11/8/05 Edition

November DVD Essentials!

New Criterions, HITCHCOCK and TWILIGHT ZONE: Season 4
plus: point pleasant, aliens of the deep surface on dvd

As we head into the weeks leading up to Christmas, it becomes very apparent that labels hold off on some of their “big ticket” releases until the end of the calendar year. Often times there’s nearly as much quality as there is quantity in these releases: not just your standard recent films will be available, but so will feature-packed box sets that make you remember what drew you to the DVD format in the first place.

This week’s Aisle Seat provides the evidence for that statement: four outstanding new releases (two from Criterion, one each from the folks at Universal and Image, respectively) rank as some of the year’s more outstanding DVDs.

Top of the list is Image’s Definitive Fourth Season of THE TWILIGHT ZONE (1963, 18 episodes, aprx. 17 hours), the latest entry in the label’s outstanding presentation of Rod Serling’s classic anthology series.

The previous sets (all reviewed in the pages of Film Score Monthly) not just included remarkable, new remastered transfers of the “Zone,” but also a wealth of supplementary material, from audio commentaries and author Marc Scott Zicree’s taped interviews with TZ cast and crew, making it perhaps the finest presentation of any series released so far on video.

This latest, six-disc set packages the 18 episodes from the fourth and penultimate season of the series, and it’s surprising that -- for a season mired in well-documented production troubles -- there are many superb episodes included in the lot.

Producer Herbert Hirschman started the season by having to adapt to CBS’ mandated hour-long format: a switch that necessitated the show’s formula change somewhat along with it. Scripts written for a punctual half-hour had to be expanded for the full hour format, and often times this alteration came as a detriment to the shows themselves, with some stories feeling (as one might anticipate) padded. Hirschman himself also left the series towards the end of the year, requiring that Bert Granet step in at the eleventh hour to oversee the final group of fourth season shows.

Throw in that Rod Serling himself was off writing “Seven Days in May” and teaching classes at Antioch College, and you had all the ingredients for potential disaster...a disaster, though, that was thankfully averted (despite some missteps) by several strong episodes that remain unique to the Zone canon.

Chief among the pleasures is that, in the better episodes of Season Four, the shows function almost like mini-movies as opposed to standard TZ stories padded to an hour. The series’ patented, last-minute twists are less prominent in this year more than any other, perhaps a result of the show’s format being changed but -- in the case of the more satisfying season four shows -- that’s not a problem at all.

Charles Beaumont’s “In Thy Image” is one of the season’s gems, a twisty sci-fi thriller with George Grizzard superbly playing both a despondent, lonely inventor and his robotic creation: a personable twin who unfortunately loses control and resorts to murder. Rod Serling’s own “The Thirty-Fathom Grave” (co-starring Bill Bixby) isn’t particularly noteworthy, but Richard Matheson’s unusual “Mute” (with a young Ann Jillian as a telepathic 12-year-old) is an intriguing piece, playing like a more sensitive variation on “It’s a Good Life,” while the author’s “Death Ship” offers a crafty plot and a strong performance from Jack Klugman. Beaumont’s “Valley of the Shadow” is standard fare, but while Serling’s “He’s Alive” offers a somewhat pretentious, predictable rant against the dangers of fascism, it does boast Dennis Hopper in a capable, early performance. In his final Zone performance, Burgess Meredith pops up as The Devil in the gently entertaining “Printer’s Devil,” while Dana Andrews stars in his only Zone role in “No Time Like The Past.” “I Dream of Genie” and “The Bard” are modestly amusing comedic pieces (the latter boasting some of Serling’s satiric takes on the entertainment industry, capped by a small role for Burt Reynolds), while Reginald Rose’s “The Incredible World of Horace Ford” offers a superb lead performance from Pat Hingle. Beaumont’s “Passage On The Lady Anne” includes appearances by a wealth of veteran character actors (Gladys Cooper, Wilfrid Hyde-White), and Julie Newmar pops up in Serling’s “Of Late I Think of Cliffordville.” Serling’s “The Parallel” is a decent sci-fi tale of a doppelganger universe, and “The New Exhibit” boasts Martin Balsam as a man who loses his sanity while working in a wax museum (this episode, as written in Marc Scott Zicree’s essential TZ Companion, was actually written by Jerry Sohl, ghostwriting for the solely-credited Charles Beaumont).

The most effective tales are provided by “Waltons” creator Earl Hamner, Jr.’s “Jesse-Belle,” Beaumont’s poignant “Miniature,” and Serling’s “On Thursday We Leave For Home.”

“Jesse-Belle” offers an atmospheric tale of witchcraft, love lost and love found in the backwoods of Tennessee, including a sexy performance from Anne Francis and a perfect score by Van Cleave. “Miniature,” meanwhile, boasts a sensitive turn from Robert Duvall as a man who prefers a reality in an old dollhouse. The Beaumont-penned episode was perfectly directed by Walter Grauman and offers an excellent score by Fred Steiner. Finally, Serling’s “On Thursday...” includes a sensational performance by James Whitmore as the leader of a collection of colonists on a desolate planet who finally get the opportunity to return to Earth.

As with the previous Image sets, supplements are rich and informative: in fact, isolated scores are on-hand for most episodes, including “In His Image” (stock music), “Valley of the Shadow” (stock music), “He’s Alive” (stock), “Mute” (Fred Steiner), “Death Ship” (stock), “Jess-Belle” (Van Cleave), “Miniature” (Fred Steiner), “Printer’s Devil” (stock), “The New Exhibit” (stock), “Of Late I Think Of Cliffordville” (stock), “Horace Ford” (stock), “No Time Like The Past” (stock), “I Dream of Genie” (Fred Steiner), “On Thursday We Leave For Home” (stock), “Passage on the Lady Anne” (Rene Garrigeunc), and “The Bard” (Fred Steiner).

Other extras include taped conversations Zicree made with interviewees Herbert Hirschman, Ross Martin, Burgess Meredith, Pat Hingle, Earl Hamner, Jr., director Buzz Kulik and Anne Francis; video interviews with Morgan Brittany, Anne Francis, Paul Comi and John Furia; two commentary tracks by Zicree (on “Death Ship”) and William Windom (“Miniature”); rare color scenes from the syndicated version of “Miniature”; a vintage ‘70s Saturday Night Live sketch with Dan Aykroyd as Serling; several TZ radio dramas produced in the ‘90s; photo gallery; a classic Genesee Beer commercial featuring Serling; a Serling promo for the Famous Writers School; and, as with Image’s earlier sets, original TZ sponsor “bumpers” and all of Serling’s promos for “Next Week’s Show.”

Because of the hour-long format, the fourth season shows rarely made it into syndication and were unseen for years until Sci-Fi Channel airings. Thus, this box set may come as a revelation for some Twilight Zone fans unfamiliar with these stories. The restored transfers and soundtracks, meanwhile, are so fresh that at times you’d think the series was made recently, and the supplements are right on par with Image’s previous three box sets. Unquestionably recommended!

Also coming highly recommended is Universal’s 15-disc box set, ALFRED HITCHCOCK: THE MASTERPIECE COLLECTION.

This stunning release is an absolute essential if you have only purchased a smattering of the studio’s Hitchcock DVDs, and possibly worth the trip even if you have because of newly remastered 16:9 transfers on many titles.

First thing’s first, however: The Masterpiece Collection, housed in a beautiful velvet box, offers the Special Edition packages of all of their Hitch-owned features on individual dual layer discs (no DVD-18 problems here, folks).

Included in the collection are: the 1942 production “Saboteur” with Robert Cummings and Priscilla Lane; “Shadow of a Doubt,” also from 1942, starring Joseph Cotten and Teresa Wright; Hitch’s (largely) single-take attempt, “Rope,” the 1948 feature that also marked his first work in color; his seminal 1955 classic “Rear Window” with Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly; the delightful black comedy “The Trouble With Harry” from 1956, and the underrated remake of Hitch’s own “The Man Who Knew Too Much” also from that same year, starring Stewart and Doris Day; Stewart again in the 1958 noir “Vertigo,” co-starring Kim Novak (not one of my favorite Hithcock films but still a favorite of many viewers); the 1960 classic “Psycho,” which needs no other introduction; 1963's “The Birds,” another genre favorite; Sean Connery and Tipi Hedren in the icy and sometimes sluggish 1964 effort “Marnie”; the disappointing 1966 thriller “Torn Curtain,” with Paul Newman and Julie Andrews, that also marked the departure of long-time composer Bernard Herrmann from Hitch’s film entourage (his score was replaced with another soundtrack by John Addison); the so-so 1969 spy thriller “Topaz”; Hitch’s return to his native England in 1970's “Frenzy”; and his final film -- the engaging 1976 “Family Plot” -- sporting a playful score by John Williams.

Each film has its own documentary (produced by Laurent Bouzereau), all of which were contained in Universal’s original DVD editions from a few years back. In addition, each of the various supplements contained on those discs are here reprised (storyboards, interviews, trailers, etc.) This includes the smattering of scenes scored by Herrmann for “Torn Curtain,” a deleted sequence from “The Birds” (and storyboards for an unused ending), and no less than three alternate endings from “Topaz.”The lone omission is the original screenplay from “Rear Window,” which was a DVD-ROM extra on the original DVD release.

A full color booklet offers stills and credits for each film, along with a brief plot synopsis, and a bonus DVD includes the “AFI Salute to Alfred Hitchcock” and “Masters of Cinema” documentaries. The real bonus of this set, however, are the handful of new remastered transfers exclusive to this release. “Vertigo” is chief among the beneficiaries, offering a 16:9 DVD transfer on this side of the Atlantic for the first time. “Psycho” and several other widescreen offerings have also, reportedly, been given newer 16:9 transfers, though because I don’t have the majority of these titles in my library, I can’t give you a direct A/B comparison (and “Rear Window” still looks more grainy than it needs to be).

Nevertheless, what a bargain the set is: for just about $90 in most outlets, you can get all of Universal’s 14 Hitchcock Special Edition DVDs -- some with new, improved transfers at that -- and a bonus disc with additional documentaries. Outstanding packaging makes this one of 2005's top DVD releases -- ‘nuff said!

New this week from the Criterion Collection, meanwhile, are Kenji Mizoguchi’s haunting 1953 drama UGETSU and PICKPOCKET, a 1959 effort from French filmmaker Robert Bresson.

“Ugetsu,” the more eloquent and visually stunning of the two, tells the unforgettable account of Genjuro, a farmer who wants to sell his pottery, and his sister’s husband Tobei, who has desires of becoming a samurai. Both set off with their respective spouses from their ransacked village in medieval Japan, but are soon separated from their wives by their own ambitions. Along the way, Genjuro finds that the mysterious, ghostly Lady Wakasa is interested in his pottery, while Tobei -- following his travels and travails -- discovers that the wife he abandoned has become a geisha.

Sumptuously photographed and graced with a script that works as a meditation on the blind ambition of men as much as it does an ethereal supernatural drama, “Ugetsu” is one of the defining works of Japanese cinema. Criterion’s new DVD offers a handful of superlative supplements that articulate the film’s lasting impact, including a new digital transfer; informative commentary from critic Tony Rayns; a 2 ½ hour documentary on Mizoguchi, made by Kaneto Shindo in 1975; an appreciation, “Two Worlds Intertwined,” by Japanese filmmaker Masahiro Shinoda; interviews with first assistant director Tokuzo Tanaka and cineamtographer Kazuo Miyagawa; trailers; and a deluxe booklet exclusive to the release, sporting original stories that the film was based on, as well as a new essay by critic Phillip Lopate.

“Pickpocket,” meanwhile, is a fascinating character study from Bresson that follows a young Parisian (Martin LaSalle) who can’t give up his life as a petty thief, despite the yearnings of his ill mother and her pretty caretaker to do so.

Bresson’s drama is a favorite of many critics, with his “actors” (untrained models Bresson opted to use instead of professional performers) helping to internalize Bresson’s themes of crime, punishment (a nod to Dostoevsky), amorality and emotional disconnect. The film is slow-moving but beautifully made: each frame looks like a unique piece of art, and the lack of emotion enables the viewer to draw their own conclusions from the picture. It’s not for every taste, but as French “new wave” filmmaking goes, “Pickpocket” is worthy of examination and a must for all foreign cinephiles.

Criterion’s DVD offers a brand-new, restored high-definition transfer with improved English subtitles from previous domestic releases; commentary from film scholar James Quandt; an introduction by one of the film’s champions, director Paul Schrader; a 2003 documentary, “The Models of ‘Pickpocket,’” offering an examination of the cast by filmmaker Babette Mangolte; a 1960 French television interview with Bresson; a 2000 Q&A with actress Marika Green and others discussing the film; the original trailer; and an essay by “novelist and culture critic Gary Indiana.”

New TV on DVD

CHEERS: THE COMPLETE SEVENTH SEASON (1988-89). 22 episodes, Paramount. WHEN DID IT AIR: Thursdays, 9pm, NBC. THE RUNDOWN: The second season for Kirstie Alley’s Rebecca Chambers is also one of the all-time funniest seasons of “Cheers”’ long tenure on the NBC airwaves. With the supporting characters here given more time to shine, the series really hit its post-Shelley Long stride with its strong collection of 22 seventh season episodes. Chief among the pleasures is the relationship between Woody Harrelson’s bartender and society girl Kelly; more battles between the Cheers gang and rival bar Gary’s Old Towne Tavern; the amusing interaction between Frasier and Lilith Crane, who babysit Carla’s son in “I Kid You Not”; and Sam and Woody having to help Rebecca in the sterling “Adventures in Housesitting.” ENTERTAINMENT VALUE: Having grown up watching “Cheers,” I fondly recall many Thursday evenings spent watching the show with my dad, particularly during the seventh season (8th grade for yours truly). I still find the collection of characters and their interaction with one another constantly hilarious, with the writers settling into a perfect groove during this season: each show seems to spotlight a different cast member, and there’s no soap opera-ish plot to dominate the shows the way the Sam and Diane relationship did in the early years of “Cheers.” DVD FEATURES: Paramount’s four-disc set offers all 22 seventh season episodes in great-looking full-screen transfers and 2.0 Dolby Stereo soundtracks. As with all of their previous “Cheers” boxes, the show looks and sounds fantastic, and the episodes are culled from their unexpurgated broadcast length versions as well. ANDY’S BOTTOM LINE: Top-shelf writing, performances and pitch-perfect direction mark the seventh year of “Cheers” as one of its finest. Absolutely not to be missed for series fans.

POINT PLEASANT: THE COMPLETE SERIES (2005). 13 episodes, Fox. WHEN DID IT AIR: Various time slots, Fox. THE RUNDOWN: “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” veteran Marti Noxon was one of the producers of this horribly misconceived prime-time series, presumably a cross between a teeny-bopper soap opera (a la “Melrose Place” or, more recently, “The O.C.”) and a supernatural, “Omen”-esque thriller. Elisabeth Harnois plays the mysterious Christina Nickson, who washes ashore in a pleasant beach community and finds out she’s the Daughter of....could it be Satan? Meanwhile, Jesse, the lifeguard who saves her, turns out to be the savior of a Vatican-stamped group of crusaders who want to wipe Christina off the face of the Earth. ENTERTAINMENT VALUE: “Point Pleasant” certainly got off to a poor start, with endless subplots about bickering parental units and other soap opera aspects cluttering the derivative supernatural aspect of the show. The latter, though, ultimately saves the final group of episodes from the tedium that the series begins with, as Harnois’ Christina becomes a bitchy, sassy harbinger of evil. Too bad that the show didn’t embrace its pulpy roots before it did: “Point Pleasant” was pulled from the Fox airwaves before it showed its true colors, with Noxon admitting in an interview that they rushed through the final group of episodes just so they could complete the series on DVD. Fans ought to be thrilled with the resulting conclusion to the series, even though it sets up a second season that we’ll never see. DVD FEATURES: Fox’s DVD offers 1.78 non-anamorphic transfers with decent 2.0 Dolby Surround tracks. Extras on the third disc include a standard “Making Of” with interviews conducted during the series’ production. ANDY’S BOTTOM LINE: Silly, not especially well-written or original in any way, “Point Pleasant” gets itself in gear with an outrageous assortment of episodes that Noxon said tried to cram two seasons’ worth of plot into a pair of standalone episodes! The result is a lot better than the portions of the series that WERE broadcast, and Fox’s three-disc box set includes the episodes in good (not great) condition. A guilty pleasure for its fans, who undoubtedly will continue to lament the short existence of the series.

Also New On DVD

ALIENS OF THE DEEP (**½, 2005). 47 mins. (Theatrical) and 99 mins (Expanded), G, Disney. DVD FEATURES: 16:9 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Director/oceanic entrepreneur James Cameron returned to the depths of the ocean floor in “Aliens of the Deep,” his second Imax/Disney release following the satisfying “Ghosts of the Abyss.” This time, Cameron and a staff of scientists travel down to explore the most mysterious creatures that exist in the darkest corner of our planet’s ocean, and posit a group of questions about what life would be like in the oceans of Mars while they’re at it.

While “Ghosts of the Abyss” offered a compelling historical element along with its remarkable visuals, this basic program is nothing more than an average, one-hour Discovery Channel special, enhanced by Imax camerawork. Cameron and the crew offer little in the way of comments other than “wow, that’s cool!,” and the footage of the various undersea objects is only momentarily fascinating: the program never really stops to explain what you’re seeing, and the brief, visual effects ending showing a possible outer-space exploration feels like the end of an old “In Search Of” episode with Leonard Nimoy (and again I will ask, where’s THAT series on DVD?).

Disney’s DVD does boast the pristine viewing experience you would anticipate: the 16:9 transfer is beautiful at every turn, and the 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack filled with atmospheric effects. Both the 47-minute theatrical version and a much expanded 99-minute cut are included on the DVD, though the latter’s additional content is primarily comprised of scenes featuring Cameron and the crew preparing for their dives. No other special features are included.

APRES VOUS (***, 2003). 110 mins., R, Paramount. DVD FEATURES: 1.85 Widescreen (16:9) transfer, English subtitles, French Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 soundtracks.

Delightful comedic drama finds waiter Daniel Auteuil saving the life of downtrodden Jose Garcia one night after work. Garcia’s girlfriend Sandrine Kiberlain has left him, and though Auteuil’s act of kindness is reluctantly appreciated, Garcia informs him that he wrote a suicide note to his grandparents -- leading the two on a journey to prevent them from reading the letter! Following that event, director Pierre Salvadori’s film settles into a character study of Auteuil helping out his newfound friend and tracking down Garcia’s former love -- only to find out that Auteuil himself loves her more than his own girlfriend (Marilyne Canto).

This French farce is never quite as frenetic or outrageous as the plot description might lead you to believe, but that’s also part of its charm. “Apres Vous” is an engaging ensemble piece with a wonderful lead performance by Auteuil (currently rivaling Jean Reno as France’s #1 leading man) and an equally nice performance from Garcia, who fully turns the corner by film’s end as the emotionally lost Louis. The romance between Auteuil and Kiberlain is patiently and believably developed by the filmmakers, resulting in a light souffle of an import recommended for all romantics.

Paramount’s DVD offers just a straight, 16:9 transfer of the film with burned-in English subtitles. The French 5.1 and 2.0 Dolby Digital soundtracks are both just fine, and the soundtrack by Camille Bazbaz fits the film perfectly.

OFFICE SPACE: Special Edition (**½, 1999). 89 mins., R, Fox. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Retrospective Documentary with Mike Judge; Deleted Scenes; DVD-ROM Content; Trailer; 1.85 Widescreen (16:9), 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Mike Judge’s 1999 comedy has become a cult favorite over the years. “Office Space” follows the misadventures of bored office worker Ron Livingston, with Gary Cole his spin-cycled boss, Stephen Root as a harried co-worker (“Milton,” a character based on Judge’s shorts of the same name), and Jennifer Aniston as the “Friday’s” waitress he romances.

Though the movie runs out of steam after an hour, “Office Space” nevertheless has plenty of laughs and keen observations on grind of daily work that so many of us have to endure (I’ll say nothing of my own schedule). An obvious influence on the later British comedy “The Office,” Judge’s film is entertaining in spite of its somewhat listless final act, and the performances all hit the mark.

Fox’s “Special Edition...With Flair!” offer a new package of the movie that fans will enjoy: a remastered 16:9 transfer that surpasses the previous DVD’s non-anamorphic presentation; a 30-minute documentary with comments from Judge; eight deleted scenes totaling about six minutes; the original trailer, and some DVD-ROM content (audio clips, screensavers) as well.

BRAT PACK: MOVIES + MUSIC COLLECTION (Universal): Three-disc set of “The Breakfast Club,” “Sixteen Candles” and “Weird Science” offers the most recent DVD editions of the respective John Hughes teen classics (16:9 transfers, 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital, in their original music versions), bundled together with an exclusive music CD sporting songs from various Hughes films (including Yello’s “Oh Yeah”). The binder packaging is as nostalgic as each movie, though if you’ve already picked up the DVDs, there’s little reason to inquire about this release. If you’ve got a Christmas present to pick up for someone who hasn’t bought them before, however, this “Brat Pack” collection would make an ideal gift.

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