's an uphill fight since the movie is such a downer. Much was made of Ennio Morricone's original score having been replaced, but the decision to replace Morricone's elegiac score with Kamen's lovely (if a bit formless) work was less a case of re-conceptualizing what the music should be like than an obvious tinkering move on the part of apprehensive studio executives.

Universal’s HD-DVD of “What Dreams May Come” does prove to be a sizeable enhancement on the standard DVD edition. The high-def, VC-1 encoded transfer is smashing, packed with warm colors and brilliant detail that improve the picture at every turn. The Dolby Digital Plus sound is fine, but it’s the visuals that ought to be of the most interest for viewers and the HD-DVD truly delivers a knockout experience on that end.

Supplements are carried over from prior DVDs and include commentary from Ward, a Making Of featurette, a discarded alternate ending (one of several apparently shot for the movie), a visual effects featurette and a photo gallery.

MERCURY RISING: HD-DVD (**½, 1998, 112 mins., R; Universal): Troubled Harold Becker film has held up a bit better over the years than you might’ve anticipated.

Bruce Willis plays a suspended FBI agent who goes rogue to defend a young autistic boy who just cracked a seemingly impenetrable government code; Alec Baldwin is the stuffy suit trying to clean up his mess in this well-mounted Image Films production, designed by Patrizia von Brandenstein, shot by Michael Seresin and scored (in one of his last assignments) by John Barry.

Sadly, despite all the talent involved, “Mercury Rising” failed to live up to its potential, mainly due to a somewhat pedestrian script (credited to “Superman IV” scribes Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal) and an unsatisfying climax that apparently was re-shot late in the game. Even Barry’s score needed to be augmented by cues from Carter Burwell prior to release.

Nevertheless, the movie is still worth a look due to Willis’ performance and the film’s widescreen photography, which Universal has captured in a superb HD-DVD. The VC-1 encoded transfer is excellent, as is the 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus sound. Extras culled from prior DVD editions include commentary with Becker, the trailer, a Making Of featurette, and a number of deleted scenes that were derived from a workprint videotape.

MEET THE FOCKERS: HD-DVD (**½, 116 mins., 2004; Universal): Adequate sequel to the original smash-hit brings back the original cast (Ben Stiller, Teri Polo, plus Robert DeNiro and Blythe Danner as her parents) while adding Dustin Hoffman and “Babs” Streisand as Stiller’s eccentric parents. Universal’s HD-DVD edition looks perfectly fine in its new VC-1 encoded HD transfer (1.85) and offers a robust 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus soundtrack. A boatload of extras include 65 bloopers, 20 deletes scenes, numerous featurettes, commentary and more. Good HD fun for “Fockers” fans.

ERIN BROCKOVICH: HD-DVD (***½, 2000, 132 mins., R; Universal): Julia Roberts’ Oscar-winning performance carries this superb Steven Soderbergh film, offering Roberts one of her top roles as a feisty single mom who becomes a legal assistant for an attorney (Albert Finney) and ultimately goes after a power company polluting a local water supply. Susannah Grant’s script and Roberts’ performance go hand-in-hand in this highly satisfying entertainment, which Universal has issued in an equally satisfying HD-DVD sporting a new VC-1 encoded transfer (2.35) with 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus sound. Extras include deleted scenes and a pair of Making Of featurettes.

Upcoming From Paramount

YEAR OF THE DOG (***, 2007, 96 mins., PG-13; Paramount): It never ceases to amaze me how Saturday Night Live squanders some of the talent they have on their cast roster (or at least did; the pickings are pretty slim these days).

Case in point: Molly Shannon, who provided some laughs during her tenure on the fast-fading NBC franchise, but shows she can carry a leading role in “Year of the Dog,” writer-director Mike White’s “tragi-comedy” about a lonely woman who tries and break out of her mold once her little dog dies.

Shannon perfectly straddles the line between comic quirkiness and despair as Peggy, a secretary who opts to dive into “the real world” after her beloved dog Pencil is accidentally poisoned; John C. Reilly (as a white trash neighbor) and Peter Sarsgaard (as a somewhat creepy animal rights activist) are two of the men who subsequently cross her path.

Laura Dern and Regina King co-star in this satisfyingly quirky character study from White, whose past credits include scripts for the superior teen comedies “Orange County” and “School of Rock,” as well as the somewhat overrated Jennifer Aniston vehicle “The Good Girl.” Here, White establishes a character you care about and follows her through her eccentricities to a satisfying end that’s right in keeping with the tone of the film.

Paramount’s 16:9 (1.85) widescreen transfer is excellent, while extras include deleted scenes, three featurettes, a Making Of featurette, and commentary with White and Shannon.

THE ODD COUPLE, Season 2 (1971-72, aprx. 10 hours; Paramount): Second season for the long-running, popular sitcom continues the adventures of forever-squabbling Felix Unger and Oscar Madison, as memorably portrayed by Tony Randall and Jack Klugman, respectively. Paramount’s four-disc set preserves the series’ complete second season (23 episodes) in seemingly unexpurgated, broadcast-length shows (though there are disclaimers about shows having been cut and/or altered for music content) that look to be in more than satisfactory condition. No extras have been included.

SOUTH PARK: Complete Season 10 (2006, 308 mins., Paramount): Chef has moved on but there are still plenty of laughs to be found in this collection of 14 tenth-season episodes from Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s long-running “South Park” series. Paramount’s three-disc set includes the uncut episodes in standard full-screen transfers with “mini-commentaries” from the creators and a special 14-day game trial for the PC game “World of Warcraft.”

DEXTER: Complete Season 1 (2006, 10 hours, Showtime/Paramount): Michael C. Hall plays one of the most caring serial killers on record (!) in this disturbing, compulsively watchable Showtime series, with Hall portraying the anti-hero of Jeff Lindsay’s books: a homicidal youth raised by a cop who channels his psychotic issues into knocking off individuals who generally deserve their fate. It’s not always easy viewing but the performances and production are top-notch. Showtime’s DVD set offers all 12 first-season “Dexter” episodes in top-notch 16:9 (1.85) transfers with 5.1 audio and loads of extras, including featurettes, commentaries and more.

JAG: Complete Season 4 (1998-99, aprx. 18 hours; Paramount): Long-running CBS staple might’ve been replaced by “NCIS” over the last few years, but “JAG” fans can still get their fix by picking up Paramount’s new collection of the David James Elliot-Catherine Bell fourth season (1998-99). Paramount’s set does offer the disclaimer that some shows may have been “edited from their original network versions,” but the full-screen transfers and 2.0 stereo audio are all acceptable. A gag reel is the set’s lone extra.

A NIGHT AT THE ROXBURY: Special Collector’s Edition (**, 1998, 81 mins., PG-13; Paramount): One of several box-office misfires that attempted to launch Saturday Night Live characters onto the big-screen (Molly Shannon’s disappointing “Superstar” and the hideous Tim Meadows “Ladies Man” being two of the others produced around the same time), this sporadically amusing -- though more often limp -- effort offers Will Ferrell and Chris Kattan as the club-hopping party guys who can’t stop dancing. The usual cameos and shenanigans ensue in this Amy Heckerling-produced vehicle, which has a hard time sustaining itself for all of its 81 minutes (that includes credits), but there are those out there who feel the movie is hilarious -- and said individuals will love Paramount’s new DVD. Offering several Making Of featurettes, a 16:9 (1.85) transfer and 5.1 audio, this “Roxbury” may be worth checking into if you’re a fan. All others...you know what to do.

New on DVD

BACK TO SCHOOL: Extra-Curricular Edition (***, 1986, 97 mins., PG-13; MGM/Fox): Just a few days remain in this fast-moving summer for those younger readers who have to go back to school (how I miss those times...okay, maybe not!).

To coincide with that annual event, MGM and Fox have resurrected the often hilarious Rodney Dangerfield comedy “Back to School” in a fitting new Special Edition that gives this box-office hit the treatment it has long deserved on DVD.

It’s easy to see why “Back to School” became the sixth-highest grossing film of 1986 (coming in just ahead of “Aliens”): this engaging, PG-13 rated comedy is arguably Dangerfield’s most satisfying starring vehicle, offering a generous amount of laughs and a game supporting cast to compliment the fun.

The premise is simple: with his wife (Adrienne Barbeau) cheating on him and his son (Keith Gordon) about to drop out of college, Dangerfield’s successful clothing entrepreneur (he established “Tall and Fat” stores nationwide) opts to prove a point by enrolling in college and getting a degree he never had. Robert Downey, Jr. is among the co-stars as one of Gordon’s buddies, while Burt Young plays Dangerfield’s irascible butler, Ned Beatty fills the bill as “Dean Martin,” Sam Kinison appears as a professor, and Sally Kellerman finds one of her more memorable roles as the love interest/muse for our hero.

Harold Ramis co-wrote and co-produced “Back to School,” with a zesty Danny Elfman score complimenting an upbeat entertainment that ended up the highest-grossing film of Dangerfield’s career. It’s possible Dangerfield knew he’d have a hard time matching this film’s success as well, since it would be some six years before the comic would return to a leading role (in the forgettable kids soccer comedy “Ladybugs”).

MGM and Fox’s new “Extra-Curricular Edition” DVD is a vast improvement on the prior MGM offering, boasting a new (and correctly framed) 16:9 (1.85) transfer with 5.1 audio. Extras include a handful of featurettes, two of which look back on the production with interviews including director Alan Meter, Burt Young, Harold Ramis, production designer David L. Snyder and others. Two other featurettes remember Dangerfield’s career along with Kurt Vonnegut, who also appeared in the film, while vintage press materials include an interview with Young (comparing his work with Dangerfield to his then-recent appearance in “Rocky IV”) plus the trailer and three TV spots.

DARKMAN Trilogy (3 Films, Universal): Two-disc, three-film collection sports Sam Raimi’s original 1990 “Darkman” in a new 16:9 enhanced transfer (with 5.1 audio) along with its agreeable made-for-video sequels, “Darkman II: The Return of Durant” (1994) and “Darkman III: Die, Darman, Die” (1995). Obviously the original “Darkman” will be of the most interest for fans, and Universal’s new edition as screened here is a nice improvement on its prior DVD (if not quite as crisp as the HD-DVD that we reviewed last week).

Sam Raimi's first studio film is an entertaining comic-book hybrid of "Batman" and "Phantom of the Opera," as light as a feather but bursting with cinematic energy.

Liam Neeson plays a research scientist who is horribly disfigured after a local gangster (Larry Drake) destroys his laboratory while searching for documents that would be incriminating for his shady land-developer boss (Colin Friels). Neeson is presumed dead but, thanks to the miracle of modern science, becomes an anonymous test subject for a hospital that keeps him alive -- giving him the ability to avoid feeling pain while experiencing stronger emotions. After escaping from the operating table, Neeson's scientist finds that his synthetic skin allows him to recreate his prior appearance as well as take on the forms of his enemies, provided he only stays in the sunlight for 99 minutes while "Darkman" exacts his revenge.

As much of a homage to the Universal monster movies of the '30s and '40s as it was influenced by the comic book films of its time ("Batman," "Dick Tracy"), the gothic "Darkman" was a surprise sleeper hit in the summer of 1990 (produced for $16 million, it grossed more than twice that amount domestically), and established Raimi -- best known for his "Evil Dead" films -- as a player on the studio circuit. The screenplay (credited to Raimi, Ivan Raimi, Chuck Pfarrer, Daniel Goldin and Joshua Goldin) is a pastiche of the comic book and horror genres, and in another director's hands could've been just a standard-issue revenge picture. Thanks to Raimi, though, "Darkman" is bursting with visual pizzazz, pulsating montages, humor, and over-the-top melodramatic moments, punctuated by a terrific -- and appropriately bombastic -- Danny Elfman score that's among the best of his genre works of the period. He also receives strong support from Neeson and Frances McDormand (as his lawyer-lady love), who give the proceeding a touch of class in roles atypical for both performers. (There are also cameos from Jenny Agutter to John Landis and a particularly fitting one for a certain Raimi favorite as well at the very end).

"Darkman" may be derivative and silly, but it delivers as much entertainment in its own way -- and quite possibly more -- for its modest budget than Raimi's bloated "Spider-Man 3" did for a price tag of $258 million. Sometimes bigger really isn't better.

As far as the two made-for-video sequels fare, both are respectable enough as small-screen efforts go -- especially the third entry, “Die, Darkman, Die,” which doesn’t recycle the original film’s plot as much as the second installment does. Arnold Vosloo (later to gain fame in “The Mummy”) stars as Darkman in these Renaissance-produced sequels, with “Face/Off” writers Mike Colleary and Mike Werb providing the script for the final effort and supporting turns filled in by Larry Drake (reprising his role of Durant in the first sequel) and Jeff Fahey (as a nefarious drug dealer in the climactic effort).

Both sequels offer 2.0 Dolby Digital sound and 16:9 (1.85) widescreen transfers.

HOME RUN DERBY, Vol. 2 (1959, 225 mins., MGM/Fox): Ironic that MGM’s second volume of episodes from the classic TV series “Home Run Derby” centers around Hank Aaron, especially since Hammerin’ Hank’s home-run record was, of course, recently taken down by alleged steroid user Barry Bonds. Oh well, at least you can enjoy the good o’l days when home-runs were always “legit” in this enjoyable compilation of shows from the old-time series, with Aaron taking on the likes of Eddie Mathews, Al Kaline, Duke Snider and others. Great fun for Golden Age baseball buffs.

AQUA TEEN HUNGER FORCE: The Movie (2007, 87 mins., R; Warner): Weak big-screen spin-off of the Cartoon Network series caused more controversy because of its marketing campaign than generated viewers to see it. Despite its hit-or-miss jokes, fans of the series will enjoy Warner’s two-disc Special Edition set of the ATHF film, with extras including commentaries, a deleted movie (more like a workprint mock-up of the final film) with deleted scenes, music videos, and more.

DOCTOR STRANGE: DVD and Blu Ray (2007, 95 mins., PG-13; Lionsgate): The latest Marvel Comics DVD offering from Lionsgate is a decent adventure starring everyone’s favorite minister of magic, Doctor Stephen Strange. Even if this fairly well-animated offering doesn’t quite match up with my memories of Doc from the heyday of ‘70s and ‘80s Marvel Comics, fans ought to be pleased with the production, which boasts a good assortment of action and solid design.

Lionsgate’s DVD looks spiffy in 16:9 (1.78) widescreen and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, but the high-definition Blu Ray version is even better, boasting razor-sharp crispness and bold colors. Extras include Making Of materials, a first look at the upcoming “Avengers Reborn,” and cinematic “cut screens” from recent Marvel videogames. Worth a look for comic fans.

NEXT TIME: HEROES in High Definition! Until then, don't forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards, check out the new Aisle Seat Blog, and direct any emails to the link above. Cheers everyone!

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