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when sci-fi movies were about more than just special effects, THE LAST STARFIGHTER
(***½, 101 mins., 1984, PG; Universal) became a sleeper
hit during the summer of 1984. Also New on Blu-Ray
Lance Guest plays a high school student and college hopeful who finds out his high score on the video game “Starfighter” is worth more than a few bonus tokens. Guest is soon whisked away to another galaxy by a Harold Hill-like hustler (Robert Preston, utterly charming here as re-channels his “Music Man” role) to save the universe with the help of an extraterrestrial co-pilot (Dan O’Herilhy). Will Guest save the day, or will his heart forever belong to his loving girlfriend (Catherine Mary Stewart) back on Earth?
The combination of Jonathan Betuel’s script with Nick Castle’s on-target direction results in a marvelously entertaining movie that mixes sci-fi with comedy and a charming romance between Guest and Stewart. The performances are all terrific, from the appealing young leads to old pros Preston and O’Herilhy, while Craig Safan’s outstanding score -- unquestionably one of the finest of the 1980s -- graces the drama and enhances the movie at every turn.
While the movie’s computer-generated effects were cutting edge for their time (and have, obviously, dated a little bit), “The Last Starfighter” wasn’t just another “Tron.” The film’s enormous amount of heart and warm characterizations continue to sustain the film some 25 years after its original release, making it one of the best of the so-called “‘Star Wars’ clones” that appeared in the years following the release of George Lucas’ original classic.
Universal’s Blu-Ray edition of “The Last Starfighter” is pretty much on-par with its HD-DVD counterpart from two years ago. That transfer was soft and downright fuzzy in places, and while the Blu-Ray seems to have been sourced from the exact same master, at least the application of a bit of noise reduction -- in this instance -- helps out a bit of the fuzziness. While I’m typically opposed to the use of “DNR”, in this particular case, since it’s not just grain that the transfer seems to be smoothing over, I admit that it’s a bit more satisfying than the HD-DVD transfer, if still a bit problematic. There’s no such trouble, meanwhile, with the DTS Master Audio soundtrack, which provides a nice soundstage for Safan’s score.
Extras are carried over from past releases (commentary with Castle and production designer Rob Cobb; a Making Of doc; trailers; and an image gallery) with one exception: a new half-hour retrospective (in HD) sporting interviews with Castle, Beutel, producer Gary Adelson, Guest, Stewart (who looks terrific), and Craig Safan as well, who discusses the creation of his score, with the filmmakers rightly praising its effectiveness. Highly recommended in spite of its mediocre transfer.
Lionsgate, meanwhile, has several catalog titles debuting on Blu this month.
CUTTHROAT ISLAND (**, 119 mins., 1995, PG-13) followed Kevin Costner’s “Waterworld” as one of the decade’s most expensive, water-logged adventures -- an over-budget and equally troubled shoot that finds pirate heroine Geena Davis cavorting in the Carribean, searching for lost loot with the help of Matthew Modine and trying to avoid dastardly villain Frank Langella. Renny Harlin directed this infamous Carolco production which basically sunk the company, since unlike “Waterworld,” “Cutthroat Island” bombed at the box-office, returning little to off-set its massive production costs. As it stands, the movie may well be the biggest flop in the history of cinema -- the U.S. grosses totaling just $10 million and the production costs being a reported ten times that amount.
The movie itself is watchable but awfully pedestrian in the screenplay department, presaging the superior “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies but offering none of their charm or humor. Davis gives it her all but she’s not entirely convincing as one of the first female pirate captains of the Seven Seas, while Modine -- subbing for Michael Douglas, who (wisely) exited the project late in pre-production over concerns of Davis getting more screen time -- lacks any chemistry with our leading lady. The sets, production design (by veteran Norman Garwood) and Peter Levy cinematography are all top-notch, but the story is hollow and unappealing. John Debney’s score, while a fan favorite, works overtime to generate enthusiasm and set a sense of majesty for the story, but it’s only partially successful in doing so and, occasionally, is too bombastic for its own good.
Lionsgate’s Blu-Ray disc is a nice package, offering -- for the first time in the U.S. -- a commentary track from Renny Harlin that’s surprisingly candid (Harlin talks about the film’s problematic shoot in good detail), along with trailers and an archival Making Of featurette. The AVC encoded 1080p transfer and DTS Master Audio soundtrack are both superb.
Lionsgate has also rolled out an equally fine Blu-Ray presentation of Roman Polanski's overlong and disappointing THE NINTH GATE (**, 133 mins., 1999, R), with Johnny Depp as an antique book specialist who is lured into finding a long-lost volume that will supposedly lure Old Scratch to Earth. Aside from a few gratuitous sex scenes, this is a passionless, leaden affair, with Depp -- who reportedly hated working on the film -- appearing confused throughout. Only Frank Langella's wry supporting performance brings any life to the picture.
The Blu-Ray features an excellent AVC encoded 1080p transfer, DTS Master Audio soundtrack, along with trailers, production notes, commentary by Polanski himself, a featurette, storyboards and a “satanic drawing” gallery. Regrettably the disc leaves off the DVD’s isolated score track of Wojiciech Kilar's redundant but often quirky soundtrack, one that's at least more interesting than the movie itself.
Finally there’s REPLICANT (***,100 mins., 2001, R; Lionsgate), a Jean-Claude Van Damme thriller that arrived at a time when the action star was beginning his transition to the small-screen. This taut and exciting twist on the same old martial arts nonsense is directed stylishly by Ringo Lam and backed by a superb performance from the always dependable Michael Rooker.
Rooker plays a veteran cop -- on the verge of retirement -- obsessed with tracking down a serial killer (Van Damme #1) who preys on mothers with young children. The "National Security Council" decides to genetically create a clone of the killer (Van Damme #2) that's nowhere as evil, yet just as physically talented, holding a physic link with his very nasty, "real" twin.
With a reasonably strong budget at hand here, Lam is able to craft an efficient thriller with just enough action to keep fans watching, while the Lawrence David Riggins-Les Weldon script actually bothers to develop characters -- concentrating especially on the relationship between the "Muscles from Brussles" and Rooker.
It's no classic, but “Replicant” is still superior B-movie entertainment, managing to strike the right balance between sci-fi and action that eluded Van Damme in his promising but ultimately disappointing 1994 hit "Timecop."
Lionsgate’s BD disc includes the same extras from the original DVD, including Van Damme and Rooker’s audio commentary, a full slate of deleted scenes culled from a workprint, and storyboards. The 1080p transfer and DTS Master Audio soundtrack are both perfectly acceptable.
New TV on DVD/Blu-Ray
SMALLVILLE Season 8 Blu-Ray (1012 mins., 2008-09; Warner): The first season of the long-running WB/CW series without series creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, as well as co-stars Michael Rosenbaum (Lex Luthor) and John Glover (Lex’s father Lionel), can be basically grouped into three sections: episodes which prominently feature Erica Durance’s Lois Lane, episodes which don’t, and others that spotlight the return of Lana Lang (guest star Kristin Kreuk, who owed the series a group of episodes after she departed prematurely in the seventh season). The first of that trio work surprisingly well, giving the show some of its liveliest moments in some time; the second of that group pale in comparison; and the latter bring the core story line to a complete and total halt midway through the year.
It’s uneven to be sure, and certainly does not finish as strongly as it began, but some of the early episodes in Season 8 are “Smallville”’s best in years, especially the ones that focus on the interplay between Lois and the still-not-Superman Clark Kent (the always dependable Tom Welling). Durance’s personable, perky and attractive portrayal of Lois also doesn’t shy away from illustrating some of the heroine’s vulnerability and mounting attraction to the usually oblivious Clark -- who this year has to contend with the arrival of a new Luthorcorp CEO (Cassidy Freeman’s Tess, who takes over for the vanished Lex) and a Kryptonian monster named Doomsday, who comes calling in the form of otherwise mild-mannered paramedic Davis Bloom (Sam Witwer). Green Arrow (Justin Hartley) is also around as a semi-regular, and there are appearances by the “Legion” (of Super-Heroes), the Justice League, and femme fatale/magician Zatanna as well. Unfortunately, the tone set by the show’s first group of episodes is undone once Lana Lang reappears to rekindle her relationship with Clark -- albeit with a new hidden agenda -- and the show takes a step backwards, going over terrain we’ve seen beaten to death already in prior seasons. Once Lois reappears after an extended hiatus, the show regains its footing, but the ending proves to be a letdown after all the build-up.
“Smallville”’s eighth season has been brought to Blu-Ray in a fine package from Warner Home Video. The VC-1 encoded transfers and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks are all top-notch, with commentary offered on two episodes, a smattering of deleted scenes (in HD), and two featurettes rounding out the special features.
SUPERNATURAL: Season 4 Blu-Ray (924 mins., 2008-09; Warner): Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles are back as the Winchester brothers, who kick things off by rescuing Dean from hell, aided by an angel who recruits the duo into helping prevent further calamity from spreading to Earth. “Supernatural” has, by now, settled into a solid groove that its fans continue to support even on the meager CW Network, with Season 4 offering more thrills, chills, and crazy nemesis (including Dracula himself) for horror addicts. Warner’s Blu-Ray edition of “Supernatural”’s fourth season boasts some gorgeous 1080p transfers and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks, along with a good array of special features in HD, including a three-part featurette, three commentary tracks from creator Eric Kripke, a gag reel, and deleted/extended scenes.
SONS OF ANARCHY Season 1 DVD and Blu-Ray (594 mins., 2008; Fox): Creator Kurt Sutter (“The Shield”) has fashioned an effectively cast, violent FX series about a gang of outlaw bikers who take justice (and injustice) into their own hands. Katey Sagal and Ron Perlman are tremendous as the married leaders of the “Sons of Anarchy,” with Charlie Hunnam as their conflicted son and “Man Men” alumnus Maggie Siff as Hunnam’s former high school love. Fox has brought “Sons of Anarchy” to both DVD and Blu-Ray in excellent packages: the DVD boasting crisp 16:9 transfers and 5.1 audio, the Blu-Ray with even more detailed AVC encoded 1080p transfers and DTS Master Audio soundtracks. Both platforms include extras including commentary on selected episodes, several Making Of featurettes and deleted scenes. Recommended.
THE SIMPSONS Season 12 DVD (473 mins., 2000-01; Fox): Kicking off with the 11th “Treehouse of Terror” episode (which offers, among other things, a parody of “Day of the Dolphin”), this 12th season of Fox’s animation staple hits DVD this month in a features-packed special edition. This four-disc set includes all 21 episodes of “The Simpson”’s 12th season in 1.33 full-screen transfers and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks, with extras including an introduction from Matt Groening, commentaries from creative staff on each episode, deleted scenes with commentary, commercials, multi-angle animation storyboard sequences and more.
TWO AND A HALF MEN Season 6 DVD (513 mins., 2008-09; Warner): CBS continues to have a stranglehold on Monday night ratings thanks to the continually dominant performance of this sitcom with Charlie Sheen and Jon Cryer doing a modern take on “The Odd Couple” -- with the added presence of Angus T. Jones as Cryer’s son. Warner’s DVD of “Two and a Half Men”’s sixth season includes 16:9 (1.85) transfers, 2.0 stereo soundtracks, a gag reel, a profile of Jones and his character Jake Harper, plus interviews with Sheen and Cryer’s female cohorts.
NCIS Season 6 DVD (aprx. 18 hours, 2008-09; CBS/Paramount): Producer Donald P. Bellisario’s naval justice series with Mark Harmon, a spin-off of his popular show “Jag,” has become one of CBS’ top-rated series -- going so far as to instigate a spin-off of its own with Chris O’Donnell and LL Cool J which hits the airwaves this fall. “NCIS” fans who might’ve missed this past season (the show’s sixth) would be wise to check out CBS’ box-set sporting excellent 16:9 transfers, 5.1 soundtracks, selected cast and crew commentaries and numerous behind-the-scenes featurettes, which comprise a solid supplemental offering for “NCIS”’ sixth season.
SCRUBS Season 8 DVD (414 mins., 2008-09; Buena Vista): Bill Lawrence’s mostly comedic variant on “E/R” may end up staying on TV as long as its recently-concluded NBC brethren, since ABC swooped in and began broadcasting the former “Peacock” series last year. Amazing as it may seem, Season 8 of “Scrubs” did well enough in the ratings to produce a ninth year of the series, which is supposed to offer series regulars like Zach Braff and Sarah Chalke only in “transitional” episode arcs. “Scrubs” fans can check out the series’ first ABC season in a fine DVD box set that sports 1.33 full-screen transfers, 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks, bloopers, deleted scenes and a bonus disc with advertisements for other ABC fall programming.
ADVENTURELAND Blu-Ray and DVD (***, 107 mins., 2009, R; Miramax): Greg Mottola may have started off as a Judd Apatow protégé but his own coming-of-age tale, “Adventureland,” stands as a more sincere and heartfelt movie than his last directorial outing: the crass and successful “Superbad.”
Jesse Eisenberg plays a college student home on summer vacation who takes a menial job at an Ohio amusement park that has seen better days. There he falls for Kristen Stewart, who is going through a damaged relationship with an older employee (Ryan Reynolds). Therein sets the main plot of Mottola’s low-key and satisfying picture, which throws in some laughs (mainly through Martin Starr’s sidekick, as well as Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig as the park’s managers), but isn’t afraid to cultivate its romantic aspects, particularly the relationship between Eisenberg and Stewart.
This less explicit and more atmospheric approach is one of many reasons why “Adventureland” failed to find an audience as opposed to “Superbad”’s raunchy laughs raking in the big bucks, but hopefully Mottola’s little movie will find the audience on video that it deserved the first time around.
Miramax’s Blu-Ray edition of “Adventureland” boasts a satisfying AVC encoded 1080p transfer with DTS High Definition audio backed by an effective Yo La Tengo score. Extras (also on DVD) include deleted scenes, a Making Of featurette, and commentary from Mottola and Eisenberg, along with three comedic BD-exclusive extras: ersatz “Adventureland” commercials and orientation training footage, plus “Lisa P’s Guide to Style” and Frigo’s “How-To” on inflicting pain. The standard DVD edition, meanwhile, sports a fine 16:9 (1.85) transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound. Recommended!
HOW TO LOSE A GUY IN 10 DAYS Blu-Ray (***, 115 mins., 2003, PG-13, Paramount): Lightweight but charming romantic comedy became one of 2003's top box-office hits.
Kate Hudson plays a NYC magazine writer whose staff eggs her on to write an article about finding a good man and then dumping him within a span of 10 days. Matthew McConaughey, an ad exec, is the prey, though he helps to stir the pot by accepting a bet from his friends about finding a woman (guess who) and making her fall in love with him -- also within a period of 10 days.
So, Hudson drives McConaughey batty, whether it's ruining the NY Knicks playoff series they're trying to watch, or talking out loud at movies. McConaughey, meanwhile, continuously tries to woo Hudson in spite of her unpredictable and often obnoxious behavior.
The romantic comedy genre is filled with fluffy formula pieces, and the ones that click are often not dictated by cast alone but rather a combination of elements that makes them work (see this summer’s superb “The Proposal,” which has become star Sandra Bullock’s biggest success) . “How to Lose a Guy,” the kind of film that is, entertains on all levels, mainly because the script is actually funny, the interplay between Hudson and McConaughey is consistently amusing, and veteran director Donald Petrie keeps the movie moving at a good clip. The NY locations add atmosphere to the picture, which is further complimented by a nice score by David Newman.
Paramount's Blu-Ray edition of “How to Lose a Guy...” includes a good-looking VC-1 encoded transfer with Dolby TrueHD audio, along with a handful of special features, most notably a decent look back on the movie’s production and additional featurettes in HD. Petrie also contributes a commentary track and talks about why the film's five deleted scenes (included here) were excised, while other featurettes (carried over from the prior DVD and offered in standard-def) look at the picture's location shooting and the production in general. A music video rounds out the disc.
THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT Blu-Ray (*, 110-114 mins., 2009, R/Unrated; Universal): Wes Craven’s ‘70s shocker “The Last House on the Left” has never been one of my favorite horror movies, so I confess this unnecessary remake already had two strikes against it before the opening logos started up. That said, the 2009 “House” is a complete waste of time, with producers Craven and Sean Cunningham going the Michael Bay route and jazzing up their original concept with more stylish visuals and gore. The result is a truly ugly and explicit experience that wastes a good amount of on-screen talent, while writers Adam Alleca and Carl Ellsworth miss even the small nuances in Craven’s original film. Director Dennis Iliadis, meanwhile, proves to be a decent technical craftsman here, but there’s little reason to sit through its 110 minutes (or 114, if you go with the even more violent Unrated version). Universal’s Blu-Ray disc is a top-notch affair with its 1080p transfer and DTS Master Audio soundtrack, while slim extras include a Making Of and deleted scenes, plus a digital copy for portable media players.
DUPLICITY Blu-Ray (**½, 125 mins., 2009, PG-13; Universal): Has Julia Roberts lost her box-office touch? Is Clive Owen not a box-office draw to begin with? Is writer-director Tony Gilroy crafting convoluted scripts that sometimes only he can figure out? The answers to those questions may sum up why this moderately entertaining tale of former spies (Roberts and Owen) who hook up in the midst of a corporate war failed to catch fire at the box-office. The stars are fine, the supporting cast top-notch (Tom Wilkinson, Paul Giamatti), but the dense nature of Gilroy’s script makes it all a bit more complicated than it needs to be. Universal’s Blu-Ray of “Duplicity,” out this week, offers a lovely 1080p transfer that nicely captures Robert Elswit’s cinematography, while extras are limited to a commentary with Gilroy and his brother, editor/co-producer John.
SUNSHINE CLEANING Blu-Ray (**½, 91 mins., 2009, R; Anchor Bay): Amy Adams and Emily Blunt play sisters who start up a biohazard clean-up business in this offbeat and not entirely satisfying tale from director Christine Jeffs. The cast is great (Mary Lynn “Chloe from 24" Rajskub, Steve Zahn and Alan Arkin co-star), and there are occasional laughs to be found, but the mix of drama and sentiment doesn’t quite come off in the script by Megan Holley. Newly released on DVD and Blu-Ray, Anchor Bay’s presentation of “Sunshine Cleaning” is just fine, sporting a 1080p transfer with Dolby TrueHD audio (on Blu), a 16:9 transfer and 5.1 audio (DVD), a commentary with Holley and producer Glenn Williamson, and one Making Of featurette.
RUDO Y CURSI Blu-Ray (***, 102 mins., 2008, R; Sony): Carlos Cauron’s film (a huge hit in Mexico) follows brothers Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal as small-town soccer (football) stars who are signed by talent scouts and move to Mexico City. It may not be Las Vegas but there’s plenty of temptation for these siblings to take on, whether it’s girls and the lure of pop singing success (as in Bernal’s case) or gambling and drugs (Luna’s vices). Well-observed, intermittently funny and deftly performed by both leads, “Rudo Y Cursi” is quite entertaining, with Sony’s Blu-Ray disc offering a crisp and terrific AVC encoded transfer with Dolby TrueHD audio in both Spanish (English subtitled) and English (dubbed). Extras include commentary with the director and stars, deleted scenes, music videos, a Making Of featurette, and a Blu-Ray exclusive Q&A with Cauron, Luna and Bernal.
SUGAR Blu-Ray (***, 114 mins., 2008, Unrated; Sony): Another excellent independent film with sports as a peripheral angle hits Blu-Ray this month, again from Sony. Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s “Sugar” chronicles a 19-year-old Dominican named Miguel from his upbringing in difficult, impoverished conditions to his arrival in Iowa where he begins a professional career in baseball. Authentic, atmospheric, realistically written and performed, “Sugar” is a real sleeper that comes highly recommended on Blu-Ray, where Sony has assembled another first-class disc: a top-notch AVC encoded transfer, Dolby TrueHD audio, deleted scenes, Making Of featurettes, and interviews with real-life Major Leaguers from the Dominican including Pedro Martinez, David Ortiz and others. Check it out alongside “Rudo Y Cursi” for an intriguing Blu-Ray double-bill.
New History Channel Releases in HD
The History Channel has a trio of offerings newly available for Blu-Ray enthusiasts.
LIFE AFTER PEOPLE (94 mins., 2008) plays like a scholarly riff on “I Am Legend,” examining what might happen if humans disappeared from Earth -- leaving animals, trees, and everything else in the natural world to carry on in our wake.
This evocative documentary boasts some vivid HD imagery along with a look at desolate, abandoned villages from Chernobyl to the Maine coast, mixing speculation with special effects in a brisk, entertaining 90-plus minutes. New Video’s Blu-Ray transfer is exceptional and additional scenes are offered on the supplemental side.
Also newly available is THE CRUSADES: CRESCENT & THE CROSS (180 mins.), a 2005 History Channel examination of the Middle Age battles between Muslims and Christians, who sparred for centuries over the fate of the Holy Land.
CGI visuals, re-enactments and ample historian interviews grace this three-hour long chronicle of the Crusades, though some critics carped that the show promoted more of a pro-Islamic point of view than a fair and balanced one. As they say, you be the judge!
NewVideo’s Blu-Ray release looks and sounds just fine with its HD transfer and stereo soundtrack.
Last but not least this month is the complete third season of THE UNIVERSE (aprx. 9 hours, 2008-09), which hits Blu-Ray after a DVD release earlier this summer.
A&E’s four-disc Blu-Ray set offers the third season of the History Channel’s popular, visual effects-intensive chronicle of our galactic surroundings, with topics as varied as “Deadly Comets and Meteors” to “Sex in Space” (!), “Parallel Universes,” and the hypothetical “Planet X,” all in nifty 1080p transfers, with uncompressed PCM stereo soundtracks, a “Universe Facts” bonus and a photo gallery also on-hand.
HOMEBOY DVD (116 mins., 1988, R; Lionsgate): Little-seen late ‘80s drama with Mickey Rourke -- who also wrote the script under a pseudonym (“Eddie Cook”) -- as a boxer basically went straight to video in the US. Lionsgate’s DVD of this Michael Seresin-directed tale (co-starring Christopher Walken and Rourke’s real-life ex, Debra Feuer) offers a perfectly fine 16:9 (1.85) transfer with 2.0 Dolby Digital stereo sound, sporting a score by Eric Clapton and Michael Kamen.
IMPACT DVD (190 mins., 2009; Sony): While you were off, likely paying no attention on summer vacation, there were not one but two broadcast mini-series concerning asteroids and meteors posing a threat to humanity: NBC’s “Meteor,” which offered Christopher Lloyd and Michael Rooker in a bonkers, almost so-bad-its-good tale (with no relation to the American-International Sean Connery sci-fi epic), and ABC’s “Impact,” starring David James Elliott and Nastaha Henstridge as scientists who have 39 days to prevent an asteroid-charred Moon from crashing into the Earth. Outside of the fact that Elliott’s character’s name is “Alex Kittner” (did writer Michael Vickerman enjoy “Jaws” or what?), there’s not a lot of surprise on-hand in this competent but predictable mini-series, which Sony brings to DVD on September 1st in a fine 16:9 (1.78) transfer with 5.1 audio, two featurettes and deleted scenes rounding out the package.
AMERICA DVD (89 mins., 2009, Sony): Rosie O’Donnell essays a psychiatrist trying to help a troubled 16-year-old biracial boy (Philip Johnson) through the foster care system in this Lifetime TV movie, which O’Donnell co-wrote and produced. Sony’s DVD includes a 16:9 (1.85) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack, and a profile of the production behind-the-scenes.
AMERICAN SON DVD (85 mins., 2008, R; Miramax): Nick Cannon plays a 19-year-old about to deploy to Iraq, who spends his last few days on American soil making amends with friends and family. Neil Abramson’s little-seen film hits DVD this week with a 16:9 (1.85) transfer, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, deleted scenes, director commentary and a Making Of featurette.
when sci-fi movies were about more than just special effects, THE LAST STARFIGHTER
(***½, 101 mins., 1984, PG; Universal) became a sleeper
hit during the summer of 1984.
Also New on Blu-Ray