8/29/06 Edition

Aisle Seat Labor Day Edition!
Plus: DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES Season 2, Animation Wrap and More

Last season’s crop of sci-fi /fantasy TV series mostly failed right out of the gate, with three of the more major disappointments having already hit DVD (“Threshold,” “Invasion,” and the particularly misguided reworking of “The Night Stalker”).

Two of the series that met with more modest success, meanwhile, are also now arriving on disc: NBC’s Spielberg-ian fantasy SURFACE (15 episodes, 10 hrs., 2005-06, Universal), which ran for a full season with decent ratings, and the WB (now CW) series SUPERNATURAL (22 Episodes, aprx. 16 hours, 2005-06, Warner), which was the only show of the five to survive to a sophomore season.

I had screened the pilot of “Surface,” back when it was called “Fathom,” while on vacation at Universal Studios Florida in May of 2005. The show was well-mounted with solid production values, above-par special effects, and a fast-evolving story line, and met with decent enough ratings, especially among family viewers (the budget and advertising demographic-challenged audience likely conspired to prematurely end the series, in spite of those modestly successful ratings).

No doubt that “Surface” is a blatant rehash of Spielberg blockbusters, most especially “E.T,.” “Close Encounters” and “Jaws,” with its storyline of sea monsters that mysteriously appear along global coastlines. Scientist Lake Bell (who looks great in a bikini) and Roy Neary-esque Jay R. Ferguson (completely obnoxious) ultimately trace the serpents’ origins to a government conspiracy, while a North Carolina teen finds an orphaned monster, dubs him “Nim,” and secretly raises it as his own.

I will say this for “Surface”: unlike the methodically-paced “Invasion,” this series moves along at a rapid-fire clip, with new characters and subplots being constantly introduced and sometimes even resolved -- in the same episode! The show’s almost complete lack of originality is partially off-set by its execution and entertainment value, particularly for younger viewers who (gasp!) may never have seen the films that it rip-offs...or, to be politically correct, was “inspired by.”

“Surface” is a show that my cousin and his 10-year-old son watched from start to end, and my guess is that it will have a devoted cult following in time -- particularly now that Universal has issued the series on DVD in a superb, four-disc box-set.

Containing all 15 episodes of the series in razor-sharp 16:9 transfers and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, this is a solid DVD effort from Universal. Extras are limited to various deleted scenes and a promo-flavored F/X featurette, but the it’s the open-ended finale to the series that may leave some viewers disappointed (perhaps the Sci-Fi Channel will come to the rescue and finish the story line in a TV movie?).

“Supernatural,” meanwhile, is a tremendously entertaining ride that ultimately proved to be the best of the five genre shows from the 05-06 season.

Extremely well-mounted with top-quality production values across the board, “Supernatural” follows the adventures of two brothers (“Gilmore Girls” vet Jared Padalecki and “Smallville” alumnus Jensen Ackles) fighting the otherworldly while simultaneously tracking down their father cross-country, who mysteriously disappeared while combating the evil that claimed the life of their mother.

Co-produced by McG, Robert Singer and series creator Eric Kripke, “Supernatural” started off heavy on the self-contained episodes that rehash (however effectively) all sorts of cinematic monsters -- especially restless evil spirits from beyond the grave. Alas, you can only recycle “The Ring” so many times, and midway through the year “Supernatural” began to enhance the principal mythology behind their dad’s disappearance and -- in so doing -- improve the series beyond the one-episode-and-out structure it carries through its initial batch of shows. Don’t get me wrong: even in its first group of episodes “Supernatural” is good fun, but if you stick with it, the program settles into its own groove, ending on a high note thanks to the terrific finale “Devil’s Trap.”

Warner’s six-disc DVD box set of “Supernatural” offers the series’ 22 first-season episodes in excellent 16:9 transfers and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks. Since my local cable carrier’s WB affiliate looks like a distant UHF channel you’d try and tune in during the late ‘70s, these DVD transfers are immeasurably better than how I watched the series last season (thankfully I’m on the HDTV bandwagon now, so that shouldn’t be an issue for Season 2!).

The soundtracks, meanwhile, are sufficiently boisterous with both a well-selected batch of rock tracks and original scores provided by Christopher Lennertz among others (unlike some other WB series, the songs actually fit the action more often than not).

Extras aren’t overly abundant but will be appreciated by fans: two fun featurettes, a gag reel, still gallery, episode deleted scenes, and two commentary tracks round out a release that’s highly recommended for genre fans who might have missed the steady improvement “Supernatural” displayed last season. Check it out!

The Original Gojira Finally Arrives in the U.S.

It’s taken decades -- far too long for most Toho fanatics -- but on September 5th Classic Media (distributed by Sony/BMG) will release the long-awaited, original Japanese version of GODZILLA, formally entitled GOJIRA, for the very first time in North America.

The hardbound packaged, DVD double-disc set offers both the 98-minute original version of Ishiro Honda’s 1954 monster masterwork with English subtitles, as well as its faster-paced, pulpier American version “Godzilla, King of the Monsters,” which was released in 1956 with much footage excised and newly-shot inserts with Raymond Burr (as U.S. reporter Steve Martin) inserted to give the movie local appeal.

Kaiju fans have raved for years about the Japanese version of “Gojira,” which moves at a slower clip but favors character development and a more somber tone -- with explicit commentary about the horrors of the Atomic Bomb and more overt parallels to Hiroshima -- than the U.S. print. In fact, it’s fascinating to see how thoughtful this groundbreaking movie actually is (in its original version), particularly when the dozens and dozens of Toho films that followed offered so little in the way of intellectual attributes.

The American version comes off as clumsy by comparison (and some of Burr’s reactions seem odd, to say the least) but its quicker pace -- accentuating the ‘50s monster craze of its time -- remains a positive aspect of director/editor Terry Morse’s U.S. version. The socio-political commentary is toned down, but it’s still there to a degree, particularly in relation to the B-movie thrills that so many of its sci-fi counterparts boasted at the time.

Classic Media’s transfers originate from the healthiest surviving elements of both versions, though there are a substantial amount of scratches and dirt on-hand in each -- particularly so during “Gojira.” The full-screen framing is satisfying and the mono sound as effective as can be given the limitations of the source material.

Supplements are on-hand as well, with commentaries on both versions provided by Godzilla experts Steve Ryfle (who also contributes extensive liner notes) and Ed Godziszewski. Godziszewski also narrates a pair of superb featurettes on the film’s story development and the history of the famous Godzilla suit, with ample vintage photographs and production stills displayed throughout.

Trailers for both versions complete a terrific, low-priced package that’s an obvious must-have for all Godzilla aficionados. Here’s hoping more “proper” Toho restorations are to come in the months ahead!

Out This Week

FRIENDS WITH MONEY (**½, 88 mins., R, 2006, Sony): Excellent performances from a fine ensemble cast (Jennifer Aniston, Catherine Keener, Frances McDormand and Joan Cusack) help this sometimes insightful, occasionally pretentious character study from writer-director Nicole Holofcener.

The filmmaker’s tale of four friends balancing mostly-fading relationships has several funny and heartbreaking moments, but principally fails to provide a compelling story line at its core. The result is a film worth seeing for its performances but is unbalanced and frustrating as a finished product.

Sony’s DVD includes both 16:9 (2.35) and full-screen transfers with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound; commentary with Holofcener and producer Anthony Bregman; and multiple featurettes looking at the production, its Sundance screening and opening night in L.A.

New From Universal

INSIDE MAN (***, 129 mins., R, 2006, Universal): Highly entertaining heist-thriller from director Spike Lee offers a dose of its filmmaker’s social commentary but sticks mainly to suspense and well-defined character development. Denzel Washington is a NYC cop assigned to investigate a bank robbery being carried off by Clive Owen, yet little else is what it seems in Russell Gewitz’s cluttered but intriguing script, which also sports Jodie Foster as a mysterious administrator, Christopher Plummer as the bank branch’s CEO, and Willem Dafoe and Chiwetel Ejiofor as cops assisting Washington. Authentic atmosphere, superb performances, and a satisfying ending culminate in a solid piece of filmmaking, which ultimately became Lee’s biggest box-office hit earlier this year. Universal’s DVD includes commentary with Lee, over 25 minutes of deleted scenes, and two featurettes -- one examining Washington’s collaboration with Lee and another going behind-the-scenes of the production. The 16:9 (2.35) transfer is superb and the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound highly effective, even if Terence Blanchard’s musical score sometimes overstates its presence.

THE WIZARD (**, 100 mins., PG, 1989, Universal): Now you’re playing with power...err, sort of. This wacked-out Junior Version of “Rain Man” -- infused with ample doses of Nintendo video gaming, which was huge at the time – hasn’t weathered the years too well. Fred Savage (at the height of “Wonder Years” stardom) plays a kid who springs his emotionally unstable young brother (Luke Edwards) out of a home and subsequently heads to L.A. En route, Fred discovers that his sibling is a video game master, and while dodging a private eye, his dad (Beau Bridges) and older brother (Christian Slater, whom my wife asked “how exactly did he get stuck in this?”), Savage hightails it to a national Nintendo contest where the riches are bountiful indeed. “The Wizard” yields some minor laughs but this box-office disappointment from ‘89 is by-the-numbers, even for the juvenile entertainment it’s supposed to offer -- other than Bridges hamming it up while attempting to play Zelda, there’s not a whole lot of magic on-hand here. Universal’s DVD does offer a crystal clear 16:9 transfer (1.85) with 2.0 Dolby Digital surround, containing an okay score by J. Peter Robinson and, unsurprisingly, a healthy dose of rock tracks. No extras are included on this bargain-priced release, which fans of the movie (yes, they’re out there!) still ought to savor.

SAFE MEN (**½, 88 mins., R, 1998, Universal): Sam Rockwell and Steve Zahn play a pair of hapless, would-be burglars mistaken for the real thing by Providence, RI mobsters (including Paul Giamatti, Harvey Fierstein and Michael Lerner). Shot in Staten Island and New Jersey, “Safe Men” has a few laughs but is awfully choppy -- not unexpected given that this 1998 indie film was the first effort from writer-director John Hamburg, who has since given the world “Along Came Polly” and co-written “Meet the Fockers.” Universal’s DVD marks the first release of the film on disc, and the studio has presented a superlative package with commentary from Hamburg, Rockwell, and Zahn, plus deleted scenes and Hamburg’s short film “Tick.” The 16:9 (1.85) transfer is likely the sharpest this moderately-budgeted production will ever appear, while the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound is just fine, sporting an able score from Theodore Shapiro.

New From Disney

DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES, Season 2 (2005-06, 1036 mins., 24 episodes, Buena Vista): The sophomore jinx unfortunately cursed ABC’s Emmy-winning black comedy when it returned for its second year.

The ladies (Teri Hatcher, Marcia Cross, Felicity Huffman, Eva Longoria, and Nicolette Sheridan) on Wisteria Lane are back, having solved the murder of narrator Mary Alice (Brenda Strong), but now are faced with a new puzzle on their hands: a mysterious new neighbor played by Alfre Woodard.

Unfortunately, it didn’t take long before viewers realized Woodard’s poorly-defined character and weak story line weren’t a compelling substitute for the first season, leaving the rest of “Desperate”’s second year to be a pale imitation of the various romantic, comedic, and deliciously dark elements that defined its debut year. (For what it’s worth, creator Marc Cherry is promising a return to the magic of the first season for the program’s upcoming third season debut).

Buena Vista’s terrific box-set presentation of “Desperate Housewives”’ second season offers sterling 16:9 (1.78) widescreen transfers with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, deleted scenes, numerous behind-the-scenes featurettes, and more goodies for series fans.

BROTHER BEAR 2 (**½, 2006, 71 mins., G, Disney): I wasn’t crazy about the original “Brother Bear” but this direct-to-video sequel ought to provide sufficient entertainment for kids. Solid animation (especially considering its small-screen pedigree) and a couple of catchy Melissa Etheridge songs provide the backing for the continuing adventures of little cub Koda and big bro Kenai, the former human-turned-bear, who faces a predicament when girlfriend Nita comes looking for him. Disney’s typically strong DVD transfer (1.78, 16:9) and robust soundtracks (5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital) bolster an excellent package that’s complimented by a behind-the-scenes music featurette and interactive games for children. Recommended for family audiences.

TALESPIN: Volume One (1990, 27 Episodes, 617 mins., Disney)
DARKWING DUCK: Volume One (1991, 27 Episodes, 613 mins., Disney)

Two of the more popular early ‘90s Disney TV cartoons receive splendid box-set presentations that ought to please kids and hard-core fans of the programs all too used to receiving single-disc DVD episode compilations.

“Talespin” offers several “Jungle Book” characters including Baloo (as a cargo pilot) and Shere Khan, a villain once again in this fun, frothy confection. “Darkwing Duck,” meanwhile, sports a Disney spin on the blooming super-hero genre of the late ‘80s, with Drake Mallard as a crimefighting foul assisted by sidekick Launchpad McQuack.

Both shows look just fine in their original full-screen formats and are presented in their proper chronological order, with “Talespin” offering the four-part pilot and the initial 23 episodes from the series, and “Darkwing Duck” an ample amount of episodes. Excellent work by Disney providing fans with TV Box Sets worthy of these two respective shows. Recommended!

LITTLE EINSTEINS: MISSION CELEBRATION (2006, 72 mins., G, Disney): June, Leo, Quincy and Annie race aboard Rocket in this travelogue where the “Little Einsteins” visit real-world locations to provide youngsters with a basic sense of the Earth’s scope. Enjoyable, colorful fun for kids who have graduated from Disney’s best-selling line of “Young Einstein” videos, with the studio’s DVD including over an hour of entertainment with one episode (“The Birthday Machine”) making its premiere on disc. An interactive game rounds out the release.

THE TICK Vs. Season One (252 mins., 12 Episodes, Buena Vista): The acclaimed and fan-favorite animated rendition of “The Tick” hits DVD with all but one of its first-season episodes intact (that missing episode, “The Tick Vs. The Mole Men,” is regarded by most fans to be the worst of the series). Regardless of the reasoning behind that decision, this two-disc Buena Vista set remains a must-purchase for animation fans, since the short-lived Saturday morning cartoon series is ribald, manic and just as entertaining for adults as it is for kids. The full-screen transfers and 2.0 Dolby Digital stereo soundtracks are fine. Recommended!

More New Animation on DVD


A pair of vintage Filmation series receive the deluxe treatment in two more outstanding DVD box sets from BCI Eclipse’s Ink & Paint label.

“Space Sentinels” and “Freedom Force” were produced during the heyday of Lou Scheimer and Norm Prescott’s animation factory, airing at various points on Saturday morning network TV through the mid ‘70s and early ‘80s (“Space Sentinels” as its own series, and “Freedom Force” as bridging segments for more popular heroes like Tarzan and Batman).

The latter CBS series offers an animated rendition of Isis (who earlier starred in a fondly-remembered early ‘70s live-action Filmation series) plus Sinbad, Super Samurai and Hercules as they battle for truth, justice, and intergalactic peace; the former NBC show focuses on a trio of immortals (including Hercules, Astraea, and Mercury) likewise sharing the same values. Both series lacked the enduring popularity of some of Filmation’s other properties, so BCI has bundled the complete output of both programs in this two-disc edition.

BCI’s set offers fresh full-screen transfers and Dolby Digital soundtracks, plus a strong selection of extras including a terrific, 30-minute history of Filmation; additional Filmation personnel interviews; DVD-ROM scripts; an early presentation reel and even test footage for a proposed-live action “Young Sentinels” series with Evan Kim performing kung fu moves a short time before “Kentucky Fried Movie”!

Star Trek’s Marc Scott Zicree, meanwhile, was among the staff writers of “Blackstar,” which ran for 13 episodes but remains more of a fan favorite. Produced in 1981, “Blackstar” charts the adventures of astronaut John Blackstar, sucked through a black hole and into a distant star system where the small “Trobbits” require his assistance to combat the evil Overlord.

“Blackstar” keenly presaged “Conan” and Filmation’s later “He-Man” with its sword-and-sorcery fantasy premise, and offers ample amounts of action bolstered by fairly good animation. The infectious musical scores back a show that’s robustly entertaining for youngsters and enhanced on DVD with even more supplemental content from BCI.

Nearly 50 minutes of interviews with assorted Filmation personnel; the same 30-minute documentary on Filmation’s history; a pair of episode commentaries; image galleries and DVD-ROM goodies (including all 13 scripts and five full storyboarded episodes) comprise a marvelous package that’s ideal for kids and all nostalgic Filmation fans.

Here’s hoping BCI continues to mine the Filmation vaults in the months to come -- if licensing issues can be worked out, it’d be wonderful to see the studio’s original “Superman” adaptation on DVD in the near future!

TOM AND JERRY: SHIVER ME WHISKERS (71 mins., 2006, G, Warner): After a bit of a hiatus, Tom and Jerry are back in this made-for-video feature, released just in time to ride the wave of “Pirate”-mania. Here, Tom is a lowly deckmate for nefarious pirate Captain Red when he improbably stumbles upon a treasure map in a bottle; Jerry soon pops up as the stowaway mouse (conveniently packaged in the same bottle!) who helps him outwit the bad guys and battle a giant octopus en route to the buried goods. Warner’s DVD offers adequate, full-screen animation and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, but the story is barely enough to sustain the program’s 71 minutes and is a step below Disney’s direct-to-video features. Still, young children may enjoy it, with a bonus ending and Making Of featurette also included on the disc.

New From Echo Bridge

THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (2006, 176 mins., Echo Bridge, available September 5th): Surprisingly high-rated Hallmark mini-series production won’t evoke favorable comparisons to the DeMille-Heston classic, but this ABC televised “event” is watchable enough for what it is. Dougray Scott brings appropriate conviction to his Moses, while able support comes through a strong supporting cast (“Lost”’s Naveen Andrews, Mia Maestro, Richard O’Brien, Paul Rhys, Claire Bloom, and Omar Sharif) and Randy Edelman’s excellent score. Echo Bridge’s DVD offers the complete, 176-minute mini-series in 16:9 widescreen and 5.1 Dolby Digital surround; extras include a standard-issue Making Of featurette.

WHERE THERE’S A WILL (2006, 84 mins., Echo Bridge, available September 5th): Amusing Hallmark TV-film with Frank Whaley as a downtrodden con artist who decides to take care of his sick grandmother (Marion Ross) so he can collect an easy inheritance and pay off a debt. Whaley and Ross are both a lot of fun in this feel-good small-screen comedy directed by former actor John Putch (“Jaws 3-D"), and I confess it’s always nice to see former “90210" supporting vet Christine Elise on-screen again. Echo Bridge’s DVD presentation offers 16:9 widescreen and 2.0 Dolby Surround stereo.

ABSOLUTE ZERO (2006, 86 mins., Marvista/Echo Bridge, available September 29th): Jeff Fahey and ex-Baywatch babe Erika Eleniak (who still looks great even with a few additional pounds) top-line this TV-movie variant on “The Day After Tomorrow,” with Earth facing serious catastrophe when another Ice Age blasts our way in 24 hours. Marvista’s DVD offers a fine widescreen transfer with Dolby Digital sound, but the budgetary limitations of the production are evident throughout.

RUNNING WITH THE HITMAN (2006, 88 mins., Marvista/Echo Bridge): Canadian tele-film directed by Melanie Mayron offers Judd Hirsch as a grandfather who resorts to hiring a timid hitman (Danny Aiello) in order to rub out his obnoxious son-in-law (Gil Bellows), who’s threatening to end his grandparental visits. Mercedes Ruehl co-stars in this amiable enough comedy, with old pros Aiello and Hirsch carrying off their stereotyped, but occasionally amusing, roles with appropriate aplomb. Marvista’s DVD looks and sounds just fine.

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