1/13/09 Edition

New Years Edition
MOONLIGHT, allen, hepburn & more

Happy New Year to one and all!

We kick off the new year with one of 2008's finest DVD releases: Universal’s outstanding compilation ABBOTT & COSTELLO: THE COMPLETE UNIVERSAL PICTURES COLLECTION.

Packaged in an oversized cardboard “suitcase,” this 15-disc box-set supplants Universal’s prior four “Abbott & Costello” Franchise Collection volumes (which are now out of print) by offering all of the duo’s productions for the studio, produced between 1940 and 1958, when A&C were ranked among the top box-office performers in Hollywood. New digital transfers, a few new supplements, and a terrific book compliment the package, which includes the following 28 Abbott & Costello comedies:

“One Night in the Tropics” (1940), the duo’s massive hit “Buck Privates” (1941), “In the Navy” (1941), “Hold That Ghost” (1941), “Keep ‘Em Flying” (1941), “Ride ‘Em Cowboy” (1942), “Pardon My Sarong” (1942), “Who Done It?” (1942), “Hit the Ice” (1943), “In Society” (1944), “Here Come the Co-Eds” (1945), “The Naughty Nineties” (1945), “Little Giant” (1946), “The Time of Their Lives” (1946), “Buck Privates Come Home” (1947), “The Wistful Widow of Wagon Gap” (1947),  the classic “Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein” (1948), “Mexican Heyride” (1948), “Abbott & Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff” (1949), “Abbott & Costello in the Foreign Legion” (1950), “Abbott & Costello Meet the Invisible Man” (1951), “Comin’ Round the Mountain” (1951), “Lost in Alaska” (1952), “Abbott & Costello Go To Mars” (1953), “Abbott & Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde” (1953), “Abbott & Costello Meet the Keystone Kops” (1955), and “Abbott & Costello Meet the Mummy” (1955).

While all of the above titles were previously available either individually or in the four “Franchise Collection” sets, the box-set includes one additional, never-before-released gem: the duo’s 1943 feature “It Ain’t Hay.” Based on a Damon Runyon story, this A&C outing finds Lou accidentally killing an elderly horse and replacing it with famous racer “Tea Biscuit.” It’s all standard fare with sporadic laughs, but it’s noteworthy since Runyon’s estate held the film up from release on home video for decades, making its long-awaited inclusion here a happy surprise for A&C fans.

Extras include Sidney Miller’s 1965 documentary “The World of Abbott & Costello,” the TV special “Abbott & Costello Meet Jerry Seinfeld,” and the previously-released DVD doc “Abbott & Costello Meet the Monsters.” Several audio commentaries, a couple of them newly produced for this set, are also on-hand, including Ron Palumbo and Bob Furmanek’s “Buck Privates” chat; Jeff Miller discussing “Hold That Ghost”; Frank Coniff on “Who Done It?”; Frank Thompson on “The Time of Their Lives”; Gregory Mank on “Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein” (from its original DVD release; the “Franchise” re-release left it out); and Tom Weaver and Richard Scrivani on “Abbott & Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde.” Production notes and trailers round out the extras for nearly every film.

The set is capped by an outstanding booklet offering a film-by-film synopsis with trivia and release information, along with historical notes from author Ron Palumbo and introductions from Vickie Abbott Wheeler, Chris Costello and Paddy Costello Humphreys.

If you’re an Abbott & Costello fan, and have a bit of surplus holiday cash left over, this box-set comes highly recommended -- one of the best “Golden Age” anthologies you’ll see on DVD, and one of this past year’s finest disc releases altogether.

Also recently released by Universal is the Complete Fourth Season of SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE (aprx. 23 hours), which offers yet another blast of nostalgia and manic comedy for SNL fans.

This 1978-79 season offers another slate of eclectic guest hosts and musical performers, including The Rolling Stones with Mayor Ed Koch (10/7/78), Fred Willard and Devo (10/14/78), Frank Zappa (10/21/78), Steve Martin and Van Morrison (11/4/78), Buck Henry and the Grateful Dead (11/11/78), Carrie Fisher (11/18/78), Walter Matthau (12/2/78), Eric Idle and Kate Bush (12/9/78), Elliott Gould with Bob & Ray and Peter Tosh & Mick Jagger (12/16/78), Michael Palin and the Doobie Brothers (1/27/79), Cicely Tyson and Talking Heads (2/10/79), Rick Nelson and Judy Collins (2/17/79), Kate Jackson, Delbert McClinton and Andy Kaufman (2/24/79), Gary Busey, Eubie Blake, and Gregory Hines (3/10/79), Margot Kidder with The Chieftains (3/17/79), Richard Benjamin with Rickie Lee Jones (4/7/79), Milton Berle with Ornette Coleman (4/14/79), Michael Palin (again) with James Taylor (5/12/79), Maureen Stapleton with Linda Ronstadt and Phoebe Snow (5/19/79), and Buck Henry (again) with Bettle Midler (5/26/79).

Archival interview footage with the cast is on-hand in another essential release for those of us who grew up watching the Original “Not Ready for Primetime” players, or those who want to see what SNL was like back when it was far more consistently funny than it is now.

Also New on DVD

THE FILMS OF MICHAEL POWELL (Sony): Dynamite two-disc package includes remastered versions of two of the great director’s works: the long-overdue US debut of the 1942 fantasy “A Matter of Life and Death” (aka “Stairway to Heaven”), produced during the heyday of Michael Powell’s collaboration with Emeric Pressburger, as well as “Age of Consent,” Powell’s final film, produced virtually as an independent picture in 1969.

“Stairway to Heaven” may be the better and more familiar film of the duo -- a lavish, evocative tale of a WWII pilot (Niven) who stands trial for his life in Heaven after surviving a would-be fatal crash -- with its alternating B&W/bold Technicolor hues and romantic, emotional impact, yet “Age of Consent” is quite worthwhile on its own terms. This tale of a frustrated artist (James Mason) who travels down near the Great Barrier Reef in order to gain inspiration -- and finds it in the form of young Helen Mirren (ravishing in her debut performance ) -- is a colorful tale with ample doses of nudity, beautiful Hannes Staudinger    cinematography (shot on location) and terrific performances from both Mason and Mirren.

“Age of Consent” is presented here in Powell’s original director’s cut, meaning it includes several extra scenes, more nudity, the original credits sequence (with an artist’s rendering of a nude Mirren posing as the Columbia Pictures lady!), and Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe’s original music score. Sculthorpe’s music was excised from most versions of the movie and replaced with a more “commercial” score by Stanley Myers, much to Powell’s dismay, but it’s been restored here to its original glory.

Extras are ample for both movies: “Age of Consent” includes a fine retrospective documentary on the film’s production, including comments from Powell’s son and Peter Sculthorpe, plus an interview with Helen Mirren, an appreciation by Powell devotee Martin Scorsese, comments from Ron and Valerie Taylor (who shot the underwater sequences, a chore that they would later repeat on the first two “Jaws” movies), and a somewhat dry commentary from historian Kent Jones. “A Matter of Life and Death” includes a superior commentary from Powell-Pressburger historian Ian Christie and more comments from Scorsese, who counts the picture -- as many movie buffs do -- as one of his favorites.

“A Matter of Life and Death” is presented in its original 4:3 aspect ratio and looks quite sharp throughout, while “Age of Consent” receives a mostly satisfying 16:9 (1.85) transfer that’s restricted only in the varied quality of some of its elements. The mono sound is fine on both movies.

BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S: Centennial Edition (1961, 114 mins., Paramount)
FUNNY FACE: Centennial Edition (1957, 103 mins., Paramount): A pair of new, double-disc “Centennial” edition DVDs from Paramount celebrate the legacy of star Audrey Hepburn.

Blake Edwards’ Oscar-winning 1961 “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” remains one of the more enduring films of the early ‘60s, with its classic Henry Mancini score and memorable Hepburn performance. The “Centennial” edition follows Paramount’s 2006 DVD edition and reprises the extras from that release (producer Richard Shepherd’s commentary, a number of short featurettes) while also adding some new material: “A Go Glightly Gathering,” “Henry Mancini: More than Music” (giving proper respect to the composer’s unforgettable contribution to the movie), and “Mr. Yunioshi: An Asian Perspective,” which attempts to put a modern explanation for Mickey Rooney’s cartoonish, if not racist, portrayal of Hepburn’s upstairs neighbor. The original trailer and what seems to be the same 16:9 (1.85) transfer as the 2006 release round out the package.

“Funny Face,” meanwhile, was last seen on DVD not that long ago – in 2007, in fact, courtesy of a 50th Anniversary DVD. Paramount’s new “Centennial” release of Stanley Donen’s memorable 1957 teaming of Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire sports what appears to be the same 16:9 (1.85, Vistavision) transfer as its predecessor with 5.1 stereo and mono soundtracks, along with some fresh supplemental material (a segment on Kay Thompson, a Vistavision featurette) to compliment material from both prior DVD editions (a “Paramount in the ‘50s” retrospective and the trailer).

THE PLOT TO KILL HITLER (93 mins., 1990; Warner): Timed to coincide with the release of the new Bryan Singer-Tom Cruise WWII adventure “Valkyrie,” David L. Wolper’s 1990 network TV movie “The Plot to Kill Hitler” has been released on DVD courtesy of Warner Home Video. Brad Davis and Madolyn Smith lead a veteran cast in this solid, if somewhat slight, retelling of the Operation Valkyrie affair, which offers the kind of excellent production values (Freddie Francis cineamtography, score by Laurence Rosenthal) that one would anticipate from a Wolper production. Unfortunately, Steven Elkins’ script might have been better served as a two-part TV mini-series since the 93-minute tele-film comes across as an outline for a broader, more expansive production. Warner’s DVD is no-frills and sports a fine full-screen transfer with 2.0 Dolby Stereo sound.

HAMLET 2 (**½, 92 mins., 2008, R; Universal): Occasionally funny, hit-or-miss comedy from director Andrew Fleming and co-writer (and “South Park” collaborator) Pam Brady finds Steve Coogan as a deluded high school teacher who produces a sequel to “Hamlet” as a means of saving his school’s drama department, which is about to be axed thanks to budget cuts. Amy Poehler (as a foul-mouthed ALCU lawyer), Catherine Keener, and David Arquette co-star in this silly affair, which does, at least, bring Elisabeth Shue back to the silver screen at long last, playing -- no coincidence here -- a retired actress. It’s not exactly an endless array of comic genius but Coogan and the cast are amusing enough to give “Hamlet 2" just barely a passing grade. Universal’s DVD includes deleted scenes and Making Of featurettes, plus a 16:9 (1.85) transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

BEETHOVEN’S DOG-GONE BEST MOVIE PACK (Universal): The lovable St. Bernard from Universal’s 1991 box-office hit -- and a number of sequels produced for theaters and video -- is back in a surprisingly fun adventure, “Beethoven’s Big Break,” starring Jonathan Silverman as a dog trainer whose latest assignment has him handling a large St. Bernard about to appear in a major Hollywood movie (sound familiar?).

This engaging affair gets a big boost both from a story that breaks from its predecessors’ formula as well as the nutty performance of Stephen Tobolowsky as the heavy. Rhea Pearlman, Joey Fatone, Jennifer Finnigan and Eddie Griffin offer better-than-expected support in a movie that ought to satisfy young viewers and dog lovers alike (“The Dog Whisperer” himself, Cesar Millan, also pops up in a cameo).

Universal’s three-disc “Dog-Gone Best Movie Pack” also includes brand-new 16:9 transfers of all the prior entries in the long-running series: the original theatrical “Beethoven” (1991) and its 1993 sequel “Beethoven’s 2nd,” both starring Charlies Grodin and Bonnie Hunt, plus the Judge Reinhold direct-to-video efforts “Beethoven’s 3rd” and “Beethoven’s 4th” from 2000-01. The somewhat lame “Beethoven’s 5th” (2003) is also on-tap, offering Dave Thomas, Faith Ford, John Larroquette and Katherine Helmond in a tired retread of the preceding pictures.

The 16:9 transfers and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks are all excellent across the board, with a number of extras on-hand for “Beethoven’s Big Break.”

ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS: THE CHIPETTES (66 mins., 1983-86; Paramount): Six episodes from the ‘80s NBC Saturday morning cartoon incarnation of “Alvin and the Chipmunks” introduces the Chipettes: Brittany, Jeanette and Eleanor. No word on whether or not the girls are going to follow their male counterparts to the silver screen anytime soon, but kids ought to enjoy the hour-plus of fun to be mined in this latest DVD compilation from Paramount.

WITHOUT A PADDLE: NATURE’S CALLING: DVD & Blu-Ray (**, 90 mins., 2009, PG-13; Paramount): Direct-to-video sequel to the moderately successful 2004 teen comedy “Without a Paddle” is more of a remake than a continuation, with Oliver James and Kristopher Turner as pals who head out into the wilderness to find James’ old schoolboy crush. Former 49ers all-pro wide receiver and Super Bowl champion Jerry Rice puts in the requisite cameo appearance in Ellory Elkayem’s by-the-numbers, yet watchable and at least energetically produced, small-screen comedy. Paramount’s DVD includes deleted scenes, a gag reel, and several Making Of featurettes, plus a colorful 16:9 (1.85) widescreen transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack. The Blu-Ray disc sports an even more eye-popping, crisp 1080p transfer with Dolby TrueHD audio and the same extras -- this time in high-definition -- plus a bonus digital copy of the film for portable media players.

NATIONAL LAMPOON’S STONED AGE (88 mins., 2008, Unrated; Paramount): Produced as “Homo Erectus,” then branded with the National Lampoon franchise tag, this better-than-expected caveman comedy from writer-director-star Adam Rifkin offers a couple of chuckles in its oddball cast (Gary Busey as the “bad” caveman leader; Talia Shire and David Carradine as Rifkin’s parents) plus Ali Larter (“Heroes”) as a fetching cavewoman. It’s basically low-brow stuff with occasional flashes of inspiration, suggesting Rifkin might be better off collaborating with others on his next project. Paramount’s DVD includes both unrated and R-rated versions of the movie with deleted scenes, viral videos, Rifkin’s commentary, bloopers, outtakes, interviews, featurettes, a comic book, a 16:9 (1.85) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound rounding out the disc.

RUSSELL PETERS: RED, WHITE AND BROWN (DVD/CD Combo, Paramount): Comedian Russell Peters performs live at the WaMu Theater at Madison Square Garden in this DVD/CD combo from Paramount. 20 minutes of extended concert footage, deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes featurettes, and commentary make this a superb package for Peters aficionados.

MY BLOODY VALENTINE: Special Edition (**½, 90 mins., R and Unrated; Lionsgate): Decent Canadian slasher about a killer miner with a mean, nasty axe, has been remade as a 3-D feature that debuts in theaters everywhere this week. To coincide with its debut, Lionsgate has licensed the original 1981 “My Bloody Valentine” from Paramount and re-issued it as a bona-fide Special Edition DVD, complete with a myriad of gore cuts that the film’s fans have clamored to see for years. The end result is a superb release for ‘80s horror buffs, with the previously excised footage culled from the best surviving print and available to view either separately or as part of the picture itself. While the 16:9 (1.85) transfer is highly satisfying, the deleted footage unsurprisingly stands out since it’s been wasting away for decades after being trimmed for an “R” rating back in 1981. A fine, new retrospective documentary and comments from director George Mihalka and other members of the production team (prior to the deleted scenes) make this one of the better ‘80s horrors that we’ve seen recently on DVD.

New On Blu-Ray

DUMB & DUMBER (***, 113 mins., 1994, Unrated [previously PG-13]; New Line/Warner)
THE MASK (***, 101 mins., 1994, PG-13; New Line/Warner): Two of Jim Carrey’s earlier and more successful comedies have been newly issued on Blu-Ray from Warner Home Video.

Much to my delight, both “Dumb & Dumber” -- Carrey’s first film with the Farrelly Brothers -- and the F/X-laden “The Mask” have held up extremely well, and remain two of the comedian-actor’s finest vehicles.

Director Chuck Russell’s 1994 adaptation of the Dark Horse comics character “The Mask” is a movie rich with inventive visual effects and gags, parlaying Carrey’s manic energy perfectly into its fantasy tale of a mysterious mask that gives whoever wears it super-powers and a wild, crazy personality to match. The ILM special effects were dazzling for their time and the picture remains a blast to watch, mainly because the movie deftly balances its technical elements with Carrey’s energy, resulting in a splendid combination of comedy and comic book adventure. The supporting cast, from Cameron Diaz’s debut performance to Peter Riegert, Peter Greene, Amy Yasbeck and Richard Jeni, adds to the fun, while Randy Edelman’s score is another asset.

With its VC-1 encoded transfer and Dolby TrueHD soundtrack, “The Mask” ranks as a solid catalog title on Blu-Ray. Numerous extras culled from prior DVD editions include two different commentaries (one with Russell, and another with Russell and members of the production team), a retrospective documentary, extra scenes (including an alternate opening), the trailer, and Cameron Diaz’s screen test.

After “The Mask” cleaned up at the summer box-office in 1994, “Dumb & Dumber” took holiday multiplexes by storm several months later: the relatively low-budget film, the first from Peter and Bobby Farrelly, ended up grossing over $120 million domestically and marked Carrey as one of the breakthrough stars of the decade.

The best part about “Dumb & Dumber” -- which finds Rhode Island idiots Lloyd (Carrey) and Harry (Jeff Daniels) embarking on a memorable road trip in order to give a briefcase back to its owner (Lauren Holly) -- is in the terrific chemistry between Carrey and Daniels, who’s every bit as funny as his counterpart in this low-key, often hilarious outing, the most consistently amusing of all of the Farrelly Brothers’ cinematic output.

Warner’s VC-1 encoded transfer of “Dumb & Dumber” isn’t what some technophiles would deem as “reference quality” but it’s a sizable upgrade on the standard DVD edition, as is the Dolby TrueHD audio. A good amount of extras culled from the movie’s prior Special Edition DVD include six minutes of added footage, alternate endings and other deleted scenes, trailers and a retrospective documentary.

WEDDING CRASHERS (***, 127 mins. [Unrated] and 119 mins [Theatrical Version], 2005, R; New Line/Warner): Palpable chemistry between stars Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn, a good quotient of laughs in the Steve Faber-Bob Fisher script, and a charming performance from female lead Rachel McAdams helped make “Wedding Crashers” a massive success at the box-office in 2005.

And while David Dobkin’s film may not be a classic, the movie has an endearing element numerous R-rated recent comedies have lacked, mainly through the performances of the cast, from the leads down to Christopher Walken, who’s a hoot as a Washington senator whose daughter (McAdams) is about to wed a boorish yuppie. Fortunately for her, and sister Isla Fisher, professional wedding crashers Wilson and Vaughn are around to convince her otherwise.

Though the picture is a bit overlong “Wedding Crashers” is loads of fun with only a few overly raunchy gags obscuring its inherent good-naturedness. Thankfully Warner’s Blu-Ray edition of the film enables viewers to choose between the original R-rated cut and an extended Unrated “Uncorked” version, which tends to further slow down the somewhat already drawn-out theatrical version.

Other extras include two commentaries, additional deleted scenes, Making Of featurettes, trailers, music videos, a fine VC-1 encoded transfer and potent Dolby TrueHD audio.

ZODIAC: Director's Cut Blu-Ray (***½, 162 mins., 2007, R; Paramount): David Fincher's 2007 film is an absorbing, taut adaptation of Robert Graysmith's book, a chronicle of his own pursuit into finding the Zodiac killer who claimed the lives of several Bay Area victims in the late '60s.

In Fincher's ensemble piece (adapted by James Vanderbilt from Graysmith's tome), Jake Gyllenhaal plays Graysmith, a cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle who becomes fascinated with the case as it plays out around him. Graysmith is essentially the viewer's point of reference into this period tale, as we watch the divorced single father and editor Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.) work with their peers when the "Zodiac" instigates communications with the paper after the killings pick up in frequency and visibility. Meanwhile, the criminal investigation is headed by San Francisco detective David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), whose precinct becomes involved after the serial killer's final slaying occurs within the city limits.

Opening with the vintage Paramount logo, "Zodiac" is layered with the atmosphere of the time, from rock standards on the soundtrack to authentic production design by Donald Graham Burt and moody cinematography by Harris Savides. The film lacks the overly-stylized (some would say "pretentious") appearance of some of Fincher's early works, but the benefit is a more mature and realistic work from its auteur, who concentrates not so much on the killings or the motives or even its psychological impact but rather the investigation -- both from the police's angle and Graysmith's dogged, unflinching homework, which comes into play during the film's second half.

The movie was criticized as not having an ending (since the investigation itself never uncovered the killer), but it's a satisfying ride back into a time when police departments didn't have fax machines and when local -- and not national -- media could play such a prominent role in an investigation such as they did here. The performances are all on-target, from Gyllenhaal to Ruffalo, while excellent support is turned in by Anthony Edwards as Ruffalo's partner and Brian Cox as Bay Area attorney Melvin Belli.

"Zodiac" is a film that's hard to take your eyes off, and Paramount's long-overdue, double-disc Blu-Ray release sports an excellent 1080p transfer (similar, if not identical, to the HD-DVD edition) with Dolby TrueHD audio, which the HD-DVD edition lacked.

Extras include commentary from Fincher, a group commentary with Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr., Brad Fischer, James Vanderbilt and James Ellroy; and a number of featurettes (in HD as well) including a documentary from David Prior focusing on the actual investigation, visual effects, and on-set look at the production.

In spite of its disappointing box-office returns, "Zodiac" is an absorbing and compelling film that, if anything, only improves on repeat viewing.

ELECTION (***½, 103 mins., 1999, R; Paramount): Don't be put off by the MTV Films banner that headlines the advertising of “Election,” since Alexander Payne’s 1999 satire is one of the funniest and most insightful high school comedies of recent years -- a keen and savvy film about the consequences that result from tampering with the natural order of life.

In “Election,” that means the downward spiral experienced by Nebraska high school teacher Matthew Broderick when he decides to derail the chirpy and cheerful Tracy Flick's candidacy for School President by hiring a noble but knuckle-headed football player to run against her. The eager Flick, splendidly portrayed by Reese Witherspoon with a manic energy that veers the character away from complete and unbelievable dementia, wants to prove herself to the world; Broderick, meanwhile, secretly hates her for having the courage to overachieve (a theme that runs throughout the movie).

That sets in motion a series of events that are sometimes subtle and often quietly humorous, as director/co- screenwriter Alexander Payne comments on the immorality and dubious intentions of the various characters while never judging them outright or bathing “Election” in a completely pessimistic or bitingly sarcastic tone. The movie feels real because the filmmaking enables the performances to bring out a variety of colorful shades in the characters; subsequently, there are no evil or completely hateful people in the film, since the audience can identify with a predicament or feeling that each one of the principal characters feels at a particular point in the picture.

“Election” isn't as static as, say, Wes Anderson’s “Rushmore,” and has the smarts that its high school cinematic brethren of its era completely lacked (namely, already-forgotten fare like “She’s All That” and “Never Been Kissed”). The kind of movie that never settles into a predictable formula, “Election” is smart and insightful throughout and highly recommended.

Paramount’s Blu-Ray edition of “Election” marks the movie’s debut in HD, and the 1080p transfer is top-notch, as is the Dolby TrueHD audio. The sole extra is a commentary from Payne, carried over from the original DVD edition, which is a bit of a disappointment given that the movie’s alternate ending -- quite different than that of the finished film -- has never been given an official release.

DEXTER: Complete Season 1 (2006, 10 hours, Showtime/Paramount): Michael C. Hall plays one of the most caring serial killers on record  in this disturbing, compulsively watchable Showtime series, with Hall portraying the anti-hero of Jeff Lindsay’s books: a homicidal youth raised by a cop who channels his psychotic issues into knocking off individuals who generally deserve their fate. It’s not always easy viewing but the performances and production are top-notch, and the series has gained a big cult fanbase both through its Showtime airings and occasional, edited-down CBS broadcasts.

Showtime’s Blu-Ray set offers all 12 first-season “Dexter” episodes in excellent 1080p transfers with Dolby TrueHD audio and BD-Live enhanced extras, including featurettes, commentaries and more.

FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS (***½, 2004, 118 mins, PG-13; Universal): The best sports movies not only accurately capture the essence of the competition at hand, but also replicate the time and place of the events transpiring in them. “Friday Night Lights” is one of those pictures: an authentic, almost documentary-like look at a small Texas high school's season in 1988.

Based on H.G. Bissinger's acclaimed novel, former actor-turned-director Peter Berg fashioned a marvelously compelling, multi-layered and decidedly un-Hollywood-like film that's a must for not only sports fans but film aficionados as well.

One of the few name actors in the film, Billy Bob Thornton gives a strong performance as the coach of the Odessa-Permian Panthers, who enter the ‘88 season as an overwhelming favorite to win the coveted state championship. This being Texas, high school football is more than just your typical small-town gathering: the Panthers play in a stadium some colleges would envy, while Coach Thornton makes $50,000 a year -- substantial coin, especially for the era.

Despite having a talented roster of players, though, the team quickly suffers a major loss when its fast-talking running back (Derek Luke) is injured. The Panthers then fall into a tailspin that makes them less than a sure thing to contend for the title, while off the gridiron, the town is painted as a dead end avenue, a place where its glories are often lived -- if not on the playing field -- then firmly in the past.

The constant sense of desperation leads each one of the Panthers to try and make it out of Odessa and get into college. Unfortunately, the opportunities are limited, and with the team's playoff prospects growing dimmer by the moment, so are the futures of its core players, including the quiet quarterback (Lucas Black) with a troubled mother and a third-string running back (Garrett Hedlund) whose father (Tim McGraw) is an abusive drunk living squarely through his own days on the field.

Shot on location with bone-crunching field action, "Friday Night Lights" is a superb film on many levels. Not only does Berg (who co-wrote the script with David Aaron Cohen) capture the intensity and passion of Texas high school football, but he creates a vivid portrait of people trying to make it out of a place where those that don't (or can't) will never leave.

The director gets sensational performances from its cast as well, including McGraw's tormented father (a remarkable debut performance from the country music star) and Luke's brash running back, who loses it all in a devastating injury. Though we've seen the sequence before in other films, the moment in which he confides to his uncle that he doesn't know how to do anything other than play football is enormously moving and real -- a testament to the performances and Berg's no-nonsense direction.

"Friday Night Lights" is a great sports movie, but it's also more than that: its realistic sense of time and place, atmospheric music, and strong characterizations culminate in a film that's one of the best of 2004.

The AVC encoded transfer of Universal’s new Blu-Ray edition seems identical to the HD-DVD’s encode, while a satisfying enough DTS Master Audio sound is included on the audio side. Extras include an outstanding featurette (produced by Jim Bacon) looking at the real 1988 Permian Panthers, utilizing interviews with actual players and game footage; a featurette on McGraw's transition to the big screen; director commentary with Berg; and "Player Cam," examining the training of the cast members and production of the football game sequences. A full compliment of deleted scenes (running nearly 20 minutes) is included, several of which would have added to the final product, whose only failing is that its pace is sometimes overly frenetic.

SUPERHERO MOVIE (*½, 82 mins., 2008, PG-13; Genius): Blah spoof of super-hero movies is a bit more amusing than "Meet the Spartans" or most of these recent "___ Movie" satires, but that's faint praise indeed. At least writer-director Craig Mazin tried here to evoke memories of this genre's better days by casting "Airplane!" stars Robert Hays and Leslie Nielsen in supporting roles (producers David Zucker and Robert K. Weiss are also veterans of that genre-defining staple), but "Superhero Movie" still boasts a total of 10 minutes of actual comedy along with an hour of filler, following Drake Bell as he becomes a costumed crimefighter after being bitten by one of crazy industrialist Christopher MacDonald's genetically-engineered dragonflies. It's all forced and quickly wears you out, with gag after gag piled upon the viewer, giving what little comedy there is no time to breathe whatsoever. Genius' Blu-Ray disc includes both the PG-13 rated theatrical and Unrated extended versions, plus deleted scenes, an alternate ending, commentary, the trailer, a fine VC-1 encoded transfer and 5.1 Dolby TrueHD audio.

MY BEST FRIEND’S GIRL: DVD and Blu-Ray (**, 112 mins., 2008, R; Lionsgate): Overlong and mostly scattershot comedy tries once again to launch Dane Cook as a leading man, starring the obnoxious stand-up comic as an obnoxious jerk who ends up hitting on the new squeeze of his best friend (Jason Biggs). Would-be romantic sparks fail to ensue in this latest raunchy sex comedy, which gets a couple of chuckles out of co-star Alec Baldwin (as Cook’s father) but not a whole lot else, while Hudson seems content to be blowing her once-promising career on pedestrian roles in tripe like this. Lionsgate’s DVD and Blu-Ray editions both include a wealth of extras, including commentary tracks (one by director Howard Deutch, another from Biggs and writer Jordan Cahan), Making Of featurettes, deleted/extended scenes, both R-rated and Unrated versions, 16:9 (1.78) transfers (in AVC encoded 1080p on the Blu-Ray side), 5.1 Dolby Digital sound on DVD and DTS Master Audio on Blu-Ray.

SWING VOTE (**, 120 mins., 2008, PG-13; Buena Vista): Kevin Costner’s latest “comeback” vehicle bombed at the box-office, in spite of the non-stop political frenzy that besieged our nation last summer. Adding insult to injury for Costner was that he also produced and partially financed this tale of an Ordinary Joe (Costner) who, quite improbably, ends up the deciding vote in the presidential race between candidates Kelsey Grammer and Dennis Hopper. The Jason Richman-Joshua Michael Stern script (Stern also directed) tries hard for a Capra-esque tone, and the cast is game, but the movie manages to just sit there for its two hours, with a premise that’s too hard to believe and cookie-cutter characters who aren’t very interesting to begin with. Buena Vista’s Blu-Ray disc includes a fine AVC encoded transfer with DTS HD audio (not DTS Master), deleted and extended scenes, one Making Of featurette and commentary from Stern and Richman. The standard DVD offers a superb 16:9 (2.40) widescreen transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound and the same supplements.

VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA (***, 97 mins., 2008, PG-13; Genius/Weinstein): One of Woody Allen’s superior efforts of late, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” finds American students Scarlett Johansson and Rebecca Hall living in Barcelona when they come across a real-life Casanova in the form of painter Javier Bardem. The duo fall for the brooding, romantic Bardem, only to get involved with his ex-wife (Penelope Cruz), who pops up after Bardem propositions both Johnansson and Hall for a bleary-eyed weekend of carnal pleasures. Allen’s examination of relationships and sex makes for an entertaining film with terrific performances from all four stars; the sunny cinematography of Javier Aguirresarobe and atmospheric soundtrack likewise contribute to the movie’s charms, which should delight all Allen aficionados, especially during the cold remaining weeks of winter. Genius’ Blu-Ray edition sports a gorgeous 1080p HD transfer with standard Dolby Digital 5.1 sound. Recommended!

New TV on DVD

CBS and Paramount have once again mined the vaults for a number of new TV-on-DVD box-sets this month.

Long-time Aisle Seat readers will be unsurprised that my favorite title in the batch is undoubtedly THE LOVE BOAT: SEASON 2, VOL. 1, which offers the first 13 episodes of the ABC series’ 1978-79 season.

Sporting guests as varied as Billy Crystal, Sonny Bono, Brett Somers, Erik Estrada, Vincent Price, Janet Leigh, Orson Bean, Jamie Lee Curtis and Richard Dawson (plus Jill Whelan, who makes her first appearance on the series in the 11/4/78 episode), this is another sterling collection of nostalgic shows from the endlessly entertaining series, which still manages to satisfy whether through its guest stars or humor, both intentional or unintentional.

Paramount’s four-disc DVD set boasts episode promos, excellent full-screen transfers and mono soundtracks with a disclaimer about possible edits from the original network broadcasts.

Mike Connors’ massively popular crime drama MANNIX also returns to DVD this month in a six-disc set compiling the show’s entire second season (1968-69), offering nearly 21 hours of entertainment for “Mannix” fans. This season introduces Gail Fisher as Mannix’s secretary Peggy Fair, whose appearance helped sell “Mannix” with African-American viewers, giving it a ratings boost in the process.

Paramount’s DVD set includes all 25 episodes of the second season in strong full-screen transfers, though there are disclaimers both for network edits and music alterations.

MY THREE SONS, meanwhile, completes its first season on DVD in a three-disc set sporting the final 18 episodes from the long-running comedy’s first season (1961, aprx. 8 hours). The black-and-white transfers are in remarkably good condition considering their vintage and also how seldom these shows from the early run of the series have been aired over the years; the mono soundtracks are also fine, though music alteration and network edit disclaimers adorn the packaging.

More recent TV fare is on-hand in the complete second season of MATLOCK (1987-88, aprx. 19 hours), Andy Griffith’s long-running NBC series which in Year Two introduced Nancy Stafford as Matlock’s new junior partner Michelle Thomas (Stafford would stay on for the duration of the series’ run).

Paramount’s DVD set includes the entire second season, all 23 episodes, of “Matlock” on six discs, including the two-hour premiere “The Billionaire,” which took Ben Matlock and Co. to London. Alternate endings on the episode “The Hucksters” complete the package, which include a disclaimer for edits on both music and network broadcast versions. Full-screen transfers and stereo soundtracks are just fine across the board.

Last but not least is the complete sixth season of Chuck Norris’ kung-fu kicking WALKER TEXAS RANGER (1998-99, aprx. 17 hours).

This latest assembly from The Chuck’s long-running CBS series offers all 23 episodes of the show’s 1998-99 campaign in fine full-screen transfers and 2.0 Dolby Surround soundtracks, with only a disclaimer about possible edits from the series’ original network broadcasts getting in the way of the fun.

MOONLIGHT: The Complete Series (2007-08, 692 mins., Warner): With teen vampires all the rage thanks to “Twilight” you might’ve thought that CBS would have given their 2007 series “Moonlight” a second season to find its audience.

Alas, despite decent ratings and a loyal fanbase, the network axed this tale of Los Angeles P.I. Mick St. John (Alex O’Loughlin) -- a vampire who watches out for bad guys both living and undead -- likely before its time. This Joel Silver produced series offers engaging story lines and solid casting, plus chemistry between stars O’Loughlin and Sophia Myles, playing a human woman whom St. John protects and, of course, eventually falls for. “Veronica Mars” alum Jason Dohring is also terrific as a vampire pal of St. John’s.

While many continue to lament the series’ premature passing, the show’s fans have the opportunity to relive the series’ 16 episodes in Warner’s good-looking but features-deprived four-disc DVD box set, which arrives this week. The 16:9 (1.78) transfers are all excellent, as are the 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks, yet no extras are on-hand.

Also New on DVD

THE CHILDREN OF HUANG SHI (**½, 125 mins., 2008, R; Sony): True-story about a British journalist who sets out to chronicle the Japanese atrocities in China during WWII, is captured but rescued by a Chinese resistance leader (Chow Yun Fat) and sent to live in a children’s orphanage, forms the basis of veteran director Roger Donaldson’s most recent film. “The Children of Huang Shi” is certainly well-intentioned and offers a fine cast (Jonathan Rhys Meyers as George Hogg; Michelle Yeoh and Radha Mitchell in supporting parts), but the film is tedious and never quite reaches the emotional heights one would anticipate from the central story. That said this is a good-looking film which Sony has done a fine job rendering on DVD, where the movie sports a fine 16:9 (2.35) transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound and one Making Of featurette.

THE BERENSTAIN BEARS: KINDNESS, CARING & SHARING (69 mins., Sony): Five episodes from the ‘80s NBC Saturday morning animated cartoon adaptation of Stan and Jan Berenstain’s children’s books includes a 1982 primetime network special, “Comic Valentine,” which older viewers may fondly recall from their childhood. Full-screen transfers and stereo soundtracks are fine across the board; viewers should note the Bears’ NBC Easter special will be available as well in an upcoming DVD release in a few weeks.

HENRY POOLE IS HERE: DVD & Blu-Ray (**½, 99 mins., 2008, PG; Anchor Bay): Filmmaker Mark Pellington’s first dramatic feature since helming 2002's outstanding “The Mothman Prophecies” is an odd change of pace: a life-affirming story of a dying man (Luke Wilson) who finds inspiration in the lives of those around him, including a divorced single mom (Radha Mitchell) and her young daughter, a local priest (George Lopez) and an older neighbor (Adriana Barraza) who believes she’s seen the face of Jesus on a stain on Wilson’s wall. Not as overtly in-your-face as other “Christian” films, this is a well-made yet still fairly by-the-numbers story with good performances that could’ve used a little more spice in Albert Torres’ bland script. Anchor Bay’s Blu-Ray disc includes a fine 1080p transfer with Dolby TrueHD audio, while the DVD sports a 16:9 (2.35) transfer that’s just fine on its own terms, along with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound. Extras on both platforms include commentary with Pellington and cinematographer Eric Schmidt, another commentary with Pellington and Torres, deleted scenes, a music video, the original trailer, and a Making Of featurette.

FIREPROOF (**½, 118 mins., 2008, PG; Sony): “Faith based” film managed to gross some $30 million at the box-office last fall, and it’s a well-made, if sometimes heavy-handed, tale of a fireman (Kirk Cameron) who tries to patch up his failing marriage with wife Erin Bethea while still doing his job to the best of his abilities. A number of special features include deleted scenes, commentary, featurettes, a 16:9 (1.85) widescreen transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

BALLS OUT: GARY THE TENNIS COACH (*½, 87 mins., 2008, R; Sony): Lame comedy from “Harold & Kumar Go to Whitecastle” director Danny Leiner stars Seann William Scott as a loser high school janitor who comes to terms with his once-promising tennis past after the school’s resident instructor (Randy Quaid, second-billed for 10 minutes of screen time) drops dead; requisite raunchy sex gags quickly ensue after Scott’s Gary Houseman takes over as his school’s tennis coach. Scott might’ve had a big hit with the recent (and hilarious) comedy “Role Models” but “Balls Out” is tired and often painful in its tastelessness, with very few gags scoring even moderately. Sony’s DVD includes commentary with Leiner, deleted scenes, outtakes, Making Of featurettes, a 16:9 (2.40) widescreen transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

NEXT TIME: Dennis Quaid and Rob Brown ride THE EXPRESS and Vin Diesel visits BABYLON A.D. Until then, don't forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards and direct any emails to our email address.  Cheers everyone!

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