11/14/06 Edition

Filmation's STAR TREK Beams Up
Andy Reviews The Animated Adventures, Now on DVD!
Plus: POLICE SQUAD!, FAMILY GUY, Disney's CARS and Criterion's VERONIQUE

While fans have debated for decades over its standing in the pantheon of Gene Roddenberry’s universe, there’s little question in my mind that STAR TREK: THE ANIMATED ADVENTURES (1973-75) deserves to be placed in the “official” canon of the Trek galaxy.

The last among the respective Star Trek series to reach DVD, there was some question if this Emmy-winning, early ‘70s Filmation adaptation of “Star Trek” would be revived at all. Some Trekkies have thumbed their nose at the colorful, Saturday morning adventures of Kirk, Spock and the Enterprise crew, saying the more juvenile-oriented fare shouldn’t be placed on a pedestal with the scripts of the original series.

However, Paramount’s new, four-disc DVD compilation (available November 21st) of the complete “Animated Series” makes a pretty good case that it should.

Using several writers from the original series (including David Gerrold and D.C. Fontana) and recruiting the entire cast from William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy down to “Harry Mudd” himself, Roger C. Carmel, this respectful continuation of the live-action series is satisfying for both kids and adults alike. Though the plots tend to be more outlandish in nature and the stock music recycled from show to show (there’s no Alexander Courage theme here but a carefully re-arranged rip-off instead), the spirit of the original “Star Trek” shines through with references to its predecessor’s various episodes, sequels to original stories (including “Mudd’s Passion” and “More Tribbles, More Troubles”), and some superb efforts of its own (particularly the moving episode “Yesteryear,” involving a juvenile Spock and his favorite pet, who dies trying to save his young charge’s life).

The animation is standard Filmation fare, but the design of the characters, original cast involvement, and use of the show’s sound effects compensate for the occasionally limited visuals. Even the lone absence among the cast -- no sign of Pavel Chekov, for whatever reason -- is off-set by star Walter Koenig’s involvement behind the camera, penning the episode “The Infinite Vulcan.”

At its best, the “Animated Series” feels like entertaining, old-school Original Series Trek -- just with ‘70s Saturday morning animation substituting for live-action. Those who’ve never sampled the series are urged to check Paramount’s release, as are fans who haven’t seen the series in years.

The transfers are as vibrant and colorful as any Filmation series could possibly look, while Paramount has done an exceptional job remixing the original mono sound for 5.1 stereo.

Fans will also enjoy a good, if not overwhelming, assortment of special features: a 20-minute documentary on the production sports interviews with Filmation’s Lou Scheimer and Hal Sutherland among staff writers; a multi-part segment connects the dots between various “Animated Series” elements and other Trek series and films; and commentaries are on-hand as well, including writer David Wise, Trek experts Denise and Michael Okuda (who contribute three text trivia tracks), and David Gerrold, who talks about his contributions with “Bem” and “More Tribbles, More Trouble.”

More Paramount TV on DVD

Frank Drebin fans rejoice!

It’s taken more time than we might have liked, but the Complete Series of POLICE SQUAD! (1982, 150 mins., Paramount) has finally landed on DVD courtesy of Paramount.

This short-lived (six episodes) ABC series ran in the summer of 1982 and garnered minuscule ratings in spite of positive reviews...a shame at the time, since this effort from the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker trio attempted to do for TV cop series what “Airplane!” did for big-screen parodies in the early ‘80s: offer rapid-fire gags, hilarious fake “freeze frame” endings, and boast the participation of guest stars who never made it out of the opening credits!

It was all ahead of its time, but the ZAZ crew clearly had the right idea: this detective saga would later be spun-off into “The Naked Gun” some six years later, recycling many of the same gags and offering Leslie Nielsen reprising his role (co-star Alan North would be replaced by...O.J. Simpson!).

Paramount’s single-disc DVD presents all of the series’ six shows in satisfying full-screen transfers with even better 5.1 Dolby Digital stereo soundtracks. Three commentary tracks (two by the ZAZ guys and producer Robert K. Weiss; another by staff writer Robert Wuhl) are on-hand, plus a gag reel and some extra “Freeze Frame” footage shot for an aborted attempt at editing all the episodes together for European theatrical exhibition. An interview with Leslie Nielsen, audition tapes, and other goodies round out a splendid package that’s one of my favorite DVDs of 2006 to date.

Two of producer Aaron Spelling’s most memorable ‘90s series arrive also on DVD at long last in satisfying presentations from Paramount.

Outside of my high school and college graduations just happening to coincide with the same years as the characters on BEVERLY HILLS, 90210, I have to admit that I couldn’t really relate to Brandon, Brenda and the gang on Fox’s long-running teen soaper. I mean, things in my high school didn’t really match up with the surf, sand, and obviously too-old students (I’m talking about you, Steve Sanders!) who populated the halls of “90210" -- but that being said, that fantasy aspect was also part of the series’ charm.

Paramount’s six-disc DVD box set offers respectable full-screen transfers for the first, breakthrough season (1990-91) of “90210" on the Fox airwaves, and watching it truly is like experiencing a blast in the past. Here are all the characters as young, impressionable teens (except for Ian Zierling and Luke Perry, who seemed too old even then as bad-boy Dylan), in stories that definitely have more of an “Afterschool Special” sort of feel to them than the years that followed, when soap opera-ish romances were played up (indeed, the demise of Brian Austin Green’s best friend -- and first season cast member -- provided one of the tragic moments in season 2).

Nevertheless, the cast, from Ziering’s Steve Sanders to Jennie Garth’s good-girl Kelly, remains one of the series’ most enduring elements, and the constant, episodic progression from light subplot to heavy-handed melodrama is something that kept the series going for years. (Even after Shannen Doherty’s departure “90210" had something of a creative renaissance while it entered the Tiffani-Amber Thiessen years!)

Supplements here include several retrospective featurettes, an interview with creator Darren Star, plus selected commentaries by Star. Obviously, highly recommended for fans!

Also recommended for fans is the Complete First Season of another Spelling/Star creation, MELROSE PLACE (1992-93), a spin-off from “90210" that focused on the older exploits of twentysomethings at an L.A. apartment complex.

The show launched in 1992 (during 90210's third season) and lacked the more appealing characters from its younger, earlier-time slot brethren. More of an explicit night-time soap opera, “Melrose” nevertheless quickly gained its own following and really took off once Heather Locklear joined the cast as the scheming “Amanda.”

Paramount’s eight-disc set offers solid full-screen transfers, an episode guide, mini-featurettes including a retrospective look back, and 2.0 Dolby Surround soundtracks.

Last but not least from Paramount is the Complete First Season of THE GHOST WHISPERER (2005-06), the successful CBS Friday night series with Jennifer Love Hewitt as a regular antiques dealer (and newly-wed) who also happens to be able to communicate with dearly (and sometimes not-so-dearly) departed souls.

Though it quickly settles into a formula, “The Ghost Whisperer” is entertaining, if predictable, episodic television. Anchored by Love Hewitt’s enormously appealing performance (her visual assets don’t hurt, either), this series offers family drama, supernatural thrills, and usually a good amount of mystery in each show as Hewitt’s heroine Melinda Gordon assists ghosts with whatever matters are preventing them from “crossing over” to the other side (be it an unfinished relationship or seeking the cause of their deaths). Supporting our heroine is David Conrad, who does a particularly nice job as Melinda’s husband -- a firefighter with a strong base in reality, who can’t see or hear the spooky happenings his wife does.

“The Ghost Whisperer” won’t win a Peabody, Pulitzer, or Emmy, but it’s engaging and entertaining, well-produced with fairly involving story lines (aside from a clunker here or there). However, it’s the cast that really puts the show over the top, with a couple you can root for and some more dramatic passages that close the year on a high note.

Paramount’s six-disc box set offers all 22 episodes from the first season in sharp 1.78 (16:9) transfers and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks. A good amount of extras include several featurettes, numerous commentary tracks, deleted scenes, and a blooper reel.

New From Fox

It might be uneven but the return of FAMILY GUY to the airwaves last year was a sight for sore eyes for fans of Seth MacFarlane’s ribald and often hilarious animated series.

Fox’s prior “Volume 3" DVD box set offered the first half of the “new” episodes (first broadcast from January-September 2005), and now the studio is back with another new DVD compilation, VOLUME 4 (2005-06, 314 mins.), which sports the second half of last season’s episodes.

Though the newer “Family Guy” shows tend to be a bit more erratic than the program’s early years, there are some definite gems in this group of 14 episodes, which originally aired from November 2005 through this past May.

Top of the lot is “Brian Goes Back to College,” which finds the Griffin’s canine attempting to get his degree at Brown while Peter parodies “The A-Team” in what’s arguably the most satisfying episode of the newer shows.

Other solid episodes find Peter establishing his own Church of the Holy Fonz; Stewie and Brian further cultivating their “Odd Couple” relationship as they try and form their own “Brat Pack”; Stewie taking on arch-rival biological brother Bertram; and a fitfully amusing parody of “Poltergeist” complete with Jerry Goldsmith’s original music and ample references to the 1982 Spielberg production (there’s also a hysterical parody of the old Tri-Star Pictures logo!).

As with the series’ original batch of episodes, MacFarlane and his writers incorporate a liberal dose of pop culture references as obscure as one could possibly imagine, leading to frustration on the part of some viewers when they can’t identify the joke (or, another gripe with non-fans, that the joke IS the reference). Lately “Family Guy” has even parodied itself, with a recent episode finding Stewie saying “what, no film clip available?” when he started a line about “remember the time when Peter...” and no associated bit popped up (it also goes without saying that Stewie and Brian’s interaction yields the most laughs on the program, especially lately).

Similar to their previous box-sets, Fox’s three-disc release offers perfect full-screen transfers with rollicking 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks. Extras are in abundance as well, with over 40 deleted scenes, commentaries on every episode, a choice of censored and uncensored soundtracks on a pair of shows, featurettes and more.

Also out from Fox this week is the first stand-up special for “Family Guy” genius Alex Borstein, DROP DEAD GORGEOUS (2006, 71 mins.). Borstein has plenty of experience performing live (having been an alumnus of “Mad TV”), and her stand-up is sharp and often hilarious, if not a tad raunchy. Fans of Borstein’s work will love this; others may find it quite amusing as well, particularly if you’re a “Family Guy” fan, since the comedienne tours viewers around the studio in one of the disc’s bonus features.

Coming November 21st

HOME ALONE: Family Fun Edition (***½, 103 mins., 1990, PG; Fox): Long-awaited Special Edition of the John Hughes-Chris Columbus Christmas perennial shines in spite of a hideous “Family Fun Edition” moniker.

With a new 16:9 transfer enhancing the splendid, snow-capped holiday visuals provided by cinematographer Julio Macat and an improved 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack, the presentation here alone would be enough to recommend this re-issue for “Home Alone” fans. Fox, however, has gone the extra mile by including a new commentary track with Columbus and Macaulay Culkin that’s great fun and filled with trivia; 15 mostly disposable deleted/alternate scenes; a gag reel; numerous featurettes, both new and vintage, including fresh comments from Culkin, Columbus, John Williams and others, plus a handful of trailers as well.

In the new 20-minute Making Of, it’s noted that “another composer” (i.e. Bruce Broughton) had originally been attached to the project but bowed out due to a scheduling issue; the filmmakers considered Williams’ subsequent involvement to be a happy accident where a “better puzzle piece” fell into place. No offense to Broughton’s abilities, but it’s hard to argue with their assessment: Williams’ marvelous, holiday-tinged score put the film over the top, while the movie itself remains a mixture of mirth, merriment and holiday feeling that’s lost none of its appeal over the years. Highly recommended!

MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET (***½, 96 mins., 1947; Fox): Another Christmas classic is back on DVD in a fine Special Edition package offering a new, colorized version of the film plus its original black-and-white print. Commentary from Maureen O’Hara accompanies both versions while an excellent AMC “Backstory” episode recounts the production and a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade featurette, promo shorts and other vintage material round out the disc. For whatever reason, the planned inclusion of the “Miracle” TV version from 1973 (with Jane Alexander, David Hartman, Sebastian Cabot and Roddy McDowall) didn’t happen. The tele-film is indeed listed as being included on the back cover but is nowhere to be found on the actual, finished set we received!

O.HENRY’S FULL HOUSE (***, 1952, 118 mins; Fox): Excellent “Cinema Classics Collection” DVD from Fox offers a restored print of this 1952 production from a handful of different directors (including Henry Hathaway and Howard Hawks), adapting five O.Henry tales with narration by John Steinbeck to boot. Fox’s DVD offers a restored print of the film with commentary by Dr. Jenny Lind Porter; a pair of featurettes on O.Henry; a pair of older, short adaptations of the author’s work; and a restoration comparison.

Criterion’s Latest

It might be slow moving and its story may not provide any more answers on repeat viewing than it does the first time around, but Krzysztof Kieslowki’s THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VERONIQUE (***, 1991, 97 mins., R) is still a beautiful, leisurely, enigmatic tale of a Polish woman who has a twin of some kind in a French music teacher. The two ultimately find out, to some degree, about their connection and their placement in the universe...sort of.

Both are played by Irene Jacob in a movie that’s layered with questions and puzzles and very little in the way of answers, but this is a movie of mood and movement. Zbigniew Preisner’s score and the cinematography of Slawomir Idziak combine to craft a spell on the viewer, and provided you don’t push the film too hard for a resolution, “Veronique” provides a unique viewing experience on par with Kieslowski’s “Colors” trilogy.

Criterion’s double-disc DVD edition is highlighted by a new digital transfer; commentary from author Annette Insdorf; three short documentaries produced by Kieslowski between 1970 and 1980; a short by Kieslowski’s tracher Kamimierz Karabasz; the U.S. ending; a 1991 documentary on the filmmaker; a 2005 program recounting his work in Poland; new video interviews with Zbigniew Preisner, Slawomir Idziak and a 2005 conversation with Irene Jacob. Visually the disc is nothing short of tremendous with Criterion’s 1.66 (16:9) transfer complimented by a 2.0 surround soundtrack and optional English subtitles. A must-view fans of the director.

New From Disney

One of the problems when Pixar produces a new film is that they’ve raised the bar so high in the past thanks to “Toy Story,” “Finding Nemo” and “The Incredibles” that anything less than a masterwork is generally regarded as a disappointment.

Such is the case with CARS (***, 116 mins., G, Disney), which garnered mostly positive reviews and raked in a very healthy $200+ million in domestic box-office. Yet, because the film isn’t on the level of Pixar’s previous classics, some viewers deemed the picture a step backwards for the studio.

Visually, at least, “Cars” is just as much of a feast as Pixar’s other works. This tale of a universe where autos exist in a world of their own offers beautifully rendered backdrops and characters, all in wide scope dimensions. The story involves a hot-rod racin’ prima donna (voiced by Owen Wilson) who ends up in a forgotten, rural ghost town with all kinds of vintage autos en route to a racing championship. “Lightning McQueen” eventually learns life lessons from his new pals -- including a sage veteran voiced by Paul Newman and a saucy female with the strains of Bonnie Hunt -- before making it back to the big-time NASCAR circuit.

The film’s gentle humor and well-developed characters make “Cars” perfect for kids, and it’s on that level that I can recommend the picture. It’s true that the movie isn’t as sophisticated as its other Pixar peers, and the lengthy running time for an animated feature (116 minutes here) that suited “The Incredibles” so well seems inappropriate given the somewhat basic story of “Cars.” Nevertheless, even as a tad-underwhelming Pixar feature goes, “Cars” is top entertainment and perfectly suited for family audiences.

Disney’s DVD includes a knockout 16:9 (2.35) transfer that is breathtaking at every turn, while the 5.1 Dolby Digital EX mix races with the sound of engines, Randy Newman’s score and a few too many pop-country tunes. Special features include a new featurette (in 16:9, 1.85 widescreen) named “Mater and the Ghostlight,” plus deleted scenes and a couple of featurettes -- enough to tide you over before the inevitable 2-disc Special Edition hits the road one day.

Capsule Quick Takes

TOTALLY AWESOME (93 mins., 2006, Unrated, Paramount): One of VH1's first “dramatic” productions is this wacky parody of every ‘80s teen movie imaginable. Directed and co-written by “Chappelle’s Show” co-creator Neal Brennan, “Totally Awesome” offers Dominique Swain as one of three siblings who have a hard time fitting into their new high school. That flimsy premise serves as a springboard for a dizzying array of jokes skewering one noteworthy film after another, but the production is somewhat crude and the hit-to-miss gag ratio under “Another Teen Movie,” which essentially did the same thing (and more effectively) several years ago. Paramount’s DVD includes a colorful 16:9 (1.85) transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound; commentary from Brennan and co-star Tracy Morgan; deleted scenes; bloopers and outtakes; and several featurettes.

THE THIEF AND THE COBBLER (**½, 73 mins., 1993, G; Genius/Weinstein): Cool pop-up book packaging does little to off-set the poor presentation of this DVD re-issue of “The Thief and the Cobbler” (aka “Arabian Knight”), Richard Williams’ ambitious but troubled animated production that was ultimately completed, re-edited and re-shot by Miramax in the early ‘90s. Fans hoping to see a fully restored version of Williams’ original work will sadly have to wait another day, as this new Genius/Weinstein DVD edition serves up the same, old theatrical release cut from 1993 -- and, even worse, in the same, old pan-and-scan transfer trimming the film’s 2.35 scope dimensions. A 16:9 version of the theatrical cut has been released overseas, so what’s the reason for the full-screen? (It’s bad enough we still have to watch the film in its compromised theatrical version, but pan-and-scan too?). As with before, Williams fans will have to keep waiting for the “Thief” to finally see his time in the sun. (Available Nov. 21)

NEXT TIME: An HD-DVD Extravaganza with reviews of MISSION IMPOSSIBLE III, THE THING, ARMY OF DARKNESS, plus the Xbox 360 HD-DVD Add On! Until then, don't forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards and direct any emails to the link above . Cheers!

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