THIS WEEK IN DVD’S – DEC 7, 2008
The Presidents (Paramount)
When We Left Earth: Blu-ray (Discovery Channel)
Mystery Science Theater 3000: 20th Anniversary Edition
For anyone who’s a sucker for documentaries (especially biographical ones), The Presidents emits a tractor beam that may be difficult to resist. This collection of ten feature-length looks at commander-in-chiefs like FDR, Jimmy Carter and JFK are all exceptionally well-constructed and engaging enough that even if the information presented isn’t surprising and new, the set nevertheless presents a solid, invigorating entertainment (the double-volume on JFK is a real doozy – it’s easily the MVP of the box).
Equally amazing – if not more so – is When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions, a definitive look at the American space experience. The Blu-ray edition of these documentaries look like a million bucks – even though much of the footage unearthed from the NASA archives and freshly shown here contains serious grain and visual compromises (scratches, blemishes, etc.), the newly-filmed interview footage is gorgeous, and the sheer scope of these documentaries are enough to make space-heads salivate.
And speaking of space-heads, one would be a fool to fail to appreciate the wondrous gifts of Mystery Science Theater 3000. This debut release of four episodes of the inimitable show from Shout! Factory looks and sounds great and has a lovely set of bonuses (including a surprisingly thorough documentary on the series). First Spaceship on Venus, Laserblast, Werewolf, and Future War are all endearingly terrible films, and the MST3K crew lambasts each and every one of them here with their patented blend of sass, intellect and dumbass-ness. This one’s a set that both die-hards and newcomers to the magic will enjoy.
The Busby Berkeley Collection: Volume Two (Warner)
The Charlie Chan Collection: Volume Five (Fox)
The Alice Faye Collection: Volume Two (MGM)
The Little Rascals: The Complete Collection (Genius Products)
Abbott & Costello: The Complete Universal Collection (Universal)
Alfred Hitchcock Premiere Collection (MGM)
These classic collections are a mixed bag as a whole – where it’s lovely to liberate hard-to-find antique titles on DVD (finally), sometimes the results don’t prescribe air-tight entertainment. The Busby Berkeley Collection’s second volume houses some more excellent showcases of the talent’s inimitable output, but aside from the excellent Gold Diggers of 1937, the other pictures here are ho-hum showcases: They’re nowhere as excellent as the talents that created them. Ditto for this fifth volume of The Charlie Chan Collection. Castle in the Desert has some mildly engaging moments, but for the most part, these films seem so antiquated and dusty from a modern standpoint that they are hard to get through (it also doesn’t help that the best Charlie Chan movies in existence were released on DVD box sets years ago). Even the typically cheery and adorable Alice Faye only has ho-hum entries in the second volume of her self-titled DVD collections. As a Californian, I could not resist the so-silly-it’s-genius inanity of Hello, Frisco, Hello, but aside from that title and some of the better moments of Hollywood Cavalcade, this five-film set disappoints.
On the other side of the coin, though, are The Little Rascals, whose Complete Collection DVD set is the kind of comprehensive box set that really scores. Sure, much of the material here isn’t exactly riveting (there are stretches of bad, bad stuff on this set that sometimes last for an entire disc), but the fact that so much material has been made readily available in one place outweighs any inconsistencies. It’s all here, and it’s all fascinating. Even more astonishing is the Abbott & Costello: The Complete Universal Collection. This 28-film collection may not represent every nook and cranny of the duo’s output, but its breadth is nevertheless something to marvel at. The titles toward this set’s end are the most laudable and recognizable – Abbott & Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a favorite – but everything here adds a unique sense of ethos to the A&C legend. It’s like a comedy-cinema film class in a box.
This Hitchcock set, though, has arrived rife with controversy. Yes, the films here are astonishing (Notorious and Spellbound alone are worth the price of admission), but this MGM presentation has been met with some sneers by certain sects of DVD cineastes. Turns out that the extensive packaging that houses this multi-disc set is pretty dangerous for the DVDs included – many buyers have issued formal complaints to MGM about recalling the set due to scratched discs (the DVDs come in simple folders, not snap-cases. I’d do some internet research before you drop the hundred bucks on this baby, but know that if you can find a set without mega-scratches, this is one of the better Hitch sets this writer’s come across in a long while. But proceed with caution…
The Sixth Sense: Blu-ray (Buena Vista)
Sleeping Beauty: Blu-ray (Buena Vista)
Your buddy Mike hated The Sixth Sense from just about frame one. I remember finally buying a ticket to see it after everybody else on the planet kept ranting and raving about it’s you-won’t-BELIEVE-it twist, and maybe it was as simple as me just missing the zeitgeist. I always have nice things to say about Bruce Willis, but he just seemed to mope through the whole thing, and Hayley Joel Osment’s performance one-note and unengaging. So it should come as no surprise that I still dislike the film even on Blu-ray. For those with a different take on the film, though, this high-def presentation is more than capable – darker sequences don’t pop the way they should, some textures aren’t razor-sharp, and the PCM 5.1 sound mix included on this disc aren’t rock-solid, but for those who don’t already have this one on DVD, this Blu-ray is the way to go. If you’ve already got it, give this one a rent before you drop down your money.
What you need to get your checkbook out for immediately, however, is the new Sleeping Beauty Blu-ray. Not only is this gorgeous film one of the Disney machine’s more delightfully entrancing exports, it’s without any hesitation that I call this one of the best catalog Blu-ray titles ever. Beauty looks astonishing, the HD 7.1 sound mix is as encapsulating as one could hope, but there’s more than just audio/video quality that puts this one over the edge. There’s a 2-channel stereo mix of the picture just in case purists aren’t interested in the boomy new sonic upgrade, there are more bonus features than one could imagine (you’ll be swimming in these for hours), and with a welcome streak of value, Disney includes a DVD edition of the film with this Blu-ray release so you can enjoy the film in the majesty of your home theatre as well as on your laptop. It’s one of the best Blu-rays of the year. Don’t miss it.
CSI: The Eighth Season (Paramount)
CSI: NY: The Fourth Season (Paramount)
Numb3rs: The Fourth Season (Paramount)
It doesn’t take much for this writer to get embroiled in a crime drama – if you throw a dead body and some lascivious characters in a narrative together, odds are I’ll sit through the whole thing. CSI continues to be the forerunner of the modern incarnation of the crime drama – even if this eighth season box set contains episodes that are distinctly off the show’s peak (around season three), when it really gets going, it rocks. Ditto for one of its spinoffs, CSI: NY. Don’t tell anybody, but I prefer the David Caruso-led CSI: Miami (I don’t know why I feel so guilty loving that actor and his show), but this Gary Sinise-led romp through nasty-ass crimes in Gotham is kind of like CSI-lite: It has all the whodunit storytelling prowess and techie-gadget geekiness that makes the franchise so involving without the excess emotional baggage of the original show.
Numb3rs, on the other hand, is overcooked, pure and simple. Rob Morrow (Northern Exposure) was a breath of fresh air in the first few seasons of the show, simply because he brought something fresh and new to the realm of crime drama protagonist – he was sassy and forceful where most TV crimefighters are morose and brooding. Here, though he hits the brooding mark again and again – he pretty much relies on it entirely. Sure, the stories in the show are intriguing enough, but we’d enjoy them a lot more if Rob’d stop pouting through every episode.
Brotherhood: The Complete Second Season (Paramount)
The L Word: The Complete Fifth Season (Paramount)
JAG: Season Seven (Paramount)
The acting in Brotherhood is exceptional – as the focus of the show (and reason for its title), Jason Isaacs and Jason Clarke exhibit the simultaneous love/hate that comes with volatile fraternal interactions with marvelous élan and nuance. With one brother as a politician and the other as a mobster, the two definitely have a lot to fight about, and they do so with power and subtle empathy. The only drag is that this second season of the show broadcasts some groan-inducing writing that truly limits the show’s appeal. Somewhere inside this show’s main concept is a truly great show yearning to break free (call it an Irish Sopranos with a sibling rivalry benet), but the way this second season doesn’t make good on that potential.
The L Word also suffers in its newest DVD incarnation – where this Showtime series was once a narratively robust response to the wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am hedonism of Queer as Folk, it now resorts to fairly plain plot developments and storylines that do nothing to endear it to anyone not already completely smitten with the series. This writer applauds the addition of Annabella Sciorra – she’s fantastic in everything, methinks – but the bizarre disappearance of cast regular Janina Gavankar is never fully explained nor predipitated, and the Hollywood-isms abounding in the production of Lez Girls that plays through the season make Entourage’s in-jokes seem Beckett-ian in comparison.
JAG, though, never veers very far from its basic premise, and is all the better for it. Sure, as a film critic, I’d rather see a show attempt new things and fail than do the same thing over and over again, but in the land of TV, sometimes redundancy can be rewarding (as long as it’s fun). This seventh season of the military legal drama has miniscule variations from plot lines past, but it’s enveloping enough on a show-by-show basis that one really doesn’t care. If you’re into it from the get-go, you’ll go through the whole set in record time.
Knight Rider: The Complete Series (Paramount)
The 4400: The Complete Series (Paramount)
Good Times: The Complete Series (Paramount)
The Incredible Hulk: The Complete Series (Paramount)
The Wild Wild West: The Complete Series (Paramount)
There’s something very liberating for us nerds about Complete Series sets. I’ve spent entire reviews of Paramount DVD releases of multi-volume DVD sets of their older series (Mod Squad, Dynasty – these both come two editions to a season, which is truly a pain in the keyster), but with Complete Series sets, one gets to soak it all up, and for anyone who’s a die-hard TV-head, this is arguably the best advent DVD as a format has to offer.
The 4400 is just a so-so show – its X-Files/Heroes mentality seems tailor-made for nerd-fan approval, but it never quite establishes itself as a unique narrative entity. The Complete Series box set of the show manifests a show that has sci-fi roots aplenty, but without any real sense of true identity. It’s all promise and no follow-through And Good Times is the kind of show that appeals almost entirely to those who remember growing up watching it. This writer was just past the Good Times age of television, and while I can definitely see how many (if not all) sitcoms from the 80s owe much of their pace and story construction to those set forth by the Good Times gang, unless you’re hooked by the first disc or so, this one ain’t for everybody.
Far more enjoyable is The Wild Wild West: The Complete Series. I was too young for this one, too (obviously), but there’s something about the show’s earnest, nerdy strive for mystery-solving through science and invention that captivated me from the get-go. Yeah, the two made-for-TV movies also included on this box set don’t really make for mandatory viewing, but I definitely went through this box set thoroughly (and loved every minute of it). And when it comes down to Knight Rider versus The Incredible Hulk, I gotta go Knight Rider. Yeah, Hulk has kick-ass moments to it – any time our hero goes from Joe Schmo to beefcake green butt-kicker, it’s hard not to applaud – but episode-for-episode, Knight Rider is king. I mean, David Hasselhoff, people. He may be the pinnacle of ridiculousness in modern television (well, maybe second only to Richard Simmons), but when that guy is able to both kick ass and tell his car that everything’s going to be all right: That’s good TV.
And did I mention the Complete Series box of Knight Rider has a button that plays the show’s theme song on command? Yeah. Totally cool.