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While I’m not the biggest Quentin Tarantino aficionado in the world, I confess the first half of DJANGO UNCHAINED (**½, 165 mins., 2012, R; Weinstein/Anchor Bay) rates as some of his most satisfying work. In Tarantino’s revisionist western/salute to the exploitation genre, slave Django (Jamie Foxx) becomes the unlikely partner of Dr. King Schultz (the brilliant Christoph Waltz), who not only frees Django but brings him into his bounty-hunting venture, performed under the auspices of the U.S. government.

After a short while Django has proven to be an effective part of Schultz’s work, and Schultz decides to repay him by going after his wife (Kerry Washington), a slave on the plantation of oily southerner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Posing as Schultz’s valet, the duo eventually cross paths with their target, with an orgy of bullets and blood not far behind.

For about 90 minutes, “Django Unchained” is as entertaining a work as Tarantino has produced. His original story mixes action and humor with numerous off-kilter touches – including a montage set to Jim Croce’s “I Got a Name” – all the while making great use of Robert Richardson’s vivid cinematography. The result is an offbeat western recalling some of the genre’s later years when Hollywood, as well as exploitation filmmakers, tried spicing up old formulas with “socially relevant” stories and more graphic violence. The dialogue is crisp throughout this section of the film and the performances splendid – most especially Waltz’s charismatic, scene-stealing turn (in fact, he’s even better here than he was in “Inglorious Basterds”), with numerous familiar faces appearing in “guest star” capacity (including Tom Wopat, Lee Horsley, Bruce Dern, Russ Tamblyn and others). More over, the story also keeps moving – “Django Unchained” isn’t just a series of talky least for its first half.

Unfortunately, Tarantino can’t help himself and the movie grinds to a halt once Schultz and Django end up at “Candie Land” where an interminable dinner sequence finds the duo trying to win back Django’s wife, only to run into resistance from Candie and his “House N----r” (Samuel L. Jackson). Slow moving and self-indulgent (it’s nearly as dull as an equivalent meal sequence in Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit”), this stretch of the film feels like Tarantino pressed the pause button, only to start it back up for a slow-motion, orgasmic “wish-fulfillment” revenge confrontation between Django and his masters – and an embarrassing cameo by the director himself, who looks like he’s been chowing down on more than a few “Royales with Cheese.”

Tarantino devotees are certainly going to be far more forgiving of “Django Unchained”’s more heavy-handed elements, as well as its typically eclectic soundtrack that ranges from anachronistic rap and rock to copious doses of Morricone and even a cue from Goldsmith’s “Under Fire” score. However, there’s no doubt the first half of the film is far more satisfying than its second, with the movie losing much of its dramatic momentum as it grinds to a slow-going, talky malaise reminiscent of the filmmaker’s more recent outings.

Anchor Bay’s Blu-Ray of “Django Unchained” is light on extras (including featurettes on the late production designer J. Michael Riva, costume designer Sharen Davis, and a general western featurette), but packs a potent punch with its throbbing DTS MA soundtrack and 1080p AVC encoded transfer.

Also New on Blu-Ray

JURASSIC PARK 3-D Blu-Ray (***½, 126 mins., 1993, PG; Universal): It’s not a stretch to say that movies changed forever when “Jurassic Park” opened on June 11th, 1993. I remember going on opening day to Steven Spielberg’s much anticipated adaptation of the Michael Crichton best-seller, stoked by having already purchased John Williams’ soundtrack album a couple of weeks before and played it to death by the time I finally saw the movie. While certain aspects of the movie were a bit of a letdown (both then and now), there was no denying the “game changer” that the film’s historical use of CGI special effects signified.

Spielberg’s dinosaurs, animated by ILM, actually looked photo-realistic, and those individual moments when the film’s characters saw the creatures for the first time – and their spellbound reaction to them – were matched by audience members equally captivated by what they were seeing on-screen. No movie special effects had ever captured that level of detail before, with ILM’s “pseudo-pod” in “The Abyss” and the shape-shifting FX of “Terminator 2" being mere appetizers for the full-on, jaw-dropping brontosaurus, raptors and T-Rex seen in the original “Jurassic Park.”

It’s something that bears repeating since CGI has progressed to a point some 20 years later where today’s television series routinely offer elaborate visual effects – yet the moment in which it all came together and special effects transitioned into “the future” can all be seen in Spielberg’s film, which at one point was going to employ Phil Tippett’s stop-motion animation for the dinosaurs until ILM’s technology had matured enough to make the quantum leap into CGI during production.

Beyond its FX, “Jurassic Park” has brilliant Spielbergian set-pieces, a majestic John Williams score, and a less than a satisfying story with bland characters (Sam Neill and Laura Dern’s leads were never that interesting; Richard Attenborough’s toothless Dr. Hammond is less a Frankenstein than a kindly grandfather) that are continuously dwarfed by the “living” dinos. Overall, as a piece of escapist entertainment, it’s still a satisfying film – not one of Spielberg’s classics, but a picture that will always be remembered as one of the truly groundbreaking films in terms of its technological feats.

With “Jurassic Park 4" due out next year, Universal has celebrated the 20th anniversary of the original’s release with a new 3-D version arriving on Blu-Ray this week. Following a limited theatrical engagement (which has generated over $30 million to date), this is one of the better 3-D conversions of a 2-D film I’ve seen in the format, offering a few pop-out effects and generally effective depth-of-field content. The transfer seems roughly equivalent to the 2011 Blu-Ray otherwise, which is also contained in the combo pack with all of its special features intact, along with a DVD and digital copies.

STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION Season 3 Blu-Ray (1989-90, aprx. 20 hours; CBS). WHAT IT IS: Things finally fall into place on a more regular basis in the third season of TNG, making its way onto Blu-Ray this month courtesy of another terrific HD presentation from CBS. By this point in the series’ run, the producers and writing staff were getting a firmer handle on the franchise, fine tuning character interactions and turning out a number of excellent episodes. Shows in this third go-around for the program include Evolution; The Ensigns of Command; The Survivors; Who Watches the Watchers; The Bonding; Booby Trap; The Enemy; The Price; The Vengeance Factor; The Defector; The Hunted; The High Ground; the terrific Deja Q; Matter of Perspective; Yesterday’s Enterprise; The Offspring; Sins of the Father; Allegiance; Captain’s Holiday; Tin Man; Hollow Pursuits; The Most Toys; Sarek; Menage a Troi; Transfigurations; and Part 1 of one of the series’ undisputed highlights, The Best of Both Worlds. BLU-RAY BREAKDOWN: CBS’ carefully remastered 1080p HD transfers look marvelous and again offer recomposited effects work that should please series fans. Extra features include newly produced “Inside the Writer’s Room” and “Resistance is Futile: Assimilating ST- TNG” multi-part featurettes, along with a tribute to producer Michael Piller, selected commentary tracks, “Archival Mission Logs” (extras from the prior DVD release), and episodic promos. AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: Another must for TNG fans, Season 3 marks a crucial turning point in the series. Highly recommended!

CBS has also released THE BEST OF BOTH WORLDS as a standalone Blu-Ray disc, combining both episodes of the two-parter into a newly re-edited, single feature running 85 minutes. Extras include commentary from Cliff Bole, Elizabeth Dennehy and the Okuas, along with a new featurette, gag reel, original episodic promos, a 1080p AVC encoded transfer, DTS MA soundtrack and Ultraviolet streaming copy.

THE IMPOSSIBLE Blu-Ray/Ultraviolet (***½, 114 mins., 2012, PG-13; Summit): Gripping, gut-wrenching account of a British family, enjoying a vacation in Thailand, who are besieged by the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor play the couple separated after the devastation, and whose efforts to find one another take them across a battered landscape; Tom Holland is exceptional as their oldest son who helps the injured Watts find their way to safety. J.A. Bayona directed this Spanish production, which inserts a group of Anglo actors into a story that originally involved a Spanish family – but no matter what alterations were made in Sergio G. Sanchez’s script from the real events, “The Impossible” is an excellent, emotionally devastating film that ranks as one of 2012's best. Summit’s Blu-Ray includes a commentary with Bayona, Sanchez and other members of the creative team; two featurettes; deleted scenes; an Ultraviolet streaming copy; a top notch 1080p transfer and DTS MA 5.1 soundtrack.

New Warner Archive Releases

FORBIDDEN HOLLYWOOD Volume 6 DVD (Warner Archive): A quartet of vintage pre-code releases comprise Warner Home Video’s latest anthology of adult-oriented efforts from the early ‘30s. On tap this time are 1932's “The Wet Parade,” a Victor Fleming/MGM adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s novel about whiskey ruining a pair of families, co-starring Dorothy Jordan, Walter Huston, Robert Young and Jimmy Durante; John Gilbert as a chauffeur who causes trouble in MGM’s 1932 production “Downstairs”; Kay Francis in First National’s 1934 release “Mandalay,” with Francis starring as a Russian refugee seeking vengeance from the former flame (Ricardo Cortez) who sold her into slavery; and the 1934 First National production “Massacre,” with Richard Barthelmess as a Sioux who wants payback for the white men who exploited his people. A fascinating curio for Golden Age buffs.

THE BOWERY BOYS Volume 2 DVD (Warner Archives): Fans of Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall and the rest of the gang – the ex-Dead End Kids and East Side Kids who were eventually renamed the Bowery Boys – will be delighted by Warner’s multi-disc DVD set, including 12 features produced from the mid ‘40s through the mid ‘50s. Remastered from the best surviving elements (two of the features have even been enhanced for anamorphic TVs), Warner’s DVD package includes “Spook Busters” (1946), “Hard Boiled Mahoney” and “Bowery Buckaroos” (1947), “Smuggler’s Cove” (1948), “Ghost Chasers” and “Let’s Go Navy!” (1951), “Hold That Line” (1952), “Loose in London,” “Clipped Wings” and “Private Eyes” (1953), the amusing “The Bowery Boys Meet the Monsters” (1954), and 1955's “High Society.” Most features run between 60-70 minutes and will offer plenty of amusement for nostalgic Golden Age aficonados.

KID MILLIONS DVD (90 mins., 1934; Warner Archives): Samuel Goldwyn’s 1934 production places Eddie Cantor into one of his most memorable parts: as a Brooklyn man who finds out he’s worth $77 million after claiming an Egyptian inheritance. Singing, dancing, big sets and a sense of old-time spectacle fill the frame in “Kid Millions,” which co-stars Ethel Merman (cast at age 19 as Cantor’s mother!), Ann Southern, George Murphy and the “Goldwyn Girls.” Be sure to stay for the Technicolor finale which has been remastered, along with the rest of the feature, in a top-notch Archives release for Cantor-philes.\

CHILDREN’S HOSPITAL Season 4 DVD (aprx. 156 mins., 2012; Warner Manufactured-on-Demand): 14 more episodes from the occasionally hilarious Cartoon Network “short format” live-action series brings back Rob Corddry, Malin Akerman, Ken Marino and other cast members for more shenanigans. Episodes include The Boy With the Pancake Tattoo; Staff Dance; Chief’s Origin; Free Day; Behind the Scenes; The Return of the Young Billionaire; British Hospital; Ladies Night; A Kid Walks into a Hospital; A Year in the Life; Attention Staff; Childrens Hospital; Wisedocs; and Eulogy. Warner’s manufactured-on-demand release includes 16:9 transfers and 2.0 stereo soundtracks.

Also New & Noteworthy

THE HAUNTING IN CONNECTICUT 2: GHOSTS OF GEORGIA Blu-Ray/Ultraviolet (101 mins., 2012, R; Lionsgate): Surprisingly watchable – if ridiculously titled – dramatization of a real-life Georgia family’s run-in with assorted ghosts makes for solid genre viewing. When mom Abigail Spencer moves with her husband (Chad Michael Murray) and young daughter (Emily Lind) to their new, rural home in the Peach state, she begins to see various spirits walking across their property. Spencer’s sister (Sackhoff) also has the gift, as does Lind – but it’s unclear what the motive of the ghosts is, as well as their connection with tragic events that occurred on the land. Director Tom Elkins and writer David Coggeshall have made a film that’s actually much better than its in-name-only predecessor, but was saddled with the “Haunting in Connecticut” tag in an effort to obviously connect the “brand.” This is a well-made if somewhat off-putting supernatural tale that never should’ve shot for an R rating (particularly considering its relative lack of gore) and has occasional moments of inspiration – as well as a satisfyingly upbeat conclusion. Lionsgate’s Blu-Ray includes commentary; deleted scenes; trailers; outtakes; and featurettes along with an Ultraviolet streaming copy.

PROMISED LAND Blu-Ray Combo Pack (**, 107 mins., 2012, R; Universal): Stilted, if well-acted, “anti fracking” propaganda from writers John Krasinski (aka Jim from “The Office”) and Matt Damon. The duo recruited Gus Van Sant to helm this tale of a corporate suit (Damon) who heads to a small town where he butts heads with an environmental activist (Krasinski). Frances McDormand, Rosemarie DeWitt and Hal Holbrook co-star in a sleepy little film that did scant business at the box-office last winter. Universal’s Blu-Ray includes a 1080p transfer, DTS MA soundtrack, one extended scene, a Making Of featurette, and DVD and digital copies.

MAVERICK: Season 2 DVD (1278 mins., 1958-59; Warner): All 26 episodes from the classic James Garner/Jack Kelly western series have made their way to DVD from Warner Home Video. This good-looking, six-disc collector’s set once again finds Bret and Bart Maverick getting into all kinds of trouble playing poker, chasing ladies and surviving a series of misadventures, including an English bear hunt and a gambling riverboat mutiny. Episodes include The Day They Hanged Bret Maverick; The Lonesome Reunion; Alias Bart Maverick; The Belcastle Brand; High Card Hangs; Escape to Tampico; The Judas Mask; The Jail at Junction Flats; The Thirty-Ninth Star; Shady Deal at Sunny Acres; Island in the Swamp; Prey of the Cat; The Spanish Dancer; Holiday at Hollow Rock; Game of Chance; Gun-Shy; Two Beggars on Horseback; The Rivals; Duel at Sundown; Yellow River; The Saga of Waco Williams; Brasada Spur; Passage to Fort Doom; Two Tickets to Ten Strike; Betrayal; and The Strange Journey of Jenny Hill. Guest stars include Martin Landau, Clint Eastwood, Louise Fletcher, Robert Conrad and an early American role for Roger Moore. Highly recommended for fans!

PAWN Blu-Ray/DVD Combo Pack (88 mins., 2013; Anchor Bay): Ensemble crime drama starts with cop Forest Whitaker walking into the scene of a failed robbery attempt, then mixes things up with flashbacks/flashforwards in order to spice up writer Jeremy Anthony White’s pulpy plot. David A. Armstrong directed “Pawn,” which co-stars Michael Chiklis, Common, Stephen Lang, Nikki Reed, Ray Liotta and Marton Csokas in a twisty thriller that’s undone a bit by pedestrian execution. Nevertheless, for a night’s rental, you could certainly do worse, especially for genre fans. Anchor Bay’s Blu-Ray combo pack includes a 1080p transfer, Dolby TrueHD audio and a Making Of featurette.

LAST OF THE SUMMER WINE: VINTAGE 1998 DVD (348 mins., 1997-98; BBC): Compo, Clegg and their new pal Truly set off for a series of new adventures in episodes culled from writer Roy Clarke’s 1997-98 series of “Last of the Summer Wine,” one of the longest running comedy shows of all-time. BBC’s two-disc DVD set also includes the 1997 Christmas special “There Goes the Groom” along with 16:9 transfers and stereo soundtracks.

ASSASSIN’S RUN DVD (88 mins., 2013, R; Lionsgate): Sofya Skya – who also co-directed this Russian production – plays a woman who’s targeted by the mob after her husband is killed and their daughter kidnapped. Her efforts to get her child back form the thrust of this silly action flick co-starring Christian Slater, Cole Hauser and Angus MacFadyen, which Lionsgate brings to DVD offering a 16:9 transfer and 5.1 soundtrack.

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Comments (2):Log in or register to post your own comments
No movie special effects had ever captured that level of detail before, with ILM’s “pseudo-pod” in “The Abyss” and the shape-shifting FX of “Terminator 2" being mere appetizers for the full-on, jaw-dropping brontosaurus

There isn't a "Brontosaurus" in the movie; you're probably thinking of Brachiosaurus (and the animal known as "Brontosaurus" was correctly redesignated "Apatosaurus" over a hundred years ago).

Of the MAVERICK episodes listed, one in particular stands out and would have merited special mention: "Gunshy." I'm no expert, but I'm thinking this was possibly the first instance of a network TV series presenting a parody of another network's series. Legend has it that James Arness was not amused, though we viewers certainly were, thanks in great part to the clever script by Marion Hargrove.

"Shall I stand a little closer, Marshall?"

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