DVD Reviews, March 16

DVD Reviews – Mar 16, 2009


From the Multiplex

The film may have been released before the early-90s renaissance of Disney animation, but the new Oliver & Company: 20th Anniversary Edition (, Buena Vista) is nevertheless a fine DVD package. It may pale in comparison to the company’s new advents on Blu-ray Disc (if you haven’t purchased your Sleeping Beauty BD yet, it’s time), but Oliver & Company arrives on its second DVD edition with a loving 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer and a killer upgraded Dolby Digital 5.1 sound mix, as well as a handful of bonuses that may not fully engage animation-obsessed adults, but will appeal to the young (and young at heart) in that truly Disney way. And I’ll admit it: Even though the film has some flaws, the Billy Joel songs are completely capable and any movie that features the voice of Huey Lewis (sans The News) is by its very nature excellent. However, that Disney mojo doesn’t hold over for Beverly Hills Chihuahua (, Buena Vista) – and believe me, this two -star rating is for the film’s Blu-ray Disc technical presence more than anything else. This live-action singing puppy flick has neither the earnest dramatic pull of Babe nor the campy thrill of Gordy (that wonderfully unsung talking-pig picture) – it’s really just a cornucopia of “Yo Quiero Taco Bell”-esque sight gags and forgettable semi-animated characters. That being said, though, the film looks and sounds almost impeccable on Blu-ray Disc: You’ll want to wish and pray for the movie to end in the luxury of excellently-utilized high definition. Thank you Blu-ray!

Far more enjoyable is Criterion’s new release of David Lean’s hard-to-find comedy Hobson’s Choice (, Criterion). First of all, the film looks breathtakingly strong – Criterion really hits this video transfer out of the park – and in addition to the movie being a strikingly witty comedy of errors featuring an iconic performance from Charles Laughton, the commentary track from Lean scholars Alain Silver and James Ursini is a treasure-trove of info and anecdotes, and there’s also a documentary on Laughton included that sheds  light on the performer’s uniquely complicated life and times. On a more contemporary note, though, there’s Mike Leigh’s new comedy, Happy-Go-Lucky (, Miramax). The fact that Sally Hawkins wasn’t allowed to participate in the Oscar Best Actress horserace this year is a sin against nature: This Leigh regular turns in a performance here that is among the greater female performance Leigh’s been able to coax out of his leading ladies over the years. The film looks great on DVD, as well, and Leigh’s commentary track sheds light on exactly the kind of rabbit he was trying to pull out of his magician’s hat.

Then there’s Milk (, Universal). Not only was this Gus Van Sant biopic of San Francisco legend Harvey Milk the best film released in calendar year 2008, but on Blu-ray Disc, the film continues to literally sizzle with vibrancy. Sean Penn’s performance as the eponymous political figure is the stuff of legend, and he’s surrounded with talent equally as impressive: Josh Brolin may have nabbed the Supporting Actor Oscar nomination, but Emile Hirsh, Diego Luna and Joseph Cross all turn in exceptional acting turns. The only reason this high-def release doesn’t get perfect marks is because of a lack of solid bonus features. Van Sant doesn’t do commentaries on all his films, but how good would a Van Sant commentary with writer Dustin Lance Black been here?


TV Roundup

When we last left Melrose Place, lovers were spatting, stalkers were stalking and crazy crap was going on all over the place. On Melrose Place: The Fifth Season, Vol. 1 (, Paramount)…well, it’s pretty much the same old same old. Jo (Daphne Zuniga) has an ex who returns from the grave (not only was Richard (Patrick Muldoon) not officially killed in season four, but he’s so bitter about the attempt that he won’t rest until vengeance is his!), Jake (Grant Show) and Allison (Courtney Thorne-Smith) have to keep their blossoming (not to mention hot-and-heavy) relationship under wraps, and the hits just keep coming. As with earlier seasons, it’s hard not to get sucked into the melodrama here (Aaron Spelling certainly knew how to entertain), but as stand-alone entertainment, these episodes are paper-thin. To add insult to injury, Paramount has decided to split up their season-long releases of the show into two parts, which should royally piss off whatever fans the show still has.

While I understand the draw of a horror anthology series (like many TV-lovers, I have definitely wasted some time in front of a Twilight Zone episode or ten), Friday the 13th as a series never really held much water for me. This Friday the 13th: The Second Season  (, Paramount) set offers the same sort of stale scares and overcooked plots that the show’s first season showcased, and gets real old real fast. With the F13 franchise reborn to a new generation of gore-lovers, the show might grow in demand from the films’ growing cult reverence, but some of the storylines here are so bad they make Jason Takes Manhattan look like The Exorcist. Equally scary as Friday the 13th, only in all the wrong ways , is Sabrina the Teenage Witch: The Fifth Season (, Paramount). I’ll admit forcefully that theoretically I am a fan of any series that has a talking pussycat as a major cast member, but this fifth season of the hit Melissa Joan Hart show is even more painful to suffer through than its earlier incarnations. This fifth season marks the show’s debut on the WB network (it switched off of ABC, most likely due to sagging ratings), and the switcheroo doesn’t benefit anyone involved. Harvey (Nate Richert) is nowhere to be seen – supposedly he returns to the cast in later seasons, but that makes little sense to me – and even a Kal Penn cameo on You Can’t Twin can’t save this season from being a ho-hum canned-laugh-track lemon.

If there’s anything to say about The Beverly Hillbillies: The Official Third Season (, Paramount), it’s that the episodes here look fantastic. The show has existed in the public domain for so long that cheap-o editions of many of the series’ episodes have been available in truly horrendous condition for years, but on this ‘official’ release, Paramount really proves that they put some TLC into preserving the ongoing tales of the Clampett clan. For this guy (who was never a fan), this season never adds up to much of anything, but the Don Rickles cameo on Jed’s Temptation is a hoot, and I must respect that devotees of the series will be quite happy to see the show looking as solid as it does. You also get the option of watching the shows with their original sponsor openings/closings, which really adds to the nostalgic ambience of the show, and there are a handful of surprisingly in-depth bonus featurettes on the set that should appeal to the bubblin’-crude crowd quite nicely. And speaking of preaching to the choir, if you have any preference for the show at all, 7th Heaven: The Eighth Season (, Paramount) is the television equivalent of crack cocaine. It goes without saying that the show lost a bit of its bite when Jessica Biel left the show as a full-time cast member, but she comes back with a VENGEANCE on the second episode of this set (with a HUSBAND, no less!). There are still no bonuses to speak of (that’s definitely been something the series has lacked on DVD), but if the last sentence intrigued you even a little bit, your mind will be BLOWN here. If not, you should probably skip this one.

I love Cheech Marin, of course, but Nash Bridges: The Second Season (, Paramount) didn’t exactly blow my mind. This Don Johnson/Marin cop drama has moments of buddy-cop goofiness (when the show ventures into comedic realms, it’s at its most charming), but for the most part, this one’s a yawner. We get some solid cameos on this sophomore season, however: The Tommy Chong walk-on is exceptional, and any show that features short performances from both Traci Lords and Meat Loaf can’t be ALL bad. What is ALL bad, on the other hand, is The Hills: The Complete Fourth Season (, Paramount). I understand completely that Lauren and Heidi and the other ladies at the epicenter of The Hills probably don’t give a rat’s ass that I think the show is a profoundly awful rich-bitch parade of snobby, elitist pretty people who have literally nothing to offer culture at large, but the show has an ocean of fans who will no doubt eat up this newest DVD release. The silver lining: The show looks and sounds excellent on this DVD set, and has a truly voluminous set of bonuses for fans to sift through.

Leave it to Acorn Media, though, to blow these other TV-on-DVD titles out of the water. The marvelous TV drama The Shiralee (, Acorn Media) has more earnestly engaging melodrama and savvy episode construction than most everything reviewed this week. Bryan Brown plays a cranky laborer who has a complex relationship with his equally cranky daughter Buster (Rebecca Smart), and their adventures on the roads of the midcentury Australian outback are filled with complication, sass and indelible character push/pull. Like a refreshing mixture of Paper Moon and McLeod’s Daughters, this DVD set is a rare feat, indeed: A family entertainment that isn’t just G-Rated, but marvelously enjoyable from perspectives of any age.  Even more impressive is Cracker: The Complete Collection (, Acorn Media). This 10-DVD set capturing all eleven episodes of the Robbie Coltrane crime drama is the sort of DVD release that makes Anglophilic TV watcher salivate on arrival. Coupling all the creepy-crawly detective drama of a CSI with the distinctly British sensibility of a Prime Suspect, Cracker starts off strong and never lets up. Coltrane has always provided a striking cinematic presence (come on – you know you love Hagrid!), and here, he portrays a conflicted, almost plagued detective who has a gift for sniffing out a killer but can barely make it through the day without a breakdown. If you have a sweet tooth for TV mysteries, cozy up to this bad boy: You won’t be sorry.


Blu-ray Upgrade Decision

Sideways (, Fox)

Pros: The movie itself. Sideways is a near-perfect elixir of a comedy, a picture that utilizes all the elements of a typical buddy movie yet forges new ground in creating a journey of self-discovery for two lovable losers that is distinctly and evocatively modern in scope and presence. Even more exciting is the fact that the film hasn’t lost any of its punch over the last few years. Paul Giamatti’s and Thomas Haden Church’s love/hate relationship still crackles, Virginia Madsen continues to wow (even in repeat viewings) with a wonderfully nuanced and subtle performance, and director Alexander Payne’s directorial pace is both steady and ephemeral.

Cons: How good does it really look/sound on Blu-ray? The 1080p presentation of Sideways is technically proficient on this inaugural BD release of the film, yet while there’s definitely a notable increase in resolution to mention, it doesn’t necessarily constitute a night-and-day discrepancy from the film’s presence on DVD. To boot, while the commentary track here with Giamatti and Church has moments of grandeur, the bonus slate of this Blu-ray Disc isn’t exactly encyclopedic.

The Verdict: A classic film, a capable high-def transfer. If you don’t own it, now’s the time. If you already have it, Gus says rent it first and see for yourself.