9/25/07 Edition -- The AISLE SEAT BLOG Is Now Online!

More Pre-Halloween Treats

A quick bit of business to start off this week: we’re bringing back the old Aisle Seat Mailbag, so if you’ve got a question or comment, feel free to email me at our new address: mailbag@theaisleseat.com I’ll do my best to answer your emails about any of the movies or series we reference here each week, so fire away. I look forward to hearing from you!

You know that we’re beginning to enter into the nitty gritty of the home video calendar when you hit September and all kinds of major titles begin to arrive at a rapid-fire clip. In fact, looking at the titles we’ve received in the last week, it’s tough to pick out one “major” release to single out, since there are so many of them hitting store shelves this Tuesday as well as next.

One of the big releases about to hit Blu Ray (as well as regular DVD) is a new Collector’s Edition of BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (***, 1992, 127 mins., R; Sony), a film could’ve easily been titled “Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula” for as much as this 1992 adaptation utilizes elements from the Stoker book that other cinematic versions omitted, it also takes numerous liberties with the original text -- including turning the beloved vampire tale into a love story, a conscious artistic decision the filmmaker made partially to capitalize on a younger audience (which he, in turn, accomplished by casting more youthful leads than your traditional Dracula rendition).

It’s a movie that’s simultaneously stunning and frustrating at the same time, showing Coppola at the top of his game in terms of implementing optical effects, sumptuous production design, evocative costumes, and other “old fashioned” filmmaking devices (all shot on sound stages, the result of Columbia wanting to hold costs down).

At the same time, some of the picture’s “contemporary” casting felt odd at the time, and now positively dates the picture as a product of its period: Keanu Reeves’ stilted performance as Harker is dead on arrival (to see how it could’ve been even worse, check out some of Keanu’s putrid unused takes in the Criterion laserdisc’s editing workshop), while Winona Ryder’s turn as Mina feels like a young girl playing “dress up” more than a believable period heroine (perhaps he owed her a favor after she bowed out of “Godfather Part III”). At the least, Ryder fails to generate any of the heat that Sadie Frost does in her memorable supporting role as the doomed Lucy, while Gary Oldman tries valiantly to ground his romantic Dracula against an over-indulgent succession of guises (from the world’s creepiest senior citizen to a John Lennon-esque chap) that ultimately get in the way of his central performance.

Supporting performances from Anthony Hopkins’ scenery-chewing Van Helsing to quirky but mainly disposable, minor turns  from the likes of Bill Campbell, Richard E. Grant, Cary Elwes and Tom Waits (a surprisingly dull Renfield) lend some support, but when it’s all said and done “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” is entirely Coppola’s show, and admittedly there are some nifty moments along the way. Most impressive is Harker’s journey through the Count’s Transylvanian castle -- marked by a memorable meeting with Dracula’s succulent brides (including Monica Bellucci) -- all the while Eiko Ishioka’s extravagant costumes and the cinematography of Michael Ballhaus make for a film that’s always been pleasing to the eyes.

Long overdue for a proper Special Edition DVD, “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” has been given the deluxe treatment courtesy of Sony and Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios, with both the Blu Ray and regular DVD versions offering a new commentary from Coppola, roughly 30 minutes of unused workprint sequences (including a superior ending), and a new, four-part documentary culled from extensive documentary footage shot during pre-production and filming. Coppola’s commentary is a good deal more enlightening than the tedious Criterion commentary track from way back when, discussing the project’s genesis (Ryder brought him James V. Hart’s script when it was supposed to be a Michael Apted-directed TV film), while the documentary materials offer a thorough examination of the picture’s production. Two trailers are also on-hand, including the film’s memorable teaser, which features footage not used in the finished film.

The Blu Ray release even offers these extras in HD, though the movie’s eagerly-awaited high-definition 1080p transfer for the film itself proves to be something of a disappointment. Though encoded in AVC/MPEG-4 video, the Blu Ray release falls well short of the better catalog releases we’ve seen in both formats: the picture quality is superior to the standard-definition Superbit DVD, no question, but it’s surprisingly flat, lacking in three-dimensional detail and often downright grainy in places. One might have anticipated Coppola and Ballhaus’ visual design making for an aesthetic feast in high-definition, but more often than not the Blu Ray transfer is surprisingly limp: an upgrade on traditional DVD but nowhere near the eye-popping experience I was hoping for.

What’s also odd is that there seemed to be several instances on-hand here where the colors had been seemingly “tweaked.” The sequence in which Winona Ryder meets Sadie Frost for the first time in the courtyard seems to have been digitally altered in a way that the backdrop now appears completely monochrome, with the few colors in the sequence (a couple of flowers, Frost’s red hair) standing out strikingly against it. When I compared the Blu Ray to the Superbit DVD release the differences were striking in certain sequences (even though the Blu Ray has less contrast, its colors also seemed less natural), indicating that some intentional, new artistic choices might’ve been in Coppola’s mind when this new HD transfer was struck.

Either way, fans of “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” will nevertheless want to add the Blu Ray release to their libraries for the deleted scenes, fine documentary materials and Coppola’s new commentary if nothing else. The transfer isn’t a total disaster but since the bar has been raised so high by countless superb new HD releases this year, it’s not an exaggeration to say the movie’s Blu Ray transfer is, if nothing else, a small disappointment.

More satisfying for horror fans will be Anchor Bay’s very first wave of Blu Ray releases, which arrive in stores next week and boast MPEG-4/AVC 1080p transfers and uncompressed PCM 5.1 sound.

At the top of the list is the HD debut of John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN (****, 91 mins., 1978, R) in a wholly satisfying Blu Ray transfer that’s as crystal clear and spotless as you could possibly hope for. Dean Cundey’s outstanding cinematography has been preserved here in such a pristine manner that watching the Blu Ray disc truly felt like the first time I’ve really laid eyes on it -- while there have been some superb DVDs of Carpenter’s seminal 1978 film over the years, none compare to how fresh and vibrant this new master looks.

For extras, Anchor Bay has done a nice job porting over some of the best extras from prior DVDs: the mid ‘90s Criterion laserdisc commentary with Carpenter, producer Debra Hill and star Jamie Lee Curtis has been reprieved, while the 90-minute “A Cut Above the Rest” documentary has been retained from Anchor Bay’s later Divimax release. The original red-banded theatrical trailer, radio and TV spots, and various on-screen trivia factoids complete the must-have package.

Sam Raimi’s fan favorite EVIL DEAD II (***, 1987, 84 mins., Unrated) also hits Blu Ray on October 2nd in a similarly satisfying presentation from Anchor Bay. The HD transfer is crisper and better detailed than any prior video release of the film that I’ve seen, while two featurettes (culled from past Anchor Bay discs), the trailer, a jovial group audio commentary with Raimi, star Bruce Campbell and others, and another on-screen trivia track round out the package.

Also joining the Anchor Bay Blu Ray roster are George Romero’s second and third entries in his still on-going zombie saga: 1978's DAWN OF THE DEAD (***½, 127 mins., Unrated) as well as its disappointing 1985 follow-up, DAY OF THE DEAD (**, 101 mins., Unrated).

Since both movies weren’t as elaborately photographed as, say, “Halloween,” neither title shows off the benefits of high-definition the way Dean Cundey’s work does, though fans will be happy that both transfers nevertheless look as crisp as one could anticipate, while ample extras are also on-hand (numerous commentaries, trailers, and documentary materials).

Fans should also note that both “Dead” films offer the original mono soundtracks in addition to their stereophonic 5.1 PCM and Dolby Digital remixes, which ought to please purists.

Due out later in October from Anchor Bay are the first two Blu Ray volumes in their MASTERS OF HORROR: Season 1 series. Volume One contains John Carpentger’s “Cigarette Burns,” Stuart Gordon’s “Dreams in the Witch House,” and William Malone’s “The Fair-Haired Child,” while Volume 2 includes Dario Argento’s “Jenifer,” Lucky McKee’s “Sick Girl” and John Landis’ nutty “Deer Woman.”

Commentaries are carried over their standard-edition DVD releases, while PCM and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks compliment the superb 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 transfers.

More Thrills And Chills For Halloween

WARNER’S TWISTED TERROR COLLECTION (Six Film Box Set, Warner, available this week): Appealing grouping of terror titles, mainly from the ‘70s and ‘80s, all new (or at least newly re-available) on DVD. Though all the films are available individually, the low, sub-$40 price tag for the set makes it an attractive, economical pick-up for horror fans. Included in the anthology are:

-THE HAND (**, 1981, 105 mins., R): Demented, unintentionally funny hoot offers Michael Caine in his Irwin Allen-era “I’M SHOUTING EVERY LINE!” mode, portraying a cartoonist who loses his hand in an accident and....let’s just say numerous horrific (or are they comedic?) shenanigans ensue. James Horner’s decent score is one of the film’s primary assets, but writer-director Oliver Stone’s effort is easily one of the filmmaker’s weakest, albeit an amusing one (for all the wrong reasons). Warner’s DVD includes a sincere commentary by Stone plus the trailer and a new 16:9 (1.85) transfer with 2.0 Dolby Digital stereo sound.

-SOMEONE’S WATCHING ME (***, 1978, 97 mins.): Excellent John Carpenter-directed TV movie makes its long-awaited debut on video. Lauren Hutton plays a woman being victimized by a peeping tom in this taut suspense thriller, co-starring David Birney and Adrienne Barbeau, and boasting a solid score from Harry Sukman. Warner’s DVD includes a 16:9 (1.85) matted presentation that’s a bit surprising since the film was produced for television, but at least there’s a neat featurette profiling the director and his early work on this network “Movie of the Week.”

-EYES OF A STRANGER (**, 90 mins., 1981, R): Crude, if watchable, early ‘80s slasher film finds newswoman Lauren Tewes (your “Love Boat” cruise director) trying to track down a Florida serial killer and Jennifer Jason Leigh (in her first role) as her blind younger sister. Tewes is appealing (yeah, I admit it, I’ve always had thing for Julie on the “Love Boat”) and director Ken Wiederhorn achieves his finest hour with this standard but effective enough chiller, sporting make-up effects from Tom Savini and a few excessively graphic attack sequences. Warner’s no-frills DVD includes a 16:9 (1.85) transfer with mono sound.

-DR. GIGGLES (***, 95 mins., 1992, R): Under-rated, over-the-top horror outing -- in many ways a spoof -- stars Larry Drake as a crazed surgeon who still practices his own brand of medicine in a small rural town. Loads of hilarious one-liners (in the Manny Coto-Graeme Whifler script) punctuate this free-wheeling vehicle -- directed by Coto and co-starring a pre-“Charmed” Holly Marie Combs -- that’s been long out of print on DVD. Warner (inheriting the film from Universal as part of a distribution deal with Intermedia, which purchased Largo Entertainment’s library) has produced a nifty new (albeit no-frills) DVD offering a fine 16:9 (2.35) transfer with 2.0 Dolby Digital sound. Plenty of fun, just in time for Halloween.

-FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE (**½, 98 mins., 1973, PG): Decent Amicus anthology film (in the same vein as “Vault of Terror” and “Tales from the Crypt”) offers a number of horrific tales with a solid cast (Ian Bannen, Peter Cushing, Donald Pleasance, David Warner and Lesley-Anne Down among them).Warner’s DVD includes the trailer and a new 16:9 (1.85) transfer with mono sound.

-DEADLY FRIEND (**, 90 mins., 1986, R): Wes Craven-directed studio effort with Matthew “Whiz Kids” Laborteaux as a nerdy teen who befriends troubled neighbor Kristy Swanson, only to see her suffer a terrible fate that young Matthew has a hard time getting over -- so much that he tries to pull a Doc Frankenstein and bring her back to life! “Ghost” writer Bruce Joel Rubin’s script works well enough in establishing the likeable characters and their surroundings, but the movie goes downhill once it turns into a standard-issue horror flick. Warner’s DVD includes the trailer and a 16:9 (1.85) transfer with 2.0 mono sound.

CUJO: 25th Anniversary Edition (**½, 1983, 95 mins., R; Republic/Lionsgate): Decent adaptation of Stephen King’s dark novel from director Lewis Teague overcomes its relatively modest budget through strong performances (including Dee Wallace), Jan DeBont’s cinematography and Neil Travis’ effective editing. This tale of a couple (Wallace, Daniel Hugh-Kelly) trying to repair their marriage at the same time their son (Danny Pintauro of later “Who’s the Boss” fame) takes to a St. Bernard who turns into one mean puppy offers a decent number of shocks and an ending thankfully not as unflinching as the book (and was changed with King’s own consent). Lionsgate’s new 25th Anniversary DVD includes commentary with Teague and a three-part Making Of from DVD producer Laurent Bouzereau, which recounts the film’s troubled production history (Teague replaced Peter Medak after the project switched studios; Travis was brought onboard to re-cut the film during shooting) and status as one of the better Stephen King cinematic adaptations of its era. The 16:9 (1.85) transfer is fine, while the mono sound is also okay.

BUG (*, 2007, 101 mins., R; Lionsgate): Repulsive William Friedkin adaptation of Tracy Letts’ acclaimed stage play paints an uncompromising portrait of a troubled, abused woman (Ashley Judd) and her relationship with an equally disturbed man (Michael Shannon) who believes her dusty motel room has been “compromised” by bugs. Though well-performed by Judd and Shannon (a veteran of the stage version), “Bug” is a twisted, unrelentingly grim story whose horrific elements are only magnified in Friedkin’s misfired film, which moves along at an often painfully slow pace and ranks as one of the year’s worst. Lionsgate’s DVD includes commentary from Friedkin, a lengthy interview with the filmmaker, a 16:9 (1.85) widescreen transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound. It’s possible that the story’s ambiguity and shocking elements were more palatable on stage, but the film version of “Bug” is hard to watch and impossible to classify as a form of entertainment. You’ve been warned.

MISERY: Collector’s Edition (***½, 107 mins., 1990, R; MGM/Fox): Long overdue Special Edition package of Rob Reiner’s terrific 1990 filming of the Stephen King book boasts an Oscar-winning performance from Kathy Bates as a crazed “fan” who takes crippled author James Caan’s recovery after a car accident under her wing. Available overseas for some time, MGM/Fox’s new DVD includes commentary from Rob Reiner, another talk with William Goldman, three featurettes on the production of the movie (including a profile of composer Marc Shaiman), and several other, new exclusive featurettes about celebrity stalkers and anti-stalking laws. The 16:9 (1.85) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound are both excellent, and the film’s original trailers are also on-hand. Highly recommended!

RISE: BLOOD HUNTER: Unrated Cut (**, 122 mins., Unrated; Sony): Overlong, direct-to-video effort from Sam Raimi’s Ghost House Pictures stars Lucy Liu as a reporter who unknowingly becomes a vampire and later seeks revenge against the evil bloodsuckers who “turned” her (including James D’Arcy and Carla Gugino). Michael Chiklis, meanwhile, is wasted in a thankless role as the cop on her trail. Writer-director Sebastian Gutierrez’s film boasts a solid cast and cinematography from Oscar-winner John Toll (“Braveheart”), but the movie is so static, lengthy and toothless (for a vampire romp) that the mere fact that it’s watchable isn’t nearly good enough. Sony’s Unrated DVD runs nearly 30 minutes longer than the R-rated version (available separately), sporting a fine 16:9 (1.85) transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound and several Making Of featurettes. (Available Oct. 9)

New and Coming Soon From Paramount

THE WAR (2007, aprx. 15 hours, PBS/Paramount): Ken Burns’ new series is a moving, leisurely-told examination of WWII as seen primarily through the eyes of four American communities: Mobile, Alabama; Waterbury, Connecticut; Sacramento, California; and Luverne, Minnesota.

Using interviews, vintage photographs, letters, newsreel footage, and original music by Wynton Marsalis, “The War” presents a historical account of the U.S.’ involvement in the conflict at the same time it enriches the personal perspective of the men and women who both fought and simply lived through it, from the battlegrounds of Europe and the Pacific to how the war impacted day-to-day life in America.

Though it starts somewhat slowly, “The War” is a typical Burns work, unfolding like you’re reading a good book and filled with unforgettable imagery and anecdotes. Keith David’s narration is eloquent while recognizable celebrity voices (including Tom Hanks) infrequently appear when reciting journals and letters -- yet it’s the interviews with real WWII veterans that will provide the most impact for the majority of viewers.

“The War” is being broadcast on PBS stations nationally this week, but for those who’d prefer to savor the production at their own pace, Paramount and PBS’ DVD box-set will be available on October 2nd, offering a good array of supplements as well. Commentary from Burns and co-director Lynn Novick sheds light on their efforts, while deleted scenes, biographies, additional interviews, and a Making Of segment showcase how this ambitious production was mounted. The 16:9 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound are both fine, the visuals understandably dependant on the quality of the source materials being shown.

Although it requires something of a commitment to watch all of its 15 hours, viewers (especially younger ones) ought to take the time to savor “The War”’s meaningful, emotionally wrenching passages and tribute to Americans who endured “The Great War.” Recommended!

JONATHAN LIVINGSTON SEAGULL (**½, 1973, 99 mins., G; Paramount): Hal Barlett’s disappointing cinematic adaptation of Richard Bach’s early ‘70s best-seller (a religious and social allegory about a seagull wanting to break free from his flock and search for self-enlightenment) was one of the biggest flops of the decade, yet the passage of time has actually strengthened the movie’s strong points.

Thanks to Paramount’s new DVD edition (available next week), viewers can now revel in the movie’s outstanding Panavision cinematography, preserved in widescreen for the first time outside of the film’s original theatrical release. The aerial photography is superb, and Neil Diamond’s marvelous score -- with a strong assist from Lee Holdridge -- compliments the visuals. If it’s possible for a movie to simulate what MTV might’ve been like in the “Brady Bunch” days of the early ‘70s, “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” is it.

As for the rest of the picture -- and its then-new agey plot about Jonathan’s quest with voice-overs “performed” by James Franciscus, Hal Holbrook and Juliet Mills -- the film is less than satisfying. Yet when it sticks to the cinematography and music, it’s certainly a pleasant enough affair that’s soothing to the ears and the eyes.

Paramount’s no-frills DVD boasts a surprisingly good 16:9 (2.35) transfer with a bland mono audio track. While it’s unfortunate the music couldn’t have been cleaned up and remixed for 5.1, it’s surprising “Jonathan” is even reaching DVD to begin with, so kudos to the studio for their efforts here (and while they’re at it, how about a DVD for one of my unreleased ‘70s favorites, SERIAL, with Martin Mull and Tuesday Weld....please??).

FUNNY FACE: 50th Anniversary Edition (1957, 103 mins., Paramount): New Special Edition of Stanley Donen’s memorable 1957 teaming of Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire sports what appears to be a new 16:9 (1.85, Vistavision) transfer with 5.1 stereo and mono soundtracks, along with some fresh supplemental material (two new featurettes) to compliment material from the prior DVD release (a “Paramount in the ‘50s” retrospective and the trailer). (available Oct. 2)

FAMILY TIES: Season 2 (1983-84, aprx. 9 hours, Paramount): Gary David Goldberg’s classic ‘80s sitcom is back on DVD in a strong package from Paramount, preserving the series’ more tightly-honed sophomore season (22 episodes) in a four disc package. Even better are the new supplements, including a “Making Of” offering fresh comments from Goldberg and stars Michael J. Fox, Michael Gross, Marc Price and Tina Yothers. In many ways this is the package fans hoped to see with the release of the first season, so a major thumbs up to Paramount and CBS for their superior effort here. (Available Oct. 9)

JERICHO: Season 1 (2006-07, aprx. 16 hours., Paramount): Cult-favorite CBS series was cancelled after its first season concluded last spring, only to find itself resurrected when a Trek-like fan campaign saved “Jericho”’s bacon. While those loyal viewers wait for the show’s return later this year, Paramount’s six-disc DVD box set preserves the series’ first season in excellent 16:9 (1.85) transfers with 5.1 audio and a number of special features, including commentaries, deleted scenes and Making Of featurettes. (Available Oct. 2)

CSI: NY: Season 3 (2006-07, aprx. 17 hours, Paramount): Despite tepid critical reviews, this first spin-off from CBS’ hugely popular police procedural series is still performing well for the network as it follows the Big Apple-set adventures of detectives Gary Sinise and Melina Melina Kanakaredes. Paramount’s DVD set preserves the complete third season of “CSI: NY” on six discs with fine 16:9 transfers, four commentary tracks and four featurettes. (available Oct. 9)

GIRLFRIENDS: Season 2 (2006-07, aprx. 8 hours, Paramount): CW series charts the lives of four African-American women in a romantic sitcom that’s attracted a loyal enough following on Monday nights. Paramount’s box-set offers the series’ second season in full-screen transfers with 2.0 stereo surround tracks and a number of featurettes. (available Oct. 9)

REEKER (2005, 91 mins., Paramount): Not-bad direct-to-video horror flick from writer/producer/director Dave Payne, profiling a group of students who begin to have premonitions of death and a crazed psycho on their trail. A few decent make-up effects and shocks make this predictable outing not a terrible choice for hard-core horror fans. Paramount’s no-frills DVD contains a 16:9 (1.85) transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

New From Criterion

One of the most beloved Criterion laserdiscs at last reaches DVD with the release of ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS (***½, 110 mins., Paramount; Aisle Seat Pick of the Week).

For this Paramount picture, “War of the Worlds” helmer Byron Haskin inherited a script from Ib Melchior and toned down his creature-laden story, resulting in not just one of the more “realistic” sci-fi films of the 1960s but also one of the finest.

Paul Mantee stars as Commander Kit Draper, a stranded U.S. astronaut who, along with his adorable monkey-companion Mona, tries to survive on the harsh surface of Mars after his ship crash lands. Victor Lundin is his Friday, here a slave who befriends Draper, forming an unlikely alliance as the duo try and find a way off the planet.

Beautifully photographed in widescreen by Winton C. Hoch (“The Searchers”) and effectively scored by Nathan Van Cleave, “Robinson Crusoe On Mars” has long been a genre favorite, even though its scant circulation on video has limited its circulation over the years. The movie’s prescient view of technology is fascinating, while the performances of Mantee and Lundin heighten the drama, making it more than just a standard ‘60s Saturday Matinee adventure. But perhaps the most kudos ought to be bestowed upon Haskin for crafting a fairly mature (but still family-friendly) film that’s as fresh and spirited as it was upon its original, mostly-ignored theatrical run.

I’ve always been a huge fan of “Robinson Crusoe” and now a whole new generation of viewers can enjoy Haskin’s efforts thanks to the long-awaited Criterion DVD, which boasts a nifty new 16:9 (2.35) transfer with mono sound and a number of supplements, mostly recycled from the original LD. The latter include commentary from Lundin, Mantee, historian/FX designer Robert Skotak and others; excerpts from Ib Melchior’s original script; a new featurette by Michael Lennick examining the movie’s science; still galleries; the trailer; a memorabilia archive; and a music video for a song Lundin composed about the film.

One additional note: it’s been written over the years how similar Wolfgang Petersen’s 1985 effort “Enemy Mine” is to “Robinson Crusoe On Mars,” with the atmosphere and plot of the former bearing more than a few favorable comparisons to the latter. If nothing else, it’d be interesting to compare the two on a DVD double-bill.

Also new from Criterion this month:

THE THREEPENNY OPERA (1931, 110 mins., Criterion): Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s stage production came to the screen in this memorable early-sound film from German filmmaker G.W. Pabst. Criterion’s double-disc set preserves both the German and rarely-screened French versions of this 1931 production and offers a number of special features, including commentary from scholars David Bathrick and Eric Rentschler, archival interviews, a comparison of the two versions and more.

MARTHA GRAHAM: DANCE ON FILM (1956-61, aprx. 90 minutes; Criterion): Two-disc set offers two complete Graham ballets along with a 1957 profile of the performer/choreographer and master dancer. Other extras include a 1994 American Masters PBS documentary and copious interviews, all discussing Graham’s legacy.

MALA NOCHE (1985, 78 mins., Criterion): Gus Van Sant’s renegade 1985 indie hits DVD with a new transfer, a video interview with the filmmaker; storyboards, a remastered full-screen transfer and mono sound. (Available Oct.)

New & Coming Soon From Buena Vista

THE JUNGLE BOOK: 40th ANNIVERSARY EDITION (***½, 78 mins., 1967, Disney): Disney’s latest “Platinum Edition” DVD is a marvelous, two-disc set offering a brand-new restored transfer of this 1967 classic (in 1.75, 16:9 widescreen too!). Fans will enjoy this limited-time only set for that reason alone, with loads of extras include deleted songs (over 21 minutes of audio), extensive documentaries, and numerous games for kids. Highly recommended!

WHAT ABOUT BRIAN: Complete Series (2006-07, 1024 mins., Buena Vista): Short-lived ABC comic-drama starred former “Seventh Heaven” front man Barry Watson as a young man in L.A. trying to navigate the singles scene. Fans will love this compilation of episodes from the series’ first and second seasons, along with an unaired episode, commentaries, and a glimpse into what a prospective third season might’ve been like...had ABC not given “Brian” the axe. 16:9 (1.78) transfers and 5.1 soundtracks adorn this cute prime-time drama.

THE INTRUDER: Special Edition (83 mins., Buena Vista)
EAT MY DUST: Special Edition (89 mins., Buena Vista): Buena Vista’s latest series of Roger Corman Special Editions seem to be more like repackagings of their earlier DVD versions than anything truly “new.” Both “The Intruder” (an early ‘60s Corman quickie starring William Shatner as a racial inciter) and “Eat My Dust” (one of several ‘70s Ron Howard vehicles with fast cars and hot women like Christopher Norris) offer featurettes and full-screen transfers, but don’t appear to be worth it if you’ve already purchased their older, out-of-print DVD counterparts.

HD Rundown: New on HD-DVD from Universal

THE LAST STARFIGHTER: HD-DVD (***½, 1984, 101 mins., PG; Universal): Back when sci-fi movies were about more than just special effects, along came this sleeper hit in the summer of 1984.

Lance Guest plays a high school student and college hopeful who finds out his high score on the video game “Starfighter” is worth more than a few bonus tokens. Guest is soon whisked away to another galaxy by a Harold Hill-like hustler (Robert Preston, utterly charming here) to save the universe with the help of an extraterrestrial co-pilot (Dan O’Herilhy). Will Guest save the day, or will his heart forever belong to his loving girlfriend (Catherine Mary Stewart) back on Earth?

The combination of Jonathan Betuel’s script with Nick Castle’s on-target direction results in a marvelously entertaining movie that mixes sci-fi with comedy and a charming romance between Guest and Stewart. The performances are all terrific, from the appealing young leads to old pros Preston and O’Herilhy, while Craig Safan’s outstanding score -- one of the finest of the 1980s -- graces the drama and enhances the movie at every turn.

While the movie’s effects were cutting edge for their time (and have, obviously, dated a little bit), “The Last Starfighter” wasn’t just another “Tron.” The film’s enormous amount of heart and warm characterizations continue to sustain the film some 23 years after its original release, making it one of the best of the so-called “‘Star Wars’ clones” that appeared in the years following the release of George Lucas’ original classic.

Universal’s HD-DVD edition proves to be satisfying overall, if just a bit disappointing. Still, even though it’s a little soft in some sequences, the VC-1 encoded 1080p transfer is generally good for a catalog title. Even better is the robust Dolby TrueHD soundtrack, which rousingly supports Safan’s score.

Extras carried over from the earlier Special Edition DVD include commentary with Castle and production designer Ron Cobb, plus a 30-minute look at the the production of the movie (and primarily its visual effects). The original trailer rounds out the disc.

FOR THE LOVE OF THE GAME: HD-DVD (***, 1999, 138 mins., PG-13; Universal): Under-rated, Sam Raimi-directed baseball drama with Kevin Costner starring as an aging Detroit pitcher who contemplates his relationship with editor Kelly Preston while pitching one memorable afternoon in the Bronx.

A solid (if not spectacular) baseball movie and a so-so romance, “For the Love of the Game” is a good-looking, well-performed character drama sporting fine work from Costner, superb lensing by John Bailey and an excellent score from Basil Poledouris. It may not be “Field of Dreams” or “Bull Durham,” but this is still a satisfying yarn that looks great in high-definition courtesy of the new HD-DVD release.

Universal’s VC-1 encoded transfer is highly satisfying, the Dolby TrueHD sound does justice to Poledouris’ score, while extras include deleted scenes and featurettes culled from the prior Special Edition DVD release.

KNOCKED UP: HD-DVD (**½, 2007, 133 mins., Unrated; Universal): Perhaps most telling of how poor this past summer’s theatrical offerings were was evidenced by the almost Oscar- worthy reviews bestowed upon director Judd Apatow's “Knocked Up.”

Apatow struck box-office gold with his hit "The 40 Year Old Virgin" in 2005, and "Knocked Up" continues on with the same sort of raunchy yet "heartfelt" comedy, here showing what happens when broke slacker (and Apatow regular) Seth Rogen gets aspiring E! anchorwoman Katherine Heigl pregnant.

Numerous alumni from past Apatow projects like "Virgin" and his fantastic, short-lived NBC series "Freaks and Geeks" pop up in supporting roles, but "Knocked Up" isn't nearly as funny or focused as some of the reviews would lead one to believe. Rogen and Heigl fail to ignite sparks as the unlikely expecting couple, while the overlong story is ultimately hijacked by Leslie Mann (as Heigl's sister) and Paul Rudd (Mann’s husband) in supporting roles that are more interesting than the lead characters.

"Knocked Up" is, admittedly, pleasant and intermittently funny, but its over-rated praise from critics far and wide seems to confirm that, in the Summer of '07, mediocrity seemed to be the most audiences could’ve hope for. (I won’t discuss “Superbad,” the Apatow-produced, Rogen-written teen sex comedy that was even more over-praised!).

Universal’s HD-DVD edition is a keeper though. The 1080p, VC-1 encoded transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus sound are both top-notch while a good array of extras include loads of deleted and extended scenes, short comedic featurettes, and a group commentary alongside various “U Control” picture-in-picture featurettes. (Fans should note that not all of the 2-disc regular DVD release’s extras have been retained, however). The release also includes the standard-definition version on the disc’s flip side.

ELIZABETH: HD-DVD (***, 124 mins., 1998, R; Universal): Shekhar Kapur’s marvelous biopic hits HD-DVD in a solid, VC-1 encoded 1080p transfer that showcases the film’s sumptuous visuals and razor-sharp performances, while a Dolby TrueHD soundtrack makes for a pleasing audio presentation as well. Extras include two featurettes, Kapur’s commentary, and a brief preview of the upcoming sequel “Elizabeth: The Golden Age.”

TOP GUN: HD-DVD (***, 109 mins., 1986, PG; Paramount): The blockbuster Tom Cruise smash contains some of the most memorable imagery of any '80s film, with Cruise's Maverick trying to fly his way to the top of the Navy's elite fighter pilot program, backed to a rockin' Harold Faltermeyer/Kenny Loggins/Berlin soundtrack and performances from the likes of Kelly McGillis, Val Kilmer and Anthony Edwards among others.

Paramount’s no-frills HD-DVD edition sans the superb extras from the film’s last DVD release, freeing up the studio to use every last bit of space on the picture’s transfer and impressive sound design.

And indeed, the HD-DVD looks brilliant, presented here in the full 2.35 Super 35 aspect ratio of its theatrical exhibition (most previous DVD releases offered a 1.85 frame that exposed the entire picture area that was shot). Even better is the wonderfully layered 6.1 DTS-ES soundtrack (Dolby TrueHD and standard 5.1 Dolby Digital tracks are also on-hand), which brilliantly captures the sonic oomph of the movie's original sound design.

For “Top Gun” fans this is an easily recommended purchase, with top-flight picture and sound.

Short Takes: Also New On DVD

SURF’S UP: Blu Ray (***, 85 mins., PG, Sony): Ribald animated feature from Sony Pictures Animation follows a little penguin from Antarctica who tries to become the world’s reigning surfing champ. Outstanding animation, appealing characters, and loads of humor (which adults ought to find sufficiently amusing as well as kids) make this one of the best “family” films to come down the road in some time. Sony’s Blu Ray disc is a keeper, even though the 1080p AVC-encoded transfer shows some occasional MPEG-artifacting here and there. The Dolby Digital TrueHD and 5.1 PCM sound options are strong, and ample extras include the Oscar-winning “Chubbchubbs” (as well as a new “Chubbchubbs Save Xmas” short), commentaries, deleted scenes, music videos, progression reels and photo galleries, a music video, and more. (Available Oct. 2)

COMMANDO: Director’s Cut (**½, 90 mins., R; Fox): Arnie fans will enjoy this Special Edition package of one of Schwarzenegger’s earliest action romps, sporting a new “Director’s Cut” with a few minutes of new/alternate footage and commentary from director Mark L. Lester. Additional deleted scenes, two featurettes, and extensive still galleries round out the special features, while the movie’s 16:9 (1.85) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound make for a top-notch technical package.

WALL STREET: 20th Anniversary Edition (***, 126 mins., 1987, R; Fox): Solid Special Edition, double-disc set of Oliver Stone’s 1987 film offers a new 16:9 (1.85) transfer with 4.0 and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound options, plus a new documentary, never-before-seen deleted scenes, and extra featurettes. Recommended!

FAMILY GUY, Volume 5 (2006-07, 146 mins., Fox): Fans may not be happy that the latest “Family Guy” box set only offers the first 13 episodes of last season, but the material included here is nevertheless extremely funny. Best episodes in the lot include “Chick Cancer” (with Peter discovering “chick flicks”) and “Airport ‘07,” offering ample quotes from Elmer Bernstein’s “Airplane!” score and a hysterical end credits sequence that had me rolling on the floor. Fox’s three-disc set also offers commentaries, deleted scenes, and two featurettes, plus full-screen transfers and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks.

TV on DVD From Universal

Last but not least this week are two tremendously entertaining TV on DVD box sets from Universal, showcasing a pair of the finest series currently airing on network television.

The hilarious American version of THE OFFICE has, by this point, fully grown into its own, and Season 3 (2006-07, aprx. 10 hrs., Universal) illustrates why the Steve Carrell-lead ensemble comedy is as good as it gets in terms of laughs on TV.

Smart writing (including episodes directed by Joss Whedon and Harold Ramis among others), appealing performances and quotable dialogue are all on-hand in these 22 third-season episodes, presented by Universal in a four-disc set sporting extensive extras. Included in the latter are deleted scenes, episode commentaries, an interview with Whedon, a blooper reel, additional featurettes, interviews and more. The 1.78 (16:9) transfers are nearly on-par with their HD counterparts and make for an irresistible package all around.

Finally there’s the Complete First Season of the acclaimed, albeit little-seen, small-screen version of FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS (2006-07, aprx. 16 hours), which continues the small-town story of a Texas high school football team and its struggles on and off the playing field.

Universal’s five-disc DVD set offers 16:9 (1.78) transfers with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, deleted scenes, and one Making Of featurette.

Thankfully renewed for a second year despite tepid ratings, hopefully “Friday Night Lights” will find the audience that it deserves when it debuts for its new season shortly.

NEXT TIME: Lionsgate's latest Blu Ray releases, including KING OF NEW YORK! Until then, don't forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards, check out the new Aisle Seat Blog, and direct any emails to our new email address. Cheers everyone!

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