9/13/05 Edition

Aisle Seat 8TH SEASON Premiere!


In celebration of the Aisle Seat’s 8th Anniversary (this column started on a regular basis in September 1997), I’m giving out some free advice this week: watch your wallet! As if you didn’t already know, September marks the beginning of big-time DVD releases that will ultimately carry us through the blitzkrieg of Christmas shopping.

This year is no different: as I reviewed last time out, Universal recently re-packaged a handful of classics in their new “Legacy Series” double-disc sets (“To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Sting,” and “The Deer Hunter”), while Fox stepped up to the plate with the premiere releases of several catalog favorites, including Jack Clayton’s all-time classic supernatural chiller “The Innocents.”

First up on the slate this week is a round-up of several new TV on DVD box sets. Instead of the usual wrap-up, I thought I’d give them a “TV Guide Fall Preview” kind of capsulization, just in time for the new TV season (which kicks off in earnest this week).

LOST: Complete Season 1 (2004-05). 22 episodes, Buena Vista Home Entertainment. WHEN DID IT AIR: Wednesdays, 8pm, ABC. THE RUNDOWN: Producer J.J. Abrams’ mix of character-drama, sci-fi fantasy, and “Survivor”-esque adventure show -- about a group of plane crash survivors stranded on a beautiful but mysterious island -- helped revitalize the one-hour network drama last season. Superb performances by an ensemble cast led by Matthew Fox and the beguiling Evangeline Lilly complimented storytelling that was fresh and different: each episode would show the survivors trying to uncover where they were and possibly why they were there, while flashing back to the pre-flight life of one specific individual. More than just establishing each character’s identity, though, the flashbacks would also give clues about the puzzling situation the survivors find themselves in...that island (the hatch? The Frenchwoman? The distress signal?) is the creepiest place of its kind seen since Michael Caine ran afoul of David Warner in 1980's “The Island.” WHY IT’S WORTH YOUR TIME: Intelligently written and cinematically presented, “Lost” is grand entertainment, satisfying on many levels. The show never plays its all of its cards at once, making for compelling viewing and a central plot that sustains interest through all 22 episodes. WHAT DOESN’T WORK: Sometimes a bit pretentious for its own good, the downside of “Lost” is in the ultimate lack of explanation about what’s going on...or at least the possibility that, like “The X-Files,” the show is going to tease and never give the viewer the answers that they seek. It hasn’t reached that stage yet (and the producers are aware of this), yet a show that’s based on a central puzzle certainly walks a thin line. Some viewers were particularly disappointed by the series’ last few episodes, which instead of offering any answers (or partial ones), raised new questions instead. DVD FEATURES: An exemplary DVD set loaded with goodies, from commentary tracks to countless behind-the-scenes featurettes and audition tapes of several cast members. Deleted scenes, bloopers, some outtake footage (and two unaired flashbacks) round out a robust supplemental assortment, while the 1.78 (16:9) widescreen transfers and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks are far superior to anything you saw on standard broadcast television. ANDY’S BOTTOM LINE: If you missed the first season of “Lost,” you owe it to yourself to pick up Buena Vista’s sterling DVD box set. With tons of extras and an outstanding technical presentation, one of the most unique and ambitious TV series in years has been given a superior release on DVD. Even if the show fails to match its standard of excellence from here on, the first season will still be viewed as one of the strongest dramatic series that’s aired on network television in a long, long time. Highly recommended!

DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES: The Complete First Season (2004-05). 24 Episodes, Buena Vista Home Entertainment. WHEN DID IT AIR: Sundays, 9pm, ABC. THE RUNDOWN: If “Lost” re-energized the one-hour dramatic series, “Desperate Housewives” reinvigorated the prime time soap. Irresistibly junky and entertaining, “Housewives” follows the exploits of four wives on Wisteria Lane: Teri Hatcher, Marcia Cross, Felicity Huffman, and Eva Longoria (the breakout star of the series’ first season), all of whom face crises with relationships, work, and the recent death of neighbor Mary Alice (Brenda Strong). Narrating the series in a “Sunset Boulevard”-esque manner, Mary Alice spins a blackly comic look at domestic living circa 2004, though “Twin Peaks” this isn’t. WHY IT’S WORTH YOUR TIME: If you dig attractive women and pulpy melodrama with tongue definitely in cheek, “Desperate Housewives” is for you. The show never takes itself too seriously, maintaining a light, mostly comic tone as it plays off the deft talents of its leads. Danny Elfman’s playful theme most definitely set the tone for a show that’s not particularly heavy on a dramatic level, but isn’t aiming to be. WHAT DOESN’T WORK: The series actually starts off a bit on the slow side, and hits its stride several episodes in. Thus, if you find yourself entertained, you’ll eventually be satisfied by the show’s pay off (yes, the central mystery of Mary Alice’s death IS solved). On the downside, Brenda Strong’s narration grows heavy-handed as the season goes on, and I became tired of Cross’ obnoxious teenage son and his bouts with drugs and sexual identity -- even in a “fantasy” world like this, it’s hard to believe this relentlessly annoying off-spring wouldn’t have been smacked down by his parental units long before he did. DVD FEATURES: Another winner from Buena Vista. Exemplary widescreen (16:9) transfers and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks are even more colorful and satisfying than their broadcast counterparts, while extras include outtake footage incorporated back into the episodes themselves. Additional deleted scenes and numerous commentary tracks with creator Marc Cherry and various cast members are on-hand, along with several featurettes -- a few of which are of explicitly promotional nature (i.e. “Behind the Scenes with The View’s Meredith Viera”). ANDY’S BOTTOM LINE: It’s never going to be remembered as high art, but who cares? “Desperate Housewives” aims to entertain and proves highly satisfying at every turn, with engaging story lines and delightful performances by its stars. Superior escapist entertainment capped off by another strong DVD presentation from Buena Vista. Highly recommended!

SMALLVILLE: The Complete Fourth Season (2004-05). 22 episodes (952 mins.), Warner Home Video. WHEN DID IT AIR: Wednesdays 8pm, The WB Network. THE RUNDOWN: Clark and the gang prepare to graduate from Smallville High, but things are complicated by Lana Lang’s trip to Paris, wherein our heroine is branded with a mysterious tattoo and blacks out. Meanwhile, Lex Luthor continues to pillage the Smallville caves for clues to explain the town’s odd goings-on, while his father Lionel sits on death row. And someone named Lois Lane happens to arrive on the scene... WHY IT’S WORTH YOUR TIME: More satisfying on balance than season three, this underrated superhero show for the most part mixes strong characterizations and performances with a variety of story lines. Most effective is a two-part episode, “Unsafe” and “Pariah,” that brings back “Alicia,” a formerly homicidal Smallville student with superpowers and a major crush on Clark, in a plot that draws upon previous Smallville seasons. References to classic Superman mythology this time out are comparatively brief but welcome, putting a fresh spin on familiar material (see “Krypto” and “Run,” the latter starring a young Flash). Best of all is Erica Durance’s energetic portrayal of Lois Lane, which proved to be a superb counterpoint to the angst-ridden Lana (still nicely played by Kristin Kreuk), who is wisely siphoned off into her own arc for the balance of the season. While the latter isn’t entirely satisfying, her ultimate reunion with Clark late in the year still manages to create some sparks. WHAT DOESN’T WORK: After drawing upon the considerable talents of the Luthor boys -- John Glover (Lionel Luthor) and Michael Rosenbaum (Lex) -- early in the year, the duo have little to do as the season progresses. And too many shows use body swapping as a plot device: haven’t we seen enough of an innocent victim who goes bonkers after being possessed and/or turned evil after an encounter with Kryptonite? DVD FEATURES: Superb 16:9 transfers and 2.0 Dolby Digital soundtracks; numerous unaired scenes; two brief featurettes, one of which compares Durance’s Lois with past portrayals of Superman’s eventual soulmate, offering interviews with Margot Kidder, Noel Neill and Dana Delany (voice of the animated Lois), and the other showcasing the series’ writers working on the series. Three commentary tracks are also on-hand with Durance, Kreuk, Annette O’Toole and other crew members, including frequent series director Jeannot Swarzc. Warner has also included a bonus DVD, offering one episode of the short-lived, entertaining TV version of “The Flash.” ANDY’S BOTTOM LINE: Dismissed by some die-hard comic fans as “teeny bopper” and constantly under the radar of most critics, “Smallville” has quietly managed to carve out a superb, modern re-telling of the Superman myth with its own style and unique voice. Regardless of what Bryan Singer’s “Superman Returns” does to the legacy of the Man of Steel, “Smallville” is an excellent series worthy of your time -- and if you’ve yet to engage in the show’s pleasures, DVD is the perfect place to start.

THE BRADY BUNCH: The Complete Third Season (1971-72). 23 episodes (apprx. 10 hours), Paramount. WHEN DID IT AIR: Fridays, 8pm, ABC. THE RUNDOWN: Season three of the quintessential late ‘60s/early ‘70s family sitcom offers numerous “classic” moments in Brady Bunch lore: the three-part opening adventure in the Grand Canyon, where the fam runs afoul of local prospector Jim Backus; Peter’s celebrity mugging in “The Personality Kid”; hippie TV director Paul Winchell casts the gang in a commercial in “And Now, a Word From Our Sponsor”; Jan attempts once again to break out of sister Marsha’s shadow in the aptly-titled “Her Sister’s Shadow”; Marsha lands Monkee crooner Davy Jones for the school prom in the unforgettable “Getting Davy Jones” (these episode titles don’t need any introduction whatsoever, do they?); seeking attention, Cindy and Bobby attempt to land a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records in “The Teeter-Totter Caper”; the Bunch becomes a singing sensation in “Dough Re Mi”; Imogene Coca pops up as “Jan’s Aunt Jenny”; and Marsha’s attempts to make-over an ugly duckling backfires in “My Fair Opponent.” WHY IT’S WORTH YOUR TIME: It’s the Brady Bunch. Period. And the episodes are uncut, enabling a whole generation of viewers to watch the series in its unexpurgated broadcast form for the first time since it originally aired on ABC over 30 years ago. WHAT DOESN’T WORK: A few shows with recycled scripts. And, of course, that astroturf lawn. DVD FEATURES: Crisp, colorful full-screen transfers from Paramount, easily the best the show has ever appeared outside of its initial broadcast run. The mono soundtracks are also just fine. ANDY’S BOTTOM LINE: For sheer nostalgia and entertainment value, “The Brady Bunch” is no Johnny Rotten. Being able to watch these episodes uncut for the first time (at least for anyone born after 1974) is priceless, and Paramount’s strong presentation only enhances the value. Groovily recommended!

CHEERS: The Complete Sixth Season (1987-88). 25 episodes (aprx. 10 hours), Paramount. WHEN DID IT AIR: Thursdays, 9pm, NBC. THE RUNDOWN: Shelley Long’s Diane Chambers might have left, but her departure only opened the door for the superb ensemble cast of “Cheers” to take center stage and explore new comic possibilities in the series’ sixth season. In the fall of ‘87, Kirstie Alley joined the cast as shrewd businessman Rebecca Howe, who takes over the bar’s management and quickly engages in an affair with resident barkeep Sam Malone (Ted Danson). Thankfully, though, the Rebecca-Sam relationship never dominates the series’ plots the way “Sam & Diane” did, and there are numerous gems found throughout the year as a result: a battle between the Cheers gang and Gary’s Old Town Tavern in “Bar Wars” and equally satisfying episodes like “Yacht of Fools,” “Airport V,” “Christmas Cheers,” “My Fair Clavin” and “Slumber Party Massacred” among them. WHY IT’S WORTH YOUR TIME: One of the greatest sitcoms of all-time, “Cheers” for many fans only improved with age -- especially in the two-three years after Shelley Long left the series. By enabling its supporting characters to play more of a role in each episode, the show became fresher, more varied, and less predictable. Not only that, “Cheers” has a timeless element in its comedy that hasn’t “dated” it at all. WHAT DOESN’T WORK: Not much! Sometimes the Carla-centric shows got a little on my nerves, though. DVD FEATURES: More excellent full-screen transfers with 2.0 stereo soundtracks. If only Nick at Nite could look this good (and present uncut episodes like Paramount’s DVD set as well!). Only quibble: episode synopsis and original air dates ought to be included somewhere on the packaging. ANDY’S BOTTOM LINE: Paramount continues to shine with its “Cheers” DVD box sets. Season six really shows the long-running series in its prime, handling the elimination of a central cast member by tackling it head-on, and enabling its fantastic supporting cast to step up and play an even more vital role in the series’ success. The plan worked wonders: five more seasons (most of them good ones) lay ahead for a TV sitcom landmark. Three cheers for “Cheers”!

DOOGIE HOWSER, M.D.: Season Two (1990-91). 25 Episodes, Anchor Bay. WHEN DID IT AIR: Wednesdays, 9pm, ABC. THE RUNDOWN: Child prodigy Doogie (Neil Patrick Harris) continues his residency at Los Angeles’ Eastman Medical Center. During year three, Doogie once again attempts to juggle his high school friends (including Max Casella’s Vinnie and Lisa Dean Ryan’s girlfriend Wanda) with an increasingly complex work schedule, wherein the young doctor has to handle patients sometimes far more emotionally involved than the 17-year-old wunderkind can handle. WHY IT’S WORTH WATCHING: In its best moments, “Doogie Howser” effectively managed to walk a fine line between humor and pathos. The scripts are usually intelligent enough to work for both teens and adults, and the performances of the cast are uniformly fine. WHAT DOESN’T WORK: The series’ often pretentious and maudlin moments -- like Doogie’s daily journal entries in his computer. And the theme song is still one of Mike Post’s all-time worsts! DVD FEATURES: Somewhat soft but reasonably satisfying full-screen transfers with stereo soundtracks. Anchor Bay has also included recent interviews with Casella and Harris. ANDY’S BOTTOM LINE: “Doogie Howser, M.D.” came on the air during my freshman year of high school. Thus, on some levels, I feel some kind of attachment for the series -- even if I found the show too sappy and unbelievable (even back then) for my tastes. If you’ve got a soft spot for “Doogie,” Anchor Bay’s presentation is satisfying enough, though new viewers are recommended to proceed with a bit of caution.

New On DVD

THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY (**½, 2005). 109 mins., PG, Touchstone/Buena Vista. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Two audio commentaries; Deleted Scenes; Making Of featurette; Set Top Game; 2.35 Widescreen, 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital sound.

You need to be an aficionado of Douglas Adams’ work to fully appreciate this well-intentioned but frantic adaptation of his beloved novel.

Martin Freeman plays Arthur Dent, a regular British guy who’s told by pal Ford Perfect (Mos Def) that the world is about to end (and it’s not as if the disappearance of dolphins around the planet wasn’t a vital clue). The duo take off just before Earth is destroyed by an extraterrestrial needing to clear way for a new highway, and subsequently run into numerous adventures across the galaxy, including a run-in with a zealot played by John Malkovich and a “President” played obnoxiously (on purpose I assume) by Sam Rockwell, who also happens to be courting an Earth girl (Zooey Dechanel) Arthur tried to pick up before planet blew up.

There’s plenty of imagination, great effects, colorful performances and visual flare in director Garth Jennings’ film, which Adams scripted for the screen prior to his death (credited co-writer Karey Kirkpatrick reportedly streamlined some of his ideas and concepts). At a time when so many movies are cookie-cutter in nature, it’s very difficult to knock a “high concept” movie like “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” which has some uproarious moments and several memorable sequences.

The downside to the film is that it virtually requires a prior knowledge of the material -- a reading of the book, a listen of the old British radio drama -- in order for it to sink in. Characters are rapidly introduced and scenarios referenced that make the movie feel like you’re watching a Cliffs Notes version of the novel -- not a living, breathing cinematic adaptation. Thus, we end up seeing great scenes and fragments -- the kind that make you understand how much imagination was in Adams’ work -- but it doesn’t, sadly, ever gel into a coherent movie on its own terms. It’s too frantic, too fast, and too much into in-joke referencing of Adams’ books to satisfy a “newbie” like myself.

Touchstone’s DVD looks smashing in 2.35 widescreen and offers 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital soundtracks, each supporting a superb score by Joby Talbot (gotta love the opening song, too!). Extras include deleted scenes and outtakes, a Making Of featurette, set-top interactive game, sing-along for the “So Long & Thanks For All The Fish” ballad, and two commentary tracks: one from Sean Salle (Adams’ colleague and the film’s executive producer), and another with assorted members of the production team.

MINDHUNTERS (**, 2004). 106 mins., R, Dimension. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Commentary with director Renny Harlin; Two Featurettes; Stunt Sequence; 2.35 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Long-delayed thriller from Renny Harlin isn’t as bad as its tenure on the shelf would lead you to believe.

Christian Slater, James Todd Smith (aka LL Cool J), Jonny Lee Miller and Karthryn Morris are FBI agents in training who run into a legitimate serial killer on an isolated island. Soon, what’s supposed to be a routine exercise turns into a typical “Ten Little Indians” thriller with the profilers attempting to figure out what’s going on while being picked off one-by-one.

The Wayne Kramer-Kevin Brodbin script is predictable, but Harlin manages to coax some entertainment out of the package -- not enough that “Mindhunters” ever becomes anything more than standard genre fare, but still, the movie is passable. Morris, Miller, and LL give capable performances, and it’s equally fun watching Slater cash the check -- along with Val Kilmer, who sleepwalks his way through a cameo.

Dimension’s DVD offers a competent 2.35 transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound. Extras include commentary with the director and three featurettes: “Profiling Mindhunters,” “A Director’s Walk Through Crimetown,” and a stunt sequence examination.

SCARY MOVIE 3.5: Unrated Version (*½, 2003). 85 mins., Dimension/Buena Vista. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: New commentary track, deleted scenes and outtakes, Making Of featurettes; 1.85 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

DON’T BE A MENACE TO SOUTH CENTRAL WHILE DRINKING YOUR JUICE IN THE HOOD (**, 1995). 89 mins., Dimension/Buena Vista. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Deleted Scenes; Making Of Featurette; 1.85 Widescreen, 2.0 Dolby Digital sound.

Director David Zucker’s continuation of the Wayans Brothers’ raunchy spoof series struck box-office gold, in spite of the fact that the movie itself is seldom funny (that still hasn’t prevented a “Scary Movie 4" from going into production, of course!).

Dimension’s new “Unrated DVD” edition of “Scary Movie 3" (here dubbed “Scary Movie 3.5") offers up an apparently longer version of the film (the running time is roughly seconds longer than the PG-13 rated theatrical cut), plus ample new supplements: commentary with Zucker, producer Robert K. Weiss and writers Pat Proft and Craig Mazin; deleted and extended scenes (including an alternate ending), outtakes and bloopers, and Making Of featurettes. The 1.85 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound are both fine, but this release is still best reserved for fans of the movie only.

Also newly available is one of the Wayans’ earliest efforts -- 1995's  “Don’t Be A Menace To South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood.” Miramax’s new DVD offers an unrated version of the film (running, again, seconds longer than the theatrical version), plus one deleted scene, a “Behind the Scenes” featurette with the Wayans Brothers, and “Hood Movie Gumbo.” The 1.85 transfer and 2.0 Dolby Digital sound are roughly as good looking as the modestly-produced movie will ever appear.

Direct-To-Video Horror Mania

HELLRAISER: HELLWORLD (2005, Buena Vista). DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Commentary, Featurette; 1.85 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

THE PROPHECY: FORSAKEN (2005, Buena Vista). DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Commentary; 1.85 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

First the good news: unlike “Dracula III: Legacy,” it didn’t take a couple of years for Dimension to release the conclusion to “The Prophecy: Uprising,” a made-for-video sequel that ended with a cliffhanger ending. Now the bad news: “The Prophecy: Forsaken” is a feeble follow-up and a definite step down from its predecessor, so forgettable that it’s hardly worth your time.

Apparently sitting around with nothing else to do after “Dracula III,” director-writer Joel Soisson recruited that series’ stars -- Jason Scott Lee and Jason London -- to appear in this short (69 minutes sans credits) sequel that concludes the story begun in the previous Prophecy sequel, “Uprising.” Thus, Kari Wuhrer is back as an innocent woman placed in charge of the “Lexicon” book of the undead, while former “Candyman” Tony Todd (inexplicably billed here with no space between his first and last name!) pops up to provide a new menace for our B-movie heroine.

Disappointing on several levels, “Forsaken” feels like an afterthought: after all the build-up and promise of “Uprising,” it’s unfortunate to see the story peter out the way it does here. Die-hard horror fans might enjoy some of the bloody shenanigans and watching veterans like Todd and Wuhrer do their thing, but the film is a dud.

Despite being marginally better than its last made-for-video sequel, “Hellraiser: Hellworld” is another tepid entry in the long-running horror series. Here, Lance Henriksen pops up as Pinhead and the boys terrorize a group of idiot high schoolers who’ve hacked a website and opened up the door to hell (don’t they have anything better to do with their time?).

Watchable is probably the best way to describe “Hellworld,” which is a slight improvement on the last couple of “Hellraiser” sequels-- though that, of course, doesn’t say a whole lot. The soundtrack and direction are passable and hard-core Pinhead fans might enjoy this as a rental, but all others are advised to stay far, far away.

Dimension’s DVDs of both movies feature 16:9 (1.85) transfers with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound and commentary tracks from the filmmakers. “Hellworld” also has a behind-the-scenes featurette, though there’s a deleted scenes supplement alluded to in the commentary track not included on the DVD.

Also New On DVD From Buena Vista

HALLOWEENTOWN/HALLOWEENTOWN II Double Feature (1998-2001, 81 and 84 mins.)
HALLOWEENTOWN HIGH (2004, 82 mins.). Disney: Ever-popular Disney Channel series of TV movies centers on a regular teen (Kimberly J. Brown) who finds out she’s a witch on her 13th birthday, and is soon whisked away with her grandmother (Debbie Reynolds) to a magical town where Halloween is celebrated all the time, with witches, warlocks, and other ghouls living in relative normalcy. Disney’s DVDs package the original 1998 and 2001 TV movies on one disc with several featurettes, and a separate DVD containing last year’s most recent entry in the series, “Halloweentown High.” Full-screen transfers and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks (sporting themes by Mark Mothersbaugh) round out the discs, which ought to please kids and Halloween addicts of all ages.

DISNEY PRINCESS: PRINCESS STORIES Volume 3: Beauty Shines From Within (Buena Vista, 61 mins.)
DISNEY PRINCESS: SING-ALONG SONGS Volume 2: Disney Princess Enchanted Tea Party (Buena Vista, 34 mins.): The latest entries in Disney’s popular “Princess” DVD line offer plenty of entertainment for young girls. “Princess Stories” offer three tales culled from Disney Channel programming plus DVD-ROM material for the little ones. “Sing-Along Songs” includes karaoke for over 10 Disney tunes, dance-along options and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

POWER RANGERS S.P.D. Volume 2: Stakeout (Buena Vista, 106 mins.)
POWER RANGERS S.P.D. Volume 3: Wired (Buena Vista, 106 mins.): Disney’s latest DVD compilations of the popular Power Rangers series offer five episodes on each disc (Volume 2, “Stakeout,” and Volume 3, “Wired”), full-screen transfers and 2.0 Dolby Digital sound. Kids should enjoy the colorful (albeit brainless) action from the long-running show, along with a few featurettes on each disc (“Flight Simulators” and other goodies). By the way, whatever happened to the Pink Power Ranger? I think she was last seen hanging out with Felicity...

NEXT TIME: A Fox Round-Up!
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!


Get Firefox!

All Reviews, Site and Design by Andy Dursin