11/20/07 Thanksgiving Edition -- The New AISLE SEAT BLOG Is Now Live & Relaunched!

A Thanksgiving Feast

With HD-DVD and Blu Ray competing for prospective owners this holiday season, it stands to reason each format would offer new “tent pole” releases, all showing off the potential of both new HD-based DVD optical formats.

From Paramount comes one of the HD-DVD format’s largest undertakings to date: the Complete First Season of STAR TREK: THE ORIGINAL SERIES, which arrives today in a colorfully packaged box-set, similar to the prior standard-definition Season 1 set from 2004.

Working here from the recent high-definition remasters Paramount has broadcast in syndication over the last year, this ten-disc set includes both HD and standard-definition versions of the “new” Trek episodes, sporting newly remastered 5.1 audio tracks and spiffier transfers with cleaned up and improved effects shots from Denise and Michael Okuda and Dave Rossi. Each disc houses 3-4 episodes from the first season -- Side A containing the HD-DVD edition, Side B offering the standard-definition presentation.

Both formats also offer their own special features, the HD-DVD edition including seven on-screen visual commentaries (dubbed “Starfleet Access”) with interviews explaining the legacy of the various shows and sporting ample bits of trivia. It’s a cool feature for any HD enthusiast and is offered on the episodes “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” “The Menagerie” (Parts 1 and 2), “Balance of Terror,” “The Galileo Seven,” “Space Seed,” and “Errand of Mercy.” During “Starfleet Access,” optional on-screen visual prompts appear on the right hand side of the 16:9 frame (off-set from the picture, which is of course presented in its original 4:3 aspect ratio), enabling you to watch the supplemental interviews as well as assorted still-frame extras on specific environments and characters.

Additional extras included in both formats are highlighted by “Billy Blackburn’s Treasure Chest” -- an interview with the frequent Trek bit-part actor, who shares 8MM footage of his days on the set -- plus a featurette on the series’ restoration.

What's more, Paramount has also included all the additional extras from the previous Season 1 DVD on the standard-definition sides (with the exception of text commentaries by Michael and Denise Okuda, which have been omitted here). Broken up onto the respective standard-definition sides are "The Birth of a Timeless Legacy," which examines the original, unused "Cage" pilot and how it was reworked by Roddenberry into the standard "Trek" we all know and love; "To Boldly Go," examining first season episodes like "City on the Edge of Forever" and "The Squire of Gothos"; "Reflections on Spock," with Leonard Nimoy comments; "Sci-Fi Visionaries," sporting interviews with series veterans D.C. Fontana, Robert Justman, and John D.F. Black; and "Life Beyond Trek: William Shatner," with Bill showing us around his ranch and love of horses. All of the original preview teasers are also included on the standard-definition sides.

Now, those of you who previously bought all 40 individual DVDs of the original series -- or the previous 2004 Season 1 box-set -- might well be asking whether they should "upgrade” to this expensive new HD version.

If you’re new to the HD-DVD format (or are planning on joining the fray shortly), and are a die-hard Trekkie, I would have to say yes. The new AVC-encoded, 1080p HD transfers aren’t a night-and-day difference with their standard-definition counterparts (which look quite good on their own terms), but they do appear just slightly more colorful and sharper. The Dolby TrueHD soundtracks (on the HD-DVD side) and Dolby Digital 5.1 (the standard DVD) soundtracks come to life here and there, though for the most part you’re aware of the limitations of late ‘60s recording techniques.

Where the transfers -- both versions -- really shine is when you compare them to the prior DVD versions, or the “old” Trek you grew up watching. The episodes have been meticulously cleaned up, removing dirt, scratches and other issues with outstanding results. Even this set’s standard-def transfers are an appreciable upgrade on the old DVD renditions, so the technical presentation alone will be worth it for many, even if there are limits to how much clearer and sharper a late ‘60s network TV series like “Star Trek” could be -- even in high definition.

Despite the high price tag (about $140 in most outlets), there’s ample content and a highly satisfying presentation here of the restored “Star Trek” to please HD-DVD enthusiasts or those about to take the plunge. For the latter, the standard-definition versions ought to suffice as an appetizer before consuming the main course (and its respective extras) at a later date. Highly recommended!

The other sci-fi masterwork newly issued in HD ranks as a watershed moment as well, as it marks the first time a Steven Spielberg-directed film has hit either format (not counting his “Kick the Can” segment from “Twilight Zone: The Movie”).

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (****, 1977, 132-137 mins., PG; Sony) is a movie that needs precious little introduction for most viewers. Suffice to say CE3K remains one of Spielberg’s greatest works, a thrilling sci-fi fantasy with Richard Dreyfuss at the top of his game as Roy Neary, the everyday family man who becomes swept up in the appearance of UFO’s one fateful night in his Midwestern suburb.

Few genre films offer the scope and wide array of emotions Spielberg’s film entails. The filmmaker, working from his own story, balances evocative visuals (courtesy of Douglas Trumbull) with a globe-spanning premise while simultaneously capturing its protagonist’s personal journey -- and increasingly obsessive behavior -- after experiencing a life-changing event. John Williams’ outstanding score, the cinematography of Vilmos Zsigmond, terrific performances and an optimistic, wondrous story that has lost none of its power make CE3K an enduring, perennial genre landmark worth frequent viewing.

Sony’s new Blu Ray disc -- celebrating the film’s 30th Anniversary -- marks the debut of a Spielberg film in HD on home video, and this eagerly-awaited release does not disappoint.

Not that there haven't been an abundance of releases of CE3K on video before, of course -- there have been no less than three different cuts of the movie available to the general public (the 1977 theatrical cut, the 1980 "Special Edition," and 1998's "Collector's Edition", now dubbed the “Director’s Cut”), plus a fourth screened on ABC network television (which combined all footage from the '77 cut with the new "Special Edition" scenes).

Viewers originally had their choice of the '77 theatrical cut, or the '80 "Special Edition," back in the early days of VHS. After a few years, however, the "Special Edition" usurped the original cut as the only version of CE3K that would be available for many years.

In 1990, the Criterion Collection released a magnificent, pricey ($125) deluxe laserdisc set that included the first-ever letterboxed transfer of the movie on video, as well a restoration of the original 1977 cut -- which, after many years, came as a revelation for many viewers. Spielberg's original intention behind the "Special Edition" re-edit had been to tighten up the movie's domestic-strife mid-section, though in the process, he lost some of the film's humor (i.e. when Roy Neary tears up his neighbor's yard) and humanity from the original '77 version.

Combined with the fact that he hated the pointless "inside the Mothership" addendum to the film's finale (which Columbia forced him to shoot as a hook to releasing the "Special Edition"), Spielberg had ample reason to re-visit the movie -- yet again-- with his "Collector's Edition" cut in 1998. Despite a few complaints from viewers that they once again had to buy another version of the movie, I didn't mind, since it seemed to me that the best version of the film lied somewhere between his '77 cut and the '80 "Special Edition" -- and this is exactly what we got in the latest "Collector's Edition" (now “Director’s Cut”) version.

Basically, Spielberg's 137-minute preferred edit is comprised of his original '77 edit minus two scenes (Dreyfuss at the electric plant, and a later conversation with military honcho Carl Weathers), with the addition of the new scenes shot for the "Special Edition" -- minus the superfluous ending with Dreyfuss inside the UFO. This version, then, restores most of the lost domestic scenes between Dreyfuss and wife Teri Garr, while adding the neat additions Spielberg shot for the "Special Edition," while axing the unnecessarily extended climax.

No matter which version you prefer, though, the Blu Ray release affords viewers the opportunity to choose between all three edits on one convenient platter for the first time: the “Director’s Cut” as well as the “Special Edition” and the original 1977 theatrical release, all via seamless branching. Just in case you’re confused over the variations, there’s an optional on-screen menu icon that’s available, informing you of specific changes or alterations to the version you happen to be watching, while a glossy fold-out poster houses a timeline of the different cuts (as well as a reproduction of the theatrical one-sheet on the opposite side). Note that the alternate End Title -- with Williams’ sensitive arrangement of “When You Wish Upon a Star” -- can be heard, as it was originally, over the credits of the Special Edition.

The AVC-encoded Blu Ray transfer is generally quite satisfying. The movie is grainy at times (as you might anticipate given that Zsigmond shot the film with a lot of natural light) and some sequences appear a little soft, while other scenes stand out with beautifully focused details and vivid color. If nothing else you’ve never seen CE3K like this since its original theatrical release, particularly during the film’s unforgettable climactic moments.

On the audio end, the vibrant DTS-Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD offerings are each outstanding, with potent effects that will shake your subwoofer and Williams’ dynamic soundtrack making for an involving sound design throughout.

Extras are also on-hand -- primarily serving to reprise previous extras from the prior DVD and laserdisc editions, while offering some new special features as well.

Spielberg is on-hand in a new 20-minute interview with an ever-smiling Laurent Bouzereau looking on, discussing where CE3K fits in the modern-day cinematic vernacular and where his filmmaking sensibilities lied at the time. It’s interesting but not especially revelatory, especially when compared to the 102-minute 1998 documentary Bouzereau also produced, which is also on-hand here.

Like Bouzereau's "Jaws" and "1941" documentaries, the straightforward “Making of CE3K” touches upon all facets of the production, including interviews with Spielberg (on the set of "Private Ryan"), Dreyfuss, co-stars Bob Balaban, Teri Garr, and Melinda Dillon (who must have had a face-lift or two), John Williams, special effects wizards Douglas Trumbull and Robert Swarthe, and even a grown-up Carey Guffey, who must either have the most incredible memory of anyone's childhood on the planet or who is vividly recalling stories his mother told him from the set (my bet is that it's latter). Among the goodies in the documentary: hilarious unused footage of the aliens literally flying around on the set on wires, and discarded scenes of the extraterrestrials in rapid-motion that clearly didn't work out.

Some 15 minutes of deleted scenes are also carried over from previous releases. These latter scenes -- not featured in any version of the film -- include the movie’s original opening, where Francois Truffaut and interpreter Bob Balaban actually arrive at Chicago's O'Hare airport to investigate the Air East flight, whose run-in with a UFO is delineated in the film's early air-traffic control sequence. As interesting as these scenes are, however, they're also incredibly slow-paced and won't take you long to understand why they were excised (or -- in the case of Truffaut's introduction -- refilmed as the discovery of WWII planes in the Mexican desert).

Two theatrical trailers (the five-minute “preview” for the 1977 cut and the 1980 Special Edition trailer) and a seven-minute, vintage featurette ("Watch the Skies") also re-appear, while extensive still-frame extras -- previously found only on the last laserdisc release -- are re-introduced here, offering outstanding production shots, storyboards, publicity stills, promotional artwork and other forms of memorabilia.

The standard-definition 30th Anniversary DVD, from what we’ve read, reportedly offers a similar package spread across three discs, but leaves off the deleted scenes and stills gallery. Even worse, it chops up the 1998 documentary into a trio of individual parts, spread across all three discs!

Though fans may initially balk at the Blu Ray release’s high price tag (around $30 or above in most outlets), it’s the clearly superior package of a genre masterpiece, and comes -- obviously -- with a strong recommendation for all Blu Ray owners.

New on DVD & Blu Ray

Hitting DVD and Blu Ray this week is LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD (***, 129 mins., 2007, PG-13; Fox), a surprisingly satisfying, belated follow-up to the action franchise that launched Bruce Willis' cinematic career nearly 19 years ago.

After two tremendously entertaining and hugely successful installments (Renny Harlin's 1990 sequel "Die Hard 2: Die Harder" is in some ways even more fun than its predecessor), the series disappeared for a few years before returning with the borderline-embarrassing 1995 follow-up "Die Hard With a Vengeance." The latter brought back original director John McTiernan but strayed from the original formula in a number of areas, not to mention suffered from a sluggish pace and an abrupt, wholly unsatisfying ending.

A lot has changed in filmmaking (and not for the better) over the last 12 years, but "Live Free or Die Hard" (titled "Die Hard 4.0" overseas) is a refreshing throwback to the action film of the '80s and '90s. Director Len Wiseman (of the excessive, if stylish, "Underworld" movies) might've seemed like an odd choice to helm this fourth outing for Willis' tough NYC detective John McClane, but Wiseman happily not just nails the film's action sequences, but also gets the tone and mood of the picture dead-on.

Mark Bomback's script, meanwhile, recaptures the spirit of the first two "Die Hard" films as John McClane is assigned to escort computer hacker Justin Long back to FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C. It turns out that Long was unwittingly a pawn in a scheme hatched by disgraced Department of Defense worker Timothy Olyphant to paralyze the United States through manipulation of the nation's transportation, power and financial systems. With Long as McClane's latest unlikely sidekick, the duo attempt to put an end to Olyphant's schemes, even as the East Coast undergoes one blackout after another.

Even though the movie isn't on the level of the original "Die Hard" or "Die Hard 2" in terms of suspense and character development, "Live Free or Die Hard" nevertheless delivers ample entertainment. Crackerjack action sequences abound, from an exciting climax involving a tanker and an air force jet, to kung-fu fisticuffs involving McClane and Olyphant's top henchwoman (Maggie Q). Wiseman delivers the goods on the visual front, while the screenplay allows Willis to open up, crank back and reprise John McClane without missing a beat. It's gratifying to see Willis having fun again on-screen after starring in one too many M. Night Shyamalan films, and his performance here reminds you how much effortless charisma the star can exude in the right project.

Long makes for a perfect young sidekick while Olyphant is fine as the heavy -- he's not exactly Alan Rickman but his modulated menace is effective enough, while Mary Elizabeth Winsted fills the requisite female lead as McClane's now-college aged daughter (here's hoping Bonnie Bedelia comes back if/when a fifth film is produced).

"Live Free or Die Hard" is good fun, then, and the only true "blockbuster" of last summer that made good on its intentions. It manages to get the series' tone right, fulfilling the requirements of an action film that's exciting but lighthearted, not overly cartoony but not intended to be taken too seriously at the same time. With Willis' performance, dynamite action scenes and even Marco Beltrami's score offering quotes of Michael Kamen's original series motif, this was the one summer film this past season I recommended for action-starved, popcorn-munching movie-goers just looking for a good time.

Fox’s Unrated DVD offers the PG-13 rated and uncensored version of the film we didn’t see in U.S. theaters -- though other than a few f-bombs and additional snippets of blood, there’s not a lot of difference between the two versions. The 16:9 (2.35) and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks are both excellent, while extras include commentary from Willis and Wiseman, a documentary on the production, a Kevin Smith interview with Willis, additional featurettes and the trailer.

Blu Ray enthusiasts can look for “Live Free or Die Hard” in a four-disc box-set with the other films in the series, though fans may lament that the BD package only includes the PG-13 cut of the film. (We’ll have a review on the BD version in our next Aisle Seat coming up on December 3rd).

Also New on Blu Ray

HAIRSPRAY: Blu Ray (***, 2007, 117 mins., PG; New Line): John Waters’ 1988 cult favorite about a plump high school girl’s obsession with getting on a local TV dancing show in early ‘60s Baltimore made for a bouncy Broadway musical and a faithfully-rendered, entertaining film adaptation.

Screenwriter Leslie Dixon and director Adam Shankman capture all the color and vivacity of its source, while the performances likewise hit the mark, with one major exception: John Travolta, who looks a little uncomfortable (not to mention downright scary) as Tracy Turnblad’s mom, a role played originally by Waters regular Divine in the 1988 film. Thankfully the other performances compensate, with Nikki Blonsky making a fine debut as the film’s heroine and solid support turned in by Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, James Marsden, Brittany Snow, and Queen Latifah among others.

Marc Shaiman’s breezy but forgettable songs do feel a bit repetitious and the movie makes a detour into heavy-handed preach-ifying (racism is bad....no, really?) in its final third, but “Hairspray” is still sunny -- if superficial -- musical fun for the most part.

New Line’s inaugural Blu Ray release (an HD-DVD release should follow in a couple of months) is a smashing success. The VC-1 encoded transfer is exceptional and the DTS-Master Audio is likewise superb, while a second disc of extras include deleted/extended musical numbers, a full-length examination of “Hairspray”’s journey from screen to stage and back again, an interview with John Waters, clips from the ‘60s show that inspired his original story, two commentaries and the original trailer. It’s a marvelous package that hopefully heralds the first of many more equally strong titles from New Line to come.

PRISON BREAK: Season One Blu Ray (2005-06, 22 Episodes, 960 mins.): Fox’s serialized drama (which some feel has recently “Jumped the Shark” so to speak) hits Blu Ray in an impressive HD presentation from Fox.

This taut and exciting series stars Wentworth Miller as a man who winds up in prison -- intentionally -- so he can try and spring his unlawfully accused brother (Dominic Purcell) out of Stacy Keach’s big house before he’s sent to the electric chair.

Despite the series’ second-season missteps, the inaugural season is quite entertaining: not only is the show smartly written and packed with surprises in every episode, but the cast is terrific. I addition to Miller and Purcell, “Prison Break” is put over the top by excellent supporting casting, from Keach’s warden to Robin Tunney’s lawyer/ex-love interest and the always-quirky Peter Stomare as a gangster also serving time in Fox River Penitentiary.

With its intricate twists and turns, “Prison Break” is the perfect type of series to watch on video, where you can pick up its subsequent episodes as soon as you’re ready to do so. The new AVC-encoded Blu Ray transfers are terrific while DTS-MA soundtracks round out the audio portion. For extras, Fox has retained the prior disc’s excellent supplements: commentaries, three Making Of featurettes (including a half-hour examination of the series), deleted/alternate scenes, and a Fox Movie Channel “Making a Scene” segment round out a superior Blu Ray package.

I KNOW WHO KILLED ME: Blu Ray (*½, 106 mins., 2007, R; Sony): Or, “We Know Who Killed Your Career, Lindsay Lohan”! This formulaic and unsuccessful thriller tries to give its tabloid-ridden star something a little bit different -- that being a dual role as good-girl “Aubrey Fleming” and her “dangerous” alter-ego Dakota, who she “becomes” after being abducted. Julia Ormond is wasted in a frivolous supporting role in this box-office bust from last summer, which Sony releases next week on Blu Ray. The AVC-encoded 1080p transfer is excellent, at least, as is the Dolby TrueHD and uncompressed PCM sound, while extras include an alternate opening and ending, a blooper reel, and an extended “strip dance scene.” “I Know Who Killed Me” is a mystery that was best left unfilmed, never mind resolved.

BAD SANTA: Blu Ray (*** for Unrated Cut; **½ for Director’s Cut; 88 and 98 mins.; 2003, R; Dimension/Buena Vista): If you’re counting at home, Buena Vista’s new Blu Ray version of Terry Zwigoff’s raunchy 2003 comedy “Bad Santa” is at least the fourth release of the Billy Bob Thornton comedy to hit DVD, following the R-rated theatrical version (93 mins.), the “Badder Santa” Unrated edit (98 mins.), and Zwigoff’s own Director’s Cut (88 minutes). Fortunately the Blu Ray release doesn’t offer yet another variant of the film, both rather the Unrated “Badder Santa” cut and the Director’s Cut on one convenient Blu Ray platter, both in new VC-1 encoded 1080p transfers and with uncompressed PCM 5.1 soundtracks.

Strangely, of all the edits of the film, Zwigoff’s Director’s Cut is tellingly the shortest (88 mins.) and strangely the weakest of the trio as well. Zwigoff’s original version may be “blacker” with less narration and the subtraction of a few scenes that were added to soften Thornton’s lead character, but the “Director’s Cut” actually misses some of those more comedic moments, adding more violence that doesn’t make the film any more satisfying than its released counterpart(s). Viewers new to the film are urged to check out the longer “Unrated Cut” first, as it’s closer in spirit to the released version than the Director’s Cut.

Buena Vista has rounded out the disc by including all the supplements from each version’s prior DVD edition, including commentary from Zwigoff (on the Director’s Cut only), an interview with Zwigoff by Roger Ebert, gag reel, outtakes, and deleted and alternate scenes.

THE SANTA CLAUSE 3: THE ESCAPE CLAUSE: Blu Ray & DVD (**, 92 mins., 2006, G; Disney): Third and weakest entry in Disney’s comedy franchise brings back Tim Allen as Scott Calvin, aka Santa Claus, who finds paperwork that enables him to get out of his yuletide duties -- and also allows the mischievous Jack Frost (Martin Short) to take over Christmas instead! Amusing cameos spice up the increasingly tired preceding, which ought to please young, undemanding kids and that’s about it. Disney’s DVD offers a fine 16:9 (1.85) transfer with 5.1 audio, but it pales in comparison to the Blu Ray disc’s terrific 1080p VC-1 encoded transfer with uncompressed PCM 5.1 audio. Both versions include a number of special features including commentary with director Michael Lembeck, a blooper reel, alternate opening, Christmas karaoke and a “Virtual Holiday Decorator.”


TREMORS: HD-DVD (***½, 95 mins., 1990, PG-13; Universal): One of the best “modern” monster movies follows a couple of good o’l boys (Kevin Bacon, Fred Ward) in the Nevada desert who try and save their small town from gigantic worms burrowing underneath the surface. S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock’s script and Ron Underwood’s direction hit on all cylinders, as do the performances of Bacon and Ward, not to mention Michael Gross and Reba McEntire, hilarious as a pair of gun-toting survivalists. Seldom have old-fashioned creature thrills and humor mixed so well as they do in this 1990 Universal release, which later lead to one solid direct-to-video sequel, two other follow-ups and a Sci-Fi Channel weekly series! Universal’s HD-DVD edition of “Tremors” looks fresh and vibrant, the Dolby TrueHD sound likewise offering a strong audio presentation and all the extras from the old “Signature Collection” laserdisc also on-hand, including the Making Of featurette, outtakes, promo featurette and trailers. Given how mediocre past DVD releases of “Tremors” were, this is a gigantic upgrade in both the video and audio departments and comes highly recommended!

SHREK THE THIRD: HD-DVD & DVD (**, 87 mins., 2007, PG; Dreamworks/Paramount): Gorgeous animation and a spectacular HD-DVD transfer can only partially enhance this tepid third entry in Dreamworks’ fractured-fairly tale series. This time out, Shrek and friends venture across the kingdom to find a successor to the throne, while Fiona back home gets ready to deliver her first child. The laughs are less frequent and the story more labored in “Shrek the Third,” which trots out the requisite pop tunes (“Live and Let Die” is used for the king’s funeral!) and visual gags, but ends up missing the mark more than nailing it. Still, young kids ought to enjoy the shenanigans and the animation is simply outstanding: the AVC-encoded 1080p HD-DVD transfer is as impressive as any I’ve seen in either format, and the Dolby Digital Plus sound is solid, if not as spectacular as most TrueHD offerings. The regular DVD (16:9, 1.85) is perfectly acceptable too, but it pales in comparison to the three-dimensional depth of the HD-DVD edition. Extras in both HD-DVD and DVD include numerous short featurettes and asides for kids, while the HD-DVD exclusively offers web-enabled bonus features including a pop-up trivia track.

LICENSE TO WED: HD-DVD (**½, 91 mins., 2007, PG-13; Warner): Cute, forgettable romantic comedy with John Krasinski and Mandy Moore as an engaged couple who get more than they bargained for when they’re put through a pre-marriage course arranged by wacky minister Robin Williams. Veteran director Ken Kwapis handles this formulaic and slight farce like a seasoned pro, allowing the amiable performances of the two leads to carry the story to its pre-ordained conclusion. “License to Wed” isn’t anything noteworthy but it fits the bill as general date movies go, even if there are more laughs to be found in any one episode of Krasinski’s “day job” (“The Office”) than there are here. Warner’s HD-DVD edition offers a top-notch VC-1 encoded 1080p transfer with Dolby TrueHD audio and a few supplements, including additional scenes with optional director commentary and the movie’s standard DVD version on the disc’s flip side.

Also New From Paramount

HAPPY DAYS: Season 3 (1975-76, 25 Episodes; Paramount)
LAVERNE & SHIRLEY: Season 3 (1977-78, 24 Episodes; Paramount)
MORK & MINDY: Season 3 (1980-81, 22 Episodes; Paramount)
The third season of “Happy Days” and two of its popular spin-offs all hit DVD from Paramount this week.

Though the 1975-76 season of “Happy Days” is officially listed as its third, in some ways it actually feels like the first. Eschewing the free-roaming, more “cinematic” style of the series’ first two seasons, creator-producer Gary Marshall opted to take a more traditional sitcom approach by grounding the series on sets and utilizing multiple cameras and a live studio audience. The result was a more successful fusion of laughs and characterizations, which played perfectly to the audience and enabled the ensemble cast to fine-tune their comic timing.

It’s also the year in which Henry Winkler’s “The Fonz” took center stage and basically took over the series. No longer was “Happy Days” about Richie Cunningham and his pals -- from this point onward, the series turned into all-Fonz, all-the-time, with the bulk of the episode titles bearing his name and most of the laughs coming through Winkler’s perfect performance and his relationship with the Cunninghams. Once Fonzie moves into the family’s garage apartment in the series’ opener, the series would never be the same.

Paramount’s DVD set preserves the complete third season of “Happy Days” including its season-ending “clip” show (something we rarely see on TV these days) with the characters flashing back to earlier episodes.

“Laverne & Shirley” and “Mork & Mindy” also hit DVD in their respective third seasons -- the former series still enjoying its peak as arguably the most popular “Happy Days” spin-off in ‘77-‘78 and the latter in its penultimate year, still coasting on the charm of stars Pam Dawber and the manic Robin Williams, but about to take a creative nose-dive in what would be its final season.

Transfers and soundtracks are top-notch across the board, with some music edits noted on the back jackets. In the case of “Happy Days,” though, the series lost its period setting as it went along anyway, making the alterations to the incidental background music less significant than they would be as a result. Either way, only purists are likely to object to the solid job Paramount has done here.

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE Season 3 (1968-69, 25 Episodes; aprx. 21 hours; Paramount)
THE WILD WILD WEST: Season 3 (1967-68, 24 Episodes; aprx. 20 hours; Paramount): Two of the more legendary ‘60s TV series hit DVD once again from Paramount next week. Season 3 of “The Wild Wild West” gives you the series’ complete third season in a solid six-disc set, offering remastered transfers and mono soundtracks, while year three for “Mission: Impossible” includes all 25 of its third-season shows with satisfying transfers and remixed 5.1 stereo soundtracks. Recommended for fans of either series!

GILMORE GIRLS: Season 7 (2006-07, 22 Episodes; 920 mins; Warner): Amy Sherman-Palladino’s long-running WB drama about a single Connecticut mom (Lauren Graham) and her wise, smart teen daughter (Alexis Bledel) truly did “Jump the Shark” prior to its seventh and final year -- by which point even creator-producer Sherman-Palladino had left the sinking ship. What remained without her involvement is a mere shell of the series’ heyday, with the top-notch cast struggling to make the no-longer-witty banter interesting and the increasingly implausible dramatics stay afloat. It’s ultimately a losing battle, but one that die-hard fans may try and slog through one more time on DVD, with Warner’s seven-disc set about to hit store shelves. Sadly the full-screen transfer clips the 16:9 frame of the series’ HD exhibition, while 5.1 soundtracks and some minor featurettes round out the package.

New from R2 Entertainment

If you’re looking to give DVDs as gifts this holiday season, R2 Entertainment has bundled their respective Bob Hope and Johnny Carson releases together and re-packaged them at a convenient price.

HEEERE’S JOHNNY: THE DEFINITIVE DVD COLLECTION sports 12 discs from “The Tonight Show” in satisfying, if not wholly definitive, releases. Included in the set are the six-disc “Timeless Moments” sets, offering sketches and appearances from Burt Reynolds, Charles Grodin, Don Rickles, Buddy Hackett, a young Ellen DeGeneres, plus the bonus discs “Animal Hyjinks” and “Studio One: The Lost Episode” with Dean Martin, Bob Hope and George Gobel, which is arguably the most enjoyable disc in the collection.

The single-disc “Carson Country” (focused on “down home” humor and appearances by the likes of the Judds, Johnny Cash, Dwight Yoakam and John Wayne) and “Stand-Up Comedians” releases are also on-hand here, the latter offering routines from Jerry Seinfeld, Rodney Dangerfield, and frequent Carson guests Steven Wright and Garry Shandling among others.

Finally, the Carson box is capped by the three-disc “Original Ultimate Collection,” sporting over seven hours of material and all sorts of guest appearances from David Letterman to Bill Clinton, Steve Martin and Jay Leno to Bob Newhart and Dolly Parton. The final two episodes from the show are also on-hand, including Carson’s subtle, heartfelt 1993 goodbye to his series and the entertainment world altogether.

If you’ve previously purchased any of these discs there’s nothing new on-hand here, but for viewers who haven’t and have been looking to pick up these up, this anthology (housed in an  oversized box with the “Tonight Show” curtains on the front) comes highly recommended for its price.

Also new from R2 is BOB HOPE: THE ULTIMATE COLLECTION, a four-disc set sporting previously released DVD releases “50 Years of Laughter,” “Hope for the Holidays,” “Salute to the Troops,” “Celebrity Bloopers,” “World of Comedy” and special features including Hope’s radio premiere, two movie shorts and WWII memories.

The set doesn’t contain the individual episodes housed in Hope’s USO DVD anthology (which R2 released separately), but still offers loads of entertaining sketches and comedy from a sadly by-gone era in the television industry. Much like Carson, Bob Hope was a brilliant, unique performer and this DVD set celebrates his legacy with a solid, general overview of his talents. Highly recommended!

Capsule Short Takes

FOX MUSICALS: Golden Age fans will want to check out Fox’s latest batch of Marquee Musicals, including the Dan Dailey-June Haver 1953 Technicolor romp “The Girl Next Door” (offering featurettes, a full-screen transfer and mono sound); the 1952 Susan Hayward biopic of song siren Jane Froman, “With a Song in My Heart” (also sporting three featurettes, mono sound and full-screen); and “Bloodhounds of Broadway,” the Damon Runyon tale starring Mitzi Gaynor and Scott Brady, also appearing on DVD with three featurettes, mono sound and a full-screen transfer.

GARFIELD GETS REAL (74 mins., 2007, Fox): Cute CGI feature written by “Garfield” creator Jim Davis turns out to be more colorful and amusing than both of the live-action features that preceded it. Kids will enjoy the gorgeous animation (which, when upconverted to 1080p, looks nearly as good as some HD transfers I’ve seen!) while adults might get a kick out of the crazy comical setting, which finds Garfield, Jon and Odie living in a “cartoon world” that manufactures daily comic strips. The 16:9 (1.78) transfer is superb and extras include numerous Making Of featurettes. Fans should note another CGI “Garfield” feature is due out from Fox in the spring.

DECK THE HALLS (*½, 93 mins., 2006, PG; Fox): Painfully labored holiday comedy was 2006's version of “Surviving Christmas” (remember that Ben Affleck bomb?) or “Christmas with the Kranks,” a lump of coal for audiences who forked over their hard-earned dollars to watch Danny DeVito and Matthew Broderick as squabbling neighbors trying to out-do one another’s holiday decorations. A pitiful holiday “product” as superficial in its intentions as its ad campaign promised, one that Fox has brought to DVD with a fine 1.85 (16:9) transfer, 5.1 Dolby Digital audio, commentary, deleted scenes, bloopers, interviews and featurettes, and the full-screen version on the disc’s flip side.

COLMA THE MUSICAL (100 mins., 2006, R; Lionsgate): Entertaining indie musical about three friends from Colma, California offers some boisterous songs and goofy laughs. Richard Wong’s film hits DVD in a solid package from Lionsgate, including commentary and deleted scenes, a 16:9 (1.85) transfer and 2.0 Dolby Stereo sound. “Colma” is rough around the edges but fun for what it is. Musical fans should check it out.

STIR OF ECHOES 2: THE HOMECOMING (89 mins., 2007, R; Lionsgate): Less a sequel to the unpleasant (if mildly effective) Kevin Bacon thriller “Stir of Echoes” than it is a re-run of “Jacob’s Ladder,” this routine small-screen affair offers Rob Lowe as a soldier who begins to experience all kinds of supernatural activity after returning home from Iraq. Lionsgate’s DVD offers commentary, deleted scenes, a Making Of featurette, 16:9 (1.85) widescreen and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

NEXT TIME: DIE HARD arrives on Blu Ray! Until then, don't forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards, check out the newly relaunched Aisle Seat Blog, and direct any emails to our email address. Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

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