3/18/08 Edition -- The New AISLE SEAT BLOG Is Also Live

March Madness Edition
I AM LEGEND, ENCHANTED and More Reviewed
Plus: THE LOVE BOAT Finally Sets Sail On DVD

My freshman -- and, as it turns out, only -- year at Ithaca College in central New York was packed with memories. Road trips to Syracuse to meet “Recordman” (FSM’s resident LP expert Mike Murray), snow-filled weekends watching laserdiscs in the dorm, and many weekends hanging out with friends -- including Paul MacLean, who basically saved me from a life of boredom single-handedly -- were the good times. Disappointing classes (nearly two-dozen of which didn’t meet in the second semester alone due to professors, traveling from Syracuse and points elsewhere, being stranded by weather), a sparsely populated campus on weekends, and a generally disinterested student body were the flip side of the coin.

Suffice to say I became so irritated with Ithaca that one of my daily outlets for an escape was the 4pm weekday airing of “The Love Boat” on WOR-TV New York. Each afternoon in these pre-internet boom days (Gopher and Mosaic might’ve been then-indispensable tools of navigating the web, but I couldn’t figure them out until a friend introduced me to “Netscape Navigator” a year or so later), I’d generally rush home from class and turn on the “‘Boat,” along with several others on my floor.

It didn’t matter that WOR generally showed only the same two-dozen episodes in their possession, or the quality of these syndicated re-runs was so poor it looked like second-generation video tape...the adventures of Captain Stubbing and his Pacific Princess cruise staff made for an escape that managed to entertain a group of college students years after its cancellation in the exact same way the Aaron Spelling-produced series had for nearly a decade on the ABC airwaves from the late ‘70s through the mid ‘80s.

And it’s no surprise why THE LOVE BOAT was such a success: mixing sitcom-styled laughs with dramatic storylines, the series was like watching several different kinds of shows at once. Add in a weekly dose of Guest Star power -- be it from John Ritter or Sherman Helmsley or Don Ameche or Charo herself -- and you had the recipe for irresistibly appealing, glossy all-star network TV at its finest.

Interestingly, though, the “‘Boat” did not float at first. It took Spelling and ABC no less than three tries to bring their fictional adaptation of Jeraldine Saunders’ autobiographical book “Love Boats” to series fruition.

Two different TV movies aired in the 1976 and ‘77 seasons, trying -- and failing -- to find the right cast to fill out the principal roles of the ship’s captain and his crew. The formula for the show was set (the first two TV films offered stars ranging from Gabe Kaplan to Karen Valentine and Ken Berry, among many others), but only with the third pilot movie (“The New Love Boat”) in 1977 did the producers find the magic of Gavin MacLeod as Captain Stubbing, Lauren Tewes as perky cruise director Julie McCoy, Fred Grandy as “Gopher”, Ted Lange as “Isaac” (aka the World’s Sweetest Bartender), and Bernie Koppell as the ship’s resident playboy doctor.

With the ensemble cast finally settled, “The Love Boat” debuted in September of ‘77 and became an immediate hit with audiences. It’s been a while since the series has been widely available, but viewers can enjoy these early shows again now that the first batch of the series’ debut season is at last on DVD in a satisfying enough box-set courtesy of CBS and Paramount Home Video.

These early episodes of “The Love Boat” try a little harder than the later years to convince you that, yes, these characters are actually ON a ship, utilizing some location shooting instead of the standing soundstages that would only be utilized (along with stock location footage) in subsequent seasons. In general, though, once you hear the mellow strains of the Paul Williams-Charles Fox theme song bellowing out of your speakers (Jack Jones has never sounded so good), you’ll feel immediately at home watching the antics of stars like John Ritter (in drag!), Meredith Baxter Birney, Jacyln Smith, Sherman Helmsley, Jimmie ‘J.J.’ Walker, Suzanne Sommers, Robert Reed, Loretta Swit, Leslie Nielsen, Robert Urich, and countless others try and navigate the rough waters of romance on the series each week.

The transfers are fine, the sound is acceptable, and optional episode promos are on-tap before each show. CBS has also included brief broadcast and cast synopsis for each episode, but no supplements are on-hand. Hopefully future releases will offer some interviews and insight into the series’ enduring popularity, but just to be able to see these early episodes again in seemingly uncut form really provides a blast of nostalgia that ought to enchant “Love Boat” fans of all ages.

Post-Script: before I left Ithaca for Boston College, I found out from one of my professors that Gavin MacLeod had graduated from the institution many years before. One particularly drab September afternoon, I ventured into the Alumni Office (it was on the way to my Spanish class, in a building owned by a corporation that produced cash registers), and asked if I could send a letter to Mr. MacLeod, thanking him for saving my afternoons -- and my sanity. A few days later after filing a request (they thought I was crazy, and I couldn’t blame them), I got the go-ahead from someone in the office who called me back, saying they’d be happy to forward a letter to Captain Stubbing on my behalf.

Months passed. Light at the end of the tunnel emerged -- that being Christmas vacation. The day my last class ended before vacation, I ran to grab my mail (I should add the girl who handled the packages for our building hated me, as Lukas often sent CD’s and I also reviewed laserdiscs for a Canadian magazine back in the day...necessitating her to drop her biology homework, get up and grab my stash during the 2-hour window in which they handed out the package mail).

I hopped in the elevator with a couple of idiots I knew, thumbed through my mail and found a large envelope: “fragile! Do not bend!” it read. Thinking it might have been just a lousy press release, I nevertheless opened it up...there to find a three-page handwritten letter from Gavin MacLeod, along with a signed glossy photo that read “Andy: God Bless Your Wonderful Life!”. If you could imagine a pair of grungy stoners (remember this was ‘93) watching a freshman open up a package from Gavin MacLeod, it might have seemed like something out of a bad sitcom...but I can assure you it all happened, and Gavin’s note remains one of the few “celebrity run-ins” I have in my possession. Obviously it’s the most treasured one as well.

Watching these DVDs took me back, in a good way, to those freshman days -- the good, the bad, and the memorable, of which “The Love Boat” played a rather large, and fondly remembered, role.

New on Blu-Ray and DVD

I AM LEGEND: Blu-Ray (***, 100 [theatrical] and 104 [alternate] mins., 2007, PG-13; Warner): The first-hour of “I Am Legend” is as tense, compelling, disturbing and thoroughly gut-wrenching a science-fiction film as you’ll see.

Adapting Richard Matheson’s “I Am Legend” for a new generation, director Francis Lawrence and writers Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman place Will Smith in the role that Vincent Price and Charlton Heston essayed in decades past -- that of Robert Neville, a biologist who seemingly becomes the last man on Earth after a virus, once intended to cure cancer, wipes out nearly the entire populace of New York City and beyond.

Neville cruises the streets of the now-deserted Big Apple with his German Shepherd Sam in tow, hunting wild animals who have taken to running through the buildings and tunnels of the formerly major metropolis. He even rents videos from a corner video shop, having placed and dressed mannequins who he talks to every day as if they were real people.

It’s a lonely existence, but it could be worse: once the sun goes down, whatever is left of humanity comes out, making loud, snarling noises and hunting whatever life is still left in the post-apocalyptic world.

For essentially an hour, “I Am Legend” draws you into this nightmarish scenario of humanity’s demise and doesn’t let up. The picture’s visuals of empty New York streets and animals running amok are breathtakingly -- and all too convincingly -- represented, while Smith gives a sympathetic, wholly believable performance as a man who’s lost everything, yet still tries to “fix” the situation by abducting the “infected” and trying to find a cure for them. All the while, flashbacks (seemingly modeled after “Lost”) fill in the gaps of mankind’s final hours, as Smith tries tragically to get his family out of the city. Individual set-pieces are also potent, such as when Smith’s dog runs into a darkened warehouse where hordes of the creatures congregate, and a later sequence where the creatures turn the tables on Neville.

The picture’s opening is so strong that one would anticipate the filmmakers having a hard time finding an ending that would live up to it. Sadly this is completely the case here, as the picture sinks once a woman (Alice Braga) and a young boy appear, having received Smith’s daily radio broadcast. There’s no development of these characters of any kind, and Braga comes off as being particularly devoid of charisma or any chemistry with her co-star (the sequence where Smith tries to teach Braga about the beauty of Bob Marley’s music is downright pathetic). Their role in the story is pre-ordained, but because of the startling lack of development of these roles, there’s no emotional connection or pay-off to them -- something the story needed to have in order to function at the end.

Warner’s DVD and Blu-Ray releases do offer one advantage over the theatrical version: that being the option to view the film with its alternate (original) ending, which not only is a tad more upbeat than the released version, but also ties in with the main story (of the infected beings chasing Smith) far more effectively. Why this more emotional finale was jettisoned in favor of a slightly more “action” filled climax is anyone’s guess, but viewers new to the film are urged to view it with the “alternate” ending instead of the theatrical version. Not that this finale is perfect, either, but it’s certainly the better option given the choice.

“I Am Legend,” then, is that rare science fiction film that doesn’t pull any punches (young children should avoid the film at all costs, as well as dog lovers sensitive to traumatic death scenes of animals on-screen). It’s a visually compelling and well-performed piece that likely works better on video than it did in theaters -- due to the amount of silence in its opening hour -- and comes as strongly recommended for sci-fi fans in spite of its lackluster final third.

Warner’s Blu-Ray disc is absolutely spectacular (an HD-DVD version is still due out in a few weeks). The 1080p transfer is as flawless and impressive as any I’ve watched in high-definition to date, and ranks as demo material for all high-def enthusiasts. The Dolby TrueHD audio is likewise exceptional, while extras include a gallery of short featurettes pertaining to the production; a featurette examining the possibility of real-life disease infections (in HD); and four animated comics.

ENCHANTED: Blu-Ray and DVD (***, 107 mins., 2007, PG; Disney): Appropriately enchanting musical-comedy from Disney, director Kevin Lima and co-producer Barry Sonnenfeld finds an animated aspiring princess (Amy Adams) making the leap from her 2-D world into a very real New York City after having been banished from her beloved suitor (James Marsden) by his wicked mother (Susan Sarandon).

Adams’ adaptation to her newfound surroundings is slow in coming, as a divorce lawyer (Patrick Dempsey) tries to get her to stop singing ballads and attempts to show her how magic just doesn’t exist in the real world...all the while Marsden comes leaping, hopping and hoping to find Adams and bring her back.

“Enchanted” is a typical fish-out-of-water tale, with some predictable gags and a script (by Bill Kelly) that misses some opportunities to satirize its conventions even more than it does. That said, the film sings -- literally -- whenever one of Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz’s terrific songs appear, particularly the delightful number “How Will I Know,” which is splendidly performed and choreographed. Adams is just fine in the perky role of the wide-eyed innocent princess, while Dempsey -- in his first real leading cinematic role in years -- does a nice turn as the downtrodden single father who finds true love again, even though he’s engaged to another woman (Idina Menzel from “Rent” and “Wicked”).

“Enchanted” makes for a beautiful DVD and Blu-Ray presentation, with veteran cinematographer Don Burgess capturing all of the colorful fun in gorgeous 2.35 widescreen. The Blu-Ray release in particular is graced with a splendid HD transfer, while Dolby TrueHD audio seems to be the format of choice now that Disney has followed Sony’s lead and begun to drop uncompressed PCM audio tracks from their Blu-Ray releases.

Extras include a few minutes of deleted scenes and bloopers, several behind-the-scenes featurettes, a music video of Carrie Underwood’s song “Ever Ever After,” and a pop-up interactive game. The Blu-Ray release also includes a “D-Files” game that invites viewers to uncover all the various references to other Disney films.

APPLESEED: EX MACHINA Blu-Ray (104 mins., 2007, PG-13; Warner): Spectacularly animated continuation of the well-known Japanese anime from producer John Woo follows female warrior Deunan and her romantic rivals -- cyborgs Briareos and Tereus -- while they try to ward off evil zealots in the city-nation of Olympus. If you’re new to the material (as I am), “Ex Machina” probably isn’t the best way to be introduced to the story line, but the action is impressive and the computer-generated visuals absolutely splendid in high definition. Warner’s Blu-Ray disc sports an immaculate 1080p transfer that’s disappointingly complimented only by a straight 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack. Extras include commentary, a history of “The Appleseed Chronicles,” a featurette on the collaboration between Woo and original author Shirow Masamune, and other goodies. Highly recommended for anime/magna fans.

Also on DVD

GREEK: Chapter One (445 mins., 2007; Buena Vista): Terrific, surprisingly winning ABC Family series about university life is kind of a cross between “Animal House” and “Dawson’s Creek,” following a young freshman’s journey after he pledges to his school’s resident crazy frat house -- much to the chagrin of his older, more popular sister, who essentially runs the school’s trendy female fraternity.

Alternately comedic and dramatic situations mark this sharply-written series, which plays with stereotypes (the shy gay student who’s afraid to come out of the closet; the rigidly devout Christian student at odds with his more liberal roommate) and ends up being respectful of its varied characters instead of painting them with typically broad strokes. The cast is likewise appealing, including Spencer Grammer (Kelsey’s daughter) as the female lead and Scott Michael Foster as the happy go-lucky Tim Matheson-type of the nutty fraternity -- who’s also, not coincidentally, Grammer’s former boyfriend.

“Greek” is back on ABC Family with new episodes next week, but for viewers unfamiliar with the show, Buena Vista has just issued “Chapter One” of the series’ first group of episodes on DVD. The 16:9 (1.78) transfers are terrific, as are the 5.1 soundtracks, while extras include deleted scenes, commentaries, extended musical numbers, a featurette, and preview of the series’ forthcoming episodes.

BEE MOVIE (**½, 90 mins., 2007, PG; Dreamworks): Typical CGI animated film from Dreamworks offers the comic stylings of Jerry Seinfeld as a sly-talking bee who graduates from college and decides to sue humanity for eating honey! Along the way he makes friends with a florist (voiced by Renee Zellweger) who helps Barry B. Benson’s dreams come true. “Bee Movie” is moderately funny but it’s primarily for kids, with a story line that’s pretty basic and laughs that only intermittently connect with adults. The colorful animation is fine and Dreamworks’ DVD includes a terrific 16:9 transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound and a number of extras, including alternate endings, deleted scenes, live-action trailers, Making Of featurettes, games, and footage of Jerry in costume at Cannes selling the picture to prospective outlets.

NANCY DREW (**½, 99 mins., 2007, PG; Warner): The legendary young female sleuth returned to the silver screen in this box-office disappointment from last summer, somewhat belatedly released just now from Warner. As Nancy, Emma Roberts (Julia’s niece) is charming, though Andrew Fleming’s film makes the mistake of turning the material as much into a fish-out-of-water story (with Nancy having trouble fitting in with the cliques at her new school) as it is a mystery-whoduneit. The end result is a mixture of genres that’s never quite satisfying, but kids still ought to enjoy the film, even if they may not be aware how much more entertaining the original books are. Warner’s DVD offers both 16:9 (2.35) and full-screen transfers with 5.1 Dolby Digital audio. Slim extras include just a gag reel and a group of very short, promotional featurettes.

AFTER DARK HORROR FEST: 8 FILMS TO DIE FOR (Lionsgate): The second batch of horrific terrors from Lionsgate includes the NYC infection thriller MULBERRY ST. (84 mins., R); the silly LAKE DEAD (91 mins., Unrated); the oddball Stan Winston production THE DEATHS OF IAN STONE (87 mins., R); the gleefully fun NIGHTMARE MAN (90 mins., 2008, R); the “Feast”-ish UNEARTHED (93 mins., R); CRAZY EIGHTS (80 mins., R), which nearly plays more like a typical direct-to-video psycho thriller with Traci Lords, Dina Meyer, Gabrielle Anwar, Frank Whaley and George Newbern among the “B-list” former stars onboard; the Mexican-set BORDERLAND (105 mins., Unrated); and TOOTH AND NAIL (94 mins., R), an unintentionally funny tale of post-apocalyptic survivors trying to stay alive after being hunted by a group of cannibals, including Vinnie Jones and Michael Madsen, slumming even for them!

DON’T DRINK THE WATER (100 mins., 1969): Misfired adaptation of Woody Allen’s play stars Jackie Gleason and Estelle Parsons as the hapless American couple who, along with their daughter, is arrested for espionage after their plane is hyjacked for Vulgaria. Allen would have a lengthy relationship here with producer Charles H. Joffe, but he did Allen no favors with this strident adaptation of Allen’s play, badly adapted by R.S. Allen and Harvey Bullock, and directed by comic actor Howard Morris. Lionsgate’s DVD does sport a good 16:9 (1.85) transfer with 2.0 Dolby mono sound.

NEXT TIME: The latest news and reviews! 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.  Cheers everyone!

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