9/21/10 Edition Twitter: THEAISLESEATCOM
Fall Premiere Edition
STAR CRASH, Criterions, Peanuts & More
Plus: TV on DVD Wrap Up

Two gorgeous new Blu-Ray presentations highlight Criterion’s list of late September releases.

Upon first viewing in 1998, I originally wasn't quite sure what to make of THE THIN RED LINE (***, 171 mins., 1998, R), the beautifully filmed but eclectic WWII Guadacanal recounting by filmmaker Terrence Malick, making his first movie since “Days of Heaven” graced screens over twenty years prior.

In my 1998 review, I wrote “there's a semblance of a plot, but it isn't fleshed out. There are characters who come and go, and disappear into the twilight, after making a brief but memorable impression. There is also magnificent cinematography from “Braveheart”’s John Toll, and a fine score by Hans Zimmer that's fortunately as relatively subdued (especially by Media Ventures standards) and dramatically effective as you would hope it would be. And there's also the ultimate feeling that what you are watching is a film that is trying to convey something far more than a linear, cohesive storyline--something about the nature of warfare and how our emotions are suppressed and/or heightened by the inevitability of death. Or something like that.”

Now, when viewed against Malick’s recent (and not quite as satisfying) “The New World,” it’s a bit easier to figure out where the filmmaker is coming from, as his poetic style, his filmic “vocabulary” if you will, was basically reprieved in the latter. “The Thin Red Line” isn’t the “greatest war movie ever made” as its booklet notes suggest, but at least its ambitions are higher than most and I think the film has aged well, whereas Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” seems more rooted in the ‘90s in terms of its visuals and performances. Even if you find Malick’s incessant questioning to be more aggravating than insightful, and the cameo bit parts by various stars distracting (though Sean Penn turns in an excellent performance), the visuals are spellbinding and spectacular, and enough to recommend a viewing by themselves.

Criterion’s Blu-Ray edition enhances Malick’s film by presenting a beautiful new AVC-encoded 1080p transfer. The film looks brilliant, backed by a nicely layered DTS Master Audio soundtrack and exemplary supplements including a new commentary from Toll, production designer Jack Fisk and producer Grant Hill. There are also numerous actor interviews, plus a conversation with Hans Zimmer, who discusses the challenge in working with Malick; a new interview with casting director Dianne Crittenden, boasting archival audition footage (speaking of casting, stay tuned to the end credits where Malick thanks all the actors cut out of the film, with big names like Bill Pullman, Gary Oldman, Mickey Rourke, Lukas Haas, and Martin Sheen among them); 14 minutes of discarded material; WWII vintage newsreels; the trailer; and extensive booklet notes.

Also new from Criterion this month is Nagisa Oshima’s acclaimed 1983 film MERRY CHRISTMAS, MR. LAWRENCE (***, 123 mins., R), a “revisionist” WWII POW drama with David Bowie essaying a British officer interred at a Japanese prison camp overseen by Captain Ryuichi Sakamoto and Sgt. Takeshi ‘Beat’ Kitano (who ends up being more than a little interested in Bowie); Tom Conti portrays the British colonel who attempts to intermediate between the two cultures in Oshima’s probing, intriguing work, which feels awkward at times with performances from the two leads that don’t always seem in sync.

Criterion’s Blu-Ray is again rich with extras. New interviews with producer Jeremy Thomas, Conti, writer Paul Mayersberg, and Sakamoto are on-hand, along with a vintage 1983 Making Of featurette, a 1996 documentary on author Laurens van der Post (whose autobiographical book formed the basis for the picture), the trailer, and insightful liner notes. The AVC encoded 1080p transfer is spot-on, as is the DTS Master Audio soundtrack, sporting an occasionally overbearing score from Sakamoto.

Wes Anderson remains one of the strongest voices in filmmaking today, with his idiosyncratic pictures running the gamut from the charming and funny (“Rushmore,” “Bottle Rocket”) to the uneven (“Royal Tenenbaums”) and downright baffling (“The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou”).

THE DARJEELING LIMITED (***, 91 mins., 2007, R), Anderson’s most recent live-action work, is thankfully not as obtuse as “Life Aquatic” and doesn’t ramble as much as “Tenenbaums” as it follows three brothers (Adrien Brody, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman) who head to India for a journey of personal discovery after the death of their father, and find more than a few bumps in the road en route with the elements as well as each other.

Anderson, who wrote the script with Schwartzman and the actor’s cousin, Roman Coppola, has fashioned another of his quirky works with mild humor, poignant touches and a wonderful soundtrack primarily comprised of music written for Satyajit Ray and Merchant-Ivory pictures. Unlike some of Anderson’s more recent films “Darjeeling” doesn’t overstay its welcome and while it still comes most strongly recommended for the director’s aficionados, its sense of time and place, vivid scope cinematography and performances make it another offbeat cinematic journey well worth taking.

Criterion’s Blu-Ray edition of “Darjeeling” joins their prior Anderson packages, boasting original illustrations from Eric Chase Anderson; commentary with Anderson along with Schwartzman and Coppola; a behind-the-scenes doc shot by Barry Braverman; an interesting conversation between Anderson and James Ivory about the music utilized in the film; on-set footage; audition tapes; deleted and alternate scenes; still galleries; the trailer; and a beautiful AVC encoded 1080p transfer with DTS Master Audio sound. Also on-hand are Anderson’s American Express commercial plus the short “Hotel Chevalier,” a prequel to the film with Schwartzman and Natalie Portman.

Also out on October 12th from Criterion is Ingmar Bergman’s vividly filmed THE MAGICIAN (***½, 101 mins., 1958), offering Max von Sydow as Albert Vogler, a magician whose trickery and would-be supernatural abilities are tested by Stockholm police and its chief medical adviser (Gunnar Björnstrand), who pit science and reason against mysticism and the unknown in this offbeat Bergman film which works on a number of levels.

Criterion’s Blu-Ray edition of the picture is gorgeous, offering deep blacks, perfectly-pitched contrast levels and lots of fine detail. The mono sound is also fine, while extras include a “visual essay” by Peter Cowie; a short 1967 conversation with Bergman about the film; a 1990 English-language interview with Bergman; improved subtitles; and a booklet with copious liner notes. Recommended!

New From Shout! Factory

Banished to bootlegs and infrequent, fuzzy VHS releases since the early ‘80s, Luigi Cozzi’s goofball sci-fi fantasy STAR CRASH (92 mins., 1978, PG) not only receives a long-overdue remastered release courtesy of Shout! Factory, but in a bona-fide deluxe, two-disc edition packed with supplements that pay (more than) proper respect to a silly movie that’s a lot more fun when viewed in eye-popping high-definition.

“Star Crash” has a rep of being an awful movie, and while it’s “bad,” it’s not nearly as horrible as other post-“Star Wars” ripoffs. Cozzi, whose marching orders were to produce a “Star Wars”-like adventure even though he had yet to see the film when he wrote it (he had, however, read the “George Lucas” [i.e. Alan Dean Foster] authored paperback novelization which was in stores in 1976), created a tongue-in-cheek affair with homages to Flash Gordon, Ray Harryhausen, “Barbarella” and even “Invaders From Mars,” with ultra-sexy Caroline Munro essaying “space spy”  Stella Star and Marjoe Gortner as her “alien” sidekick Akton, who team up to stop dastardly Joe Spinell (looking a lot like Ming the Merciless) from destroying the galaxy while trying to find the son (David Hasselhoff) of the “Emperor of the Galaxy” (Christopher Plummer) at the same time.

Backed by some special effects that are a mix of not-bad and laughably terrible, “Starcrash” is outlandish and proves to be perfect eye candy for Blu-Ray. An early adopter of the Dolby Stereo format, the picture was scored by none other than John Barry, who reportedly was shown only a black-and-white workprint of the “special” effects so he wouldn’t know how terrible the picture was. Barry’s romantic score is a gem, and it sounds terrific on Blu-Ray in Shout’s DTS Master Audio soundtrack – so much that while the film itself may be completely absurd (and knows it), Barry’s music gives it a certain grandeur it would’ve totally lacked otherwise.

Visually, Shout’s AVC-encoded 1080p transfer is equally marvelous, restoring the picture’s positive assets (namely, Munro and its primary colors) to a level no prior video release in this country ever approximated; in fact, with fans having to track down old bootleg tapes or Region 2 DVD releases of the picture, it stands to reason this beautiful new print may cause fans to re-assess their opinions on the picture. It’s not great cinema, but it’s certainly fun.

Shout! rounds out the Blu-Ray disc with all kinds of great extras, housed on both the BD and a standard-DVD second platter. There are not one but two commentaries from “Starcrash” fan Stephen Romano (who also pays tribute to the film in his booklet notes), along with a lengthy interview with Cozzi, an hour-plus conversation with the still lovely Munro (whose last name is regrettably spelled incorrectly in the segment’s title cards), extensive still galleries (including Drew Struzan artwork commissioned when the film was going to be released by American-International, before Roger Corman ended up with it), behind-the-scenes footage with commentary from Romano, deleted/extended scenes from the longer Italian version, trailers with commentary from Joe Dante (who cut the trailer for New World) and fan Eli Roth, DVD-ROM material, a look at the film’s effects with FX supervisor Armando Valcuada and, finally, a segment on Barry’s score with “Mars” of “Deadhouse Music.” While it’s always great to see film music spotlighted in disc supplements, “Mars” doesn’t seem to be heavily informed about this particular score, believing that Barry, “pressed for time,” scored the picture in four days at the tail end of the “Moonraker” sessions at Abbey Road (“Moonraker” would’ve been recorded later; it was also recorded in Paris!).

Also due out shortly from Shout! is THE SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE COLLECTION, a nostalgic trio of ‘80s exploitation favorites offering Amy (Holden) Jones’ original 1982 “Slumber Party Massacre,” the 1987 sequel “Slumber Party Massacre II” (with Crystal Bernard), and 1990's “Slumber Party Massacre III.”
The box-set boasts new 16:9 transfers for parts one and two (Part III is presented full-screen in its Unrated form), commentaries on each film, a poster/stills gallery, trailers, and the riveting three-part documentary “Sleepless Nights: Revisiting the Slumber Party Massacre,” all perfect for Halloween viewing consumption this year.

Pre-Halloween Treats & Terrors

ALIEN AUTOPSY DVD (95 mins., 2006, PG-13; Warner): The Ealing Studios brand name first resurfaced in this 2006 British comedy that’s just now being released stateside via a fairly low-cost Warner DVD.

Designed as a vehicle for British TV stars Ant McPartlin and Declan Donnelly, “Alien Autopsy” attempts to put a comedic riff on the supposedly “real” Roswell autopsy footage that surfaced in the ‘90s. McPartlin and Donnelly play British hustlers who have to re-create the “top secret” footage after the actual negative decomposes in their hands; a series of mostly unfunny comic shenanigans follow, including run-ins with a documentary filmmaker (Bill Pullman), a German drug lord (Gotz Otto), and a small-town sheriff (Harry Dean Stanton).

“Alien Autopsy” failed to muster much business in its native UK, and was generally dismissed by critics overseas. Warner has tried here to sell the DVD in more of a straightforward manner, with packaging that suggests this is one of their “Raw Feed” direct-to-video genre offerings. Don’t be mislead: this is silliness all the way, and your tolerance for McPartlin and Donnelly’s antics will dictate how much mileage you get out of it.

Warner’s DVD, in addition to a 16:9 (1.78) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack, also includes a Making Of that aired on British TV, plus additional scenes, outtakes, and commentary from director Jonny Campbell.

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST Diamond Edition DVD/Blu-Ray (****, 90 mins., G, 1991): One of the fall’s most anticipated video releases, this gorgeous Disney package (a double Blu-Ray/single-DVD set) sports a brand-new, digital restoration of the 1991 classic.

While Alan Menken and Howard Ashman's tuneful score for 1989's "The Little Mermaid" launched the revitalization of Disney feature animation, it was "Beauty" that truly marked the resurrection of the studio's artistic legacy.

An enchanting retelling of the fairy tale, "Beauty" was initially shown at the New York Film Festival in a rough "Work in Progress” form, some two months prior to its national release. Critical kudos -- even for the unfinished version -- started the word-of-mouth vibe rolling, and once the film itself was released in time for the holidays, “Beauty” had established a widespread base of positive reviews that would be matched by an equally enthusiastic response from viewers of all ages.

In the end, the film was nominated for a handful of Oscars (including Best Picture, back when there wasn't any separate category for an animated feature), rightly sweeping the Original Score and Song awards for Ashman and Menken in the process.

Disney’s new Diamond Edition boasts a spectacularly vivid presentation of the picture, having been meticulously remastered for high-def, along with a number of great supplements. Surprisingly, this is only the second DVD edition of the film -- the 2002 Platinum Release was the movie’s first Special Edition package, and even laserdisc fans for years had to settle for the "Work In Progress" version, which was the only print available until a widescreen laserdisc (sans extras) was released and withdrawn after a short period of time.

Clearly the most satisfying feature of the Diamond Edition is that it contains no less than three separate versions of the film: the original theatrical cut, the 2001 Special Edition that was released in IMAX theaters, and even the complete "Work In Progress" version are all on-hand. All three contain beautiful, crisp AVC encoded 1080p transfers and DTS Master Audio soundtracks on Blu-Ray, or 16:9 (1.78) and 5.1 soundtracks on DVD; the picture also contains an older audio commentary with the filmmakers (including producer Don Hahn), with the Special Edition also offering the fully animated song "Human Again," which was cut from the original version and added to 2001's re-release (it was also included in the Broadway musical adaptation).

For supplements, Disney has put together a nice assortment of extras, with new goodies including “Composing a Classic: A Musical Conversation” with Alan Menken, producer Don Hahn and “Disney historian” Richard Kraft, discussing the songs and their lasting legacy; “Beyond Beauty: The Untold Stories” behind the making of the picture; a new music video of the title song by Jordin Sparks; previously unreleased deleted scenes, including the original opening of the picture, along with Belle meeting four “new, enchanted objects” in the library; several Disney interactive games and a sing-along mode.

Other extras are carried over from the prior release, including older documentaries, the movie’s early presentation reel with alternate scoring and storyboarding, and the original Celine Dion-Peabo Bryson music video. Unquestionably recommended!

IT’S THE GREAT PUMPKIN, CHARLIE BROWN Blu-Ray/DVD (25 mins., 1966; Warner): This classic Peanuts special -- the third produced for CBS by creator Charles M. Schulz and producers Lee Mendelson and Bill Melendez -- is synonymous with October 31st, having lost little of its charm and humor since its original 1966 airing.
While Linus might still be waiting in the pumpkin patch for the Great Pumpkin’s arrival, fans don’t have to wait any longer for Warner’s remastered Blu-Ray disc, which improves upon Warner’s 2008 DVD (also included in the package) and offers a crisp, colorful and clean visual presentation with the addition of a new DTS Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack. Though hampered by the limitations of its source material, this is nevertheless a terrific presentation that HD enthusiasts are sure to appreciate.

Extras, ported over from the 2008 DVD, aren’t extravagant, but there’s a nice, if brief, retrospective featurette on the production of the show, “We Need a Blockbuster, Charlie Brown!” Featuring interviews with Lee Mendelson and other crew members, this is a pleasant look at the story’s genesis and is complimented on the DVD by the 1981 Peanuts special “It’s Magic, Charlie Brown.”

A CHARLIE BROWN THANKSGIVING Blu-Ray/DVD (25 mins., 1973; Warner): Popcorn, toast and jelly beans comprise the perfect Peanuts Thanksgiving dinner in this perennial favorite, which also hits Blu-Ray this month.

Previously available in a Warner deluxe DVD edition released in 2008, “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” likewise receives a strong upgrade in both visuals (VC-1 ended 1080p) and audio (5.1 DTS Master Audio) from its standard-def predecessor (also included in the package). Extras include the wonderful “Mayflower Voyagers” segment from the still out-of-print “This is America, Charlie Brown” (presented in HD), along with “Popcorn & Jellybeans: Making a Thanksgiving Classic.”

INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS Blu-Ray (***, 119 mins., 1978, PG; MGM/Fox): Philip Kaufman’s acclaimed remake of the ‘50s Don Siegel sci-fi classic hasn’t aged as well as its predecessor: between the “shock” ‘70s downer ending and commentary on the “Me” generation, you also get Leonard Nimoy as a Bay Area shrink who succumbs to the latest invasion of the Pod People. Still, while I feel there’s a tendency to over-rate Kaufman’s version, it’s nevertheless a compelling, intelligently presented version of the Jack Finney tale, with Donald Sutherland starring as a health inspector who begins to wonder what’s going on with the body-switching paranoia overcoming the region.

MGM’s Blu-Ray edition of the ‘78 “Snatchers” looks perfectly acceptable in its AVC encoded 1080p transfer, while DTS Master Audio sound gives as much punch to the original soundtrack as possible. Curiously, MGM ported over all the extras from their 2007 double-disc DVD release for the BD, but left off Kaufman’s commentary (which IS on the standard DVD also packaged within). Among the extras are a half-hour documentary on the production (featuring interviews with Kaufman, writer W.D. Richter, Sutherland and others), featurettes on sound design and cinematography, plus the original trailer.

THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD Blu-Ray (**, 1985, 91 mins., R; MGM/Fox): Blu- Ray presentation of writer-director Dan O’Bannon’s 1985 half-spoof of the George A. Romero classic departs from most of MGM’s Blu-Ray catalog discs and actually offers the full run of supplements from its 2007 DVD: two commentaries, three featurettes, retrospective interviews and more. Both the AVC encoded transfer and DTS Master Audio soundtrack are perfectly acceptable, but the movie is still best left for fans: despite a few laughs and the presence of veterans Clu Gulager and James Karen, the movie feels dated, and the light mood turns sour with an unsatisfying “serious” ending (which the cast even laments in their commentary). Not nearly as much fun as it sounds.

THE AMITYVILLE HORROR Blu-Ray (**, 89 mins., 2005, R; MGM/Fox): MGM and Dimension Films teamed up with Michael Bay to produce this slick, competent, but surprisingly bland re-do of the 1979 American-International box-office hit. Based on the supposed true story of the Lutz family (whose tale inspired Jay Anson’s book and various reports of a hoax in recent years), Ryan Reynolds and Melissa George play the recently married couple who pack up -- along with George’s children -- for the quaint Long Island community of Amityville and that infamous house where evil dwells.

Slickly shot in scope and adequately packaged by director Andrew Douglas, the 2005 “Amityville Horror” presents a more potent visual package than its blandly-directed -- though more effectively low-key -- predecessor. Reynolds and George both manage to give good performances despite a thinly-drawn script (the film ends around the 80 minute mark), and even the young actors playing their children aren’t overly affected. There’s even one especially effective set piece set on top of the Amityville home, where the Lutz daughter attempts to jump off the roof.

Unfortunately, “Amityville” ‘05 suffers from some of the same ailments as the original movie: namely, the direct influence that can be felt from other, better genre films. Here, you’ve got not only the sense of deja vu provided by the original and “The Exorcist,” but also “The Ring” (the dead little girl who causes all sorts of trouble), “What Lies Beneath” (look out for the bathtub!), “The Shining” (dad goes more ballistic in this rendition), “Poltergeist” (an angelic young blonde girl flirting with the supernatural), and even “Jeepers Creepers” (a mysteriously clad, shadowy figure wearing a fedora who may be at the center of the haunting).

That latter aspect also ties in with the movie’s most regrettable element: the addition of a “cause” for the haunting that’s ridiculously P.C. As described by Dr. Hans Holzer in his original investigation, the Amityville house in question was built on an Indian burial ground, and the haunting itself was allegedly caused by an angry Indian Chief simply mad at those living in the abode above him. Apparently it’s not Politically Correct to have that as the center of the problem, so the producers here have pulled a “Poltergeist II” and concocted the tale of a Christian missionary who tortured Native Americans, and how HIS anger is the root of all the evil (chalk it up as yet another blow against organized religion in movies). Predictably, though, none of this is really developed, though a brief appearance by the Creeper-looking like bad guy could leave the door open for future sequels (which have thankfully yet to materialize).

MGM’s Blu-Ray edition sports a vivid 1080p transfer of “The Amityville Horror” with DTS Master Audio sound on a 50gb platter. Extras from the prior DVD edition are contained on a standard-def second disc (a reprise of that earlier release), including deleted scenes, Making Of docs, commentary and a photo gallery.

Though not a complete misfire, “The Amityville Horror” fails to take advantage of a great opportunity to make an effective modern haunted house tale. More often than not the movie is simply dull, regurgitating cliches and scenes from other movies, and stumbling when it tries to differentiate itself from the pack.

VIGILIANTE Blu-Ray (**, 89 mins., 1983, R; Blue Underground): Nasty, unpleasant and surprisingly dull exploitation affair from director William Lustig reworks the “Death Wish” formula so prevalent in the ‘70s and ‘80s, as factory worker/family man Robert Forster watches the justice system fail him after thugs brutally attack his family and murder his young son.

Forster opts to take on the gangs himself with the help of Fred Williamson in “Vigilante,” one of those movies that sounds a lot more entertaining (and looks it with its “Warriors”-influenced poster art) than it really is. Shockingly tedious for a film that clocks in just under 90 minutes, Lustig, working from Richard Vetere’s screenplay, gets good performances out of the always-dependable Forster and Williamson, yet there’s not enough action and too much violence, most of it directed towards women, that’s dwelled upon in a movie that ultimately leaves you with a sour taste. 

Blue Underground’s gorgeous HD 1080p transfer of “Vigilante” is hands down one of their best: brilliantly detailed, this is a sensational transfer that’s easily one of the finest looking catalog discs of the year to date. The DTS Master Audio sound isn’t always well balanced between dialogue, music and effects (with an engaging Jay Chattaway score that’s definitely of the era), while extras include a pair of commentaries (both with Lustig and cast/crew members), plus trailers, TV spots, a radio spot, promo reel and stills gallery.

THE ORDER Blu-Ray (*½, 102 mins., 2003, PG-13; Fox): Dreary reteaming of the stars and director of “A Knight’s Tale” failed to recapture the magic of that 2001 viewer favorite. In “The Order” (shot as “The Soul Eater”), Heath Ledger stars as an outlaw priest sent to investigate a series of deaths amongst his brethren in Rome. Shannyn Sossamon and Mark Addy, who played opposite Ledger in writer-director Brian Helgeland’s “Knight’s Tale,” fail to spruce up this dismal, slow-moving supernatural mystery which, for some odd reason, Fox has chosen to bring to Blu-Ray this month in a 25gb single layer presentation. The AVC encoded 1080p transfer and DTS Master Audio soundtrack are acceptable, and extras include commentary from Helgeland, deleted scenes/dialies and the original trailer.

TV on Blu-Ray and DVD

THE BIG BANG THEORY Season 3 Blu-Ray (472 mins., 2009-10; Warner): Leonard’s (Johnny Galecki) love affair with Penny (Kaley Cuoco) has tripped up his nerd-world existence with pal Sheldon (Jim Parsons) and friends, setting the stage for the third season of CBS’ top-rated sitcom.

Warner brings Season 3 of “The Big Bang Theory” to Blu-Ray this month for the first time, the two-disc set including nicely-rendered VC-1 encoded 1080p transfers and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks.

The 23 third-season episodes include “The Electric Can Opener Fluctuation,” “The Jimmy Conjecture,” “The Gothowitz Deviation,” “The Pirate Solution,” “The Creepy Candy Coating Corollary,” “The Cornhusker Vortex,” “The Guitarist Amplification,” “The Adhesive Duck Deficiency,” “The Vengeance Formulation,” “The Gorilla Experiment,” “The Maternal Congruence,” “The Psychic Vortex,” “The Bozenman Reaction,” “The Einstein Approximation,” “The Lage Hadron Collision,” “The Excelsior Acquisition,” “The Precious Fragmentation,” “The Pants Alternative,” “The Wheaton Recurrence,” “The Spaghetti Catalyst,” “The Plimpton Stimulation,” and “The Lunar Extinction.”

GLEE: Season 1 Blu-Ray (974 mins., 2009-10; Fox): Fox’s breakout hit series, created by “Nip/Tuck” and “Popular” producer Ryan Murphy, is one of those eccentric, unique shows that I still can’t quite get a handle on. There are times when I find the program brilliantly inspired and funny (with Jane Lynch’s terrific performance as adversarial Sue Sylvester leading the way), and others when it’s caustic and pretentious – often times in the same episode. Perhaps that’s just a byproduct of Murphy’s vision, but whatever the case may be, as much as I respect “Glee” I don’t find it entirely satisfying (and I’ve grown tired of the over-produced songs, which are closer in spirit and sound to “High School Musical” arrangements than, well, an actual glee club), though there’s no disputing the enormous commercial success the series has enjoyed so far.

Season 1 of “Glee” hits Blu-Ray this month from Fox, sporting its entire 22-episode freshman campaign in good-looking AVC encoded transfers and DTS Master Audio soundtracks. Over two hours of extras are on tap, including a BD-exclusive “visual commentary” on the pilot, plus karaoke segments, full-length audition pieces and numerous behind-the-scenes featurettes.

THE LEAGUE - Season 1 Blu-Ray and DVD (148 mins., 2009; Fox): Short-run FX series about a group of eclectic characters involved in a fantasy football league has just started its second season. Those who might’ve missed Season 1 would do well to check out Fox’s first season DVD set from “The League,” offering extended cuts of its six episodes in 1.78 (16:9) transfers and 5.1 soundtracks (DVD) or 1080p AVC transfers and DTS Master Audio sound (Blu-Ray). Ample extras include extended scenes and behind-the-scenes content on both platforms.

IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA Season 5 Blu-Ray (254 mins., 2009; Fox): The gang at Paddy’s Irish Pub is back in the fifth season of the acclaimed, over-the-top F/X comedy. Debuting on Blu-Ray for the first time (other than a Christmas special which was released last year), Fox brings Season 5 of “It’s Always Sunny...” to BD with the two-disc set offering its 12 episodes in AVC encoded (1.78) 1080p transfers and DTS Master Audio soundtracks. Good array of extras includes commentary on selected episodes, deleted/extended scenes, a blooper reel, and a couple of featurettes.
COMMUNITY Season 1 DVD (535 mins., 2009-10; Sony): Viewer-deprived NBC didn’t have a lot to celebrate last year, with its biggest successes being only moderately viewed new series like “Community.”

A Thursday night lead-in to “Parks and Recreation” and “The Office” (read my review of Season 6 below), “Community” offers a strong comedic ensemble with E!’s “Talk Soup” host Joel McHale starring as a sarcastic new student at Greendale Community College. Along with a motley assortment of classmates, including Ken Jeong and Chevy Chase, Joel attempts to patch a study group together and navigate the crazy world of adult education.

Good-natured and well-cast, “Community” regrettably does not boast writing as strong as its performers. Early episodes in the program’s first season try too hard to please, with frantic storylines and jokes that just aren’t funny. Viewers, though, tuned in enough to generate a second season for the series, but hopefully the comedy will be more consistent when “Community” enters its sophomore year.

Season 1 of the series hits DVD in a fine four-disc box-set from Sony, offering all 25 episodes of “Community” in 16:9 transfers and 5.1 soundtracks. Top-notch extras include a few extended episodes, outtakes, behind-the-scenes footage and commentaries on every episode.  

THE OFFICE Season 6 Blu-Ray (10 hrs., 2009-10; Universal): Michael Scott and company may still be presiding over the Dunder-Mifflin paper company in Scranton, Pennsylvania, but the best days of NBC’s long-running comedy seem to be well behind “The Office.”

Season six for the series is high on “event episodes” like Jim & Pam’s wedding and the birth of their baby, yet these storylines were ultimately blown opportunities for the show, with no comedic momentum being established by their presence and both ending up as one-shot ratings grabs for the network. It might’ve helped NBC in the short-term in the Nielsens but from a creative standpoint, it shows how far “The Office” has fallen off in the last two seasons. There are only so many times Dwight can sabotage his co-workers, so many sarcastic barbs for Jim to quip, and blown romantic opportunities for Michael Scott for viewers to endure before you start feeling that you’ve seen it all before – and it was funnier the first dozen times.

Universal’s Blu-Ray box-set of “The Office” Season 6 includes nicely detailed AVC encoded 1080p transfers and DTS Master Audio soundtracks. Extras include a blooper reel, nearly two hours of deleted scenes, and plenty of comedic featurettes, along with a BD-Live function for viewers to stream new Season 7 episodes after they’ve aired.

GREY’S ANATOMY Season 6 DVD (1032 mins., 2009-10; Buena Vista)
PRIVATE PRACTICE Season 3 DVD (989 mins., 2009-10; Buena Vista): ABC’s previously top-rated medical dramas have faded a bit over the last few years, but still pack potent fanbases who’ll want to check out Buena Vista’s new DVD box-sets of their most recent seasons.

In season six of the “mothership,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” another year at Seattle Grace hospital finds McSteamy and company engaging in more melodramatic shenanigans, with Kim Raver added to the cast and Katherine Heigl (reportedly quite problematic behind the scenes) bidding adieu.

Buena Vista’s six-disc DVD box-set offers the entire sixth season of “Grey’s Anatomy” in 16:9 (1.78) transfers with 5.1 soundtracks and several extras, including an extended finale episode (with over 20 minutes of additional footage), outtakes, deleted scenes, a profile of star Chandra Wilson, and six “webisodes.”

Meanwhile, “Grey’s” spin-off “Private Practice” – following Dr. Addison Montgomery (Kate Walsh) and company at the Oceanside Wellness Group -- has faded faster than its counterpart, suffering major losses in viewership during this past season.

Buena Vista’s 23-episode, five-disc DVD edition of “Private Practice”’s third season (which still boasts a terrific supporting cast including Taye Diggs, Audra McDonald, Amy Brenneman, Tim Daly and KaDee Strickland among them) hits stores this month with excellent 16:9 transfers and 5.1 soundtracks on-hand.

Extras include bloopers, deleted scenes, and Kate Walsh’s “Top Eight” scenes from Season three.

SPARTACUS - BLOOD AND SAND Season 1 Blu-Ray (692 mins., 2010; Anchor Bay/Starz): Robert Tapert and Sam Raimi are among the producers of this bombastic Starz series, a more graphic and shlocky rendition of the Spartacus legend. Here, Andy Whitfield essays the slave-turned-gladiator, with John Hannah, Lucy Lawless (Tapert’s wife) and Manu Bennett among the supporting cast in Steven S. DeKnight’s “adrenaline-infused” revisionist take that evokes more comparisons with the likes of “300" than Kirk Douglas’ sword-and-sandal classic.

I haven’t watched the entire first season of “Spartacus: Blood and Sand” but I confess to being disappointed with what I sampled, with copious amounts of nudity and violence used in such extremes that they might as well be flashing a “hey, this is cable, look what we can do!” disclaimer on-screen. The visual style is reminiscent of Zack Snyder’s “300" and Frank Miller’s “Sin City,” and it’s flashy enough to keep you watching – yet dramatically, I can’t say I was emotionally engaged in what I saw. Nevertheless, the show fared well in the ratings, and is slated to come back in January with a prequel mini-series designed to tide fans over until star Whitfield recovers from non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

Anchor Bay’s Blu-Ray edition of “Spartacus: Blood and Sand” looks great. The AVC encoded 1080p transfers are superb, the Dolby TrueHD audio satisfying, and extensive extras include all kinds of behind-the-scenes vignettes, commentary, a pop-up trivia track, and BD-exclusive extended episodes. 

SCRUBS - The Final Season DVD (390 mins., 2009-10; Buena Vista): It’s hard to believe Bill Lawrence’s comic series, initially designed as a spoof of “E/R,” managed to survive nine seasons across a pair of networks, but “Scrubs” bucked cancellation several times and surely turned a nice profit for its creator and studio – especially now that it’s been in syndication for some time. The ninth and final season of the show hits DVD from Buena Vista this month with 1:33 full-screen transfers, deleted scenes, bloopers, a “Live from the Golf Cart” featuerette, and a look back at the series’ run with cast and crew members on-hand.

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE - BEST OF ADAM SANDLER DVD (97 mins.., 2010; Lionsgate): A pair of new SNL compilations from Lionsgate spotlight the talents of Eddie Murphy (with classic bits “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood,” “James Brown’s Hot Tub,” “White Like Me,” and “Buckwheat is Dead”) and Adam Sandler (“Hanukkah Song,” “Canteen Boy,” “Opera Man,” “Cajun Man”), respectively. Additional sketches and outtakes adorn both single-disc releases.

New From Lionsgate

THE THIRD MAN Studio Canal Collection Blu-Ray (****, 105 mins., 1949; Lionsgate)
DELICATESSEN Studio Canal Collection Blu-Ray (***, 96 mins., 1991, R; Lionsgate): Two more Blu-Ray offerings from the “Studio Canal Collection” hit stores this month from Lionsgate.

Carol Reed’s “The Third Man” doesn’t require much of an introduction for any serious film buff.

This crackling noir remains one of the all-time great cinematic achievements, with Graham Greene’s story following American novelist Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), who ventures to “old Vienna” to help out a friend named Harry Lime (Orson Welles). However, when Holly arrives, he finds out that Harry is dead, leading the novelist into a tangled web of racketeers, stuffy British government officials, and one of Harry’s old flames (Alida Valli) en route to deciphering the mystery of his death.

From the striking (and then quite-atypical) zither score by Anton Karas to the cinematography of Robert Krasker (undoubtedly influenced by Welles’ “Citizen Kane” and “Lady From Shanghai” triumphs), “The Third Man” is a pure cinematic feast that has lost none of its appeal over the years.

Criterion previously produced a Blu-Ray of “The Third Man” a couple of years ago that, like all their other Studio Canal-licensed titles, is now out of print. The Studio Canal Blu-Ray that Lionsgate has released domestically is similar to the Blu-Ray they’ve already released overseas, offering a different (slightly less detailed) 1080p transfer with DTS Master Audio mono sound. Visually I’d go with the Criterion over the SC print, though the differences are not major between them.

There are also some unique supplements to the Studio Canal package, including an excellent commentary featuring assistant director Guy Hamilton, plus 2nd unit script supervisor Angela Allen and Simon Callow that’s heavy on production anecdotes; an interactive Vienna tour; “The Third Man” on the radio; an interview and Zither performance by Cornelia Mayer; archival audio interviews with Cotten and Greene; Cotten’s alternate voice-over from the U.S. release version; booklet notes and other goodies. If you missed the Criterion release this package is highly recommended in its own right.

Also newly available is Jean-Peirre Jeunet and Marc Caro’s offbeat “Delicatessen,” with Dominique Pinon living in a post-apocalyptic world with scarce amounts of food on-hand. In addition to a good-looking AVC-encoded 1080p transfer with 2.0 French DTS Master Audio sound, the Blu-Ray also boasts commentary from Jeunet, a retrospective documentary, trailers, and a Making Of from Diane Bertrand.

New From IFC

THE KILLER INSIDE ME Blu-Ray (**, 109 mins., R, 2010; IFC): A couple of weeks ago I rewatched the grizzly Tony Scott adaptation of Jim Thompson’s “Revenge,” an unpleasant Kevin Costner-Madeline Stowe box-office underperformer from 1990. After sitting through Michael Winterbottom’s cinematic rendering of another Thompson “pulp noir,” “The Killer Inside Me,” I was left feeling much the same way as I did while viewing “Revenge”: watching women being abused and mutilated on-screen isn’t a whole lot of fun, as Jessica Alba receives much the same fate as Stowe did in that earlier picture.

Outside of the shock factor, there’s little else to discuss in “The Killer Inside Me,” a period adaptation of Thompson’s book about a small Texas town sheriff who’s a sociopath and preys on Alba and Kate Hudson. Casey Affleck projects little more than surface creepiness in the lead, while scenery-chewing support is turned in by Elias Koteas, Ned Beatty, Simon Baker and Bill Pullman. It’s a good looking film, with scope cinematography from Marcel Zyskinoi, but the cold, detached story leaves you wondering “who cares?” since the script by John Curran fails to develop its steely-eyed anti-hero. Ultimately, “The Killer Inside Me” is another of those supposedly “unfilmable” novels that was probably best left on the printed page.

IFC’s Blu-Ray disc of the picture offers an overly-bright 1080p transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack; extras include interviews with the stars and the trailer.        

BOOGIE WOOGIE Blu-Ray (**½, 94 mins., 2009, R; IFC): Lightweight but watchable ensemble comedy intercuts a group of episodic tales centered around a piece of art owned by none other than Christopher Lee. Heather Graham, Gillian Anderson, Alan Cumming, Joanna Lumley, Charlotte Rampling, Amanda Seyfried and Stellan Skarsgard essay a group of characters whose professional and (mostly) personal lives insect in Duncan Ward’s 2009 film, which Danny Moynihan scripted and which comes to Blu-Ray from IFC this month. The 1080p (1.85) transfer is fine, as is the 5.1 Dolby Digital audio, while slim extras include a trailer and TV spot.

MERCY DVD (**½, 87 mins., 2009, R; IFC): Scott Caan wrote, produced and stars in this vehicle that’s certainly a bit of a vanity project (father James shows up in a cameo), with Caan essaying an obnoxious novelist who meets a lovely young woman (Wendy Glenn) whom he falls for – and who also trashed his most recent book. Well-acted but a bit pretentious, with solid performances. IFC’s DVD edition of “Mercy” includes a 16:9 transfer, 5.1 audio, one deleted scene, commentary, the trailer, and behind-the-scenes photos.

Also on Blu-Ray

TINKER BELL AND THE GREAT FAIRY RESCUE Blu-Ray/DVD (**½, 77 mins., 2010, G; Disney): Another colorfully designed Disney direct-to-video animated feature for the little ones, “The Great Fairy Rescue” finds everyone’s favorite fairy joining her friends on vacation in England when she comes across a young human girl named Lizzy and her father (voiced by Michael Sheen), whose scientific exploits have created a bit of a split between the two. Lizzy ends up (kind of) kidnapping Tink, but the two form a friendship even as Tinkerbell’s friends get together to rescue her.

Colorful, vivid CGI animation is the main selling point of this small-screen affair, and the visuals really sing in Disney’s AVC encoded 1080p Blu-Ray transfer. Graced with DTS Master Audio sound and a tuneful soundtrack, this is basically a Grade-A technical presentation with a limp, saccharine story that only kids are likely to enjoy.

Extras on Disney’s two-disc combo pack include deleted scenes, a Brigit Mendler music video, pair of featurettes, and a standard DVD edition in the package.

MacGRUBER Blu-Ray (**½, 91 mins/95 mins., Unrated/R, 2010; Universal): I haven’t found “Saturday Night Live” funny in years, so the fact that “MacGruber” – a box-office flop based on a skit that wasn’t particularly amusing to begin with – actually provides a few occasional yucks was something of a pleasant surprise. Will Forte essays the MacGyver-like hero called in to stop a nuclear warhead stolen by vile (and pretty funny) Val Kilmer; most of the bigger laughs come courtesy of Kristen Wiig, who for some odd reason manages to be much funnier on-screen than she is in a weekly sketch comedy format. “MacGruber” might’ve tanked in theaters but it makes for a decent rental – it’s certainly no “Blues Brothers,” but at least it’s better than “Stuart Saves His Family” and “It’s Pat.” Universal’s Blu-Ray includes both R-rated and Unrated versions of the film in AVC-encoded 1080p transfers and DTS Master Audio soundtracks, with extras including one deleted scene, a gag reel and commentary with cast/crew members.

JUST WRIGHT Blu-Ray (**½, 101 mins., 2010, PG-13; Fox): Likeable enough formula romantic comedy about a physical therapist (Queen Latifah) entrusted with getting an injured NBA star (Common) back on the right track, falling for him personally while battling one of his girl-pals (Paula Patton) for his affections. “Just Wright” is pretty much standard-issue stuff all the way, but the performances manage to sell Michael Elliot’s script, while Sanaa Hamri’s direction is a bit more sensitive than you might anticipate. It’s certainly a decent candidate for a date-night type of rental. Fox’s Blu-Ray disc of “Just Wright” is a combo pack also sporting a digital copy, along with a gag reel and numerous featurettes. The AVC encoded 1080p transfer is superb and the set is rounded out with DTS Master Audio sound, the latter offering a decent score by Wendy & Lisa.

LETTERS TO JULIET Blu-Ray (***, 105 mins., 2010, PG; Summit): Contrived and yet fully watchable romantic comedy, a moderate hit at last spring’s box-office, works as a vehicle for Amanda Seyfried as an American girl living in Verona who comes across a 50-year old “Letter to Juliet” – romantic queries that are answered by “secretaries” pretending to be Shakespeare’s heroine. Seyfried, hesitant about her own upcoming marriage, tracks down the author of the letter (Vanessa Redgrave) and soon begins a trip across Italy along with her grandson (Christopher Egan) in order to find Redgrave’s long-lost love (Franco Nero).

Gary Winick’s film boasts some lovely location shooting, which looks great on Blu-Ray in Summit’s 1080p transfer, while DTS Master Audio sound is laid back, offering a fine Andrea Guerra score. Extras in Summit’s BD/DVD combo disc include deleted/extended scenes, commentary from Seyfried and Winick, featurettes, a DTS Master Audio soundtrack, and a standard DVD edition on the disc’s flip side.

JANEANE GAROFALO: IF YOU WILL Blu-Ray (65 mins., 2010; Image): Janeane Garofalo’s first stand-up special is a bit of a bittersweet affair; Garofalo had a brief window of time where she was something of a leading lady (“Truth About Cats and Dogs,” “The Matchmaker”), but after failing to find consistent work on the big screen, she’s become something of a crank, appearing on the likes of “24" in supporting roles and then offering her narcissistic political comments on MSNBC and elsewhere. “If You Will” isn’t nearly as amusing, either, as some of her prior concert work, with Garofalo again seeming...well...just angrier than she used to be. Die-hard fans may still want to give the Blu-Ray a watch, with Image’s disc looking fine in its 1080i transfer and DTS Master Audio sound. Bonus comedy videos in HD round out the presentation.

New On DVD

THE BLACK CAULDRON 25th Anniversary DVD (**½, 80 mins., 1985, G; Disney): Passed over on laserdisc and then issued as a non-anamorphic DVD a decade ago, "The Black Cauldron” finally arrives in a 16:9 transfer in North America courtesy of Disney’s standard-def only 25th Anniversary DVD.

An expensive, long-in-production Disney effort, this 1985 PG-rated feature is a mostly disappointing adaptation of one of Lloyd Alexander's "Chronicles of Prydain" books, which are truly magical and charming in a way that this rather formulaic animated effort -- visually impressive as it is -- fails to capture on-screen.

Still, what the picture is best remembered for comes across well here: the animation, shot in the anamorphic Super Technirama 70 process, is given a lovely 16:9 (2.35) rendering, while the soundtrack is presented in a pungent Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. The print is thankfully remastered from its prior DVD presentation (and is on-par with superior European Disney DVD editions that have surfaced over the last few years), and even offers a few new special features, including one 10-minute alternate scene (“The Fairfolk”) that’s presented in rough cut form with a mix of storyboards and unfinished animation, as well as a trivia game, stills gallery and the classic Donald Duck short “Trick or Treat.”

In spite of the story’s deficiencies, for its animation alone, the movie comes recommended, as it is most certainly is for Elmer Bernstein's wonderful score -- the movie's other chief asset. “The Black Cauldron” might have been an expensive disappointment for the Mouse, but it does succeed on a visceral level, and can be looked at as the impetus that lead to the successful overhaul of the company's animated features just a few years later.

WALL STREET - INSIDER TRADING EDITION DVD (***, 126 mins., 1987, R; Fox): Oliver Stone's morality play is best viewed now as a showcase for Michael Douglas' Oscar-winning, powerhouse performance as Wall Street mogul Gordon Gekko, who tutors young broker Charlie Sheen in the ways of '80s greed and power. Scripted by Stone and Stanley Weiser, "Wall Street" is an at-times slow-moving drama bogged down by a surplus of supporting characters (some of whom, like Sean Young and even third-billed Daryl Hannah, may have been left on the cutting room floor), but stays on course whenever Douglas takes the fore in a scenery-chewing but highly entertaining performance that remains one of his best.

This two-disc Special Edition of Stone’s film, which has been issued to coincide with the release of his sequel “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,” boasts a few new special features, including a trivia track, recent Stone interview, and Fox Movie Channel special hosted by Tom Rothman. The film itself, with commentary from Stone (carried over from the previous DVD release), looks fine in its 16:9 transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital audio.

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