4/15/08 Edition -- The New AISLE SEAT BLOG Is Also Live

Andy Reviews Abrams' Monster (S)Mash

With the lavish “John Adams” mini-series still airing on HBO, now is the ideal time to flash back to another major critical television event: PBS’ 1976-77 production of THE ADAMS CHRONICLES.

Newly presented on DVD by Acorn Media, this 13-episode mini-series garnered numerous awards and still ranks as the highest-rated series in the history of PBS. Each hour-long episode traces the Adams family from John Adams as a young country lawyer through his time as Congressman, diplomat, Minister to Great Britain, and finally President.

Adams’ life story is captured through the first six episodes, with George Grizzard giving a superb performance as Adams and Kathryn Walker likewise effective as his stalwart wife Abigail. Their relationship is warm, believable and nicely under-played, in contrast to other portrayals of the duo in similar adaptations.

Episodes 7-10 chronicle John Quincy Adams, in his journey from the Presidency to Congress, in equally fine work turned in by David Birney and later William Daniels, who so memorably essayed his character’s father in the stage and screen adaptations of the Sherman Edwards-Peter Stone musical “1776.” The final three episodes examine Charles Francis Adams, minister to Great Britain, as well as historian Henry Adams and Charles Francis Adams II, who spearheaded the national expansion of the Union Pacific Railroad.

“The Adams Chronicles” may look dated with its videotaped appearance, yet the strength of the writing is so eloquent -- scenes naturally flow into one another, with perfect narrative transitions to important historical and personal events -- and the performances so effective that the show’s technical limitations are quickly overcome.

Acorn’s marvelous four-disc DVD package includes 12 pages of notes from Adams authorities C. James Taylor and Neil Horstman, lending some additional historical perspective to the show, while a full time-line is also available for handy reference.

In all, this is a highly recommended package perfect for all history enthusiasts and viewers of all ages, for that matter.

Coming Next Week on DVD

J.J. Abrams said that when we went to Japan some time ago with his young son, he saw Godzilla merchandise all over the place. Abrams was struck by the Big G’s presence throughout his native land, and wondered where “our” Godzilla was in the good o’l U.S.A.

That notion formed the concept of CLOVERFIELD (**½, 84 mins., 2008, PG-13; Paramount), this past winter’s box-office hit that finds New York City under attack from a giant behemoth, as seen through the lens of a hand-held camcorder being operated by one of the Big Apple’s residents trying -- along with his buddies -- to get away from the beast.

No matter that Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin captured a bit of this same feeling in their 1998 “Godzilla” (indeed, some of this movie’s more evocative shots of the creature running amok bear more than a passing resemblance to that much-ballyhooed 1998 box-office disappointment) -- Abrams, writer Drew Goddard and director Matt Reeves (both veterans of Abrams’ stable) have fashioned a film that lives up to its billing as “Godzilla meets the ‘Blair Witch Project’”, at least to some degree.

“Cloverfield” opens with a group of nameless faces congregating at an apartment party. In what is easily the film’s weakest stretch, Reeves and Goddard try to establish their limp set of lead characters in nearly interminable sequences that feel like a poorly-shot WB soap opera. You never care about any of these twentysomething protagonists, their relationships and current dating status (who dumped and slept with who, etc.). It’s all routine and less than interesting, with all of these early bits feeling like the filmmakers were just killing time getting to “the good stuff.”

When it does, “Cloverfield” functions much like any other giant monster movie: the big lug cuts a path of destruction throughout the Big Apple, before shaking loose a group of tiny offspring that look like a cross between “Alien” face-huggers and a smaller version of the central creature. Buildings are leveled, bodies are stockpiled, and what military figures the core group of characters encounter have less information than you’d anticipate.

There’s nothing groundbreaking about “Cloverfield” in terms of its thrills or special effects, though what it makes it unique is how it portrays the creature’s arrival. The shaky, hand-held camera barely stays level for long, and some 70+ minutes of this approach tends to go a long way. Watching the film at home may make the effect less potent than it was in theaters (where there were countless reports of audiences feeling ill), but it still could prove to be a turn-off for some viewers.

That disclaimer aside, “Cloverfield” is really just an old-fashioned monster mash, and its effects (from Double Negative and Phil Tippett’s Studio) are effective enough to provide satisfying entertainment for sci-fi/fantasy aficionados. Had the human element of the movie worked at all, Abrams and his group would’ve had something special here, but the weak and unappealing characters come across more as types than real people. Hopefully these aspects will be corrected in a sequel, which is, reportedly (and unsurprisingly), already in the works.

Paramount’s “Cloverfield” DVD will be available next week and comes complete with several (non-creature) deleted scenes, a pair of slightly different alternate endings, outtakes, a 30-minute Making Of, some shorter featurettes, and commentary from director Matt Reeves. Shot on digital video, the 16:9 (1.85) transfer looks ideal on DVD, while a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack comes alive when called upon. Sharp-eyed viewers will note an intriguing blip in the background during the picture’s final shot, as well as some garbled static (that could well provide the basis for Part 2) at the tail end of the credits.

Though the picture doesn’t offer an original score, Abrams staple Michael Giacchino did write a marvelous Akira Ikafube tribute -- “Roar (Cloverfield Overture)” -- that runs throughout the end credits and is worth the wait to sit through. Should “Cloverfield 2" utilize a more straightforward dramatic approach, one would hope that Giacchino will be along for the ride.

New From Criterion

A number of classic children’s films grace the Criterion Collection’s offerings this month, as well as a Spanish language favorite from Juan Antonio Bardem.

A pair of short films from French filmmaker Albert Lamorisse are first on the list, including Lamorisse’s classic 1956 work THE RED BALLOON (34 mins.) and an earlier, 1953 black-and-white effort WHITE MANE (40 mins.).

Though bereft of any extras, “The Red Balloon” is priced at an especially attractive $15 from Criterion, allowing viewers an economic opportunity to savor this marvelous, dreamy story of a young boy’s relationship with a balloon he comes across in Paris and bonding with it as if it were a loyal pet. Little dialogue is ever spoken, and the redemptive ending is simply glorious, a sensational bit of filmmaking on the part of Lamorisse.

Countless school-children around the world (yours truly included) have been subjected to “The Red Balloon” at some point in their young lives, but unlike most teacher-mandated classroom movies, the picture leaves a positive imprint on most anyone who sees it. Lamorisse’s enchanting point-of-view, playful innocence and magical conclusion make it a spellbinding and unique piece that translates perfectly to children of any nationality.

Criterion’s DVD of “The Red Balloon” sports a brand-new, restored full-screen transfer that looks, obviously, far better than the film-strip I saw of the picture as a child. A recent theatrical trailer rounds out the disc.

More extras are available on “White Mane,” a more somber but equally compelling 1953 work from Lamorisse about a young boy in the south of France who discovers, and is able to tame, a wild stallion. Just as in “The Red Balloon,” exterior forces eventually cross their path, culminating in a harsher but equally memorable finale.

Criterion’s DVD of this beautifully filmed, 40-minute piece includes new English narration from Peter Strauss, re-done subtitles, a recent theatrical trailer and a fully restored black-and-white transfer that looks exceptionally fresh.

Both discs are about $10 or thereabouts from Amazon and come highly recommended for viewers of all ages. Bravo!

Another award-winning children’s film, PADDLE TO THE SEA (1966, 28 mins.) is also due out shortly from Criterion.

Holling C. Holling’s Caldecott-winning children’s book (first published in 1941) remains in print and has enchanted many a generation of young readers. Bill Mason directed this live-action, half-hour 1966 adaptation of the story for the National Film Board of Canada, capturing the evocative story of a boy’s tiny, wood-carved canoe as it travels from Ontario through all five Great Lakes, eventually reaching the Atlantic Ocean.

Simple, yet beautifully told, “Paddle to the Sea” is another gem Criterion has beautifully brought to DVD this month, in a simple, low-priced package that belongs on the shelf of viewers with young children, seeking something more sophisticated and satisfying than the usual Disney Channel fare.

Finally from the Collection this month is Juan Antonio Bardem’s DEATH OF A CYCLIST (88 mins., 1955), the director’s internationally acclaimed study of a university professor and his mistress who suffer the consequences after hitting a biker and running from the scene.

Criterion’s DVD also includes “Calle Bardem,” a 2005 documentary on the filmmaker’s life and times, along with a good-looking new black-and-white transfer, improved English subtitle translation and extensive booklet notes. Recommended!

Also New On DVD & Blu-Ray

SHARKWATER (***, 89 mins., 2006, PG; Warner): Excellent documentary from biologist-filmmaker Rob Stewart makes a fervent plea to end the slaughter of sharks.

Utilizing gorgeous underwater photography as well as vintage media stories about the “terrors of the deep” from decades past, this compelling, beautifully filmed documentary turns the tables on popular misconceptions about sharks -- informing viewers of their vitality and necessary role in our ocean’s eco-system -- and how brutal international hunting outside of American waters, and specifically in Asia, has critically diminished their populace.

It’s a superb, informative, and heart-wrenching piece that ought to be must-viewing for all lovers of sharks and the sea, with Warner’s Blu-Ray disc offering a sterling 1080p transfer with Dolby Digital 5.1 sound (the regular DVD’s 16:9 transfer isn’t shabby either). Extras include a trailer, TV spots, a Making Of special, a Naval Training film, and a virtual underwater gallery.

Also New From Paramount

LAVERNE AND SHIRLEY: Season 4 (1978-79, 23 Episodes; CBS/Paramount)
MELROSE PLACE: Season 4 (1995-96, 32 Episodes; CBS/Paramount): CBS Home Video’s latest DVD releases highlight a pair of fourth-season efforts.

“Laverne and Shirley,” the long-running “Happy Days” spin-off, reached its apex as the #1 series on TV during its 1978-79 season – a distinction it would hold for the final time before a major drop-off would occur the following year.

Season Four finds the girls continuing to work at the Shotz Brewery and, of course, getting into all sorts of trouble; the shenanigans are predictable but by this point “L&S” was a finely-tuned machine that delivered the goods to its fans. Regrettably those fans would begin to jump ship in Season 5, which found its heroines abandoning their Milwaukee homes for permanent relocation on the West Coast.

Paramount’s DVD set offers all of “L&S”’ 23 fourth-season episodes in solid full-screen transfers and with mono sound.

Fox’s long-running night-time soaper, “Melrose Place,” is also back on DVD in a Season 4 package that spotlights the series basically at its best, with crazy-ridiculous plot lines, loads of romance, sex and suspense, and the occasional unintentional laugh as well. This 1995-96 season was one of the few I recall viewing basically in its entirety during my college years (you needed to kill some time after all), and Paramount’s DVD captures it in reasonably good-looking transfers and stereo soundtracks.

Recommended viewing for fans of either series!

A SHOT AT LOVE WITH TILA TEQULA: Season 1 (424 mins., 2007; MTV/Paramount): The trashy “cyber hottie” finds herself in the middle of a competition between 16 heterosexual guys and 16 homosexual girls. If this is your cup of tea, by all means enjoy Paramount’s box-set of the MTV series’ first season with numerous extended and deleted scenes and loads of “uncensored” footage.

HOW SHE MOVE (91 mins., 2008, PG-13; Paramount): Urban drama about a young African-American girl who returns to “the hood” and has to win a dance contest in order to get her life back on track. A throbbing soundtrack and a few extras (Making Of featurettes, the trailer) grace Paramount’s DVD, which includes a fine 16:9 transfer and 5.1 sound mix.

THE BIG GAY SKETCH SHOW: Season 1 (131 mins., 2007) and Season 2 (174 mins., 2008; Paramount): The Logo Channel (Viacom’s gay entertainment channel) brings you this nutty comic assortment of sketches with special guests including Chastity Bono, Amanda Bearse, Paul Vogt, Elaine Stritch, Christine Ebersole and Rosie O’Donnell among others. While the plain Season 1 set is light on extras, the double-disc Season 2 edition includes bonus sketches, Making Of content, and the spin-off special “The Big Straight Sketch Show.”

NEXT TIME: FIRST KNIGHT Returns on Blu-Ray...but has it aged well? 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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