11/11/08 Edition -- The AISLE SEAT BLOG Is Also Live

November Mania Edition
COSBY and BATMAN boxes reviewed
Plus: disney trasures, CLONE WARS & More!

Growing up in the ‘80s I used to love Thursday afternoons. Right after getting out of school I would have my weekly piano lesson at Mrs. Moore’s house in nearby Greenville, Rhode Island -- and even though I grew disinterested in the piano and barely practiced as the years passed, I loved Mrs. Moore, her husband (a librarian at Brown University), and going over to their house late in the day for an hour of stories, cocktails (I was the last student and could hear Mr. Moore cooking up dinner about midway through my lesson), and...every once in a while...a bit of piano playing mixed in. They were an elderly couple and some of the kindest people I’ve ever met, and I remember them fondly years later for their wry sense of humor, generosity and so many loving memories.

That was usually followed by an Italian dinner back home, maybe a bit of the Boston Bruins and -- come 8pm -- the Thursday night comedies, including “Cheers” and THE COSBY SHOW.

Cosby’s NBC series set the standard for family situation comedies, and it’s bittersweet to see it now because there’s nothing resembling it on the air these days. Winning numerous Emmys among other honors, critical adoration, and some of the highest ratings of any series of the 1980s, “The Cosby Show” was smart, funny, insightful, and seemingly “real” -- as Cosby himself mentions in this new DVD package’s booklet notes, the show was about parents who had “taken back the household,” and in the form of Cliff and Claire Huxtable (Cosby and Phylicia Rashad), etched a pair of memorable and relatable parental units, strong role models that came at a time when divorce rates soared in the late ‘70s and ‘80s.

Cosby had a hard time following the series -- between his “Cosby Mysteries” series on NBC and an ill-advised CBS sitcom in the late ‘90s (again with Rashad playing his wife), the comedian-star couldn’t really shake his identification with Cliff Huxtable and his clan, but it’s not hard to see why. With sharp writing, warm characters and big laughs, few series have ever captured the meaning of family and the interaction within it the way “The Cosby Show” does -- especially in its first few seasons, which I would rank with the finest of any TV series.

First Look Entertainment has brought the entire, eight-season run of “The Cosby Show” back to DVD in an outstanding 25th Anniversary Special Edition that hits stores this week. Though Urbanworks and First Look issued the series on DVD over the last few years in a series of individual season sets, this new DVD box is superior in that it presents the first, and best, season of the show in its unexpurgated broadcast-length form for the first time since its NBC run (Urbanworks mistakenly utilized syndicated masters for their prior Season 1 box-set release).

The full-screen transfers and stereo soundtracks are satisfying across all eight seasons, while the packaging is excellent, presenting the series in dual-season fold-out covers inside a deluxe, hardcover external package. Supplements abound, from the original Season 1 DVD extras (deleted scenes, Jay Sandrich commentary and interview) to the terrific 90-minute “A Look Back” special. Meanwhile, a hardcover book includes the original pilot script plus a list of guest stars (with appropriate episodes denoted) while a Cosby letter with a Hirschfeld print rounds out a box-set that’s worth every penny for “Cosby Show” fans.

Another outstanding compilation hits DVD this week as Warner releases the Complete BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES.

As producer Alan Burnett describes in his liner notes, this early ‘90s cartoon adaptation of the Caped Crusader couldn’t have happened at a better time: fresh off the success of the Tim Burton “Batman” films and armed with a network in Fox that was seeking a more “mature” cartoon to augment their Saturday morning line-up, Burnett, Paul Dini, Bruce Timm and the other minds behind this marvelous series employed a brilliant approach. Instead of tackling a straight adaptation of the DC Comics hero for kids, or going entirely “dark” the way an animated Christopher Nolan version would, the producers opted to take the best elements of all past “Batman” comics, shows and films, and come up with a distinctly “retro” looking cartoon with plenty of action and heroic adventure for kids, but also developed story lines and characterizations  that would satisfy adults as well.

The resulting show is still one of the finest Batman renditions seen in any medium, if not perhaps the definitive “Batman”: with strong vocal work from Kevin Conroy as Bruce Wayne and Mark Hamill as the Joker leading the way, to the stylized, splendid animation, no other “Batman” has been able to bridge the gap between all the various adaptations of Bob Kane’s character (from the ‘60s show to the Burton films and the more serious overtones of Frank Miller’s “Dark Knight”) so satisfyingly.

Warner previously issued four separate volumes of “Batman: The Animated Series” on DVD in superb multi-disc box-sets. This new, commemorative box-set improves the packaging, offering an oversized, “slide-out” box featuring streamlined cases for the four volumes of the series, plus a bonus disc sporting an account of Batman’s animated past. Featuring interviews from Timm to Dini and backed by copious clips from the Filmation ‘60s cartoon through the “Superfriends” and the recent “Batman: Gotham Knight” direct-to-video effort, this is a nice bonus for fans, while the original DVD’s featurettes and commentaries are also reprieved and spread across the respective platters.

It’s capped off by a deluxe color booklet sporting beautiful preliminary art and storyboards from the series, the before-mentioned note from Burnett and a list of each disc’s contents.

For “Batman” fans I’m not sure if the set is worth a repurchase if you already own the original box-sets (the main difference is the packaging and the bonus disc), but if you’ve never owned the series before, this is my favorite “Batman” and an essential pick-up for comic book aficionados.

Unquestionably recommended!

More box-set madness also arrives on disc this week with the eighth (has it been that long?) wave of “Walt Disney Treasures” limited edition tins. These sets offer a smattering of magic from the studio’s vaults, each with introductions from Leonard Maltin, a serialized certificate of authenticity and collectible art among other extras. Unlike prior releases, though, the sets are limited to a very small (comparatively speaking) pressing run of just 39,500 units each, so collectors are advised to perhaps act a bit more urgently with these editions than they may have with past “Treasures” releases.

For animation fans the focus will be on THE CHRONOLOGICAL DONALD, VOL. 4, offering 31 shorts starring Disney’s beloved duck produced between 1951 and 1961. Enthusiasts will be particularly intrigued by this batch as it includes a selection of Cinemascope cartoons presented here for the first time in their original 2.35 aspect ratios (16:9 enhanced), making the package even more significant for aficionados (also on-hand is “Working For Peanuts,” Donald’s lone sojourn into 3-D!).

Extras include commentary by Maltin and animation expert Jerry Beck, plus a “Donald Goes To Press” retrospective look at Donald’s comic book legacy and storyboards for an unproduced cartoon.

Annette Funicello takes center stage in THE MICKEY MOUSE CLUB PRESENTS: ANNETTE, a compilation of a 20-episode serial produced for the daily “Mickey Mouse Club” TV series starring Funicello as an orphaned country girl sent to live with her more metropolitan relatives. Plenty of songs are included along the way, plus the respective, full-length “Mickey Mouse Club” episodes that bookended the serial’s run.

Special features include a 1992 interview with Funicello and fellow teen idol (and later “Beach Party” co-star) Frankie Avalon (Paul Anka and Fabian are along for good measure), plus a newly produced tribute to America’s favorite Mouseketeer.

Finally there’s DR. SYN, ALIAS THE SCARECROW, a three-part adventure with Patrick McGoohan starring as the swashbuckling pirate hero of Russell Thorndike’s early 20th century novels (note that the Syn character also appeared in “Night Creatures,” a 1962 Hammer adaptation, albeit under the changed name “Parson Blyss” to avoid rights issues with Disney’s version).

Produced for the “Wonderful World of Disney,” this exciting 1963 production is good fun for viewers of all ages, and is presented beautifully by Disney on DVD in its 1.66 widescreen aspect ratio for the first time (16:9 enhanced), as well as in a new 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack (purists need not worry since the original mono mix is also included).

Disney has also included the British theatrical feature that was extracted from the series, as well as a featurette on the Dr. Syn legend, a profile of Disney’s UK studio, and Walt’s original TV introductions.

Each tin retails for $32.99 and offers a wealth of nostalgic memories for fans. Highly recommended!

New From Criterion

In addition to releasing the label’s first line of Blu-Ray discs later this month (which we’re eager to get our hands on, admittedly), Criterion has a diverse trio of new discs on the docket for November.

Martin Ritt’s adaptation of THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD (112 mins.) highlights the slate, the 1965 film being a taut yet complicated rendering of John Le Carre’s novel. As adapted by “Planet of the Apes” scribe Paul Dehn and Guy Trosper, the movie follows Richard Burton as a tired, burned-out British spy who spurns a desk job and is assigned to eliminate East German agent Oskar Werner ("Fahrenheit 451"). In the process, Burton gets involved with librarian Claire Bloom at his phony day job, and ultimately finds out that any battle waged during the Cold War is a futile one.

Leisurely paced and densely plotted, Ritt’s “Spy” was seen as a serious, “intellectual” alternative to the James Bond phenomenon of the ‘60s, and is best remembered today for Burton’s performance, Oswald Morris’ crisp black-and-white cinematography, and an uncompromising screenplay that illustrates the dangers and amorality of the “real” world of espionage.

Criterion’s double-disc DVD set includes a beautiful 16:9 (1.85) new widescreen transfer with an interview with John Le Carre; a selected-scene commentary with Morris; a 2000 BBC profile of the author; a 1967 interview with Richard Burton from the BBC series “Acting in the ‘60s”; a 1985 audio conversation with Ritt and historian Patrick McGilligan; a gallery of set designs; and the original trailer.

French star Gerard Philipe, meanwhile, swashbuckled his way into the heart of Gina Lollobrigida in Christian Jaque’s 1952 film FANFAN LA TULIPE (99 mins.), which also arrives on DVD this month from Criterion.

This French film favorite from the decade includes a restored black-and-white transfer (1.33 full-screen) with a new video program about the star; a clip from the colorized version of the film; the original trailer; an essay from critic Kenneth Turan; and an optional English dubbed soundtrack for the picture.

Wong Kar-Wai’s CHUNGKING EXPRESS (1994, 102 mins.) completes the recent assortment of new Criterion titles. This dreamy, slow-moving but beautifully produced tale of failed relationships, heartbreak and the affect that love can have makes for a splendid addition to the Criterion catalog, offering a new 16:9 (1.66) widescreen transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack, each supervised by Wong; commentary from Asian cinema expert Tony Rayns; a 1996 British TV episode “Moving Pictures” with Wong; the original trailer; and a new, improved English subtitle translation.

New on Blu-Ray

Colorfully animated and packed with good looking visuals, STAR WARS - THE CLONE WARS (**½, 98 mins., 2008, PG; Warner) hits both platforms this week following a quick trip from theaters to the small screen.

George Lucas’ latest attempt at keeping his franchise alive comes on the heels of Genndy Tartakovsky’s Cartoon Network animated series from a few years back -- one that’s, curiously, now out of print completely on DVD, presumably because of this full-fledged CGI version that basically covers the same narrative terrain (Anakin, Obi-Wan, Yoda and co. waging the good fight against Count Dooku and the droid army).

Though intended for broadcast, Lucas and his staff apparently decided to launch the new series first on the big-screen -- similar to what Universal and NBC did with “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century” nearly 30 years ago. However, unlike that Gil Gerard series of the late ‘70s, this “Clone Wars” isn’t so much a standalone film as it is a group of stories and, seemingly, episodes that have been stitched together as a rather flimsy -- albeit great-looking -- feature.

It’s also one that’s basically aimed right at kids, with Anakin taking on a young Padawan named Ahsoka Tano and the story offering lots of action at a breakneck pace. In the end, “The Clone Wars” is fairly juvenile but attractive to look at, with Warner’s Blu-Ray disc boasting a beautiful VC-1 encoded transfer with Dolby TrueHD audio, sporting a rollicking, if decidedly un-Williams like, Kevin Kiner score.

Extras include a video commentary from director Dave Filoni and his crew, plus a number of deleted scenes and featurettes in HD, including a profile of Kevin Kiner composing his music and tie-ins with the currently-airing (and reportedly quite successful) Cartoon Network series.

More enjoyable sci-fi is present in Fox’s Blu-Ray release of Joss Whedon’s short-lived but beloved FIREFLY (665 mins., 2002), which needs little introduction for most viewers.

Fox’s three-disc Blu-Ray edition of “Firefly” is a basic reprise -- albeit now in HD -- of the bestselling original DVD box-set. All 14 episodes are presented in great-looking AVC-encoded transfers with DTS Master Audio sound; while this was, of course, a Fox TV series, the show had strong production values and the HD transfers indicate more of a cinematic sensibility than most television series boast.

Deleted scenes, cast audition footage, a gag reel, three featurettes and selected episode commentaries are carryovers from the prior DVD, but fans will be thrilled to see a new “Cast Roundtable” with Joss Whedon, Nathan Fillion, Alan Tudyk and Ron Glass discussing the series’ enduring legacy.

“Firefly” buffs will be thrilled with the package here, while Universal is planning on bringing “Serenity” to Blu-Ray in the near future.

Horrors From Down Under

Synapse Films has unearthed three low-key chillers from the land Down Under in brand-new Special Editions.

Rod Hardy’s 1979 chiller THIRST (***, 93 mins., 1979, R) is good fun, starring beautiful Chantal Contouri as a woman who’s kidnapped by a cult of bloodthirsty modern-day bloodsuckers led by David Hemmings as “Dr. Gauss.” Soon Contouri finds out that she’s destined to become their new queen, and is brainwashed into joining the fray even though these vamps have to put fake teeth in before sucking their victims’ blood!

Shot impressively in widescreen and scored by Brain May, “Thirst” works mainly because of Contouri’s compelling performance. The supporting cast veers from serviceable to mildly disinterested (Henry Silva, Max Phipps, Shirley Cameron among them), while there are a few unintended laughs, such as when Silva’s lifeless body bounces on top of a power line -- and “lifeless” is right, since the dummy that was used doesn’t seem remotely convincing!

Nevertheless, in spite of that and a somewhat unsatisfying ending, the film has a fresh and involving story line, and Contouri is fetching, making “Thirst” a solid candidate for horror fans.

Synapse’s DVD is a keeper as well, sporting a 16:9 (2.35) remastered transfer from the best surviving scope print. The mono sound is okay, while a number of extras include commentary from director Hardy and producer Anthony Ginnane, an isolated score track (in mono) of May’s score, trailers and TV spots, a photo gallery, and cast/crew biographies.

Another Australian effort from the same period, DARK FORCES [aka HARLEQUIN] (**½, 95 mins., 1980, PG) is a bizarre fantasy about a politician (David Hemmings) whose son is saved by a charismatic magician (Robert Powell) in an odd early work from director Simon Wincer.

Again shot in widescreen and scored by Brian May (another isolated score is on-hand here as well), “Dark Forces” is a strange and quite watchable movie in spite of its dated aspects, and Synapse’s DVD is full of solid extras: another fascinating commentary track with Anthony Ginnane and director Wincer pays tribute to the Australian film industry of the era, while a trailer gallery, stills gallery, and filmographies round out the disc, which comes presented in a reasonably healthy 16:9 (2.35) transfer with mono sound.

Before director Michael Laughlin and writer Bill Condon collaborated on their wonderfully old-fashioned 1983 homage to ‘50s sci-fi flicks, “Strange Invaders,” the duo hooked up for the demented 1981 effort STRANGE BEHAVIOR (***, 99 mins., R), a tale of small towns, a mad scientist, murders and other shenanigans in 1950s styled settings (even though the movie is set in the “present”).

A weird mix of ideas but produced with such enthusiasm it’s hard not to get swept up in the mood, “Strange Behavior” is entertaining fun for both ‘50s and ‘80s horror buffs, as it seeks to pay homage to the past while incorporating what were then more contemporary elements -- such as one of Tangerine Dream’s better scores. With a game cast (Michael Murphy, Louise Fletcher, Marc McClure, Scott Wilson) and excellent widescreen photography, “Strange Behavior” is an offbeat sleeper that comes strongly recommended for buffs.

Synapse’s DVD includes deleted scenes, a commentary track (from an earlier 2003 release) with Condon, Laughlin and co-star Dey Young, the trailer, and another isolated score track. The 16:9 (2.35) transfer is perfectly acceptable though the print, as with “Deadly Forces” and “Thirst,” does show occasional blemishes -- to be expected given the age of the materials and each film’s modest budget.

DVD Short Takes

WATERWORLD: Extended Edition (***, 136 [theatrical] and 177 mins. [extended]., 1995, PG-13; Universal): Kevin Costner and Kevin Reynolds’ much-derided and yet surprisingly entertaining 1995 sci-fi epic is back on DVD in a new double-disc edition highlighting its extended TV version.

First broadcast on ABC, the two-part (here combined into one single 177-minute program) version of “Waterworld” features a great deal of added character development as well as an interesting coda to the picture’s ending. Fans have enjoyed this version for years on cable TV rebroadcasts so it’s terrific to see Universal finally releasing the longer “Waterworld” on DVD in a good-looking 16:9 (1.85) transfer as well. Fans should note though that, despite the enhanced picture quality, this edition really is the TV version, down to some profanity over-dubs popping up here and there.

The original theatrical cut is also here, with both versions being supported by strong 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks. Until a Blu-Ray version (hopefully of both cuts) surfaces, this is the definitive “Waterworld” to date on home video.

ANIMAL HOUSE: 30th Anniversary Edition (***½, 109 mins., 1978, R; Universal): John Landis’ seminal college comedy is back on DVD yet again, this time in a double-disc 30th Anniversary Edition from Universal. This time, though, the new bonus features are fairly disposable, mainly comprised of two “Scene It?” interactive games utilizing clips and questions from the movie. A good amount of extras from past releases includes two different documentaries, one a proper retrospective on the film (from the 1998 laserdisc), the other a “mockumentary” featuring cast members returning in their original roles. The 16:9 (1.85) transfer looks to be on par with the last “Double Secret Probation” release, while 5.1 Dolby Digital and mono sound are also on-hand.

SCRUBS: Season 7 (2007-08, 236 mins.; Buena Vista): More craziness at Sacred Heart Hospital with Elliot, Turk and the gang is on-tap in this seventh (hard to believe) season of Bill Lawrence’s long-running, if still only moderately viewed, medical comedy. This final season for the series on NBC (it’s moving to ABC for its eighth season) hits DVD this week with 11 episodes presented in full-screen transfers and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound with alternate lines, deleted scenes, bloopers, cast and crew commentaries, and a couple of Making Of featurettes comprising the supplemental section.

NEXT TIME: KUNG FU PANDA and TROPIC THUNDER on DVD & Blu-Ray! Until then, don't forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards, check out the Aisle Seat Blog, and direct any emails to our email address.  Cheers everyone!

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