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Although I'm a fan of John Carpenter's early work, I can’t say I’ve ever been a big admirer of ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK. This 1981 sci-fi thriller does, however, have a large contingent of fans, and Snake Plissken buffs everywhere are certain to be satisfied by MGM's Blu-Ray edition (**½, 99 mins., 1981, R), which sports a terrific AVC encoded 1080p presentation that blows away an inferior Blu-Ray that popped up in Europe a year ago.

Kurt Russell's Clint Eastwood-esque performance as Carpenter's quintessential anti-hero anchors the movie, which does, admittedly, deliver a lot of visual bang for what was a quite economical budget back in the early '80s. The auteur's last movie for Avco Embassy Pictures boasted production design by Joe Alves (with work by a young James Cameron) in its telling of a futuristic Manhattan that's been turned into a full-scale prison. Into its motley assortment of criminals, scum and general villainy comes the President of the United States himself (Donald Plesance), who crashes inside, leading the authorities to recruit Snake in a last-ditch attempt at saving his life.

"Escape From New York" is one of those movies that certainly sounds like it can't miss: Russell's performance and the picture's concept seem tailor-made for '80s action fun, yet ever since I first watched the movie in grade school (in a late-night, syndicated TV airing I recorded on VHS), I've been constantly let down by the film every time I've viewed it. Carpenter's lethargic pacing and often humor-less script (written with Nick Castle) plays at odds with what ought to be a crackling suspense thriller, and despite a strong cast (Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, Isaac Hayes, Harry Dean Stanton and Adrienne Barbeau among them), the movie pokes along when it ought to be racing ahead.

That said, the movie has generated a huge cult following over the years, even in spite of Carpenter's hideous 1996 sequel "Escape From L.A." And for Carpenter fans, MGM’s Blu-Ray disc is unparalleled in terms of its presentation: crisp detail permeates through the low-light cinematography in a way that gives new depth to Dean Cundey’s cinematography. By comparison, a Blu-Ray that was produced by Studio Canal (and sold in the UK, France and other territories) looks like a standard-definition upconvert compared to this superior package. DTS Master Audio sound is also on-hand along with a standard DVD edition, but regrettably, none of the extras are carried over from MGM’s 2003 Special Edition release (which sported two commentaries, the deleted opening heist sequence, trailers and featuettes).

MGM has also rolled out several other, affordable Blu-Ray/DVD combo packs (though a planned release of “Blood Simple” was delayed at the last minute), including Dominic Sena’s 1993 serial killer road trip KALIFORNIA (**½, 118 mins., Unrated; presented in a superb AVC encoded transfer with DTS Master Audio sound) and Ron Shelton’s BULL DURHAM (***½, 108 mins., 1988, R; MGM).

Shelton's 1988 hit drew upon his own experience as a minor league ballplayer, represented in the film by semi-veteran Kevin Costner and aspiring Tim Robbins. Susan Sarandon memorably portrays the team groupie who "tutors" (sexually and otherwise) one member of the Durham Bulls each season -- and predicaments naturally arise once Costner grows jealous of Sarandon's exploits with Robbins.

Filled with not only some kinky sex scenes but a genuine understanding of minor league baseball, “Bull Durham” has long been regarded as one of the top sports movies of all-time. Certainly Costner counted this as one of his many hits of the late '80s, a salty comic contrast to the genteel, fantasy baseball world that “Field of Dreams” would offer just a year later. The performances are all excellent, with Sarandon's Annie Savoy representing one of the actresses' most memorable roles, while Bobby Byrne's cinematography captures the essence of the game.

MGM's Blu-Ray disc is, on the whole, a noticeable upgrade from the DVD, even though its MPEG-2 status leads one to believe it was mastered some time ago. As with “Escape From New York,” no special features are included, though at least the corresponding DVD originates from its Special Edition release, offering numerous extras including two commentaries: one featuring Costner and Robbins, the other with writer-director Shelton (a track which I believe was recorded way back when for the Special Edition laserdisc). Both are engaging, and you'll also find recent interviews in the Making Of documentary, with trailers, photo galleries, and assorted profiles rounding out the disc.

New From Warner Home Video

NATIONAL LAMPOON’S VACATION Blu-Ray (***, 98 mins., 1983, R; Warner)
NATIONAL LAMPOON'S EUROPEAN VACATION Blu-Ray (**, 94 mins., 1985, PG-13; Warner)
WHAT’S UP, DOC? Blu-Ray (***½, 94 mins., 1972, G; Warner)

The first two adventures of the Griswold clan arrive on Blu-Ray this month, each in their own separate packages with DTS Master Audio mono audio, crisp VC-1 encoded 1080p transfers, and extras from their prior DVD editions (as well as ugly, reconfigured package artwork).

As penned by John Hughes, the original NATIONAL LAMPOON'S VACATION offers an abundance of laughs as it chronicles Chevy Chase’s futile attempts to provide a perfectly engineered cross-country trip for his wife (Beverly D’Angelo) and kids (Anthony Michael Hall and Dana Barron). Hughes’ mixture of mirth and sentiment, Harold Ramis’ direction and an abundance of memorable sequences make the first “Vacation” the second-best of the series (Hughes’ “Christmas Vacation” improved just a bit on this picture’s formula), while supporting turns from Randy Quaid, Imogene Coca and Christie Brinkley add further fun to the shenanigans.

The PG-13 rated 1985 follow-up EUROPEAN VACATION finds the Griswolds heading overseas after winning a trip on a game show -- predictable wackiness ensues, including run-ins with Victor Lanoux and Eric Idle among others. Unfortunately, aside from Chase and D’Angelo and one hilarious sight gag, most of this “Vacation” feels like an in-name-only ripoff, with particularly grating performances from Dana Hill and Jason Lively as the Griswold kids, and more leering sexual innuendo than its R-rated predecessor as well.

Amy Heckerling ("Fast Times At Ridgemont High") stepped into the director's chair here and began her career-long pattern of following a big hit with a misfire (or two). Robert Klane ("Weekend At Bernie's") is credited with co-writing the script with Hughes, which seems apparent as “European Vacation” is crasser and far less amusing than any of the other "Vacation" installments, leading one to believe that Heckerling and Klane ultimately dictated the tone of the picture. Fortunately, Warner Bros. wisely gave Hughes full control over “Christmas Vacation,” with the late filmmaker not only writing the 1989 yuletide favorite but also producing it -- thereby creating a classic comedy a few years later.

Both “Vacation” movies are appreciable upgrades on their prior DVD editions: Warner has been on a roll of late with their Blu-Ray catalog releases (something that ought to be great news for next month’s bevy of genre releases including “The Exorcist,” “THX-1138" and “Mars Attacks!” among others), and each film appears colorful and crisp, offering heightened detail over their prior DVDs with a welcome lack of excessive noise-reduction (that said, the original “Vacation” is stronger on balance than “European”). Both releases also include a few extras from those DVD editions, including a “Griswold family commentary” on “Vacation” and a dry, tedious talk from Chase on “European Vacation.”

Also new from Warner is a high-def edition of Peter Bogdanovich’s thoroughly engaging, screwball comedy throwback WHAT’S UP, DOC?, with Barbra Streisand, Ryan O’Neal, Michael Murphy, Madeline Kahn, Kenneth Mars, Austin Pendleton, John Hillerman and Randy Quaid (among others) getting into this delicious confection about mixed up suitcases, a stuffy doctor (O’Neal) and the free-spirited woman (Streisand) who wins him from his obnoxious fiancee (Kahn, who’s just terrific in her feature debut).

Bogdanovich produced and directed “What’s Up, Doc?,” working from a story he authored and script that was ultimately written by Buck Henry, David Newman and Robert Benton. This is an infectious movie, a massive success at the time of its release, and Warner’s Blu-Ray pays tribute to the picture with a satisfying VC-1 encoded transfer, DTS Master mono sound, and extras including commentary from Bogdanovich, a scene-specific commentary from Streisand, and both the amusing trailer and a vintage promo featurette.

New From Universal

THE BREAKFAST CLUB: 25th Anniversary Edition Blu-Ray (***½, 97 mins., 1985, R; Universal): John Hughes’ seminal high school genre classic arrives on Blu-Ray in a superb package from Universal. The AVC encoded 1080p transfer is on-par with their earlier HD-DVD version, but the addition of DTS Master Audio as well as a number of extras gives the BD package the edge in terms of overall value.

Though the late Hughes wrote a number of scripts and produced even more films throughout the 1980s, his finest work as a director came with this 1985 tale of a group of divergent high schoolers who ultimately form a bond during a Saturday detention session. Hughes’ incisive script is one of his best, and he receives memorable work from an ensemble cast of “brat packers” (Emilio Estevez, Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, Judd Nelson and Ally Sheedy) who bring the picture to life.

For special features, Universal’s Blu-Ray reprieves the extras of the 2008 DVD release, which was highlighted by a lengthy documentary on the film’s production and cult status, offering comments from stars Sheedy, Nelson and Hall, plus filmmakers like Amy Heckerling, “Heathers”’ Michael Lehmann and “Juno” writer Diablo Cody. This extended doc pays proper respect to the film and Hughes’ legacy, while commentary from Nelson and Hall makes for an entertaining listen on its own. Another extra touches upon the “Brat Pack” phenomenon, and while all of it is nice enough, the absence of Hughes himself along with Molly Ringwald is baffling.

Otherwise, this is a top-notch BD release recommended for all fans of the picture.

HEROES Season 4 Blu-Ray (aprx. 14 hours, 2009-2010; Universal): Though most fans bailed some time ago on Tim Kring’s modern “super-hero” series, the fourth and final season of NBC’s “Heroes” actually offers the program’s most satisfying collection of episodes since its superior first year.

Eschewing the use of seemingly dozens of characters from previous seasons, “Heroes” Season 4 whittles down its story lines to just a few of the series’ most popular characters (Sylar, Claire, Peter, Noah, etc.) while offering fleeting supporting appearances from other series regulars. Although some fans carped about this “stripped down,” budget-conscious approach, it actually results in a more cohesive viewing experience, as the core cast eventually intersects to stop a powerful, charismatic circus ringleader named Samuel Sullivan (the terrific Robert Knepper). Knepper’s portrayal of Samuel is spot on, being alternately sympathetic and villainous, and his character conjures more of a dramatic, interesting menace than most previous “Heroes” bad guys.

Alas, the show was still canceled despite modest (albeit declining) viewership, so “Heroes” fans will have to make due with Universal’s excellent Blu-Ray package of the show’s final season. Marvelously detailed AVC encoded transfers and DTS Master Audio soundtracks adorn all of the 18 episodes, while excellent extras offer numerous HD featurettes, plus deleted and extended scenes and additional picture-in-picture goodies.

New From Criterion

The glorious music of Antonio Carlos Jobim and Luiz Bonfa, and the spectacular cinematography of Rio circa the late ‘50s, provide the colorful sights and sounds of BLACK ORPHEUS (107 mins., 1959), an international smash hit and Foreign Film Oscar-winner that’s long been a part of the Criterion Collection.

This month Criterion brings French director Marcel Camus’ film -- which almost single-handedly launched the “art house” niche – to Blu-Ray in a beautifully realized, remastered transfer, presented in the movie’s intended 1.33 aspect ratio. The new image is so vivid that there are details in the cinematography, especially in its long shots of Rio, that those of us who have only seen the film on the small-screen previously could never have witnessed -- and for a movie that’s all about aesthetics, whether it’s the colors or the music, the HD enhancement is staggering.

The movie itself, a fanciful retelling of the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice with a “Bossa Nova” soundtrack that sits in your head for hours afterwards (I’d compliment it with a playing of Vince Guaraldi’s classic “Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus” interpretation album), is one of those one-of-a-kind movies that’s tough to describe but thoroughly satisfying, even on multiple viewing.

Criterion’s Blu-Ray disc, in addition to its transfer and uncompressed mono sound, also incorporates a number of marvelous extras, including archival interviews with Camus and star Marpessa Dawn, along with video interviews with jazz historians and Brazilian cinema scholars, who chronicle the film’s production and the rise of Bossna Nova genre. A French documentary also profiles the movie’s impact, while a trailer, optional English dubbed soundtrack and Michael Atkinson’s insightful essay round out a highly recommended disc.

Also new from Criterion this month are a pair of DVDs.

UNDERWORLD, THE LAST COMMAND and THE DOCKS OF NETWORK are three silent film classics made by the great Josef von Sternberg. Culled from the Paramount vaults, these three vividly shot offerings memorably portray the struggle of working-class life (“Docks”), the Russian Revolution (“The Last Command”) and the life of a gangster (“Underworld”), each with matching musical scores by either Robert Israel (on all three films) or Alloy Orchestra (“Underworld” and “Last Command”) and Donald Sosin and Joanna Seaton (“Docks of New York”).

Remastered, high-def derived transfers and extras including a 1968 Swedish TV interview with von Sternberg, a pair of visual essays, and an extensive, almost 100-page booklet make this a must-have for silent film enthusiasts.

French director Maurice Pailat’s L’ENFANCE NUE (83 mins., 1968) also joins the Criterion Collection this month. Pailat’s emotionally wrenching tale of a foster child shuttled between homes in late ‘60s Paris is moving and eloquently stated, with Criterion’s DVD again offering a superbly restored, new widescreen (1.66) transfer with extras including a 50-minute documentary about the film; a 1960 Pailat short about life on the outskirts of Paris; a 1973 French TV interview with the director; a visual essay from Kent Jones about the picture; and a video interview with Pailat collaborators Arlette Langmann and Patrick Grandparent.

Also New on Blu-Ray

ROAD TO PERDITION Blu-Ray (***, 117 mins., 2002, R; Paramount): Tom Hanks essays a mob enforcer, working for crime boss Paul Newman, who seeks retribution for the death of his wife and son in this atmospheric adaptation of the Max Allan Collins-Richard Piers Rayner period graphic novel, deftly adapted by writer David Self (“Mad Men”) and director Sam Mendes for the screen.
Their 2002 filming of “Road to Perdition” is a bit slow-moving but rich in its visual details. Full credit for the latter goes to cinematographer Conrad Hall, whose Oscar-winning images adorn this tale of revenge and redemption, as viewed through the eyes of Hanks’ surviving elder son
(Tyler Hoechlin). Newman, Jude Law and Daniel Craig are uniformly fine in the picture, as is Hanks, though his casting still seems like more of a concession to sell tickets than a case of finding the proper fit for the role.

Paramount’s Blu-Ray edition of “Road to Perdition” looks superb; the 1080p widescreen transfer and DTS Master Audio soundtrack are both exceptional, while top-notch extras include an introduction from Mendes (who talks about how the Blu-Ray format enhances the already brilliant visuals of the film), plus commentary from the director, a tribute to Hall (in HD), a Making Of doc, deleted scenes, the trailer, and a “further exploration of the world of ‘Road to Perdition’.”   

DIARY OF A WIMPY KID Blu-Ray (**½, 92 mins., 2010, PG; Fox): Superior kid-fare, an amusing adaptation of Jeff Kinney’s popular book, finds young Zachary Gordon essaying Kinney’s protagonist: a pint-sized kid named Greg Heffley who finds himself trying to navigate his way through the first year of middle school.

Thor Freudenthal, who previously directed the surprisingly decent “Hotel For Dogs,” seems to have a knack for making children’s pictures that manage to be legitimately funny in addition to wholesome, as “Wimpy Kid” offers some big laughs for kids and adults alike. While this isn’t a classic film for its genre, and at times it moves a bit too frenetically through its 90-minutes for its own good, the movie manages to work for the most part, with amusing supporting turns from Steve Zahn and Rachael Harris as Gordon’s lost parents, and a bouncy soundtrack filled with tunes and Theodore Shapiro’s satisfying underscoring.

Fox’s Blu-Ray package serves up a bullseye, with a flawless AVC encoded 1080p transfer, DTS Master Audio soundtrack, BD extras including deleted scenes and featurettes aimed at the little ones, plus a DVD and digital copy disc included for good measure.

THE LAST SONG Blu-Ray (**, 107 mins., 2010, PG; Touchstone): I can’t say I’ve been a huge admirer of the cinematic adaptations produced so far from author Nicholas Sparks’ bestsellers, since the lot of them have come across as slightly more maudlin and adult versions of melodramatic “Hallmark Hall of Fame” TV fare.

This Disney version of Sparks’ “The Last Song” was produced as a vehicle for studio darling Miley Cyrus, and performed well enough with her legion of young fans that the picture did alright at the spring box-office. As a movie, though, it’s a creaky old melodrama with Cyrus’ free-spirited teen reconnecting with her ailing father (Greg Kinnear) during one fateful summer.

Sparks himself and Jeff Van Wie are credited with authoring the script, which gives Cyrus a chance to croon some tunes, but it’s all formula stuff through and through, right down to its contrived plot developments.

Disney’s Blu-Ray edition of “The Last Song” does contain a lovely AVC encoded transfer, enhancing the lush cinematography of John Lindley, while DTS Master Audio sound, deleted scenes, an alternate opening, a Cyrus music video, commentary, and a copy of the standard-def DVD complete the package.

FURRY VENGEANCE Blu-Ray (**, 92 mins., PG, 2010; Summit): So this is what it’s come to for Brendan Fraser -- anytime you’ve got a wacky special effects picture he’s the first on the “On Call” list?

Roger Kumble’s career never went very far after making a big splash with the Sarah Michelle Gellar-Reese Witherspoon teen fave “Cruel Intentions,” and he’s been saddled here with helming Fraser in the instantly forgettable “Furry Vengeance.” Fraser tries to put a tired script about woodland critters trying to stop a new housing development over the top, but the movie is essentially just an inoffensive comedy for kids without much interest for adults (only Ken Jeong mines a few laughs for anyone over the age of 10).

A co-production with an Abu Dhabi investment group, “Furry Vengeance” failed to muster much in the way of box-office last spring, making its fast arrival on Blu-Ray unsurprising. Summit’s Blu-Ray/DVD combo disc offers both good-looking HD (1080p, DTS Master Audio) and standard def (16:9 widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital) presentations with numerous extras including commentary with Kumble and the cast, deleted scenes, a gag reel and behind-the-scenes featurettes.

THE JONESES Blu-Ray (**½, 96 mins., 2009, R; Fox): Uneven but well-performed comic-drama with Demi Moore and David Duchovny as salespeople who move into a suburban neighborhood, posing as a married couple (complete with fake kids!), in order to sell consumer goods. It’s a fascinating premise on the part of writer-director Derrick Borte, and Moore and Duchovny are both terrific here, along with Gary Cole and Glenne Headly, who add solid support; unfortunately the film’s funny first half turns sour when it becomes more serious and preachy in its concluding frames. Still, “The Joneses” is worth a view in spite of its shortcomings, and Fox’s Blu-Ray disc includes a fine AVC-encoded 1080p transfer and DTS Master Audio soundtrack on its single-layer 25gb platter; lone extras are several deleted scenes.

DATE NIGHT Blu-Ray (**½, 88 mins., 2010, PG-13; Fox): Watchable studio concoction works amiably enough as a vehicle for TV comedy stars Steve Carell and Tina Fey, who are put through the “Jr. After Hours” paces of Josh Lausner’s script by producer-director Shawn Levy. Carell and Fey play a married couple looking for a rare night on the town when they get themselves into mischief, mobsters and Mark Wahlberg; it’s pretty much standard-issue fare that gets by, barely, on the chemistry between the two leads and functions well enough to recommend as a rental. Fox’s Blu-Ray disc boasts loads of special features including deleted scenes, an extended unrated version of the film, commentary by Levy, numerous featurettes and camera tests, a gag reel, and a digital copy for portable media players. Dean Semler’s cinematography, meanwhile, comes across quite well in the AVC-encoded 1080p transfer while DTS Master Audio sound rounds out the package.

THE BACK-UP PLAN Blu-Ray (**½, 104 mins., 2010, PG-13; Sony): Not-completely-bad romantic comedy gives Jennifer Lopez one of her better vehicles as a single New Yorker whose primary goal is to meet the man of her dreams. After striking out on that front, J-Lo decides to go with Option #2: being artificially inseminated so she can have a baby...something that causes predictable complications when she actually meets the right guy (Alex O’Loughlin).

Not nearly as horrific as it sounds, “The Back-Up Plan” did moderate business at the box-office last spring, and likely will find a larger audience on video. Lopez and O’Loughlin have some solid chemistry together, and while Kate Angelo’s script offers scant surprises, Alan Poul keeps the film moving at a steady pace. There’s nothing here you haven’t seen before, but at least it’s well executed on the whole.

Sony’s Blu-Ray edition of “The Back-Up Plan” arrives next week, offering a superior AVC encoded transfer with DTS Master Audio sound and extras including deleted scenes and a Making Of featurette.

$5 A DAY Blu-Ray (**½, 98 mins., 2008, PG-13; Image): Entertaining, if predictable, road trip movie with ailing con man Christopher Walken hooking up with his estranged son Alessandro Nivola on a journey to get Walken emergency medical treatment. However, their travels are reliant on Walken’s insistence that the duo make the trip happen for just $5 a day (not even Rachael Ray could do that!). Nigel Cole’s movie offers some pleasant moments and relaxed performances from Walken, Nivola, Amanda Peet, Sharon Stone and Peter Coyote, along with a decent Alex Wurman score. Image’s Blu-Ray disc of this 2008 independent production includes cast/crew interviews along with the trailer and still galleries, plus a 1080p transfer and 5.1 DTS Master Audio soundtrack.

SKELLIG: THE OWL MAN Blu-Ray (***, 104 mins., 2009, PG; Image): Surprisingly good British TV movie, an adaptation of a popular novel by David Almond, finds Tim Roth as a mysterious “owl man” with special powers who helps a young boy overcome a variety of fears.

With its “Harry Potter” styled cover art, it’s clear Image is hoping to lure in the same type of young viewers for this well-crafted fantasy, and I wouldn’t at all be shocked if those audiences enjoyed “Skellig” as well. Annabelle Jankel does a solid job helming this heartwarming film, getting a nice assist from composer Stephen Warbeck and amiable performances from the cast -- it’s nothing extraordinary but the picture’s balance of fantasy with more realistic elements make for a recommended view.

Image’s Blu-Ray disc sports a fine 1080p transfer with DTS Master Audio sound.

ABANDONED Blu-Ray (*½, 93 mins., 2010, PG-13; Anchor Bay): Like a lot of “last movies” for fallen stars, “Abandoned” is a depressing picture on a number of levels, not the least of which is that it stars a sickly-looking Brittany Murphy in her final role.

Murphy plays a woman who brings her boyfriend (a puffy Dean Cain) to the hospital for surgery, only to have him disappear and the authorities (including an insanely bad performance from Peter Bogdanovich of all people) question her sanity.

It’s a typical “is it real or not?” type of thriller given a routine treatment by writer Peter Sullivan and director Michael Feifer – one of those movies nobody would give a second glance to had Murphy not tragically died after the picture’s completion.

For curious viewers “Abandoned” hits Blu-Ray shortly from Anchor Bay in a barebones presentation, backed by a decent 1080p transfer and standard 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack.

CITY ISLAND Blu-Ray (***, 104 mins., 2009, PG-13; Anchor Bay): Breezy, entertaining ensemble comedy stars Andy Garcia as a family man and Bronx corrections officer who aspires to be an actor, but wants to hide it from his domineering wife (Julianna Marguiles)...so much that he’d rather have Marguiles believe he’s having an affair than taking acting lessons! Raymond de Felitta’s family drama also offers equally odd predicaments for their kids (one’s moonlighting as a stripper; the other is addicted to watching big women eat on the internet), but somehow it all comes together to form a zesty brew with terrific support turned in from Alan Arkin and Emily Mortimer as well. Anchor Bay’s Blu-Ray disc sports a vivid 1080p transfer with a digital copy, uncompressed PCM audio, and extras including deleted scenes, a featurette, and commentary from De Felitta and Garcia. A legitimate sleeper “City Island” comes strongly recommended!

MACHINE GUN McCAIN Blu-Ray (**½, 96 mins., 1969, Not Rated; Blue Underground): Seldom-screened Italian gangster vehicle receives a spiffy high-def treatment from Blue Underground, who have uncovered a genuine curio for movie buffs with “Machine Gun McCain.”

John Cassavetes stars as the title character -- a West Coast mobster newly released from prison, who finds himself wrapped up in a fellow mafioso’s (Peter Falk) plan to run a Vegas casino – only to have a high-level don (Gabriele Ferzetti) crack down on both of them in a typical Italian stew of cliches, dubbed dialogue and a fairly forgettable Ennio Morricone score.

What saves “McCain” from the bevy of other B-grade genre films of its era is the casting: not only do we have Cassavetes and Falk but also Britt Ekland and a brief appearance from Gena Rowlands, all of which adds a bit of interest to the action. And, speaking of action, there’s not a whole lot of it on-hand in Guilano Montaldo’s 1969 film (which Columbia released theatrically), but on the plus side, vintage Vegas location shooting and the cast make it watchable for genre enthusiasts.

Blue Underground’s Blu-Ray presentation is a winner: the AVC encoded 1080p transfer is excellent, while DTS HD mono sound, an interview with Montaldo, and both the English and Italian trailers round out one of the label’s strongest Blu-Ray releases of late.

New TV on DVD

GOSSIP GIRL: Season 3 DVD (930 mins., 2009-10; Warner): Season three of the popular CW network series “Gossip Girl” finds most of its characters having graduated from high school and headed for college, which means an influx of both new faces (Hilary Duff appears as a movie star coed) and returning cast members (Michelle Trachtenburg’s Georgina) are on-tap while Gossip Girl (heard only in Kristen Bell’s narration) herself continues to expose all kinds of scandals among young people on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

Warner’s five-disc DVD edition of “Gossip Girl”’s third season, which offers guest star stints from Tyra Banks, Gina Torres and Laura Harring, boasts the amusingly titled episodes “Reversals of Fortune,” “The Freshmen,” “The Lost Boy,” “Dan de Fluerette,” “Rufus Getting Married,” “Enough About Eve,” “How to Succeed in Brashness,” “The Grandfather Part II,” “They Shoot Humphreys Don’t They,” “The Last Days of Disco Stick,” “The Treasure of Serena Madre,” “The Debarted,” “The Hurt Locket,” “The Sixteen Year Old Virgin,” “The Empire Strikes Jack,” “Inglorious Bassterds,” “The Unblairable Lightness of Being,” “Dr. Estrangeloved,” “It’s a Dad, Dad, Dad, Dad World,” “Ex-Husbands and Wives,” and “Last Tango, Then Paris.”

All 22 episodes are presented in excellent-looking 16:9 transfers with 5.1 soundtracks and extras including unaired scenes, a gag reel, music videos, a featurette and an “interactive viewing experience” on “The Empire Strikes Jack.”

UGLY BETTY: Season 4 DVD (860 mins., 2009-2010; Buena Vista): Few series have fallen harder and faster than ABC’s “Ugly Betty.” The show was heralded as a breath of fresh air by critics and viewers upon its debut several years ago, but contrived writing and a general lack of direction doomed the series’ longevity. By the time “Ugly Betty” finished its fourth season last year, it went out with barely a whimper, banished to the dead zone on the network’s prime-time schedule.

Regardless, die-hard series fans may want to complete their DVD collections of the show with this final box-set from Buena Vista, offering the last 20 episodes of “Ugly Betty” in 16:9 transfers with 5.1 soundtracks. Extras include deleted scenes, commentary, bloopers, webisodes, and a Bahamas location shoot featurette.

COUGAR TOWN: Season 1 DVD (520 mins., 2009-2010; Buena Vista): Not-bad ABC comedy follows Courteney Cox as a divorcee and single mom who jumps back into the dating game.

Kevin Biegel and Bill Lawrence’s series manages to be less frenetic than Lawrence’s “Scrubs,” with an appealing turn from Cox as the show’s heroine and solid support added by Busy Philipps and Christa Miller. The series got off to a bit of a rocky start but found its footing midway through (according to most series fans) so it’s one of those cases where some patience may be needed to fully get into it.

Offering its complete first season in 16:9 (1.78) transfers and 5.1 soundtracks, “Cougar Town”’s DVD package also sports bloopers, deleted scenes, and a number of featurettes.

HAWAII FIVE-0: The Ninth Season DVD (aprx. 20 hours, 1976-77; CBS/Paramount): Even though die-hard fans will tell you that the immortal CBS action-adventure series “Hawaii Five-0" had played out most of its best episodes by the time it entered its ninth (1976-77) season, the majority of viewers seem to regard Season 9 as the last generally “good” year of the program, making its new arrival on DVD that much more exciting for the series’ admirers.

CBS’ six-disc box-set of “Hawaii Five-0"’s ninth season offers all 23 episodes in remastered, crisp full-screen transfers. These include “Nine Dragons” (parts 1 and 2), “Assault on the Palace,” “Oldest Profession, Latest Price,” “Man on Fire,” “Tour de Force, Killer Aboard,” “The Last of the Great Paperhangers,” “Heads You’re Dead,” “Let Death Do Us Part,” “Double Exposure,” “Yes, My Deadly Daughter,” “Target: A Cop,” “The Bells Toll at Noon,” “Man in a Steel Frame,” “Ready...Aim,” “Elegy in a Rain Forest,” “Dealer's Choice -- Blackmail,” “A Capitol Crime,” “To Die in Paradise,” “Blood Money Is Hard to Wash,” “To Kill a Mind,” “Requiem for a Saddle Bronc Rider,” “See How She Runs,” and “Practical Jokes Can Kill You.”

Fans should note CBS has a box-set planned of the series’ first nine years due out later this month as well, in preparation for the new prime-time remake’s arrival this September.

DEXTER - Season 4 DVD (aprx. 11 hours, 2009; CBS/Paramount): Michael C. Hall returns as the serial killer turned husband and father in Season 4 of “Dexter,” Showtime’s eccentric crime thriller, which boasts an excellent turn from John Lithgow as the “Trinity Killer.” CBS’ four-disc edition of “Dexter”’s fourth season includes interviews with Hall, Lithgow, co-stars Julie Benz, Jennifer Carpenter and Cylde Phillips, plus a number of bonus episodes from other Showtime series. The 16:9 transfers and 5.1 soundtracks are all top-notch.

BEING HUMAN Season 1 Blu-Ray (343 mins., 2009; BBC): Fitfully engaging BBC series about a pair of English hospital workers (Russell Tovey and Aidan Turner) who are, respectively, a werewolf and vampire, and their relationship with a female ghost (Lenora Crichlow) who haunts their new home has met with positive reaction from American viewers via its airings on BBC America.

For those who might’ve missed the series or don’t have the channel on their cable or dish systems, “Being Human” arrives on Blu-Ray this month in a terrific high-def package from BBC Home Video. 1080i HD transfers and Dolby Digital stereo soundtracks comprise the two-disc set (making it a good deal more satisfying visually than the poorly-compressed standard-def broadcasts we Directv customers have had to deal with), along with a fair selection of extras – deleted scenes, behind the scenes featurettes, video diaries, an interview with creator Toby Whithouse and more among them.

SUPER FRIENDS Season 1, Volume 2 DVD (360 mins., Warner): More vintage Hanna-Barbera Saturday morning goodness is on-tap in a new double-disc anthology of classic “Super Friends” episodes. This latest Warner DVD release includes “The Balloon People,” “The Fantastic FREPs,” “The Ultra Beam,” “The Menace of the White Dwarf,” “The Mysterious Moles,” “Gulliver’s Gigantic Goof,” “The Planet-Splitter” and “The Watermen,” along with a trivia game.       

FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS - Complete Collection DVD (690 mins., HBO): Amiable HBO series about a pair of New Zealand folk singers struggling to make it in New York City lands a bona-fide Special Edition anthology box-set, offering the series’ complete run as well as the debut of “Flight of the Conchords: One Night Stand,” a 2005 concert premiere with stars Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie performing in front of a live audience. Extras include a full documentary feature, commercials, deleted scenes and outtakes, plus a 16:9 transfer on the series itself and 2.0/5.1 audio.

TEMPLE GRANDIN DVD (109 mins., 2010; HBO): Claire Dances shines in this true story about a woman diagnosed with Autism and her struggles to communicate at a time when little was known about the disease. Excellent performances from Danes, Catherine O’Hara, Julia Ormond and David Strathairn make this HBO original movie well worth viewing; HBO’s DVD edition offers a strong 16:9 transfer with 5.1 audio, commentary and a Making Of featurette.

SORORITY WARS DVD (89 mins., 2009; Vivendi): Good-natured Lifetime original movie about a perky freshman (the fetching Lucy Hale) who decides to turn against her mom’s sorority by pledging at their rag-tag rival. “Sorority Wars” isn’t as clever or appealing as ABC Family’s “Greek” but it’s pretty entertaining as far as made-for-TV fluff like this goes; Vivendi’s DVD boasts a 16:9 transfer with 5.1 audio.

New From History/A&E

THE UNIVERSE: OUR SOLAR SYSTEM Blu-Ray (aprx. 8 hours, 2007; A&E/New Video): Anthology release of the “best” episodes from the popular A&E series, which mixes science with a bit of speculation and a lot of special effects. Episodes in this two-disc, 1080i HD package include “Secrets of the Sun,” “Mars: The Red Planet,” “The End of the Earth: Deep Space Threads To Our Planet,” “Jupiter: The Giant Planet,” “The Moon,” “Spaceship Earth,” “The Inner Planets: Mercury and Venus,” “Saturn: Lord of the Rings,” “Alien Galaxies” and “Life and Death of a Star.” Excellent transfers are an appreciable upgrade from this release’s prior DVD edition.

PAWN STARS Season 2 DVD (aprx. 12 hours, 2009-10; A&E/New Video): Box-set release from the successful A&E series sports 32 second-season “Pawn Stars” episodes on four discs, once again following the Harrison family as they navigate through collectibles of all kinds in order to uncover the truly worthwhile. Additional footage, widescreen transfers and stereo soundtracks adorn this Season 2 package.

GANGLAND Season 5 DVD (aprx. 9 hours, 2009; History/New Video): Gang life in America is the subject of this History Channel series, which profiles both rural and metropolitan gangs with interviews, revealing footage and historian interviews all included. History’s three-disc set follows 11 modern-day gangs with widescreen transfers and stereo soundtracks comprising the technical end of things.

AX-MEN: Season 3 DVD (aprx. 10 hours, 2010; A&E/New Video): Six crews of hard-working ax-men, profiled from Florida to Louisiana and the Pacific Northwest, tackle some of the world’s most dangerous jobs in this high-rated A&E reality series. Season three of “Ax-Men” comes to DVD later this month from A&E in a four-disc release offering a number of extra features (extra footage and featurettes), widescreen transfers and stereo soundtracks. Timber!

New on DVD

THE CITY OF YOUR FINAL DESTINATION DVD (***, 118 mins., 2009, PG-13; Screen Media): James Ivory’s latest film is a typically stately, leisurely told and beautifully rendered adaptation of Peter Cameron’s novel about a young man (Omar Metwally) who travels to South America in the hopes of writing an biography of a famous author; upon arriving in scenic Uruguay he meets with the author’s brother (Anthony Hopkins), widow (Laura Linney) and mistress (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and becomes intoxicated not just with them but the surroundings of scenic Uruguay itself.

Jeavier Aguirresarobe’s lush cinematography and the performances make this a special treat, with Screen Media’s DVD boasting a 16:9 widescreen transfer and extras including comments from Ivory and a Making Of featurette.

DEATH AT A FUNERAL DVD (**, 92 mins., 2010, R; Sony): Labored American remake of Frank Oz’s 2007 British comedy offers a standard-issue recycling of its predecessor (both versions are credited to writer Dean Craig), wherein a group of family members gather to mourn the death of their matriarch. The predominantly African-American cast here is terrific (Chris Rock, Martin Lawrence, Tracy Morgan, Danny Glover), but outside of a few laughs the energy level in this “Death” is a lot lower than the original, with director Neil Labute – helming his second film since the disastrous remake of “The Wicker Man” – failing to match Oz’s comic timing. Sony’s DVD edition includes a capable 16:9 (2.40) transfer, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, and extras including commentary, deleted scenes, a gag reel and several featurettes.

CEMETERY JUNCTION DVD (**, 95 mins., 2010, R; Sony): The original “Office” duo, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, reteamed to write and direct this “slice of life” dramedy about a young man (Christian Cooke) in early ‘70s England who has to navigate between hanging with his pals (Tom Hughes, Jack Doolan) and courting the daughter (Felicity Jones) of his boss (Ralph Fiennes). Released theatrically in England, Sony opted to send “Cemetery Junction” to DVD in the U.S., where it comes across as a fairly hackneyed, predictable sort of nostalgia trip with small roles for Emily Watson, Matthew Goode and Gervais himself thrown into the mix. Sony’s DVD offers a large array of supplements, from commentaries to deleted scenes, bloopers, interviews with Gervais and Merchant and more. The 16:9 (2.40) widescreen transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack are both top-notch.

UNDER THE MOUNTAIN DVD (91 mins., 2010, PG-13; Lionsgate): New Zealand-produced fantasy about teens who find shape-shifting creatures lurking beneath Auckland’s extinct volcanoes hits DVD from Lionsgate. WETA Digital provided the special effects for this hum-drum B-effort co-starring Sam Neill and a cast of unknowns (at least on this side of the pond), with Lionsgate’s DVD offering a 16:9 transfer, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound and a number of extras, including commentaries and a featurette.

CASH DVD (108 mins., 2010, R; Lionsgate): Sean Bean and Chris Hemsworth (the man who will be “Thor”) star in this Chicago-based crime thriller co-starring vets Mike Starr and Glenn Plummer. Lionsgate’s DVD includes a commentary with director Stephen Milburn Anderson, a Making Of, deleted/extended scenes, and a 16:9 (1.78) transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.
BURNING BRIGHT DVD (86 mins., 2009, PG-13; Lionsgate): A hurricane and a hungry tiger are a few of the things Briana Evigan has to contend with in this direct-to-video schlocker from director Carlos Brooks. Lionsgate’s DVD sports a 16:9 (1.78) transfer, 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack, introduction from Evigan and a special effects featurette.

WOLVERINE AND THE X-MEN: Final Crisis Trilogy DVD (66 mins., 2008; Lionsgate): Sixth volume of episodes from the animated series “Wolverine and the X-Men” offers the first season’s finale – three episodes that form the “Final Crisis Trilogy.” Widescreen (16:9, 1.78) transfers and 5.1 stereo soundtracks adorn the release, which also features a commentary from series producers Craig Kyle, Greg Johnson and Chris Yost. No word on whether or not a full-episode Season 1 DVD set will follow.

THE BAD MOTHER’S HANDBOOK DVD (70 mins., 2007, PG-13; Lionsgate): TV movie with “Twilight”’s Robert Pattinson as a young man helping his pregnant girlfriend receives a DVD release on this side of the pond from Lionsgate. Both a 16:9 (1.78) transfer and 5.1 audio comprise the barebones disc’s technical presentation.

MY NAME IS KHAN DVD (161 mins., 2010, PG-13; Fox): Indian-U.S. co-production brings two of Bollywood’s biggest draws together in a story of an Indian man (Shah Rukh Khan) who comes to the U.S., meets a single mother (Kajol), and settles down only to encounter racial prejudice following 9/11. Massively overlong and melodramatic, this Bollywood production was a massive hit in its native country, with Fox paying a near-record for its distribution rights. The studio’s Region 1 DVD boasts a 16:9 (2.35) transfer, 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack, and extras including several featurettes.

SQUEAL DVD (80 mins., 2008, R; E1): Crazed horror outing from director Tony Swansey and co-writer Dennis Doornbos chronicles what happens when a rock group runs afoul of mutant pig/human hybrid killers on a small farm. “Squeal” is standard hack ‘n slash fare but it earns some points for its overall insanity – particularly its post-end credits bit which is impossible to describe. E1's DVD contains a 16:9 transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

ADDICTED TO HER LOVE DVD (98 mins., 2006, R; E1): Veteran screenwriter Wesley Strick co-wrote this well-executed indie film (originally titled “Love is the Drug”) with Lizzy Caplan as gorgeous high school grad who fancies John Patrick Amedori’s outsider. E1's DVD of “Addicted to Her Love” boasts a 16:9 transfer, 5.1 sound, commentary with Amedori and director Elliott Lester, a Making Of featurette, and a photo gallery.

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