10/13/09 Edition
October Harvest Edition

When Jim Henson passed away in 1990, the creator of the Muppets left us with only a few, fleeting glimpses into his potential as a purveyor of fantasy projects beyond the scope of Kermit and Miss Piggy.

Henson only directed three theatrical features in his career: the second, and best, Muppet movie (1981's “The Great Muppet Caper”); the epic fantasy “The Dark Crystal” (1982), which he co-helmed with Frank Oz; and “Labyrinth” (1986), a live-action fantasy, produced with George Lucas, that flopped at the box-office.

Sony has just issued brand-new Blu-Ray editions of the latter two films, each with terrific supplements, high-def transfers and Dolby TrueHD soundtracks.

Clearly THE DARK CRYSTAL (***½, 1982, 93 mins., PG; Sony) is Henson’s directorial magnum opus -- a visually striking tale of a pair of human-like Gelflings who attempt to put their fragmented, fairy-tale world back together by restoring a broken crystal that resides in the dark catacombs of a castle belonging to the lizard-like Skeksis.

Unrelentingly serious and packed with imagination in virtually every frame, “The Dark Crystal” is an ambitious film that shows Henson at his most creative and audacious. Artist Brian Froud worked with Henson in creating an entire mythic universe with its own living beings, set against real-life English backdrops that establish a world that’s familiar yet foreign, from the marvelously detailed Mystic and Skeksis puppets to excellent special effects that have lost none of their magic.

David Odell’s script is straightforward fantasy stuff, but it serves as the perfect template for the work of Henson, Froud and their teams of artists, who breathtakingly transport the viewer into another time and place, with Oswald Morris’ widescreen cinematography and Trevor Jones’ outstanding score adding to the adventure.

Previously released in a still-excellent 1999 Special Edition DVD as well as a double-disc, 25th Anniversary edition in 2007, Sony presents an almost-definitive “Dark Crystal” on Blu-Ray that essentially reprieves the contents of the anniversary release, while adding a few new exclusive extras.

What’s carried over from the 2007 disc is a superb commentary from Brian Froud, who discusses the five years he worked on the film alongside Jim Henson, plus the innumerable challenges the filmmakers faced in making their fantasy world come to fruition. Froud is relaxed and spins many anecdotes that “Dark Crystal” fans will love to hear throughout the course of the film’s 93 minutes.

Also from that release is “Reflections of the Dark Crystal,” a two-part, 40-minute retrospective on the picture’s production. Featuring never-before-seen test footage and fresh interviews with Brian Froud, Brian Henson, David Odell and others, this is an excellent look back on the movie’s production, as well as a nice compliment to the original 1982 Making Of program, “The World of the Dark Crystal,” which is also on-hand here, offering ample backstage footage of Henson and the filmmakers at work.

The deleted funeral sequence and original language workprint scenes are also carried over from previous DVDs, but regrettably the movie’s trailers and Trevor Jones’ isolated score have been dropped from the 1999 DVD, making it necessary for completists to retain the earlier release. On the plus side, Sony has added some new content for the Blu-Ray; namely, a picture-in-picture storyboard track plus comments from screenwriter David Odell on the Skesis language scenes, a trivia game and “Dark Crystal Collector” interactive function which lets you supplement your viewing of the film with additional facts which pop up during the movie.

Visually, the Blu-Ray transfer is minted from a high-definition film master that must’ve been produced at the time of the 2007 DVD, and the resulting AVC-encoded transfer is properly framed, finely detailed and just splendid throughout. The Dolby TrueHD audio does a nice job mixing the film’s sound effects with Jones’ marvelous score, resulting in a pleasing aural experience.

If there’s a failing with “The Dark Crystal,” it’s undoubtedly due to the fact that the movie boasts so many colorful, memorable creatures that its most human-like creations -- the two Gelflings -- seem plastic and bland by comparison.
It’s a problem that’s magnified in Henson’s follow-up film, LABYRINTH (**½, 1986, 101 mins., PG; Sony), where Henson, Brian Froud, executive producer George Lucas and writer Terry Jones attempted to go a step further and add actual human beings into their storytelling pallet.

Jones’ script (based on a story by Henson and Dennis Lee) follows the adventures of young American teenager Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) as she tries to rescue her toddler brother in a fantasy kingdom presided over by the wicked Goblin King (David Bowie).

A variant on “Alice in Wonderland” with several original songs performed by Bowie, “Labyrinth” is a great deal more upbeat than “The Dark Crystal,” with brighter visuals and a more comical tone on-hand.

It’s also, unfortunately, a lot less satisfying, with a lethargic pace and predictable script accentuated by the fact that Connelly’s heroine and her journey are never very interesting. It’s clear Henson attempted here to parallel Connelly’s quest with her passage into adulthood, but since it’s difficult to take the somewhat fey Bowie seriously as a potential male suitor, that entire element of the film falls flat.

More over, “Labyrinth” feels downright static at times. There’s no dramatic pull, no tension to be found, and even Trevor Jones’ mostly electronic and thematically unmemorable score feels like a comedown from its predecessor. Aside from a couple of bouncy Bowie songs that intermittently bring the film to life, it’s not hard to see why audiences were underwhelmed by it.

Sony’s Blu-Ray disc serves up another excellent AVC-encoded 1080p transfer with Dolby TrueHD audio; as with “The Dark Crystal” this is an appreciable upgrade on the prior DVD editions of the picture, with excellent detail, colors and contrasts.

For supplements, Sony has reprieved the contents of the 2007 Anniversary disc, which was again highlighted by a fresh commentary by Brian Froud that’s highly satisfying and filled with recollections about his work on the picture. The track is complimented by a two-part documentary “Journey Through the Labyrinth,” which offers comments from most of the same “Dark Crystal” participants, including Froud, Brian Henson, puppeteers Dave Goelz, Karen Prell and others. The original Making Of documentary, “Inside the Labyrinth,” rounds out the disc alongside concept art -- the Blu-Ray, like its 2007 DVD counterpart, again leaving off the trailer from its previous releases. Exclusive to the Blu-Ray, meanwhile, is a picture-in-picture “Storytellers” track offering additional comments from Cheryl Henson, pupeteer Kevin Clash, Warwick Davis and other cast and crew members recalling their work on the picture.

Despite the omission of original marketing materials and Jones’ “Dark Crystal” score track, these releases come strongly recommended for all Jim Henson fans: with excellent HD transfers and soundtracks, plus Froud’s commentary and the recently produced documentaries that offer expanded insight into the creation of Henson’s two big-screen fantasies. Ultimately they leave one with the impression that their director had many more stories to tell before his premature passing some 19 years ago.

Also New This Week

SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS: Diamond Edition Blu-Ray and DVD (84 mins., 1937, G; Disney): Walt Disney's landmark 1937 production was the first full-length animated feature film, giving birth to an entire genre onto itself and a multimedia empire in the process.

This three-disc package of “Snow White” marks the inaugural release of the studio's "Diamond" Editions, which offer both Blu-Ray and DVD platters of a Disney classic, complete with new extras as well as a remastered transfer and soundtrack. The sole disappointment? Hours of content dropped from the prior “Platinum” DVD edition that inexplicably didn’t make the cut here.

"Snow White" was previously restored in 1987, 1993 and 2001 (for its Platinum DVD edition), but the gorgeous high-definition transfer on Disney’s Blu-Ray platter really sings: colors are vibrant, the movie looks crisp and well-composed in its original full-screen 1.33 aspect ratio, while both DTS Master Audio sound and the film’s original soundtrack comprise a robust pair of audio options.

When I say this transfer is a knockout, make no mistake: it's almost hard to believe this is a film from 1937. The colors, contrasts, and general condition of the elements are simply amazing, and an appreciable upgrade even on the 2001 DVD edition. For the Blu-Ray disc, Disney allows you to watch the film in its pure 1.33 full-frame format, or in 1.33 with sidebars that fill the frame to 16:9. The sidebars (red curtains simulating an old-time movie theater) are unobtrusive and are certainly preferable to having the movie cropped for 16:9 (an inexplicable practice we’ve seen other studios employ since the advent of HD).

Almost as impressive is the DTS Master Audio mix, which sounds similar to the 5.1 Dolby Digital remix from 2001 -- a track that expanded the sound stage for full discrete surround but did so in such a way that it never became overbearing or detrimental to the movie. It's simply terrific, and purists still have the opportunity to hear the original mono soundtrack as well.

Extras are solid, but fans of the movie will want to hang onto their prior Platinum DVD edition for ample content that didn’t make the cut here, including archival audio, a deleted scene, live-action test footage and other fascinating goodies. It’s a shame they weren’t all retained here, particularly with all that added space that Blu-Ray offers.

Still, there’s lots to like: disc one, the standard DVD edition, includes an older commentary from John Canemaker on the picture’s historical legacy as well as a Tiffany Thornton music video and exclusive sneak peak at Disney’s upcoming hand-drawn animated feature “The Princess and The Frog.”

Discs two and three are Blu-Ray editions featuring the same extras along with selected goodies carried over from past releases. These include storyboards for a “Snow White” sequel short that didn’t happen; a fully interactive (and excellent) “Hyperion Studios” assortment of behind-the-scenes segments; a segment on "Animation Voice Talent" and “Disney Through the Decades” that were ported over from the past DVD release; a set-top game and sing-a-long.

Despite the disappointment over the supplements, if you’re a Disney fan or a true lover of film animation, "Snow White" is still an absolute must-have Blu-Ray/DVD combo package. The movie itself looks simply breathtaking and the supplements that are on-hand will keep viewers busy for hours. It's all presented in a beautiful package that ranks with some of the finest releases of the year to date.   

IT’S GARRY SHANDLING’S SHOW: The Complete Series DVD (aprx. 31 hours, 1986-1990; Shout! Factory): Garry Shandling broke the fourth wall with this dry, often hilarious Showtime comedy series, which Shout! has flawlessly brought to DVD in the form of a complete series box-set sporting all kinds of special features.

Shandling played “himself” in the show – a single guy and comedian who would break down and talk to the studio audience directly, often getting them involved with the staged-“sitcom” antics going on around him. Loads of celebrities (from Chevy Chase to Vanna White, Dan Aykroyd and Gilda Radner in her final TV appearance) appeared through the years, but the comedy remained constant, taking parts of Shandling’s own life and mixing them with a well-worn genre whose conventions the series turned upside down in the process.

Shout! has basically become the label for quality TV on DVD releases, and this massive box-set is yet another superb release to add to their mantle. 18 different commentaries are on-tap along with six featurettes recounting the series production, plus episode outtakes and original series promos. Highly recommended!

Also New on DVD & Blu-Ray

THE PROPOSAL Blu-Ray and DVD (***, 108 mins., 2009, PG-13; Buena Vista). THE RUNDOWN: Highly appealing romantic comedy became star Sandra Bullock’s biggest hit of her career, earning a massive $163 million in domestic receipts alone. Director Anne Fletcher and writer Peter Chiarelli’s film is, of course, strictly by-the-numbers as far as its genre goes, but what it does have going for it is the palpable chemistry between Bullock, as a harried book editor, and Ryan Reynolds, as her long-suffering assistant. “Circumstances” (i.e. the cliched plot mechanism that puts the film’s story in motion) dictate that the duo have to pretend they’re married or else Bullock gets deported to Canada -- something that turns into massive shenanigans when Reynolds has to return home to Alaska in order to celebrate his grandmother’s birthday. A terrific supporting cast, including Betty White (as Reynolds’ nana), Craig T. Nelson and Mary Steenburgen make “The Proposal” a breezy treat, all of it capped by the totally-unsurprising but nevertheless satisfying romance that develops between its main characters. DVD/BD SPECS: Mostly shot in Massachusetts and Rhode Island (with locations ranging from Gloucester, Mass. to Newport, R.I. doubling for Alaska), “The Proposal” looks terrific on both DVD and Blu-Ray. The DVD includes a fine 16:9 (2.35) transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound and extras including an alternate ending, deleted scenes, outtakes and commentary. The Blu-Ray, meanwhile, boasts an even more pleasing AVC encoded transfer with DTS Master Audio sound, all the same extras, and an exclusive additional deleted scene. Surprisingly, the deleted sequences are only a couple of minutes long, and none detail third-billed Malin Akerman’s supporting character (Reynolds’ old high school love), who is almost totally removed from the finished film. Both versions also include a digital copy for portable media players. AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: “The Proposal” is lighthearted and charming fun, and ought to make for a top-selling title on both DVD and Blu-Ray this autumn.

MY FAIR LADY DVD (***½, 172 mins., G, 1964; CBS). THE RUNDOWN: New edition from CBS of the Lerner-Loewe musical classic, timelessly brought to the screen in 1964 by producer Jack L. Warner under the direction of George Cukor, offers basically a similar presentation as Warner’s now out-of-print DVD. The movie is reportedly mastered from the same 1997 restoration that Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz performed on the picture, and also offers most of the same special features from its prior DVD release. DVD SPECS: The 16:9 transfer is excellent and the 2.0 stereo sound satisfying as well, though I don’t happen to have a copy of the older DVD to do a comparison with. The commentary is a holdover from the prior DVD, as are the alternate Audrey Hepburn vocal tracks, vintage featurettes, posters, lobby cards, and trailers. The major omission seems to be the Jeremy Brett-hosted hour-long retrospective which was included in the prior two-disc DVD edition from Warner. AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: Those who already own the prior Warner DVD set can pass on this re-issue, which is mainly noteworthy in that it enables CBS to distribute the film themselves on video for the first time since the ‘80s (back when they were part of the CBS/Fox cartel). For everyone else the disc comes highly recommended, though hopefully CBS will bring “My Fair Lady” to Blu-Ray in the near future.    

THE BROTHERS BLOOM DVD (***, 113 mins., 2008, PG-13; Summit). THE RUNDOWN: Surprising, charming tale of two brothers (Mark Ruffalo and Adrien Brody), con artists extraordinaire, who attempt to make one last con by playing an eccentric heiress played by Rachel Weisz. Rian Johnson wrote and directed this disarming, globe-trotting caper with wonderful performances from the leads and a satisfying story to boot. DVD SPECS: Summit’s DVD includes commentary with the director and producer; deleted scenes (over 35 minutes’ worth); making of materials and an image gallery. The 16:9 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound are both excellent. AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: A terrific sleeper well worth catching on disc, though viewers should be aware Summit’s release is currently available for rental only.

ADORATION Blu-Ray (***, 101 mins., 2009, R; Sony). THE RUNDOWN: Atom Egoyan’s latest offering is a typically offbeat tale from the director, probing the depths of the human psyche as it details a high schooler who writes a story for class that his deceased father was a terrorist. It’s another absorbing, if convoluted, set up from Egoyan that’s filled with internal emotion and no easy answers, as well as gorgeous cinematography (courtesy of Paul Sarossy) and a low-key Mychael Danna score. BLU-RAY SPECS: Sony’s AVC transfer is brilliant and captures the layered visuals of Egoyan’s movie splendidly. DTS Master Audio sound and several extras (deleted scenes, Egoyan interview, Making Of, and BD-exclusive featurette “The Fabulous Picture Show”) round out the disc. AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: Egoyan’s movies appeal to a certain taste and aficionados of the filmmaker ought to find “Adoration” to be a mostly satisfying addition to the director’s filmography.

WHATEVER WORKS Blu-Ray (***, 92 mins., 2009, PG-13; Sony). THE RUNDOWN: Faced with an impending strike, Woody Allen dusted off an old script once intended for Zero Mostel and re-wrote it to suit the talents of “Curb Your Enthusiasm”’s Larry David. The resulting film, “Whatever Works,” may not be vintage ‘70s Woody, but it’s a lot more energetic -- and appreciably funnier -- than many of the filmmaker’s efforts in the past decade. David plays a bitter and neurotic (of course) New Yorker who improbably meets Evan Rachel Wood’s young southern runaway, and even more improbably falls in love with her. BLU-RAY SPECS: The sunny 1080p, AVC-encoded transfer and DTS Master Audio soundtrack are both top-notch. No extras are on-hand, however. AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: The second half stalls but “Whatever Works” is still a highly recommended title for Allen fanatics.    

YEAR ONE Blu-Ray (**, 97/100 mins., 2009, PG-13/Unrated; Sony). THE RUNDOWN: The promise of Harold Ramis teaming with “Office” scribes Gene Stupintsky and Lee Eisenberg for this prehistoric comedy sounded like a can’t-miss proposition -- even with stars Jack Black and Michael Cera performing the same shtick they’ve cultivated in every other film they’ve been in. Regrettably “Year One” is a dismal failure, its stars stumbling through a tired series of misfired gags and indifferent cameo appearances from the likes of Oliver Platt, David Cross, Hank Azaria, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Paul Rudd among others. BLU-RAY SPECS: Sony’s Blu-Ray edition of “Year One” is packed with extras, including both the theatrical and unrated versions of the movie, numerous deleted scenes, a gag reel, and exclusive BD Live extras. AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: Ramis has brought up the possibility of directing “Ghostbusters III” recently, going so far as to hand off the script to Stupintsky and Eisenberg. Sony might want to reconsider that combination again after the performance of this movie both with critics and audiences. Outside of a few, infrequent mild laughs, there’s not much in “Year One” to recommend.

New TV on DVD

The Peanuts gang make the move into high-definition for the first time with a new Blu-Ray combo pack of the classic special A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS (****, 1965, 25 mins., Warner).

Truth be told, Warner did an exceptional job remastering the immortal CBS TV special a couple of years ago, so the difference between the DVD and the Blu-Ray’s 1080p transfer is likely going to be noticed only by those with extremely large TV sets. The colors and contrasts all look terrific, but the prior DVD was so good, the Blu-Ray HD enhancement is only a minor one. Far more noticeable is the new 5.1 Dolby Digital mix, which satisfyingly gives a broader sound stage for Vince Guaraldi’s classic score.

Extras are reprieved from the prior standard-def DVD, including the decent “It’s Christmas Time Again, Charlie Brown” (also in HD and 5.1), along with a retrospective look at the special’s creation (in standard def). A standard DVD edition (offering the original mono soundtrack, which is otherwise not included on the BD) and digital copy (available to be accessed only through October 2011) round out the package.

DR. SEUSS’ HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS (***, 26 mins., 1966, Warner) is another holiday special making the move to high-def on Blu-Ray. Once again, Warner’s prior remastered DVD was so crisp that the BD only offers a moderate upgrade visually, so those with large HDTV’s are most likely to notice the difference.

A full slate of extras has been ported over from the prior disc as well, including commentary with animator Phil Roman and voice artist June Foray, a number of featurettes and supporting specials. The 2.0 audio is perfectly fine.

Available separately on DVD, meanwhile, is a new remastered edition of I WANT A DOG FOR CHRISTMAS, CHARLIE BROWN (***, 2003, 75 mins., Warner).

This appealing 2003 Peanuts cartoon retains much of the warmth from the classic Charlie Brown specials of yesteryear. Here, Rerun (Linus and Lucy's sibling) wants Santa to bring him a new dog for Christmas, and finds numerous obstacles put in his path. Ultimately, he tries to make Snoopy's wayward brother, Spike, into his own pet, with understandably mixed results.

Warner’s new DVD includes a colorful full-screen transfer with stereo sound, sporting a pleasing score by David Benoit, reprieving many of Vince Guaraldi's wonderful themes.

In addition to a new look at the character of Rerun, the disc also boasts the DVD debut of the 1985 special HAPPY NEW YEAR, CHARLIE BROWN, but alas, this is one of the weakest Peanuts efforts, offering a recycled story and a particularly painful musical number with music and lyrics by Ed Bogas and Desiree Goyette. Fans will want to see it here for the first time in many years regardless, but it’s far from the best work of its creators.

BROTHERHOOD: THE FINAL SEASON DVD (7 hours, 2009; CBS). SEASON BREAKDOWN: Showtime’s attempt to carve out their own “Sopranos”-like drama never quite reached the success of its HBO brethren, but Blake Masters’ series about a pair of Providence, R.I. siblings (Jason Isaacs, Jason Clarke) finishes its run with another solid season concluding the Caffee family drama. An excellent supporting cast (Annabeth Gish, Ethan Embry, Fionnula Flanagan) and authentic locations make this a treat. DVD RUNDOWN: CBS’ double-disc set includes 16:9 transfers and 5.1 soundtracks, but not much in the way of extras. AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: “Brotherhood” goes out in style with its final season. Viewers who might’ve missed it should check out CBS’ first two volumes before this satisfying final release.

MEDIUM: SEASON 5 DVD (aprx. 13 hours, 2009; CBS). SEASON BREAKDOWN: Patricia Arquette’s appealing performance as psychic mom Allison Dubois continues to anchor “Medium,” which finished its fifth season on NBC last spring facing the prospects of cancellation. Thankfully, fans had little reason to worry about its future as the series was quickly transitioned over to CBS on Friday nights, where it has already become the highest-rated show on the schedule (for what that’s worth these days with prime-time viewership plunging to new lows). Season five of the series develops Allison’s teen daughter Ariel’s blossoming psychic powers, while husband Joe (the fine Jake Weber) starts his own business. Glenn Gordon Caron’s mix of police procedural, supernatural thriller and domestic drama remains an interesting, entertaining view throughout Season 5. DVD RUNDOWN: Another excellent release from CBS, “Medium”’s fifth season is presented in crisp 16:9 transfers with 5.1 soundtracks and several featurettes. AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: “Medium” continues to be an offbeat and satisfying series that seems to be peaking in popularity since its move to CBS. Fans and viewers still catching up with earlier seasons of the series should be quite satisfied with CBS’ latest DVD edition.

HAWAII FIVE-0: Season 7 DVD (aprx. 20 hours, 1974-75; CBS). SEASON BREAKDOWN: Fans regard this seventh season of the classic long-running, prime-time series as another solid year for Jack Lord and company. Episodes in season seven include “The Young Assassins,” “A Hawaiian Nightmare,” “I'll Kill 'Em Again” (a particular fan favorite), “Steal Now -- Pay Later,” “Bomb, Bomb, Who's Got the Bomb?,” “Right Grave, Wrong Body,” “We Hang Our Own” (guest starring Leslie Nielsen), “The Two Faced Corpse,” “How to Steal a Masterpiece” (regarded by some fan sites as one of the series’ top shows), “A Gun For McGarrett,” “Welcome to Our Branch Office,” “ Presenting...in the Center Ring...Murder,” “Hara-Kiri: Murder” (with Ossie Davis), “Bones of Contention,” “Computer Killer,” “ Woman's Work is With a Gun,” “Small Witness, Large Crime,” “Ring of Life,” “A Study in Rage” (guest starring Richard Hatch), “And the Horse Jumped Over the Moon,” “Hit Gun for Sale,” “The Hostage,” “Diary of a Gun,” and “6,000 Deadly Tickets.” DVD RUNDOWN: Another high-quality presentation from CBS, season seven of “Hawaii Five-O” offers remastered full-screen transfers and mono soundtracks, along with episodic promos. A disclaimer remains about episodes being edited from their original network broadcasts. AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: Another wave of nostalgic entertainment from the prime of the series, absolutely recommended for series fans.

GIRLFRIENDS: Season 7 DVD (aprx. 8 hours, 2006-07; CBS). SEASON BREAKDOWN: Next-to-last season of the well-received UPN/CW sitcom offers 21 more episodes featuring a trio of L.A. girlfriends relating, romancing and making it through their day-to-day existence. DVD RUNDOWN: CBS’ three-disc DVD box-set includes superb 16:9 transfers and 5.1 stereo soundtracks, along with comments from creator Mara Brock Akil on selected episodes. AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: Well-written and performed “Girlfriends” began its ratings slide in its seventh season, even if the show maintained its above-average level of quality. For fans.

HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER: Season 4 Blu-Ray (528 mins., 2008-09, Fox). SEASON BREAKDOWN: One of CBS’ top rated (and critically acclaimed comedies) hits Blu-Ray for the first time in a fine box-set from Fox. A terrific ensemble cast (Josh Radnor, Colbie Smulders, Jason Segel, Allison Hannigan, and the hilarious Neil Patrick Harris) is back for another year of dating and assorted disasters in this savvy, smart chronicle of young people growing up and maturing through trial and (frequent) error. DVD RUNDOWN: The inaugural Blu-Ray release of “How I Met Your Mother” is right on par with Fox’s recent high-definition efforts: superb AVC encoded transfers and fine DTS Master Audio soundtracks are complimented by a few nice extras, including selected episode commentaries, a gag reel, music video, season three recap and panel discussion about the series. AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: “How I Met Your Mother” continues to be one of the few remaining shining lights on the sitcom front. Recommended!

THE UNIT: Season 4 Blu-Ray (968 mins., 2008-09, Fox). SEASON RUNDOWN: Dennis Haysbert and company’s CBS drama came to a close due to diminishing ratings last season. Subsequently, fans of the David Mamet co-created “The Unit” will have to make due with this final assortment of episodes featuring a covert military unit as they take on terrorists who this season go after the team with a more personal agenda. DVD RUNDOWN: The first Blu-Ray release of “The Unit” may be its last, but Fox has presented fans with a fitting goodbye, thanks to AVC encoded transfers, DTS Master Audio soundtracks, a number of featurettes and deleted scenes. AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: Well-cast and produced with top-notch production values (which may have been one of the reasons for the series’ cancellation), “The Unit” bids adieu on Blu with a fine five disc box-set. Recommended for fans.

LEGEND OF THE SEEKER: Season 1 DVD (946 mins., 2008-09; Buena Vista). SEASON RUNDOWN: Sam Raimi is one of the producers of this agreeable adventure fantasy series based on a series of novels by Terry Goodkind. “Legend of the Seeker” follows the exploits of Craig Horner’s young guide, who improbably becomes a hero as he teams up with the mysterious (and lovely) Bridget Regan and a wizard played by none other than Bruce Spence from “The Road Warrior” in order to defeat a demonic sorcerer from taking over the world. It’s not exactly “Hercules” or “Xena” but it is an attempt at re-channeling some of those series’ magic. DVD RUNDOWN: Excellent 16:9 transfers, 5.1 soundtracks, commentaries, deleted scenes, a Making Of featurette, and an interview with the series’ author comprise a robust DVD presentation. AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: Renewed for a second season that’s scheduled to begin in syndication next month, “Legend of the Seeker” is worth it for fantasy aficionados who still miss Kevin Sorbo and Lucy Lawless’ weekly exploits. It’s not quite on that level, but it’s quite watchable for what it is.

New From Criterion

Criterion’s slate for October is highlighted by a deluxe edition of Costa Gavras’s seminal late ‘60s effort Z (127 mins., 1969).

Loosely based on the early ‘60s assassination of Greek activist Gregoris Lambrakis, Yves Montand stars as a politician and doctor who is killed, leading to a government cover-up of his death. Jean-Louis Trintignant is the magistrate who subsequently crusades for justice in this dynamically shot, edited, and scored (kudos to Mikis Theodorakis) film which set the standard for many a political thriller to follow, and still is considered by many to be one of the finest films of its decade.

Criterion’s DVD edition includes a new high-def digital transfer (16:9, 1.66 widescreen, mono) of “Z” supervised by cinematographer Raoul Coutard, a commentary by Criterion regular Peter Cowie, new and archival interviews with Costa-Gravas and others, plus the trailer and an improved English subtitle translation.

Also out from Criterion is a double-disc edition of Mira Nair’s MONSOON WEDDING (114 mins., 2001), a tale of a middle-class Indian family and their arranged marriage for their only daughter.

Criterion’s set includes commentary from Nair, video interviews with cast and crew members, along with seven short movies from Nair, dating from the early ‘80s to the filmmaker’s reflections on 9/11 and other segments that aficionados of the director will find to be particularly compelling.

DVD Capsules

DOGFIGHTS The Complete Seires DVD (aprx. 24 hours, 2006-08; History/NewVideo): Acclaimed and popular History Channel series returns to DVD in a conveniently packaged, affordable “Megaset.” Offering the complete contents of the series’ first (chronicling Guadalcanal, Korea, and Vietnam fighter pilots) and second (flashing back to WWI and ahead to Desert Storm) seasons, along with the speculative “Dogfights of the Future” episodes, the “Dogfights” series plunges viewers into the cockpit with a mix of archival footage, new historian interviews and adequate CGI animation. Transfers and soundtracks are solid across the board, while extras include the original pilot “Dogfights: The Greatest Air Battles,” plus additional scenes and other supplements. Highly recommended for history buffs.

PATTON 360: Season 1 DVD (aprx. 8 hours, 2009; History/NewVideo): Interesting History Channel series uses decent CGI animation to detail the heroic campaigns of Gen. George S. Patton in the North African and European theaters of WWII. Aided by archival footage and historian interviews, this is an insightful new take on well-discussed material. Well worth it for WWII aficionados.

TOP CHEF: NEW YORK Season 5 DVD (aprx. 12 hours; Bravo): The highest-rated food show on cable (no easy feat given the competition these days) is back in its fifth season, now out on DVD courtesy of Bravo. All-star chefs and entertainers from Martha Stewart to Rocco DiSpirito are on-hand to crown another Top Chef in the Big Apple. Bravo’s DVD includes extended interviews, cooking demos, an exclusive cookbook and PC game (!) demo.

EXPEDITION AFRICA Blu-Ray (aprx. 6 hours; History/NewVideo): The History Channel and “Survivor” producer Mark Burnett teamed up for this historically-slanted reality series following four renowned explorers who attempt to retrace Stanley’s search for Dr. Livingstone in the demanding terrain of darkest Africa. All eight episodes of “Expedition Africa” are on-hand in vivid HD transfers here, along with a behind-the-scenes documentary and extensive additional footage.

ASSASSINATION OF A HIGH SCHOOL PRESIDENT DVD (**, 93 mins., 2008, R; Sony): Yari Film Group went belly up last year, leaving this not-bad (but not really that good) high school comedy to basically go straight to video. Reece Daniel Thompson plays an intrepid school newspaper reporter who writes a story blaming the theft of SAT tests on the school’s top athlete and class president; deemed a hero by all, including his would-be culprit’s ex-girlfriend (Mischa Barton) and the wacky principal (an off-the-wall Bruce Willis), Thompson becomes popular...until he finds out his target might have been framed. Brett Simon’s movie is watchable but awfully uneven, perking up mainly when Willis shows up. Sony’s DVD includes a slew of deleted, alternate and extended scenes along with commentary from the filmmakers, who tell us that the movie was in even worse shape before some editing room work (sorry guys, your cutting room floor efforts didn’t entirely work). The 16:9 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack are both excellent.
JACKASS: THE LOST TAPES DVD (104 mins., 2009; MTV): Fans of the rowdy MTV stunt-comedy-reality series will enjoy this potpourri of “lost” sketches, original series introductions, credit montages, and footage that never made it to the airwaves. As always, a little bit of this goes a long way but it’s hard to deny there aren’t a few laughs to be found at times.

NICK SWARDSON: SERIOUSLY, WHO FARTED? DVD (59 mins., 2009; Comedy Central): Extended and uncensored Comedy Central special with the comedian and occasional movie supporting star (see “Blades of Glory”) boasts numerous, tongue-in-cheek extras and uncensored content.

GREG GIRALDO: MIDLIFE VOICES DVD (67 mins., 2009; Comedy Central): The comic best known for his appearances on Comedy Central’s Roast programs gets his first special in this hour-long Comedy Central production. This stand-up special boasts uncensored content as well as a never-before-seen “Adult Content” pilot.

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