8/28/07 Edition -- The AISLE SEAT BLOG Is Now Online!

Labor Day Edition!
HEROES Hits HD-DVD As The "Format War" Heats Up
Plus: DAWN OF THE DEAD Redux and More!

Last week saw a major move in the on-going skirmish between rival high-definition DVD formats Blu Ray and HD-DVD.

In undoubtedly the most substantial maneuver from either side since this whole situation developed, Paramount dropped a huge bomb: effective immediately, the studio will release only on HD-DVD, giving the format -- which has been trailing Blu Ray in software sales for some time despite a healthy lead in standalone players -- much needed exclusive titles including “Shrek 3" and “Transformers,” not to mention the entire “Star Trek” franchise, as we head into later part of 2007.

Prior to their decision, Paramount had initially declared to be HD-DVD exclusive but opted to also release on Blu Ray just over a year ago.

The move now means that not only will Universal’s titles be available only on HD-DVD (including upcoming summer hits like “The Bourne Ultimatum” and “Knocked Up”), but the entire Paramount and Dreamworks slate will be as well, with the exception of Steven Spielberg-directed Dreamworks films, which conflicting sources seem to indicate will be issued on both formats...when they actually get released, that is (I wouldn’t hold my breath).

Also noteworthy is that Paramount is discontinuing all currently-available Blu Ray titles (grab ‘em now while you can find them), and canceling several titles they had announced (“Face/Off,” “Blades of Glory”) that will now be available only on HD-DVD.

Paramount’s decision shook all sorts of home theater websites, all of which were blindsided by the developments (leading one to speculate just how “inside” most of these so-called “insiders” really are). HD-DVD fans found it to be an Earth-shattering event, Blu Ray fans (spouting “talking points” from Blu Ray-centric websites) cried foul over the move, bemoaning the death of optical media, while others lamented the fact that there’s going to be no clear winner in these dueling formats any time soon.

Regardless of what “side” you fall on, the news is certainly a major asset for HD-DVD, and presents a more competitive “battle” ahead between the two formats. To this writer, it certainly doesn’t mean anywhere near the “nightmarish” scenario some articles and pundits (with agendas that have become all too evident in recent weeks) would lead you to believe.

The fact is that we’re still early in the lifetime of these formats, making Paramount’s decision to go with the format that has always had a major edge in manufacturing and programming cost not entirely head-scratching. Plus, it’s not as if Blu Ray’s lead is insurmountable at this early stage: Blu Ray may be outpacing HD-DVD by a 2:1 margin, but it’s a 2:1 margin by over a million in terms of total disc sales, which is not an insurmountable lead. If HD-DVD truly was a “dying” format as one leading entertainment journalist unconvincingly described, how did the format’s release of “300" outsell Sony’s much-publicized Blu Ray release of “Casino Royale” in its first week -- and by a healthy margin at that? Sure, “300" sold more units on Blu Ray (in the thousands, not the millions), but that’s not the point: if the format could scrounge up numbers which had been heavily hyped just months before for its competitor, it’s not exactly on death row.

More over, lost in all the negativity about these “format wars” is that the retail prices of both hardware and software have unquestionably dropped as a result of the marketplace. To think that we’re seeing HD-DVD players just a tick or two over $200 in the second year for both formats is something no analyst foresaw -- and almost certainly wouldn’t have happened if either format had the marketplace all to itself.

For anyone who doesn’t have an HDTV and isn’t going to be investing in either format any time soon, these developments aren’t going to change your mind one way or the other. Fence stragglers understandably may feel frustrated that now that there’s no clear “winner” on the immediate horizon, yet as I’ve written before, we have a long way to go before there’s even a true mass-market for either format in existence.

The bottom line is that Paramount’s decision certainly does tilt the playing field for HD-DVD back to a competitive level where the format’s benefits (its inherent lower cost in terms of both manufacturing and retail pricing to the consumer) will have a greater chance of success than it did before. Blu Ray has been helped by the sales of the Playstation 3 -- which in the big picture has been nothing short of a disaster for Sony so far in the current gaming “console generation” battle -- but it stands to reason it’s going to take more than a gaming platform to achieve true mass-market penetration. Among standalone players HD-DVD has a decided advantage and it’s likely Paramount’s maneuver is only going to aid further in that regard.

Nevertheless, we’re a long way from crowning a champ (if we ever do; it’s possible the  formats will co-exist), and prices will continue to plunge as the HD consumer base that all studios are waiting for grows. With the “format war” guaranteed to keep going into 2008 now at the very least, it’s going to be an exciting time to see if any more big moves from the various players involved will tilt the playing field back in a specific direction. And in the meantime, for HD-DVD, it’s a major coup that’s unquestionably going to alter the “battlefield” as we move ahead.

New on HD-DVD

Fresh off the big news of a week ago, Universal’s HD-DVD slate this week offers several format exclusives that may prove to be major selling points as the marketplace for HD-optical media continues to grow (even if it’s an interminably slow, if sluggishly steady, rate for most studios).

Unquestionably the major release this week is the outstanding, 7-disc presentation of NBC’s hit Monday night series HEROES (aprx. 17 hours; 2006-07; Universal), which arrives as the finest TV-on-DVD presentation found on either HD-optical format to date.

Creator-producer Tim Kring’s absorbing hybrid of domestic drama and super-hero saga offers an enormously intriguing set of varied characters, most of whom sport extraordinary powers and find themselves unknowingly crossing paths with one another -- as well as a psychotic villain named Sylar who’s able to retain the power of any and all “Heroes” in the known universe.

The appealing cast includes Milo Ventimiglia and Adrian Pasdar as a pair of brothers struggling with their newfound abilities; Hayden Pannetiere as a high school cheerleader with the power of invincibility, plus Jack Coleman as her mysterious father, who knows more about her potential than he’s letting on; Ali Larter as a female Jekyll/Hyde, trying to protect her equally “gifted” son and her estranged ex-con husband; Masi Oka as a Japanese office worker with the power to teleport anywhere, at any time; Greg Grunberg as a cop with physic abilities; and Sendhil Ramamurthy as a scientist searching for the answers that connect them all.

Together, the group encounter a number of villains, from the chilling Sylar (Zachary Quinto, tabbed to play Spock in the new “Star Trek” film) to Malcolm McDowell’s shady Trump-like entrepreneur, who has a few “special” abilities of his own.

With action, suspense, and terrific ensemble performances, “Heroes” was one of the happy surprises of the 2006-07 television season, leading NBC to renew the series (as well as a spin-off) for some 30 upcoming episodes, as well as cast the sensational Kristen Bell (“Veronica Mars”) in a major supporting role during the new season.

Universal’s HD-DVD presentation of “Heroes” has promised to be one of the format’s major assets and it does not disappoint.

Numerous interactive features include picture-in-picture video commentaries; an “artwork presentation” of Isaac’s paintings which can be accessed during each episode; optional web-enabled features (not all of which were available as of this writing); character “connections” and a function entitled “the helix revealed,” all of which further immerse the viewer in the show’s universe and make rewatching the various episodes rewarding.

An extended, alternate edit of the show’s pilot (with commentary), some 50 deleted scenes and Making Of segments are also included, giving a full scope of the show’s production, including a profile on composers Wendy & Lisa, whose low-key, haunting score perfectly fits every episode.

“Heroes” is one of the most satisfying shows on TV and whether you’re a newcomer or a fan, Universal’s HD-DVD set is outstanding, from its excellent extras to crisp 1080p (1.78, VC-1 encoded) transfers with 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus sound. Highly recommended!

DAWN OF THE DEAD: HD-DVD (**½, 2004, 110 mins., Unrated; Universal): I have to be honest -- I was probably a little too harsh on Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake of the George A. Romero zombie classic. My original review netted only a star and a half, and truth be told, a fresh viewing of the 2004 “Dawn of the Dead” cleared my mind and at least made me realize this remake is an energetic piece of filmmaking with several effective set-pieces, plus a solid, understated performance from Sarah Polley at the film’s center. While some of my initial reservations hold firm (like Mekhi Phifer’s “zombie baby” and the unneeded, should’ve-quit-while-you-were-ahead end credit “shock sequences”), there’s enough juice in Snyder’s film to satisfy zombie fans and horror buffs, especially given the amount of genre junk we’ve seen in recent years.

Universal’s HD-DVD edition will prove to be a must-have for fans of the film. The 1080p, VC-1 encoded transfer is just about perfect, capturing the flavor of Matthew F. Leonetti’s cinematography and Snyder’s sometimes intentionally-grainy visuals splendidly. The Dolby TrueHD soundtrack is top-notch, and a full slate of extras ported over from the previous Unrated Special Edition include commentary from Snyder, deleted scenes, numerous mini-film featurettes and more.

THE HURRICANE: HD-DVD (***, 145 mins., 1999, R; Universal): A semi-biographical account of the life of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, a boxer wrongly convicted of murder, Norman Jewison’s 1999 film “The Hurricane” gets enormous mileage out of Denzel Washington's rightly-praised performance as Carter, who spends years behind bars in an attempt to clear his name. The film's supporting cast is equally fine (including John Hannah, Deborah Kara Unger, Live Schireber, and Rod Steiger), and they go a long way to off-set the film's sometimes-cliched screenplay, which was grilled by critics for its numerous inaccuracies and liberties with the actual events of Carter's life (playing up the racial angle, for one).

Still, the film is well-worth seeing for Washington's performance if nothing else, and the HD-DVD is superb in both look (VC-1 encoded, 1080p transfer) and sound (5.1 Dolby Digital Plus sound sporting a good score by Chris Young), plus offering a collection of extras. Ported over from the previous “Collector’s Edition DVD” are commentary from director Norman Jewison, a handful of deleted scenes, the theatrical trailer, and a featurette on the making of the film.

NOTING HILL: HD-DVD (**½, 124 mins., 1999, PG-13; Universal): Charming if predictable romantic comedy finds actress Julia Roberts falling for quaint book shop owner High Grant while on a press tour in England. Richard Curtis’ script is always engaging and there’s a palpable amount of chemistry in the performances of Grant and Roberts, but the movie isn’t especially memorable when all is said and done, with Roger Michell’s film tending to drag on a bit past the two hour mark as well. Universal’s HD-DVD, though, certainly looks the part with a fine new 1080p, VC-1 encoded transfer, 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus sound, and extras including commentary, deleted scenes, and the usual Making Of featurette.

Coming From Criterion

Two of indie filmmaker Jim Jarmusch’s most acclaimed films join the Criterion Collection this month.

Jarmusch’s second feature not only launched his career but also helped establish the independent cinema movement of the 1980s. The offbeat travelogue STRANGER THAN PARADISE (1984, 89 mins., R; Criterion) finds laidback Hungarian immigrant John Lurie hooking up with pal Richard Edson on a trip that takes them to Cleveland (to visit a younger cousin) and Florida, meeting with fleeting fame and later finding themselves back where they started.

Criterion’s DVD offers a crisp, remastered presentation of “Stranger than Paradise” in 16:9 (1.78) widescreen, plus a second disc of extras including Jarmusch’s debut film (the 1980 effort “Permanent Vacation”), a 1984 German TV profile of the filmmaker, a Super 8 movie from Tom Jarmusch, trailers, and location scouting photos.

After helming a number of cult movies throughout the ‘80s, Jarmusch embarked on one of his most ambitious efforts: a multi-part anthology film entitled NIGHT ON EARTH (1991, 128 mins., R; Criterion), following the adventures of several different cab drivers in cities around the globe, in stories ranging from the blackly comic to melodramatic. Although some of the segments function better than others, the cast alone makes it intriguing, from Roberto Benigni to Gena Rowlands, Armin Mueller-Stahl and a particularly miscast Winona Ryder.

Criterion’s new DVD boasts a remastered transfer with selected commentaries from cinematographer (and frequent David Lynch collaborator) Frederick Elmes and sound mixer Drew Kunin; a Q&A with Jarmusch, responding to fan mail; a 1992 Belgian TV interview with Jarmusch; and extensive liner notes with critic essays and lyrics to Tom Waits’ original songs for the film.

New and Coming Soon From Paramount

FACE/OFF: Collector’s Edition (****, 140 mins., 1997, R; Paramount): It’s taken a long while, but Paramount is about to finally do justice to director John Woo’s fabulous “Face/Off” in a new 10th Anniversary DVD on September 11th.

This tremendously entertaining thriller remains one of the best, post-1990 action films, with its recipe for success comprising a number of ingredients: take an intriguing premise, two big stars, a fistful of standout action sequences, and one of the most talented genre filmmakers around -- then combine them with a smart screenplay that's as clever with its character-interplay as it is with ingenious, breathtaking set-scenes.

Nicolas Cage proves the better of his counterpart as both the film’s villain and -- after exchanging identities -- its hero, outdueling John Travolta's solid but not as demanding work as the bad guy in the good guy's body. (In contrast, Cage has the harder scenes, illustrating the hero's dilemma in living with the villain's identity). Joan Allen is superb as the hero's wife, with terrific supporting performances including Gina Gershon, Alessandro Nivola, and Dominique Swain. Additional kudos go out to Mike Werb and Michael Collorary for their sharp script, John Woo (of course) on his finest American work to date, and an excellent score by John Powell (replacing Mark Isham at the last minute) which represents some of his most satisfying output as well.

Paramount’s new two-disc Special Edition includes a remastered transfer and robust 6.1 DTS and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks. Extras include commentaries from Woo and the writers; seven deleted scenes with optional commentary, including a wisely excised end coda; the trailer; and both a new Making Of with interviews with most of the principals (sans Travolta and Cage) plus a featurette on Woo’s career.

Highly recommended, though HD-DVD enthusiasts can look forward to a high-definition version coming on October 30th.

CHEECH AND CHONG’S UP IN SMOKE (**½, 1978, 85 mins., R; Paramount): Cheech and Chong’s first, and funniest, feature film returns to DVD in a new Special Edition from Paramount. If you thought “Harold & Kumar” was funny (and are stoked for the upcoming sequel), you’ll enjoy this raucous cult classic from the late ‘70s, even if the movie is highly uneven and is mostly comprised of (what else?) drug humor. Paramount’s new DVD includes a commentary track from Cheech Marin and director Lou Adler from the prior disc, as well as several deleted scenes with optional commentary. New are radio spots, the trailer, and a retrospective documentary on the production of this comedy favorite. The 16:9 (2.35) transfer looks to be in top-notch while the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound is more than acceptable. (Available Sept. 4)

New TV on DVD

BOSOM BUDDIES: Complete Season 2 (1981-82, 18 Episodes; Paramount): Second season of the popular ABC Tom Hanks-Peter Scolari sitcom reaches disc in a three-disc box-set from Paramount. Offering all 18 episodes in what appear to be their original broadcast-length versions (though the Billy Joel opening theme was replaced and there’s a disclaimer for possible edits from original broadcasts on-hand), this is a satisfying set for all “Bosom Buddies” aficionados, and kudos to Paramount for ramping up their TV-on-DVD release schedule and getting this out so quickly. (Available Sept. 4)

CHARMED: Season 8 [The Final Season] (2005-06, 22 Episodes; Paramount): The long-running WB female witch series finally drew to a close last year, with Alyssa Milano, Holly Marie Combs, and Rose McGowan (who joined the show when Shannen Doherty departed) finishing off their stints as a trio of siblings with the power to combat all sorts of villains. Paramount’s six-disc DVD box set includes the series’ final 22 episodes in full-screen format with 2.0 sound, a two-part documentary, additional featurettes, deleted scenes and selected commentaries. Recommended highly for “Charmed” fans. (Available Sept. 11)

BONES: Complete Season 2 (2006-07, 21 Episodes; Fox): One of the Fox network’s few recent dramatic successes, “Bones” is back on DVD in a six-disc set preserving all 21 of its second season episodes. Basically a standard forensic science/crime thriller, “Bones” feeds off the slowly building chemistry between stars Emily Deschanel and David Boreanaz, with plots that are reasonably intriguing if usually neatly wrapped up by the end of the end of each hour. Also on-hand in Fox’s box-set are selected episode commentaries, a gag reel, two featurettes, and deleted scenes with optional commentary. (Available Sept. 11)

IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA: Complete First & Second Seasons (2005-06, 17 Total Episodes; Fox): Funny, somewhat crude, but rarely mean-spirited sitcom about a group of twentysomethings (Rob McElhenney, Charlie Day, and Glenn Howerton, who also write for the series) who hang out at a neighborhood bar and their assorted issues -- which usually take the trio in tackling issues of the day each week. No topic is too sensitive to be grist for the series’ jokes, but what’s surprising is how amusing this F/X cable series is – and also how it’s managed to fly under the radar, about to start its third season on the airwaves without a whole lot of fanfare. Fox’s three-disc set preserves the series’ 17 first and second season episodes (Danny DeVito pops up in Season 2) in full-screen transfers with 2.0 Dolby Surround audio, commentaries, Making Of featurettes, and scenes from the original pilot. (Available Sept. 4)

Also New on DVD

BEYOND THE GATES (2005, 112 mins., Unrated; Fox): Michael Caton-Jones’ 2005 film (entitled “Shooting Dogs” overseas) about the Rwandan Genocide from the point of view of a European-run secondary school and its teachers has been issued on DVD in what appears to be a cut version. The film seems to run several minutes under its original length, and there’s even a “Clean Language” sticker applied to the film’s front cover. The disc looks good in 16: 9 (1.78) widescreen and includes a Making Of featurette, but it stands to reason viewers with a heavy interest in the material may do well to search out the original version in its Region 2 release, which also includes two commentary tracks and an unexpurgated version of the film. (Available Sept. 18)

LEGION OF SUPER HEROES: Volume 1 (2006, 89 mins., Warner): New Cartoon Network series continues on the DC Comics animated roster by having the quartet of “Legionnaires” (Bouncing Boy, Brainiac 5, Saturn Girl and Lightning Lad) recruiting a new member: a young Clark Kent, who’s about to become Superman. Solid, fast-paced action especially for younger kids, Warner’s first release of “Legion of Super Heroes” on DVD is a disappointment only in that there’s not enough content (just four episodes totaling 90 minutes) here for fans.

DARE TO DREAM (2007, 77 mins., HBO): Ross Greenburg and Rick Bernstein produced this HBO chronicle of the women’s soccer movement in the U.S., with Liev Schreiber narrating a chronicle that takes us back in the ‘90s, where stars like Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain helped establish the sport as a mini-major, at least, for a time. HBO’s DVD includes a full-screen transfer with 2.0 Dolby Digital audio.

BURY MY HEART AT WOUNDED KNEE (2007, 132 mins.; HBO): Well-acted, somewhat bland HBO telefilm, based on Dee Brown’s book, about the plight of Native Americans after Little Big Horn. Excellent performances in the ensemble cast by Aidan Quinn, Adam Beach, August Schellenberg, Eric Schewig, Wes Studi and Anna Paquin go a long way to make the drama work, but it’s somewhat over-directed by Yves Simoneau in a pedestrian, “TV Movie” kind of way. HBO’s DVD includes commentaries, several Making Of featurettes, 16:9 widescreen and 5.1 Dolby Digtial sound.

FLASH GORDON: The Premiere Episode (2007, 65 mins., Genius): The new Sci-Fi Channel series adaptation of Alex Raymond’s hero might be a far cry removed from Buster Crabbe and, indeed, even Sam J. Jones, but this Robert Halmi-produced series is actually quite watchable -- if ridiculous and blandly performed. Eric Johnson (Lana’s boyfriend on the first season of “Smallville”) isn’t exactly a dashing Flash, but director Rick Rosenthal’s premiere episode does a decent job setting up the currently on-going Sci-Fi series, which premiered to a robust audience two weeks ago. Whether or not the show keeps the momentum going or fades like too many series on the network remains to be seen.

Genius’ DVD of the series’ inaugural episode is sold only at Best Buy stores and sports 16:9 (1.85) widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, storyboards, deleted scenes, and a sneak peak at the upcoming, revisionist mini-series “Tin Man” starring Zoey Deschanel, Alan Cumming and Richard Dreyfuss.

ROBOT CHICKEN (2007, 221 mins., Cartoon Network/Warner): Seth Green's irreverent stop-motion comedy returns to DVD in a double-disc set offering all 20 episodes from "Robot Chicken"'s second season. Copious extras include deleted scenes, promos, animatics, commentaries on every show, and uncensored audio tracks.

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