2/14/06 Edition -- Happy Valentine's Day

Aisle Seat Olympic Edition
Plus: New Criterions, Disney & Warner Catalog Titles

A handful of comedies highlight Warner’s vintage titles this week, with a heavy accent on star-driven vehicles from the ‘80s.

The best of the batch is undoubtedly QUICK CHANGE (***, 88 mins., R, 1990; Warner), the Bill Murray caper comedy that became a casualty at the summer box-office in 1990, despite receiving mostly positive notices from critics.

“Quick Change” was adapted from a novel by Jay Cronley, whose books also formed the basis for two other memorable comedies of the era: the hilarious and under-appreciated Chevy Chase comedy “Funny Farm” (1988) and the equally charming “Let It Ride” starring Richard Dreyfuss, which opened in 1989.

Co-directors Murray and Howard Franklin (who also scripted) were responsible for this often uproarious adaptation, with Murray, Geena Davis and Randy Quaid as thieves who knock over an NYC bank, but have a difficult time getting out of the city once they’ve bagged the loot. Jason Robards is the cop on their trail (shades of Walter Matthau in “The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3,” right down to the final scene), while Tony Shalhoub is a clueless cabbie and Philip Bosco a less-than-understanding bus driver, whom the trio meet in their attempts to elude the cops.

Big laughs, flavorful NY location filming, and engaging performances should have made “Quick Change”a huge hit, but alas, the movie got lost in the shuffle during its initial release. Time, fortunately, has been kind to the picture, which holds up well and looks terrific in Warner’s new DVD.

The 16:9 transfer appears well-composed and in good shape overall, with a moderately stereophonic 2.0 Dolby Surround mix. The original trailer, which didn’t do an especially good job selling the movie (nor did the poster art), is included.

Star vehicles are what Murray’s frequent collaborator -- actor-filmmaker Harold Ramis -- had in mind when he set out to helm CLUB PARADISE (**½, 96 mins., PG-13; 1986) in the mid ‘80s.

This almost-forgotten Caribbean comedy was one of several such films produced at the same time: Michael Caine’s “Water,” which has vanished entirely from the cinematic landscape, was released to negligible box-office returns several months prior.

“Club Paradise” stars Robin Williams as a Chicago fireman who gets a large settlement claim after he’s injured in the line of duty. Williams opts to leave the Windy Cindy for a Jamaica-type of isle (the movie was, in fact, shot in Jamaica), where he quickly sets up a tourist spot with the help of local crooner Jimmy Cliff, much to the chagrin of tea-sipping governor Peter O’Toole and  bureaucrat Adolph Ceasar, who might just be facing the prospects of a revolution by the locals in addition to Williams’ would-be hotspot.

With a script credited to Ramis and Brian Doyle-Murray, “Club Paradise” is a disjointed comedy with a premise that’s barely established before all kinds of supporting characters appear -- these include a virtual reunion of SCTV (Rick Moranis, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Joe Flaherty), Saturday Night Live (Robin Duke, Mary Gross), and other sitcom (Stephen Kampmann from “Newhart”) alumni, who crank out the movie’s laugh quotient to a modest degree. In between, we have thinly-drawn sequences with Williams (who looks ticked off for some reason from start to finish), O’Toole, Ceasar, and Twiggy (as the requisite female lead) attempting to act out some semblance of a “story.”

Needless to say, “Club Paradise” doesn’t entirely click -- this must have been one of those movies that everyone loved to make, with the screenplay relegated to the back-burner in place of surf, sand and sun -- but it’s still fun to watch the appealing cast at work, especially Moranis and Levy, who produce most of the laughs. The score is filled with upbeat Jimmy Cliff tunes and an intermittent underscore curiously credited to both David Mansfield and Van Dyke Parks.

Warner’s DVD features a highly appealing, colorful 16:9 transfer of the movie’s 1.85 frame. This being the middle of February, the time couldn’t be more appealing to soak up the scenic locales of “Club Paradise,” while a moderately active 2.0 Dolby Digital surround track conveys the audio aspect equally well. The theatrical trailer, which contains some footage not used in the final cut, is also on-hand.

Unused footage is again in evidence in the trailer for DEAL OF THE CENTURY (**, 100 mins., 1983, PG; Warner).

William Friedkin and writer Paul Brickman (“Risky Business”) teamed for this box-office flop, a costly failure that attempted to be a manic Chevy Chase comedy at the same time it offered a rash of special effects at its climax and “something important” to say about international arms smuggling.

Chase and cohort Gregory Hines play arms dealers who help upstarts topple regimes in third world countries; Sigourney Weaver is the wife of Wallace Shawn, who just killed himself over contracts that Chase promptly picked up, pertaining to a top-secret fighter project.

The rest of Brickman’s script had to have either not been shot or was cut to shreds in the editing room, since “Deal of the Century” is short on story and long on scenes of Chase at his most obnoxiously smug, flirting with Weaver, and interacting with Hines, as the typical second banana. There are scenes which feel like they belong in a different movie (Hines getting into an altercation with a racist psycho, for example), a loud, tiresome climax, and a notable lack of laughs, while Friedkin’s camera work and direction are at their most stilted and uninteresting. Suffice to say, Friedkin never tried comedy again after this one.

The best part of “Deal of the Century” is Arthur B. Rubinstein’s pleasant score, which I don’t recall at all on first viewing years back, but provided some of the only interest while watching Warner’s new DVD.

Speaking of which, the 16:9 enhanced transfer is in good condition, framed in the 1.85 ratio, while the 2.0 Dolby Surround track is active throughout. The theatrical trailer is also included, and it’s curious to see how the studio tried selling the film as a wild, “Stripes”-kind of vehicle for Chase, who -- luckily for him -- netted a bigger success with “National Lampoon’s Vacation” earlier in ‘83 to off-set the stench that “Deal of the Century” left at Thanksgiving time.

Speaking of National Lampoon, the comedic publication found mostly good success lending its name out to movies like “Vacation” and “Animal House” (people tend to forget the misses, like “Class Reunion” and the unreleased “Movie Madness”).

Not to be outdone, Mad Magazine found itself “presenting” their one and only film around that period: the 1980 minor-cult favorite UP THE ACADEMY (**½, 87 mins., R; Warner), a comedy that saw its chances of developing a larger following kiboshed over the years due to limited showings, horribly cropped transfers, and cut versions (one of which reportedly excised all mention of Mad and its mascot, Alfred E. Newman, altogether!).

Luckily, Warner’s new DVD preserves the entire Panavision frame of this ribald, non-P.C. comedy about a group of screwball kids (including Ralph Macchio) at a military academy run by dictatorial Major Liceman. The Major is hilariously portrayed by Ron Leibman (repeat after me: “Say It Again!!”), the Tony-winning actor who opted to have his name completely removed from the credits...a bizarre maneuver since director Robert Downey (Sr.)’s movie actually has its moments.

Sure, “Up The Academy” isn’t as consistently funny as the better efforts of the National Lampoon school, but the combination of R-rated laughs (with, remember, teenage characters) and comic portrayals by Leibman, Tom Poston, Antonio Fargas and Barbara Bach make for a wild, nostalgic good time -- truly the kind they don’t make anymore.

The 16:9 transfer splendidly captures the wide 2.35 ratio of “Up The Academy,” while the 2.0 Dolby Digital stereo track is nearly as rambunctious as the movie itself. The amusing theatrical trailer, which prominently displays Leibman’s lead role and the presence of Alfred E. Newman, is also on-hand.

Madonna didn’t want her name removed from the credits of the all-time godawful 1986 comedy “Shanghai Surprise,” so there wouldn’t be any reason for her to feel bad about her next starring vehicle: the innocuous 1987 screwball effort WHO’S THAT GIRL (**, 94 mins., PG; Warner).

Far more watchable than her teaming with then-hubby Sean Penn, “Who’s That Girl” has the Material Girl as Nikki Finn, an unjustly-sentenced ex-con who springs out of jail and tries to clear her name. Griffin Dunne (then riding the success of the Martin Scorsese vehicle “After Hours”) is the lawyer who picks up Finn upon her release from prison and finds that she was set up by the family he’s set to marry into.

Critics hated “Who’s That Girl” and the movie only did minor box-office, but outside of Madonna bashers looking to rag on the songstress’ efforts, this silly piece of fluff isn’t anywhere near as bad as its reputation would lead you to believe. Dunne is superb and Madonna’s performance displays more deft comic timing than you might anticipate -- it’s all ridiculous, ‘80s escapism, but on those grounds “Who’s That Girl” works well enough.

Warner’s DVD offers the movie in a solid 16:9 transfer with 2.0 Dolby Digital sound, offering several Madonna pop hits (including the title track). The theatrical trailer is also on-hand.

Last but not least among the Warner catalog titles is THE FRISCO KID (**, 1979, 119 mins., PG; Warner), the rambling Gene Wilder-Harrison Ford western comedy that marked the next-to-last film directed by veteran filmmaker Robert Aldrich.

Wilder is a rabbi who immigrates from Poland in 1850 and heads west towards San Fransisco. Along the way he meets cowboy Harrison Ford, in a role Wilder claims was originally written for John Wayne, who turned down the movie over after the studio balked at paying his usual salary.

“The Frisco Kid” is likeable enough but, at two full hours, feels overlong and uneven. There are moments of comedy and character insight but somehow the movie never really clicks, culminating in a missed opportunity.

Warner’s DVD does offer a clean, 16:9 transfer with 2.0 Dolby Digital mono sound. The original trailer, selling Wilder’s box-office appeal at the time, rounds out the disc.

New From Paramount

Cameron Crowe’s ELIZABETHTOWN (**½, 2005, 123 mins., PG-13; Paramount) was not regarded nor received as one of the filmmaker’s best efforts, though even second-rate Crowe makes for more intriguing viewing than most of the junk we’ve seen lately.

Orlando Bloom seems a bit ill-at-ease as the centerpiece of Crowe’s drama-edy, as a young athletic shoe designer who gets fired and returns home -- to find out his father has unexpectedly passed away as well. Bloom flies out to the back roads of Kentucky to handle his dad’s funeral arrangements, and falls in love with a perky flight attendant (Kirsten Dunst) along the way. Naturally, complications arise in their newfound romance, but somehow Bloom pulls through, as well as finds common ground with his “country” cousins, who had a history of clashing with Bloom and his eccentric mother (Susan Sarandon).

“Elizabethtown” was originally shown at the Toronto Film Festival in a version that critics report was 20 minutes longer and even more of a rambling wreck than Crowe’s subsequently trimmed theatrical release. I didn’t see the “work in progress” version, and Paramount’s DVD only includes two extended scenes (Roger Ebert’s review mentions that the original version had an endless stream of faux-endings). Subsequently, while I can’t state for certain as to what the original version was like, I can write that the reservations many critics had with Crowe’s first screened cut of “Elizabethtown” are understandable -- if only because they exist in the slimmed-down, released version as well.

Essentially, the central romance between Bloom and Dunst works; though I found Bloom to be over-eager and trying too hard to sell his part, he clicks with Dunst and the movie provides the kind of cute, appealing romance so many of Crowe’s previous films have contained. That element of “Elizabethtown” works well enough, but everything else feels forced -- especially the scenes with Bloom and his cliched “backwoods” family, as well as Sarandon and Judy Greer (as Bloom’s sister), with the former performing a supposedly heartfelt “dance” at her late husband’s funeral that, to put it mildly, does not work. Apparently there was even more of this in Crowe’s previous, longer cut, and one can sense why these sequences were trimmed for the theatrical release (needless to say Crowe could have cut the movie down even further than he did).

As it stands, “Elizabethtown” has some likeable moments and a nice performance by Dunst, with an appealing romance at its core. Everything surrounding it feels extraneous, however, and one could possibly fast-forward through the film, only watch the Bloom-Dunst sequences, and come away more satisfied than sitting through the entire picture.

Paramount’s DVD contains two extended scenes along with two Making Of featurettes (“Training Wheels” and “Meet the Crew”), plus a photo gallery and two trailers. The 1.85, 16:9 transfer is perfect (sporting cinematography by Oscar-winner John Toll), while the 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack unsurprisingly boasts an endless array of classic rock tracks, in keeping with Crowe’s traditional sound design.

Nicholas Cage gives an appropriately dour performance as THE WEATHER MAN (**, 2005, 101 mins., R; Paramount), director Gore Verbinski’s one-note meditation on the downside of the American dream -- not to mention a movie that gives Willard Scott, Al Roker, and other TV forecasters a bad name.

Cage plays Chicago weatherman David Spritz, who’s aspiring to take a national job on a Today-like morning news program (Bryant Gumbel even serves as host on it). At the same time, Spritz is a loser in his personal life, hopelessly trying to patch up his marriage with Hope Davis, trying in vain to impress his intellectual father (Michael Caine), and failing to connect with his kids -- an overweight daughter and a teenage son being taken advantage of by his pedophile counselor (Gil Bellows), the latter ranking as one of the most unpleasant cinematic subplots of last year (not to mention eerily similar to the “Diff’rent Strokes” episode with Gordon Jump as the local child molester).

Verbinski, along with writer Steven Conrad and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, vividly capture the gloomy, wintry Chicago setting, and Cage gives a strong performance as a guy who slowly realizes that life sucks but you eventually have to move on. The problem is that “The Weather Man” is so relentlessly dour that it seems to go on forever, while Cage’s voice-over makes sequences even more heavy-handed than they need to be.

I give the filmmakers credit for trying to make an uncompromising character study about a man whose family is falling apart at the same time his career is taking off. Ultimately, “The Weather Man” is too uneven and vulgar for its own good, with some pungent lines and too-few splashes of black humor contrasted by raunchy dialogue and interminable scenes of Cage trying to reconcile with Davis. Caine and Cage are both superb but “The Weather Man” makes its point early, rams it down your throat for 101 minutes, and has nothing else to say.

The movie might have fizzled at the box-office (no surprise given its sometimes repellent tone), but the DVD boasts several Making Of documentaries, which do a nice enough job of charting the production of “The Weather Man.” Included are a look at the development of the script and Hans Zimmer’s moody, effective score. The 16:9 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack are more than effective in conveying the downbeat look and feel of the piece.

New From Sony

MIRRORMASK (***, 2005). 104 mins., PG, Sony. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Commentary by Dave McKean and Neil Gaiman; Comprehensive Making Of documentary; 1.85 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

The Jim Henson Company produced this surreal, not entirely satisfying but nevertheless compelling fantasy from writer Neil Gaiman and director Dave McKean as a sort-of-follow-up to their ‘80s genre efforts (the wonderful “Dark Crystal” and less-successful “Labyrinth,” which this picture seems like a distant cousin of).

Weird is just one word to describe “Mirrormask,” which finds a teenage girl (the fetching Stephanie Leonidas) venturing into a make-believe world after her circus mom (Gina McKee) ends up in the hospital, awaiting an operation. In the fantasy realm, Leonidas finds characters, creatures and settings cobbled partially out of her own drawings, in a kingdom ruled by an evil queen (McKee again) with a rebellious daughter who exchanges places with Leonidas and ends up in the “real” world, causing all kinds of problems as a result.

Visually spellbinding but not nearly as sound from a story or character angle, “Mirrormask” is a movie that one appreciates for its artistry, even if it ultimately provides somewhat of a detached viewing experience. The unusual look and feel of the film is due to a mix of CGI and live-action, while Gaiman’s story is, at times, nothing short of bizarre. When Leonidas gets a make-over from a group of pseudo-automatons, a cyber-redo of the Carpenters’ “Close To You” spins on the soundtrack -- something, at least, you can say that you’ve never seen before (and likely will never see again).

And that, in a nutshell, summarizes “Mirrormask.” This is one of those films that you may love or despise depending on your affection for the movie’s visual design. The story, a reworking of “Labyrinth” to some degree, does fare better than Henson’s own 1986 film (which featured a young, beautiful Jennifer Connelly and a couple of bouncy David Bowie songs), but that’s faint praise since the narrative was the least compelling aspect of that picture as well. Still, “Mirrormask” offers something unique, with unusual sights and sounds that you might find compelling, and is worth at least one viewing to determine your tolerance for its eclectic cinematic world.

It’s easy to see why Sony decided to nix a major release for this obscure, destined-to-be-a-cult movie, but their DVD presentation is superb. Gaiman and McKean provide a commentary while a multi-part Documentary examines the production of the film, which took over three years to reach the screen. The 1.85 Widescreen transfer is excellent and the 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack likewise effective, though the Iain Ballamy jazz-fusion score is not one of the film’s more appealing aspects.

POLTERGEIST: THE LEGACY Season 1 (1996; 21 episodes, 970 minutes, Sony): Showtime produced this made-for-cable series, an in-name-only continuation of the movie franchise centering on a paranormal team lead by Dr. Derek Rayne (Derek DeLint). Rayne recruits a group of experts -- ranging from a Navy SEAL to a Catholic priest and a psychiatrist -- to investigate a weekly series of supernatural mysteries. From there, the San Fransisco-based “Legacy” takes on whatever comes their way, whether it’s witches, demons, ghosts or curses from beyond the grave. “Poltergeist: The Legacy” had a loyal following of viewers who helped the series run for three seasons before joining the Sci-Fi Channel in 1999 for one last hurrah. Though the series never became a big hit, the show is well-performed and often entertaining, as Sony’s five-disc box set attests: the full-screen transfers (in their original 4:3 aspect ratio) appear to be in satisfactory condition while the stereo scores are likewise acceptable. The box set (offering the original “Poltergeist” letterhead on the packaging) boasts 21 episodes on the five platters from the series’ initial run, and comes highly recommended for fans.

THE NET 2.0 (**, 2005, 93 mins., R; Sony): Watchable made-for-video retread puts Nikki DeLoach (former MMC member) through the paces traveled by Sandra Bullock in the original “Net.” Here, DeLoach stars as a computer analyst who arrives in Istanbul, where it turns out her identity has been (gasp!) stolen and she’s been set up for a crime she didn’t commit. Charles Winkler directed “The Net 2.0,” and no surprise here: Winkler is the son of Oscar-winning producer Irwin Winkler...who not coincidentally produced the original “Net.” Sadly, it doesn’t seem that the apple fell very far from the tree here, since “The Net 2.0" is a workmanlike, not-very-exciting suspense vehicle with a few reasonably executed scenes but not much else to write about. Sony’s DVD offers commentary from Winkler, a 1.78 widescreen transfer, and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, sporting an ok score by Stephen Endelman, who seems to be out of his element here scoring a direct-to-video project like this.

New Criterion Titles

February’s group of new Criterion Collection releases is highlighted by John Ford’s 1939 classic YOUNG MR. LINCOLN (****, 100 mins., PG; Fox), which hits DVD for the first time this week.

Ford teamed here with Henry Fonda for the first of several collaborations, with Fonda starring as the earnest young lawyer from Illinois in a movie that’s best regarded as a prime example of “cinematic Americana” as opposed to an accurate history lesson. The movie boasts superb cinematography by Bert Glennon (who worked with Ford on his more highly-regarded “Drums Along The Mohawk” also in 1939) and a script that presents a highly fictionalized account of Lincoln’s early years as an attorney, solving a murder case, struggling with the death of his girlfriend, and the start of his journey to becoming an American president.

“Young Mr. Lincoln” is the kind of very old-fashioned, glossy “biopic” that Hollywood turned out in the “Golden” age, and Criterion’s double-disc set provides a celebration of the film’s artistry. As expected the restored, high-definition digital transfer is a thorough restoration, while supplements on the second disc include a BBC profile of Ford and interview with Fonda; audio interviews with Ford and Fonda, as interviewed by the director’s grandson Dan; a radio dramatization of “Young Mr. Lincoln,” downloadable as an MP3 file; a gallery of production stills; and a lengthy 28-page booklet with notes from critic Geoffrey O’Brien and notes from celebrated filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, who championed “Young Mr. Lincoln” as one of his favorite films.

Whit Stillman’s METROPOLITAN (***, 1990, 99 mins., PG-13) also makes its debut on DVD this week from Criterion.

Stillman scored a major critical and “art house” success with this tale of young, upper-crust New Yorkers who spend their time chatting, drinking, and generally acting like snobs. Stillman only produced two movies in the wake of “Metropolitan” -- the amiable “Barcelona” and criminally under-rated “Last Days of Disco” -- and it’s a shame, because Stillman’s ear for intelligent, insightful dialogue and strong characterizations comes through loud and clear in “Metropolitan.” Despite a few tedious stretches this comedy-drama offers engaging performances (from Carolyn Farina, Edward Clements, and particularly Stillman regulars Chris Eigeman and Taylor Nichols) and dialogue that’s as much fun to listen to as it is watching play out on-screen.

Criterion’s DVD includes a new transfer approved by Stillman and cinematographer John Thomas; commentary from Stillman, editor Christopher Tellefsen, and stars Eigeman and Nichols; outtakes and alternate casting tapes with commentary from the director; and an essay from author Luc Sante. The 1.66 transfer is superb and the mono sound fine for the movie.

Last but not least among the new Criterion February offerings is Jean Renoir’s LA BETE HUMAINE (***½, 1938, 96 mins.). Based on the novel by Emile Zola, Renoir’s 1938 film follows the tragic plight of a train engineer (Jean Gabin) who makes the mistake of falling for the attractive young wife (Simone Simon) of his stationmaster. Murder and madness fill this gloomy, but incredibly well-produced, “noir” that fans of Renoir ought to love in Criterion’s new DVD.

The Collection’s disc includes a restored, high-definition transfer of the film’s unexpurgated, original version, with newly translated English subtitles; an introduction to the film by Renoir; a new interview with filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich; vintage footage of Renoir directing Simon, and interviews with Renoir and various scholars on adapting Zola’s novel; a stills gallery of set photographs and posters; and a booklet including notes from critic Geoffrey O’Brien, historian Ginette Vincendeau, and production designer Eugene Lourie (also known as the director of the early ‘60s giant monster classic “Gorgo”!).

New From Universal

DOOM (**, 2005). 113 mins., Unrated, Universal. DVD FEATURES: Extended Version; Longer first-person shooter sequence; Making Of movie and game featurettes; 2.35 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

The videogame-to-movie genre is not filled with many successes: the B-movie, trashy thrills of the two “Resident Evil” films are, pretty much, the most satisfying this filmmaking niche has to offer (we’ve long forgotten “Super Mario Bros.,” “Street Fighter,” and of course the two “Mortal Kombat” flicks).

The hugely popular “Doom” franchise made the leap to the screen with last fall’s movie version of the same name, but bombed out in theaters, grossing just $28 million domestically (with a reported production budget nearly three times that amount).

In reality, “Doom”: The Movie isn’t a total disaster, but it’s also nothing more than a routine, somewhat entertaining hodge-podge of “Aliens” (which the “Doom 3" game itself owes a major debt of gratitude towards) and the “Resident Evil” movies, meaning there’s a good amount of zombie-action and Romero-esque riffs worked into the mix.

The Rock (wonder when he’s going to finally drop the name?) plays a gruff leader of an elite marine tactical force sent to Mars where an archeological dig has uncovered general monster mayhem. Rock’s second-in-command, Karl Urban (from “Lord of the Rings”), has a rough go since not only are the former workers being mutated into all kinds of slimy beasts, but his sister (Rosamund Pike) is one of the lead scientists on the project.

Andrej Bartkowiak directed this not-inexpensive sci-fi epic, which is surprising in itself since the movie looks so cheap. The claustrophobic sets and effects lack even the visual polish of the last “Resident Evil” sequel (which cost less to produce), while the performances are by-the-numbers, even down to The Rock’s perfunctory leading role. Urban and Pike, meanwhile, fail to enliven their thin characterizations in the David Callaham-Wesley Strick script.

Game fans, meanwhile, may appreciate some of the creatures and weapons having been ported over from the last incarnation of the series, and there’s even a fun -- if not cheesy -- “first person” sequence to recapture the experience of playing the game...albeit here with lousy rock-metal music.

Universal’s “Unrated” DVD offers an extended version of the film that restores some 8 minutes of previously excised footage. Extras include a look at the creation of the “first person” scene (with a longer edit of that sequence), several featurettes on the “Doom 3" game featuring interviews with G4 TV personalities (in case you’re wondering, G4 is a video game channel), and a featurette with The Rock.

Visually the 2.35 transfer is fine but the 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack is even more impressive, packed with creepy surround effects that are a good deal more unnerving than anything on-screen.

CHARLES IN CHARGE: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (1984-85). Aprx. 9 hours. Universal.
GIMME A BREAK: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (1981-82). Aprx. 7 hours, 47 mins. Universal.

Now, for all those of you afraid to come forward and admit how much you loved “Charles in Charge”...well, this is your opportunity to say, “yes, I watched it, I enjoyed it, and damn it, now I’m buying the DVD!”.

Yes, dear readers, that day has come, as Universal this week releases the first-ever DVD edition of the quintessential ‘80s sitcom CHARLES IN CHARGE on DVD in a three-disc box set.

Not that the series was a hit right off the bat, because it wasn’t: CBS aired “Charles” on Wednesday nights at 8pm in the fall of 1984, where the show became an only modest success. No matter that Scott Baio was fresh off “Happy Days” and brought his magical chemistry with co-star Willie Aames to this family sitcom about a college student named...you guessed it...who plays caretaker for the precocious Pembroke kids (April Lerman, Jonathan Ward, Michael Pearlman), whose parents (Julie Cobb and “Animal House” alum and current TV-director James Widdoes) seem to be away just when Charles needs time studying, cavorting with Aames (as best friend Buddy Lembeck), or trying to make it with girlfriend Gwendolyn (Jennifer Runyon, best known as the college student Bill Murray hits on at the beginning of “Ghostbusters”).

“Charles in Charge” originally ran for just one season on CBS before being cancelled. The series looked like a one-shot for Baio and Aames, but Universal ended up resurrecting the series for syndication in January of ‘87, retaining Charles and Buddy but dumping the Pembrokes in favor of a new family, the Powells, for Charles to take care of (among the Powell kids was future “Baywatch” babe Nicole Eggert). The result was a massively successful, four-year run that saw “Charles” climb to the top of the syndicated ratings, right alongside “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”

Universal’s first season box set contains the initial 22 episodes (including the pilot) from the series’ one and only season on network TV. The performances are engaging enough to over-ride the pedestrian plots you’d routinely see in the series, and fans and family audiences will find the episodes to be as satisfying as they were back in the day (and I’d still take an episode of “Charles in Charge” over the lame antics of “Three and a Half Men” any day). Curiously enough, the CBS shows also have a somewhat more “wholesome” feel, with occasional moments of dramatic interest, that were largely abandoned in the later, syndicated years by broader, borderline-slapstick comedy. Sharp-eyed viewers will note early guest roles for Meg Ryan, Christina Applegate, Matthew Perry, Michelle Nicastro, and Kathy Ireland among others in these first-season episodes.

The transfers appear in good shape and feature the original broadcast length shows (about 25 minutes each), and not the syndicated versions we’ve been seeing in re-runs for the last 22 years. Extras include the “Great 80s TV Flashback” featurette (basically an ad for Universal’s other TV on DVD box sets) and a bonus show from the second season (a “preview” episode that I assume is setting us up for a second box-set to follow...admit it, you can’t wait, can you?).

Also out from Universal this week is the complete first season of GIMME A BREAK!, the sitcom that found Nell Carter as the housekeeper to the Kanisky family, led by gruff police chief Dolph Sweet.

Though “Gimme a Break!” started off as an African-American variant on various sitcoms of the day (black housekeeper becomes surrogate mom to a white family), the series offered as much drama and emotion as it did comedy, particularly in its early years (and later when Sweet passed away, which added another tinge of sadness to the series). Carter’s boisterous performance sold the series’ one-liners while the performances of the kids in the Kanisky clan (Kari Michaelson, Lauri Hendler, and Lara Jill Miller) bounced the comedy and drama off its larger-than-life star perfectly.

Universal’s three-disc set includes all 19 episodes from “Gimme a Break!”’s first season on NBC. The transfers and soundtracks are all fine, and extras include bonus episodes from the series’ second year, an episode a-piece from “Charlies in Charge” and “Kate and Allie” (the latter due out on DVD this spring), and the same “Great ‘80s Flashback” documentary contained on the “Charles in Charge” DVD. Recommended for all ‘80s TV enthusiasts everywhere!

New From Buena Vista

DISNEY’S QUACK PACK, Volume 1 (1996, 66 mins., Disney)
DISNEY’S GOOF TROP, Volume 1 (1992, 66 mins., Disney): Two of Disney’s animated series from the ‘90s arrive on DVD for the first time in these low-priced single-disc releases. Fans of the two series may be disappointed that Disney didn’t give these shows the fuller box-set treatment they recently did for “Rescue Rangers” and “Duck Tales,” but aficionados will have to live with them for the time being. “Quack Pack,” a follow-up of sorts to “Duck Tales,” offers three episodes (“Transmission Impossible,” “Heavy Dental” and “Feats of Clay”) while the Goofy-clan’s “Goof Troop” likewise sports three shows from the early ‘90s series (“Slightly Dinghy,” “Wrecks, Lies & Videotape,” and “Shake, Rattle & Goof”). The full-screen transfers and 2.0 Dolby Digital stereo tracks are both perfectly fine, and kids should enjoy the colorful shenanigans of each.

THE BEST OF YOUTH (***1/2, 2003, 368 mins., R; Miramax/Buena Vista): Lengthy Italian-produced epic about a pair of brothers and their lives from 1963 through the start of the 21st century. Marco Tullio Giordana’s film plays like a lengthy, but well-acted, soap opera, and Miramax’s DVD enables you watch the six-hours of this human odyssey at your own pace. Certainly the performances and story will keep you watching, through the standard melodramatic passages and splashes of Italian history. Miramax’s DVD offers a fine 1.85 transfer with both Italian and French language tracks, English and Spanish subtitles, and 2.0 Dolby Digital sound.

Also New on DVD

HOUSE OF 9 (*, 2005, 88 mins., R; Bauer Martinez Distribution): Desperate “Saw” rip-off from producer Bauer Martinez puts a cast of assorted types (including priest Dennis Hopper and requisite attractive leading lady Kelly Brook) into a mansion where they’re being held against their will by a deranged individual watching their every move. There’s not much to say about “House of 9,” except it’s curious how the back cover includes a critic quote with no author attributed to it! The Visual Entertainment DVD includes a widescreen transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, with trailers for other Bauer Martinez Studios efforts...hopefully all of which are more watchable than this one (though I wouldn’t hold my breath).

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