by ANDY DURSIN
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The old cliché that you cannot go home again happily doesn’t apply to Steven Spielberg’s E.T. (****, 115 mins., PG; Universal), the 1982 classic that hits Blu-Ray for the first time on October 9th. Right off the bat I can say that the film’s HD transfer is beautiful, boasting clear detail, no overt use of DNR, and no color scheme “retweaking” that I could detect.
The last time I had seen the film theatrically was in 2002 for its 20th Anniversary re-release — the ninth time I had seen the movie in theaters, but the first viewing I had on the big screen since E.T. first opened in 1982. At that point, I was not quite eight years old, and my lifelong love for the movies was about to take hold during that magical summer of genre favorites.
Watching the film again, as an adult, in 2002 was fascinating – not just because of how well the movie holds up, but in how it captivates children as well as adults, who can watch the film from a different perspective and yet be every bit as moved and spellbound by the story as kids are. I was finally able to see what critics had described in 1982, about how Speilberg's movie works for grown-ups in profound yet subtle ways. Whereas kids primarily identify with Elliott's plight to help E.T. get home, on this viewing I carefully studied the reaction of the other characters in the film, and was in awe of how Spielberg carefully painted every character's nuance in seemingly small background detail so effectively. Specifically, I was moved by how Elliott's older brother (an underrated performance by Robert McNaughton) aids his younger brother and gains his uncompromising trust, and how Peter Coyote's initially-villainous, ultimately sympathetic "Man With The Keys" is essentially Elliott as a grown-up, understanding his emotions and wanting to help the abandoned alien but not knowing how.
The movie is told with beautiful economy -- each scene creates and sustains an emotion integral to the characters, or serves to propel the story forward. The sequences with Elliott showing E.T. his room, his Star Wars figures, are so genuine, feel so real, that you forget you are watching a sci-fi fantasy that tugs on your heartstrings. It's the kind of movie that cynics love to bash because it makes them feel emotional, but E.T.'s cinematic virtues are plentiful. The movie is anything but saccharine emotion. It makes you care about Elliott and his family because Spielberg and writer Melissa Mathison make them seem like real people. There aren't any moments early in the film that don't feel like real life, and this timeless quality makes one get past the occasional '80s staple like an Atari 2600 camping out on the top of the family TV.
We all know and love the film's operatic ending, but there are scenes throughout E.T. that are subtle and yet every bit as sublime. This is illustrated perfectly in the sequence in which E.T. watches the mother (Dee Wallace) read "Peter Pan" to Gertie (Drew Barrymore), with the creature almost as interested in studying their interaction as he is in Elliott's plan to help him return to the mothership. Henry Thomas' performance is still the greatest juvenile performance I've ever seen, and the sequence in which Elliott says goodbye to E.T. -- whom he believes to be dead -- is as moving as any moment in the entire film.
Making all of it work, of course, is John Williams' music, still arguably his finest score for not only its outstanding lyricism, but its unforgettable, symbiotic relationship with the movie itself. From the quiet, poignant cues underscoring Elliott and E.T.'s scenes together – to the glorious finale that says every word in musical terms that Spielberg happily didn't feel the need to spell out with dialogue – Williams' music is E.T. It's another character in the film, punctuating every emotion in a fashion that's as restrained at times as it is powerful at others.
It’s a marvelous, wonderful film and its Blu-Ray release, coming up early next month, adds to its legacy.
Universal’s 1080p AVC encoded transfer of E.T. (in its 1982 original release version) is crisply detailed without any obvious noise or DNR filtering; overall, the presentation is sterling, enhancing Allen Daviau’s cinematography in a transfer that does justice to the film’s '82 theatrical cut. The DTS MA audio is effectively rendered as well, boasting a broad stage for Williams’ masterful score.
For extra features, the disc adds one new interview with Spielberg and more of John Toll's behind the scenes footage, as well as recycles other extras from the 2002 DVD releases. This unfortunately means that, once again, Laurent Bouzereau’s unedited 1990s laserdisc documentary hasn’t been included (just a cut-down version is on hand), and it’s a strange, notable omission since it contained the only full release of Harrison Ford’s deleted appearance as Elliott’s school principal – as well as the film’s excised ending coda. That those particular scenes have never been screened again outside of that documentary sadly remains a mystery (just a few shots of the Ford scene are included in the "Evolution & Creation of E.T." documentary, with Spielberg talking over them).
Here’s a specific breakdown of what is included:
-Steven Spielberg & E.T. (12 mins., HD): A new conversation with Spielberg on the production of the film, its genesis, the essential component of Melissa Mathison’s involvement, and a nice anecdote involving his screening of the film to President Reagan at the White House.
-The E.T. Journals (53 mins., SD): This release's other noteworthy new extra is a longer assembly of behind the scenes footage from the production of the picture, much of it shot by future “Braveheart” Oscar winner John Toll. Some of this was included (in various forms) on prior releases, but there's more of it here, presented uncut and without new "talking head" commentary, thanks to Laurent Bouzereau.
-Deleted scenes (3 mins., HD): Two deleted scenes, added to the 20th Anniversary re-release, are presented here in HD. Neither is essential to the film and the CGI does seem out of place given the rest of the picture (though it’s subdued and well executed), but the brief Halloween bit sets the scene nicely. None of the digitally “reworked” scenes involving the government agents’ guns are included – although Spielberg said 10 years ago he wanted the guns removed, apparently he’s had a change of heart and prefers to let his original version speak for itself.
-A Look Back (37 mins., SD): Retrospective doc compiled for the 2002 home video release, which is essentially a cut-down version of Laurent Bouzereau's '90s laserdisc documentary (which ran more than twice as long).
-The Evolution and Creation of E.T. (50 mins., SD): Previously available in the three-disc, more expensive 2002 DVD box-set release, this recounts the production in a lengthier manner than “A Look Back.”
-The E.T. Reunion (17 mins., SD): The cast reunites with Spielberg in this 17-minute piece from the 2002 DVD package.
-The Music of E.T.: A Conversation with John Williams (10 mins., SD): Williams interview from the 2002, three-disc DVD box-set.
-The 20th Anniversary Premiere (18 mins., SD): Another previously-released featurette showing John Williams' live performance at the Shrine Auditorium for the movie’s special 20th Anniversary screening. (Note the prior DVD had an isolated audio track of this performance that ran during the film, which is not included here).
-Designs, Photographs and Marketing: A series of previously released still galleries
-Trailer (SD): The full 2-minute theatrical trailer (offering some unused footage of E.T.’s ship landing) in non-anamorphic standard def.
-Special Olympics/McDonalds TV spot
New 3-D Blu-Ray Releases
Comic book fans everywhere eagerly awaited Joss Whedon’s Marvel super-hero team-up THE AVENGERS (***, 143 mins., 2012, PG-13; Buena Vista) ever since the project was first announced years back, before a series of standalone adventures for Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and The Hulk were filmed. The big-budget result is an entertaining fantasy with occasional splashes of inspired humor, though it’s ultimately – box-office receipts notwithstanding – not the most spectacular film the genre has ever assembled.
Whedon’s script has SHIELD’s Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) bringing together the disparate group of heroes after Thor’s brother Loki (the terrific Tom Hiddleston) steals the same magic cube that was featured in a few of the earlier Marvel films. Hoping to use the “Tesseract” to open the portal to another galaxy so an invading army of aliens can conquer the Earth, Loki stirs up trouble and only Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo, doing the best job yet of channeling Bill Bixby’s sensitive Doc), Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr., who unsurprisingly gets the best lines), Russian assassin “Black Widow” (Scarlett Johansson, much more effective here than she was in the second “Iron Man”) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) stand in the way...provided they can get along well enough to fight for the same cause. Oh, and there’s Hakweye (Jeremy Renner) too, but he’s been brainwashed – along with Thor’s scientist buddy Stellan Skarsgard – by Loki into carrying out his nefarious plans.
At nearly two-and-a-half hours, “The Avengers” naturally has to juggle a wide amount of characters and story arcs from the prior Marvel movies, and Whedon proves to be up to the task – to a certain extent. Though the script could’ve used even more humor, the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” creator balances the interplay of the characters and their assorted voices extremely well. Ruffalo – stepping into a role that Eric Bana and Edward Norton essayed to varying degrees of success in two prior, only moderately successful films – acquits himself nicely and his Hulk ends up stealing the show during the film’s raucous final third, where the Avengers hit New York City in a last-ditch attempt to prevent the destruction of the planet.
“The Avengers,” then, is as colorful as I expected, though the film came up just a bit short in terms of it matching the original “Iron Man,” “Thor” and “Captain America” standalone films in terms of overall effectiveness (or Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Rises,” which bested this film handily in terms of its dramatic impact). The talky first hour seems to spend an eternity on Nick Fury giving speeches in a series of repetitive “introductory” scenes, while desperately crying out for a big, first-half action set-piece that wasn’t just a group of brawls between the different heroes. There should’ve been a more exciting way of handling those scenes than how Whedon structured them, and yet I still believe he’s a much better writer than a director, with too many scenes occurring here in dark, claustrophobic corridors -- so much that the wide open New York City backdrop of the finale proves to be more effective than anticipated.
Alan Silvestri’s score, regrettably, is also a missed opportunity of the highest order. Of all the movies that cried out for a big, thematic musical statement, “The Avengers” was it, and yet Silvestri fails to give us the type of score he did for “Captain America” (or the fine score Patrick Doyle composed for “Thor”), with most of his effort serving as little more than bland musical wallpaper.
I also confess it's disheartening that, no matter who the director is these days, every big special effects movie now has an almost incoherent, ADD level of editing where you can't focus on one scene for more than a second before – BAM! – a quick cut occurs to the next big moment. “The Avengers”’ wild finale sadly comes across in a similar fashion: another alien. Another explosion. Another building getting smacked around. There's just no craftsmanship in terms of letting a scene breathe or letting drama develop -- it's pure and simple bombast...well executed here in a dynamic last 20 minutes or so, but still on the level of other, similar types of modern blockbusters.
Still, “The Avengers” is great fun, even if I felt just a bit let down at the end. Maybe Whedon was so preoccupied in giving every character their “moment” that he just missed connecting all the dramatic dots that the picture required – and I was hoping there would be more of an emotional resolution to the characters’ assorted relationships than there was. It’s still solid comic book entertainment, sure to please its intended audience (and certainly did, ranking now as the 2nd highest grossing film in U.S. history without inflation taken into account), but one that hopefully will be improved upon when “Avengers 2" hits theaters a few years down the line, long after the gang has churned out another round of their own sequels.
For the movie’s Blu-Ray release, Buena Vista has packaged several variants of the film, but 3-D enthusiasts should be most pleased with the movie’s superior MVC encoded 1080p presentation, which offers good depth though not a ton of pop-out effects (the film was a post-production 3-D conversion like so many films these days). The package also includes the standard Blu-Ray (plus a DVD, digital copy and music download), which includes Whedon’s commentary; “The Avengers Initiative: A Marvel Second Screen Experience,” which pops up trivia on your connected computer/phone/tablet device; “Item 47,” a Marvel short; “A Visual Journey,” which is a standard-issue behind-the-scenes segment; a gag reel; music video; “Assembling the Ultimate Team” featurette; and nearly 14 minutes of deleted scenes.
Though some of these were wisely discarded (including a needless framing device involving Colbie Smulders’ agent Maria Hill), there’s an excellent three-minute introductory bit involving Steve Rogers that never should’ve been cut. It establishes the story more from his perspective, as well as sets up his eventual rescue of a NYC waitress (played by “Growing Pains” alum Ashley Johnson), not to mention gives Stan Lee an amusing line. Hopefully if a Director’s Cut ever comes to fruition, this sequence will be restored back into the film.
KATY PERRY THE MOVIE: PART OF ME 3-D Blu-Ray (93 mins., 2012, PG; Paramount): The colorful pop singer starred in this surprisingly revealing “music documentary” that performed decently at the box-office last summer (grossing over $30 million). Though obviously intended to show Perry in a positive light, the Imagine Enterainment production – directed by Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz
– also pauses to show her relationship with her straight-arrow, religious parents as well as include material that illustrates her then-deteriorating marriage to British comic Russell Brand. Music, is, of course, also woven in, with some of Perry’s silly but infectious pop anthems (like “I Kissed a Girl” and “Waking Up in Vegas”) on-tap as well, though some may wish there was more concert material and less talk. Paramount’s 3-D Blu-Ray offers a decent transfer (though without much in the way of three-dimensional effects) plus a standard Blu-Ray and DVD. Extras include full concert performances of “Waking Up in Vegas” and “Last Friday Night,” plus additional featurettes and a digital copy.
BAIT 3-D Blu-Ray/Blu-Ray/DVD (**, 93 mins., 2011, R; Anchor Bay): Low-grade, though oddly appealing, Australian import finds a group of disparate types holed up in a supermarket after a tsunami wipes out their beach community; they ultimately have to work together to fend off a group of great white sharks who find more than groceries on the menu inside. Russell Mulcahy co-wrote and produced “Bait,” which includes some surprisingly good uses of 3-D (plus mediocre special effects), but after a decent start, the movie really, really drags once the characters bicker over how to avoid the sharks swimming under their flooded supermarket aisles. 3-D buffs may want to give the film a look over regardless, and at least the picture doesn’t completely adhere to formula in determining who lives and dies (okay, spoiler alert: the dog makes it!). Anchor Bay’s Blu-Ray package offers the 3-D version and 2-D transfer of “Bait” on the same platter, plus a Dolby TrueHD soundtrack (with some of the Aussie voices having been dubbed over) and DVD edition with a storyboard gallery as its sole bonus.
New From Criterion
David Fincher devotees will tell you that THE GAME (128 mins., 1997, R) may be one of the films where the director was “coasting,” helming a script (from John Brancato and Michael Ferris, who subsequently went onto pen “Terminator”s 3 and 4 as well as the ill-fated Halle Berry “Catwoman”) that was once intended for director Jonathan Mostow, who developed the film along with star Michael Douglas.
When Mostow dropped out of “The Game” so he could direct the Kurt Russell thriller “Breakdown,” Fincher stepped in, tailoring the film’s tone and visuals to his own liking. The resulting film wasn’t a particular favorite of mine upon its release in the autumn of 1997 – and frankly, having viewed it again in Criterion’s superb new Blu-Ray edition, my feelings haven’t changed. This is a slow-burn of a film that’s almost entirely dependant on the viewer watching it for the first time, and yields few pleasures once the picture’s resolution is reveleaed.
In “The Game,” Douglas plays Nicholas Van Orton, an uptight suit with family issues, whose brother (Sean Penn, in a role originally slated for Jodie Foster) gets him involved in a mysterious company, CRS, just in time for his birthday. His button-downed world is soon toppled over by a wild ride into paranoia that finds Nicholas wondering how much of what he’s experiencing is real.
“The Game” benefits from Harris Savides’ expert lensing, though the film is shot in so much low light that previous video transfers struggled to reproduce the original cinematography. Criterion’s 1080p AVC encoded transfer is an appreciable enhancement, as you’d imagine, over prior DVD and HD releases, but the visuals can only go so far to compensating for a rather one-note story that’s glum and depressing. Douglas’ cynical banker isn’t supposed to be likeable, but his spiritual “awakening” is dulled by a film with precious little humor that I’ve never really found engaging. And, more over, once the cat is out of the bag – with a conclusion that makes the film’s central concept highly unbelievable to say the least – “The Game” doesn’t offer much on a second viewing, outside of appreciating Fincher’s standard technical expertise.
Criterion’s BD includes two soundtrack mixes from sound designer Ren Klyce: the original 5.1 mix as well as a home-theater, “near field” 5.1 mix previously offered on the label’s laserdisc edition way back when. Other extras include a commentary from Fincher, Savides, Douglas, Ferris, Brancato and others; an hour’s worth of behind the scenes content (in standard def); a very brief alternate ending; and the CGI animated trailers.
Also new from Criterion this month is EATING RAOUL (82 mins., 1982, R), Paul Bartel’s black comedy about a couple struggling to make ends meet (Bartel and frequent on-screen partner Mary Woronov) who grow disenfranchised with the swingers in their apartment building and end up finding a way of knocking them off – by killing them! Robert Beltran (future star of “Night of the Comet”) co-stars as a thief who gets wrapped up in their scheme of wiping the pervs out of their community, in order for Bartel and Woronov to also generate enough money to open their own restaurant.
“Eating Raoul” was accepted as being a wildly funny indie hit upon its release in 1982 – these days, it’s certainly still amusing thanks to the dry dialogue in Bartel and Richard Blackburn’s screenplay, but a little of the film tends to go a long way, with the affected performances and overreaching music score by Arlon Ober coming off as a bit dated. Fans of the picture will still appreciate Criterion’s Blu-Ray, which sports a detailed, superb 1080p AVC encoded transfer and extras including a gag reel of outtakes; a new documentary on the making of the film with Woronov and Beltran; two 1960s shorts from Bartel (including “Secret Cinema,” later reworked as an episode of Steven Spielberg’s TV series “Amazing Stories”); and commentary with Richard Blackburn and others.
Also New on Blu-Ray
ED WOOD Blu-Ray (***, 127 mins., 1994, R; Touchstone): Tim Burton's hilarious and occasionally touching account of the immortal Z-movie director hits Blu-Ray in a satisfying 1080p AVC encoded transfer that, although it seems to have just a bit of noise, also boasts fine detail and an absence of DNR. That alone raises it several notches above some of Buena Vista’s hit-or-miss catalog BDs we’ve seen recently.
What’s more, the BD ncludes all the exras from the prior DVD release: "Theremin" looks at how Howard Shore utilized the instrument in the creation of his eclectic score; "Making Bela" examines Rick Baker's attempts to make Martin Landau resemble Lugosi (it worked; Landau copped an Oscar); "Pie Plates Over Hollywood" sports an interview with production designer Tom Duffield; while "Let's Shoot This F#+%@r!" sports about 15 minutes of behind-the-scenes footage.
An odd (what else?) music video, theatrical trailer, and over 10 minutes of deleted scenes are also included, plus a fascinating commentary with Burton, Landau, writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, costume designer Colleen Atwood and cinematographer Stefan Czapsky.
The movie is good fun, stylishly made and atmospherically shot, despite some of the liberties that the filmmakers took with the real events of Ed Wood's life. Still, even on just a fanciful level, this is a marvelously entertaining film, with great performances from Johnny Depp as Wood, Landau's Lugosi, and Bill Murray and Jeffrey Jones as two members of the auteur filmmaker's wacky troupe. Essential viewing!
Also new on the Buena Vista catalog front this month is the generally underrated adaptation of JUDGE DREDD (**½, 96 mins., 1995, R), the British comic that was tailored a bit unevenly into a vehicle for Sylvester Stallone. Fans of the source material cried foul over director Danny Cannon’s film taking liberties with its core elements (Judge takes off his helmet and kisses Diane Lane!), but this is an entertaining sci-fi/action flick in spite of its shortcomings. Armand Assante has a great deal of fun as the heavy, veteran support is turned in by Jurgen Prochnow and Max von Sydow, and both Lane and Joan Chen add a needed female presence; Alan Silvestri’s terrific score is one of his most enjoyable as well. Buena Vista’s 1080p AVC encoded transfer here is also one of their best – crisply detailed and faithful to Adrian Biddle’s original cinematography, with DTS MA audio and the film’s long theatrical trailer (scored by Jerry Goldsmith, who was at one point attached to the picture) also included.
ANNIE Blu-Ray (**, 127 mins., 1982, PG; Sony): One of the all-time Broadway smashes – the Charles Strouse-Martin Charnin musical adaptation of old-time comic strip “Little Orphan Annie” – became a bloated 1982 Ray Stark production that, regrettably, lost much of its source material’s charm.
Though the film did well at the box-office (ranking as the 10th highest grossing film of the year), “Annie” never returned the profit that Stark and Columbia Pictures hoped for because of a budget that spiraled out of control. What’s more, the movie illustrated that John Huston never previously directed a musical for a very good reason: he couldn't. Overblown, overlong, and over-produced, this gargantuan yet shockingly plastic-looking effort wasted a stiff Albert Finney as Daddy Warbucks and the terrific Strouse-Charnin score in a bland cinematic setting that unwisely deviated from the stage book in key areas, including dumping songs and reworking the tone. Carol Burnett, Bernadette Peters, Ann Reinking, Tim Curry and Geoffrey Holder all support little Aileen Quinn who makes her debut as Annie – and most of them are fine – but the film’s bland design and lifeless production are elements the rest of the movie cannot compensate for.
Sony’s Blu-Ray of “Annie” – one of the label’s few catalog releases this year in the format – looks and sounds terrific, thanks to a 1080p AVC encoded transfer and DTS MA soundtrack that do the best they can with the film’s unappealing visual pallet. Extras include a 2003 retrospective featurette with Quinn, trailers (in HD), and “Sing-Along” Blu-Ray exclusive interactive functions.
Despite everything I've said, there are undoubtedly former Annie-philes out there (especially ladies between 30-50) who will get a big dose of nostalgia from this Blu-Ray release, even if the movie is every bit as disappointing as its reputation suggests. (I also confess that I’m still irritated with my cousin Margaret to this day because she decided to take me to this film instead of “E.T.” on a hot Sunday afternoon in the summer of ‘82!).
RESIDENT EVIL - DAMNATION Blu-Ray (100 mins., 2012, R; Sony): Leon S. Kennedy, star of Capcom’s classic (and still unmatched) video game “Resident Evil 4,” here takes center stage in the latest direct-to-video, CGI feature spin-off from the long-running franchise (the sixth game installment hits stores, not coincidentally, in just a couple of weeks). In “Resident Evil - Damnation,” Kennedy sneaks into an Eastern-European country to find out if bio-organic weapons are being used in warfare; run-ins with numerous creatures and Ada Wong follow. “Resident Evil” fans should get a kick out of “Damnation,” even if it’s just a thinly veiled appetizer before “Resident Evil 6" bows on gaming consoles shortly. Sony’s Blu-Ray boasts an Ultraviolet copy, a Making Of, gag reel, “Las Plagas: Organisms of War” featurette, a BD-exclusive conceptual art gallery, a 1080p AVC encoded transfer and DTS MA soundtrack.
BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS PART 1 Blu-Ray/DVD/Ultraviolet (76 mins., 2012, PG-13; Warner): One of the iconic comics of all-time becomes a respectable offering from Warner Bros. Animation. In this adaptation of the Frank Miller-Klaus Janson limited series, set in a future Gotham City overrun by crime and corruption, Bruce Wayne has been retired for nearly a decade and Commissioner Gordon is about to hang it up – however, the presence of a new gang of “Mutants” and the return of a “rehabilitated” Harvey Dent lead the Caped Crusader to resurrect his crimefighting ways, with the help of a teenage girl who dons the old Robin costume.
Miller’s style has been tempered with anime-like design in this adaptation by writer Bob Goodman and director Jay Oliva, yet the core concepts of “The Dark Knight Returns” are intact and the story should be compelling for both fans and newcomers alike (one would imagine the material could be adapted to the big screen eventually, now that Christopher Nolan’s series has concluded). The vocal performances of Peter Weller, Ariel Winter, David Selby and others is generally good (though one misses the presence of Kevin Conroy here), and Christopher Drake’s music seems to reach for some John Carpenter-like synth tracks at various points.
Warner’s Blu-Ray includes the first “part” of the story in a fine 1080p transfer with DTS MA audio. Extras include a digital comic, two featurettes, a pair of bonus cartoons, a preview of Part 2, a DVD and Ultraviolet streaming copy as well.
DAVE Blu-Ray (***, 110 mins., 1993, PG-13; Warner)
THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT Blu-Ray (**½, 113 mins., 1995, PG-13; Warner): Bill Clinton’s election initially inspired Hollywood to release a series of “feel good”, warmhearted pictures involving the White House – two of which debut on Blu-Ray this week from Warner Home Video.
Ivan Reitman’s genial comedy DAVE offers Kevin Kline a terrific role as a nice guy who runs a Washington, D.C. temp agency and just happens to be a dead ringer for the President. After the President himself has an affair and ends up in a coma, “Dave” is tapped into masquerading as the President himself (shades of “Moon Over Parador”) at the insistence of the White House chief of staff (Frank Langella). Eventually, the real President’s wife (Sigourney Weaver) uncovers that Dave isn’t really her husband, and that the duo can go about setting an agenda more “middle of the road” than the actual President would’ve tolerated.
“Dave” boasts a nicely-rounded script by Gary Ross and fine performances from Kline and Weaver, though the movie is so mild-mannered and good-natured that it’s also easy to forget: I remember enjoying the film back in 1993 but never had a strong desire to revisit the film, in spite of its numerous positive attributes. It’s not a particularly biased film in terms of its politics (though Langella does play the “evil Republican insider” heavy quite effectively), and Reitman spices the picture up with a number of Washington insider cameos and an early role for Laura Linney.
Before the Monica Lewinsky scandal turned the tide of Clinton-era political movies towards more cynical projects like “Primary Colors” and Clint Eastwood’s “Absolute Power,” director Rob Reiner and writer Aaron Sorkin tried to duplicate their “A Few Good Men” success with THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT, a glossy widescreen fantasy that works well whenever stars Michael Douglas (as the widowed POTUS) and Annette Bening (the lobbyist who melts his heart) take center stage. Douglas and Bening generate ample chemistry together, but the movie’s ambitions extend beyond being a mere, Capra-esque romance, with Sorkin basically using the film as a tryout for “The West Wing,” with a superb supporting cast (Michael J. Fox, David Paymer, Samantha Mathis and future “West Wing” President Martin Sheen) acting out Sorkin’s patented dialogue – which veers from smart and sophisticated to treacly and pretentious without a moment’s notice. Richard Dreyfuss also receives two demerits for his almost-cartoonish, heavy-handed performance as this film’s resident “evil Republican” bad guy, which adds to the film’s naivete. As it stands today, “The American President” comes across as the ultimate cinematic statement of Hollywood’s love affair with Bubba – a fairy tale that’s syrupy sweet but only intermittently believable.
Warner’s Blu-Ray editions of both pictures are satisfying: “The American President” and its scope cinematography by John Seale particularly benefitting here from the strong 1080p AVC encoded presentation. DTS MA soundtracks are also included, with “Dave” also boasting a Making Of and the trailer.
New TV on DVD
CSI - Season 12 DVD (aprx. 16 hours, 2011-12; CBS)
CSI: New York Season 8 DVD (aprx. 14 hours, 2011-12; CBS)
CSI: Miami Season 10 [Final Season] DVD (aprx. 14 hours., 2011-12; CBS): CBS’ long-running crime dramas return to DVD again this week, with one of the “CSI” series saying goodbye to a key cast member – and one of the shows ending altogether.
The mothership, CSI (Las Vegas), bids adieu to Catherine Willows (original cast member Marg Helgenberger) as it adds blood expert Julie Finlay (Elisabeth Shue) into the Ted Danson era. Fans of the series will appreciate the DVD package CBS has assembled here, with two commentaries (on Helgenberger’s farewell episodes “Ms. Willows Regrets” and “Willows in the Wind”), plus several featurettes (A Crime A Dozen: Season 12 of CSI, Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas, A Farewell to Marg, Putting On a Freak Show, A Family Affair and Death, Trucks & Rock n’ Roll), deleted scenes, 16:9 transfers and 5.1 soundtracks.
Things fail to remain status quo as well on the eighth season of “CSI: NY,” which finds Gary Sinise’s Detective Mac Taylor again paired with returning cast member Jo Danville (Sela Ward, who replaced Melina Kanakaredes) as another season of Gotham-flavored crimes are investigated. Featurettes include “The Magic 8,” “Honoring Our Heroes,” “A New York Halloween,” “Flash to the Past,” plus deleted scenes and a gag reel, as well as 16:9 transfers and 5.1 soundtracks.
Last but not least is the 10th and final season of “CSI: Miami,” with David Caruso’s Horatio Crane leading an ensemble cast (Emily Procter, Adam Rodriguez, Rex Linn, Eva La Rue, Omar Bensin Miller and Jonathan Togo) as the first spin-off of the long-running CBS franchise investigates its last case. Featurettes include “A Perfect Ten,” “Miami Meets Mother Nature,” “A Tripp to the Set,” “The Miami Look,” deleted scenes, a gag reel, commentaries on the episodes “Look Who’s Taunting” and “Long Gone,” and 16:9 transfers and 5.1 soundtracks.
TOUCHED BY AN ANGEL Season 6 DVD (aprx. 20 hours, 1999-2000; CBS). WHAT IT IS: Season 6 of the Sunday night CBS staple offers all 26 sixth-season episodes from the Roma Downey/Della Reese feel-good fantasy co-starring John Dye as “Andrew,” the “Angel of Death” caseworker who assists angel Monica (Downey) and supervisor Tess (Reese) as they try their best to assist unsuspecting humans in their earthly assignments. 4:3 full-screen transfers and stereo soundtracks comprise the seven-disc CBS package.
GOSSIP GIRL Season 5 DVD (1008 mins., 2011-12; Warner). WHAT IT IS: The fifth season of the still-popular CW series opens in Los Angeles, where Serena has found the ideal summer time job, and Chuck and Nate pop in to visit. Meanwhile, Blair, still stuck in NYC, struggles with the fallout involving her choice of suitors (Prince Louis or Chuck!), while Dan tries to figure out who found an editor to publish one of his stories. All 24 episodes from “Gossip Girl”’s fifth season are included here in 16:9 transfers and 5.1 soundtracks. Episodes include (you have to give them credit for riffing on all kinds of film titles): Yes, Then Zero; Beauty and the Feast; The Jewel of Denial; Memoirs of an Invisible Dan, The Fasting and the Furious; I Am Number Nine; The Big Sleep No More; All the Pretty Sources; Rhodes to Perdition; Riding in Town Cars With Boys; The End of the Affair; Father and the Bride; G.G.: The Backup Dan; Crazy, Cupid, Love; Cross Rhodes; The Princess Dowry; Con Heir; It Girl, Interrupted; Salon of the Dead; Despicable B; Raiders of the Lost Art; The Fugitives; and The Return of the Ring. DVD BREAKDOWN: Warner’s five-disc DVD set boasts several extras including a 100th-episode celebration; “5 Years of iconic Style,” with cast/crew and guest stars discussing their fave fashion moments; a gag reel and unaired scenes.
MODERN FAMILY Season 3 Blu-Ray (515 mins., 2011-12; Fox). WHAT IT IS: ABC’s Emmy-winning comedy is back for another year of craziness involving the Pritchett/Dunphy clan – and while the laughs may be predictable in nature now that the series has settled into a routine, the cast and writing remain in top form. Fox’s three-disc Blu-Ray set includes all 24 third-season episodes in excellent 1080p AVC encoded transfers and DTS MA soundtracks (episodes include Dude Ranch; When Good Kids Go Bad; Phil on Wire; Door to Door; Hit and Run; Go Bullfrogs!; Treehouse; After the Fire; Punkin Chunkin; Express Christmas; Lifetime Supply; Egg Drop; Little Bo Bleep; Me? Jealous?; Aunt Mommy; Virgin Territory; Leap Day; Send Out the Clowns; Election Day; The Last Walt; Planes, Trains and Cars; Disneyland; Tableau Vivant; and Baby on Board). Extra features include deleted/alternate scenes, seven featurettes (including a behind the scenes look at the trip to Disneyland), and the requisite gag reel.
WHITNEY Season 1 DVD (aprx. 8 hours, 2011-12; Universal): Comedienne-writer Whitney Cummings had a very nice 2011, thanks to the show she co-created/produced, “2 Broke Girls,” becoming a breakout hit for CBS, not to mention her own starring sitcom, “Whitney,” which performed moderately well on NBC. Truth be told, “Whitney” isn’t nearly as funny as Cummings’ strictly behind-the-scenes venture, yet there’s enough chemistry between her and the hilarious Chris D’Elia (who’s not always well utilized) as her unmarried significant other to make it watchable enough. Universal’s three-disc DVD set sports the complete first season (22 episodes) of “Whitney” in 16:9 transfers with 5.1 audio and extras including deleted scenes, a gag reel, and selected commentaries by Cummings and D’Elia.
HAPPY ENDINGS: Season 2 DVD (aprx. 450 mins., 2011-12; Sony): Zachary Knighton may have broken up with his girlfriend (Elisha Cuthbert) but the duo find themselves hooking up – in some capacity – while they hang onto their circle of friends in this amusing ABC sitcom which just concluded its second season. While “Happy Endings” isn’t nearly as consistently funny as “Modern Family, the supporting cast (from Cuthbert to Eliza Coupe, SNL alum Casey Wilson and Damon Wayans, Jr.) remains engaging and the show pleasant enough. Sony’s Season 2 DVD set of “Happy Endings” hits stores late in October (it’s currently available in a Season 1-2 combo pack being sold exclusively at Target) a three-disc DVD set including its entire 21-episode second season. The 16:9 transfers and 5.1 soundtracks are all fine, while deleted scenes and outtakes round out the package.
WALLANDER 3 DVD (268 mins., 2012; BBC). WHAT IT IS: Kenneth Branagh is back as Henning Mankell’s best-selling detective in three new mysteries: “An Event in Autumn,” wherein Wallander finds the remain of a woman in his garden; “The Dogs of Riga,” where Wallander uncovers the corpses of two Latvian mafia men; and “Before the Frost,” involving the disappearance of Linda Wallander’s childhood friend. DVD BREAKDOWN: BBC’s two-disc DVD release includes 16:9 transfers and 5.1 soundtracks plus a slipcover. AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: My parents are fans of “Wallander,” which airs domestically on PBS “Masterpiece Mystery” and offers somewhat more “adult” plots with the type of solid acting and writing (with Peter Harness adapting Mankell’s source material) one expects from a solid BBC production like this. Branagh fits comfortably into the role and the production comes as recommended.
KEY AND PEELE: Season 1 Blu-Ray (176 mins., 2012; Paramount): “MadTV” alumni Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele’s sketch-comedy series offers fleeting glimpses of the duo’s talent, though this half-hour Comedy Central show is never as consistently funny – even in each episode’s brief running time – as you’d hope it would be. Among the funnier moments are Keegan’s uproarious President Obama imitation (so much more effective than anything SNL has attempted with the POTUS that it’s not even worth comparing them) and both gender and racial stereotype satires – alas, while the duo isn’t afraid to tackle any subject, the show strains at times with strident material that just isn’t as sharp and amusing as it thinks it is. Paramount’s Blu-Ray boasts outtakes, commentaries, bonus comedy material, a poolside interview, a 1080p transfer and Dolby TrueHD audio.
PAC-MAN Season 2 DVD (216 mins., 1983; Warner Archive): The second and final season of Hanna-Barbera’s short-lived – though strangely memorable – cartoon adaptation of Pac-Man and his various adventures – with Ms. Pac and Baby Pac – in Pacland sports some of the program’s most entertaining episodes. Chief among these is the prime-time special “Christmas Comes to Pacland,” wherein Pac-Man saves Christmas for one and all, and the final episode where Pac and company discover the meaning of the first Pacs-Giving (and you wonder why the show didn’t last?). Several “Pac-Mania” bumpers are also included as a bonus on the single-disc platter, available exclusively as a Warner Archives release.
Also New & Noteworthy
New From Lionsgate: A chartered yacht packed with young vacation-goers runs afoul of cannibalistic beasts in the 2012 horror opus AFTER DUSK THEY COME (87 mins., R), a limp horror entry from director Jorg Ihle. Lightning/Lionsgate’s DVD includes a Making Of featurette and the trailer to go around with their 5.1 soundtrack...The “Al Jazeera Children’s Channel” is one of the producers of SEA LEVEL (92 mins., PG, 2011), a “Finding Nemo”-like clone that’s anything but Disney – with inferior animation and even some shockingly adult themes with PG-level profanity! Parents are warned. Lionsgate’s DVD includes several behind-the-scenes segments plus a 16:9 transfer and 5.1 soundtrack...SEANCE: THE SUMMONING (88 mins., 2012, R) finds a quartet of friends who break into the city morgue and hold a seance – obviously nothing good ever comes from that type of shenanigans, which is the case here as a demon drives itself into one of the more suspicious members of the group. A featurette is included in Lionsgate’s DVD, which also includes a 16:9 transfer and 5.1 soundtrack.
GENERAL EDUCATION Blu-Ray (85 mins., 2011, PG-13: Well GO): Chris Sheffield stars as a college-bound student who finds out he has to take summer school in order to get there in this minor indie comedy that offers Janeane Garofalo and Larry Miller as one of the more mismatched on-screen couples in recent film history. Tom Morris’ film arrives on Blu-Ray from Well Go including a 1080p transfer, DTS MA soundtrack, commentary from the crew, outtakes, a Making Of and the trailer.
KLOWN Blu-Ray (92 mins., 2012, R; Draft House/Image): Danish comedians Frank Hvam and Casper Christensen (who also wrote the picture) star in this import comedy as a couple of friends who make a pair of bad decisions – Hvam by “kidnapping” the teenage nephew of his pregnant girlfriend, Christensen by sending them both off on a weekend canoe trip while he lusts after women – in a spin-off of the duo’s popular overseas TV series. Some raunchy situations mix with the legitimately funny in “Klown,” which Image brings to Blu-Ray along with numerous extras: a Making of; commentary track; three episodes from the television series written by Lars von Trier; deleted scenes; outtakes; a trailer; 16 page booklet; 1080p transfer and DTS MA 5.1 soundtrack in Danish with English subtitles.
PRODUCED BY GEORGE MARTIN Blu-Ray (138 mins., 2012; Eagle Vision): Excellent documentary profiles the life and times of George Martin, from his childhood to early work with EMI on children’s albums and, of course, his later tenure as producer of The Beatles. Copious interviews with Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Michael Palin, Bernard Cribbins, Jeff Beck and many others make for a fascinating BBC documentary loaded with extras (nearly an hour of content not included in the feature), a 1080i transfer and LPCM uncompressed stereo soundtrack. Recommended!
IRON MAN ARMORED ADVENTURES Season 2, Vol. 2 DVD (139 mins., 2012; Vivendi): Six more episodes from the new “Iron Man” animated series include “Titanium Vs. Iron,” “The Might of Doom,” “The Hawk and the Spider,” “Enter: Iron Monger,” “Fugitive of SHIELD,” and “All the Best People are Mad.” Special features include an artwork gallery, while 16:9 transfers and 5.1 soundtracks round out Vivendi’s DVD, which streets this week.
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