9/8/09 Edition
12th Anniversary Edition
New Blu-Rays and Extensive TV on DVD Coverage!
Plus: Bakshi's FIRE AND ICE in High-Definition

The early ‘80s were filled with sword-and-sorcery spectacles and wannabes. From the epic adventure of John Milius’ “Conan the Barbarian” to “The Beastmaster,” “The Sword and the Sorcerer,” “Yor: The Hunter From the Future,” the Lou Ferrigno “Hercules” pictures and countless others, fans were deluged by genre works at their local theaters and video stores.

While animator Ralph Bakshi’s “Lord of the Rings” grossed a healthy amount at the box-office in 1978, the film was an artistic disappointment in certain areas, offering some breathtaking sequences but also an uneven narrative that came to a complete and utter stop after the battle of Helm’s Deep.

If Bakshi’s ambitions in producing an animated feature of Tolkien’s books weren’t matched by his ultimate output, FIRE AND ICE (***, 81 mins., PG; Blue Underground) -- his 1983 collaboration with renowned fantasy illustrator Frank Frazetta -- delivered, for the most part, on its more basic goals.

A fanciful comic-book fantasy come to life, this simplistic tale of a blonde warrior named Larn and his mysterious, hooded ally Darkwolf -- who attempt to save scantily-clad Princess Teegra from an evil wizard named Nekron and his villainous mother -- has all the requisite trappings of other live-action films from the period: namely, lots of action, protagonists of few words, and a basic story without much in the way of character development.

Naturally, it goes without saying that this isn’t a movie with any kind of depth (the script by “Conan” comic book veterans Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway could have been written for any issue of that decade’s Marvel Comic, just minus Robert E. Howard’s hero), but what differentiates it from the era’s other genre films are the visuals, most notably Bakshi’s trademark Rotoscoped animation and Frazetta’s colorful fantasy backdrops. A brisk pace adds to the movie’s entertainment value as well, in addition to William Kraft’s stirring score -- undoubtedly influenced by Leonard Rosenman’s music for Bakshi’s “Rings,” but with a propulsive energy and strong thematic material that enhances the action throughout. (Kraft’s score, which Angela Morley conducted, is more than overdue for an actual soundtrack release) .

“Fire and Ice” isn’t a classic film by any stretch, but it does provide good-looking, exciting comic book action, both for viewers old enough to recall the era and Frazetta’s paintings, as well as younger viewers who might appreciate the straightforward story and visuals, with Bakshi’s graphic style toned down here for a PG rating.

Blue Underground’s Blu-Ray presentation of “Fire and Ice” looks terrific, boosting the colors and contrasts of the original print, with crisp detail and fine grain giving it an appropriately cinematic appearance. Not all the animation is first-rate, however, so some sequences of the picture aren’t nearly as impressive as others, yet overall, this is a top-notch BD effort from Blue Underground, with effective, matching Dolby TrueHD and DTS Master Audio soundtracks available on the audio end.

Extras are mostly carried over from the label’s prior two-disc limited edition DVD, including commentary from Bakshi, a vintage Making Of culled from the director’s personal archive, an interview with Bakshi on Frazetta, a photo gallery, “Sean Hannon’s Diary Notes,” and the original trailer -- in short, everything except the “Frazetta: Painting With Fire” documentary, which comprised the second disc in that earlier release.
New TV on DVD

The arrival of September doesn’t just mean going back to school and work, and the premiere of the Fall TV season -- it also means a deluge of new TV on DVD box-sets, being timed for viewers to catch up on what they might’ve missed before their respective series start up again. Here’s a rundown of new and upcoming titles:

DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES: Season 5 DVD (2008-09, 1032 mins., Disney). SEASON LOWDOWN: Nicolette Sheridan bids adieu to the long-running ABC serial, which -- let’s face it -- has yet to come close to matching its inaugural season’s effective mix of soapy drama, romantic comedy and “Twin Peaks”-esque black humor. Still, fans of the show will find plenty of entertainment in this fifth season of “Desperate Housewives,” which Disney has brought to DVD in a fine DVD box-set. DVD RUNDOWN: 16:9 (1.78) transfers and 5.1 soundtracks comprise a strong technical presentation, while ample extras include bloopers, deleted scenes, creator Marc Cherry’s favorite scenes, commentary tracks, and featurettes including a look at the series’ first 100 episodes. AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: The Aisle Seat has long since refrained from watching “Desperate Housewives” on a regular basis, yet the ratings continue to be decent and the cast is still appealing, making Disney’s DVD release certainly worth a recommendation for series devotees.

BROTHERS AND SISTERS: Season 3 DVD (2008-09, 1032 mins., Disney). SEASON LOWDOWN: The Walker family’s trials and tribulations continue to be the centerpiece of ABC’s Sunday night counterpart to “Desperate Housewives,” with Sally Field leading a strong ensemble cast (including Rachel Griffiths, Rob Lowe, Calista Flockhart, Balthazar Getty, Matthew Rhys and Patricia Wettig). More grounded in its human drama than Marc Cherry’s series, “Brothers and Sisters” has attracted its own fanbase, who ought to be quite pleased with Disney’s third-season DVD release. DVD RUNDOWN: In addition to the studio’s typically excellent 16:9 transfers and 5.1 soundtracks, Disney’s six-disc box-set includes a number of special features. Commentaries, deleted scenes, bloopers and featurettes are all on-tap. AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: If you’re looking for some glossy network prime-time soap entertainment, “Brothers and Sisters” has the right cast and tone to satisfy most fans of what’s fast becoming an endangered species on the night-time airwaves.

GREY’S ANATOMY: Season 5 DVD (1032 mins., 2008-09, Disney). SEASON LOWDOWN: The docs of Seattle Grace Hospital are back for another go-around, with Patrick Dempsey’s “McDreamy” (Derek Shepard) and Ellen Pompeo’s Meredith Grey again torn in their seemingly shifting romance, while T.R. Knight says goodbye as George O’Maley. DVD RUNDOWN: Disney has packaged a full roster of extras to compliment this seven-disc set of “Grey’s” Season 5, with flawless 16:9 transfers and 5.1 soundtracks. Unaired scenes, outtakes, an extended episode, a 100th episode retrospective, featurettes, and an interview with cast member Jeffrey Dean Morgan round out the package. AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: “Grey”’s fans are well served with this excellent DVD compilation of the show’s fifth season, which hits stores September 15th.

PRIVATE PRACTICE: Season 2 DVD (946 mins., 2008-09, Disney). SEASON LOWDOWN: Kate Walsh’s “Grey’s Anatomy” spin-off has only been faring decently in the ratings, despite having a terrific supporting cast surrounding her Dr. Addison Montgomery (including Taye Diggs, Amy Brenneman, Audra McDonald, Tim Daly and KaDee Strickland). DVD RUNDOWN: Yet another fine Disney TV on DVD box-set, season two of “Private Practice” includes extended episodes, the requisite selection of deleted scenes and bloopers, and two Making Of featurettes. Technically the transfers are all top-notch, presented in 16:9 (1.78) widescreen and once again with 5.1 Dolby Digital audio. AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: Recommended for series fans (yep, you guessed it!).

THE NO. 1 LADIES DETECTIVE AGENCY: Season 1 DVD (2009, 451 mins., HBO). SEASON LOWDOWN: Alexander McCall Smith’s international bestsellers became a warm, thoroughly appealing HBO series produced entirely in Botswana. Jill Scott is terrific as Precious Ramotswe, the owner of her country’s only female-run detective agency, with Anika Noni Rose equally fine as her secretary Grace Makutsi. The cases run the gamut from con artists to cheating spouses, but all are served with appropriate atmosphere and humor in this series co-produced by the late Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella -- who also directed his final project with this series’ pilot episode. DVD RUNDOWN: HBO’s DVD release of “The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency” features superb 16:9 transfers and 5.1 soundtracks -- deftly showcasing the high production values of the series -- plus a featurette on Minghella, a look at filming in Africa, a chronicle of McCall Smith’s books and other goodies for series fans. AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: Fresh and endearing at every turn, “The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency” comes highly recommended!

FRINGE: Season 1 DVD (2008-09, 1028 mins., Warner). SEASON LOWDOWN: JJ Abrams’ latest small-screen success is a fresh reworking of “The X-Files”’ central premise, with government agent Anna Torv teamed up with an institutionalized scientist (John Noble) and his estranged son (Joshua Jackson) as the trio track down “The Pattern,” a series of oddball deaths and unexplained phenomena. Abrams and co-creators Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci have fashioned a show that’s a bit slow to get going but once you hit the halfway point, “Fringe” really kicks into gear, offering an entertaining genre show that’s more accessible to newcomers than “Lost” and thankfully not bogged down in its own mythology like “The X-Files” (at least not yet). DVD RUNDOWN: Warner’s DVD edition of “Fringe” includes numerous featurettes on the series’ creation, casting, visual effects and scientific aspects, along with “Deciphering the Scene” sidebars, a full slate of deleted scenes, gag reel and other goodies. The 16:9 transfers and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks are all superb. AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: One of the few bright spots of the 2008-09 TV season, “Fringe” is more than worth checking out, and Warner’s high-quality DVD presentation presents viewers with a fine package on every front. Recommended!

LIE TO ME: Season 1 Blu-Ray (2009, 572 mins., Fox). SEASON LOWDOWN: Tim Roth stars in this recent, moderately successful Fox prime-time drama as Dr. Cal Lightman, a “deception expert” who can read whenever a person is lying – a trait that serves him well when he’s called in for cases as diverse as political scandals to cold-blooded murders. “Lie to Me” settles into a formula pretty quickly from what I’ve sampled of it, but Roth is fun to watch and the show moves at a good clip, making it unsurprising that it’s coming back for a second season this fall. DVD RUNDOWN: Fox has brought “Lie to Me” to Blu-Ray (it’s also available on DVD as well) in an excellent package. The AVC-encoded 1080p transfers are terrific, and are complimented by potent DTS Master Audio soundtracks. Extra features are pretty slim, though: just a few deleted scenes and a Making Of featurette are all that’s here for supplements, and that’s no fib. AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: “Lie to Me” viewers will be rewarded with this excellent HD presentation of the series’ first season.

SANCTUARY: Season 1 DVD (2008, 585 mins., E1 Entertainment). SEASON LOWDOWN: Sci-Fi (oh sorry, “Syfy”) Channel series with “Stargate” alumnus Amanda Tapping is a mostly green-screened affair with Tapping starring as heroine Dr. Helen Magnus, a scientist who tracks down all kinds of monsters with the help of her team, including a forensic shrink and her daughter. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” this isn’t, but “Sanctuary” provides decent genre entertainment for fans, with adequate effects. DVD RUNDOWN: E1's DVD box-set includes perfectly satisfying 16:9 (1.78) transfers and both 5.1 and 2.0 Dolby audio options, along with a good number of extras: commentaries on all 13 episodes with Tapping, creator Damian Kindler and others; a trio of Making Of featurettes; webisodes; bloopers; a photo gallery; and a Sneak Peek of season two. AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: Most fans indicated that “Sanctuary” started off on the right foot before succumbing to hackneyed scripts. With that in mind I’d leave this one best left to the show’s fans, who should enjoy E1's fine DVD presentation until its second season starts in the near future on Syfy.

WARRIORS: Season 1 DVD (2009, apprx. 8 hours; A&E/New Video). SEASON LOWDOWN: Host Terry Schappert takes viewers on a tour of the world’s greatest warrior cultures, from the Vikings and Aztecs to the Barbarians and assorted medieval knights. History buffs should get a kick out of “Warriors,” which examines each group’s pre-battle rituals, battlefield conduct, and unique traits in a 10-episode first season first broadcast on The History Channel. DVD RUNDOWN: A&E/New Video’s three-disc DVD box-set offers the entire first season of “Warriors” in good-looking transfers and stereo soundtracks, with extras including additional comments from our host, a former Green Beret and military expert. AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: If you find the subject matter compelling, “Warriors” is an engaging account of some of history’s toughest hombres with ample historian interviews mixed in. Worthwhile.

AX MEN: Season 2 DVD (2009, aprx. 10 hours; A&E/New Video). SEASON RUNDOWN: Popular History Channel reality series hits DVD again in a four-disc set offering all 13 episodes from its second season. “Ax Men” follows a variety of loggers often scaling death-defying heights and battling the elements in an entertaining series with impressive photography. DVD RUNDOWN: Stereo soundtracks and fine transfers grace this second season of “Ax Men,” which also offers over a half-hour of deleted scenes and exclusive bonus footage. AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: Admittedly, there are far too many reality series on the airwaves these days, but much like its Discovery Channel counterpart “Deadliest Catch,” “Ax Men” is one of the better ones. Well worth it for fans and newcomers alike.   

CSI: Season 9 Blu-Ray (2008-09, aprx. 18 hours, CBS/Paramount). SEASON RUNDOWN: After some eight years and dozens upon dozens of cases, detective Gil Grissom (William L. Petersen) calls it quits midway through season nine of “CSI,” and is replaced by Dr. Raymond Langston, who proves to be a formidable replacement in the form of star Laurence Fishburne. Still TV’s #1 prime-time drama, “CSI” continues to lure millions of viewers to their TV sets on a weekly basis, with Petersen’s departure having also fueled a ratings spike. Fans, though, stayed loyal to the series with Fishburne’s arrival, and all of them ought to enjoy this terrific Blu-Ray presentation of “CSI”’s ninth season. DVD RUNDOWN: Marvelously detailed 1080p transfers and DTS Master Audio soundtracks adorn this Blu-Ray box-set from CBS, which also includes a good array of features also in high-def: an interactive investigative mode, Making Of featurettes, and a tribute to Petersen’s character. Commentaries are also on-hand in the episodes “Turn, Turn, Turn” and “A Space Oddity.” AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: “CSI” settled into a routine many years ago and continues to be an institution for CBS. This excellent Blu-Ray release showcases the series’ top-drawer production values with superb transfers and “lossless” soundtracks. Highly recommended for fans.

TERMINATOR: THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES Season 2 Blu-Ray (2008-09, 975 mins., Warner). SEASON RUNDOWN: Despite mostly positive reviews Fox’s “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles” finished its run after just two seasons -- the victim of disappointing ratings and an expensive budget that often shows throughout its final 22 episodes. Yet, similar to the underwhelming response that greeted “Terminator: Salvation” in theaters this past May, there’s still ample entertainment to be found on-hand: namely, solid performances from Lena Headey in Linda Hamilton’s old role, Thomas Dekker as John Connor and Summer Glau as the sexiest terminator this side of Kristanna Loken. DVD RUNDOWN: Warner has packaged another fine Blu-Ray edition of “Sarah Connor,” from its finely-textured VC-1 encoded transfers to its good array of special features (which this time include a Blu-Ray exclusive multiple-angle featurette on the season finale; four episode commentary tracks; deleted scenes; eight featurettes; a gag reel; and other goodies). Only the standard 5.1 Dolby Digital sound comes as a minor disappointment. AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: Despite its short duration, “Terminator” fans ought to ultimately savor “Sarah Connor” as an interesting, “alternate universe” extension of James Cameron’s first two movies. With solid production values, effects and strong lead characters (if not altogether satisfying storylines), Season 2 comes recommended for fans.

FEAR ITSELF: Season 1 DVD (2008, aprx. 593 mins., Lionsgate). SEASON RUNDOWN: NBC-produced horror anthology offers a mostly cliched roster of episodes from the likes of directors John Landis, Ronny Yu and “Saw” sequel helmer Darren Bousman. Sort of like “Masters of Horror” without the gore, “Fear Itself” failed to find an audience on NBC during the summer of 2008, so this “Season 1" anthology ought to be packaged as the “Complete Series” since no future installments are planned. DVD RUNDOWN: A solid effort from Lionsgate, the studio’s crypt-packaged four-disc DVD box-set contains 16:9 (1.78) transfers and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks, along with director interviews on each show. AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: Horror addicts could do worse than this affordably-packaged (around $20 in most outlets) compilation, yet despite a fine cast, there’s not much juice to these uneven episodes, most of which offer stories you’ve seen numerous times before.    

HEROES: Season 3 Blu-Ray (2009-09, 1020 mins., Universal). SEASON RUNDOWN: After a promising, effective first season, NBC’s fantasy series “Heroes” bombed out in its strike-shortened second year before trying to return to basics with Season 3. Alas, this third year for the well-cast series is only partially more satisfying, though its later episodes -- thanks to the return of producer Bryan Fuller -- work best, having cut down on extraneous subplots and streamlined its increasingly convoluted storyline. Still, from Kristen Bell’s disappointingly under-utilized character Elle to the ever-changing motives of serial killer Sylar (poor Zachary Quinto, who tries to keep the bad guy interesting), there are fumbled opportunities in “Heroes”’ third year and not much of a payoff. DVD RUNDOWN: Similar to Universal’s prior Blu-Ray releases of “Heroes,” the studio’s HD box-set offers pleasing VC-1 encoded 1080p transfers and DTS Master Audio soundtracks. Extras include deleted scenes, featurettes, websiodes and other goodies. AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: “Heroes” has one of the strongest casts on TV and some occasionally terrific episodes, but just can’t seem to get its act in gear. The show is coming back for another season, and hopefully having Fuller around full-time will enable the series to rise to the potential it held in its first season.

New on Blu-Ray

THE GIRL NEXT DOOR Blu-Ray (**½, 110 mins, 2004, Unrated; Fox): Most Hollywood movies are packaged competently, even if they're bereft of good ideas. The 2004 teen comedy (and box-office bust) "The Girl Next Door" is an unusual exception since it's a studio movie populated by some fresh ideas and twists, but is also marked by rambling, unfocused direction and editing.
Emile Hirsch plays your standard, smart graduating high school senior, not cool enough to belong to the "in crowd," and thus not wild and crazy enough to liberate himself from the mundane routine of studying, tests, and classes -- even if it's all coming to an end. Into his mundane existence comes the sexy, sultry Elisha Cuthbert (Kim from "24"), his next door neighbor's niece, who looks too good to be true. She's sweet, funny, and allows Hirsch to free himself from the confines of everyday teenage life -- at least until Hirsch realizes she's a young porn star trying to escape her own existence, with a downright certifiable producer/ex-boyfriend (Timothy Olyphant) and plenty of baggage in tow.

"The Girl Next Door" has some funny moments and bright twists in the script credited to Stuart Blumberg, David T. Wagner, and Brent Goldberg, which allows Hirsch and Olyphant (who seems to be channeling a young Bill Paxton) to give strong performances. Cuthbert is attractive and appealing, yet part of the movie's central problem is that she's less of a person than a device to set the plot in motion: her character and relationship to Hirsch ought to be at the center of director Luke Greenfield's movie, yet there are long sequences when she's not in the film and, subsequently, it's difficult to feel a connection between the two protagonists.

There are also far too many musical montages, too many false crescendos and "big" moments, especially for a film that runs on at 110 minutes. "The Girl Next Door" is reasonably entertaining, well-performed and rarely predictable, yet it could have been a classic in the teen genre had the pacing, direction and editing been tighter and more cohesive.

Fox’s Blu-Ray disc reprieves the contents of its prior DVD edition, just with the added benefit of a crisp 1080p AVC-encoded transfer and DTS Master Audio soundtrack. Among the extras are a handful of deleted/extended scenes (including a terrible coda that was wisely excised), gag reel, photo gallery, theatrical trailer, commentaries by Cuthbert and Hirsch, and a pair of featurettes.

HIGH CRIMES Blu-Ray (**½, 115 mins., 2002, PG-13; Fox): Another Ashley Judd “woman-in-peril” thriller is actually a substantial cut above "Double Jeopardy" and other assorted efforts from the star that were mostly popular less than a decade ago.

Judd plays an attorney whose military husband (the always dependable Jim Caviezel) is charged with murdering innocent civilians in a top-secret, hush-hush operation many years before. Judd teams with a former military man (Morgan Freeman) in an attempt to clear her husband's name and learn the truth about the operation, which naturally leads to a conspiracy and cover-up.

This entertaining if predictable outing is elevated to solid entertainment thanks to fine performances from the three leads and capable direction by Carl Franklin ("Devil in a Blue Dress"). The movie ends up being more successful as a courtroom thriller than a typical military cover-up drama, but at least “High Crimes” has enough going for it that you won't be bored.

This is another terrific Fox Blu-Ray disc with capable DTS Master Audio sound and a glossy, satisfying AVC encoded transfer. For extras, Carl Franklin's audio commentary is far more interesting than your usual commentary track, and a handful of featurettes go behind the scenes to detail the reality behind some of the courtroom dramatics outlined in the picture.

M*A*S*H Blu-Ray (***½, 116 mins., 1970, R; Fox): Robert Altman’s classic war comedy hits Blu-Ray in a presentation that its admirers ought to find satisfying. The AVC encoded transfer of the film’s original Panavision cinematography is for the most part quite good, showing little in the way of digital noise reduction, while both the movie’s original mono soundtrack and a DTS Master Audio remix are also on-hand. Extras have been carried over from a myriad of prior DVD editions, including commentary from the late director, the AMC Backstory documentary on the film, two other Making Of programs (“Enlisted: The Story of MASH,” “History Through the Lens”), a 30th anniversary cast and crew reunion, still gallery, an interactive guide to M*A*S*H, and two trailers. Highly recommended!   

New From Criterion

A trio of diverse offerings comprise September’s first batch of new arrivals from the Criterion Collection.

Alexander Korda’s THAT HAMILTON WOMAN is an interesting, if not altogether successful, mix of history, tragic romance and Golden Age filmmaking with then-real life spouses Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier starring in a portrait of the adulterous relationship between Admiral Horatio Nelson and Lady Hamilton, the wife of a British ambassador, during the Napoleonic Wars.

From Rudolph Mate’s cinematography to Miklos Rozsa’s memorable score, “That Hamilton Woman” looks and sounds superb, and also offers some none-too-subtle WWII propaganda in its script, which was intended to further goose the then-officially neutral U.S. into participating in the conflict.
Criterion’s DVD includes a strong, impressive restored full-screen transfer with commentary from frequent Criterion participant Ian Christie; a new video interview with author-editor Michael Korda, who discusses his uncle’s work on the film; the trailer; and a 1941 promotional radio piece.

Also new from Criterion this month is an especially impressive box-set compiling Masaki Kobayashi’s complete THE HUMAN CONDITION (1959-61, 574 minutes). Produced and initially released as three separate films, Kobayashi’s epic chronicles a young man named Kaji (Tatsuya Nakadai) from his idealistic youth as a labor camp supervisor through his tenure in the military and, eventually, a POW in a Soviet internment camp.

Impressively, starkly shot in black-and-white and full 2.35 widescreen, “The Human Condition” is an existential epic centered around Kaji’s morals and how they clash with the horrors around him, and is regarded by many as one of the finest Japanese films ever produced.

Criterion’s four-disc Special Edition box-set offers a new digital transfer of all three parts of “The Human Condition,” presented in 16:9 (2.35) widescreen with a new English subtitle translation. Extras include a rare Director’s Guild of Japan interview with Kobayashi; a video interview with Nakadai; a video appreciation of the film and the director; Japanese trailers; and an essay from critic Philip Kemp.

Finally Criterion also has lined up a Special Edition of David Mamet’s 1991 film HOMICIDE (101 mins.), the author’s third outing behind the camera. Mamet regular Joe Mantegna plays a detective attempting to track down the murder of a Jewish store owner in a taut and interesting character study that ought to please Mamet aficionados.

Criterion’s DVD includes another fine 16:9 (1.85) transfer with stereo sound; a commentary with Mamet and co-star William H. Macy, who makes an early appearance in the film; a video program with interviews featuring Mantegna, Ricky Jay and other Mamet regulars; a gag reel and TV spots.

Also New and Noteworthy
BEDKNOBS AND BROOMSTICKS Enchanted Musical Edition DVD (***, 140 mins., 1971, G; Disney): Using as its source a reconstruction produced by Scott MacQueen in the mid ‘90s, Disney has released a new “Enchanted Musical Edition” DVD of “Bedknobs and Broomsticks,” its 1971 musical-fantasy with Angela Lansbury as a witch doing her part to take on the German forces in a quaint English village during WWII. An obvious attempt to craft a vehicle similar to "Mary Poppins," Robert Stevenson's film offers supporting turns from "Poppins" vet David Tomlinson, Roddy McDowall, and Sam Jaffe, along with a tuneful score by the Sherman Brothers and several goofy animated sequences (including a notorious soccer game that the Shermans weren't all that fond of!).

The behind-the-scenes history of the film is almost as entertaining as the movie itself. Originally intended to be Disney's big, "roadshow" release during Christmas '71, the movie was cut from over 140 minutes down to 117 minutes -- losing a good deal of its story and pacing along the way. Despite decent critical notices, the movie was never embraced by audiences or critics the way the producers thought it would, something the filmmakers lament was directly related to the movie's hack-and-slash editing (which reportedly included a drastic reduction in McDowall's role). A later re-release at 98 minutes didn't help any.

In the mid ‘90s, historian MacQueen set out to fully restore the film, and came close to uncovering all of the deleted scenes. His 139-minute cut restores several songs and dance sequences, along with upping McDowall's screen time and making more sense out of the Bill Walsh-Don DaGradi script. Only one song, Lansbury's introductory number ("A Step in the Right Direction"), could not be found, so MacQueen opted to include the song as a supplement, using the film's surviving audio tracks with still-frame photographs.

Disney’s “Enhanced Musical Edition” of “Bedknobs” includes a new “Wizards of Special Effects” featurette hosted by Jennifer Stone (from Disney’s “Wizards of Waverly Place” series) but otherwise basically reprises the contents of its prior Anniversary DVD, including a fine 16:9 (1.66) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack.

The movie’s restoration story is included in full detail in a “Music Magic" featurette including interviews with Lansbury, the Sherman brothers, and MacQueen. For a Disney Channel production, this older program does a surprisingly adept job at covering the movie's turbulent post-production process. Other features include theatrical trailers and a PR-like "recording session" with Tomlinson and conductor Irwin Kostal.

The main draw, however, is the movie itself, which looks and sounds terrific. MacQueen's efforts at restoring the film were evident only for those who had a copy of the older DVD, or its even-earlier laserdisc release, so this package comes highly recommended for Disney and musical aficionados alike.

POOH’S HEFFALUMP HALLOWEEN MOVIE Deluxe Edition DVD (66 mins., 2005, G;Disney): Lumpy the Heffalump celebrates his inaugural Halloween in this engaging 2005 Disney made-for-video yarn, as much fun for kids as that year’s earlier “Heffalump Movie” theatrical release. Both the little ones and their adults alike should enjoy the colorful animation and engaging story line -- a portion of which has been recycled from the ‘80s Disney special “Boo To You, Too.” Still, unsurprisingly, there’s nothing scary about the second Heffalump movie, making this an upbeat, entertaining DVD perfect for children and Pooh fans of all ages.

Disney’s DVD offers a reprise of their 2005 DVD (numerous interactive games for the young ones; 1.78 widescreen transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack) with one added feature: a cute, limited edition plush with Pooh dressed up in a Tigger costume, making this set worthwhile for Disney collectors and families who didn’t purchase the earlier release.

DISNEY NATURE: EARTH Blu-Ray (***, 90 mins., 2009, G; Disney): Fresh off the success of the BBC documentary “Planet Earth” comes this feature-length condensation of the latter from Disney. Directors Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield extracted footage from the miles of material shot for “Planet Earth” in fashioning this G-rated documentary aimed at younger viewers, who ought to be as enchanted with the breathtaking high-definition visuals as their parents were with the more mature “Planet Earth.” James Earl Jones provides the narration for this chronicle of three animal families (polar bears, elephants and humpback whales) around the globe, with some environmental commentary on the dangers of global warming (of course) thrown in for good measure. Disney’s Blu-Ray edition of “Earth” looks spectacular: the 1080p AVC-encoded transfer is flawless while the DTS HD audio boasts an effective George Fenton score. Extras include a Blu-Ray exclusive “filmmaker annotations” track, a Making Of featurette, and a bonus standard-definition DVD.

FIREPROOF Blu-Ray (**½, 118 mins., 2008, PG; Sony)
FACING THE GIANTS Blu-Ray (**½, 111 mins., 2006, PG; Sony): “Fireproof” became one of the highest-grossing independent “faith based” films in recent years, managing to rake in some $30 million at the box-office a year ago. This sincerely-produced, if sometimes heavy-handed, tale of a fireman (Kirk Cameron) who tries to patch up his failing marriage with wife Erin Bethea while still doing his job to the best of his abilities offers a good message with believable performances, and hits Blu-Ray for the first time this month after a successful DVD release earlier this year.

Sony’s BD edition offers a crisp AVC-encoded 1080p transfer with Dolby TrueHD audio and a number of special features including deleted scenes, commentary, featurettes, and a music video.

Also newly released from Sony this month is “Facing the Giants,” another independently-produced church movie that generated $10 million for filmmakers Alex and Stephen Kendrick (the same duo behind “Fireproof”) in 2006. “Gaints” follows a Christian high school football team, and particularly their coach (played by Alex Kendrick as well), through success and troubles on and off the field.

Sony’s Blu-Ray edition of “Facing the Giants” looks as strong as this low-budget little picture ever could, with Dolby TrueHD audio backing up the AVC-encoded transfer. Extras include commentary from the Kendricks, deleted scenes, outtakes and bloopers, the trailer, and several featurettes.

CRANK: HIGH VOLTAGE Blu-Ray and DVD (*½, 95 mins., 2009, R; Lionsgate): In the annals of cinema there are dozens of completely unnecessary sequels. From “Speed 2: Cruise Control” to “Arthur 2: On the Rocks,” the Pointless Follow-Up Hall of Fame has a new inductee: “Crank 2: High Voltage,” a 95-minute assault on the senses that brings back hit man Chev Chelios (Jason Statham) for another round of cartoonish violence and excess.

The original “Crank” was completely over the top, moving relentlessly from one set-piece to another with reckless abandon. Still, while a modest success, few of that film’s fans seemingly wanted a sequel to a film that seemed to exhaust its narrative potential the first time around. For that reason it’s no surprise “Crank 2" is simply a more-of-the-same exercise in rehashing its predecessor’s ingredients, but without anything new being added into the mix.

A box-office flop from last winter (failing to recoup even half of the original’s domestic receipts), “Crank: High Voltage” hits DVD and Blu-Ray in matching, superior presentations from Lionsgate. The Blu-Ray offers a pitch-perfect AVC encoded 1080p transfer with DTS Master Audio sound and a number of extras, from commentary by writers-directors Neveldine/Taylor (nope, it’s not a personal injury firm!), a “BonusView” picture-in-picture mode, a Making Of featurette, gag reel, and the trailer. The DVD sports the same extras (minus the BonusView material) with a strong 16:9 (2.35) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound. Both platforms come with a digital copy for portable media players.

DVD Quick Takes

O’HORTEN DVD (90 mins., 2007, PG-13; Sony): Bent Hamer’s Norwegian import stars Bard Owe as a train conductor who, after being forced to retire following 40 years on the job, attempts to navigate his way through a decidedly less regimented existence. An art-house fave “O’Horten” hits DVD later this month in a fine, no-frills presentation from Sony, boasting both a clear 16:9 (1.85) transfer and 5.1 Norwegian audio with optional English and French subtitles. (Available Sept. 22)

NEXT DAY AIR DVD (84 mins., 2009, R; Summit): “Scrubs”’ Donald Faison stars as a courier who gets mixed up with a pair of lower-level gangsters (Mike Epps and Wood Harris) in this fast-moving comedy from director Benny Boom. Summit Entertainment’s DVD of “Next Day Air” sports commentary from the director, outtakes, a 16:9 (1.78) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital audio.

NITRO CIRCUS Season 1 DVD (244 mins., 2009; Paramount): If you enjoyed the antics of Johnny Knoxville and his “Jackass” buddies you’ll undoubtedly get a kick out of this complete first season of “Nitro Circus,” the MTV stunt-reality series with Travis Pastrana and his pals participating in all kinds of alternately brainless or death-dying (or occasionally both) stunts. Paramount’s DVD set includes the show’s first season in fine full-screen transfers and stereo soundtracks with over 25 minutes of deleted scenes, interviews and outtakes also on-hand.   

ROB DYRDEK’S FANTASY FACTORY Season 1 DVD (200 mins., 2009; Paramount): Popular skateboarder Rob Dyrdek (from “Rob & Big”) headlines this MTV reality series, which follows Drydek around his massive corporation in L.A., hatching schemes and pursuing all kinds of ridiculous leads. Paramount’s Season 1 DVD set is a double-disc package sporting full-screen transfers, stereo soundtracks, deleted scenes, commentary, uncensored audio tracks and more.

IMPORTANT THINGS WITH DEMETRI MARTIN Season 1 DVD (154 mins., 2009; Paramount): The eclectic comedian brings his stream-of-consciousness comedy to a variety/sketch show format in a Comedy Central series which pleased, if nothing else, Martin’s fan base. Paramount’s Season 1 DVD edition of “Important Things” includes excised sketches, commentaries and other featurettes, all presented in full-screen with stereo sound.

MITCH FATEL IS MAGICAL DVD (64 mins., 2009; Paramount): The comic makes his Comedy Central debut with this hour-long concert special, presented in raw, uncensored format. Paramount’s DVD includes a widescreen transfer with outtakes, a photo shoot, and interviews with fans.

NEXT TIME: An AMERICAN WEREWOLF Bites Back on Blu-Ray! Until then, don't forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards and direct any emails to our email address. Cheers everyone!

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