9/16/08 Edition -- The AISLE SEAT BLOG Is Also Live

Autumn Arrival Edition
Plus: High School Flashback, Discovery Titles & More

As we head into the months of September and October studios usually start releasing the big guns on the home video front, with a healthy dose of summer blockbusters and intriguing catalog titles alike.

This year, obviously, is following a similar pattern as Paramount is poised  to unveil their Special 2-disc DVD and Blu-Ray editions of IRON MAN (***½, 125 mins., 2008, PG-13; Paramount) on September 30th.

The teaming of star Robert Downey, Jr. with director Jon Favreau in an adaptation of what’s essentially a secondary Marvel Comics character wasn’t likely to become one of the highest-grossing super-hero films of all-time, but kudos go out to all for a high-flying escapist entertainment that outgrossed “Indiana Jones” and ranks second only to “The Dark Knight” on the list of the year’s top money makers.

Anchoring the picture is Downey: with a confident, funny, thoroughly appealing performance, the star gives one of the genre’s finest turns as Tony Stark, and he’s matched by a director who has turned in a pitch-perfect super-hero movie on nearly every level. Eschewing the dark, brooding approach too many other genre offerings have employed, Favreau instead has made one of the more “realistic” super-hero movies, with Downey’s drunken-billionaire playboy reforming himself as an iron-clad hero after nearly dying in the Afghan desert. From there it’s a confident, upbeat mix of action, humor and just a dash of romance, with superb supporting turns from Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Pots to Jeff Bridges’ nefarious Obadiah Stane (now there’s a name for a villain!), though second-billed Terence Howard doesn’t get nearly as much to do as Stark’s Air Force commander pal.

Even if the Mark Fergus-Hawk Ostby-Art Marcum-Matt Holloway script mostly adheres to a tried-and-true comic-book “origin movie” formula -- and the bland score by Ramin Djawadi adds little to the drama -- “Iron Man” is big fun, and worth seeing for Downey’s winning performance alone. For all the talk concerning Heath Ledger’s performance in “The Dark Knight,” Downey brings as much heart and soul, if not more so, to his role here, elevating the picture at every turn.

Paramount’s DVD and Blu-Ray releases of the movie will not disappoint “Iron Man” fans when they hit stores later this month. In fact, the 16:9 (2.35) DVD and Blu-Ray presentations are each spectacular for their respective mediums, though obviously the edge goes to the HD presentation, which offers a flawless rendering of Matthew Libatique’s cinematography. The Dolby TrueHD (Blu-Ray) and 5.1 Dolby Digital (DVD) soundtracks are as impressive as you’d imagine, with an impressive array of directional effects heard throughout.

Copious extras include deleted and extended scenes; a full, seven-part Making Of documentary that covers all the proverbial bases on the production of the film; Downey’s screen test; a visual effects featurette; a conversation with Downey; a selection of still galleries (including a BD exclusive “Hall of Armor” feature); and BD Live functions for those with player capability and an internet connection. Most of the features are in HD as well for Blu-Ray enthusiasts.

From the spectacular to the shockingly bad comes THE LOVE GURU (*½, 87 mins., 2008, PG-13; Paramount), a Mike Myers stinker which stars the comic as an American raised in India who comes back to the States to break into the self-help fad and offer “spiritual enlightenment” to a hockey player (Justin Timberlake) struggling on and off the ice.

Myers co-wrote this at-times painful exercise in would-be comedic shenanigans, which also offers Jessica Alba (adding to her growing roster of bad movies), Ben Kinglsey and Myers’ “Austin Powers” cohort Verne “Mini-Me” Troyer attempting to parade through a succession of gags that may not have cut it even in “Meet the Spartans.”

Paramount’s Blu-Ray and 2-disc DVD editions of this June flop include the requisite outtake reel, deleted scenes and numerous featurettes, most of which are about as funny as the film itself. The standard DVD acquits itself nicely with its 16:9 (2.35) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack, while the Blu-Ray is slated to offer a high-def transfer and uncompressed Dolby TrueHD sound (we were still awaiting the disc at press time and will report back if the specs turn out to be radically different).

Meanwhile, Universal next week rolls out a pair of theatrical efforts from last spring, one of which became a solid hit at the box-office, the other a disappointment given its cast and subject matter.

The latter was George Clooney’s pleasant, if forgettable, period football drama/romantic comedy LEATHERHEADS (**½, 114 mins., 2008, PG-13; Universal).

Clooney headlines this pet project as an aging star trying to recruit a team in the earliest days of organized pro football. After losing a sponsor Clooney recruits a war hero and college star (played by “The Office”’s John Krasinski) to lead the team to victory and develop a major fan following, much to the dismay of a journalist (Renee Zellweger) who thinks there’s something a bit “off” about Krasinski’s credentials.

With strong period atmosphere, fine cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel and a flavorful, though thematically weak, Randy Newman score, “Leatherheads” has the look of class and it’s certainly entertaining for the most part; in fact, the movie’s poor box-office receipts could have easily been attributed to the puzzling release date (why open a football movie in April?) more than a major deficiency in the film.

Still, not everything in “Leatherheads” clicks -- the main obstacle is the script by Duncan Brantley and former “Sports Illustrated” writer Rick Reilly which doesn’t cultivate many belly laughs, or much chemistry between Clooney and Zellweger. Had the dialogue been spruced up Clooney (who also directed) could have had a major hit on his hands, but the picture isn’t quite as bad as its flop status would have you believe in spite of its shortcomings.

Universal’s Blu-Ray disc offers a strong presentation of the movie on one 25GB platter: the HD transfer is top notch while DTS Master Audio sound compliments the visuals. Extras are limited to a commentary by Clooney and producer Grant Heslov and “U Control” picture-in-picture extras, most of which tend to be typical promotional chatter.

FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL (***, 111 mins. [Theatrical] and 118 mins [Unrated], 2008; Universal) was the bigger success for the studio -- another in a fast-growing line of Judd Apatow-produced comedies, most of which have garnered huge dollars (“The 40 Year Old Virgin,” “Knocked Up,” “Superbad,” this summer’s “Pineapple Express”) with just a couple of missteps along the way (“Drillbit Taylor”).

This comedy from star-writer Jason Segel (who co-starred in Apatow’s marvelous “Freaks and Geeks” TV series years ago) is one of the more charming and good-natured pictures that Apatow has produced thus far: a romantic tale of a musician and puppeteer (Segel) whose actress girlfriend (“Veronica Mars”’ Kristen Bell) has broken up with him, leaving Segel a sad sack of romantic disappointment. Trying to break away from his daily existence, Segel heads to Hawaii to get away from it all -- only to run into his ex-flame, now on vacation with an obnoxious Brit rock star (Russell Brand, apparently playing himself). Fortunately a new relationship with a cute hotel manager (Mila Kunis) offers Segel the potential to turn things around...

Filled with laughs and a bit less of the raunchy stuff than usual (despite some full-frontal male nudity), “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” manages to be both a crazy, madcap Apatow-styled effort as well as a delightful romantic-comedy at the same time. Segel is thoroughly winning, as is Kunis and Bell, who plays the “bad girl” here to good effect. Though the film technically isn’t anything extraordinary (none of the Apatow films is), “Forgetting Sarah Marhsall” is well worth checking out and ranks as one of the year’s more satisfying comedic efforts.

Presented on a dual-layer 50GB Blu-Ray platter, “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” offers both the original R-rated and “Uncut” versions of the movie with loads of extras, including more deleted scenes, both a standard commentary track and a visual one, “U-Control” extras and video diaries. More extras will be available through BD Live functionality, while the DTS Master Audio soundtrack and HD transfer (1.85) are both excellent.

Also New on Blu-Ray

One of the genres that the advent of high-definition has aided enormously is the “natural wonder”/”scenic beauty” video travelogue. Thanks to Blu-Ray and broadcast HDTV there seems to be an even healthier market than ever for shots of nature backed either by music or just natural, ambient sound.

Several new releases on Blu-Ray offer a breathtaking array of nature’s wonder, including COASTAL DAWNS, a 100-minute program from BlueMarvel Productions.

Director David Conover and executive producer Jeff Garrard have packaged a beautiful, dual-program assortment of images taken from Maine’s Mt. Battie, which overlooks Penobscot Bay and the village of Camden, as well as the lush tropical settings of Maui’s Wai’anapanapa Park. Both programs set out to convey the majesty of the dawn, the quiet of the morning, and the gradual awakening of nature that happens each day around us, yet both programs have their own unique flavor, from the autumnal images of a New England October to the Pacific warmth from Hawaii.

BlueMarvel calls their HD even more “pristine” in its source than both HD cable and satellite, and it’s hard to argue with their Blu-Ray presentation: the level of detail in some of the shots is exceptionally clear, from zoomed-in views of lobster boats to the wind that visibly manifests itself against the calm morning surf of both venues. The Dolby 5.1 sound is perfectly handled, making for ideal, calming background noise even if you’re not watching the scenic views, while there are also two different optional text overlays you can choose to accompany the programs: one offering “field guide” information on the locales seen in the video, another with inspirational quotes.

This inaugural Blu-Ray offering from BlueMarvel comes highly recommended and is available to order both from Amazon as well as BlueMarvel’s own website.

Another excellent program in a similar vein (no surprise since “Coastal Dawns” director David Conover is involved with some of the work glimpsed here also) is SUNRISE EARTH, the Discovery HD Theater series which hits Blu-Ray in two different four-disc volumes courtesy of the channel itself.

Each 45-minute program captures the sights and sounds of a morning sunrise from around the globe, and Discovery’s two box-sets house some 20 total episodes from the series.

Volume 1, which was also available on HD-DVD last year, includes “American Sunrises” such as “Moose in the Morning,” “Yellowstone Geysers,” “Gator Hole,” “Bison Before Breakfast,” “Sea of Terns,” “Vermont Balloons,” “Alewife Eternal Return,” “Tropical Palms,” “Swallow Sea Cave,” “Yosemite Dawn,” “Cribworks Kayak,” “Sequoia Light” and a bonus feature “Secrets of the Sun.” The VC-1 encoded transfers and Dolby Digital soundtracks are all excellent across the board.

Volume 2, which arrives at the end of the month only on Blu-Ray, is dubbed the “Seaside Collection” and includes “Island First Light” (set in Maine’s Acadia National Park), “The Great Barrier Reef,” “Societ Island Sunrise,” “Sunrise Seal Colony,” “Mediterranean Port,” “Ninagiak Island”, “Playa Grande Moonset,” and “Argentinian Seal Pups.” The high-def transfers and soundtracks are just as robust as their Vol. 1 counterparts, and offer relaxing, vibrant seascapes to grace all HD home set-ups. Highly recommended!

Also new from Discovery this month is WHEN WE LEFT EARTH: THE NASA MISSIONS (258 mins., 2008), an outstanding documentary series narrated by Gary Sinise that profiles the 50th Anniversary of NASA and recounts all the missions, misfires, tragedies and triumphs of our country’s push into outer space.

This real-life “Right Stuff” is packed with marvelous interviews and archival footage from the NASA vaults, some of which has never been seen -- and none of which has been viewed in the kind of outstanding high-definition detail that Discovery’s Blu-Ray box-set affords.

The four-platter, six-episode set -- which begins with the earliest days of astronaut recruiting and traces NASA’s work through the Hubble telescope debacle -- offers vivid HD transfers and Dolby Digital soundtracks, as well as a number of compelling extras, from bonus NASA film highlights to astronaut interviews, individual mission clips, and five full-length additional NASA movies (on the bonus fourth disc).

Needless to say this is a rich, involving and enormously rewarding series that ought to recapture one’s interest in the space program, remembering its infancy and examining the challenges it faces ahead.

Finally Discovery this week offers the complete first and second seasons of JON & KATE PLUS EIGHT: Seasons 1 and 2. 

This Learning Channel reality series has become one of cable’s most popular shows, as it follows the Gosselin family -- parents Kate and Jon, twin girls Mady and Cara, and the Sextuplets -- through every day events...events that might seem benign but become quite a challenge when dealing with eight kids.

Now, I normally rag on most reality series, but this Discovery-produced show is anything but junk -- in fact it’s become mandatory viewing in the Aisle Seat household over the last year (along with the wonderful “Little People, Big World”).

Moving and always entertaining, “Jon & Kate” is perfect for family viewing, as it shows the good-natured and enormously patient Gosselins as they attempt to remain sane and yet actually parent their children through some sticky situations, be it a trip to the dentist or potty-training.

It might not sound like the kind of program that becomes addictive viewing yet that’s exactly what you may find if you check out the series, which is just now hitting DVD. Volume 1 includes the series’ first season in 4:3 transfers and with the original “pilot” documentary, “Sextuplets and Twins,” which served as the basis for the program. Volume 2 offers the season’s sophomore roster of episodes plus the follow-up pilot doc, “Sextuplets and Twins: One Year Later.” Highly recommended!

Interested viewers should note that this and all the Discovery DVDs are available from Amazon as well as the Discovery Store at www.discoverystore.com

More Aisle Seat Picks of the Week

Speaking of gorgeous scenery, Warner Home Video has hit a complete and total home run with their new high-definition Blu-Ray release of HOW THE WEST WAS WON (***½, 162 mins., 1962; Warner), the uneven but hugely entertaining all-star MGM blockbuster co-directed by Henry Hathaway, John Ford, and George Marshall.

As someone who was born long after the film’s release, the only opportunity I’ve had to watch this sprawling western was either on television, in severe pan-and-scan crop jobs that all but ruined the movie’s Cinerama dimensions, or letterboxed laserdiscs and DVDs that were marred by visible “streaks” in the frame due to the multi-strip filming employed when the picture was produced.

Thanks to Warner’s full-blown digital remastering, only now can I gain a true appreciation of the movie’s magnificent cinematography, as this stunning double-disc HD set is absolutely spectacular: bright, bold colors and incredible detail make “How the West...” appear as if it were shot yesterday, while digital 3-D technology has greatly diminished those Cinerama strip markers to the degree where, at times, they’re no longer visible at all.

It’s an incredible achievement that’s enhanced even further by a new “Smilebox” presentation which curves the frame on the left and right hand edges to simulate the movie’s original Cinerama exhibition. While viewers also have the opportunity to view the movie in its “standard” widescreen (2.89:1) aspect ratio, the “Smilebox” presentation is enormously effective to the degree where I preferred it to the more conventional widescreen presentation.

The Dolby TrueHD sound is effective, if a bit limited due to the age of the picture’s elements, while a superb “round table” commentary includes comments from historian Rudy Behlmer, stunt man Loren James, filmmaker David Strohmaeir, Cinerama director John Sittig, and film music expert Jon Burligame, who’s on-hand to lend insight into the creation of Alfred Newman’s outstanding soundtrack.

The trailer and a superb, older documentary on the Cinerama process, “Cinerama Adventure,” make this one of the year’s must-have releases for Golden Age film buffs. Highly recommended!

Shelley Duvall’s wonderfully inventive FAERIE TALE THEATRE was one of the crown jewels of cable programming in the early to mid ‘80s. Offering a cavalcade of stars and directors as diverse as Francis Ford Coppola, Tim Burton, Roger Vadim and Tony Bill (as well as scores by James Horner and Michael Convertino among others), Duvall’s fantasy series enchanted children of all ages and earned numerous awards during its run throughout the 1980s.

Koch Vision’s new Collector’s Edition offers all 26 episodes from the Showtime series, each newly remastered in the best-possible condition given their videotape origins (for that reason, don’t expect any kind of high-definition release to improve upon the source material). The episodes are presented in alphabetical, as opposed to chronological order, and extras include a “lost” episode (“Faerie Tale Theatre’s Greatest Moments”), plus a presentation reel with Duvall and B-roll promo footage.

Even more satisfying than the disc extras is a 112-page paperback “storybook” offering a synopsis of each tale with color photos, a small list of cast and crew, and a few trivia tidbits. While it would have been even more satisfying to have extensive liner notes on the episodes (producer Bridget Terry’s essay and a brief blurb from Duvall is all we get here), this is still a phenomenal set from Koch with superior picture and sound to the prior DVD and a bonus “3-In-1" card game offering more trivia and a memory game in its standardized deck.

Last but not least among this week’s “elite” Aisle Seat discs is Shout! Factory’s forthcoming, marvelous anthology of SPORTS NIGHT (1998-2000), Aaron Sorkin’s alternately funny and dramatic ABC series about an ESPN-like network, its anchors, producers and other folks behind the scenes, and how closely their personal, and professional, lives happen to be intertwined.

From the ensemble cast (Felicity Huffman, Peter Krouse, Josh Charles, Robert Guillaume, Joshua Malina and Sabrina Lloyd) to the snappy dialogue, “Sports Night” represents some of Sorkin’s strongest work -- more consistent than the unsatisfying “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” and less preachy than “The West Wing” would become.

Previously available on a now out-of-print Buena Vista DVD, Shout!’s new box-set offers both seasons of “Sports Night” in fine full-screen transfers and Dolby 2.0 soundtracks. A fresh assortment of extras gives the series the same deluxe treatment the label gave to cult series “Freaks and Geeks” and “Undeclared,” including extensive booklet notes (with an introduction by Sorkin), interviews with Sorkin and frequent series director Thomas Schlamme, gag reels, eight episode commentary tracks, a whole batch of retrospective conversations with the cast and creator, Making Of featurettes and discussions with ESPN “Sportscenter” staff about the accuracy of the show.

“Sports Night” may have been borne out of ABC’s purchase of ESPN at the time, but it’s a perfectly pitched, well acted and written series that’s attracted a cult following of fans over the years, in addition to the adoration the series received from critics across the country. Shout!’s DVD box-set offers a stellar package preserving the series in a top-notch Special Edition that truly does it justice. Highly recommended! (available Sept. 30)

New on Blu-Ray

KILL BILL (***½, 111 mins., 2003, R; Miramax)
KILL BILL VOL. 2 (***, 137 mins., 2004, R; Miramax)

I'm not the world's biggest fan of Quentin Tarantino, but this impressively designed, stylish and fun movie-movie -- released in two installments, one appreciably weaker than the other -- is one of his most satisfying works to date.

Equal parts comic book and '70s Hong Kong kung fu homage, "Kill Bill Vol. 1" is the (superior) first half of Tarantino's tale of revenge and retribution. Uma Thurman stars as "The Bride," a sleek assassin who's shot on her wedding day and left for dead by her former boss and employees. After spending four years in a coma, she wakes up, ready to enact some vengeance for the death of her fiancee and unborn child by taking down "Bill" (David Carradine) and his deadly band of contract killers (including Lucy Liu, Vivica A. Fox and Daryl Hannah).

Tarantino's movie opens up with a Shaw Brothers logo, setting the tone for a movie that's filled with in-jokes, homages, and plenty of energetic filmmaking that shows off the filmmaker at his best: yes, it's violent, but somehow the tone of "Kill Bill" manages to be more playful and less vindictive (in spite of its copious gore) than much of Tarantino's previous work. Using all corners of the widescreen frame, Tarantino has made an enthusiastic film -- an exercise in style more than plot, no question -- that works best if you take it in the proper spirit, sporting a number of cinematic styles (including a full-blown anime used to render the back story of Liu's character) backed up by Robert Richardson's evocative cinematography. Even the hodge-podge soundtrack works great, sporting copious doses of Bernard Herrmann's score from "Twisted Nerve."

The second half of Tarantino's epic proves to be a bit less inspired than its opening act. Still, Q-fans should savor the action, spicy dialogue and amusing performances sprinkled throughout this final act, which Buena Vista has released in two separate Blu-Ray discs reprieving their prior DVD editions. This means light supplements (a Making Of, music videos, etc.) and the inevitable possibility of a “Kill Bill - Final Cut” assembly that could happen one day down the road.

That said, the matching Blu-Ray presentations are just spectacular, marked by strong colors, a hint of cinematic grain, little “edge enhancement” and a boisterous, uncompressed PCM soundtrack with sonic textures coming at you in all directions. In all this is a dynamic a/v feast that perfectly reproduces Tarantino’s opus, resulting in one of the year’s better Blu-Ray discs to date.

THE LIFE BEFORE HER EYES: Blu-Ray (***, 90 mins., 2008, R; Magnolia): Low-key, interesting character study about a woman (Uma Thurman) whose involvement in a tragic high school incident causes an unending feeling of guilt is a superior effort from director Vadim Perelman, making amends for his debut feature, the well-acted but overly melodramatic “House of Sand and Fog.” This independent effort offers superb performances from Thurman and Evan Rachel Wood as the younger version of Thurman’s character, and while some critics carped that “The Life Before Her Eyes” was little more than an R-rated Lifetime movie, it’s a sensitive, compelling picture with a fine James Horner score (Horner had scored “House of Sand and Fog” for the director and one hopes he’ll reunite with Perelman for the upcoming “Poltergeist” remake). Magnolia’s Bli-Ray disc includes deleted scenes, an alternate ending, commentary, photo galleries and featurettes, plus an excellent 1080p transfer with DTS Master Audio sound. Recommended!

THE INVINCIBLE IRON MAN: Blu-Ray (2007, 83 mins., PG-13; Lionsgate): Watchable Marvel direct-to-video production is at least a cut above the prior Marvel/Lionsgate efforts (namely, the “Ultimate Avengers” flicks), bringing Tony Stark and his armored alter-ego into the present day with fairly good animation and a sometimes overly-cluttered script. Lionsgate’s Blu-Ray disc includes a dynamic AVC encoded transfer, a DTS Master Audio soundtrack, an alternate opening, various featurettes, and a look at the next Marvel small-screen production, “Dr. Strange.”

WARREN MILLER’S PLAYGROUND (100 mins., 2008; Shout! Factory): Superb cinematography graces this, the 58th (!) sports feature film from Warren Miller Entertainment. “Playground” features a number of skiiers of the “free ride movement,” including Sean Petit, Peter Olenick and Dean Treadway, as they attempt to tear up snowy slopes from Japanese mountains to an indoor ski park in Dubai. This Shout! Factory Blu-Ray disc is easily the only way to soak up the intense visuals of this entertaining ride, with a superb HD transfer, Dolby TrueHD audio and narration by Jonny Moseley setting the proper mood for the “extreme” and dynamic skiing footage on hand here. (available Oct. 14)

DAYWATCH (Both **, 117 and 146 mins., 2006, Unrated; Fox): Filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov may have scored a huge success this past summer thanks to his outrageous (and occasionally tasteless) thriller “Wanted,” but horror fans with a keen eye for the international scene were already well aware of the director’s penchant for outrageous visuals thanks to these two Russian vampire epics, both packed with outlandish set-pieces...and also a basic lack of coherence. Fox’s Blu-Ray editions of “Nightwatch” and its sequel “Daywatch” include excellent AVC-encoded (1.85) transfers with DTS Master Audio sound, optional English subs (though not the acclaimed “tricked out” subs that accompanied some prints and video releases of the movies), an optional English dubbed track, plus extra features (mostly on “Nightwatch”) including commentary from the director, subtitled commentary from novelist Sergei Lukyaneko, extended and/or deleted scenes, featurettes and the trailer. The two films are certainly an acquired taste, but fans are urged to check out the superb HD transfers Fox has served up here on Blu-Ray.

Also New From Fox

FOX HORROR CLASSICS VOL. 2 (Fox): Three-disc follow-up to last year’s vintage Fox horror anthology is a bit of a mixed bag, seeing that two of the inclusions are hard to classify as genre works. Bela Lugosi’s turn in the 1932 “Chandu the Magician” is as more of a fantasy than anything else, featuring Edmund Lowe as the title hero and Lugosi as the vile villain Roxor; the barely feature-length “Dr. Renault’s Secret” (1942) finds a mad scientist turning an ape...into a human; and finally there’s the atmospheric gothic melodrama “Dragonwyck,” Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s first feature, starring Walter Huston and Vincent Price. All three black-and-white features are presented in newly minted full-screen transfers and mono sound; solid extras include commentaries on “Dragonwyck” and “Chandu,” plus featurettes on each platter and an isolated score track of Alfred Newman’s marvelous “Dragonwyck” music. It’s a bit uneven as anthologies go but “Dragonwyck” alone makes this a good bet for Golden Age horror buffs.

BOSTON LEGAL: Season 4 (888 mins., 2007-08; Fox): “The Shat” is back for another year of crazy cases, David E. Kelley’s typically colorful writing and the arrival of “Star Trek III” cohort John Larroquette in this fourth season of the ABC legal-comedic-drama. Fox’s five-disc DVD box-set includes the series’ complete fourth season (20 episodes) in excellent 16:9 transfers with 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks and one Making Of featurette.

IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA: Season 3 (332 mins., 2007; Fox): The acclaimed FX comedy series is about to return shortly for its fourth season. Fans who might’ve missed last year’s assortment of 15 episodes can get caught up to speed thanks to Fox’s three-disc box-set, which offers “It’s Always Sunny...”’s third season in full-screen transfers with Dolby Stereo sound, commentaries, a number of behind-the-scenes featurettes and a gag reel.

New From Criterion

Three films from French filmmaker Max Ophuls comprise Criterion’s September offerings this month. Ophuls’ graceful camerawork is on-hand in each title, all of which have been remastered in crisp, new black-and-white transfers and presented with improved English subtitles:

-LA RONDE (93 mins., 1950) stars Simone Signoret, Anton Walbrook and Simone Simon in an adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s play “Reiegen.” Commentary from Ophuls scholar Susan White; an interview with Ophuls’ son Marcel; a conversation with actor Daniel Gelin; a talk with scholar Alan Williams; correspondence between Laurence Olivier and Heinrich Schnitzler, Arthur’s son, discussing the play; and an essay from Terrence Rafferty grace the package.

–LE PLAISIR (97 mins., 1952) finds Ophuls adapting a series of tales from Guy de Maupassant, with a litany of French stars like Simone Simon, Jean Gabin, Danielle Darrieux and others appearing in a breezy Ophuls concoction. Criterion’s DVD offers an introduction from filmmaker Todd Haynes, both English and German language versions of the opening narration, a video essay about Ophuls’ screenplay featuring scholar Jean-Pierre Berthome, interviews with actor Daniel Gelin and others, plus booklet commentary from film critic Robin Wood.

-THE EARRINGS OF MADAME DE... (100 mins., 1952) is regarded by many as one of Ophuls’ finest works, starring Danielle Darrieux and Charles Boyer in a tale of tragic romance and fabricated wealth. Criterion’s DVD includes an intro from Paul Thomas Anderson, commentary from writers Susan White and Gaylyn Sutdlar, interviews and a visual analysis, plus a booklet featuring material on Ophuls and the source novel by Vilmorin.

Coming on DVD

THE BUSBY BERKELEY COLLECTION, Volume 2 (Warner): More Golden Age musical goodness for film fans arrives this week with the second installment in Warner’s Busby Berkeley Collection.

This four-film box-set offers a quartet of the director’s trademark genius:

-GOLD DIGGERS OF 1937: Dick Powell, Joan Blondell and Victor Moore star in this superb follow-up to the original “Gold Diggers.”

-GOLD DIGGERS IN PARIS: Rudy Vallee, Rosemary Lane and Hugh Herbert hit France in this 1938 romp.

-HOLLYWOOD HOTEL: Dick Powell, Benny Goodman and an all-star cast team up in this amusing 1937 effort.

-VARSITY SHOW: It may not be “Good News” but Dick Powell and Fred Waring do their best to come close in this 1937 tale of Powell attempting to save his college’s musical revue.

As with the prior release, excellent remastered full-screen transfers, additional music and comedy shorts, cartoons and bonus musical numbers from other films (unlikely to see the light of day on DVD) make this a spectacular set for all musical lovers. Highly recommended!

New From Universal

John Hughes’ ‘80s teen classics have been released, and re-issued, numerous times on DVD, but seldom with any supplemental content of interest.

Thankfully, Universal’s new HIGH SCHOOL FLASHBACK COLLECTION rectifies the situation a little bit, offering Hughes’ THE BREAKFAST CLUB, WEIRD SCIENCE and SIXTEEN CANDLES in new Special Edition packaging, complete with a tin “locker” styled case.

Extras aren’t overly abundant, but what’s here should be of chief interest for fans: “The Breakfast Club” is highlighted by a lengthy documentary on its production and cult status, offering comments from stars Ally Sheedy, Judd Nelson and Anthony Michael Hall, plus filmmakers like Amy Heckerling, “Heathers”’ Michael Lehmann and “Juno” writer Diablo Cody. This is easily the most substantive supplement on any of the three discs, while commentary from Nelson and Hall makes for an entertaining listen during the film. Another extra touches upon the “Brat Pack” phenomenon, and while all of it is nice enough, the absence of Hughes himself along with Molly Ringwald is baffling (Ringwald is co-starring in the hit ABC Family series “The Secret Life of the American Teenager,” so it’s hard to figure that she would be that elusive to track down...unless she’s just not talking about this phase of her career).

The earlier Hughes hit “Sixteen Candles” includes a shorter look at the creation of the 1984 comedy, again sans Hughes and Ringwald, while “Weird Science” boasts a 15-minute look back at its creation with Hall, plus the pilot for the cable series.

All discs boast 16:9 (1.85) transfers, DTS and Dolby Digital soundtracks, and the original trailers.

Coming Soon on DVD & Blu-Ray

The great character actor Richard Jenkins is brilliant in Tom McCarthy’s highly praised film THE VISITOR (***, 104 mins., 2008, PG-13; Anchor Bay), which hits DVD and Blu-Ray early next month from our friends at Anchor Bay.

Jenkins stars as a disillusioned college professor who improbably strikes a friendship with a pair of illegal immigrants whom he finds living in his apartment. His relationship with Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab (Danai Gurira) changes Jenkins’ world, enabling him to possibly open the door to another relationship with Tarek’s mother, but all is threatened when the duo is threatened with deportation.

Illegal immigration is certainly a hot button issue these days, but “The Visitor” isn’t really as interested in political speechifying as it is presenting a clear, well-drawn character study with fine performances from its ensemble cast. Jenkins is just marvelous here -- I confess I’ve been a fan and have followed his career for years since I went to school with his daughter, and after a lifetime of essaying minor roles (and so many cops one loses count!), he’s just superb in a career-defining part that hopefully ought to give him more roles of substance from here on.

Anchor Bay’s Blu-Ray disc includes a fine 1080p HD transfer with both uncompressed PCM and Dolby Digital 5.1 sound offerings. Extras include deleted scenes, the trailer, commentary with McCarthy and Jenkins, and a look at its production. Recommended!

New on DVD: TV Box Sets, Capsules & More

GREY’S ANATOMY Season 4: DVD and Blu-Ray (2007-08, 740 mins.; Buena Vista)
UGLY BETTY Season 2 (2007-08, 765 mins.; Buena Vista): A pair of hit ABC series return to DVD in time for the Fall season.

Season 4 of “Grey’s Anatomy” arrives on DVD and Blu-Ray this week in a set that ought to please fans of this popular night-time soap/medical drama. Other than Katherine Heigl’s well-reported off-screen run-ins with the series’ producers, it was fairly smooth sailing for “Grey’s” in Season 4 -- at least according to a friend of mine who religiously watches the program. Gone were some of the odder plot lines from the previous season, while the writer’s strike didn’t do much to derail the show’s popularity.

Buena Vista’s box-set includes a number of special features, from outtakes to unaired scenes, excellent 16:9 (1.78) transfers and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks, while the Blu-Ray box-set offers the same presentation with the added benefit of high-def 1080p visuals.

One of ABC’s other popular night-time series, “Ugly Betty,” is also back this week on DVD. This adaptation of a Colombian “Telenovela” is an acquired taste, but there were more than enough viewers to bring the flamboyant series back for another season. Buena Vista’s box-set includes deleted scenes, bloopers, a profile of the series’ Latin TV roots, colorful 16:9 (1.78) transfers and 5.1 Dolby Digital audio.

PRIVATE PRACTICE: Season 1 (2007-08, 340 mins.; Buena Vista)
SAMANTHA WHO: Season 1 (2007-08, 322 mins., Buena Vista): A pair of ABC series that had relatively successful freshman years also hit DVD from Buena Vista this month.

Kate Walsh left the cushy confines of “Grey’s Anatomy” for the spotlight in her own spin-off series, “Private Practice.” Backed by an excellent supporting cast that seems almost too good for the material (including Taye Diggs, Amy Brenneman, Tim Daly and Audra MacDonald), “Private Practice” had a solid first season that Buena Vista has brought to DVD in a top-notch box-set. The 16:9 (1.78) transfers are all excellent, as are the 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks, while copious extras include commentaries, two extended episodes, deleted scenes, a look at the show’s casting process and other goodies.

Christina Applegate, meanwhile, returned to series TV with an amiable, if somewhat unremarkable, new series entitled “Samantha Who.” Again surrounded by a terrific ensemble (Jean Smart, Jennifer Esposito, Melissa McCarthy, Barry Watson and Kevin Dunn among others), this low-key series about a young woman, suffering from amnesia, who finds out she wasn’t that nice of a person as she puts her life back together is modestly entertaining and coasts along on the performances of its cast. Buena Vista’s DVD box-set again includes 16:9 transfers, 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks, deleted scenes, a commentary track and the requisite blooper reel.

BROTHERS AND SISTERS: Season 2 (2007-08, 671 mins.; Buena Vista): Politics, romance, and more botox adorn the second season of the Sunday night ABC soap starring Sally Field, Rob Lowe and Calista Flockhart. Fans will enjoy Buena Vista’s box-set, which includes bloopers, outtakes, extended/deleted scenes, commentaries, a look at the food served up on the show, 16:9 transfers and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks.

DIRTY SEXY MONEY: Season 1 (2007-08, 427 mins.; Buena Vista): Peter Krouse, Donald Sutherland and William Baldwin star in this Wednesday night ABC series, the first season of which is just arriving on DVD from Buena Vista. The studio’s 16:9 (1.78) transfers and 5.1 soundtracks are all fine, while extras include bloopers, commentaries, Making Of featurettes, and a VIP tour of the set.

THE OFFICE: Season 4 (2007-08, aprx. 7 hours; Universal): The strike might have shortened up most network shows last fall, but “The Office” -- easily one of the best series on TV today -- compensates in quality what it might lack in quantity. This fourth season for the hilarious NBC reworking of the Ricky Gervais-Stephen Merchant British “Office” finds Michael Scott (Steve Carrell) breaking apart from his girlfriend; Dwight (Rainn Wilson) watching helplessly as his love is wooed away from him by upstart Andy (Ed Helms); Jim (John Krasinski) and Pam (Jenna Fischer) trying to navigate romance in the workplace; and a “Run for the Cure” that’s undoubtedly the comedic highlight of the season. Universal’s Season 4 box-set contains the series’ complete fourth season in excellent 16:9 (1.78) transfers with 5.1 Dolby Digital audio and a fine array of extra features, including deleted scenes, commentaries, a blooper reel, promo ads, a copy of the script from the episode “The Dinner” by Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg (who are supposedly writing the next “Ghostbusters”), and other goodies for “Office” fans.

HOUSE: Season 4 (2007-08, Aprx. 11 hours.; Universal): More thrills, laughs and one-liners as the Fox medical drama returns for a fourth season. This strike-shortened year again features Hugh Laurie as the irrepressible House, who this time out auditions a number of prospective team members to join his staff. “House” is a bit outlandish if taken at face value, but it’s certainly energetic and entertaining TV, anchored by Laurie’s great work. Universal’s Season 4 DVD box-set includes 16:9 transfers, commentary on the episode “House’s Head,” numerous Making Of featurettes and a look at the series’ visual effects.

STAR TREK - ALTERNATE REALITIES (Aprx. 15 hours; Paramount): One of the best “Star Trek” fan-centric “Collectives” combines a handful of mostly-excellent episodes across all spectrums of the long-running franchise, every one dealing with alternate words: from the classic original series “Mirror, Mirror” to Deep Space Nine’s “Through the Looking Glass.” Also on-hand: “In a Mirror Darkly, Parts 1 and 2" (Enterprise), “The Alternative Factor” (original series), “Parallels” (TNG), “The Enemy Within” (original series), “Turnabout Intruder” (original series), “Frame of Mind” (TNG), “Shattered” (Voyager), “Yesterday’s Enterprise” (TNG), “The Inner Light” (TNG), “The Visitor” (DS9), “Before and After” (Voyager), “Timeless” (Voyager), “Course: Oblivion” (Voyager), “E2" (Enterprise) and “Twilight” (Enterprise). Commentaries and featurettes adorn each of the five platters, plus nice 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks and 4:3 full-screen transfers (16:9 on the “Enterprise” episodes).

DVDs in Brief

101 DALMATIANS (***, 103 mins., 1996, G; Disney)
102 DALMATIANS (**½, 100 mins., 2000, G; Disney)
101 DALMATIANS II: PATCH’S LONDON ADVENTURE (71 mins., 2003, G; Disney)

A trio of Special Edition re-issues of Disney’s live-action “Dalmatians” pictures plus the direct-to-video, animated “101 Dalmatians II” hit stores this week.

John Hughes wrote and produced the highly entertaining 1996 live-action “101 Dalmatians,” offering Glenn Close as Cruella De Vil, Jeff Daniels and Joely Richardson plus a score by Michael Kamen and plenty of canine fun -- with an assist from ILM’s special effects gurus. Disney’s DVD re-issue of the box-office hit, which Stephen Herek directed, is basically barebones, but does include a new 16:9 (2.35) widescreen transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, making it an upgrade on the older, out-of-print non-anamorphic disc.

More extras are on-hand in the re-issue of “102 Dalmatians,” though the 2000 sequel itself, alas, is a comedown from its predecessor, no surprise with Hughes having departed. Commentary from director Kevin Lima is on-hand along with a deleted scene, several Making Of featurettes, outtakes and interactive features, plus the theatrical trailer. The 16:9 (1.85) transfer is just fine, as are the 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital sound options.

The well-done 2003 made-for-video “101 Dalmatians II” also receives a new transfer (1.66 with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound) plus a music video, documentary, and interactive games for the little ones.

THE FOOT FIST WAY (**½, 82 mins., 2006, R; Paramount): Low-budget, uneven but sporadically hilarious comedy stars Danny McBride (co-star of “Pineapple Express” and screenwriter of the “Underworld” movies!) as a mini-mall karate instructor who journeys to meet his idol -- an obnoxious martial-arts celebrity -- after he finds out his wife is cheating on him. At barely 80 minutes and “presented” by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, “The Foot Fist Way” does feel like a padded comedy sketch, but fans who enjoyed McBride’s antics in “Pineapple” are likely to find some laughs here. Paramount’s DVD includes commentary with McBride and director Jody Hill (the duo wrote the film with Ben Best), plus 20 deleted/extended scenes, an alternate ending and a blooper reel.

ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS: THE ALVINNN!!! EDITION (173 mins., 1983-87; Paramount): Some 14 episodes -- nearly three hours -- of ‘80s “Chimpunks” animated goodness hits DVD in a double-disc edition from Paramount. Full-screen transfers and mono soundtracks make this a decent bet for the little ones, and all Alvin fans at heart.

MY LITTLE PONY LIVE: THE WORLD’S BIGGEST TEA PARTY (65 mins., 2008; Paramount): It’s amusing how toy franchises that were big when I was a kid, then lied dormant for basically a generation while I was growing up, have resurfaced for a whole new group of kids. Case in point: “My Little Pony,” which has grown so popular apparently that even live taped concerts of the characters in-action have now hit DVD! Paramount’s DVD includes a group of sing-along songs, full-screen transfers and a Dolby Digital stereo soundtrack.

ROB & BIG: Season 3 (300 mins., 2008; Paramount): Season three of the popular MTV reality series follows the adventures of DC Shoes skateboarder Rob Drydek, bodyguard Christopher “Big Black” Boykin, bulldog Meaty and mini-horse “Mini.” Paramount’s DVD includes deleted scenes, commentary and more plus full-screen transfers and Dolby 2.0 soundtracks.

SCHOOLHOUSE ROCK: Election Collection (49 mins., Disney): 15 shorts from the classic late '70s/early '80s ABC Saturday Morning cartoon vignettes all focused on the Presidential race comprise this new collection from Disney. At 49 minutes there's little here to entice owners of the complete "Schoolhouse Rock" DVD anthology, aside from one new-to-DVD short "Presidential Minute" with a pair of "surprise endings" and an election tracking kit for the little ones.

HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL 2: Dance Edition (111 mins., 2007; Disney): New 2-disc edition of the insanely high-rated cable movie offers a sneak peek at the upcoming theatrical "High School Musical 3" along with deleted scenes, music videos and more. The DVD transfer is again in full-screen (1.33)
and ofers 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

BEFORE THE RAINS (98 mins., 2008, PG-13; Lionsgate): Merchant-Ivory produced period drama from director Santosh Sivan arrives on DVD in a satisfying 16:9 (1.78) widescreen transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

WILL & GRACE: Season 8 (23 Episodes, 2005-06; Lionsgate): Long-running NBC sitcom finished its run with 23 eighth-season episodes (2005-06), which hit DVD this week from Lionsgate. Making Of featurettes, a look at the final episode, outtakes and commentary make this a must for “Will & Grace” fans, while the 4:3 full-screen transfers and 2.0 Dolby Digital soundtracks are excellent across the board.

BLOODSUCKING CINEMA (57 mins., 2007; Anchor Bay): Moderately interesting Canadian documentary on modern vampire films, which recently aired on the Starz network, offers the usual comments on the genre from a variety of experts, including filmmakers John Carpenter, Joel Schumacher and Len Wiseman; make-up gurus including Greg Nicotero and the late Stan Winston; writers Marv Wolfman and David S. Goyer; plus critics like Leonard Maltin and Harry Knowles. Thankfully the beautiful Kristanna Loken is on-hand to off-set Big Harry’s appearance, and there are copious clips from all kinds of vamp staples on-hand. Horror fans should eat it up, even if the revelations aren’t all that mind-blowing. Anchor Bay’s DVD, out next week, includes a 16:9 (1.78) transfer and 2.0 Dolby Digital surround.

BALLET SHOES (84 mins., 2007, PG; Koch Vision): Well-made Granada/BBC production adapts Noel Streatfeild’s original book, starring Emma Watson (from “Harry Potter”), Yasmin Paige and Lucy Boynton as three orphans raised as sisters in 1930s London. Their ambition to break free from their surroundings and embark on careers as diverse as aviation and ballet makes for a heartwarming family film, co-starring a superb, veteran cast (Richard Griffiths, Eileen Atkins, Gemma Jones, Adrian Lester and others). Koch’s 16:9 (1.85) transfer is just fine, as is the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

NEXT TIME: John Carpenter's THE THING Hits Blu-Ray...will it measure up to the HD-DVD? Until then, don't forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards, check out the Aisle Seat Blog, and direct any emails to our email address.  Cheers everyone!

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