1/10/06 Edition

Aisle Seat New Year's Edition
2006 Opens With a Trip To THE TWILIGHT ZONE
plus:THE 40 YEAR OLD VIRGIN, jackson's KONG Diaries, and More!

Image’s “Definitive” Twilight Zone box-sets rank as some of my favorite DVD releases of the last few years, so what better way to start off 2006 than with the 5th and (sadly) final box set that compiles the last 36 episodes from Rod Serling’s classic anthology series.

After a fourth season that found the series expanded to an hour length with mixed results, CBS and the show’s producers cut “The Twilight Zone” back to its original half-hour format. The results were nowhere near as groundbreaking or unforgettable as some of the series’ seminal moments from its first few years, yet there are a handful of gems sprinkled throughout the fifth and final year for the Zone (1963-64).

Serling’s “In Praise Of Pip” opens the fifth season with one of its finest half-hours, starring Jack Klugman as a distraught father haunted by the loss of his son in Vietnam, and Billy Mumy as the apparition of his son who appears to offer him another chance. Also among the fifth season shows are a handful of Serling-penned episodes including “Uncle Simon” (directed by Don Siegel), “A Kind of Stopwatch,” “The 7th Is Made Up Of Phantoms” (starring James Coburn), “A Short Drink From a Certain Fountain,” “The Mask,” “Sounds and Silences” (directed by Richard Donner), “The Last Night of a Jockey” (with Mickey Rooney), “The Fear,” “The Brain Center at Whipple’s,” “The Long Morrow,” “I Am The Night–Color Me Black,” “Probe 7–Over and Out,” “The Jeopardy Room,” “Mr. Garrity and the Graves,” and “The Old Man In The Cave”; another Siegel episode, “The Self-Improvement of Salvadore Ross”; Earl Hamner, Jr.’s “Stopover In a Quiet Town,” “Ring-a-Ding Girl,” “You Drive,” “Black Leather Jackets,” and “The Bewitchin’ Pool” (with Mary Badham, though most of her voiced was dubbed by June Foray); the Bernard Herrmann-scored “Living Doll,” starring Telly Savalas, and “Ninety Years Without Slumbering,” also scored by the great composer; the Jackie Cooper episode “Ceasar and Me” (the only original Zone to be directed by a woman, in this case Adele T. Strassfield); Richard Matheson’s “Spur of the Moment,” “Steel” (with Lee Marvin), “Night Call,” and “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”, the latter also helmed by Richard Donner, as well a pair of other Donner episodes, “From Agnes–With Love” and “Come Wander With Me”; the Martin M. Goldsmith stories “What’s In The Box?” and “The Encounter” (a pretentious but nevertheless intriguing tale co-starring George Takei); John Tomerlin’s “Number Twelve Looks Just Like You”; Jerry Sohl’s “Queen of the Nile”; and lastly, French filmmaker Robert Enrico’s “An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge,” a Cannes winner that Serling imported as one of the series’ final episodes.

Though many fifth season shows lack the freshness and energy of the early Zone episodes, the positives outweigh the stories that, at their worst, are completely disposable. Donner’s “Nightmare At 20,000 Feet” is not just one of the best Season 5 episodes but one of the finest from the series’ entire run; tensely directed, perfectly scripted by Richard Matheson and with a superb performance from William Shatner (whose nervous tension is palpable, ranking this role with his finest work), the episode was later adapted (but blown out of proportion) in the ill-fated “Twilight Zone: The Movie” starring John Lithgow in 1983. “Living Doll” is likewise a perfectly-pitched piece with a creepy Bernard Herrmann score, while “Number Twelve Looks Just Like You” offers a intriguing variation on a theme Serling originally explored in the seminal “Eye of the Beholder.” “Steel” and “Spur of the Moment,” meanwhile, are interesting tales also spun by the prolific Richard Matheson.

Of course, while there are a few clunkers here (Serling acknowledged how burned out he was by the end), Twilight Zone fans will nevertheless want to add this beautifully produced collection to their libraries. As with their previous box sets, Image has included fantastic, new digitally remastered transfers superior to any prior release of the series on video, with strong monophonic soundtracks complimenting the audio end. Several isolated score tracks are again present, though with the majority of episodes comprised of stock music, that feature is less frequent this time out (in addition to the two Herrmann scores, there are also two contributions from Rene Garriguenc, four scores by Van Cleave, and one each from Lucien Moraweck, Jeff Alexander and Tommy Morgan, respectively, among the fifth season soundtracks. Only 10 of the 36 episode scores are isolated here, but thankfully the two Herrmann offerings are among those).

Episodes from the Twilight Zone radio series are once again on-hand, as are a number of commentary tracks (including Mickey Rooney, June Foray, Bill Mumy, Martin Landau, Mariette Hartley and others) and video interviews, with Richard Matheson and Earl Hamner, Jr. among them. More excerpts from Serling’s Sherwood Oaks Experimental College lectures are included, along with home movies from frequent Zone contributor George Clayton Johnson, highlights from a Museum of Television and Radio seminar, an additional interview with Serling, an Alfred Hitchcock promo, storyboards and a photo gallery. To round it off, Image has included the superb 2000 “American Masters” documentary on Serling’s life, which offers a full examination of the genius behind one of television’s all-time classic series. Unquestionably recommended!

New From Universal

THE 40 YEAR OLD VIRGIN (***, 2005). 129 mins., Not Rated, Universal. DVD FEATURES: Commentary; Deleted Scenes; Featurettes; 1.85 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Raucous box-office hit stars Steve Carrell as an electronics store employee who has never “gone all the way.” With his co-workers stunned by the breaking news, Carrell is quickly set up with a bevy of potential candidates to end his virginity, but instead falls for a divorced mom (Catherine Keener) who runs an eBay-selling service across the street.

Director Judd Apatow co-wrote this silly but surprisingly sweet tale (with star Carrell) of an affable guy with a few quirks who navigates through a succession of “crazy” people before meeting someone with hang-ups of her own -- sex just not being one of them. The movie manages to work in the requisite raunchy laughs with a strong amount of character development for this sort of thing, plus numerous observations that had me in stitches (such as the Circuit City/Best Buy-esque store broadcasting an endless stream of Michael McDonald concert videos). The picture is a little long and isn’t especially cinematic -- at times it almost looks like an R-rated movie of the week -- but the comedy and performances (especially from Carrell and Keener) make the ultimately appealing story a crowd-pleaser that’s hard to resist.

Universal’s DVD offers an extended version of the film running nearly 130 minutes. I thought the theatrical version was overlong, and while some of the 17 additional minutes shown here are amusing, the new footage doesn’t do anything other than add to that initial reaction I had. Thus, if you’re new to the movie, I’d recommend viewing the Theatrical Version instead. The 1.85 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack are both fine, but “The 40 Year Old Virgin” isn’t the kind of film that’s going to give your home theater a workout, since it was shot on a low budget and didn’t look all that “cinematic” on the big screen.

Supplements include more deleted scenes, commentaries featuring Apatow and Carrell, Making Of featurettes (with some amusing improv sprinkled in), and a gag reel. Recommended!

SERENITY (***, 2005, 119 mins., PG-13; Universal): Joss Whedon’s “Firefly” leapt to the big screen in this entertaining enough adventure that will please fans of the series more than newcomers to the material. Whedon doesn’t spend much time re-establishing the characters onboard the ship Serenity, here caring for the 17-year-old psychic sister of the crew’s doctor, who’s being relentlessly pursued by the evil galactic government regime. Still, “Serenity” offers some terrific effects, a neat mix of humor and action, and amiable performances from the original “Firefly” cast, making it worthwhile for sci-fi buffs (and especially for viewers of the series). Universal’s smashing DVD includes a flawless 2.35 transfer, 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack, Whedon commentary, deleted scenes, Making Of material (profiling the material’s journey from series to film) and other goodies.

KING KONG: PETER JACKSON’S PRODUCTION DIARIES (2005, aprx. 3 hours; Universal): In case you didn’t get enough “Kong” from Peter Jackson’s movie over the holidays (and, personally speaking, I more than had my fill), there’s always Universal’s impressively-packaged double-disc box set of supplements. Packaged in a ersatz leather traveling case with a mini-clipboard holding both discs and a full-color booklet, this set goes behind the scenes without divulging much of the film’s story (as it was released prior to the movie’s release), profiling Jackson hard at work on his latest magnum opus. As with the “Frighteners” supplements, Jackson comes across as a likeable guy and divulges numerous tidbits on the creation of the film and its effects. Many of these extras were previously “published” online, though film music fans will note the loss of one such segment that spotlighted Howard Shore working on his soon-to-be rejected score. Packaged with several art reproductions and individually numbered to boot, this is a sweet package in terms of its looks but a bit over-priced in terms of content. “Kong” fans may want to check it out regardless, especially since it may become a collectible some time down the road.

BATTLESTAR GALACTICA SEASON 2.0. (2005, 7 hours; Universal): Strong writing, capable performances and loads of dramatic tension permeate this second season of the Sci-Fi Channel revamp. Here, the Cylons and their sexy robotic representative Tricia Hefler again try to wipe out the remnants of humanity from the solar system, with Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell trying to hold the crew of the Galactica together long enough to reach Earth. Producer Ronald D. Moore continues to fashion serious stories with excellent effects and equally superb performances, though some of the material here is more adult in nature than one might anticipate. Universal’s three-disc box set contains 10 episodes from the show’s second season in 16:9 transfers with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, plus deleted scenes and podcast extracts for supplements. Highly recommended!

New From Buena Vista

VENOM (**, 2005). 85 mins., R, Miramax/Buena Vista. DVD FEATURES: Cast Auditions; Making Of featurettes; Storyboards; 2.35 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Director Jim Gillespie nabbed a taste of success with “I Know What You Did Last Summer” but had the misfortune of helming two subsequent projects that were essentially bypassed by their studios: the ill-fated (and under-rated) Sylvester Stallone thriller “D-Tox” was sold off by Universal and went straight to video in the U.S. (under the hideous title “Eye See You”), while the would-be horror franchise origin “Venom” was dumped by Miramax as part of their Weinstein fire-sale last September. Making matters worse, this Louisiana swamp romp came out just days after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Southwest, leading to hostile critical notices that seemed to be harsher than they needed to be.

Truth be told, “Venom” is a stylishly-shot and efficient teen horror flick, no worse than most of the genre junk being cranked out these days (at least it’s better than the “Jeepers Creepers” movies). Gillespie and producer Kevin Williamson (“Dawson’s Creek”) had hoped to launch a new genre villain with this picture -- a town outcast who turns into an unstoppable monster after a baker’s dozen crate of snakes with evil spirits invades his body via a local voodoo ritual.

Alas, their efforts were squashed by bad timing and a bland script, credited to video game scribes Flint Dille and John Zuir Platten, who originated this story as a game (dubbed “Backwater”) that has yet to see the light of day. Save for attractive Agnes Bruckner, the kids are interchangeable parts who serve only to get picked off one-by-one by the Voodoo Man, and there’s little dramatic development since the movie hits its end credits by the 80 minute mark.

Still, “Venom” offers solid special effects and atmospheric Bayou locales, well-shot by Steve Mason and directed by Gillespie, who seems to deserve better than helming material like this. That being said, genre addicts could still do a lot worse than to check it out.

Dimension’s DVD, out on the 17th, offers a strong 2.35 transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound. The unremarkable but competent score by James L. Venable is one of those “Themes by John Debney” deals (which we haven’t seen a whole lot of recently). Special features are limited to cast audition tapes, a Making Of featurette that details the movie’s origins as a video game, and storyboard comparisons.

GOOD MORNING VIETNAM: Special Edition (***, 1987, 121 mins., R, Touchstone/Buena Vista): New Special Edition of the 1987 box-office hit stars Robin Williams as free-wheeling radio D.J. Adrian Cronauer, who spices up the lives of American soldiers in Vietnam by producing an outspoken, often hilarious radio show. Barry Levinson’s film was well-received and a big financial success, though the movie hasn’t weathered the years as well as one might anticipate: Williams’ shtick has grown somewhat tired by now, and though he’s in top form here, one pays more attention now to writer Mitch Markowitz’s somewhat under-developed script. The film works well enough with Williams behind the mic, but loses a few steps once it tries to be meaningful and important. Buena Vista’s DVD includes a new “Production Diary” of featurettes that detail the production, as well as raw outtake footage of Williams’ monologues, which his fans should appreciate. A pair of trailers and a new 16:9 enhanced transfer (plus a 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack) make this an affordable, recommended pick-up for fans.

DEAD POETS SOCIETY: Special Edition (**½, 1989, 129 mins., PG, Touchstone/Buena Vista): I’ve never been a big fan of Peter Weir’s tale of life in a New England boarding school circa 1959, but that still didn’t stop the Robin Williams Express from grossing nearly $100 million in theaters back in the summer of ‘89. Williams’ performance as an English teacher who encourages his students (including Robert Sean Leonard and Ethan Hawke) to think for themselves turns tragic and pretentious in its final third, but John Seales’ cinematography and the supporting performances still manage to keep you watching. Fans of the film may be disappointed that Buena Vista’s new Special Edition DOESN’T include the longer version of the film released on laserdisc (and still occasionally broadcast on TV), or even those extra scenes included in a supplement, but there are still some new features to be found: a new Making Of interviews Weir, Hawke, Leonard and others; raw takes from the production are shown; additional featurettes profile sound designer Alan Splet and photographer John Seale; a commentary features Weir, Seale, and writer Tom Schulman; and the theatrical trailer rounds out the disc. The 1.85 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack are both superb.

THE GREAT RAID (***, 131 mins., Not Rated; Miramax/Buena Vista): John Dahl’s oft-delayed WWII epic is an exciting tale of an American battalion sent behind enemy lines to liberate hundreds of P.O.W.s in a Japanese camp in Cabanatuan. Benjamin Bratt, James Franco and Connie Nielsen give memorable performances in this taut, effective real-life story with an excellent score by Trevor Rabin, here abandoning his electronic approach for a fuller-blooded orchestral work. Miramax’s double-disc set makes for a terrific Special Edition: Dahl re-edited the movie for his Director’s Cut, and contributes a commentary along with producer Marty Katz and others. Additional extras include extended deleted scenes (some of which were apparently contained in the theatrical release cut), a Making Of featurette, multiple documentaries, outtakes, and historical information on the second disc. The 2.40 Widescreen transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound are both tremendous. Recommended!

UNDERCLASSMAN (*½, 2005, 93 mins., PG-13; Miramax/Buena Vista): Laughless, labored vehicle for young star Nick Cannon sat on the Miramax vaults for months before being thrown into theaters last fall (see “Venom” above). Cannon (who apparently came up with the idea for the movie as well) plays a young cop who’s assigned to go undercover as a student at a private school in order to track down a killer -- and you can basically take it from there. Desperate action scenes and low-brow comedy fill up 93 minutes that you’re better off spending someplace else. Miramax’s DVD offers a 2.35 widescreen transfer with both 5.1 and 2.0 Dolby Digital soundtracks, deleted scenes, commentary, cast auditions, and a Making Of featurette.

SECUESTRO EXPRESS (**½, 87 mins., R; Miramax/Buena Vista): Mia Maestro (from “Alias”) plays a young woman in Caracas who’s abducted with her fiancee and held for ransom by three thieves demanding of a king’s ransom from her father (Ruben Blades). Jonathan Jakubowicz’s film is an interesting Latin variation on familiar material, but ultimately doesn’t have enough style to compensate for its somewhat thinly-drawn characters. Miramax’s DVD offers a 1.85 widescreen transfer with 2.0 Dolby Digital sound, English subtitles, deleted scenes, an English commentary with Jakubowicz and a secondary Spanish commentary with the director and cast members, plus trailers, Making Of featurettes, and a music video.

Family Finds

WALT DISNEY’S TIMELESS TALES Volume Three (2006 compilation, 65 minutes, Buena Vista): Disney compilation of classic animated shorts makes for an inexpensive, perfectly acceptable DVD for youngsters and casual Disney fans. Included in this third volume of the “Timeless Tales” are “Little Hiawatha,” “Ben and Me” (recently issued in one of Disney’s Treasure tins), “Casey at the Bat,” “Morris the Midget Moose,” “The Wise Little Hen” and “The Golden Touch.” The full-screen transfers and Dolby Digital soundtracks are fine, and a collectible mini-storybook of “Casey at the Bat” is also included for the little ones.

THE VERY HUNGRY CATERPILLAR AND OTHER STORIES (2006 Compilation, 32 minutes, Buena Vista): Popular children’s author Eric Carle’s most famous stories are adapted in this Scholastic/Disney DVD, bundling together low-key animated renditions of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” “Papa, Please Get The Moon For Me,” “The Very Quiet Cricket,” “The Mixed-Up Chameleon,” and “I See a Song.” Aimed at kids five and under, these tales are entertaining and convey a basic understanding of counting, speaking, music, independence, and a thirst for knowledge ideal for its intended audience. The full-screen transfer and Dolby Digital soundtrack are both colorful and crisp.

STANLEY’S DINOSAUR ROUND-UP (2006 Compilation, 70 minutes, Buena Vista): Ever-popular Disney Channel hero returns to DVD in this engaging production for young viewers. Here, Stanley journeys to his uncle’s dude ranch, where dinosaurs roam free and Stanley learns a few lessons about the region and his encounters in the environment. Colorful animation makes this a fun adventure for young kids, with a few interactive games and a 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack rounding out the presentation.

DISNEY SINGALONG SONGS (2006 Compilations; Four Volumes, 28-34 minutes each, Buena Vista): The latest Disney “Singalong Song” offer more interactive musical amusement for kids: “101 Dalmatians, Pongo & Perdita” features pooch-oriented ditties from “Hokey Puppy” to “Take Me Out To The Ballgame”; “Peter Pan, You Can Fly” concentrates on Disney songs from “Mary Poppins” to “Dumbo”; “The Bare Necessities, The Jungle Book” includes more classic Mouse tracks from a myriad of films; and “I Love To Laugh, Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” spotlights more humorous standards from Walt’s universe, culled from animated shorts and films alike. The 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks and full-screen transfers are uniformly fine and should give its intended youthful audience plenty of repeated entertainment.

TOY STORY 2: Special Edition (***½, 1999, 95 mins., G, Buena Vista): Special Edition re-packaging of the Pixar/Disney box-office smash includes a new digital transfer (directly captured from its source) and an interactive game, plus a reprise of the contents from the previous “Toy Story Toy Box” supplemental section (Making Of materials, deleted scenes, commentary and more). If you don’t have the “Toy Box” or do have a large enough TV to appreciate the upgraded transfer, this is a bargain-priced release well worth your hard-earned dollar.

NEXT TIME: Peckinpah Westerns, SANTA'S SLAY, and More! Don't forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat
Message Boards, direct any emails to the link above and we'll catch you then. Cheers everyone!

This column is dedicated to Lou Rawls...R.I.P. (1935-2006).

Get Firefox!

Copyright 1997-2005 All Reviews, Site and Design by Andy Dursin