The new TV season is once again underway, and forgive me if I'm not jumping up and down over the latest CSI spin-off (what's next? "CSI: Scranton"?).
As the major networks try and extract more ratings out of pre-fab franchises like the CBS crime drama and NBC's endless "Law & Order" rip-offs (or spin-offs, as they're officially called), a few shows with some original ideas do find their way through the cracks. If you blink, however, you're likely to miss them, as anything that seems to stray from the norm and offer something fresh doesn't last too long. (That's one reason to check out J.J. Abrams' new ABC series, "Lost," which has played through two episodes like a bona-fide cinematic event, complete with Michael Giacchino score).
Case in point is POPULAR (1999-2000, six discs, Buena Vista), Ryan Murphy and Gina Matthews' often hilarious high school comedy which ran for two seasons on The WB. Murphy has since moved on to F/X's acclaimed "Nip/Tuck," but his satirical chops and penchant for off-the-wall humor can be clearly seen in this series, which Buena Vista has thankfully released on DVD in a six-disc First Season box-set, featuring the series' inaugural 22 episodes.
Colorfully cast, written and produced, "Popular" follows reluctant step-siblings Leslie Bibb and Carly Pope -- from divergent high school circles -- as they try and survive the day to day grind of classes, cliques and the usual relationship issues. Both have contrasting sets of friends, who mix and mingle with often pointed insights and outrageously campy in-jokes through each and every episode.
"Popular" was smarter and funnier than any of The WB's teen offerings of its time (say, "Dawson's Creek"), yet the show became so unhinged that the network ultimately canceled the series after toning down some of its inventiveness in its second season. While it might have been canned before its time, "Popular" still plays splendidly and hasn't dated at all, which is why Buena Vista's DVD box set comes highly recommended. The transfers are perfectly colorful and while the supplements are sparse (only commentaries on a few episodes with cast members and Murphy are included), this is a highly entertaining show that's well worth checking out -- especially if you never saw it (and I'm betting most of you didn't) -- on DVD.
That aspect can be witnessed in Fox's Second Season box set of the series, which includes all 21 episodes from "Roswell"'s sophomore season. While it never fell into an outright slump, the program did lose some of its effectiveness for a time -- unwisely killing off Colin Hanks's likable character Alex, falling into formulaic sci-fi techno- babble, and taking the focus off the core group of kids, namely protagonist Max's romantic involvement with human girlfriend Liz.
Despite its sometimes rocky second year, "Roswell" still garnered a die-hard fan base that enabled the series to keep going for a third season, and it's true that the later second season episodes got the show back on-track. Those fans will be most satisfied by Fox's DVD package, which includes select audio commentaries, the featurette "Here With Me: The Making of Season Two," storyboards, a cute new interview with stars Shiri Appleby and Mejandra Delfino, a brief five-minute conversation with composer Joe Morris, storyboards, and a music video montage entitled "A Little Something Extra For the Fans." The 1.85 (16:9 enhanced) transfers are excellent, as is the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, which like the First Season box set, offers some re-scored songs on the soundtrack.
If you've never caught "Crank Yankers," the premise is simple: comics like co-creators Jimmy Kimmel and Adam Carolla make actual crank calls to unsuspecting folks in the phone book (from public libraries to motels and convenience stores), all the while Muppet-like puppets give an added comedic dimension to the visuals.
The show is straightforward but the calls are often uproarious, and some of the comics' alter-egos (like Tracy Morgan's Spoonie) have become popular recurring characters on the series. Along with "South Park" and the hilarious "Chappelle's Show," "Crank Yankers" is pretty much as good as it gets for laughs on basic cable.
Paramount's two-disc set includes the show's initial 10 episodes, along with two unaired calls and an amusing behind-the-scenes featurette, "Dial 'T' For Torment: A Mini Documentary." The full-screen transfers are impeccable and the bouncy stereo sound also solid.
I firmly recall watching the NBC series on many occasions growing up -- even the "Parental Discretion Advised" episodes that included Arnold Drummond (Gary Coleman) and pal Dudley (Shavar Ross) being molested by a seemingly benign bicycle store owner played by Gordon Jump. That episode still sends shivers down my spine ("he tried to touch me, dad!"), but my memories of watching "Diff'frent Strokes" as a kid are mostly warm and nostalgic.
Going back to show on DVD was a surprise, since while I remember the series being drippy with emotion and dumb comedy (aimed primarily at kids), "Diff'frent Strokes" is actually a lot more topical and smart than I realized as a young viewer. Today's sitcoms rarely take chances tackling real issues, but "Diff'frent Strokes" deftly mixed juvenile humor with the occasional "serious" story line in a way that made it accessible to viewers of all ages. Because of that, it's no wonder why the series lasted as long as it did on the air (finally departing from the airwaves in 1986).
Columbia's three-disc DVD set includes all 24 first season episodes of "Diff'frent Strokes," which co-star Charlotte Rae as Edna Garrett, the Drummonds' housekeeper (she would leave the show at the end of the year for the hit spin-off "The Facts of Life," with the last episode basically serving as a pilot for that series).
The set's transfers are off the original video tape and look pretty good all things considered, and Columbia has gone the extra mile here by including a retrospective with new interviews with Conrad Bain, Todd Bridges, writer Fred Rubin, and several producers of the series. Rubin also provides audio commentary on a few episodes, divulging a few fun anecdotes that fans of the show should enjoy.
While Gary Coleman's absence is surprising, this is '70s TV on DVD the way it should be done, with added special features enhancing a nice package overall. Recommended -- and there should be no need for "Whatchoo Talkin' Bout, Dursman?" here!
Several catalog titles have recently been re-packaged on DVD with new special features, all of them at bargain prices (under $15) as well.
Brian DePalma's THE UNTOUCHABLES (****, 1987, 119 mins., R, Paramount) still ranks as one of the finest films for its director, writer David Mamet, as well as stars Kevin Costner, Robert DeNiro, and Sean Connery, who deservedly copped an Oscar for his role here as a tough Chicago cop.
Paramount's first DVD release was a 16:9 enhanced, no-frills DVD with a decent transfer and 5.1 sound. The new disc also offers a 2.35 (16:9 enhanced) transfer, as well as 5.1 EX and Surround soundtracks that are an enhancement on the earlier release.
Even better is Laurent Bouzereau's four-part Making Of featurette ("The Script, The Cast"; "Production Stories"; "Reinventing the Genre"; "The Classic"), which includes new interviews with DePalma, producer Art Linson, co-star Charles Martin Smith, and cinematographer Stephen Burum. Running about an hour all told, this is a solid Making Of that examines the production from DePalma's initial attachment to the script through casting (Mel Gibson was interested at one point) and box-office success. The new interviews are interspersed with vintage clips of Costner, Connery, etc. on the set, and some revealing anecdotes are passed along, including how Bob Hoskins was paid off after the studio insisted on DeNiro taking the role of Al Capone. DePalma, meanwhile, discusses working with composer Ennio Morricone, whose score "lifted" Smith, Costner, and Garcia out of their seats at a preview screening in New York. The original trailer and vintage featurette ("The Men") round out this essential DVD purchase.
"Footloose" premiered on DVD two years ago, and this Collector's Edition easily surpasses the previous disc with two new commentary tracks: one by star Kevin Bacon, another with producer Craig Zadan and writer Dean Pitchford. Both discussions are laid back and insightful, recalling with some nostalgia the creation of a bona-fide '80s cinematic staple. A 30-minute Making Of featurette, "A Modern Musical," recounts the production with new interviews with Bacon, John Lithgow, Pitchford, Lori Singer and Chris Penn, all fondly remembering the Utah location shooting. The 13-minute "Songs That Tell a Story" examines the movie's soundtrack, which became a chart-topping smash shortly after the picture's release, sporting comments from Kenny Loggins and other artists. The widescreen transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound are both excellent, and the original trailer is also included.
"Deep Impact," meanwhile, also receives a new Special Edition with a 30-minute featurette examining the film's evolution from Bruce Joel Rubin's original draft to Michael Tolkin's involvement and the production of Mimi Leder's film. All three are interviewed with extensive special effects footage on-hand, along with a brief discussion of the film's editing (Leder says she cut several scenes between Elijah Wood and Leelee Sobieski after test screenings, though only brief clips of said sequences are shown). Leder and F/X supervisor Scott Farrar are also on-hand to provide a commentary track on the film, which I found vastly superior to the similarly-themed "Armageddon," and holds up well in Paramount's DVD. The disc sports an excellent 2.35 transfer, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, photo gallery, and two theatrical trailers.
Automat Pictures produced the DVD's new special features, which aren't comprehensive (a Walter Hill commentary might have been nice), but still add a bit of value to the presentation. The ten-minute "East Meets West" looks at Carolco execs Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna, how they formed their production house that cranked out countless memorable '80s epics, and their role in producing the Walter Hill film. Additional featurettes look at the movie's stunts and character actor Ed O'Ross, while a full compliment of trailers and TV spots round out the disc.
ALADDIN (***, 1991). 90 mins., G, Disney. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: 2-Disc Special Edition with enhanced animation, 5.1 Dolby Digital Remix, New Music Videos, Commentary, Making Of, Deleted Song; Extensive Making Of includes Alan Menken featurette, recording session footage; 1.66 Widescreen.
Though not my favorite of Disney's Alan Menken-Howard Ashman musicals, the ribald humor of "Aladdin" still holds up as superior family entertainment, and Disney's long-awaited Platinum DVD Edition is another must-have for all laserphiles.
The movie itself looks smashing in its "first-ever digital presentation," meaning that the picture has been cleaned up and a few alterations made to the animation -- nothing drastic, but enough that die-hard "Aladdin" fans will likely discern the difference. On the audio side, two Dolby Digital soundtracks are included -- the film's original 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack, and a specially remixed "home theater" version as well. In addition, a pair of new music video performances are featured on the set's first disc: one by Clay Aiken (on the superb deleted song "Proud of Your Boy"), the other a cover of "A Whole New World" by flavors-of-the-moment Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson (they're no match for Peabo Bryson and Regina Belle, whose original version is thankfully also included).
Even better are the copious supplements found on the second disc, highlighted by the 109-minute "Diamond in the Rough: The Making of 'Aladdin'," which includes excerpts from a conversation between host Leonard Maltin and all of the project's creative talent in front of a live L.A. audience. Following the project from its inception as "Magic Carpet" through its ultimate release, this is an in-depth, fascinating documentary sporting conceptual art, countless interviews, rare recording session footage and more. Colorfully presented and comprehensive in scope, this is easily one of the finest DVD "Making Of" segments in recent memory -- essential viewing for all Disneyphiles.
The DVD also sports a terrific 20-minute featurette on Alan Menken ("Musical Renaissance Man"), who recalls working with his late partner Howard Ashman, discusses his work for Disney and "Aladdin" in particular, and his collaboration with Tim Rice. It's a nice overview of Menken's work for the studio and a terrific bonus on the disc as a whole.
Interactive games for kids, a pair of deleted workprint scenes, and lavish packaging make this one of the most entertaining DVDs of the year to date. Highly recommended!
SAVED! (***, 92 mins., 2004, PG-13; MGM): Funny, observant comedy set at a Christian high school where popular girl Jena Malone finds out her boyfriend is gay -- setting in motion a satire of religious hypocrisy, high school life, and growing up in general. Brian Dannelly's film was the subject of much controversy last spring, but "Saved!" isn't a condemnation of religion as much as it is a scathing indictment of some of the supposedly faithful followers who practice much less than they preach. The movie gets solid mileage out of Malone's lead performance, as well as supporting work turned in by Macaulay Culkin, Mandy Moore, and Eva Amurri (Susan Sarandon's daughter). MGM's Special Edition DVD is a keeper as well, with two commentaries (by the filmmakers, as well as Moore and Malone), deleted scenes, bloopers, the original trailer, and behind-the-scenes featurette. The 1.85 transfer is fine and the 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack also solid, featuring a capable score by Christophe Beck.
Fearless Vampire Killers
North and South (mini-series)
Roswell Season 2
Shawshank Redemption (Special Edition re-issue)
Tanner '88 (Criterion)
Untouchables (Special Edition re-issue)
Battle of Algiers (Criterion)
Day After Tomorrow
Salem's Lot (terrible new mini-series version)
Seven Brides For Seven Brothers
That's Entertainment (box set)
Taxi: Season 1
Wackiest Ship in the Army
A Cinderella Story
Dracula (1979; new date)
Ed Wood (we hope!)
Eye Without a Face (Criterion)
Fat Girl (Criterion)
Fire in the Sky
Hellboy (Director's Cut)
SCTV (Box Set #2)
Secret Honor (Criterion)
Species (Special Edition re-issue)
Universal Soldier (SE re-issue)
Dawn of the Dead (2004)
Garfield: Holiday Celebrations
Happy Birthday To Me
Mulan: Special Edition
The Thing (1982, Re-issue, 16:9)