4/3/07 Edition -- The AISLE SEAT BLOG Is Now Online!

April TV ON DVD Edition!
Quinn Martin's STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO Revisited
Plus: PAYBACK Director's Cut and New Criterions

It’s a good month to be a fan of vintage TV series on DVD (or a bad month -- if your wallet needs a bit of a break!).

Paramount leads the charge this April with the long-overdue second seasons of sitcom classics “Happy Days,” “Laverne & Shirley,” and “Mork & Mindy,” plus the inaugural seasons of “The Untouchables” and “Streets of San Fransisco,” fan favorites premiering on DVD for the first time.

Starting off with HAPPY DAYS, the Second Season (1974-75, 23 episodes) of the long-running, Gary Marshall-created ‘50s comedy is less influenced by “American Graffiti” than its debut year.

Not only that, but this sophomore season seems a lot more familiar in other ways: Marshall and the show’s creative staff even opted to ditch the series’ “free-roaming” format for a mostly set-bound, multi-camera approach in one episode (“Fonzie’s Getting Married”) to see if it clicked better. As a result of this one episode, the show went onto establish its patented formula that would carry it for years to come, as “grounding” the comedy on sets with a live audience resulted in more laughs and higher ratings for Richie, The Fonz, and the gang (Season 3 would be entirely shot with a live audience, as would all subsequent episodes of the program).

Among the highlights of the series’ sophomore year is “Haunted,” which would become the show’s Halloween episode for years to come; “Not With My Sister You Don’t,” featuring Joanie Cunningham’s date with Spike, Fonzie’s little nephew; “The Howdy Doody Show,” where Richie interviews children’s TV icon Buffalo Bob Smith; and “Guess Who’s Coming to Christmas,” one of the series’ finest holiday-themed shows.

Paramount’s four-disc set collects all 23 second-season “Happy Days” episodes in unedited form (albeit with some altered music) via crisp, remastered transfers. The programs themselves are a little more consistent than the show’s fascinating -- though somewhat different -- debut season, retaining the ‘50s flavor (which would steadily decrease with each passing year) with an increase in laughs. Even the performances by the ensemble cast seem more confident here, making this a must-have for all “Happy Days” fans (and here’s hoping we don’t have to wait so long for Season 3 to hit DVD!).

Also new from Paramount is MORK AND MINDY: The Complete Second Season (1979-80, 26 episodes), the “Happy Days” spin-off that launched star Robin Williams’ career and provided a good amount of laughs for family audiences in the process.

Season 2 of the series clearly shows the program at its apex. Before “Mork and Mindy” went wildly off-course in its later years (Jonathan Winters as the couple’s son, anyone?), the series was grounded (if you can call it that) in Williams’ seemingly-improvised antics and the amiable relationship between Mork and Pam Dawber’s Mindy, who in later episodes takes even more of a back seat to the stylized comedy of its star. You can sense that balance being tilted more heavily here than in its first season, but the show still enjoyed its highest ratings during this ‘79-‘80 season, and Williams’ lively, unrestrained work is infinitely more interesting than some of the subdued dramatic turns we see him doing today.

As with their “Happy Days” set, Paramount has cleaned up the show’s transfers and presented all 26 second season episodes in their original broadcast versions (albeit with a disclaimer that some music was changed for the DVD; unlike “Happy Days,” though, this would not seem to be a major issue).

Two more Paramount TV on DVD sets present a pair of classic crime/action series just making their long-awaited bows on disc.

Robert Stack’s portrayal of prohibition agent Eliot Ness helped make the taut, exciting THE UNTOUCHABLES (1959-60, 14 episodes) one of the all-time classic crime dramas to air on American television.

In a move that may frustrate some fans, though, Paramount has elected to follow the lead of Fox and other studios in opting to split the full season of an hour-long dramatic series into two separate DVD volumes. Thus, this first set of “Untouchables” episodes is limited to the series’ first 14 episodes, including the feature-length “Scarface Mob,” which was theatrically released AND broadcast on the “Desilu Playhouse,” functioning as a pilot for the subsequent series.

Transfers here all appear to be in healthy shape, but the fact that the DVD contains only half of its first-season shows -- at the same price as the full-season sitcom sets -- may disappoint some viewers.

Quinn Martin was one of the producers on “The Untouchables” and the time he spent on the production of that series served him well into the ‘60s and ‘70s, where he produced some of the top action shows on TV.

THE STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO (1972-73, 16 Episodes) was one of them: an exciting, then-contemporary police procedural with veteran cop Karl Malden teamed with a smooth, suave young partner (Michael Douglas). The duo investigated a wide swath of crimes in the Bay Area, tackling themes of racism and other issues that made it one of the more socially-conscious programs on the air at the time.

While never a blockbuster hit, the series is most notable today for the presence of Douglas, who works well with Malden, and the fact that the show was filmed on authentic Bay Area locales. From the memorable Patrick Williams theme to the frequently exciting action sequences, this is a quintessential “QM” production and fans ought to be happy with the remastered transfers that Paramount has assembled here.

As with “The Untouchables,” consumers are again being asked to pay full-price for only half of SOSF’s first season episodes, but this is still a good deal under $30 and “Streets” aficionados will not be disappointed by the presentation (like the studio’s other TV-on-DVD sets this month, no extras are included, however).

Making its debut on DVD later on this month from Fox is a much-requested sitcom favorite: Hugh Wilson’s hilarious WKRP IN CINCINNATI (1978-79, 22 Episodes).

This ensemble comedy about a wild radio station that turns from classical to rock to garner ratings has long been a cult favorite. While the series only played on network TV for a few seasons, WKRP’s fan base has long been one of the more rabid of all sitcoms -- enough so that the show was brought back in syndication early in the ‘90s for new episodes, albeit for a short period of time.

Fox’s three-disc DVD set (available April 24th) includes all 22 episodes from the show’s first season in excellent transfers with mono sound. Extras are even on-hand, and include commentary by Wilson and assorted cast members, plus a pair of new featurettes.

However, looming over this set is the rather large issue of “re-edited music,” which in WKRP is a major problem (and has long been the hang-up in releasing the series to DVD in the first place). The program used a wide array of rock tracks during its run from all kinds of major artists -- and sometimes even made references to the songs that were playing in assorted jokes. Understandably, this created a huge issue when WKRP re-appeared in syndication with many of the original songs having been replaced. However, you can’t entirely blame MTM or Fox for the problems -- given the scope of the artists and number of songs involved, it would be nearly impossible from an economic standpoint for any studio to pay licensing fees for all the individual tracks.

Having not been a major WKRP fan in the past, I’m not overly familiar with what songs were originally utilized in the show. However, I recently came across an article that ran some years back (on a now-defunct WKRP fan site) about changes to the various songs that occurred during the series’ Nick at Nite airings. Assuming the article is correct, the positive news is that Hugh Wilson’s involvement with the DVD’s soundtrack has resulted in more of the original songs being retained than were altered in the syndicated re-runs from some years back.

However, there are still tracks changed here and there -- even in the first episode, where a Ted Nugent song was supposed to be played when Howard Hesseman’s Johnny Fever first started playing rock tracks at WKRP. Fans will have to check the set out for themselves and weigh whether alterations like that make this a disappointing return for WKRP, or a long-overdue version they can still live with.

POST-SCRIPT: Seems the music alterations may be worse in some respects than even the syndicated TV versions. According to a fan blog via the indispensible TV SHOWS ON DVD, not only have some songs been eliminated from the DVD but some episodes newly cut as a result! Click the link for more details. If true, this only reinforces my feeling that fans will have to weigh for themselves how much of an issue the alterations are.

Also New On DVD

PAYBACK: The Director’s Cut (***, 90 mins., 1999/2007, Not Rated; Paramount HD-DVD):Brian Helgeland’s 1999 adaptation of the Donald E. Westlake (aka “Richard Stark”) novel -- previously filmed as the John Boorman-Lee Marvin noir favorite “Point Blank” over 20 years before -- was severely compromised in the editing room. Studio execs forced Helgeland and star-producer Mel Gibson to add a subplot (with Kris Kristofferson playing what was originally an off-camera role voiced by “Point Blank” co-star Angie Dickinson!) that softened the tone of the movie’s hard-hitting original version. Thankfully, we can now see Helgeland’s preferred version which runs over 10 minutes shorter than its re-cut theatrical edit and debuts on HD-DVD (as well as regular DVD and Blu Ray) next week. (Regrettably, Dickinson's participation has been negated in this version, with her vocals replaced by Sally Kellerman; there was also more footage in Helgeland's original cut than is offered here). The result is a leaner, meaner, and more impressive piece of filmmaking than its released version, stripping the film of that unnecessary subplot and restoring cinematographer Ericson Core’s original color cinematography to its proper (non-tinted) appearance. Paramount’s HD-DVD version looks fantastic, and the 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus sound is also good, sporting a new score by music editor Scott Stambler. Extras are also top-notch, including commentary from Helgeland, an interview with Westlake, and several featurettes on the production and restoration of “Payback.” Highly recommended!

MAJOR LEAGUE: Wild Thing Edition (***½, 1989, 106 mins., R; Paramount): Special Edition re-release of the fan-favorite 1989 baseball comedy boasts a good assortment of supplements. A 25-minute Making Of includes new interviews with stars Tom Berenger, Charlie Sheen, Corbin Bernsen and Dennis Haysbert (as the voodoo-practicing Pedro Cerrano), plus director David S. Ward and producer Chris Chesser, who also contribute a new audio commentary. An unused ending is also on-hand, plus a talk with “Harry Doyle” himself Bob Uecker and comments from current Cleveland Indians players on the movie’s legacy among real major leaguers. The 16:9 (1.85) transfer and 5.1 sound seem to be a bit improved from Paramount’s prior, bare-bones DVD, and comes topped with authentic “field turf” packaging. Strongly recommended for fans!

CHILDREN OF MEN (**½, 110 mins., 2006, R; Universal): Director Alfonso Cauron and some four (!) other screenwriters are credited with this adaptation of the atypical novel by British mystery author P.D. James, following a future beset with political revolution, terrorism, and infertility. In fact, in “Children of Men,” no child has been born in nearly 20 years, which makes the pregnancy of one young woman so vital to a downtrodden man (Clive Owen) and his ex-flame (Julianne Moore), who try and escort the girl to an organization seeking a cure for the globe’s lack of young tykes. Cauron and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki have fashioned an impressive looking film that firmly places the viewer in a nightmarish vision of the future, yet the film is so slow-moving that it’s hard to maintain interest with all the gloom and doom that surrounds it. Still, the performances of Owen, Moore and particularly Michael Caine make the picture worthwhile, especially for politically-minded, “dark future” aficionados. Universal’s DVD includes deleted scenes and numerous Making Of featurettes, plus a 16:9 (1.85) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.   

ERAGON (**, 2006, 104 mins., PG-13; Fox Blu-Ray Disc): Superb special effects (from ILM and Weta Digital) are the highlight of this mildly entertaining adaptation of Christopher Paolini’s bestselling books, a juvenile Tolkien-esque saga which produced a modest box-office intake last winter (albeit far stronger outside the U.S.). This tale of a young dragon rider who rides a beast named Saphira (voiced by Rachel Weisz) in a kingdom led by the villainous, wildly over-the-top John Malkovich is derivative to a tee, from its “Star Wars” like Obi-Wan character (played here by Jeremy Irons) to its teenage protagonist living a quaint farming life until fate intervenes. There’s little sense of craft in the direction here -- just a perfunctory rendition of a story that readers claim worked far better in the book -- yet “Eragon” is still passable fun for kids, who were clearly the young audience that Fox was aiming for with this production. The studio’s Blu Ray DVD edition boasts an excellent 2.35 (MPEG2) transfer filled with crisp details, though the DTS sound doesn’t quite pack the wallop you’d expect it would (Patrick Doyle’s hard-working score is ultimately completely forgettable as well). Sadly, other than the audio commentary, none of the extras from the 2-disc Special Edition DVD have been ported over to the Blu Ray version, making this a good-looking but basically bare-bones HD presentation of the film.

BOBBY (**½, 2006, 119 mins., R; Weinstein Company/Genius Products): Emilio Estevez’s well-meaning film about characters whose lives intersect on the night of the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy makes for an uneven but generally interesting piece with a top-notch ensemble cast (Larry Fishburne, Estevez, Heather Graham, Anthony Hopkins, Helen Hunt, Joshua Jackson, Ashton Kutcher, Lindsay Lohan, William H. Macy, Demi Moore, Martin Sheen, Sharon Stone, Elijah Wood among them). The pieces don’t entirely fit into place but it’s an intriguing star vehicle nevertheless. Genius’ DVD includes a Making Of featurette, various eyewitness accounts of the assassination, plus the original trailer and a fine 16:9 (2.35) transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, sporting a good score by Mark Isham.

TOM GOES TO THE MAYOR: Complete Series (2006, 348 mins., Warner Home Video): Three-disc set sports all 30 episodes of this “Adult Swim” entry from Cartoon Network, and if you thought shows like “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” and “Venture Bros.” were weird and wildly uneven, just check out “Tom Goes To The Mayor.” This bizarre, fragmented and surreal show is chock full of juvenile, occasionally tasteless humor, and a little (and I mean a little) goes a very long way. Warner’s DVD edition has superb supplements (commentaries, promos, deleted scenes, Making Of featurettes) but comes recommended only for hard-core fans of the show.

New From Criterion

Director Stuart Cooper’s 1975 war film OVERLORD is an unusual work, “presented” by the Imperial War Museum and less interesting for its narrative and performances than it is for its impressive use of actual WWII footage integrated within its story.

With “Overlord,” Cooper set out to pay tribute to the men whose lives were lost on D-day -- June 6, 1944 -- by following one British soldier (Brian Stirner) from his life prior to serving his country, to his placement within the vast “machine” of warfare, and his eventual fate on the beaches of Normandy. It is a bleak film partially borne out of the era in which it was produced (director Cooper even says the film was influenced by the Vietnam conflict), showing how quickly, and unheroically, death could come for those who participated in the battle.

Yet it is also a striking visual piece, with cinematographer John Alcott seamlessly working newsreel and war-time footage into the narrative, director Cooper having spent months researching the Museum’s archive for actual fragments of film from the conflict.

“Overlord” is short (only 84 minutes) but manages to get its anti-war point across effectively, while still paying respect to the men who lost their lives on June 6th, and doing so authentically thanks to the real footage it incorporates throughout.

Criterion’s exemplary new DVD contains a brilliant 16:9 (1.85) black-and-white transfer with mono sound, featuring an elegiac score by Paul Glass. Extras include a commentary with Cooper and Stirner; a featurette examining the footage mined from the museum’s archive; a photo essay on photographer Robert Capa, featuring the director; a Cooper short from 1969 about Spanish artist Juan Genoves; a 1943 British Ministry of Information propaganda film, “Germany Calling”; journals from two D-Day soldiers; the trailer; and extensive liner notes.

Also new from Criterion this month is Jules Dassin’s BRUTE FORCE, the 1947 prison drama with Burt Lancaster as one of the many inmates suffering under the charge of sadistic guard Hume Cronyn.

Gritty, powerful filmmaking lifts this Universal release, which Criterion has issued on DVD in a new full-screen transfer with commentary from authors Alain Silver and James Ursini; an interview with Paul Mason, editor of “Captured By The Media: Prison Discourse in Popular Culture”; the trailer; still gallery; and booklet notes that feature correspondence between producer Mark Hellinger and Production Code coordinator Joseph Breen over the movie’s then-very adult content.

Last but not least this month is Mathieu Kassovitz’s contemporary French cinema classic LA HAINE, which arrives on DVD in a two-disc set from Criterion sporting numerous supplements.

Extras include a new, director-approved transfer in 16:9 (1.85) widescreen; an English commentary from Kassovitz; a video introduction by Jodie Foster; trailers; “Ten Years of ‘La Haine,’” a full documentary rounding up cast and crew members; a video featurette on the movie’s setting; deleted and extended scenes, with new comments from Kassovitz; plus still galleries, extensive booklet notes, and more behind-the-scenes footage. Recommended!

NEXT TIME: More reviews, news and notes!Until then, don't forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards, check out the new Aisle Seat Blog, and direct any emails to the link above

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