by ANDY DURSIN
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After three “Spider-Man” blockbusters (even the unfairly maligned third installment took in nearly $900 million worldwide), Sony made the surprising decision in 2009 to pull the plug on a “Spider-Man 4" with the same creative team (director Sam Raimi, stars Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst). Instead, the powers-at-be opted to not only recast the characters, but to stop the series altogether – and restart it from the very beginning, including a retelling of Spider-Man’s origin. It didn’t matter that all three films were huge hits and the last sequel was released just five years ago – the right move in their mind was wiping the slate clean and pretending that 2002 was the stone age for most viewers.
That very curious decision is one of the core issues of THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN (**½, 136 mins., 2012; PG-13; Sony), a film that ultimately doesn’t have enough of a fresh perspective to justify this reboot’s approach. Despite having a lot of good things in it, the movie – likely due to the participation of writers and production personnel from the prior series – has the strange feeling of the Raimi films without Raimi’s involvement, causing a serious sense of deja vu throughout.
What does work, for the most part, is the central casting of Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker, who here is – once again – back in high school, and who – once again – gets bitten by a genetically enhanced spider while touring Norman Osborn’s high-tech science facility. This Peter is a sensitive sort who stands up for the little guy – even if it means being beaten up by some of his peers – and whose adroitness at science enables him to engineer a high-tech spider suit (designed by Cirque du Soleil!) after his powers kick in. Peter also finds out (I know, you’ve seen this all before) that he has a moral responsibility to do the right thing – a lesson that Parker learns the hard way when beloved Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) is gunned down in an incident involving a petty thief that Peter himself could’ve avoided. Meanwhile, villainy is served up by Curt Connors, aka The Lizard (Rhys Ifans), an Oscorp scientist who tries to regenerate dead human tissue (including his own arm) but only ends up transforming himself into an awkward looking, dinosaur-like humanoid who wants to seek vengeance on all of humankind.
Director Marc Webb, coming off “500 Days of Summer,” brings a fresh visual sense, at least, to “Amazing,” with NYC looking like the real thing and not a CGI-enhanced cartoon city like we’ve seen in so many of these super-hero films. John Schwartzman’s capable cinematography is effective, and James Horner’s sensational score is the best Marvel soundtrack to date, offering a lyrical, heroic theme and plenty of emotional underscoring for Peter’s relationship with Gwen Stacey (Emma Stone), one of Parker’s high school classmates, who serves as this film’s requisite female lead. Alas, other than hair color, there’s not much separating her function to the story from Mary Jane’s part in the prior pictures, though Garfield and Stone – currently a real-life couple – generate sufficient chemistry together.
The script, credited to James Vanderbilt (who wrote the unproduced Raimi “Spider-Man 4"), Steve Kloves and series veteran Alvin Sargent, is much more of an issue. The script fares best with heartfelt, emotional moments between the characters, but can never shake the tedium of the film’s bloated first hour, which essentially hits the same dramatic beats as Raimi’s original Spidey, some more effectively (Uncle Ben’s death) but others not as well (Peter testing out, and adapting to, his new powers). Ultimately, the film doesn’t give viewers any good reason why it had to start over with another “origin movie” – simply recasting the roles and moving forward (as the James Bond and Batman films did for many years) would’ve been a wiser move. Even then, however, the Lizard isn’t very interesting in terms of a villain, and the larger plot element of Peter finding out what happened to his dead parents is completely unfulfilled by the movie’s finish.
“The Amazing Spider-Man” does have several well-executed set-pieces in addition to its fine performances, which rank as the picture’s most satisfying element (Denis Leary is also terrific as Gwen’s father and C. Thomas Howell chips in his most significant supporting turn in years). Ultimately, the picture lays the groundwork down for a new series that hopefully will find its footing the next time out – minus the narrative baggage this installment was unwisely saddled with.
Sony brings the new Spidey to 3-D Blu-Ray in a combo pack also including a 2-D Blu-Ray, DVD and Ultraviolet streaming copy. I didn’t see the film in 3-D theatrically and it’s certainly not essential to appreciating the picture; outside of several shots that seem to have been intentionally designed to utilize the format, most of the movie works just as well in 2-D, where Schwartzman’s cinematography can be better appreciated. The standard 2-D Blu-Ray boasts a crisp AVC encoded 1080p presentation, while both platters include rich DTS MA soundtracks (this is a particularly great sounding movie).
Special features are also generous: in addition to a commentary featuring Marc Webb and other members of the production team, a full special features disc includes nearly 20 minutes of deleted scenes; a full, near two-hour documentary; in-depth special effects galleries; stunt rehearsals; progression reels; and an Ultraviolet streaming copy.
Also New on Blu-Ray
There were a handful of yuletide comedies released in the mid '90s, including the forgettable Arnold Schwarzenegger effort "Jingle All The Way" and the especially lamentable "Trapped In Paradise" starring Nicolas Cage. Neither would have been made had it not been for the massively successful 1994 Tim Allen romp, THE SANTA CLAUSE (***, 97 mins., 1994, PG; Disney), which put a modern spin on the traditional holiday comedy formula and met with widespread commercial and critical success.
The affable Allen, in one of his first big-screen roles, plays an obnoxious single dad whose wife (Wendy Crewson) is re-married to a doofus (Judge Reinhold), and who hears the pitter-patter of Santa up on his roof. Complications ensue that cause Mr. Claus to lose his footing, tumble off the roof and die -- making Allen the heir apparent to the throne of the holiday king, a transformation that turns Allen into Claus himself.
The Leo Benvenuti-Steve Rudnick script is filled with laughs and a heartwarming story that really pays off in a moving ending. John Pasquin paces the film extremely well, knowing when to accent the mirth and merriment, and when to dial it down and let the emotion take over. Putting the festive bow on the whole package is a wonderful score by Michael Convertino that's one of my favorite Christmas movie soundtracks. Convertino's delicate, melodic string writing -- conducted and arranged by several of John Williams' associates -- is at its best here, managing to be uplifting without becoming overtly sentimental.
Making its Blu-Ray debut, the original “Santa Clause” offers a pleasing AVC encoded 1080p transfer and DTS MA soundtrack. Both, unsurprisingly, are appreciable enhancements over the original DVD. For extras, the “Special Edition” DVD of “The Santa Clause” didn’t have much content in the first place, so what’s here (co-star David Krumholtz talking on the set of the sequel; a 15-minute program with Wolfgang Puck creating seasonal snacks) is pretty routine. Disney has, however, added a bonus vintage animated short, “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” in a standard-def presentation that rounds out the release.
The movie’s two sequels, lamentably, failed to match the original in any way. THE SANTA CLAUSE 2 (**, 102 mins., 2002, G) took an unmanageable eight years to hit the big-screen, while THE SANTA CLAUSE 3: THE ESCAPE CLAUSE (**, 92 mins., 2006, G; Disney) marked the third and weakest entry in the trilogy. In the latter, Tim Allen’s Scott Calvin finds paperwork that enables him to get out of his yuletide duties – allowing the mischievous Jack Frost (Martin Short) to take over Christmas instead. Amusing cameos spice up the increasingly tired shenanigans, which ought to please young, undemanding kids and that’s about it.
Disney’s “Santa Clause 2" BD marks the film’s premiere release in the format, and the AVC encoded 1080p master is nearly as fresh as its predecessor’s presentation. DTS MA sound and extras cobbled together from the original DVD release (commentary by director Michael Lembeck plus deleted scenes and promo-flavored featurettes) round out the platter. Meanwhile, “Santa Clause 3" was the only film in the series to previously garner a Blu-Ray release – its reprisal here includes its predecessor’s 1080p transfer and uncompressed PCM 5.1 soundtrack, plus the same extras (commentary with director Michael Lembeck, a blooper reel, alternate opening, Christmas karaoke and a “Virtual Holiday Decorator”).
PETE’S DRAGON Blu-Ray (**½, 129 mins., 1977, G; Disney): Don Bluth's lovable title creation interacts with often far less alive human actors (including Mickey Rooney and Helen Reddy) in this agreeable, but quite overlong, 1977 Disney fantasy with songs by Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn. Disney’s new 35th Anniversary Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack offers a respectable – particularly given the optical effects, live-action and animation mix – AVC encoded 1080p transfer with DTS MA 5.1 audio. On the supplemental side, the disc inexplicably loses some of the extras from its prior “High Flying Edition” DVD, though does at least include 25 minutes of behind-the-scenes featurettes, the trailer, and a song concept, “Boo Bop Bopbop Bop.” A worthwhile upgrade for fans of the film, despite the omission of extra features from its last DVD edition.
PEOPLE LIKE US Blu-Ray/DVD (**½, 113 mins., 2012, PG-13; Touchstone/Buena Vista): Well-meaning attempt to counterprogram last summer’s steady diet of effects-filled blockbusters bombed at the box-office but is likely to find more of an audience on home video. Alex Kurtman and Roberto Orci – frequent J.J. Abrams collaborators and “Transformers” screenwriters – tried to shift gears with “People Like Us,” a tale of a twentysomething salesman (Chris Pimne) who finds out he has an older sister (Elizabeth Banks) he never knew existed after his father’s death. Pine, Banks and Michelle Pfeiffer are all superb in a soapy, but watchable, drama with an engrossing story line and several poignant moments. Touchstone’s Blu-Ray boasts a 1080p transfer, DTS MA soundtrack, a look at the production, deleted scenes, bloopers, commentary with Kurtzman, Orci and co-writer Jody Lambert, and selected-scene commentary with Kurtzman and Pfeiffer.
THE CAMPAIGN Blu-Ray/DVD/Ultraviolet (**½, 85/96 mins., R, 2012; Warner): The prospects of Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis facing off against one another in a political comedy could’ve made for box-office gold. Alas, in spite of several mild laughs, “The Campaign” is a rather feeble, predictable outing that finds both stars firmly in cruise control.
Ferrell’s Cam Brady is another variation on the comedian’s George W. Bush impersonation – a slick candidate for a North Carolina congressional seat who finds himself facing off against seemingly hapless family man Marty Huggins (Zach Galifianakis). The duo spar in a number of silly sequences before the film literally pulls the plug well short of the 90-minute mark – a limp ending that’s as abrupt as any I can recall. Perhaps writers Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell, along with director Jay Roach, simply ran out of material – whatever the case may be, “The Campaign” delivers only middling entertainment for the stars’ fans, and doesn’t deserve much of an endorsement on home video.
Warner’s Blu-Ray combo pack, also including a DVD and Ultraviolet copy, offers an extended cut running 11 minutes longer than the theatrical version, plus deleted scenes and a gag reel. Both the 1080p transfer and DTS MA soundtrack are fine.
I, ROBOT 3-D Blu-Ray/Blu-Ray/DVD (***, 114 mins., 2004, PG-13; Fox): Satisfying, if not especially inspired, summer ‘04 hit stars Will Smith as a detective in a future Chicago where a giant corporation plans a roll-out of household robots. On the eve of the greatest consumer event since Walmart decided to cut 2004 holiday shopping prices, scientist-inventor James Cromwell takes his own life, and sends Smith on a journey into the inner-workings of the corporation where our hero meets a human-like robot (articulated and voiced by Alan Tudyk) who seeks to find the answers to his existence. At the same time, Smith wonders if "Sunny" was the reason for Cromwell's death -- or if another conspiracy is involved.
Loosely based on Isaac Asimov's classic novel, "Dark City" and "The Crow" auteur Alex Proyas' film is a fast-paced, sometimes clever, and generally entertaining production. Smith gives a nicely dialed-down performance, which helps to compensate for Bridget Moynahan's D.O.A. female lead.
The Digital Domain special effects, along with Patrick Tatopoulis' production design, help create a future world that, for once, isn't just another "Blade Runner" knock-off, while the motion-capture of Tudyk's performance is downright brilliant. If there's a problem in "I, Robot" (other than Moynahan), it's the movie's conventional finale. Despite some of the clever dialogue and interplay in the Jeff Vintar-Akiva Goldsman script, the picture ultimately turns into just another chase/shoot 'em up, with slow-motion gun battles and an army of robots looking suspiciously like the clones from Episode II. It's competently handled, but it makes the picture more ordinary and detracts from the film as a whole.
Fox's new 3-D Blu-Ray includes a decent 3-D conversion of “I, Robot” with the transfer displaying effective depth-of-field dimensionality at times. There aren’t a lot of “pop out” effects – and you wouldn’t expect there to be, given that the film was shot in 2-D with no intention of 3-D being employed – but for 3-D enthusiasts, it’s a nice (if unnecessary) addition to the format’s slowly-building library. Both the 3-D and 2-D versions are offered on the same BD platter with DTS MA audio. Light extras, meanwhile, include commentary with Proyas and Goldsman, plus a fluffy "Making Of" featurette on the accompanying DVD disc.
AVATAR 3-D Blu-Ray (**½, 162 mins., PG-13; Fox): “Avatar”’s third Blu-Ray appearance marks its first wide 3-D home video release, following a Panasonic exclusive 3-D BD that was available only to consumers who purchased the manufacturer’s players.
Most audiences devoured Cameron’s expensive sci-fi blockbuster, but truth be told, I found it just as disappointing the second time around as I did upon initial viewing. Visually the film sets another landmark in terms of special effects and 3-D imagery; narratively it’s a simplistic, pretentious comic book recalling dozens of other movies Cameron liberally “borrows” from throughout this lengthy, yet narratively undernourished, sci-fi adventure.
The writer-director’s long-awaited follow-up to “Titanic” is easily (not counting “Piranha II: The Spawning”) his weakest film, following a paralyzed marine named Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) in the future who joins an expedition to a gorgeous green planet named Pandora, one backed by an evil corporation (sound familiar?) using the military as its pawns (no, Bill Paxton isn’t around to shout “Game Over, Man!”). With the help of scientist Sigourney Weaver, Jake bonds with the genetically engineered body of one of Pandora’s indigenous people, the Na’vi, and is able to transplant his mind into the towering blue form of his Na’vi alter-ego. At first, Jake infiltrates the Na’vi with the goal of understanding their ways and culture, and falls in the process for one of their female warriors (“performed” by Zoe Saldana). After being indoctrinated into the clan, Jake is brought back into his former human world where an evil military colonel (Stephen Lang) and his corporate counterpart (Giovanni Ribisi, trying to mimic Paul Reiser from “Aliens”) inform him that since the Na’vi are sitting on a gold mine of a substance that the company needs, Jake had better get the Na’vi to relocate or else suffer a “shock and awe” display of military prowess. If you’ve seen “A Man Called Horse” or “Dances With Wolves” there’s no reason for me to tell you where it goes from here...
“Avatar” is breathtakingly designed with gorgeously textured and rendered backdrops that make Pandora truly come to life; this is a world populated with interesting creatures and plant life, so detailed that one can easily see where Cameron spent his money. And no surprise, it makes for a dynamic looking and sounding 3-D Blu-Ray with a spectacular 1080p, MVC-encoded transfer (in Cameron’s preferred 1.78 ratio) and fantastically layered DTS Master Audio soundtrack. Fox’s combo pack also includes a 2-D version of the film plus a DVD – but none of the extras from the Extended Edition package. You don’t need to be a betting man to wager we’ll be seeing a deluxe 3-D edition by the time “Avatar 2" is released.
SUNSET BOULEVARD Blu-Ray (***½, 110 mins., 1950; Paramount): Billy Wilder’s classic 1950 melodrama receives a sparkling Blu-Ray release from Paramount, including a never-before-seen deleted scene, presented in HD, screened here for the first time. The 1080p AVC encoded transfer is crisp and satisfying, and ample extras have been ported over from prior DVD editions, including a retrospective documentary, plus featurettes on William Holden and Joseph Wambaugh (recounting his fondness for the picture), profiles of composer Franz Waxman (in an excellent 15-minute featurette), costume designer Edith Head, and the original trailer (in HD). Highly recommended! (Available November 6th)
SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED Blu-Ray (**½, 86 mins., 2012, R; Sony): Certainly offbeat, occasionally effective indie comedic drama (with romantic overtones) finds magazine intern Aubrey Plaza heating to Seattle with obnoxious boss Jake Johnson (“The New Girl”). There, they try to dig up dirt on a local supermarket clerk (Mark Duplass) who’s recently placed a newspaper ad seeking a partner to travel back in time with. Colin Trevorrow directed Derek Connolly’s original screenplay, which gives Plaza a prime opportunity to play a sympathetic heroine with a sad, tragic past. She ultimately finds something of a soulmate in Duplass’ equally scarred “Kenneth,” but I found his performance to be stiff and not nearly as engaging as the material demands (Duplass, part of the filmmaking Duplass Brothers, also produced the film). With that element of the film lacking, “Safety Not Guaranteed” doesn’t entirely connect, but it’s nevertheless a sweet little movie worth seeking out for interested viewers; Kristen Bell, Jeff Garlin and Mary Lynn Rajskub, meanwhile, pop up in one-scene cameos. Sony’s Blu-Ray includes an Ultraviolet streaming copy, two featurettes, an AVC encoded 1080p transfer and DTS MA soundtrack.
MAXIMUM CONVICTION Blu-Ray/DVD (98 mins., 2012, R; Anchor Bay): Steven Seagal produced and stars as a private security contractor who, along with former Special Forces commando Steve Austin, is assigned to extract a group of detainees from a military prison. Unfortunately for Steve and Steven, vile mercenaries have set their sights on two of the female inmates – something that sets off a chaotic chain of events in “Maximum Conviction,” a by-the-numbers affair from writer Richard Beattie and director Keoni Waxman that finds the boys in claustrophobic, dingy confines that doesn’t make for edge-of-your-seat viewing. Anchor Bay’s Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack includes commentary from Waxman and co-producer Binh Dang; a behind the scenes featurette; “Icons” featurette; and interviews with Austin and co-star Bren Foster. The 1080p transfer and 5.1 Dolby TrueHD soundtrack are perfectly acceptable.
Also new from Anchor Bay is the enjoyably silly SNOWMAGEDDON (89 mins., PG-13, 2011), a Canadian-lensed affair that finds an Alaskan police chief (David Cubitt) and his wife (Laura Harris) confounded by earthquakes, fires and other horrors besieging their small mountain town. From the producers of “Ice Quake,” “Mega Cyclone” and “Mongolian Death Worm” – which tells you everything you need to know about a mildly entertaining cable pic that Anchor Bay brings to Blu-Ray with a 5.1 Dolby TrueHD soundtrack and 1080p transfer.
RESCUE 3D Blu-Ray/3D Blu-Ray (46 mins., 2012; Image): Filmmaker Stephen Low’s superb “Rescue 3D” is one of the best of the recent Imax features I’ve seen: a 45-minute chronicle of emergency responders training before engaging in the harrowing effort to aid Haiti after their devastating earthquake. The 3-D photography in Image’s Blu-Ray is exceptionally good, while DTS MA sound and background information on the lifesavers featured in the movie comprise the supplemental end of things. A standard Blu-Ray presentation is also included, though as with other Imax offerings, 3-D is an essential component to the storytelling and the program’s overall effectiveness is reduced without it.
TV on DVD
ALCATRAZ: Complete Series Blu-Ray (566 mins., 2012; Warner). WHAT IT IS: J.J. Abrams produced this mid-season ‘12 Fox replacement series, which teams up a dogged young FBI agent (the unappealing Sarah Jones) with a local San Francisco author/comic book shop owner (“Lost” alumnus Jorge Garcia) in tracking down dangerous criminals who’ve just gotten out from Alcatraz...decades after the fact in the present day! Sam Neill is the suspicious government suit who knows more than he’s letting on in this disappointing show which was beset by problems almost from the get-go (creator Elizabeth Sarnoff was tossed and new showrunners added to get the series on-track, to no avail). A weird, unsatisfying attempt at mixing “The Shawshank Redemption” with “Lost”’s paranormal science and formulaic, “CSI”-styled TV crime procedural plots, “Alcatraz” quickly sank in the ratings and never recovered. BLU-RAY SPECS: Warner’s Blu-Ray set offers the studio’s customary 1080p AVC encoded transfers and DTS MA soundtracks. Extras include unaired scenes and a gag reel, plus a behind-the-scenes featurette touching upon the real Alcatraz island and its role in the program.
BONES Season 7 Blu-Ray (566 mins., 2012; Fox). WHAT IT IS: Dr. Temperance “Bones” Brennan’s seventh season finds the good doctor dealing with motherhood as well as her still on-going, slowly developing relationship with FBI agent Booth (David Boreanaz), in addition to the usual investigations. Season 7 of “Bones” was shortened to accommodate star Emily Deschanel’s pregnancy, with only 13 episodes being produced (Memories in the Shallow Grave; Hot Dog in the Competition; Prince in the Plastic; Male in the Mail; Twist in the Twister; Crack in the Code; Prisoner in the Pipe; Bump in the Road; Don’t in the Do; Warrior in the Wuss; Family in the Feud; Suit on the Set; and Past in the Present). The series’ latest season, which just began airing on Fox, is back up to its normal episode order. BLU-RAY SPECS: Fox’s Season 7 set of “Bones” includes 1080p AVC encoded transfers, DTS MA soundtracks, a deleted scene from “Memories in the Shallow Grave,” a behind-the-scenes episode segment, red carpet featurette, commentary and deleted scene from “Past in the Present,” and, of course, a gag reel.
GUNSMOKE Season 6, Volume 2 DVD (aprx. 8 hours, 1961; CBS): Second DVD batch of episodes from the classic TV western’s sixth season includes Love Thy Neighbor; Bad Seed; Kitty Shot; About Chester; Harriet; Pot Shot; Old Faces; Big Man; Little Girl; Stolen Horses; Minnie; Bless Me Till I Die; Long Hours, Short Pay; Hard Virtue; The Imposter; Chester’s Dilemma; The Love of Money; Melinda Miles; and Colorado Sheriff. All 19 episodes are included in B&W transfers with sponsor spots as extras. Highly recommended for sagebrush saga aficionados!
PERRY MASON Season 7, Volume 2 (aprx. 13 hours, 1964; CBS): Four-disc CBS set offers remastered transfers for the final 15 episodes of “Perry Mason”’s seventh season (the 1964 side of the 1963-64 campaign). Fans of Raymond Burr’s performance as Erle Stanley Gardner’s creation ought to be highly satisfied with episodes including “The Case of the...” Ice Cold Hands; Bountiful Beauty (co-starring Ryan O’Neal); Nervous Neighbor; Fifty-Millionth Frenchman; Arrogant Arsonist; Garrulous Go-Between; Woeful Widower; Simple Simon; Illicit Illusion; Antic Angel; Careless Kidnapper; Drifting Dropout; Tandem Target and Ugly Duckling.
THE STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO Season 5, Volumes 1 and 2 (1976-77, CBS): Fifth and final season of the classic CBS prime-time cop drama brought Karl Malden and Richard Hatch together for one more go-around of 24 episodes, split into two separate volumes by CBS (the two are sold both separately or as part of a combo pack). Episodes in the final 1976-77 campaign of “Streets” include the two-part premiere The Thrill Killers; Dead or Alive; The Drop; No Minor Voices; Til Death Do Us Part; Child of Anger; Hot Dog; Castle of Fear; One Last Trick; Money is Back; The Cannibals; Who Killed Helen French?; A Good Cop...But; Hang Tough; Innocent No More; Once a Con; Interlude; Dead Lift; Breakup; Let’s Pretend We’re Strangers; Time Out; and The Canine Collar. Remastered transfers are on-tap in this final release that fans of the series should be delighted with.
COMA DVD (aprx. 160 mins., 2012; Sony): Disappointing TV mini-series adaptation of the Robin Cook novel, modernized and reworked as a slick, but formulaic, thriller by executive producers Ridley and Tony Scott. Lauren Ambrose stars as Dr. Susan Wheeler – the role Genevieve Bujold essayed in the 1978 MGM film – a medical student who begins to suspect something’s quite wrong when a number of healthy patients start falling into comas. Director Mikael Salomon (once an expert cinematographer) and writer John J. McLaughlin’s updated “Coma” boasts a capable supporting cast (Geena Davis, Steven Paquale, James Woods, Joe Morton, James Rebhorn, Ellen Burstyn and Richard Dreyfuss among them) but often sags into tedium. More often than not it resembles a “very special” episode of a CBS crime procedural as opposed to a fresh take on Moore’s ‘70s bestseller. Sony’s DVD includes a good looking 16:9 transfer and 5.1 soundtrack.
SESAME STREET OLD SCHOOL Volume 3 DVD (aprx. 398 mins.; Warner): Those of us who grew up on “Sesame Street” in the ‘70s and early ‘80s will appreciate this long-overdue third volume in the “Old School” DVD retrospective series. Once again offering a handful of episodes, culled between 1979-84, these vintage “Street” episodes – made in the pre-Elmo era – include a trip to Puerto Rico for Maria’s birthday; Gordon and Snuffy running the New York City marathon; and Big Bird hitting summer camp. A cameo from R2D2 and the moving, sensitive announcement of Mr. Hooper’s death are included along with a number of extras, most notably an exclusive interview with Caroll Spinney (Bird and Oscar’s human alterego), an on-screen storybook of “How to Be a Grouch,” commentary from Sonia Manzano (“Maria”) on the Puerto Rico episode, behind the scenes footage, and a nice booklet offering more retrospective memories. Sesame Street may have changed over the years – and is definitely geared more towards very young viewers than it was when I was a kid – but for those of us old enough to remember an era before Elmo dominated the series, “Sesame Street Old School Volume 3" comes highly recommended.
THE FLINTSTONES PRIME-TIME SPECIALS COLLECTION Volume 1 (Warner Archives): Just in time for Halloween, Warner Archives has pressed the first anthology of prime-time specials starring the iconic Hanna-Barbera characters. The single-disc DVD release includes the 1979 effort “The Flintstones Meet Rockula and Frankenstone” as well as a 1978 episode, “Flintstones Little Big League,” with Fred and Barney finding themselves on opposing ends of the Little League diamond and Bamm-Bamm and Pebbles likewise having to face off against each other. Flintstones fans should enjoy these vintage NBC specials which are presented here in good-looking full-screen transfers and mono soundtracks. Sold exclusively at the Warner Archives.
METALOCALYPSE Season 4 Blu-Ray (132 mins., Warner): Fans of the Adult Swim series will want to check out Warner’s fourth season of “Metalocalypse” on Blu-Ray next week. The single-disc BD includes more adventures of virtual metal band Dethklok in episodes that aired earlier this spring. 1080p transfers and Dolby TrueHD soundtracks are on-hand, plus a good array of special features. Included among the latter are a 90-minute feature film of Nathan Explosion in “Nathan Reads Shakespeare 4: Comedy of Errors,” a series of band member “StaresDowns,” Dethklok Fan Art and other goodies.
Also new from the Cartoon Network stable is a DVD release of REGULAR SHOW: The Best DVD in the World (176 mins., Warner), offering 16 episodes from the animated series: Slam Dunk, Cool Bikes, Best Burger in the World, More Smarter, Rap it Up, Weekend at Benson’s, Camping Can Be Cool, Trash Boat, Butt Dial, Think Positive, Video Game Wizards, Skips vs. Technology, Eggscellent, Muscle Mentor, Fists of Justice and Trucker Hall of Fame. “Employee Profiles” is also on-tap as a special feature along with stereo sound and 16:9 transfers.
GHOST HUNTERS Season 7 Part 2 DVD (aprx 10 hours, Image): Jay and Grant are back along with the TAPS family in this second batch of episodes from “Ghost Hunters”’ seventh season, which originally aired on Syfy during the fall of 2011. Episodes include Dark Shadows (set in Newport, RI’s Seaview Terrace); Ghostly Evidence (Townsend, Ma); Ghosts of Carnegie (Homstead, Pa); Harvesting Murder (Waipahu, Hi); Well of Horror (Napanoch, NY); Roasts and Ghosts (NYC); Stage Fright (Niagara Falls); Murdered Matron (Staten Island); Bloodiest 47 Acres (Jefferson City, Mo); Voices of Pain (Louisville, Ky); Distillery of Spirits (Frankfort, Ky); Membership Denied (Hatford, Ct); and Christmas Spirit (Bethlehem, Pa). 16:9 transfers and 5.1 soundtracks are on-tap in the four-disc Image DVD set.
New From BBC
UPSTAIRS DOWNSTAIRS Season 2 (aprx. 348 mins., BBC) finds Lady Agnes and Sir Hallam welcoming two small children to 165 Eaton Place in the year before England was thrust into WWII, while both the “upstairs” and “downstairs” portions find themselves engaged in a number of soapy developments.
Given the success of “Downton Abbey,” it’s perfectly understandable that the BBC opted to revive one of their greatest triumphs – but one can understand fairly quickly why the new “Upstairs, Downstairs” was canceled earlier this spring by the BBC. Plot lines are marred by often haphazard pacing and the series never seems to fit into a comfortable groove, despite a fine cast.
This Season 2 DVD set from the BBC, then, is in effect the series’ final group of episodes (which are also just starting to air domestically on PBS). 16:9 transfers and 2.0 stereo soundtracks are on-hand in the two-disc package, with cast/crew interviews offered on the supplemental end.
Also new from the BBC this month is LAST OF THE SUMMER WINE: VINTAGE 1995 RESERVE (290 mins.), which offers Foggy, Compo and Clegg up to more crazy shenanigans in another memorable year of Roy Clarke’s long-running series. The program’s 1995 year includes a Special where Billy (Norman Wisdom) passes out at his own piano recital in “The Man Who Nearly Knew Pavarotti.” Full-screen transfers and stereo soundtracks comprise the two-disc BBC DVD set.
New From Lionsgate
Several new Tyler Perry titles are newly available from Lionsgate:
TYLER PERRY’S MADEA’S WITNESS PROTECTION (115 mins., PG-13, 2012) finds Madea offering to make her home into a safe house for a Wall Street broker mixed up in a ponzi scheme. Eugene Levy, Denise Richards, Doris Roberts and Tom Arnold co-star in the latest Madea comedy that arrives on Blu-Ray with several featurettes, a digital copy and Ultraviolet copy, AVC encoded 1080p transfer and DTS MA soundtrack.
Palmer Willimams, Jr. and Patrick Lovely, meanwhile, star in Perry’s I DON’T WANT TO DO WRONG: THE PLAY (113 mins., Unrated, 2011), a musical stage play featuring songs by Perry and Elvin Ross. A behind-the-scenes featurette is on-hand here in Lionsgate’s DVD, which also includes a 16:9 transfer and 5.1 soundtrack.
Finally, Season 7 of TYLER PERRY’S MEET THE BROWNS (440 mins., 2010) includes episodes 121-140 of the popular cable comedy. 16:9 transfers and 5.1 soundtracks adorn Lionsgate’s three-disc DVD package.
Also New & Noteworthy
NINA CONTI: HER MASTER’S VOICE DVD (60 mins., 2012; Virgil Films): Offbeat “docu-mockumentary” from Nina Conti – and produced by Christopher Guest – follows the ventriloquist as she takes the creations of her late mentor, Ken Campbell, on a trip to “Venthaven” – the resting place for puppets whose owners have pasted on. Virgil Films’ DVD includes bonus footage, a 16:9 transfer and 2.0 soundtrack.
HIGH GROUND DVD (97 mins., 2012; Virgil Films): Documentary from director Michael Brown profiles 11 injured U.S. veterans who – after having fought in Afghanistan and Iraq – climb Mount Lobuche in the Himalayas. Commentary from Brown, the trailer, deleted scenes, and an “audience reaction trailer” comprise Virgil’s 16:9 DVD. Inspiring and emotional.
OZWALD BOATENG: A MAN’S STORY DVD (98 mins., 2012; Virgil Films): Varon Bonicos began her documentary of Ozwald Boateng in 1998 when the menswear designer was nearly bankrupt. Nearly 12 years later he’s near the top of the fashion world in a well-produced British documentary offering a 30-minute documentary and trailer in Virgil Films’ DVD release.
AMERICANO Blu-Ray (106 mins., 2011, Not Rated; MPI): Mathieu Demy directed and stars in this travelogue of a Frenchman who flies to California in order to settle his late mother’s estate. An old photograph of his mother with a young Mexican girl then sends him south of the border where a meeting with a stripper played by Salma Hayek holds a connection to his past – and his future – in a strong character study that MPI brings to Blu-Ray this month. The 1080p transfer and 5.1 DTS MA soundtrack are both effective; extras, meanwhile, include the trailer and an interview with Demy.
ADVENTURES OF BAILEY: CHRISTMAS HERO DVD (87 mins., 2012; E One): Adorable pet shenanigans for kids finds the lovable dog worried he won’t be getting presents from Santa – and then finding out about a Native American brave who can grant wishes – in a follow-up to Steve Franke’s earlier “Adventures of Bailey: The Lost Puppy.” E One brings this feature-length family film to DVD this month with a 16:9 transfer and 2.0 stereo soundtrack. Warm, cuddly stuff for the little ones.
DISASTERS DECONSTRUCTED: A HISTORY OF ARCHITECTURAL DISASTERS DVD (aprx. 16 hours, 2012; A&E/NewVideo): Six-disc DVD anthology includes a number of History Channel documentaries devoted to some of the world’s worst disasters. Episodes include “Inspector America,” profiling an infrastructure safety inspector; “Titanic’s Achilles Heel”; three Hindenburg programs (“The Hidenburg,” “What Went Down: Hindenburg” and “Tech Effect: Hidenburg”); and “Modern Marvels; Engineering Disasters,” which reconstructs some of the worst disasters of the last 40 years. Stereo soundtracks and widescreen transfers comprise the DVDs in NewVideo’s release.
Also new from NewVideo is ANCIENT ALIENS: Season 4 (aprx. 7 hours, 2012), the latest season of the popular History Channel series. This time out, the series profiles UFO sightings that occurred in the wake of the 2011 Japanese tsunami; the existence of Gray aliens; the Mayan end of the world prophecies; and NASA's investigation of alleged human abductions. All 10 episodes from the series' fourth season are presented in a superb Blu-Ray set with uncompressed 2.0 stereo soundtracks. Also, Season 1 of DUCK DYNASTY (aprx. 6 hours, 2012) hits DVD in November from NewVideo. This reality show chronicles the adventures of the Robertsons, a Louisiana clan that sells duck decoys and produces duck whistles (looks like a pretty good living to me!). A&E's three-disc DVD set includes 16:9 transfers, 2.0 soundtracks and additional footage on the supplemental side.
SUNDAY, BLOODY SUNDAY Blu-Ray (***, 110 mins., 1971, R; Criterion): John Schlesinger’s acclaimed 1971 drama profiles two middle-aged Londoners – a doctor (Peter Finch) and a divorcee (Glenda Jackson) – both sleeping with the same bisexual artist (Murray Head).
A controversial character study with sexual content both frank and honest for its day (particularly in its realistic depiction of Finch’s homosexual, Jewish character), “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” offers remarkable performances from the cast and a knowing sense of the period courtesy of Schlesinger. Coming off his “Midnight Cowboy” triumph, “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” is a fascinating companion piece and Criterion’s Blu-Ray presents the film in a superb new HD presentation. Cinematographer Billy Williams supervised the 1080p AVC encoded transfer on-tap here, with extra features including fresh interviews with Williams, Murray Head, production designer Luciana Arrighi, Schlesinger biographer William J. Mann, and the director’s longtime partner Michael Childers. Screenwriter Penelope Gilliatt’s 1971 introduction to her script is included in the booklet notes along with an essay from writer Ian Buruma.
COMPANY Blu-Ray (145 mins., 2011; Image): Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s classic 1970 musical has been performed, and recorded, in a number of different productions. This 2011 staging by the New York Philharmonic, under the direction of Paul Gemignani, offers a great cast, including Neil Patrick Harris, Craig Bierko, Jon Cryer, Christina hendricks, Patti Lupone, Martha Plimpton and even Stephen Colbert, plus spirited arrangements by Jonathan Tunick. Image’s Blu-Ray captures the event with a 1080p transfer and a dazzling DTS MA 5.1 soundtrack. Original director Lonny Price also contributes liner notes to a must-have BD for Broadway buffs. (Available November 12th)
KISS ME DVD (105 mins., 2012; Wolfe Video): Well made Swedish drama stars Ruth Vega Fernandez as an architect, engaged to her longtime boyfriend, who finds her life turned upside down when she falls for her father’s new stepdaughter (and, technically, her about-to-be step-sister). “Kiss Me” shares a premise similar to numerous other “lesbian movies,” but the film is strongly acted and looks great with its lovely shots of the Swedish countryside. Wolfe Video’s DVD includes an attractive 16:9 transfer with a music video, trailer, and 5.1/2.0 Dolby Digital sound on the audio end.
PAINTED SKIN: THE RESURRECTION Blu-Ray (141 mins., 2012; Well Go USA): One of China’s biggest hits of all-time, “Painted Skin: The Resurrection” is a sequel to a popular 2008 Chinese fantasy. Zhou Xun plays a demoness named the Ziaowei, a “fox spirit,” who becomes a seductress in human form needing to consume human hearts in order to survive. She crosses paths with Princess Jing (Zhao Wei), a scarred beauty, in an elegantly filmed, colorful production with opulent cinematography and visual effects. Well Go USA’s Blu-Ray boasts a terrific 1080p transfer with DTS MA 5.1 audio (Mandarin with English subtitles), a Making Of featurette and the trailer.
LOOPER (**½): In Rian Johnson’s latest film, Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a “looper,” a hitman named Joe in 2044 Kansas City where time travel has been invented – and outlawed – and nearly 10% of the world’s population has developed a telekenetic mutation. That hasn’t stopped crime bosses from sending their targets back from the future, where Gordon-Levitt and other loopers dispose of their bodies so they can’t be tracked. The loopers themselves become their own targets after their contract runs out 30 years after the fact – something that becomes a problem when Gordon-Levitt’s future self (Bruce Willis) manages to escape from his assassination, and tries to convince his younger incarnation that the world is going to be destroyed if a crime boss dubbed “The Rainmaker” is able to have his way.
Johnson’s picture is most effective during its first half. Working with a modest budget, “Looper” mixes the familiar with the futuristic in a dirty, dank environment, and the movie’s use of time travel eschews standard genre devices – at one point, Willis’ character even tells Gordon-Levitt to stop thinking about past/present “space-time continuum” rifts, as if to urge the audience not to get hung up on technical details (in this movie, unlike “Back to the Future,” changing the past doesn’t erase one’s future existence, but rather clouds over one’s memories). The story, though, shifts gears completely in its second hour, with Gordon-Levitt’s younger protagonist venturing onto a farm, encountering a young mother (Emily Blunt) and her son while Willis’ older half searches for the child that will eventually become “The Rainmaker.”
It’s during the movie’s later section when “Looper” loses its momentum and asks the audience to shift gears into something resembling a remake of “Firestarter” – something that comes off as unexpected and not entirely satisfying. The movie never regains the forward narrative thrust of its first half, and is also hampered by characters who are almost completely unlikeable – Gordon-Levitt’s distracting make-up also doesn’t seem to have been entirely necessary, as the actor would’ve been capable enough to mimic Willis’ persona with less prosthetic involved. Willis himself is fine, and Emily Blunt does believable work as the child’s mother, but none of them are particularly engaging or sympathetic. Johnson’s script also, frustratingly, dangles questions in front of viewers without making a strong enough connection to whether or not they make sense dramatically (as it’s impossible to go into these aspects without spoiling the plot, I won’t comment any further, but they partially involve the picture’s ending). It’s one thing to be ambiguous, but it’s another when the dots are so weakly connected that the suggestion of certain concepts seems to come out of thin air due to a lack of development.
“Looper,” then, is a cold and unusual film – less a “groundbreaking” genre picture than it is an interesting B-movie with intriguing elements but something fundamentally lacking in its center.
LAWLESS (***): Odd and oddly likeable ‘30s prohibition era/backwoods thriller, based (incredibly) on a true story, stars Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy and Jason Clarke as brothers whose moonshining business brings them into contact with a number of unsavory types. The latter include gangster Gary Oldman and a prohibition agent (an almost ridiculously over-the-top Guy Pearce) who threatens to blow apart their operation in rural Virginia.
“Lawless,” which John Hillcoat directed from a script by Nick Cave, is unique in its “hillbilly gangster” story, and offers an overwhelming amount of atmosphere: the settings, cinematography and production design marvelously evoke the era, even if the effective music score by Cave and Warren Ellis is mostly anachronistic. Hardy gives a commanding performance that blows LaBeouf off the screen, though the latter’s role as the meek, younger Bondourant sibling ends up playing off the actor’s limited strengths. Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska, meanwhile, add a needed female presence to a movie that’s rough around the edges but has plenty of dramatic firepower: guns, nudity, sex, violence, scenic backdrops and an eclectic cast to spare. Recommended!
THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER (***½): One of the best movies of the year, Stephen Chobsky’s cinematic adaptation of his popular book is likely to surprise those expecting just another high school/coming-of-age movie. Logan Lerman here gives a sympathetic turn as a troubled high school freshman who finds navigating his Pennsylvania school problematic for a number of reasons that become clearer as the film unfolds. Emma Watson is terrific as the girl he develops a crush on in a circle of friends that welcomes him into the fold in a believable '80s-set slice of adolescence.
Chobsky wrote and directed the Pittsburgh-set film and his movie has a tremendous supporting cast (Paul Rudd, Dylan McDermott, Kate Walsh, and Joan Cusack among them) that's not always well utilized (I’m guessing some of his story was trimmed for the final cut). Either way, the movie is a winner -- funny, moving, and ultimately quite serious with unsettling subject matter that’s sensitively dealt with in a mature manner. Winning performances and a fine underscore by Michael Brook further enhance a low-key film that Summit has decided to slowly roll out around the country in limited release. Well worth seeking out.
END OF WATCH (**): My candidate for the most overpraised film of the year, David Ayer (screenwriter of "Training Day") returns to the cop genre for this shockingly pedestrian, if slickly made, handheld-camera account of two hotshot young cops (Jake Gylenhaal and Michael Pena) who unwittingly get crossed up in a Mexican drug cartel moving into southern California. There's almost nothing to this movie's story -- the film is all point of view, often self-contained vignettes of Gylenhaal and Pena running into tough situations, working together to serve the greater good, and spending their down time with understanding significant others. Eventually the cartel catches up with them, and...well, that's pretty much it.
About midway through "End of Watch" I thought to myself -- if this film didn't employ handheld camera and rapid-fire editing, what would you have? Basically an empty, formless story that rehashes endless cliches from cop-centric movies and TV shows, leaving the viewer without any significant message -- aside from the fact that life on the streets is tough on police officers (now there's something I've never seen before!). There are no developed supporting characters of any kind, and more over, plenty of over-the-top gore (one officer gets his eye gouged out; there are enough mutilated corpses and body parts in one scene to entice Hannibal Lecter) that feels shoehorned in, as if to differentiate it from the myriad of other takes on this subject matter.
Gylenhaal and Pena put in some fine work here, and they're believable together -- but by about the 4th or 5th "buddy" conversation they share about girls, kids and family, I started wondering when their inevitable downfall would be taking place...and how much longer we had to sit through to get there.
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