Aisle Seat Mid-February Round Up

Plus: FIRST DAUGHTER, New Catalog Titles and More

The ‘80s left a lasting impression on many of us, and few TV shows – and specifically theme songs – represent that era as well as THE GREATEST AMERICAN HERO (1981, 447 mins., Anchor Bay; Aisle Seat DVD Pick of the Week).

Stephen J. Cannell’s comedic-comic book adventure series paired high school teacher William Katt with FBI agent Robert Culp in an irresistibly entertaining program that’s still well-loved, despite the fact that it only ran for three (two full-length) seasons.

While traveling down a deserted highway, Katt becomes the recipient of special powers granted by well-intentioned extraterrestrials seeking to help humanity. Having to wear a bright red costume in order to access his powers, Katt’s Ralph Hinckley finds himself as a reluctant super-hero whenever he’s not teaching his class of high schoolers (including Michael Pare and Faye Grant) or romancing lovely attorney Connie Selleca. Fortunately, Ralph finds support in Culp’s Bill Campbell, who’s able to get the duo out of whatever jams they face that Ralph’s amazing suit cannot.

At long last making its debut this week on DVD, Cannell’s series is great fun made all the more appealing by the performances of its cast. Katt and Culp have a terrific chemistry together, and their varying backgrounds made their odd couple pairing appealing for a wide spectrum of both young and older viewers. Katt’s “day job”also humanized his super-heroics in a way that most comic book TV shows or movies fail to do, with the students even getting in on some of his weekly adventures.

Though “The Greatest American Hero” was slapped by a lawsuit from “Superman” publishers DC Comics, ultimately it was a decline in ratings that would lead to the series’ cancellation in early 1983. Until then, though, GAH provided three seasons of consistently amusing scripts -- ‘80 styled action but with a strong comedic element playing off the strengths of its cast.

Anchor Bay’s double-disc DVD set contains the entire first-season of GAH, which comprises only eight episodes since the program debuted as a mid-season replacement in 1981. The two-hour pilot is obviously tops among the shows, though Anchor Bay has also included an all-time rarity: the never-broadcast 1986 spin-off, “The Greatest American Heroine,” with Culp providing assistance to a female foster mom who picks up Ralph’s suit. The show works better as a cap to the original series (with Katt and Selleca on-hand) than a launching pad for a watered-down reworking of the original formula, and in that regard, it’s not difficult to comprehend why the proposed series never got off the ground.

The full-screen transfers are in good shape, the Mike Post/Pete Carpenter soundtracks – all boasting Joey Scarbury’s classic #1 hit “Believe It Or Not” in various pop and orchestral arrangements as underscore – sound great, and to round off the presentation, Anchor Bay has included a handful of newly conducted interviews with Katt, Selleca, Kulp, Michael Pare, and Cannell himself. All fondly recall how much fun the series was to work on – nearly as much fun, I would assume, as it is now to enjoy the show again on DVD. Highly recommended!

Also worth a view is Fox’s Complete “Viewer Collection” of the little-seen cult series WONDERFALLS (2004, 570 mins.), a Fox Network show about a Brown graduate working at a tourist gift shop in Niagara Falls who develops a penchant for communicating with inanimate objects in her shop and around her home.

Wacky, offbeat, funny and occasionally touching, “Wonderfalls” failed to find a niche on the prime time schedule, and was cancelled after just four episodes aired. Fox’s three-disc DVD set offers all 13 episodes of the series, including the nine that never made it to broadcast, in superb 16:9 transfers with 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks. The show was obviously too clever and different for its own good, with CBS finding success with a more formulaic program (“Joan of Arcadia”) that boasted a similar theme (substitute inanimate objects for God and you get the drift) in the same time frame as “Wonderfalls.”

Fox has included several special features in the box set, including a “Greetings From Wonderfalls” documentary, six commentary tracks including star Caroline Dhavernas and developers Todd Holland and Bryan Fuller, a visual effects featurette, and a music video. Recommended!

Aisle Seat Vintage

Paramount’s collection of new library titles, due out February 22nd, include a handful of late ‘60s films arriving on DVD (two on video altogether) for the first time.

Severely compromised by pre-release cuts, Barbra Streisand fans will still be happy to see ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER (**½, 129 mins., G, 1970) making its DVD debut next week, albeit in its cut theatrical version.

The Alan Jay Lerner-Burton Lane musical was brought to the screen with the great Vincente Minnelli attached as director, and a superb supporting cast (Bob Newhart, Jack Nicholson, Larry Blyden among others) brought in to back up Ms. Streisand’s role as Daisy Gamble, a 22-year-old who crashes college professor Yves Montand’s hypnosis lecture to see if she can’t shake her nicotine addiction. Montand, in turn, sees in Daisy the potential of proving that ESP exists, particularly when Daisy shows evidence of having lived another life as the mysterious “Melinda,” an English woman in the 1800s.

As any musical fan knows, the late ‘60s and early ‘70s were not a pleasant time for the genre. Several films flopped at the box-office and “On a Clear Day...” was only one of them. Of course, the movie’s substantial editing prior to its opening didn’t help: numerous songs were excised (including Nicholson’s musical number) and plot elements were eliminated (consider that Roy Kinnear boasts a prominent credit but doesn’t actually appear in the final cut!). The resulting film is a curious mixture of light musical comedy, gorgeous widescreen cinematography (courtesy of Minnelli and Harry Stradling), superb arrangements of the Lerner-Lane score by Nelson Riddle, and long, tedious stretches of dialogue without any songs at all. The lack of chemistry between Streisand and Montand is another turn-off, and the introduction of “mod” elements like Nicholson’s hippie ex-stepbrother don’t quite mesh with the old-fashioned central plot.

Perhaps one day the movie will be restored back to its original, intended form, but in the meantime, die-hard Streisand fans should find plenty to savor in Paramount’s straightforward DVD presentation. Boasting a new 16:9 widescreen transfer, “On A Clear Day...” looks absolutely stunning. Minnelli’s use of primary colors and lighting is on full display and the print looks gorgeous from start to finish, enhancing the production’s most positive attributes. The 5.1 soundtrack is likewise superb, and the original mono track has been retained for purists.

For more information on the film’s ample cut sequences, visit Matt Howe’s excellent summation of the discarded numbers and sequences at

If you’re looking for an “out there” experience that totally sums up the late ‘60s, don’t miss the 1969 “mod” family comedy HELLO DOWN THERE (**½, 97 mins., 1969, G).

Making its debut on home video for the first time in any format, this Ivan Tors-Jack Arnold production gives you a number of offbeat elements that cinephiles should find of interest: how ‘bout Tony Randall as a wacky scientist who brings wife Janet Leigh, their kids and rock band pals (including Richard Dreyfuss!) down to the bottom of the ocean floor just to prove that his inventions work to fuddy-duddy businessman Jim Backus. Not enough? OK, then add Roddy McDowall as a record producer trying to sign the band to a record deal, then throw in Merv Griffin, Ken Berry, Charlotte Rae, Lee Meredith, Arnold Stang and – why not – Harvey Lembeck too.

This sunny, dated relic of late ‘60s moviemaking plays like a TV sitcom, but with that cast, a catchy score by Jeff Barry, and an ample amount of groovy tunes, you can’t help but enjoy the entertainment value that “Hello Down There” provides. The Ricou Browning-supervised underwater cinematography is excellent, the seals, dolphins and other mammals are great, the laughs are obvious, and what more do you need to know than Dreyfuss croons a hit song or two? (or at least pretends to).

Paramount’s DVD includes a razor-sharp 16:9 enhanced transfer of this rarely-screened comedy, and the mono soundtrack is also in good shape.

Another studio property making its debut on video for the first time ever is the amiable 1961 comedy ALL IN A NIGHT’S WORK (***, 94 mins., G), starring Dean Martin and Shirley MacLaine.

Here, Dino plays the nephew of a magazine publisher who dies with a smile on his face and the news that a mysterious woman left his room prior to his death. Martin hires a detective to track down the woman so the mag’s reputation and impending expansion aren’t threatened, leading them to (you guessed it) innocent researcher MacLaine, who just happened to be at the scene of the (non)crime. She’s also engaged to be hitched to vet Cliff Robertson, but Martin is soon able to use his skillful, swingin’ bachelor charms to change her mind.

A superb supporting cast, including Charlie Ruggles, Jack Weston, Norma Crane, and Gale Gordon back up the two stars in this Hal B. Wallis production, sporting an Andre Previn score, a few laughs in the script (co-written by Sidney Sheldon), and decent chemistry between the two leads.

Paramount’s DVD offers a 16:9 enhanced, 1.85 widescreen transfer that’s a bit pale but is, overall, in generally good condition. The mono soundtrack is perfectly satisfying.

New & Vintage Capsules

DEATH HUNT (**½, 1981, 97 mins., R; Anchor Bay): The first Fox catalog title to arrive on DVD from Anchor Bay, this robust and entertaining adventure yarn is set in early 1932, with Charles Bronson starring as a fugitive in the Yukon being doggedly pursued by policeman Lee Marvin. Peter Hunt (“On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”) directed this well-executed star vehicle with superb cinematography and a strong supporting cast, including Andrew Stevens, Carl Weathers and Angie Dickinson. Anchor Bay’s DVD offers a pretty solid 16:9 enhanced transfer (1.85 widescreen) that’s only a bit grainy here and there, plus a basic 2.0 Dolby Stereo mix, highlighting a straightforward score by Jerrold Immel. The original trailer is the disc’s only extra.

OFF LIMITS (**, 1987, 102 mins., R; Anchor Bay): Willem Dafoe and Gregory Hines are cops in 1968 Saigon, faced with finding a serial killer praying on Vietnamese hookers who have mothered children with American fathers. Christopher Crowe’s thriller was one of countless Vietnam films released in the mid-to-late ‘80s, and while “Off Limits” doesn’t focus on warfare per se, it’s still a routine and forgettable film with only its star performances and James Newton Howard’s score to differentiate it from other genre offerings. Anchor Bay’s DVD looks excellent in 1.85 widescreen and sounds just fine in 2.0 Dolby Surround. Extras include electronic press kit interviews, a typical promotional featurette, and theatrical and video trailers.

A SEPARATE PEACE (**½, 2004, 91 mins., R; Paramount): Made-for-cable adaptation of John Knowles book at least fares better than Larry Peerce’s poorly-regarded 1972 feature film version. J Barton and Toby Moore play a pair of roommates at a boys prep school during WWII, finding friendship, competition, and then tragedy as they attempt to finish classes before the draft. Veteran filmmaker Peter Yates has fashioned a straightforward drama with strong performances from its young cast (plus veterans including Hume Cronyn), and gets an additional assist from a poignant, effective Mason Daring score. Paramount’s DVD looks splendid in its full-screen transfer and the basic Dolby Surround mix is just right for the picture.

Family Recommendations

GROWING UP WITH WINNIE THE POOH: A GREAT DAY OF DISCOVERY  (2005 compilation, 70 mins., Disney)
GROWING UP WITH WINNIE THE POOH: FRIENDS FOREVER (2005 compilation, 63 mins., Disney)

Disney’s new DVD line – culled primarily from Pooh and the gang’s early ‘80s Saturday morning series -- is being packaged and aimed squarely at young viewers, though the content of the episodes themselves are more than satisfying for adult viewers as well. “A Great Day of Discovery” and “Friends Forever” each include four separate episodes (ranging from 10-20 minutes each) of the award-winning series, with interactive games and sing-a-longs aimed at younger kids. Though Disney likely could have included more content on the discs (there’s barely over an hour of programming on each), you can’t argue with the quality of the material and that kids will likely be enthralled by its presentation.

PRINCESS PARTY: VOLUME TWO (2005 compilation, 102 mins., Disney)
PRINCESS STORIES: VOLUME TWO (2005 compilation, 64 mins., Disney): Two more releases in the “Disney Princess” DVD line include plenty of interactive games, music videos, and animated tales (comprised mainly of Disney Channel programming) starring everyone’s favorite Disney heroines. Recommended for young girls and aspiring princesses everywhere ;)

POKEMON: DESTINY DEOXYS: THE MOVIE (2004, 98 mins., Not Rated): Pokemon is still going strong with Miramax’s latest feature-length film based on the hit Nintendo video game/card game/TV series. Special features include a look at the new Pokemon seen in the film, an interview with the director, a Japanese poster art gallery, a full-screen transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Also Newly Released on DVD

FIRST DAUGHTER (*½, 2004). 104 mins., PG-13, Fox. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Commentary; Tribute to Michael Kamen; Making Of featurette; Deleted Scenes; 1.85 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

It’s hard to mess up what sounded like a sure-fire teen comedy premise, but right from the opening seconds of last year’s flop “First Daughter”  – where the film’s director, Forest Whitaker, narrates the fairy-tale prologue as if he just ran off the set of “The New Twilight Zone”– you know that you’re in for a bumpy ride.

Looking a decade too old for her role, Katie Holmes gives a somnambulant performance as Samantha MacKenize, daughter to U.S. President Benjamin MacKenzie (an equally lifeless Michael Keaton). Confined in the White House with no freedom of her own, the very Chelsea-like Samantha heads off for college, where she finds herself being hounded by the press, guarded by the secret service, and in a love-hate relationship with her roommate (Amerie). Of course, it’s not all bad news: Samantha finds herself attracted to good-guy All-American Marc Blucas, though it turns out that he harbors a dark secret connected with Samantha’s well being that threatens their relationship.

The second of two low-grossing comedies about presidential off-spring produced last year (Mandy Moore’s forgettable “Chasing Liberty” at least had some charm going for it), “First Daughter” is a tired affair on many levels. The performances are ho-hum, the writing isn’t interesting, funny or especially romantic, and the cinematography and production values feel more suited to something on The WB Network (in fact, your average “Dawson’s Creek” episode looks like it has twice the production value of this film). From the story’s prolonged set up to its protracted finale and preachy messages, “First Daughter” is a shockingly bland and tedious affair that’s a waste of time for everyone involved.

It’s also a sad cap to the late Michael Kamen’s career. The veteran composer passed away after beginning work on “First Daughter,” with his score finished by long-time orchestrator Blake Neely. Neely contributes a heartfelt interview in one of the DVD’s supplementary features, noting how Kamen’s passing came as a shock to all involved and the challenges he faced in completing the score both faithfully to the composer’s wishes and on his own terms.

The DVD also sports a commentary by Katie Holmes and Marc Blucas, plus a couple of deleted scenes and an additional choreography featurette on the disc’s flip full-screen side. The 1.85 transfer is colorful enough and the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound sufficient for this kind of film.

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