6/3/08 Edition -- The AISLE SEAT BLOG Is Also Live

June Arrival Edition
Plus: TV on DVD, Blu-Rays & More

With the eagerly awaited (well, at least by me) “Incredible Hulk” film due out in a couple of weeks, Universal has opted to mark the occasion by releasing the third and fourth seasons of the original 1978-82 Bill Bixby-Lou Ferrigno series on DVD.

From what the makers of the new “Hulk” movie have claimed, it’s with good reason as well: eschewing Ang Lee’s bizarrely compelling approach (which didn’t resemble its source much at all and wasn’t appropriate for kids, either), star/co-writer Edward Norton’s take on the material is supposed to harken back to the comic and especially the Bixby series, showing the sympathetic elements of its protagonist and the Hulk as a hero instead of merely a monster.

These last two full seasons of “The Incredible Hulk” offer some solid episodes as well as others that are either unintentionally goofy or a bit tired. Either way, it’s clear the series was running on empty by the time the fourth season finished, yet a myriad of circumstances prevented Kenneth Johnson and the show’s producers from properly concluding it. In fact, the series’ fifth season is nothing but seven episodes that were prepared in advance of the 1981 Writer’s Strike (one hopes that Universal will eventually issue these on a double-disc DVD set in the near future to complete the series’ run).

That being said there are still some gems to be mined here, though mostly in the fourth season (Season 3 offers sturdy but more formulaic stories by comparison): “Prometheus” is a compelling two-part episode with David Banner consciously trapped in the Hulk’s body; the effective “Goodbye, Eddie Cain” playfully mixes film noir with a typical Hulk plot; “King of the Beach” allows Lou Ferrigno to play a normal guy outside of his green make-up; the two-part “The First” finds Banner uncovering another Gamma-infused creature; and “Dark Side” is my favorite episode of all, a crazed attempt at melding a domestic drama with “Altered States”-like flashbacks and a premise that finds an “evil” David Banner aggressively courting a young woman and intentionally trying to get beat up at a disco so he can turn into the Hulk! This odd episode is an absolute riot and worth the price of the Season 4 box-set alone.

Universal has packaged both Season 3 and 4 on DVD with 3-D lenticular covers, the episodes all presented in superb full-screen transfers and 2.0 mono sound.

For extras, Season 3 includes a new 20-minute featurette, “Remembering ‘The Incredible Hulk’,” with the show’s creative team (including Kenneth Johnson) reminiscing about the series’ third year and the legacy of Bill Bixby, as well as the personal tragedies he encountered during the series run. Bixby had gone through a painful divorce with wife Brenda Benet, resulting in an episode where he doesn’t appear (“Proof Positive”). Sadly this would only one of many hardships for the star: after having Benet co-star in a later third-season episode (“The Psychic”) intended to show their son Christopher that his parents could get along, their six-year-old boy died accidentally while Benet was on vacation with actor Don Edmonds a year later. Months thereafter, and apparently due to the guilt she felt over Christopher’s death, Benet took her own life in April of 1982.

The Season 4 box-set includes another featurette, “Creating an Iconic Character: The Hulk,” a ten-minute profile on how Lou Ferrigno was cast, featuring more interviews with Ken Johnson and assorted writers and producers from the series, plus a commentary on “Prometheus” that was recorded several years ago for an earlier DVD release.

Universal has sweetened the pot by including a free admission ticket to “The Incredible Hulk” movie and a brief ad for the new film inside each package. For “Hulk” fans these sets obviously come unquestionably recommended!
Also out from Universal this week is the new A&E mini-series remake of THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN (2008, 176 mins.).

I’m not sure whatever happened to Mikael Salomon, the one-time outstanding cinematographer (“The Abyss,” “Always,” “Far and Away”) who made an inauspicious directorial debut with the Morgan Freeman-Christian Slater waterlogged thriller “Hard Rain” in the mid ‘90s. Since that time, Salomon has become a champion for bad TV remakes, first with the terrible TNT re-do of Stephen King’s “Salem’s Lot” and now this not-quite-as-awful but still disappointing remake of the Michael Crichton novel, first brought to the screen by director Robert Wise in the early ‘70s.

Though Wise’s “Andromeda Strain” was sturdy if not spectacular, this modern updating from producers Ridley and Tony Scott takes the initial concept of an extraterrestrial virus wiping out a small town and turns it into a watered-down, Politically Correct remake with echoes of bad “24" episodes in the misfired teleplay by Robert Schenkkan. Lost amongst the wreckage is a fine cast who struggles to make amends with the botched material, including Benjamin Bratt, Eric McCormack, Christa Miller, Daniel Dae Kim (from “Lost”), Viola Davis, Andre Braugher, and Ricky Schroder. A little of Crichton’s novel shines through at times, but this is yet another instance of how “re-imagining” a sound concept and story can clutter and ultimately ruin its source material completely.

Universal’s DVD offers a terrific 16:9 (1.78) widescreen transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, plus commentary from Salomon and two producers, Making Of featurettes and other extras.

 TV on DVD from CBS & Paramount

A robust offering of vintage TV on DVD box-sets mark CBS’ slate of releases for the month of June. Some of the highlights:

THE ODD COUPLE: Season 4 (1973-74, aprx. 10 hours): More classic antics with Jack Klugman and Tony Randall as Felix and Oscar settle in for another 22 episodes of the ABC sitcom. Featured in this four-disc set are “Gloria Moves In,” “Last Tango in Newark,” “The Odd Decathalon,” “That Was No Lady,” “The Odd Holiday,” “The New Car,” “That is the Army, Mrs. Madison,” “The Songwriter,” “Felix Directs,” “The Pig Who Came For Dinner,” “Maid for Each Other,” “The Exorcists,” “A Barnacle Adventure,” “The Moonlighter,” “Cleanliness is Next to Impossible,” “The Flying Felix,” “Vocal Girl Makes Good,” “Shuffling Off to Buffalo,” “A Different Drummer,” “The Insomniacs,” “New York’s Oddest,” and “One For the Bunny.”

HAWAII FIVE-O: Season 4 (1971-72, aprx. 21 hours): Steve McGarrett, “Dan-O” Williams, and the squad are back in this colorful fourth-season of the classic CBS series, presented here on six discs by CBS in sparkling full-screen transfers. Among the 24 fourth-season episodes are “Highest Castle, Deepest Grave” (with Herbert Lom), “”No Bottles, No Cans, No People,” “Wednesday, Ladies Free,” “3000 Crooked Miles to Honolulu,” “”Two Doves and Mr. Heron,” “And I Want Some Candy and a Gun That Shoots” (co-starring a young Annette O’Toole), “”Air Cargo - Dial For Murder,” “For a Million, Why Not,” “The Burning Ice,” “Rest in Peace Somebody,” “A Matter of Mutual Concern,” “Nine Ten You’re Dead,” “Is This Any Way to Run a Paradise,” “Odd Man In,” “Bait Once, Bait Twice,” “The Ninety-Second War,” “Skinhead,” “While You’re At It, Bring in the Moon,” “Cloth of Gold,” “Goodnight Baby - Time to Die,” “Didn’t We Meet at a Murder,” “Follow the White Brick Road,” and “R&R and R.”

THE FUGITIVE: Season 2, Vol. 1 (1964, aprx. 13 hours): CBS’ four-disc DVD set offers the first 15 episodes (the 1964 portion) from the “Fugitive”’s second, 1964-65 season. Satisfyingly remastered from the original negatives, this latest DVD anthology sports the following episodes: “Man in a Chariot,” “World’s End,” “Man on a String,” “When the Bough Breaks,” “Nemesis,” “Tiger Left, Tiger Right,” “Tug of War,” “Dark Corner,” “Escape into Black,” “The Cage,” “Cry Uncle,” “Detour on a Road Going Nowhere,” “The Iron Maiden,” “Devil’s Carnival” and “Ballad for a Ghost.” Highly recommended for all Dr. Richard Kimble aficionados!

7TH HEAVEN: Season 6 (2001-02, aprx. 16 hours): It was around Season 6 of the long-running WB family drama “7th Heaven” that creator Brenda Hampton’s series kind of lost its footing, even though the full original cast (including Jessica Biel, then-starting her move into features) is still on-hand to compliment leads Stephen Collins and Catherine Hicks. CBS’ six-disc DVD box-set includes all 22 episodes of “7th Heaven”’s sixth year in full-screen and stereo sound, comprising these fan-favorite shows: “Changes,” “Teased,” “Sympathy,” “Work,” “Relationships,” “Broken,” “Prodigal,” “Ay Carumba,” “Lost,” “Consideration,” “Pathetic,” “Suspicion,” “Dunk,” “Hot Pants,” “I Really Do,” “I Really Did,” “Lip Service,” “The Ring,” “Letting Go,” “The Known Soldier,” and the two-part “Holy War” which finishes out the season.

 Latest Blu-Rays from Buena Vista

SIGNS (***½, 106 mins., 2002, PG-13; Buena Vista): M. Night Shyamalan's biggest success outside of “The Sixth Sense” is very much like a personalized version of "War of the Worlds."

Eschewing the big twist ending that became the trademark of his early films -- as well as the somnabulant tone of its successors, “The Village” and “Lady in the Water” -- “Signs” is a science fiction story from a uniquely human perspective, a highly entertaining and sometimes thrilling work that ranks as one of his more satisfying efforts.

In Shyamalan's original script, aliens descend upon Earth, leaving symbols around the globe and encircling major cities with ships hovering in the sky. Once such sign is ingrained in the crops of Pennsylvania farmer -- and former minister -- Mel Gibson, who lives with his young children and brother Joaquin Phoenix. Gibson is battling his own demons -- a tragic personal loss and loss of faith in general -- to say nothing of the spooky noises his family hears on a baby monitor and the possible presence of extraterrestrial creatures outside their home.

“Signs” isn't a movie about cities collapsing and armies of creatures battling with the military. Rather, it's an examination of a broken family trying to hold themselves together and move on following a tragic loss, and having to do so in the face of an unknown, possibly evil enemy.

Shyamalan's usual bag of tricks that served "The Sixth Sense" so well but failed in "Unbreakable" are in evidence again, but have been tempered: Shyamalan again paces the film leisurely, frequently cutting away from showing us too much at once, instead allowing suspense and anxiety to build as the film progresses. The sound design also plays a major role -- people creep around fields, footsteps on creaky stairs and strange clicking sounds can be heard, standing out from the silence contained in so many unnerving scenes in the picture.

However, in “Signs” Shyamalan has written a collection of characters with far more warmth and emotion than most of his sleepy protagonists: there are moments of sadness, tenderness, and humor (I kid you not) in the film that makes its family far more identifiable and believable than the sometimes-robotic characters in Shyamalan's previous stories.

What makes “Signs” so entertaining is that Shyamalan's story functions as both as a piece of sci-fi entertainment (not unlike a good, intimate "Twilight Zone" episode) and a human story of rediscovering one's faith. The latter element is convincingly discussed in a series of well-written scenes involving Gibson and Phoenix, as well as a powerful and yet understated reconciliation between the family during what might be their own "last supper." One of the greatest accomplishments in Shyamalan's script is that the family's problems are so great that the extraterrestrial backdrop seems secondary to the grief that Gibson's character is going through -- something that becomes evident as the resolution approaches and Shyamalan deftly wraps up both storylines.

Buena Vista’s Blu-Ray disc sports a AVC encoded transfer of “Signs” that appears quite healthy, if not pristine. The uncompressed PCM audio showcases James Newton Howard’s superb score, while extras ported over from the prior DVD edition include deleted scenes, a number of Making Of featurettes, storyboards, and an early Shyamalan home movie.

THE RECRUIT (**, 115 mins., 2003, PG-13; Buena Vista): Tedious, by-the-numbers spy thriller finds Al Pacino (phoning it in) as a CIA agent who lures MIT grad Colin Farrell into the fold; the usual double-crosses abound from there in Roger Donaldson’s functional film, which takes on water due to a bland, uninvolving script credited to Roger Towne, Kurt Wimmer and Mitch Glazer. Farrell isn’t exactly compelling, and he exhibits zero chemistry with co-star Bridget Moynahan as well. Buena Vista’s Blu-Ray release does boast a very sharp 1080p encoded transfer with uncompressed PCM audio and extras from the prior standard-definition DVD release (deleted scenes, commentary, and a Making Of featurette).

Blu-Ray Discs from Paramount

CLOVERFIELD (**½, 84 mins., 2008, PG-13; Paramount): This past winter's box-office hit 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) -- producer J.J. 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 first big Blu-Ray release since they re-affirmed their commitment to the format after HD-DVD’s demise proves to be hugely satisfying. The VC-1-encoded transfer is a nice step-up from the standard-definition release, though the film’s original, DV-based cinematography can only be heightened so much, even in high-def. The Dolby TrueHD audio is another upgrade on the already-potent Dolby Digital mix from the standard DVD release, while a huge assortment of extras -- (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, plus Easter Eggs -- have all been reprieved here as well, mostly all in high-definition too.   

FACE/OFF: Collector’s Edition HD-DVD (****, 140 mins., 1997, R; Paramount): It’s taken a while, but Paramount has finally done justice to John Woo’s “Face/Off” in a new 10th Anniversary edition, just now hitting Blu-Ray for the first time.

This tremendously entertaining thriller remains one of the best post-1990 action films, with its recipe for success comprising a number of ingredients: take an intriguing premise, two big stars, a fistful of standout action sequences, and one of the most talented genre filmmakers around -- then combine them with a smart screenplay that's as clever with its character-interplay as it is with ingenious, breathtaking set-scenes.

Nicolas Cage proves the better of his counterpart as both the film’s villain and -- after exchanging identities -- its hero, outdueling John Travolta's solid but not as demanding work as the bad guy in the good guy's body. (In contrast, Cage has the harder scenes, illustrating the hero's dilemma in living with the villain's identity). Joan Allen is superb as the hero's wife, with terrific supporting performances including Gina Gershon, Alessandro Nivola, and Dominique Swain. Additional kudos go out to Mike Werb and Michael Collorary for their sharp script, John Woo (of course) on his finest American work to date, and an excellent score by John Powell (replacing Mark Isham at the last minute) which represents some of his most satisfying output as well.

Paramount’s Blu-Ray release of “Face/Off” was scheduled for last year but was pulled during the studio’s window of HD-DVD exclusivity. BD owners can now catch up with the title as it has been issued alongside “Blades of Glory” (reviewed below) in a superb single-disc release (the HD-DVD was split between two platters) featuring a terrific DTS soundtrack with a splendid new AVC encoded 1080p transfer that’s exceptional across the board. While the HD-DVD offered a Dolby Digital Plus soundtrack (that’s a bit more satisfying than the BD’s standard 5.1 mix) and a VC-1 encoded presentation, the transfers basically appear to be identical, and each come highly recommended.

Extras again include commentaries from Woo and the writers; seven deleted scenes with optional commentary, including a wisely excised end coda; the trailer; and both a new Making Of with interviews with most of the principals (sans Travolta and Cage) plus a featurette on Woo’s career, all in high-definition.

BLADES OF GLORY (***, 93 mins., 2007, PG-13; Dreamworks/Paramount): Figure skating is a sport that's been begging for a full-blown parody. While skating has generated such memorable films as the terrific romantic comedy "The Cutting Edge" and the tearjerking favorite "Ice Castles," we hadn't seen a full-blown, inspired romp until last year’s hugely entertaining “Blades of Glory.”

Released to solid box-office receipts, this thoroughly goofy and occasionally hilarious Dreamworks release boasts the sure-fire comedic teaming of Will Ferrell (as a bad-boy, Elvis Stoyko-type) and Jon Heder (the artsy, slightly fey Johnny Weir-styled pretty boy) as two men's singles champions who are banned from the sport after they brawl with one another during an international competition's concluding medal ceremony.

Faced with grim prospects (Ferrell gains employment in a kids' skating show; Heder works at a skate shop), Heder's old coach Craig T. Nelson hatches a plan: the sport's governing body offers no restrictions on the duo returning to competition in the pairs competition, so Ferrell and Heder opt to take on skating's Gold-medalist winning duo (Amy Poehler and Will Arnett as a pair of creepy siblings)...by skating with one another!

With its ridiculous costumes and inherent pretentiousness, skating is an easy target for ridicule, and the best thing about "Blades of Glory" is that it generally bypasses the most obvious targets, letting the outlandish outfits and routines speak for themselves, and instead concentrates on developing the chemistry between Ferrell and Heder, who prove to be a solid comic team together. First-time feature directors Will Speck and Josh Gordon authentically capture the essence of Olympic-styled competition (from its choreography to the broadcast tandem of Scott Hamilton and Jim Lapley), then layer loads of laughs on top of it, courtesy of a script credited to Jeff and Craig Cox, John Altschuler and Dave Krinsky. The sequences of Ferrell and Heder skating to Aerosmith's "Armageddon" ballad and -- in the film's memorable climax -- Queen's "Flash Gordon" theme are hilarious, but so are a number of sight gags, the best of which involves Nelson's secretive "Iron Lotus" skating maneuver, as captured on a videotape smuggled in from North Korea.

Jenna Fischer (from TV's "The Office") makes for an appealing romantic interest for Heder, while Poehler and Arnett (a real-life married couple playing the villainous siblings here) are quite amusing on their own. But it's really Ferrell and Heder's work here that makes this silly lark so much fun, capped by a strong Theodore Shapiro score and a memorably daffy, inspired climax. Comedy fans shouldn't miss it!

As with “Face/Off,” Paramount bumped their Blu-Ray release of “Blades of Glory” last fall and that disc is just arriving on BD now for the first time. The good news is that the wait was worth it for fans, as the Blu-Ray releases sports an uncompressed PCM soundtrack, which bests the HD-DVD’s Dolby Digital Plus soundtrack (though both sound superb to my ears) for its so-called “lossless” sound. Visually the AVC encoded transfer appears roughly identical to the HD-DVD, while ample extras include deleted scenes and alternate takes, an interview with Scott Hamilton, several featurettes on the making of the movie, and a gag reel -- most of which are in HD as well.

New on DVD


New, superbly packaged “Steelbook” box-sets from A&E offer a treasure trove of content for both Red Sox and Mets fans.

The “Essential Games of Fenway Park” features six Fenway games, but only five of which feature the Red Sox. In addition to the 9/30/67 game against Minnesota, the supremely memorable Fisk home-run game (‘75 World Series, Game 6 vs. the Reds), Clemens’ 20K performance (4/29/86 vs. Seattle), Game 3 of the 1999 ALCS against the Yankees, and last year’s 4/22/07 win over the Bronx Bombers (the four-consecutive HR game), A&E has opted to include the 1999 All-Star game, best known for Pedro’s multiple K starting performance, instead of a sixth game actually featuring the defending World Champions.

While Sox fans may quibble over the inclusion of the latter (a highlight reel may have sufficed for some), A&E has spiced up the content with all sorts of highlights of other memorable Fenway games: from Clay Buchholz’s no-hitter last September, to 2004 post-season highlights, Tom Brunansky’s game-winning catch to clinch the division in 1990, and Bill Mueller walk-off home run against the Yankees in July of ‘04 -- a harbinger of the ALCS Championship to come. While the quality of the transfers varies (last year’s win over the Yankees may have been broadcast in HD on ESPN but the standard-def transfer here is in mediocre 4:3 full-screen), it’s still a marvelous supplemental package that compliments a truly essential release for all Red Sox fans.

Mets fans, meanwhile, can get their fix with a similarly strong six-disc DVD set, offering Game 4 of the 1969 World Series; Game 3 of the 1986 NLCS; Game 6 of the 1986 World Series (the Buckner game -- not that it even bothers me to type it anymore!); Game 5 of the 1999 NLCS; the 9/21/01 victory over Atlanta, the first game in NYC after the 9/11 attacks; and a win over the Yankees from the 2006 Subway Series.

Ample extra content is again on-hand, including divisional clinching wins and walk-off home runs for all fans of the New York “Metropolitans.”

JOHN ADAMS (2008, 501 mins.; HBO): Superior, absorbing HBO adaptation of David McCullough’s biography of the iconic American patriot, from his role in the founding of the United States of America to his relationship with wife Abigail. Paul Giamatti’s casting is certainly a bit off the beaten path – and does not resemble prior portrayals of Adams by the likes of William Daniels in “1776" – but he gives a believable, effective performance, while Laura Linney is exceptionally strong as usual as his beloved female counterpart.

This lavish production, directed by Tom Hooper in a leisurely manner, allows the drama to unfold over some seven parts, making for a superb drama for history buffs and movie lovers alike. A marvelous supporting cast lends strong assist, including Tom Wilkinson (as Ben Franklin), Stephen Dillane, David Morse, Danny Huston and Sarah Polley among others, while Rob Lane and Joseph Vitarelli’s music scores are top-notch.

HBO’s three-disc box-set includes an interview with David McCollugh, an on-screen historical guide, and a Making Of featurette, while the 16.9 (1.78) transfers and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks are each highly satisfying.

AMERICAN GANGSTER: Season 2 (420 mins., 2007; Paramount): BET documentary series profiles African-American criminal figures of the last 100 years, providing an unflinching chronicle that crime doesn’t pay. Paramount’s DVD box-set of the series’ second season offers full-screen transfers, Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo sound, an extended interview with Melvin Williams, a conversation with Frank Lucas, and another talk with Bo Baines.

COMEDY CENTRAL’S HOME GROWN (180 mins., 1999-2008; Paramount): “Sampler” compilation culls together three hours of content from the Comedy Central archives, including full episodes of “The Sarah Silverman Program,” “TV Funhouse,” “Strangers with Candy,” “Root of all Evil,” “Reno 911!,” plus short segments from “The Animation Show” and sketches from the likes of “Chappelle’s Show,” “Crank Yankers” and “Drawn Together” among others.

NEXT TIME: THE INCREDIBLE HULK returns to the big screen! Until then, don't forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards, check out the Aisle Seat Blog, and direct any emails to our email address.  Cheers everyone!

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