8/15/06 Edition

August TV on DVD Round Up!
Plus: POSEIDON and Christophe Gans' SILENT HILL Spooks on Disc!

It’s been a tough summer for Warner Bros., which produced a trio of films that failed to meet box-office expectations: M. Night Shyamalan’s critically-reviled “Lady in the Water,” the expensive (and as such only moderately successful) “Superman Returns,” and last May’s would-be action spectacle POSEIDON.

Already primed for release on DVD next week, this expensive -- but shockingly not expensive-looking -- remake of the old Irwin Allen disaster classic is pretty much a misfire across the board, with inferior special effects, non-existent character development, and even an annoyingly repetitive soundtrack making for a hugely disappointing movie.

It also doesn’t help that the film suffers from a notable lack of star power: fresh off the disaster of “Stealth,” Josh Lucas nets top billing on the film credits as a playboy on the move, while Kurt Russell nabs the prominent spot in print advertising as a disgruntled father. Neither are able to keep the film’s pedestrian survival drama afloat, though admittedly, the movie also doesn’t bother to develop any of the Poseidon’s survivors as they attempt to make it to the surface, following a rogue wave that capsizes the luxury liner. (Sample character development: Emmy Rossum, playing Russell’s daughter, reacts to one character’s query about her father’s former position of Mayor of NYC with this all-too appropriate reaction -- “it sucked!”).

It’s hard to imagine Mark Protosevich’s script was as basic as it plays out in the movie, especially since the 98-minute (with several minutes of credits) running time seems indicative of editors dropping material left and right on the cutting room floor. Perhaps they had good reason to, since what little human interaction there is in the movie is cliche-city, and the cast of young, mostly undistinguished supporting names (Jacinda Barrett? Mike Vogel? Mia Maestro? Jimmy Bennett?) fails to provide much interest; only Richard Dreyfuss, as a newly single gay man, offers a few unintended yucks when he opts to jump off the ship, only to discover “the wave” rising in front of the moon, and later -- however reluctantly -- sends a Poseidon waiter to his death while trying to escape an elevator shaft.

For a movie that reportedly cost upwards of $160 million, it’s also downright shocking how cheap “Poseidon” looks at times. The opening, computer-rendered shot of Lucas running around the Posiedon’s deck is appallingly produced, with a notable lack of detail and fake-looking water. Director Wolfgang Petersen has produced some genuinely impressive visual spectacles in his time (particularly the recent “Perfect Storm” and “Troy,” also for Warner Bros.), but nothing in “Poseidon” clicks, from the been-there, done-that action scenes to production design that seems asleep at the switch (isn’t this a luxury liner that’s been turned upside down? Other than two primary sets, the movie could have been made at a Best Western, with its threadbare backdrops and empty corridors!). Adding further insult to injury is the picture’s weak soundtrack, with Klaus Badelt’s tired, Zimmer-esque score adding little to the already limited thrills of “Poseidon.”

Warner’s two-disc DVD set arrives next week and offers a solid, though not spectacular, 16:9 transfer (2.35) that seems a bit soft here and there. The 5.1 Dolby Digital sound is more robust, boasting plenty of sonic textures to give your stereo system a workout. Extras, alas, are on the limited side: a standard Making Of featurette and trailer adorn the first disc, while two other featurettes and a History Channel documentary (and marketing tie-in, thanks to “Poseidon” film clips) on the fascinating history of rogue waves round out the second platter. It’s hard to imagine there weren’t dozens of deleted scenes that could have been included here, but perhaps the studio didn’t want to toy any longer with a movie that grossed a paltry (considering expectations) $60 million domestically (it’s apparently performed better internationally, though).

One element, at least, of the supplements is telling: during a series of interviews on the script’s creation, it’s said repeatedly that the screenplay wasn’t finished before work on the production began. Why am I not surprised? (*½, 98 mins., PG-13, Warner).

August TV on DVD

With the fall TV season just a few weeks away, it’s no surprise that studios anxious to take advantage of returning series have issued their recently concluded years on DVD -- a smart marketing ploy that not just appeals to fans but also encourages newcomers to catch up on what they missed.

One of the best series, hands down, on TV today is VERONICA MARS, which thanks to a strong fan base and widespread critical acclaim has been able to ward off minuscule ratings through its two seasons on the UPN network (soon to be re-christened the CW network, and pared with WB favorite “Gilmore Girls” on Tuesday nights).

The series’ Season Two -- which Warner releases next week on DVD in a six-disc box set (22 episodes, 2005-06, Warner) -- admittedly isn’t quite up to the level of the program’s debut season. Creator Rob Thomas and his staff demanded a lot of their audience by amping up the mysteries that high-school sleuth Veronica (the sensational Kristen Bell) and her high school comrades become involved in, from a tragic bus accident to a shady mayor (Steve Guttenberg) and a bastard love-child for her boyfriend (Teddy Dunn) and even a reprisal of Harry Hamlin’s villainous, movie-matinee idol turn from Season One.

Even if you faithfully followed the show throughout the course of last season, it’s almost a given that one might have lost track of characters and running story lines here and there (that’s one of the great things about watching the series on DVD, however -- you don’t have to worry about six weeks with no new episodes and then trying to remember exactly where the show left off).

Despite the sometimes-cluttered web of story lines, “Veronica Mars” is still as savvy, smart and entertaining as any show on television today, with an ensemble cast that’s nearly unmatched as well (Enrico Colantoni is still wonderful as Veronica’s patient, private-eye Pop; Jason Dohring perfectly embodies the fluctuating relationship between his troubled Logan and Veronica; and Tina Majorino is great in an expanded role as tech-literate friend Mac).

As with the series’ Season One set, Warner has included a fair amount of extras, including additional, unaired scenes, two featurettes, and a gag reel. The supplements aren’t overwhelming by any means but they’re still a pleasant inclusion for fans, who will also appreciate the excellent 16:9 transfers and 2.0 Dolby Stereo soundtracks. Definitely recommended, but make sure you’ve watched the first season already!

Also out next week  is the Complete Series of INVASION (22 episodes, 2005-06, Warner), an ABC sci-fi series which was paired with “Lost” and, unsurprisingly, debuted initially to strong ratings on Wednesday nights last fall.

The premise -- a hurricane along a small Florida coastal town brings with it an extraterrestrial presence and local residents that subsequently show signs of “change” -- is standard-issue sci-fi and the cast (William Fichtner, Eddie Cibrian, Kari Matchett, Lisa Sheridan) does what it can with material that many genre fans will find overly familiar.

Despite its fortuitous scheduling and generally positive notices, “Invasion”’s fortunes quickly sank, and upon watching the latter episodes I didn’t see last spring, it’s understandable: this Shaun Cassidy-created “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” variant is very slow -- often interminably slow -- moving and only begins to carve out a niche of its own in its final episodes.

Until that point, viewers are left with characters who aren’t especially appealing and a plot line that was so sluggish in evolving that many viewers tuned out before “Invasion” picked up its pace (finally)...but even then it was too late, and ABC axed the series from continuing on to sophomore frame (Sci-Fi apparently showed interest but the series’ high production costs negated any thoughts of continuing the open-ended finale).

Warner’s six-disc DVD box set offers all 22 episodes of “Invasion” in superb 16:9 transfers with 2.0 Dolby Digital stereo sound. Extras include a few missing scenes, gag reel, and a featurette on Shaun Cassidy, who had to have been disappointed at the abrupt cancellation of what initially appeared to be a hit for the network.

Fox, meanwhile, recently brought one of its new, bona-fide hits to DVD with the Complete First Season of PRISON BREAK (2005-06, 22 Episodes, 960 mins.).

This taut and exciting show stars Wentworth Miller as a man who winds up in prison -- intentionally -- so he can try and spring his unlawfully accused brother (Dominic Purcell) out of Stacy Keach’s big house before he’s sent to the electric chair.

“Prison Break” opened to impressive ratings and general acclaim on Fox’s schedule last August, then disappeared for several months before returning to conclude its serialized story in the spring. Some critics wondered if the well-executed series wouldn’t just be a flash in the pan because of its basic nature (we all know they’re going to get out eventually), but having just watched the program finish in Fox’s six-disc DVD box set, I can safely say “Prison Break” has plenty of potential to keep on going.

Not only is the show smartly written and packed with surprises in every episode, but the cast is terrific: in addition to Miller and Purcell, “Prison Break” is put over the top by excellent supporting casting, from Keach’s warden to Robin Tunney’s lawyer/ex-love interest and the always-quirky Peter Stomare as a gangster also serving time in Fox River Penitentiary.

With its intricate twists and turns, “Prison Break” is the perfect type of series to watch on DVD, where you can pick up its subsequent episodes as soon as you’re ready to do so. The 1.78 (16:9) transfers are solid (note most of the online reviews are of screening copies with half bit-rate transfers), as are the 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks, and Fox has included a batch of excellent supplements: commentaries, three Making Of featurettes (including a half-hour examination of the series), deleted/alternate scenes, and a Fox Movie Channel “Making a Scene” segment round out a superior DVD package.

Also new from Fox is THE SIMPSONS: THE COMPLETE EIGHTH SEASON (1996-97, 570 mins., Fox), which makes its way to DVD this week.

Fox’s four-disc DVD box set includes all 25 episodes from the 1996-97 season, with commentaries on every episode, a special introduction by Matt Groening, deleted scenes, promo spots, multi-angle storyboards and animated demos, and more. Obviously this set is a must for all “Simpsons” aficionados, with Fox’s full-screen transfers being as superb as their prior DVD editions and satisfying 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks rounding out the audio side.

Last but not least, on August 29th Fox releases the Third and Final Season of ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT (2005-06, 13 episodes, 285 mins., Fox).

This critically acclaimed Fox network comedy never caught on with viewers, so fans ought to savor the final 13 episodes of the series in this two-disc DVD set. Fox’s release also includes commentaries by creator Mitchell Hurwitz and various cast members (including stars Jason Bateman, Portia de Rossi, Jessica Walter and others); deleted/extended scenes; a blooper reel; and a “Last Day on Location” featurette.

The 16:9 (1.78) transfers and 2.0 Dolby Surround soundtracks are fine across the board.

Coming Next Week: A Weird...and Watchable SILENT HILL

The lack of opening day reviews might have pegged “Brotherhood of the Wolf” French filmmaker Christophe Gans’ American debut -- SILENT HILL -- as another cinematic video-game travesty, but the resulting film is actually a symphony of surreal images that ought to be please hard-core horror aficionados (**½, 125 mins., 2006, R; Sony, available August 22nd).

Stylishly made and directed with confidence by Gans, “Silent Hill” is unsurprisingly a case of style over substance – a twisted variation on “Alice in Wonderland” adapted from the popular Konami “survival horror” video game franchise (a cousin to Capcom’s “Resident Evil,” for those unfamiliar with the brand name).

In Roger Avary’s screenplay, Radha Mitchell plays Rose, a mother who takes her troubled adopted daughter Sharon (Jodelle Ferland) on a road trip to a deserted West Virginia town that the child has been having visions of. There, Sharon disappears and Rose undertakes a journey into the seeming depths of hell where the town’s survivors (including Alice Krige as a blindly devoted sect leader) fight to stay ahead of the bizarre creatures that lurk all around Silent Hill.

I’m not about to say that “Silent Hill” is a great movie, even of a genre kind, but as a purely visual experience this is one of the more striking horror films to come down the pike since Tarsem Singh’s “The Cell.” Gans populates his cinematic world with creepy Patrick Tatopoulos monsters and vivid, evocative imagery that keeps you watching in spite of the general lack of dramatic tension. Even better, the studio kept “Silent Hill” at a leisurely, two-hour running time, enabling for the story to unfold at a pace less frenetic than the Hollywood norm and letting viewers soak up the atmosphere.

Surprisingly, it mostly works, except for an overly bloody finale and a too-ambiguous ending that leaves the door well ajar for a sequel. Aside from that, Gans’ U.S. debut is certainly worth a viewing for horror fanatics.

Sony’s DVD includes a dynamite 16:9 (2.35) transfer with an effective 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack, offering an effective, at-times low-key Jeff Danna score. Special features are limited to a six-part Making Of featurette that’s decent but far from the in-depth supplemental material one would anticipate to find on a Special Edition (which, with the movie’s solid $46 million in-take in the U.S., I’m guessing we’ll see eventually).

Also New This Week on DVD

RV (**½, 2006, 99 mins., PG; Sony): “Rural” Robin Williams comedy became one of the surprise hits of the year so far, taking in $70 million at the box-office. Under the direction of Barry Sonnenfeld (fashioning his first success since “Men in Black II”), “RV” serves up a family-friendly tale of a harried dad (Williams) trying to get away from the office and take his disgruntled clan (wife Cheryl Hines, kids Joanna “Jojo” Levesque and Josh Hutcherson) on an old-fashioned road trip in a humongous RV. Predictable, almost Griswold-esque laughs follow, including a run-in with a crazy, “down-home” family (lead by Jeff Daniels and Kristin Chenoweth) and assorted slapstick predicaments, but at least Geoff Rookey’s script stays within the PG-rated boundaries, making it suitable for children to enjoy. If nothing else “RV” also has the look of quality, with colorful Fred Murphy cinematography and a pleasant score by James Newton Howard adding a touch of class to the material. Sony’s DVD is available this week in separate full-screen and widescreen (16:9, 2.35) transfers with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound and a good amount of supplements: five featurettes, commentary, one alternate scene, storyboards, and numerous interviews with the cast and crew. Surprisingly tolerable and not a bad choice at all for a late-summer rental (especially if you have kids).

HOOT (**, 2006, 90 mins., PG; New Line): Kids might give a hoot about this relentlessly well-meaning but pretentious tale of a group of kids who fight to save a community of owls from greedy developers in their Florida town. Writer-director Wil Shriner (of the old “Wil Shriner Show” from the late ‘80s) adapted Carl Hiaasen’s book for this Frank Marshall-Jimmy Buffett production, which moves along at a languid pace and raises nearly as many troubling questions about the kids’ reactionary violence as it does ecological concerns about the owls’ plight. New Line’s DVD, available this week, includes all sorts of kid-centric features plus bloopers, deleted scenes, DVD-ROM games and more.

NEXT TIME: More Classic Noir from Fox, JUST MY LUCK, and More! Don't forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards, direct any emails to the link above and we'll catch you then. Cheers everyone!

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