9/30/08 Edition -- The AISLE SEAT BLOG Is Also Live

Paramount Unveils Restored Trilogy
Plus: THE THING & new Blu-Ray releases

One of the year’s most eagerly awaited discs -- Paramount’s fully remastered presentation of THE GODFATHER TRILOGY, dubbed “The Coppola Restoration Giftset” -- has at last arrived on both Blu-Ray and DVD domestically. But is it an offer you can't refuse? Absolutely. Film buffs have been waiting -- some panting breathlessly -- since Paramount first gave word that this four-disc Blu-Ray/five-disc DVD box set, containing all three "Godfather" films plus a bonus disc of supplements, was on its way.

After taking several hours to go through the set, I absolutely feel that, if you're a fan of the series, this should be the top priority on your DVD or Blu-Ray shopping list as we head into the end of the year.

The best news is that the new transfers -- including full restorations of Parts I and II produced by Robert A. Harris -- are an upgrade on all prior video releases, even if they still exhibit occasional issues with the source material. Either way, the HD editions are far more satisfying than the remastered DVDs from 2002, and are sure to satisfy most aficionados of Coppola’s classic trilogy. Colors are more natural and consistent, three-dimensional depth is mostly apparent, and a good amount of cinematic grain remains -- even the standard DVD edition is appreciably stronger than past DVD transfers, while the Blu-Ray platter is predictably even more eye-popping. Some may feel that they’re watching “The Godfather” for the first time here, as no prior video release has come close to approximating the visuals and sound (Dolby TrueHD on Blu-Ray, 5.1 Dolby Digital on DVD) of this release, imperfections and all.

Supplements, naturally, abound: full-length audio commentaries from Coppola, recorded for the 2002 discs, are available on all three pictures, divulging the secrets behind-the-scenes, with some great anecdotes and even a discussion of a possible Part IV bandied about throughout.

Paramount's bonus disc, meanwhile, is chock full of extras, most of which are reprieved from the prior 2002 DVD. Included in the “archive” are approximately 40 minutes of deleted scenes from the trilogy, to trailers (in HD on the Blu-Ray side), TV spots, a seven-minute featurette on location filming with production designer Dean Tavoularis, and various novelty clips of Coppola's Oscar acceptance speeches among other tidbits (even the introduction to the first film’s network TV premiere is thrown in). Also included is the original 1972 featurette, as well as the superb, hour-plus documentary, "The Godfather: A Look Inside," shot during the production of Part III, which offers a nice retrospective on the series.

Other supplements focus on Coppola's meticulous planning from script to screen: "Coppola's Notebook" is comprised of a ten-minute interview with Francis, who shows us his storyboards and screenplay, and talks about the creative process. There are also a pair of featurettes on the soundtracks, and film music fans will particularly want to hear the audio of Coppola's first visit with Nino Rota in 1972, taken from the director's personal cassette recording. Rota plays demos of his now-classic themes on piano for the director, tossing out ideas about orchestration and arrangements along the way.

It's interesting to note that, in his audio commentary for the first film, Coppola also claims that Paramount and executive Robert Evans hated Rota's music, wanting it replaced from the film altogether. Coppola clashed with Evans and the movie retained Rota's score -- with only a pair of sequences tracked with source music. Rota's original music for one of the scenes, showing an airplane flight to Los Angeles, is played during the music featurette on the composer. There's likewise a piece on Carmine Coppola's involvement in the three films, showing the elder Coppola at the recording sessions for III, and sporting an interview with the late composer culled from the same period.

The 2002 material is rounded out with complete chronologies of the Godfather timeline and a family tree, written by Peter Cowie; featurettes with Mario Puzo on the script (eight minutes); Gordon Willis talking about his cinematography (three minutes); storyboards from I and II; and photo galleries. The deleted scenes, presented in chronological order, include the sequences previously restored for the "Godfather Epic" TV airings, as well as deleted footage from III (including a fascinating alternate opening).

What’s new to both formats are several superb 2008 featurettes, presented in HD as well on BD, that further profile the creation of the film with new interviews from Steven Spielberg to George Lucas, mostly reflecting on the picture’s legacy and impact; four shorts inspired by the series; a family tree, crime organization list and an additional “wedding” gallery.

In all this is a magnificent package that finally gives “Godfather” fans their due, with the Blu-Ray package in particular ranking as one of its strongest catalog titles -- the kind of classic release the fledgling format needs to drive up interest.

Also coming from Paramount in two weeks are the DVD and Blu-Ray editions of INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL (**½, 122 mins., 2008, PG-13; Paramount), Steven Spielberg’s hugely disappointing, if financially successful, return to the Saturday Matinee-influenced series he and George Lucas first brought to the screen some 27 years ago.

This belated entry in a franchise that seemed as if it concluded its final chapter with "Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade" in 1989 ranks as one of the most disposable films in director Spielberg's canon; a lightly entertaining but forgettable fantasy with a script nearly completely devoid of interesting characters, wit or imagination.
Yes, Harrison Ford still fits comfortably into his iconic role as an older Indy coerced into helping a group of nefarious Russians search for an ancient relic that possesses a supernatural power. Soon after fleeing from villainess Cate Blanchett (one of many thankless roles in David Koepp's uninteresting and one-dimensional script), Indy meets up with a young greaser (Shia LaBeouf) who needs his help finding a lost archeologist (John Hurt) and his kidnapped mom -- who turns out to be none other than Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) herself.

Indy and Mutt head off on their trail to Peru, and uncover what the Russians had been seeking all along: a crystal skull that enables those who peer into its eyes to gain psychic abilities. Blanchett and her minions want it for global conquest; Indy wants to return it to its rightful place in the Amazon, and also uncover just who -- or what -- created it.

David Koepp has never been one of my favorite screenwriters, having penned the original "Jurassic Park" as well as two of the weakest films of Spielberg's career -- the recent "War of the Worlds" and the unforgivable travesty that was "The Lost World." Koepp can now make it a trio of missteps thanks to this thoroughly uninspired narrative, which overdoses on plot exposition (the mid-section of the picture is crushingly dull, bogged down in endless babble about the skull and its power) and fails to give its terrific cast much to do; Ford is as amiable as ever but even he seems a little ill at ease with some of the leaden dialogue, which doesn't exactly crackle the way Lawrence Kasdan, Jeffrey Boam or even Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz's work did in this film's far superior predecessors.

The over-the-top Blanchett, meanwhile, is completely non-threatening as the heavy, vamping it up but failing to be sexy or appealing in any real regard, while Jim Broadbent is completely wasted as Indy's university colleague (a statute of the late Denholm Elliott appears in one amusing bit) and Ray Winstone serves as the Indy series' equivalent of Kevin J. O'Connor in "The Mummy" (right down to the same fate of his character!). LaBeouf exhibits some decent chemistry with Ford but the movie, ultimately, doesn't give either of them a chance to really shine. And as far as Allen goes, she basically gets about five total minutes of dialogue time -- something that will come as a massive letdown for series fans.

Recalling the sluggish pacing of "The Lost World" (I cringe even writing that statement), little in Spielberg's direction clicks either: would-be comedic moments fall flat, while action scenes tend to exhibit a "been there, done that" feel at every turn. There's no tension or suspense in the movie, to the degree where you never feel that there are any crucial stakes in its outcome. Meanwhile, a wild jungle chase is the only set-piece where "Indy IV" really comes to life, with effective cross-cutting and action choreography reminding you that, yes, you're really watching an actual "Indiana Jones" film and not just the Cannon version of "King Solomon's Mines." However, even that sequence's impact is undercut by an infusion of CGI, an element -- heavily used in the movie, as it turns out -- that seems in stark contrast with the prior films in the series (as does Janusz Kaminski's overly stylized cinematography, which does no favors for the picture either. It's amazing how claustrophobic and unappealing this movie looks, the bulk of it all too obviously having been shot on soundstages).

The picture also greatly misses Sean Connery's warmth and humor as Indy's dad -- so much that it's unsurprising the few times "Indy IV" manages to strike an emotional chord is in its pair of direct references to Indy's late father (Connery was contacted to appear in the film but ultimately passed on it -- a wise maneuver in hindsight, particularly considering how well the third movie turned out).

"Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" is a movie I wanted to like, as I grew up on the originals throughout the '80s and, like many individuals my age, still consider them to be some of my all-time personal favorites. This isn't a bad film, by any means, but it does not seem to have been a necessary one, coming off as uninspired, tired and, worst of all, pointless.

Paramount’s double-disc DVD and Blu-Ray editions include a number of special features with all the major players being interviewed, from Lucas and Spielberg to Ford and the rest of the cast. The featurettes, produced by Laurent Bouzereau, do a decent job of covering the production from start to finish, yet they’re -- obviously -- not particularly candid and are highly self-congratulatory. Given some of Lucas’ own comments about the movie’s lack of energy following the picture’s release (blaming it on Spielberg’s direction, in fact!), viewers will have to take all the love on-hand here with a grain of salt.

Additional extras include trailers and a demo of the disappointing Xbox 360 “Lego Indiana Jones” game, plus a superb 16:9 (2.35) transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound on the DVD side, and even stronger 1080p transfer with Dolby TrueHD audio on Blu-Ray, though both transfers -- visually -- are hampered by Kaminski's unattractive cinematography.

Also New on Blu-Ray

RISKY BUSINESS (***½, 99 mins., 1983, R; Warner): Excellent Special Edition package (also on DVD) of Paul Brickman’s 1983 teen classic, which served as a launching pad for Tom Cruise’s career.

As a teen whose parents go away, entrusting him with complete control of his suburban paradise, Cruise is confident, cocky and thoroughly appealing, while Rebecca DeMornay is equally good as the hooker with a heart of gold who falls for our high school hero. An outstanding supporting cast (Bronson Pinchot, Curtis Armstrong, Richard Masur, Joe Pantoliano) adds the icing to the cake in Brickman’s box-office hit, which has aged well due to its mature script and insightful dialogue.

Warner’s new Blu-Ray edition includes a half-hour retrospective documentary on the picture’s production, offering comments from Brickman, Cruise, DeMornay, producer Jon Avnet, along with comments from admirers like “Fast Times” director Amy Heckerling and writer Cameron Crowe. Also on-hand are screen tests and an alternate ending (in high-def) that’s fascinating and actually more satisfying than the released version. Exclusive to the Blu-Ray edition is a visual commentary with Cruise, Brickman and Avnet, while the 1080p VC-1 encoded transfer and Dolby TrueHD audio present easily the most satisfying presentation of the movie on video to date.

MADE OF HONOR (**½, 101 mins., 2008, PG-13; Sony): Moderately entertaining romantic comedy gives star Patrick Dempsey one of his first lead roles since the days of “Can’t Buy Me Love.”

As an eligible bachelor with a long-standing platonic relationship with gal-pal Michelle Monaghan, Dempsey stands by and watches as she’s swept off her feet by a Scotsman (Kevin McKidd); naturally, this leads to Demps being appointed her Maid of Honor, and realizing he’s had feelings for Monaghan all along.

Dempsey and Monaghan exhibit believable chemistry together, and the Scottish locales in the picture’s final third are attractive, but director Paul Weiland’s movie is populated with characterizations that range from paper-thin to stereotypical beyond the two leads. Even breezy “date movies” need a little more development than the Adam Sztykiel/Deborah Kaplan-Harry Elfont script provides here -- a particular disappointment given the capable supporting cast, which includes Busy Philipps, Kadeem Hardison, Kathleen Quinlan and the late Sydney Pollack.

Sony’s Blu-Ray disc looks the part, at least, with its colorful AVC encoded transfer and Dolby TrueHD audio. Extras include deleted scenes, commentary from Weiland, and two Making Of featurettes.

SPEED RACER (**, 135 mins., 2008, PG; Warner): Candy-coated adaptation of the ‘60s cartoon from producer Joel Silver and the Wachowski Brothers -- helming their first effort since the “Matrix” trilogy concluded -- is nearly guaranteed to give kids ADD if they don’t have it already. Intense visuals and endless special effects populate this sparsely-written tale of “Speed” (Emile Hirsch) and his racing family (parents John Goodman and Susan Sarandon, girlfriend Christina Ricci) in a CGI wonderland where something, somewhere is happening on-screen every second. The jaw-dropping visuals are guaranteed to serve as a litmus test for your HDTV, but as a movie and dramatic experience “Speed Racer” is an interminable, almost painful exercise that will test your threshold for rapid-fire editing and FX that never stop...except when the credits roll. Warner’s Blu-Ray disc looks absolutely phenomenal, though the vanilla Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is sure to disappoint HD audiophiles used to more potent Dolby TrueHD or DTS Master Audio tracks. Sparse extras include a Making Of, bonus digital copy and interactive game disc.

RUN FAT BOY RUN (**½, 100 mins., 2007, PG-13; Warner): You wouldn’t think that former “Friends” cast member David Schwimmer would be the ideal choice to helm “Shaun of the Dead” star Simon Pegg’s latest comedy, but that’s what happened with last spring’s poorly titled “Run Fat Boy Run.” This predictable, formulaic but amiable enough effort stars Pegg as a single father who attempts to woo back ex-girlfriend Thandie Newton (also the mother of his child) by shaping up and getting ready for a marathon run opposite her new man (Hank Azaria). Pegg rewrote Michael Ian Black’s original script, but the laughs are only intermittent in this melding of an underdog sports movie with a romantic family comedy. It’s lightweight and mildly entertaining but has little else to distinguish it. Warner’s Blu-Ray disc includes a fine 1080p transfer with plain Dolby Digital sound, plus extras including deleted scenes, outtakes and the trailer (all in HD) plus an amusing commentary from Pegg, Newton, Schwimmer and Pegg’s mother.

JERRY MAGUIRE (***½, 139 mins., 1996, R; Sony): Cameron Crowe's insightful, funny, and at-times moving 1996 treatise on sports agents and personal relationships remains in many ways his best film -- and is certainly representative of some of the best work Tom Cruise and Cuba Gooding, Jr. have done.

Sony’s Blu-Ray edition of “Jerry Maguire” serves up an excellent 1080p transfer with Dolby TrueHD audio and extras culled primarily from the 2002 Special Edition DVD, including a commentary with Crowe, Cruise, Gooding, and Renee Zellweger -- which, disappointingly, is only included in audio form (the prior DVD offered this track as a visual commentary feature). Also on-hand are deleted scenes, the best of which involves a near five-minute, hysterical improvisation by Jay Mohr (the other deleted scenes are quite short and easy to see why they were left on the cutting room floor). You also get brief rehearsal footage, shot on Crowe's camcorder, of the movie's "Show Me The Money" routine, plus Bruce Springsteen's music video "Secret Garden," the original making-of featurette, trailers, a photo gallery, and a few assorted odds and ends.

CAN’T HARDLY WAIT: 10 Year Reunion Edition (**½, 100 mins., 1998, PG-13; Sony): Good-natured teen comedy was a minor hit back in 1998, but like many other staples of the genre, boasts so many familiar faces in all kinds of assorted roles (from Jennifer Love Hewitt and Seth Green to Lauren Ambrose and others) that it’s become something of a viewer favorite. That said, “Can’t Hardly Wait” isn’t in the league of, say, “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” or “Dazed and Confused,” as it serves up a typical tale of a kid (the overly enthusiastic, and somewhat grating, Ethan Embry) trying to woo his dream girl (Hewitt) during a raucous Graduation Night party. Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont wrote and directed “Can’t Hardly Wait,” which arrives on Blu-Ray in a splendid Special Edition complete with two commentary tracks (one from the 1998 DVD plus a brand new track mostly offering the same participants), a couple of deleted scenes and the standard Making Of featurette recounting the production -- though oddly without the participation of Hewitt or Ambrose. The AVC encoded transfer is solid, as is the Dolby TrueHD audio.

DAREDEVIL (***, 133 mins., 2003, R; Fox):Mark Steven Johnson's 2003 live-action film of the Marvel Comics hero claimed to be more "edgy" and "adult" than "Spider-Man" and other comic book films -- but as we all know, it's one thing to hype your movie as being different, and quite another to make a movie really as edgy as it claims to be.

The good news is that "Daredevil" is that movie; especially in its longer, R-rated Director’s Cut, this stylish and highly entertaining flick that boasts crisp action scenes (with vibrant fight choreography by Hong Kong martial artists), solid character development (considering the material), and even some decent performances. Yes, believe it or not, I actually bought Ben Affleck in the title role, with the actor playing blind lawyer/super-hero Matt Murdock as actually written in the comics, and not the smarmy, sarcastic guy that Affleck essays in virtually every film he's made. Of course, it helps that Jennifer Garner (as Elektra) is easy on the eyes, and that Colin Farrell and Michael Clarke Duncan adequately portray the comic's classic villains, Bullseye and the Kingpin, respectively. Writer-director Johnson does a superb job mixing action, comic book adventure, and developing the dark themes lurking under the surface to the degree where "Daredevil" ranks as one of the best movies of its kind. Only the soundtrack -- comprised of hard-rock tracks and a forgettable score by Graeme Revell -- disappoints.

Despite grossing over $100 million, “Daredevil” certainly received mixed reaction from critics and remains something of a punching bag for comic book geeks due to Affleck’s presence (that Garner’s pedestrian spin-off vehicle, “Elektra,” flopped didn’t help the movie’s reputation either). That said, anyone looking for slick comic-book action is urged to give it a shot.

Fox’s new Blu-Ray release of “Daredevil” is a marvel (no pun intended) with its AVC-encoded transfer and rollicking DTS Master Audio soundtrack. This is easily one of the best audio mixes I've heard on DVD -- an outstanding, highly effective use of the surround channels is employed throughout, making for a reference-quality disc on the sonic side.

For extras, Fox has ported over most of the goodies from the prior DVD editions (both the “Director’s Cut” and the theatrical cut’s two-disc release), including commentary with Mark Steven Johnson and Marvel’s Avi Arad, plus a pair of lengthy documentaries, additional featurettes, Garner’s screen test and more. Though it might have been nice to include the PG-13 rated cut for prosperity (the theatrical edit included some needed reshoots that bolstered the Daredevil-Elektra relationship), this is still a superb Blu-Ray edition of one of the most under-rated superhero movies out there. ‘Nuff said!

DECEPTION (*½, 108 mins., 2008, R; Fox): Tepid “erotic thriller” starring co-producer Hugh Jackman, who likely got this spring box-office stinker bankrolled by Fox as a bone for his participation in any number of future “X-Men” projects. Ewan McGregor stars as an accountant who gets swept up in a Wall Street “sex club” after accidentally switching cell phones with slick lawyer Jackman. Michelle Williams (remember her?) turns up as one of the mysterious women at the club, as do Natasha Henstridge and Charlotte Rampling, though only the latter appear naked amongst the shady goings-on. First-time feature director Marcel Langenegger does alright with the movie’s visuals but the Mark Bomback script fails to hold its end of the bargain, while the cast flounders with a story that’s never really sexy or compelling. Fox’s Blu-Ray disc does offer a strong AVC encoded transfer and DTS Master Audio track with an alternate ending, commentary and featurettes rounding out the supplemental side.

THE LOVE GURU (*½, 87 mins., 2008, PG-13; Paramount): Mike Myers’ summer stinker 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 edition of this June flop includes the requisite outtake reel, deleted scenes and numerous featurettes, most of which are about as funny as the film itself. Visually, the Blu-Ray’s 1080p transfer is sunny and bright, while Dolby TrueHD audio graces the audio end. A bonus disc contains a downloadable digital copy of the film for portable media players.

OTIS: Uncut (100 mins., 2007, Not Rated; Warner)
REST STOP 2: DON’T LOOK BACK (89 mins., 2008, Not Rated; Warner)

A pair of direct-to-video horror efforts from Warner’s “Raw Feed” label hit Blu-Ray on October 7th.

A game cast is the only distinguishing aspect of 2007's “Otis,” which stars Daniel Stern and Illeana Douglas as a pair of suburbanites whose daughter (Ashley Johnson) has been abducted by a psychotic pizza guy (Bostin Christopher). Kevin Pollak and Jere Burns also should have known better than to saddle up for this “darkly comic” horror that’s awash in unpleasant gore, no matter how “lighthearted” former “24" director Tony Krantz tries to make it.

“Rest Stop 2,” meanwhile, is a weak follow-up to the original “Rest Stop” -- an unholy piece of cinematic garbage if there ever was one. This sequel brings back the psycho killer who preys on unsuspecting folks just looking to make a pit stop, this time including the brother of the couple who got slayed in the original (though heroine Jaime Alexander wisely avoided reprising her role here). More “torture porn” and unrelentingly violent sequences follow.

Warner’s Blu-Ray editions of both pictures include 1080p transfers with Dolby TrueHD soundtracks and a notable lack of extras.

New on Blu-Ray from Universal

Universal’s new Blu-Ray offerings include a handful of titles that the studio previously released on HD-DVD a year ago. While several of the titles are upgrades on the HD-DVD versions, a few are downgrades in certain areas. Here’s a quick recap:

THE THING (***½, 109 mins., 1982, R; Universal): John Carpenter’s seminal 1982 sci-fi horror effort has become a modern classic, but this Blu-Ray version sadly fails to live up to the film’s reputation. Though the VC-1 encoded HD transfer is on-par with the HD-DVD edition -- serving up spectacular visuals for a catalog title -- and the DTS Master Audio sound a minor upgrade on that prior disc’s Dolby Digital Plus track, the Blu-Ray disc botches the outstanding supplements from past releases. Michael Matessino’s excellent documentary has been chopped up and edited down as a picture-in-picture “U-Control” track, while trailers, outtakes, production galleries and other extras have been excised completely! Universal did retain the marvelous Carpenter-Kurt Russell commentary, but otherwise this is a good-looking disc that’s a big disappointment when it comes to the bells and whistles we expect to see from this medium. Pick it up for the transfer and sound, but hang on to your DVD or HD-DVD versions for everything else.

DAWN OF THE DEAD (**½, 110 mins., 2004, Unrated; Universal): Zack Snyder’s Unrated Director’s Cut of his 2004 remake of the George Romero zombie-classic receives a superb VC-1 encoded transfer with DTS Master Audio sound, but once again, consumers are given the short end of the stick here in terms of extras. Most of the prior DVD and HD-DVD editions’ goodies have been here re-edited as a “U-Control” picture-in-picture track, losing their effectiveness (and some content) along the way. The visuals and soundtrack are excellent, but a 50gb dual-layer BD platter would have better served this zombie-thon.

LAND OF THE DEAD (***, 97 mins., 2005, Unrated; Universal): Exciting, surprisingly robust 2005 return to the genre from director George A. Romero, short on character development but satisfying in its depiction of a world where humans attempt to survive by alluding the dead that lurk outside their guarded metropolis. Unlike “The Thing” and “Dawn of the Dead,” Universal has retained all the extras from its prior releases on Blu-Ray, including commentary, deleted scenes and several featurettes, while serving up a crisp VC-1 encoded transfer and robust DTS Master Audio sound.

THE 40 YEAR OLD VIRGIN (***, 117 [theatrical] and 133 mins [unrated], R, 2005; Universal): Judd Apatow’s fitfully funny vehicle for Steve Carell (who co-wrote the 2005 box-office smash with the director) arrives on Blu-Ray in a superior presentation to its HD-DVD counterpart. This 50gb dual layer platter offers both the unrated and R-rated cut of the movie for viewers to choose between, along with DTS Master Audio sound and every extra from the features-packed DVD -- not all of which made it to HD-DVD. Fans of the movie would be wise to check out this new edition when it streets this week.

KNOCKED UP (**½, 129 [theatrical] and 133 mins [unrated], R, 2007; Universal): Last year’s Judd Apatow box-office hit also gets a Blu-Ray release from Universal this week in a highly satisfying package. Sporting both the R-rated and theatrical versions of “Knocked Up” in excellent transfers and DTS Master Audio soundtracks, this 50gb dual-layer Blu-Ray also includes commentaries, gag reels and loads of featurettes, several of which were excised on HD-DVD due to space limitations. Recommended for all Seth Rogen completists!

EASTERN PROMISES (***, 101 mins., 2007, R; Universal): Another taut, tense thriller from director David Cronenberg, following a British midwife (Naomi Watts) in Russia who crosses paths with the local mob, including crime boss Viggo Mortensen, after a young girl dies while in her hospital’s care. On the mark performances and an involving pace make “Eastern Promises” a strong companion piece to Cronenberg’s last effort, “A History of Violence” -- it may not be the most emotional or compelling ride, but it’s a rock-solid, well-executed contemporary thriller across the board. Universal’s 25gb Blu-Ray edition is a virtual reprise of their fine HD-DVD, offering a dynamic 1080p transfer, preserving the fine cinematography of veteran Peter Suschitzky. Howard Shore’s score also comes across well in the disc’s DTS Master Audio soundtrack, while a pair of extras include two featurettes (in HD) examining the production.

AMERICAN GANGSTER (**½, 158 and 177 mins., 2007, Not Rated and R; Universal): Ridley Scott’s sprawling crime saga was a box-office hit in spite of it, generally, failing to live up to expectations artistically. Given the cast (Russell Crowe, Denzel Washington), director and Steven Zaillian writing the script, “American Gangster” should have been better than merely moderately entertaining, but alas, that’s what viewers had to settle for -- a slick-looking but only sporadically exciting melodrama that feels awfully familiar. Universal’s upcoming Blu-Ray edition of the film improves upon this year’s HD-DVD by offering both the theatrical and extended versions of Scott’s opus in matching 1080p HD transfers, and now with the added benefit of “lossless” DTS Master Audio sound. Copious extras include commentary with Scott and Zaillian, deleted scenes and numerous Making Of featurettes, plus “U-Control” picture-in-picture options.

CASINO (**½, 179 mins., 1995, R; Universal): Martin Scorsese’s lavish reunion with “Goodfellas” writer Nicholas Pileggi and stars Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci is an overlong, occasionally compelling but more often than not excessive mob melodrama. Universal’s 50gb Blu-Ray release of the 1996 “Casino” includes a razor-sharp 1080p transfer with a DTS Master Audio soundtrack, deleted scenes, a History Channel documentary on Pileggi (a tie-in for the movie at the time of its release), and U-Control picture-in-picture interviews.

New From Criterion

A trio of new titles join the Criterion Collection this month, including a pair of films from Jean-Pierre Melville:

LE DEUXIEME SOUFFLE (144 mins., 1966) was one of Melville’s most acclaimed films, a lengthy, intricate tale of a French underworld criminal (eesayed by the great Lino Ventura) who’s coerced into one last score and the detective (Paul Meurisse) chasing him after he escapes from prison. Criterion’s single-disc DVD edition includes a superb 16:9 (1.66) transfer with new English subtitles; commentary with writer Ginette Vincendeau (author of a book on Melville) and film critic Geoff Andrew; a video interview with filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier, who was a publicity agent on the film; archival footage featuring interviews with Melville and Ventura; and the original trailer.

Another Melville film, LE DOULOS (109 mins., 1962) is also new to Criterion’s roster this month. Jean-Paul Belmondo stars in a pungent, noirish tale of the criminal underworld from Melville, with Criterion’s DVD offering another commentary from Ginette Vincendeau; video interviews with Volker Schlondorff and Bertrand Tavernier; archival footage sporting interviews with Melville, Belmondo and co-star Serge Reggiani; and the original trailer. The 16:9 (1.66) transfer is smoky and crisp, as is the original mono sound.

Last but not least is Yasujiro Ozu’s AN AUTUMN AFTERNOON (113 mins., 1962), a meditation on relationships, parents, aging and life in general from the great Japanese filmmaker.

Criterion’s DVD of this 1962 effort includes a restored full-screen transfer with new English subtitles; a commentary with film historian David Bordwell, author of “Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema”; extracts from a 1978 French television retrospective on Ozu’s works; the trailer; and a booklet sporting essays from critics Geoff Andrew and Donald Richie.

Vintage Classics from Warner & Disney

Several catalog titles of note have either just hit DVD or are about to in the coming weeks.

Martin Rosen’s filming of Richard Adams’ bestselling, beloved book WATERSHIP DOWN (***, 92 mins., 1978, PG; Warner) has been available in a Special Edition DVD overseas for the past three years. This second DVD edition of the film stateside (following an out-of-print, no-frills Warner release in 2002) offers the same extras as its UK counterpart, highlighted by a 15-minute talk between Rosen and editor Terry Rawlings. 

The duo are candid in their discussion of how the picture was financed and released, as well as the problems they encountered when original composer Malcolm Williamson had to leave the country after writing just one cue -- and with a full orchestra contracted to record the score! As Rosen relays in the interview, composer Jeff Wayne took the orchestra for his own use while recording his rock version of “War of the Worlds,” while Angela Morley was quickly brought in to compose the score in just two weeks. Another featurette, “Defining a Style,” offers comments from animators, while four different segments are profiled in storyboard-to-screen multiangle comparisons.

Visually, the disc’s 16:9 (1.85) transfer is a bit stronger than the previous release, though the print still shows its age at times -- no surprise given that the film was independently produced and distributed by a myriad of different international outlets upon its original 1978 release (Avco Embassy, in fact, released the film in North America). The 2.0 Dolby Stereo sound is limited a bit by the age of its elements, but does its job just fine.

“Watership Down” isn’t a perfect film but it’s an effective enough distillation of Adams’ original book, voiced by an excellent ensemble of British actors (from Ralph Richardson and Denholm Elliott to John Hurt and others) and beautifully animated in classic hand-drawn style. Writer-producer-director Rosen, meanwhile, manages to balance the darker elements of the story within the confines of a “family” film, without robbing the picture of its intensity -- a mix that Rosen later failed to recreate when producing his ill-fated, endlessly depressing adaptation of Adams’ “Plague Dogs” in 1982.

Warners is also bringing us a brand-new Special Edition of THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY, MGM’s all-star 1945 adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s novel with Hurd Hatfield as the gentlemen who never ages and a spectacular supporting cast (George Sanders, Donna Reed, Angela Lansbury, Peter Lawford and Lowell Gilmore among others) populating the supporting roles in the Albert Lewin-Pandro S. Berman production.

Warner’s DVD includes an excellent full-screen transfer deftly preserving the movie’s original, Oscar-winning B&W “deep focus” cinematography, plus a pair of Oscar winning shorts and cartoons (“Stairway to Light,” “Quiet Please!”), the trailer, and best of all, a new commentary track with Angela Lansbury and film scholar Steve Haberman. Highly recommended!

Finally, Disney is about to unveil a spectacular new Platinum Edition of SLEEPING BEAUTY (***, 75 mins., 1959, G), the studio’s gorgeous Cinemascope fairy tale that was last seen on disc in an excellent 2003 DVD that’s been out of print for a little while now.

This new double-disc edition offers a fully restored 16:9 (2.55) widescreen transfer with a newly “enhanced” 5.1 Dolby Digital track, both of which are more satisfying than the prior DVD. The colors appear stronger, the image has been cleaned and remastered upon its predecessor, which looked excellent for the time. The audio end has been likewise punched up a bit, though purists may want to stick to the “restored” original theatrical soundtrack, which has also been preserved here.

Though Disney is quick to bill this release of “Sleeping Beauty” as its first “Platinum” package, the prior DVD featured a good array of supplements, most of which have been retained here. These include behind-the-scenes featurettes on the movie’s production and legacy as a unique entry in the Disney canon (it’s still a bit of a cold fish, just a spectacular looking one), with the added benefit of some new extras including an alternate opening and additional games for the little ones.

Fans should also note that Disney is set to release the movie on Blu-Ray, making it the first Disney animated classic to see a high-definition release. Needless to say, we’ll have a full review in next week’s Aisle Seat, but the standard DVD is certainly worth checking out for Disney aficionados.

Aisle Seat Sleeper of the Week

SUNDOWN - THE VAMPIRE IN RETREAT (***, 104 mins., 1990, R; Lionsgate): Highly amusing, offbeat vampire western -- more of a comedy than a sheer horror film -- finally gets its due as a Special Edition DVD from Lionsgate.

Fresh off the success of the 1988 Vestron release “Waxwork,” director Anthony Hickox hit the saddle for this goofy ensemble piece, shot in spectacular widescreen but doomed to a life of pan-and-scan cable TV showings for years after its production. Spurned of a theatrical release, “Sundown” has basically been a film enjoyed only by an extremely small cult following, making this new DVD the best opportunity for most viewers to see what all the fun is about.

In Hickox and John Burgess’ script, Count Margulak (David Carradine) and his vampiric followers have retreated to the American southwest where they enjoy a succession of beverages comprised of synthetic blood. While their existence is relatively peaceful, an upstart vamp (Maxwell Caulfield) wishes to return to the old fang traditions, much to Carradine’s chagrin. A battle ensues, along with plenty of comedy mainly served up by Bruce Campbell as a relative of Van Helsing, who falls for a cute young vampire female (Deborah Foreman from “Valley Girl” and Hickox’s “Waxwork”) along the way.

Jim Metzler (“Tex”), Morgan Brittany, M. Emmet Walsh, John Ireland and a succession of familiar faces make “Sundown” an early Halloween treat, capped by a sensational score by Richard Stone that’s rousing and lyrical in an old-fashioned manner. Stone’s music wouldn’t have been out of place in a sprawling western from the ‘50s or ‘60s, making its inclusion here one of the film’s chief assets.

“Sundown” is hard to describe because it’s so off-the-wall: very little in the picture is taken seriously, yet the production values are excellent for what amounted to a barely-seen horror film, and there’s very little gore or excessive violence on-hand (the movie would’ve surely received a PG-13 rating by today’s standards). It’s light but engaging and energetic at every turn, and well worth seeking out for genre enthusiasts.

Lionsgate’s DVD includes the first-ever widescreen (2.35) presentation of the film on video, and it’s a blast to see the original scope proportions of “Sundown” at last. The 16:9 transfer is excellent, as are the matching 5.1 and 2.0 Dolby Stereo mixes.

Extras include a lengthy and fun interview with Bruce Campbell, who notes how “out of the box” the movie is, and relays his memorable experiences producing the film, along with conversations with David Carradine and M. Emmet Walsh, respectively. All three have positive recollections about working on the film, even if nobody saw it (or even had the chance to) for years.

An amusing commentary with Hickox, cinematographer Levie Isaacks and moderator Michael Felsher is also on-hand, along with a photo gallery. Highly recommended!

New TV on DVD

BROTHERHOOD: SEASON 2 (aprx. 9 hours, 2007; Paramount): Blake Masters’ gritty series about politics, crime and corruption right here in the Ocean State manages to capture enough of what makes Rhode Island tick -- even with its fictional characters -- while still providing an entertaining dramatic experience for anyone completely foreign to the region. And entertaining Season 2 of this Showtime series is, as it follows brothers Michael (Jason Isaacs) and Tommy Caffee (Jason Clark) in and around the dueling worlds of the mafia and politics -- bedfellows that have often been intertwined in this state in decades past. Taut, well-written and shot on location, “Brotherhood” is a terrific series that’s about to return for its third season; to whet your appetite, Paramount has issued a fine, three-disc box-set housing the series’ second season in excellent 16:9 transfers and 5.1 Dolby Digital audio. Recommended!

CSI: NEW YORK Season 4 (Aprx. 15 hours, 2007-08; Paramount): Gary Sinise and Melina Kanakaredes are back in this fourth season of the popular “CSI” spin-off, which still ranks third in popularity behind the original “CSI” and the David Caruso-led “CSI: Miami.” Paramount’s six-disc set of “CSI-NY”’s fourth season includes all 21 episodes in excellent 16:9 transfers with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, commentary on the episode “Down the Rabbit Hole,” and four different featurettes on the production.

NUMBERS: Season 4 (aprx. 13 hours, 2007-08; Paramount): Five-disc set sports the complete fourth season of Ridley Scott’s entertaining crime drama, which is distinguished not so much by its usually formulaic scripts but the central performances of stars Rob Morrow and David Krumholtz, playing brothers (one an FBI agent, the other a brilliant young mathematician) who, in spite of their differences, team up to solve crimes. All 18 episodes are on tap here from “Numbers” most recent season, backed by solid 16:9 transfers, 5.1 Dolby Digital audio tracks, and five different Making Of featurettes.

Christmas Comes Early: Box Sets for the Holidays

PEANUTS: DELUXE HOLIDAY COLLECTION (Warner): A trio of newly remastered specials starring Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang receive a low-priced box-set release courtesy of Warner Home Video.

In addition to “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” (which we reviewed a couple of columns ago), the set sports the all-new Special Editions of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving,” each making their debuts in this edition (they’ll also be released separately on October 7th, along with a standalone release of “You’re Not Elected, Charlie Brown”).

Each transfer and soundtrack has been appreciably cleaned up from Paramount’s older, out-of-print DVD editions, with bonus programs and new Making Of featurettes also on-hand. These behind-the-scenes segments are about 15 minutes each and offer a nice, if casual, look behind the scenes at Charles Schulz’s work on the shows, while the bonus programs here include the additional specials “It’s Christmastime Again, Charlie Brown” (on the “Christmas” DVD) as well as “The Mayflower Voyages,” from the “This is America, Charlie Brown” mini-series (which itself is out of print on DVD and ranks as the most collectible of all the older Peanuts discs on the market).

Highly recommended for all “Peanuts” fanatics and a particularly attractive title as we head into the autumn and winter months ahead.

ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS: CLASSIC HOLIDAY GIFT SET (3 Discs, Paramount): Excellent three-disc compilation of “Alvin and the Chipmunks” holiday specials is now in stores from Paramount. Included are “A Chipmunk Christmas,” offering three different yuletide tales (from 1981, 1988 and 1989) starring Alvin, Simon and Theodore; the 89-minute “Alvin’s Thanksgiving Celebration” from ‘88, ‘89 and 1994; and “Trick or Treason,” a compilation of shows with a Halloween slant from ‘88, ‘89 and ‘94 as well. Some of the material is padding for the central themed episodes, but the reasonable price ought to be enough to entice Alvin fans and kids alike.

Also New on DVD

PUMPKINHEAD: Collector’s Edition (**½, 86 mins., 1988, R; MGM/Fox): Stan Winston’s directorial debut came with this barely-released 1988 United Artists “backwoods horror” vehicle, starring Lance Henriksen as a sheriff who attempts to exact revenge for the death of his son by raising a mystical creature. Soon the creepy Pumpkinhead stalks the teens (including former young Clark Kent, Jeff East), whose carousing accidentally claimed the life of Henriksen’s kid, in an atmospheric (kudos to cinematographer Bojan Bazelli) tale that’s short on compelling characters. “Pumpkinhead” is a fairly minor movie but it does offer a marvelous creature designed by the late special F/X guru, and MGM’s new DVD pays tribute to Winston’s creation with a features-packed supplemental section. Commentary from creature creators Tom Woodruff, Jr and Alec Gillis and screenwriter Gary Gerani is on-hand, along with several featurettes recounting the production and behind-the-scenes footage, along with the original trailer. The 16:9 (1.85) trailer is top-notch, and the 2.0 Dolby Digital sound is decent, sporting a fine Richard Stone score.

PATHOLOGY (95 mins., 2008, R; MGM/Fox): “Heroes”’ Milo Ventimiglia stars as a pathology student whose fellow classmates are committing murders in this gory, unpleasant effort from director Marc Scholermann. Even the presence of Alyssa Milano does little to off-set the bad taste of this seedy flop. MGM’s DVD includes the original R-rated version (one can only shudder at how grizzly an Unrated cut would’ve been!) in 16:9 (2.35) widescreen with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound and a number of extras, including commentary, featurettes, a music video, and -- for those who care -- an extended autopsy scene. Ewwwww!

LEWIS BLACK’S ROOT OF ALL EVIL (176 mins., Comedy Central/Paramount): The manic comedian takes on topics as varied as Vegas to Dick Cheney in a predictably fiery Comedy Central series with Black serving as a judge presiding over a series of hot button issues (“Oprah Vs. Catholic Church,” “Donald Trump Vs. Viagara,” etc). Paramount’s double-disc set includes uncut versions of the series’ eight episodes with bonus features including behind-the-scenes segments, full-screen transfers and Dolby Digital soundtracks.

CLICK & CLACK’S AS THE WRENCH TURNS (5 hours, PBS/Paramount): Tom and Ray Magliozzi, the “Click and Clack” Tappet Brothers from NPR’s popular “Car Talk” radio series go animated in PBS’ first prime-time cartoon series. Fans of the brothers might enjoy these ten half-hour episodes of “As the Wrench Turns” in Paramount’s two-disc DVD package, presented in 16:9 widescreen transfers and with Dolby 2.0 stereo soundtracks.

CAILLOU: CAILLOU’S WINTER WONDERS (78 mins., PBS/Paramount): The hugely popular PBS series returns to DVD in a new compilation offering four episodes from the show (“Caillou the Snowman,” “Caillou’s Christmas,” “It’s Cold Outside,” and “Winter”) with a frigid seasonal theme. Entertaining stuff for the little ones, with additional interactive games, character bios and parents’ information included on the supplemental side.

SOUTH PARK: THE CULT OF CARTMAN (264 mins, 2001, 2004-08; Paramount): Excellent compilation of 12 episodes from Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Comedy Central series, all, quite obviously, focused on the maniacal energy of Eric Cartman, including the gems “Le Petit Tourette” and the two-part “Cartoon Wars.” Bonus, exclusive animation on-hand here includes Cartman giving some of his “original life lessons.” As compilations go this one’s fairly solid for series fans.

NEXT TIME: THE SIXTH SENSE on Blu-Ray plus more of the latest DVD & high-definition titles reviewed! 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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