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Labor Day Edition
SHOGUN ASSASSIN & Handmade Films on Blu-Ray
I find that the older I get, the more appealing vintage exploitation films become. Perhaps it’s my growing disinterest in most manufactured studio films we’re seeing these days (and what a great summer for movies this has been, right?), and maybe just my tastes have changed a little bit with moving into my mid ‘30s. Either way, after sitting through one mediocre waste of time after another in theaters this summer, a release like Animeigo’s Blu-Ray edition of SHOGUN ASSASSIN (***, 85 mins., 1980, R) feels like an oasis of undeniably fulfilling cinematic junk-food.

This Americanized, re-edited, dubbed version of two of Japan’s vintage ‘70s “Lone Wolf and Cub” films is one of those rare instances where trimming the fat and hacking up the narrative of its source results in a lean, efficient, gleefully entertaining blast of action – a film that, at least in this country, transcended its origins and became a classic of B-movie fare.

Director Robert Houston and producer David Weisman reworked “Sword of Vengeance” and “Baby Cart at the River Styx” for this 1980 New World Pictures release, which follows a crazed samurai-turned-assassin and his young son (who sits in a baby cart with some weapons of its own) as they fight a bevy of warriors across feudal Japan.

“Shogun Assassin”’s dubbing, which was performed by the likes of Marshall Efron and Sandra Bernhard among others, is effectively handled, the pacing non-stop, and the power of the original movie’s action sequences retained in this stripped-down, no-nonsense release – one which has had a lost-lasting influence on pop culture, whether it’s modern music samples or references in Quentin Tarantino productions.

W. Michael Lewis (“In Search Of...”) and Mark Lindsay’s electronic scoring, meanwhile, adds further punctuation to a picture that’s long been a favorite of genre fans, and which has received a terrific Blu-Ray release courtesy of AnimEigo.

The independent label’s Blu-Ray disc boasts a terrific AVC-encoded, noise-reduction-free 1080p transfer with uncompressed stereo audio; the movie has been restored from the finest surviving elements, licensed through Toho, and boasts a number of extras, including two different commentaries (one with Weisman, graphic designer Jim Evans and Gibran Evans, voice actor; and another with experts Ric Meyers and Steve Watson), a featurette and a recent interview with fan Samuel L. Jackson. The original New World trailer (featuring voice-over from the guy who did “Superman” 1 & 2) is also on-tap, also in widescreen.

It’s a marvelous package for a movie that’s wild, woolly, violent and almost spellbinding in its inherent madness.

Meanwhile, Image has brought a handful of titles from the vaults of Handmade Films to Blu-Ray, offering four of the British company’s more popular titles in high-definition for the first time. Alas, the results are mixed, particularly where the studio’s most successful production – Terry Gilliam’s 1981 fantasy TIME BANDITS (***, 116 mins., PG) – is concerned.

One of Gilliam’s few bona-fide U.S. box-office hits (and still one of his most satisfying films) remains one of the most enduring “children’s fantasies” on celluloid, as a young boy (Craig Warnock) joins a group of little people on the run from God himself (Ralph Richardson) and a bad guy (David Warner) who wants to take over the world (of course). Run-ins with a Greek king (Sean Connery) and a daffy Robin Hood (a hilarious John Cleese) during their time-traveling quest result in a splendid entertainment for all age groups, with Gilliam utilizing his talents to create one of his more visually evocative films despite a modest budget.

"Time Bandits" had been released on DVD several years ago both by Anchor Bay and Criterion (the latter with audio commentary), followed by another Anchor Bay DVD release with a souped-up “Divimax” transfer.

Image’s new Blu-Ray boasts a high-def transfer culled from an international HD master, but while certain European territories saw a 1080p release of this new version (which opens with the MGM logo), the transfer on Image’s BD is 1080i and noticeably boasts more compression artifacts than its overseas counterparts. It could be because of the addition of noise-reduction that this transfer has more shortcomings than the European BD releases, but either way, the differences are disappointing and obvious (what’s worse for U.S. Blu-Ray owners is that the international BD releases are region-locked, so you would need a multi-region Blu-Ray player to view those versions).

On the audio side, the DTS Master Audio sound nicely remixes the original Dolby Stereo tracks, though extras are limited to the extended original trailer and a relatively recent interview with Gilliam. By comparison, the German Blu-Ray I imported last year has a superior transfer plus all the extras from Anchor Bay’s Divimax release (interviews with Gilliam and Michael Palin, plus Gilliam and Terry Jones; “The Directors: The Films of Terry Gilliam" special; additional trailers, etc.).

Things fare a little bit better, fortunately, with Image’s three other Handmade Blu-Ray releases, though ultimately none of the transfers are anything to write home about. Here’s a rundown:

THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY (***, 113 mins., 1979, R) has long been regarded as one of the quintessential British gangster films (alongside gritty pictures like Mike Hodges’ “Get Carter”) and while some of it is a bit dated (particularly Francis Monkman’s score), the taut direction of John Mackenzie, suspenseful script by Barrie Keefe and, most of all, the outstanding performances of Bob Hoskins and Helen Mirren continue to make Handmade’s 1979 release a viewer favorite.

Image’s Blu-Ray is another uneven outing, though fortunately does not suffer from the glaring compression issues “Time Bandits” does. The 1080p transfer is generally colorful but only offers an intermittent gain in high-def detail here and there from the prior DVD release; for whatever reason, it’s just not a particularly impressive technical presentation. The DTS Master Audio sound is fine, and English SDH subtitles are provided, which might come in handy due to some of the thick Cockney accents on-hand.

Hoskins was also a part of Neil Jordan’s acclaimed 1986 thriller MONA LISA (***, 104 mins., R), starring as a down-trodden hood who falls for a high-class call girl (Cathy Ryson). With able support turned in by Robbie Coltrane, Sammi Davis and Michael Caine, “Mona Lisa” is an atmospheric, noir-ish tale with another excellent performance from Hoskins, a fine Michael Kamen score, and some of Jordan’s patented moody visuals on-hand.

Regrettably this is another case where there’s not a lot of high-def detail in Image’s 1080p HD transfer. The DTS Master Audio sound is again acceptable, but the image, while appearing “better than DVD,” simply doesn’t have the kind of crispness one associates with better Blu-Ray presentations, and will likely rank as a letdown for aficionados of the picture.

Bruce Robinson’s WITHNAIL & I (***, 107 mins., 1986, R) receives the best transfer (relatively speaking) of the quartet: a fairly well-detailed 1080p AVC encode for one of Handmade’s more popular cult titles, following a pair of struggling actors (Paul McGann and Richard E. Grant) in ‘60s London who booze it up and flee to the countryside to escape their depressing surroundings.

Uncompressed PCM stereo audio and, again, no extras outside the trailer, comprise the technical presentation on this fourth and final of Image’s Handmade discs, which in spite of their drawbacks, at least are priced right (under $15 in most outlets).


SMALLVILLE Season 9 Blu-Ray (2009-10, 928 mins; Warner): Managing to stay on the airwaves despite moving to the dead of Friday nights on a network almost nobody watches, “Smallville” held up as well as can be expected in the ratings last season, keeping its core fanbase entertained and setting the stage for its 10th and final season, which begins on the CW network in just a few weeks.

The 2009-10 season, the series’ ninth (!), finds Tom Welling’s Clark Kent adopting a few more of his legendary character’s traits, while still struggling to embrace his ultimate destiny. Luckily the brooding is kept at a relative minimum while General Zod (Callum Blue) shows up with a small army of Kandorians who’ve luckily lost their super-capabilities; alas, Zod’s quest to possess them forces our Supes-to-be to question sides, all the while pal Chloe (Allison Mack) serves as a “Watchtower” to both Clark’s adventures as well as those of the Green Arrow (Justin Hartley) and other assorted super-heroes who pop up throughout the year. The latter include appearances from the “Wonder Twins” Zan and Jayna to Golden Age members of the Justice Society of America, including Dr. Fate, Hawkman and Stargirl. It’s another solid, entertaining season with a few missteps, but fortunately, more of Erica Durance’s Lois Lane is a good thing (that said, here’s hoping Michael Rosenbaum’s Lex Luthor returns for Season 10!).

Warner’s Blu-Ray edition of “Smallville”’s Season 9 offers satisfying VC-1 encoded transfers and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks, a pair of commentaries, a number of deleted scenes, and two featurettes centered around Zod and bringing the JSA characters into the modern-day fold. Recommended!

THE VAMPIRE DIARIES Season 1 Blu-Ray (925 mins., 2009-10; Warner): Former “Degrassi: The Next Generation” cast member Nina Dobrev’s fetching appearance is the highlight of this glossy, prime-time teen series which garnered terrific ratings for the CW Network during its freshman season.

Based on the popular books by L.J. Smith and developed by “Dawson’s Creek” creator Kevin Williamson, “Vampire Diaries” follows Dobrev’s heroine, Elena Gilbert, as she falls for a “Tiger Beat” worthy vampire-hero in Paul Wesley, only to encounter resistance from his more villainous, older brother played by “Lost”’s Ian Somerhalder. Sure, there’s no doubt “Vampire Diaries” is riding the wave of teenage interest in vamps thanks to the “Twilight” book and movie series, but from what I’ve sampled it’s well-executed, formula TV entertainment, if nothing else, with a good-looking cast.

Warner’s Blu-Ray box-set of “Vampire Diaries”’ first season is also attractive with its well-detailed VC-1 encoded transfers and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks. All 22 episodes are on-tap along with commentary on the pilot episode, deleted scenes, and loads of featurettes, plus a downloadable audio book of Smith’s “The Vampire Diaries: The Awakening.”

LOST - Season 6, The Final Season Blu-Ray (2010; Buena Vista): “Lost” will unquestionably go down as a unique series in the history of television, but while the show certainly had its share of brilliant episodes, memorable storylines and terrific performances, the program’s resolution failed to live up to the years of build-up preceding it – both the season itself and, in particular, its much-discussed final episode.

While show runners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse claimed the series was all about the journey and not the resolution, the reality is that “Lost”’s dramatic tension was always about its ending, its “big reveal.” And when that big reveal turned out to be something far less for some fans (myself included) than many hoped, it changed my perspective on the series itself – suddenly all those unresolved mysteries and offbeat tangents looked less like a brilliant “master plan” than a house of cards, made up as it went along, that finally came toppling over with frustratingly uneven episodes, including an all-out turkey with Allison Janney as Jacob and the “Man in Black”’s mother leading up to its conclusion. All those years, all those mysteries, and that’s the best they could come up with?

The series’ highly debated finale (which seemed to confuse viewers as much as anything) was also as much a letdown for its overall content as the ending itself. Almost embracing a "clip show" format wherein every character had to meet another character, thereby reprieving prior “Greatest Moments” of the series, while Michael Giacchino's weepy piano and strings scoring played out for the final time, I could only feel a major sense of disappointment. There was little to no pay off to countless mysteries the show had established and developed to the point where millions of viewers wondered about their significance and greater meaning -- in the end, when Jack fights the Smoke Monster like Captain Kirk taking on an alien in a classic episode of the old “Star Trek,” you may have asked yourself why you bothered watching the series in the first place.

Fans who went along for the ride and came away satisfied will no doubt want to check out “Lost”’s Season 6 Blu-Ray edition, which marks another winner from Buena Vista. In addition to its top-notch technical presentation (AVC encoded 1080p transfers, DTS Master Audio soundtracks), there are a host of wonderful special features, not the least of which is a 13-minute vignette, shot during the production of the finale (and at one point considered to be included in it), where we see Hurley and Ben’s tenure as “custodians” of the island. Commentaries, deleted scenes, featurettes and more round out the multi-disc set.

“Lost,” for me, worked best when it mixed character drama with a hint of mystery, adventure and a touch of the supernatural. At some point in its later years, that balance shifted away from the human realm and towards a convoluted mythology and time-travel scenario that was dizzying and at times irritating – but one that I think a lot of viewers went along with in the hopes that the series would, ultimately, work itself out. Sadly, the program didn’t fulfill its end of the bargain, making recommending the series as a whole a tricky proposition to first-time viewers, in spite of all the wonderful things “Lost” did at some point in time.

FLASH FORWARD Complete Series DVD (430 mins., 2009; Buena Vista): David S. Goyer was one of the creators of this failed ABC series, which the network hoped would become the next “Lost” – i.e. a serialized “puzzle” of a show centered around a somewhat-supernatural premise (here, a worldwide blackout that causes all of humankind to lose consciousness for three minutes). Unfortunately, after a strong debut, “Flash Forward” started meandering on to nowheresville, failing to keep its momentum going and losing not just its core audience but Goyer as well (he was replaced with another showrunner midway through). Facing the prospects of cancellation, ABC put the series on hiatus and tried a number of changes behind the scenes, but it didn’t help it once it returned, as the series faded out to a fast demise. Buena Vista previously issued the first batch of “Fast Forward”’s episodes in a Season 1, Part 1 set back in March; now that the show has been axed, they’ve produced a “Complete Series” DVD release offering all of its episodes in 16:9 transfers with 5.1 audio and loads of extras (bloopers, deleted scenes, commentary, many featurettes).

BROTHERS AND SISTERS Season 4 DVD (1032 mins., 2009-10; Buena Vista): ABC’s reasonably popular night-time soap completed its fourth season with more melodramatic storylines, including the departure of original cast member Rob Lowe. Buena Vista’s DVD box-set offers the complete Season 4 of “Brothers and Sisters” in fine 16:9 (1.78) transfers with 5.1 audio and extras including bloopers, deleted scenes, a Red Carpet featurette, and bonus footage showing the cast having fun off the set.

THE SIMPSONS Season 13 Blu-Ray and DVD (491 mins., 2001-02; Fox): Four-disc (DVD) or three-disc (Blu-Ray) edition of the long-running Fox animated comedy’s 13th season offers the episodes “Treehouse of Terror XII,” “The Parent Rap,” “Homer the Moe,” “A Hunka Hunka Burns in Love,” “The Blunder Years,” “She of Little Faith,” “Brawl in the Family,” “Sweets and Sour Marge,” “Jaws Wired Shut,” “Half-Decent Proposal,” “The Bart Wants What it Wants,” “The Lastest Gun in the West,” “The Old Man and the Key,” “Tales from the Public Domain,” “Blame it on Lisa,” “Weekend at Burnsie’s,” “Gump Roast,” “I am Furious (Yellow),” “The Sweetest Apu,” “Little Girl in the Big Ten,” “The Frying Game” and “Poppa’s Got a Brand New Badge.” Extras include commentary on every episode from writers, directors and actors, a number of featurettes, deleted scenes, commercials, multi-angle animation segments and more. Both transfers are framed in 1.33 and offer 5.1 Dolby Digital (DVD) or DTS Master Audio (BD) sound.

NCIS Los Angeles - Season 1 Blu-Ray (aprx. 17 hours, 2009-2010; CBS): CBS’ crime procedurals have had a good run over the last 10 years, though the venerable “CSI” franchise has given way to “NCIS” as TV’s most popular dramatic series – leading, naturally, to this first spin-off from what was originally a spin-off of “JAG.”

In “NCIS - Los Angeles,” partners Chris O’Donnell and LL Cool J top-line the west coast investigative team who go after criminals threatening national security; the show’s successful first season remixed (gently) the formula established by its predecessor and coasted to solid ratings on CBS, becoming last fall’s most-watched new dramatic series with over 16 million viewers tuning in weekly.

CBS’ Blu-Ray box-set of “NCIS Los Angeles”’ first season offers its initial 24 episodes including both parts of the “crossover” episode “Legend” with the “mothership” NCIS series, along with a number of extras. Episodes include “Identity,” “The Only Easy Day,” “Predator,” “Search and Destroy,” “Killshot,” “Keepin’ it Real,” “Pushback,” “Ambush,” “Random on Purpose,” “Brimstone,” “Breach,” “Past Lives,” “Missing,” “LD50,” “The Bank Job,” “Chinatown,” “Full Throttle,” “Blood Brothers,” “Hand to Hand,” “Fame,” “Found,” “Hunted,” “Burned,” and “Callen, G.”

In addition to crisp AVC encoded 1080p transfers and DTS Master Audio soundtracks, the five-disc BD release also includes a number of extras, with the spin-off episodes from NCIS Season 6, Making Of featurettes, interviews and BD Live segments all on-hand.

Also on Blu-Ray

THE GHOST WRITER Blu-Ray/DVD (**, 128 mins., 2010, PG-13; Summit): Flaccid Roman Polanski adaptation of a Robert Harris book finds ghost writer Ewan McGregor being flown to Martha’s Vineyard after being hired by a former British Prime Minister (Pierce Brosnan)’s wife (Olivia Williams) to author his memoirs. The timing couldn’t be worse, as McGregor uncovers a web of deceit and conspiracies involving a prior author who “accidentally” drowned, all the while the PM’s past involving torturing terrorists and a CIA cover-up plays out on the international media scene.

“The Ghost Writer” feels like one of those “torn from today’s headlines!” thrillers that were prevalent back in the ‘70s, but the film is so cold and lifeless that it proves difficult to get into. The performances (save a miscast Kim Cattrall as Brosnan’s assistant) are fine but the German lensing (with a fair amount of CGI enhancement) is none too convincing as it subs for the New England coast, while the story grows increasingly heavy-handed (politically and dramatically) as it reaches its predictable conclusion.

Summit’s Blu-Ray disc does offer a fine 1080p transfer with DTS Master Audio sound on a combo-disc with a standard-DVD presentation on the flip side. Extras are limited to a pair of featurettes and an interview with Polanski.

HAMLET (***½, 242 mins., 1996, PG-13; Warner): Prior to his current production of Marvel’s comic-book hero “Thor,” Kenneth Branagh’s “Hamlet” was the actor-filmmaker’s last big gasp of air on the studio scene: an expensive, impressively mounted 65mm adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic, shot in a fully unexpurgated version with an all-star cast and all of the visual trimmings one would anticipate (production design by Tim Harvey; Alex Thomson’s gorgeous widescreen lensing; and Patrick Doyle’s theatrical score).

That the film failed to find an audience even on the festival circuit was likely associated with Castle Rock’s mishandling of the picture upon its initial U.S. release. Thinking (rightfully, one would imagine) that a four-hour run time would severely curtail the movie’s commercial prospects, the studio along with Columbia Pictures (which distributed “Hamlet” initially) worked with Branagh to prepare a condensed, 150 minute cut, releasing it in most American markets while major metropolitan areas received the 242-minute, unedited version. Word of mouth, however, forced Castle Rock and Sony to release the full version to every market, but by then the damage, seemingly, had been done: “Hamlet” returned only $4 million in North American box-office, a far cry from the robust receipts of Branagh’s earlier “Much Ado About Nothing” and “Henry V.”

Warner’s Blu-Ray high-definition edition of the 1996 “Hamlet,” though, is certainly worth a view for both cinephiles and lovers of the Bard, restoring a good amount of grandeur to this generally overlooked production. With its splendid VC-1 encoded 1080p transfer, home audiences can now gain a true sense of appreciation for the scale of this production (shot in Blenheim Palace). Kate Winslet is ravishing here as Ophelia while Julie Christie, Derek Jacobi and Branagh himself are equally strong; even if some of the “guest star” appearances by the likes of Robin Williams, Billy Crystal and Jack Lemmon seem to have been made as a concession to appeal to a wider audience, the film is no less entertaining for their inclusion, while a nicely textured DTS Master Audio soundtrack replicates a fine Doyle score.

Extras in the “Digibook” hardbound package include a wonderfully informative commentary from Branagh and Shakespeare authority Russell Jackson, along with an introduction from the director, a vintage featurette, a 1996 Cannes Film Festival promo and the original trailer, set to music from “Henry V” and John Williams” “Born on the Fourth of July.”

ELVIS ON TOUR Blu-Ray (**½, 93 mins., 1972, G; Warner): Warner is celebrating the 75th Anniversary of The King with an all-new, restored edition of this 1972 Elvis documentary, which mixes concert footage with copious behind-the-scenes material showing Presley and his entourage in the midst of a national tour (some of it edited by Martin Scorsese). Not as satisfying as the earlier “Elvis: That’s The Way It Is,” Elvis fans will still love this great-looking, new HD master, presented in 1080p with DTS Master Audio 5.1 stereo sound, and packaged in another of Warner’s hardbound Digibooks with 40 pages of full color photos and trivia facts.

MARMADUKE Blu-Ray/DVD (**, 88 mins., 2010, PG; Fox): We didn’t know it at the time, but undoubtedly the worst thing that could’ve ever stemmed from the success of the truly lovely box-office hit “Babe” was that, over a decade after its release, most every animal movie has to involve talking dogs and cats.

What’s worse is that Fox has gone to the well now for the third time (following two mostly disappointing “Garfield” films) in terms of its furry comic adaptations with “Marmaduke,” a breezy but completely by-the-numbers live-action affair that takes the Brad Anderson-Phil Leeming strip and turns it into a pedestrian kiddie comedy with, of course, talking animals. Owen Wilson and George Lopez here provide the voices for Marmaduke and Carlos the Cat, respectively, with Tom Dey’s film following Marmaduke and his family and their move to a new, glitzy neighborhood. There’s nothing here you haven’t seen before (and fans of the strip are likely to be appalled), though at least the picture is fairly innocuous and young kids probably won’t mind it.

Fox’s Blu-Ray looks sunny and clear in its 1080p transfer with DTS Master Audio sound, and it’s packaged together with a DVD version for good measure. Extras include deleted scenes, mostly lightweight extras (as expected), a gag reel and other segments mostly aimed at the little ones.

SONS OF ANARCHY Season 2 Blu-Ray (583 mins., 2009; Fox): Well-received and successful FX series about a motorcycle gang that’s more than a little bit like the mafia on wheels continued to hold up in its second season in terms of ratings. Fox’s Blu-Ray edition of “Sons of Anarchy”’s second season offers excellently detailed AVC encoded transfers, DTS Master Audio soundtracks, all 13 episodes and several extras (selected episode commentaries, two featurettes) in its three-disc set.

SOLITARY MAN Blu-Ray (**½, 90 mins., 2009, R; Anchor Bay): Michael Douglas’ lead performance as a chronic womanizer with a fading ticker and more of a sex drive than kids less than half his age fuels this otherwise marginal comic-drama from screenwriters Brian Koppelman and David Levien -- prior collaborators with filmmaker Steven Soderbergh, who’s here listed as a producer.

The threadbare script follows Douglas’ Ben Kalmen as he (improbably) is assigned to chaperone his girlfriend’s (Mary Louise-Parker) daughter (Imogen Poots) on a college visit, wherein he meets with a young, hesitant student tour guide (Jesse Eisenberg, of course) and attempts to tutor him, as well as anyone else who crosses his path, in the ways of “The Ben.” Whether characters want to hear it or not, Ben’s got a lot on his mind, though he eventually receives his comeuppance, leading to him question whether he ought to go back to his ex-wife (Susan Sarandon, who’s still more attractive than most of the college-age girls in the film!).

“Solitary Man” is a bit farfetched in its portrayal of Douglas as a smug, irresistible ladies man; if this film were set in any kind of reality he’d receive more (any?) resistance to his charms than the Jedi-like mind tricks his character is able to perpetrate throughout.  That aspect of the plot aside, the picture is pretty disposable save for Douglas doing Douglas again, and he’s surrounded by a terrific cast (in particular, the always sunny Jenna Fischer, who perks up her sequences as Douglas’ daughter) that regrettably don’t have a lot to do over the course of the film’s brief running time.

Anchor Bay’s Blu-Ray disc of “Solitary Man” hits stores September 7th, offering a fine 1080p transfer with PCM uncompressed 5.1 audio and extras including a typical Making Of featurette and commentary from Koppelman, Levien and actor Douglas McGrath.

THAT EVENING SUN Blu-Ray (***, 109 mins., 2009, PG-13; Image): A terrific performance from Hal Holbrook makes this low-key rural drama worthwhile.

Holbrook stars as Abner Meecham, who leaves his retirement home and heads back to his old Tennessee family farm, which has since been rented out to an obnoxious redneck (Raymond McKinnon) who abuses his teen daughter (Mia Wasikowska), which adds further ammunition to Meecham’s quest to reclaim his property.

Scott Teems adapted a William Gay short story for this nicely textured story, with Holbrook playing another cantankerous lead role – but one with a bit more depth and dimension than expected. Barry Corbin and a heartfelt cameo from Holbrook’s wife Dixie Carter, who passed away just a few months ago, makes the picture even more bittersweet.

Image’s Blu-Ray disc looks nice with its 1080p transfer and DTS Master Audio soundtrack; extras include several making of segments and interviews, plus the trailer and a “Director Anti-Comemntary” from Teems.

THE EVIL DEAD Blu-Ray (**½, 85 mins., Unrated; Anchor Bay): Sam Raimi's original Deadite gorefest, one which launched Bruce Campbell onto fame and fortune, is just fine, although I still prefer sequels “Evil Dead 2" and “Army of Darkness” over this film, which plays like the former without the laughs. That being said, fans will be delighted with Anchor Bay’s Blu-Ray edition, since Raimi himself supervised the new HD transfer and also recorded an all-new commentary with producer Robert Tapert and Campbell, resulting in a listen that’s more entertaining than the movie itself. A limited edition bonus DVD of extras offers supplements from prior releases, including numerous featurettes, cutting room floor materials, trailers, TV spots and more.

SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD Blu-Ray (**, 90 mins., 2010, R; Magnolia): George Romero continues to pillage his zombie franchise with this tired latest installment, finding a pair of warring families battling not just the undead but each other on an isolated Delaware island. A few scares does little to off-set the overly familiar story line and preachiness of Romero’s original script. Magnolia’s “Ultimate Undead Edition” Blu-Ray release of “Survival” boasts a 1080p transfer (2.35), DTS Master Audio soundtrack, commentary with the director, the short movie “Sarge,” 13 behind-the-scenes shorts, an HDNet Making Of, interviews and other featurettes among the extras.

RED RIDING Blu-Ray (106, 97, 105 mins., Unrated; IFC): A trio of made-for-television films, each entry directed by its own filmmaker in a unique visual style, produced by Channel 4 and IFC adapts David Peace’s acclaimed crime novels.

The “Red Riding” Trilogy follows crime and corruption in the West Riding region of Yorkshire, England, most significantly a number of serial killings involving children; the subsequent investigations and police corruption associated with the cases; and the emotional devastation resulting from each for the principals involved.

Julian Jarrold helmed the first entry, “1974,” in 16mm; James Marsh shot “1980" in 35mm; and Anand Tucker produced “1983" on digital video. Some cast members appear in each installment, while three different composers (Adrian Johnston, Dickon Hinchliffe, and Barrington Peldung) provide respective-entry musical accompaniment. It’s a downbeat, at-times unpleasant and leisurely-told tale that some viewers might find oppressive; others, however, might be compelled by the fine performances and atmosphere which permeates all three pictures, which IFC has compiled in a superb Special Edition Blu-Ray release.

All three pictures are included in their own 1080p transfers with 5.1 soundtracks and extras including deleted scenes, Making Of featurettes, trailers and TV spots, plus an interview with Julian Jarrold.

Not easy viewing but ultimately worthwhile with a strong ending, “Red Riding” ranks as a recommended view for interested, patient viewers.

9TH COMPANY Blu-Ray (***, 140 mins., 2005, R; Well Go USA): Soviet-produced tale of a company of soldiers who served in Afghanistan during the late ‘80s partly emulates “Full Metal Jacket” in its portrayal of the brutal training its young charges endure, as well as “Platoon” with its tense, gut-wrenching battles, including a climactic clash with Afghans that occurred after the conflict had actually ended (with its participants, obviously, unaware of this fact).

I’m certainly no expert on the subject but there seems to be a divide as to the accuracy of “9th Company,” which generated big dollars at the Russian box-office in 2005 and earned critical kudos on the international circuit. It’s certainly an intriguing picture for its point of view, one which Well Go USA brings to Blu-Ray this week in a 1080p (2.45) widescreen transfer with Dolby TrueHD audio and extras including three featurettes and an optional, dubbed English language track.

HARRY BROWN Blu-Ray (**½, 103 mins., 2009, R; Sony): Michael Caine gives a sympathetic, tough performance in this Brit variation on “Death Wish,” with Caine playing a retired marine living a quiet existence in London where violence runs rampant. Though Caine’s Harry Brown initially looks the other way at the squalor around him, he’s pushed over the edge after his ailing wife dies and best friend is brutally murdered by thugs. From there director Daniel Barber and writer Gary Young hit the expected beats as Harry turns from acting in self-defense to Bronson-like vigilante maneuvers.

This type of picture can typically go either of two ways – either a crass exploitation affair like the “Death Wish” sequels or a sincere examination of the subject. “Harry Brown” mostly heads in the latter direction, enabling Caine to craft an excellent performance, yet the picture is fairly depressing and not a lot of fun as a result, which comes as a problem as it’s mostly predictable at every turn.

Sony’s Blu-Ray of “Harry Brown” offers a richly textured AVC encoded transfer and DTS Master Audio soundtrack, while extras include deleted scenes and a cast commentary.

DVD Capsules

DOC WEST DVD (97 mins., 2010, PG; Lionsgate): Italian TV western with Terence Hill was chopped down to 90-some-odd minutes in the U.S. from its apparent, original two-part broadcast overseas. Fans of the genre might get a kick out of the De Angelis family (including composer Maurizio De Angelis) reuniting with Hill for this one, regardless of its massive cuts. Lionsgate’s DVD includes a 16:9 transfer and 5.1 soundtrack.

FIERCE PEOPLE DVD (112 mins., 2005, R; Lionsgate): Griffin Dunne’s tale of class differences, scripted by Dirk Wittenborn from his novel, stars Diane Lane and Anton Yelchin as a mother and son who end up moving into the estate of billionaire Donald Sutherland; Yelchin ultimately meets and falls for Sutherland’s granddaughter Kristen Stewart, but finds the upper-crust has just as many issues as the background his family comes from. Lionsgate’s DVD of this 2005 release sports commentary from Dunne, deleted scenes, a standard-issue promo featurette, 16:9 (1.85) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack.

NEXT TIME: Summer movie-wrap up!
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