8/7/07 Edition -- The AISLE SEAT BLOG Is Now Online!

Aisle Seat August Assault
300, PATHFINDER and More Epics Hit Video

It’s been a phenomenal last few days for DVD lovers!

Last week saw the announcement of hugely anticipated new titles that buffs will be clamoring for over the next few months on DVD and its associated high-definition formats: remastered editions of several Stanley Kubrick classics, a new edition of Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” the first release of the restored “Star Trek: The Original Series,” a deluxe presentation of Francis Ford Coppola’s “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” and best of all, a comprehensive new “Blade Runner” box-set that will be issued in a handful of variants.

While the promise of remastered Kubrick is enough to draw the attention of even the most casual cinephile (“2001,” “A Clockwork Orange,” “The Shining,” “Full Metal Jacket” and “Eyes Wide Shut” will be offered on double-disc DVD, HD-DVD and Blu Ray, all in widescreen and with ample extras; “Barry Lyndon” and “Lolita” will be available on re-issued, standard DVDs only), the announcement of “Close Encounters” is major news since it marks the first time all three versions of the 1977 sci-fi classic will be available on one DVD. It’s also huge for HD lovers, as Sony’s Blu Ray disc will mark the first time a Steven Spielberg masterwork has been available in high-definition.

While all of those releases are exciting, none surpass the buzz surrounding Warner’s eagerly-anticipated “Blade Runner” set.

Scott Free producer Charles Lauzirika has produced some of the DVD format’s finest releases (including Universal’s restored “Legend”), and it’s not an exaggeration to write that “Blade Runner” promises to be the most comprehensive, extras-packed release one individual film has perhaps EVER received in home video history.

Here’s a brief rundown of the various versions for fans:

-The two-disc “Final Cut” ($14.99 currently at Amazon and other venues) includes Ridley Scott’s new edit of the film plus a comprehensive documentary, commentaries and other goodies.

-The four-disc “Collector’s Edition” ($24.99) includes those two discs, plus the original 1982 theatrical edition, its International Edition variant (included in the beloved Criterion laserdisc releases), and the 1992 “Director’s Cut” release on a third platter. The fourth disc includes nearly 45 minutes of additional, never-before-glimpsed deleted scenes and more extras.

-The five-disc “Ultimate Collector’s Edition” ($54.95 pre-order price) includes all of the above, plus an exclusive fifth disc sporting the much-discussed, original Workprint version of the film, which offered alternate music and editorial changes different from all other versions. This limited, numbered set also comes packaged in a replica of Deckard’s briefcase, complete with a letter from Ridley Scott, an origami Unicorn, stills, a miniature police spinner, and other extras.

-For HD-DVD and Blu Ray fans, your ship has also come in. The five-disc Collector’s Edition” can be pre-ordered for a mere $27.99 on HD-DVD and Blu Ray, making it easily the best bargain of the high-definition formats to date (all variant cuts of the film are supposed to be in HD), while the Limited “Ultimate Collector’s Edition” briefcase box is $69.99 at Amazon on HD-DVD and Blu Ray, or better yet, $63 shipped at the official Warner Bros. Store (use code WBWEL for 20% off).

Looks like “Blade Runner” fans will be dreaming about more than electric sheep for months prior to this set’s December 18th bow!

Aisle Seat Picks of the Week

300: HD-DVD (***, 2007, 115 mins., R; Warner): Frank Miller’s graphic novel -- depicting the final stand of King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans -- makes for a rousing, straightforward action piece, vividly realized by director Zack Snyder in a striking, CGI-rendered visual realm that does full justice to Miller’s original design. Sure, it’s mostly all flash and style, but it’s hard to deny the effectiveness of the storytelling, which apes other genre narratives but manages to entertain in its own unique visceral manner at every turn (think “Braveheart” and “Gladiator” mixed with more fantastic, outlandish visuals).

At the heart of “300" is Gerald Butler’s powerhouse performance as Leonidas, who opts to make a valiant, if suicidal, stand against an invading Persian army in Thermopylae as they come ashore in ancient Greece. The enemy is lead by Persian king Xerxes, whose black-clad warriors and beasts of burden far outnumber the hard-fighting Spartans, but Leonidas and his clan battle until the bitter end, becoming the stuff of legend in the process.

With its evocative visual design, “300" is clearly similar to what Miller and director Robert Rodriguez attempted in “Sin City” -- create a living, breathing cinematic adaptation of the author’s work. While the visual design of “Sin City” was spellbinding, the outlandishness of the material and questionable lapses in taste made its cinematic rendering less than satisfying (if not outright offensive) -- a problem “300" doesn’t have since this film is basic blood ‘n guts, thundering action sequences and stylish choreography that doesn’t beg to be taken overly seriously as drama. We know we’re watching a fantasy rendering of the Battle of Thermopylae, but the heightened visuals and design make for a thrilling action spectacle. It may have all the substance of a comic book but it’s great fun to watch, especially on HD-DVD.

Speaking of high-definition, Warner’s HD-DVD transfer is a marvel, capturing every nuance of “300"’s visuals in a spectacular VC-1 encoded transfer. The Dolby TrueHD and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound enhances the movie’s raucous sound design (even if Tyler Bates’ score isn’t nearly as memorable as the film), while HD-DVD exclusive extras include a fascinating “Picture in Picture” production footage option, showing you the movie before its computer-generated animation was implemented, and in-synch with the completed film. Complimented by commentary from Snyder and others, this feature isn’t offered on the Blu Ray version, and should make the HD-DVD the version of choice for home theater enthusiasts.

Other extras include three brief deleted scenes, a “Fact or Fiction” featurette and additional Making Of segments, including short “webisodes” that ran online. A preliminary reel, used to sell the film to Warner Bros., is also on-hand, putting the perfect cap on a stellar HD-DVD that’s unquestionably one of the format’s top discs to date.

PATHFINDER: Unrated Edition (**½, 2007, 107 mins., Unrated; Fox): It’s not “300" -- nor is it even “The 13th Warrior” -- but this box-office flop from April makes for a solid rental, at least, for action fans.

“Pathfinder” (weirdly dubbed “The Legend of the Ghost Warrior” on its actual release -- a subtitle dropped from the DVD) is a simple-minded action epic from director Marcus Nispel and writer Laeta Kalogridis (loosely based on a 1987 Norwegian film of the same name), following a young Viking boy who improbably grows up to be a part of a Native American tribe. Even as an adult (played by Karl Urban), “Pathfinder” is an outsider among his peers, but the tribe turns to him for help once a clan of invading Norsemen -- lead by Clancy Brown -- arrives and wipes out most of their members.

Even though the film is nothing but a series of action sequences with basically non-existent character development, “Pathfinder” is reasonably entertaining for the comic-book vehicle that it is. Nispel’s set-pieces are sufficiently executed through a combination of stylish editing and herky-jerky camera work that might’ve been utilized to cover for the film’s modest budget. Regardless, for a hot summer night’s rental, you could certainly do worse, especially for genre fans.

Fox’s Unrated DVD edition runs some eight minutes longer than the theatrical cut and includes commentary from Nispel, deleted scenes, the trailer, a marketing trailer, and Making Of featurettes. The 16:9 (2.35) transfer is fine, accentuating the intentionally grainy, desaturated look of the cinematography, while the 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital sound offers a Jonathan Elias score that comes off as repetitive in the final cut (it plays far more effectively on the soundtrack album).

DARKMAN: HD-DVD (***, 1990, 96 mins., R; Universal): Sam Raimi’s first studio film is an entertaining comic-book hybrid of “Batman” and “Phantom of the Opera,” as light as a feather but bursting with cinematic energy.

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

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

Universal’s HD-DVD edition of “Darkman” is solid, filled with strong colors and excellent detail. The occasional splotch of dirt shows up here and there in the print, but for a 17-year-old film produced on a modest budget to begin with, the HD-DVD’s transfer is highly satisfying, the best “Darkman” could likely ever appear outside of a theater. Even better is the disc’s robust Dolby Digital TrueHD soundtrack, giving Elfman’s score an ideal stage to show off its pulsating, memorable passages (fans should note that orchestator Jonathan Sheffer does receive an “Additional Music” credit during the final scroll).

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

Also New From Universal on HD-DVD

SEA OF LOVE: HD-DVD (***, 1989, 112 mins., R; Universal): Taut suspense-thriller in the post-“Fatal Attraction” mold stars Al Pacino as a NYC cop investigating a series of murders while dating a sexually aggressive woman (Ellen Barkin) who may be a suspect. Richard Price’s original script is effectively handled by director Harold Becker, who allows Pacino and Barkin to generate some believable chemistry together. Once you’ve seen it, there isn’t a whole lot of repeat viewing potential in “Sea of Love,” but Pacino fans and suspense buffs will enjoy Universal’s HD-DVD edition nevertheless, which preserves the picture in high-definition and 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus sound. Extras (ported over from the last standard-definition release) include commentary with Becker, a Making Of featurette, the trailer, and some deleted scenes, though curiously not the sequences featuring Lorraine Bracco as Pacino’s ex-wife, which were restored to certain TV broadcasts of the picture.

HOT FUZZ (**½, 2007, 121 mins., R; Universal)
SHAUN OF THE DEAD (***, 2004, 100 mins., R; Universal): Edgar Wright and his star/co-writer Simon Pegg’s two international comedy hits reach HD-DVD this week in a pair of outstanding new high-definition transfers.

The fan-favorite “Shaun” is the more satisfying of the duo, using dry British wit and Wright and Pegg’s wry observations to skewer the worn-out zombie genre, while “Hot Fuzz” is a bit more scattershot in its depiction of a top cop (Pegg) assigned to a quiet suburban town to keep the peace. A slow start and a bloated running time keep “Hot Fuzz” from really taking off, though it’s possible its localized humor didn’t import as well as “Shaun.”

Universal’s HD-DVD transfers look positively pristine for both movies. 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus sound is also on-hand to compliment the splendid visuals, while a bounty of extras are present for both movies: uncensored commentaries, a number of deleted scenes, and Making Of featurettes make these unquestionably recommended for fans of either film.

New on Blu Ray Disc

ROVING MARS: Blu Ray Disc (***, 40 mins., 2006, G; Disney): Imax documentary is one of the best of its kind I've seen recently -- an exploration of the Red Planet with some actual (if embellished) footage from NASA rovers which transmitted incredible visuals back home, combined with sequences demonstrating how scientists and engineers made the rovers work.

Topped with Paul Newman narration and music from Philip Glass, this 40-minute short is an enthralling viewing experience that Disney has brought to Blu Ray in an acceptable high-definition transfer with 5.1 PCM/Dolby Digital sound and two extras: a vintage 1957 Disney special, "Mars and Beyond," along with a Making Of segment offering interviews with NASA team members and students from the "Imagine Mars" program.

There are times when the HD image displays the limitations of some of the source material, but for science buffs this documentary is well worth a look.

BLUE PLANET/THE DREAM IS ALIVE: Blu Ray Disc (1990-1985, 44 and 37 mins., Warner): Two vintage, excellent Imax NASA documentaries receive a spiffy high-definition presentation courtesy of Warner Home Video.

1990's “Blue Planet” is here combined with 1985's “The Dream Is Alive,” offering outstanding photography from deep space and a casual overview of the NASA program when it was going through better days (in lieu of this year’s recent scandals, it’s refreshing to sit through these older, but no less relevant, documentaries about the importance of our space exploration).

Warner’s Blu Ray discs (the title is also available on HD-DVD) include newly minted 1.78, VC-1 encoded transfers as well as Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio.

Well worth a purchase for space buffs and HD enthusiasts!

New This Week from Buena Vista

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

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

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

Either way, Buena Vista’s DVD sports a nifty 16:9 (2.35) transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound; commentary; deleted scenes; outtakes; an alternate ending; and two Making Of featurettes.

THE LOOKOUT (**½, 99 mins., 2006, R; Miramax): Long-time, acclaimed screenwriter Scott Frank made his directorial debut with this well-reviewed (though little-distributed) heist tale that gives former “Third Rock” star Joseph Gordon-Levitt one of his first “adult” roles. Gordon-Levitt plays a one-time aspiring hockey player whose career is cut short in an accident, leading him to take a job at a bank....where a former friend comes calling, wanting him to aid in a robbery of his new employer. Well-acted and directed, “The Lookout” is tense and involving, but Frank’s story ultimately unravels with a few holes that, in the end, make little sense (I won’t go into spoilers here but not all the elements ultimately click); nevertheless, Gordon-Levitt’s understated performance is worth seeing, as is “The Lookout” on balance. Miramax’s DVD includes commentary with Frank and cinematographer Alar Kivilo plus two Making Of featurettes; the 16:9 (2.40) and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks are both excellent, the latter offering a fine score by James Newton Howard.

DARKWING DUCK, Vol. 2 (612 mins., Disney): Second volume of cartoons from the popular early ‘90s Disney animated series offers over 600 minutes of looney fun on three discs. Covering roughly the middle group of episodes from the series, “Darkwing” fans ought to be highly satisfied by the full-screen transfers and 2.0 Dolby Stereo sound in Disney’s box-set.

THE TICK Vs. Season 2 (255 mins., Disney): Although this two-disc doesn’t contain Episode 15 (it’s even mentioned on the outer packaging), “Tick” devotees should be happy with this sophomore season of the Fox Network “Tick” Saturday morning animated series. With humor aimed at the older set as well as kids, series fans should be thrilled with these four-plus hours of fun in standard full-screen transfers and 2.0 Dolby Stereo sound.

Coming From Criterion

David Mamet’s taut, tense psychological drama HOUSE OF GAMES (***, 1987, 102 mins., R; Criterion) is regarded by some as one of the finest films of the late 1980s, making it an ideal candidate for inclusion in the Criterion Collection.

Mamet’s film follows a successful psychiatrist (Lindsay Crouse) who enters into another world when she opts to help out a patient who owes money to a con man (Joe Mantegna). While Mantegna agrees to wipe her patient’s slate clean, he also asks Crouse to help HIM out -- namely, watch the signs of his competitors after he gets up from the table while playing cards.

Mamet’s incisive dialogue is played to a hilt by Mantegna and Crouse, with the writer making his directorial debut at the helm of this 1987 Orion Pictures release. While the story ends up on the predictable side and Mamet’s direction is a little dry, “House of Games” is nevertheless a riveting view, one which Criterion has brought to DVD in a new Special Edition.

Commentary from Mamet and co-star/consultant Ricky Jay offers loads of insight into the production of the film, while new interviews with Crouse and Mantegna are also on-hand. A short documentary produced during the filming is also included, along with storyboards, the trailer, and a new transfer supervised by cinematographer Juan Ruiz Anchia. Recommended!

Also coming shortly from Criterion is a new edition of Luis Bunuel’s THE MILKY WAY (1969, 101 mins., Criterion), the French filmmaker’s 1969 meditation on Catholicism, surrealism, and human nature in general.

Criterion’s DVD includes a new high-definition derived transfer plus a video introduction from writer Jean-Claude Carriere, an interview with critic Ian Christie, a documentary on Bunuel featuring many friends and colleagues, improved subtitles and the original trailer. A fine compliment to Lionsgate’s new Bunuel release (reviewed below).

Finally Criterion has a 2-disc Special Edition upcoming for CRIA CUERVOS (1976, 109 mins., Criterion ), Carlos Saura's 1976 film starring Ana Torrent and Geraldine Chaplin, examining the effects of Fascism on a middle-class Spanish family.

In addition to a new digitial transfer, Criterion's set sports a documentary on the life of Saura, new interviews with Chaplin and Torrent, and a booklet sporting an essay from critic Paul Julian Smith.

New From Lionsgate

BRIGITTE BARDOT: 5 Film Collection (Lionsgate): Lionsgate’s three-disc set offers five newly restored Brigitte Bardot French comedies, all of which are being released on DVD for the first time in the U.S. Included in the collection are “Naughty Girl,” Love on a Pillow,” “The Vixen,” “Come Dance With Me” and “Two Weeks in September,” all in widescreen format (either 2.35 or 1.66) and capped by a new featurette, “Larger than Life: Brigitte Bardot and the Mythology of the Sex Symbol,” offering comments from Hugh Hefner and various film scholars about Bardot’s legacy.

LUIS BUNUEL: The Director’s Series (Lionsgate): Double-disc set from Lionsgate presents two Luis Bunuel classics, being released for the first time in the United States: “Gran Casino” is a melodrama boasting a commentary from historian Philip Kemp, while “The Young One” (notable for being one of only two films Bunuel shot in English) sports a discussion from film scholars Peter Evans and Isabel Santaolalla. “Gran Casino” is presented in its original full-screen format while “The Young One” is offered in 16:9 widescreen, with both black-and-white features appearing in appreciably good shape.

WAITING: Blu Ray Disc (**½, 2005, 94 mins., Unrated; Lionsgate): Occasionally funny, raunchy comedy about a waitstaff at an Applebees-like chain restaurant, their boredom with work and relationships with one another. Lionsgate's Blu Ray disc looks nifty in 1080p high-definition, offering uncompressed 7.1 PCM audio, 5.1 Dolby digital, video and cast commentaries, deleted scenes, outtakes, alternate takes, the trailer and more. "Waiting" may be just another wacky youth comedy in the end, but the film has its moments, and the cast (including Ryan Reynolds, Anna Faris, Justin Long and former "Freaks and Geeks" star John Francis Daley) is appealing enough to make it work.

MALICIOUS (*½, 92 mins., 1995, R; Republic/Lionsgate): Molly Ringwald bared all in this tepid 1995 thriller as a woman who stalks a college athlete (Patrick McGaw) after the duo have an affair. Standard-issue action best recommended for Ringwald fanatics, presented in a mediocre full-screen transfer with 2.0 Dolby Surround audio.

THE DRESDEN FILES, Season One (2007, 530 mins., Lionsgate): Entertaining Sci-Fi Channel series stars Paul Blackthorne as Harry Dresden, Chicago’s resident wizard detective, who investigates all sorts of crimes related to the supernatural. Lionsgate’s three-disc set includes the series’ first season in excellent 16:9 (1.78) transfers with 5.1 sound, deleted scenes, select commentaries, and a Making Of featurette.

SAVED BY THE BELL: Two Movie Collection (1992-94, Lionsgate): The long-running NBC Saturday morning sitcom wrapped up its original-cast story lines in a pair of primetime TV films: 1992's “Hawaiian Style” and the 1994 finale, “Wedding in Las Vegas,” both of which star the entire original cast (Mark-Paul Gosslaar, Mario Lopez, Dustin Diamond, Tiffani-Amber Thiessen, Elizabeth Berkley, Lark Voorhees and Dennis Haskins as Mr. Belding), plus several other cast members who starred in the short-lived, prime-time spin-off “The College Years.” Full-screen transfers and Dolby 2.0 soundtracks make this duo well worth a pick up for “Bell” fanatics.

I PITY THE FOOL: Season 1 (2006, 126 mins., Lionsgate): Genuinely upbeat TV Land reality series puts Mr. T in a series of “fish out of water” scenarios as he motivates a group of folks into doing chores as mundane as helping around the house. While “I Pity the Fool” is certainly amusing at face value (seeing Mr. T get involved in daily activities is infinitely amusing), the series is also worthwhile for younger viewers, since it doesn’t pander to its viewers and ridicule its participants the way most “reality” programs do. It’s good, clean fun which Lionsgate has released on DVD in a 1.85 transfer with 2.0 Dolby Stereo sound.

NEXT TIME: Universal's latest HD-DVDs and more! Until then, don't forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards, check out the new Aisle Seat Blog, and direct any emails to the link above

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