Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Happy Birthday, John Forsythe!

Look up “TV friendly face” and there ought to be a picture of Forsythe, sitting in a leather chair by the fire with his arms folded neatly in his lap. Bachelor Father, which ran for 5 seasons across all three networks in spite of not being fondly remembered by anyone (the Wings of the late 50s), got him some early exposure, but it was Charlie’s Angels and Dynasty that brought him into America’s homes more frequently than most parents. But there were memorable film roles – two solid performances for Hitchcock in The Trouble with Harry (1955) & Topaz (1969), a killer dramatic turn in In Cold Blood (1967), and Kitten with a Whip (1964) where he spent nearly the entire running time not being interested in Ann-Margret at her crazy/sexy peak, and enduring some of the most hysterical hipster dialect ever seen in a Hollywood picture, and doing both with a straight face.

But to celebrate John’s 90th(!) birthday, find a copy of …And Justice for All (1979), where he was given the chance to play against type as a bent Judge on trial for rape. Director Norman Jewison has trouble finding the right tone-balance between legal thriller and black comedy, but Forsythe is absolute dynamite! He more than holds his own against star Al Pacino, and makes you wonder what would have happened with his film career if George Peppard hadn’t quit Dynasty.*

*Peppard Trivia #1: George Peppard was originally cast as Blake Carrington on Dynasty! Apparently, George filmed the pilot episode but walked off after arguments with the writers (no, I can’t imagine what they might have been, either “Could you guys make this suck less? No? Well, see ya!”)

Peppard Trivia #2: He also quit the sizeable hit Banacek just before the third season because he didn’t want ex-wife Elizabeth Ashley to receive any extra money as part of their divorce settlement.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Suppose They Gave Oscars And Nobody Came?

If the writers strike is still in effect on February 24th, it is somewhat likely that there will be picket lines outside the Academy Awards ceremony. If so, it will be extremely likely that no actors will cross. Now, don’t tune in expecting to see baseball bat-toting union busters from a Clifford Odets play curbing Tony Gilroy outside the Kodak Theater – you’ll probably just get a press conference announcing the winners. We think it would really stink to see somebody like Hal Holbrook or Ruby Dee win, and not get to see it acknowledged by an appreciative audience.

We’d also miss this:

Please settle.

Best Picture:
"Atonement," "Juno," "Michael Clayton," "No Country for Old Men," "There Will Be Blood."

George Clooney, "Michael Clayton"; Daniel Day-Lewis, "There Will Be Blood"; Johnny Depp, "Sweeney Todd the Demon Barber of Fleet Street"; Tommy Lee Jones, "In the Valley of Elah"; Viggo Mortensen, "Eastern Promises."

Cate Blanchett, "Elizabeth: The Golden Age"; Julie Christie, "Away From Her"; Marion Cotillard, "La Vie en Rose"; Laura Linney, "The Savages"; Ellen Page, "Juno."

Supporting Actor:
Casey Affleck, "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford"; Javier Bardem, "No Country for Old Men"; Hal Holbrook, "Into the Wild"; Philip Seymour Hoffman, "Charlie Wilson's War"; Tom Wilkinson, "Michael Clayton."

Supporting Actress:
Cate Blanchett, "I'm Not There"; Ruby Dee, "American Gangster"; Saoirse Ronan, "Atonement"; Amy Ryan, "Gone Baby Gone"; Tilda Swinton, "Michael Clayton."

Julian Schnabel, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"; Jason Reitman, "Juno"; Tony Gilroy, "Michael Clayton"; Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, "No Country for Old Men"; Paul Thomas Anderson, "There Will Be Blood."

Foreign Film:
"Beaufort," Israel; "The Counterfeiters," Austria; "Katyn," Poland; "Mongol," Kazakhstan; "12," Russia.

Adapted Screenplay:
Christopher Hampton, "Atonement"; Sarah Polley, "Away from Her"; Ronald Harwood, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"; Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, "No Country for Old Men"; Paul Thomas Anderson, "There Will Be Blood."

Original Screenplay:
Diablo Cody, "Juno"; Nancy Oliver, "Lars and the Real Girl"; Tony Gilroy, "Michael Clayton"; Brad Bird, Jan Pinkava and Jim Capobianco, "Ratatouille"; Tamara Jenkins, "The Savages."

Animated Feature Film:
"Persepolis"; "Ratatouille"; "Surf's Up."

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Absolute Last DVD List of 2007 List

First, the bad news.

We decided not to hold price against anyone, as early adopters understand that they will be making up the profit shortfall on new technology. Instead we concentrate on irksome productions that only serve to remind us of classics still unavailable on HD, the needlessly defective, and the resolution-challenged.

The Warriors: Ultimate Director's Cut – HD-DVD & Blu-ray (1979)
We would prefer to blame studio huckstership rather than grand scale hubris on the part of the otherwise talented Walter Hill, but someone had to decide that subtext just wasn’t good enough anymore. A few years ago, Hill’s minor masterpiece suffered the addition of a ridiculous prologue directly linking the film with the Anabasis (Xenophon’s story of 10,000 Greek warriors who must fight their way through hostile Persia back to the sea) that would be better suiting a peplum from the 50s, along with Creepshow-style comic book panels to most major transition points. These changes make any previous definition of ‘unnecessary’ and ‘annoying’ utterly superfluous. Though it did have the effect of making Paramount’s initial DVD offering of the title, previously memorable only for the ugliest cover art imaginable, into an instant collectable, available only on Amazon from 3rd party sellers or Ebay. And, of course, this God-awful victim of cosmetic surgery is the version preserved on HD disc. Thanks, Paramount!
My angel is a centerfold!!!

The Hills Have Eyes 2 - Blu-ray (2007)
Without apology, I really liked Alexandre Aja’s remake of Wes Craven’s ’77 stomach turner about a typical suburban family who run afoul of a less typical family of cannibals in the southwestern desert. Aja’s Haute Tension (2003) is a flat-out horror masterpiece – a grim, play-for-keeps (and blissfully mirthless) ode to classic American grindhouse fare – and proof that he was the right person to helm the remake of one of the decade’s rawest gems. Aja only tripped up by providing too much backstory for the man-eating family (inspired by the splendidly gruesome Swaney Bean legend but that error only stands out as a small black ink spot on an otherwise gleaming, white page. The sequel to the remake was penned by Craven and son Jonathan, but should not be confused with Craven’s own Hills Have Eyes part II made in 1985, and directed by music video and commercial vet Martin Weisz. A slow, meandering death march of a film, so utterly devoid of even the smallest spark of invention that we were reminded of the scene in Ed Wood where the studio executive is so aghast at what he’s seeing that he assumes it to be a prank. Substituting a National Guard platoon out on desert maneuvers for the previous film’s vacationing family, the film desperately tries to reach over the Aja void for violent excess which is neither earned nor appreciated (including a particularly ugly rape scene). Sadder still is the top shelf treatment accorded it by Fox on Blu-ray, with a stunning image and thunderous audio. Where is the initial Aja remake? Hell, where’s Terror Train?

The Bourne Ultimatum - HD-DVD (2007)
Great movie – the third in a series that gets inexplicably better with each entry. To celebrate the release of the third Jason Bourne film on HD-DVD, Universal decided to make this a combo disc (see Star Trek above) which necessitates a complex manufacturing process giving the discs a high failure rate. The AVS Forum for HD-DVD was filled with complaints from people whose discs locked up at nearly exactly the same moment (some were on their second returns only to find the lock-up happening again). I’ve yet to see this sort of issue crop up with Blu-ray discs to the degree they do with these irritating combos. Now, maybe I’m not being fair to Bourne – actually, I’m definitely not. But since I couldn’t even finish watching the movie, poor Jason will just have to stand in for every other poorly manufactured combo HD-DVD. So, anyone know what happens at the end?

Spider-Man: The High-Definition Trilogy - Blu-ray (2002-2007)
The first two Spider-Man movies sit among the upper echelon of comic adaptations. Along with Donner’s Superman, Singer’s X-Men films, and Chris Nolan’s Batman Begins, it represents the high watermark of what is achievable with a combination of verisimilitude and the savvy of a good filmmaker. Spider-Man 3, however, seemed to be the movie that neither the director nor cast had much enthusiasm for – it oozes ‘contractual obligation’ from every pore. Director Sam Raimi had opposed using fan favorite villain Venom in the films, but was overruled, resulting in the sort of unenthusiastic over-saturation of bad guys not seen since the gay fantasia Batman films of Joel Schumacher (all due respect to Sam, but Green Goblin Jr. and Sandman pale miserably beside Venom). Alright, Sony, you made a stinker – two out of three is still a winning average, right? I’ll just pick up the first two on Blu-ray and be on my way. What’s that? I can’t? You mean I have to buy an expensive box set of all three in order to get the first two?!? I know that Warner Bros is doing the same thing with the Oceans 11 movies, but who the hell cares? You’re holding loved ones for ransom alongside my noisy upstairs neighbors who I’d like to see shot anyway! Booooo!

28 Days Later - Blu-ray (2002)
Real simple – the movie is great; in fact it’s one of the better horror movies of the decade. Trainspotting director Danny Boyle borrows liberally from Day of the Triffids, Dawn of the Dead, and numerous other genre efforts to create a world (England, specifically) nearly devoid of human life and overrun with zombie-ish victims of an outbreak of a virus called Rage, which turns normal folk into bloodthirsty maniacs within seconds after exposure. However, most of the film was shot using Canon DV cameras with a resolution considerably less than the 1080p capacity of Blu-ray. The visual differences between the standard DVD and the Blu-ray disc are almost negligible, and at twice the price. On general principal, I’m not a fan of warning stickers, but when the source material is of a significant lower resolution than is advertised prominently on the box, that’s something you might consider mentioning.

Finally, to end on a more upbeat note, here’s a random sampling of some of the best catalog titles to come out last year. By “catalog titles” we mean anything released before I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry and after Edison’s Frankenstein. All titles were released on both formats.

Battle of the Bulge (1965) – Grand scale World War II action made before we had to take it seriously and use jerky-cam and wash out the color scheme. Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, and Robert Shaw headline the perfect Saturday afternoon. The HD rendering of the 2.76x1 Ultra Panavision ratio is breathtaking.

Rio Bravo (1959) – Our favorite John Wayne western was actually directed by Howard Hawks, and there were few others who were better at depicting male bonding in the midst of crisis. From the wordless introduction to Dino’s great moment in the bar, to the final walk down the street, there’s nary a step put wrong.

The Untouchables (1987) – DePalma’s best gun-for-hire studio work to date. Career making roles for Costner and Andy Garcia, Connery’s Oscar winning comeback, and DeNiro back when his presence actually meant something, combine with a David Mamet script and one of Ennio Morricone’s best scores. By making a film about movies rather than gangsters and G-Men, DePalma wound up with a classic.

Blade Runner (1982) – Maybe the most lavishly DVD set ever produced. 5 discs (!) plus production drawings, replicas of the ‘spinner’ ship and unicorn, and a plastic-encased lenticular image from the film. Both Scott’s new cut and the previous variants are presented in 1080p, but the new cut has gone through a painstaking restoration process and looks flawless.

Viva Las Vegas (1964) – Still Elvis’ best; a charmer that has the smarts to match up the King with Ann-Margret, a performer somewhat closer to his own speed (closer at least than Shelly Fabares). C’mon Everybody, My Rival, The Lady Loves Me, and What’d I Say are just a few of the featured numbers. Notable also for what may be the longest single date in movie history.

Alexander Revisited (2004) – Joining the official Heaven’s Gate 'most hated, seldom seen' club immediately upon release, Oliver Stone’s massive biopic on the life of Alexander the Great is a much, much better film than all your friends who never saw it would lead you to believe. A miscast Colin Farrell’s uneven performance creates some shaky ground on which stone has to erect several hours worth of narrative, but good work from Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Jared Leto and Angelina Jolie – and a great performance from Val Kilmer as Philip – help to level the playing field. Stone is very good at keeping these massive, multi-character productions focused, and the risky time jumping structure pays off well. This 220min version is Stone’s third edit, following the initial theatrical cut (175min), and a more streamlined ‘director’s cut’ for video (167min). Until Universal fixes their butt-ugly Spartacus, it’s the best ancient world epic on HD disc.

Wyatt Earp (1994)
The flashier Tombstone beat Earp to theaters by several months and seemed to steal all the recently ignited post-Unforgiven fire for westerns. Lawrence Kasdan’s quite epic traces Wyatt’s life from childhood in linear, old style Hollywood fashion. Costner catches a lot of shit these days, but he has a presence in westerns that few actors of his generation have. The script’s take on Earp as a man emotionally closed off by past tragedies suits Costner’s stoic visage well. Joining him is a mouth watering collection of actors who are all perfectly suited to their roles; Gene Hackman as papa Earp, Michael Masden as brother Virgil (look fast for a young James Caviezel as Warren Earp), Bill Pullman and Tom Sizemore as the Mastersons, and Jeff Fahey as Ike Clanton! A slightly longer cut was released on DVD and VHS some time ago, but the DVD release was the standard theatrical cut as is the HD release – but all added scenes are present as ‘Deleted Scenes’ to take the sting out.

Friday, January 18, 2008

2007 - The Tops In Blu-ray

The following are all Blu-ray exclusives, which means you'll still be able to buy them next year.

Ratatouille (2007)
Heaping praise on Pixar is getting to be unbearably trite, but here we are again. The second teaming of the studio with director Brad Bird, Ratatouille has found its way onto numerous ‘10 Best’ lists and is currently being positioned for a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars (rather than the animation category, which it already owns). Ratatouille is as good an examination of the euphoria of the creative process as we’ve ever seen – animated or not. A million miles away from the wisecracking, hip hop junk sensibilities of most other animated fare lately (“Oh no, he didn’t!”), Bird’s ease with conveying complex emotional states is awe inspiring. The animation is softer and the textures a bit more subtle than many other Pixar pictures, but the direct digital transfer to the 1080p resolution of Blu-ray may be the single best screen-to-home video presentation ever available on home video, regardless of format.

Casino Royale (2006)
Though we would dearly love to see the 1967 embarrasstravaganza find its way to HD disc, we’re actually talking about the newest member of the Bond franchise, reintroducing the world to Agent 007 in the personage of Daniel Craig. Since the late 70s, the producers of the Bond series have settled for spectacle as a platform for the delivery of one liners. Miraculously, people kept coming; through even the worst of the Pierce Brosnan years they still made a fortune, and the idea of doing a major overhaul must have seemed like folly when viewed from beneath a great big wad of cash. Brosnan’s exit (reports vary, but I’d bet on a salary dispute as the main sticking point) allowed them the chance to take a gamble, so in 2006 we had Casino Royale, a reboot that sets a more fallible, impetuous Bond loose in a world without rocket packs and invisible cars. The Bond films are a major trump card in Sony’s Blu hand, and Casino Royale quickly became the format’s top seller, and probably the first HD disc purchase for many.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977-1998)
Arriving on Blu-ray in the year of its induction into the National Film Registry, Spielberg’s ode to childhood wonder arrives in a lushly packaged 3 disc set that includes all three variants of the film, including the excellent documentary produced for the previous DVD edition. The initial 1980 Special Edition is a marked improvement on the ’77 theatrical cut, tightening the edit while adding a few major sequences, such as the discovery of a Russian ship in the middle of the Gobi Desert. Unfortunately, the price Spielberg paid for the opportunity to re-cut the film was including an extended special effects sequence after Roy Neary enters the mothership at the end of the film – allowing Columbia’s publicity department a thick peg on which to hang the re-release (“Now, director Steven Spielberg takes you inside the mothership!”). This ‘deal with the devil’ was finally nullified in 1998 when Spielberg released his final cut of the film on what was called a Collector’s Edition, with the removal of the mothership interiors as the only major alteration. It took over a year of Underworlds and Into the Blues before we got to Close Encounters – but it was worth the wait.

The Die Hard Collection (1988-2007)
Though the complete Die Hard series can be purchased in a pricey 4-disc set, Fox has been considerate enough to make each film available individually. The newest struck us as a bland time passer, and the third hasn’t aged all that well, but the second – directed by Renny Harlin, of all people – actually plays much better today than during its original release. The bits of over-the-top violence (of the icicle through the eye variety) now don’t seem so out of place, and I was too young too young in 1990 to appreciate the casting of Franco Nero as a Noriega-like military dictator, future T-1000 Robert Patrick and former Wanderer Tony Ganios as henchmen (not to mention Dennis Franz, John Amos, Tom Bower, and even Fred Thompson!). The snowed-in airport setting makes for a nicely opened up take on the original’s office building setting, while still retaining the ‘single-location’ hook that hadn’t yet become a cliché. But it’s the 1988 original that ought to move most to the Blu-ray camp; a gaspingly brilliant convergence of actors, director, and material, Die Hard set a quality benchmark that has been rarely equaled. Even ignoring Willis’ justly praised performance, co-stars Alan Rickman, Reginald VelJohnson, William Atherton (whose role as a Geraldo Rivera-type news monger fits snugly alongside his turn in Ghostbusters as the apex of 80s priggishness) Bonnie Bedelia, Hart Bochner (is there anyone in the history of cinema you’ve wanted to punch as much as Ellis?), and the late, great Paul Gleason and Alexander Godunov make as formidable a roster as any action movie could ever hope for. Extras are slim, with old commentary tracks being the most notable (each has a director track, with the Die Hard featuring a second partial track with visual effects supervisor Richard Edlund), plus the usual deleted/extended scenes and various EPK-style time soakers.

Hostel & Hostel: Part II (2005-2007)
For a closer look at the films themselves, you can read my comments from last year here. As I’ve already said my piece on these films and the silly controversy around “torture porn”, I wasn’t even going to mention them. But last week’s Ebert & Roper show featured their 10 Worst of 2007 lists, and that got my blood boiling all over again. Guest critic Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune lined up a typical selection – Good Luck Chuck, Wild Hogs, Bratz, etc. – but topping his list as the worst film of 2007 was Hostel part II. Really? Really?? Let’s forget that Transformers, 2007’s worst film by a Minnesota mile, didn’t even crack the list. Once again, Eli Roth’s badly misunderstood picture is marched into the public square to be disemboweled Braveheart-style for the sins of Captivity, Turistas, or one of the dozen other braindead horror features of the last few years that have tried to duplicate Roth’s aesthetic without any of his talent. I’m sure Michael is a decent guy, but did he really find the breakdancing stereotype-bot from Transformers that much more interesting or clever than anything in Hostel part II?

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

2007 - The Tops In HD-DVD

After somewhat ungraciously allowing consumers to purchase HD-DVD hardware and software over this past holiday season, Warner Brothers – formally the chief supporter of HD-DVD – officially announced on January 4th that it would support Blu-ray only beginning in May. Warner’s departure (taking New Line with it) may not officially end the high-def format war, but it certainly sets off the warning bell on the top of HD-DVD’s coffin, leaving only Universal and Paramount to man the lighthouse for a coastline increasingly devoid of ships.

For nearly two years, the existence of two competing HD disc formats have meant that early adopters (read: idiots like yours truly who pay for the privilege of beta testing new electronic gadgetry) have either had to choose sides, missing out on favorite movies released on the format you don’t have, or buy-in to both with the knowledge that at least one will soon be obsolete. Smart folks have ducked the fray entirely, content with the still viable DVD format, but for those who typically reside in the narrow slice of the consumer electronic pie graph, it’s been a wild year for HD discs.

The following are all HD-DVD exclusives – a status that is very susceptible to change

Star Trek: The Original Series – Season 1
Though Paramount definitely earns a finger wag for its policy of hysterically overpricing Star Trek on DVD, the premier season has certainly been well taken care of throughout its various home video incarnations. When preparing the most recent HD masters, Paramount took the opportunity to digitally update nearly all of the special effects and matte work – a decision that would have been far more controversial had it not been done so well, and with such a high regard for the initial aesthetics and intent of the show. The colors are far richer then the previous DVD edition – but more importantly, the new effects have been extraordinarily well integrated (Galileo Seven’s space exteriors make a good selling point to picky purists) Another pointless “combo” disc (double-sided discs featuring the HD version on one side and standard def on the other) that could have been made invaluable by the inclusion of the original, non-tinkered versions on the standard-def side, but instead offer the identical remastered versions on both. However, it’s the image quality that counts, and this set offers transfers that border on luminous. It’s nice to see a studio take such good care of a venerable franchise – even if the costs are passed on to us.

Battlestar Galactica – Season 1
Those of us who rode the rough pre-teen waves during the late 70s and early 80s have a fondness for the original Battlestar Galactica, though one forged out of nostalgia rather than quality. The basic story line was brilliant: a futuristic civilization, referred to as “The 12 Colonies”, is almost entirely wiped out by a race of sentient robot-creatures called Cylons, and the last survivors must form a futuristic wagon train around the only surviving Battlestar in a search for a possibly-mythical 13th Colony – Earth. The initial series had been plagued by effects that were both cheap and endlessly reused, and suffered a borderline childish execution, with cardboard characters and insultingly derivative storylines and lived on only through the haze of childhood innocence. Genre vet Ronald D. Moore took advantage of the unusual apathy that greeted the announcement of the revamped series to really run with the concept; keeping the central characters, but dramatically altering their relationships and backstories (the notion of the Cylons as a rebellious creation of mankind is a masterstroke). It’s rare for a Sci-Fi series to both emphasize character and showcase stunning special effects (BG’s CGI space combat scenes are revelatory) and even rarer still for the Sci-Fi Channel to be associated with any measure of quality programming. Battlestar Galactica may just be television’s greatest addition to the genre. Like the Star Trek HD-DVD set, this was another case of packaging that was too clever for its own good, arriving in a flimsy cardboard fold-out case, emulating the ‘no corners’ motif employed on the show, with each disc secured within an inch of its life on hard rubber nubs. We had all but destroyed disc 1 before figuring out that a clockwise turn with an upward motion is the only way to free them. There has also been a bit of a hullabaloo regarding the transfers, with many prominent review sites declaring that the pricey HD discs were little better than their standard def counterparts. We heartily disagree; both the miniseries (shot on film) and the remainder of the 1st season (shot on HD video) have been given transfers that are perfectly In keeping with the dark, grainy look of the show. Fans should be grateful that Universal hasn’t artificially boosted the brightness or smoothed out the grain; it’s a rough looking show, kids, and the first responsibility of a HD format is to reproduce the photographic intent of the filmmakers as closely as possible.

Hot Fuzz & Shaun of the Dead
2007 and 2004’s funniest films were given sterling HD releases by Universal, giving us not just some of the best HD transfers around, but working closely with the filmmakers they’ve also stuffed both with a selection of extras that you’ll actually watch (though none are in HD, as they were ported from the DVD editions). Shaun of the Dead really came out of nowhere in 2004; Brits were better prepared having seen director/co-writer Edgar Wright, co-writer/star Simon Pegg and co-star Nick Frost previously in the BBC series Spaced, but being a new commodity in the States, Universal didn’t quite know what do to with a film that actually took horror and humor seriously. Obviously a labor of love, it soon picked up legions of fans on home video who shared the filmmakers sensibilities (if the first bit of music gets a smile out of you, you’re in the right place). As good as Shaun was, however, Hot Fuzz, was even better Almost impossible to categorize – calling it a simple action movie spoof unfairly ghettoizes it – Hot Fuzz reunites the artistic team for another genre mash note that loves its subject way too much to ever lapse into parody. Both discs are stuffed beyond reason with deleted scenes/outtakes, weblogs, commentaries, and the like, but Hot Fuzz definitely has the edge on extras. In addition to the four commentary tracks (one featuring real members of Sanford Police Dept) there is a short film made by a teenage Wright while growing up in the real Sanford called Dead Right – which itself features two commentary tracks. This shit just got real.

The Frighteners
In what will probably come to be seen as merely a special effects warm-up effort for Peter Jackson before tackling Lord of the Rings, The Frighteners is actually a razor sharp bridge between the smaller scale gross-outs he built his early reputation on (Dead Alive) and the large-scale Hollywood production pool he is currently swimming in (Lord of the Rings, King Kong). Intended by Universal and producer Robert Zemeckis to be a holiday blockbuster on the order of Ghostbusters (Michael J Fox, whose character can actually communicate with spirits, has them working for him to “haunt” a house and then leave his business card behind) Jackson steered the project into darker waters, losing younger audiences and millions of their parent’s dollars. We think this deserves a place right alongside An American Werewolf in London among the best modern examples of the horror-comedy. Once only available on a pricey Laserdisc box set, his director’s cut is just over 10min longer than the theatrical, allowing the material to breathe without sacrificing the breakneck pacing. Equally important to fans is the inclusion of the nearly 4 1/2hr production documentary, made by Jackson when his first go at King Kong was cancelled by Universal just prior to production, leaving the director with lots of free time. Even full time geekers may find the exhaustive document a bit too much, but that’s a problem that we’re not faced with nearly often enough.

Check back tomorrow for the best of Blu!

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

We Heart Supes

I know, I know, I should be doing some actual “writing” instead of lurking around geek sites. But then I wouldn’t have known to bring you this – the unseen alternate ending of Superman II.

Thanks to Monki at AINC for the link.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Top 10 Television Series DVD Releases of 2007

The following are in no particular order, and you will notice a predisposition for shows of a certain vintage…

The Streets of San Francisco (Season 1, vols. 1 & 2)
In spite of falling in line with the massively irritating practice of splitting seasons into 2 volumes, we were so jazzed to see Streets arrive at all that forgiveness came quickly. Karl Malden and Michael Douglas play perfectly off each other, and the terrific location shooting more than made up for the by-the-numbers Quinn Martin scripts. The DVDs have about as sharp an image as any 35 year old show is likely to have, and the episodes (for the most part) appear to be the original, full length versions.

Hawaii Five-O (Seasons 1 & 2)
The first (and still one of the few) television shows to shoot entirely on location, Hawaii Five-O made a superstar out of Jack Lord, and ignited the still thriving tourist pilgrimage to America’s newest State. The show would suffer in later seasons as Lord continually pushed the supporting cast into the background (none would remain through the show’s final season in 1980) but the early years were flush with solid, well written storylines that touched on every imaginable element of the criminal world from muggings to international espionage. Paramount’s DVD sets feature impeccable transfers that are obviously the result of some pretty expensive digital restoration work, and we hope that the lack of extras changes with future sets, as the behind the scenes stories are rather infamous.

South Park (Seasons 9 & 10)
Defying every conceivable comedy trend, South Park actually gets funnier with each passing season. Season 9 features Trapped in the Closet, Ginger Kids, Marjorine, Die Hippie Die, and Wing. And Season 10 features The Return of Chef, Cartoon Wars, Go, God, Go, and the favorite episode of many a gamer, Make Love, Not Warcraft. There isn’t a more perceptive comedy on television, animated or not. The DVDs features the usual “mini” commentary tracks from creators Matt and Trey that always merit a listen.

Twin Peaks (Complete Series)
With the exception of the episode commentaries from the previous editions, this release turned out to be everything promised – the definitive visual and aural presentation of the series ever released. Co-creator David Lynch worked closely with Paramount, and the attention shows; the newly created supplementals feature candid remembrances from the cast and crew (particularly in regard to the famously weak mid-section of season 2). Another TV winner from Paramount.

The Wild, Wild West (Season 2)
The first season of this groundbreaking series about a pair of Secret Service agents traveling the old west by train was a clever combination of the classic TV oater combined with the then white hot, gadget-stuffed spy-travaganzas of James Bond. While the first season flirted with elements of the fantastic, the second virtually exploded with flying saucers, alternate dimensions, haunted houses, and a megalomaniacal midget who takes losing very personally – all in eye-popping color. Even the weaker scripts were redeemable in the hands of stars Robert Conrad and Ross Martin, who, unlike many of today’s stars actually seem to be enjoying themselves as much as the audience. No extras (Conrad’s audio intros from season 1 are missed) but another 4 star DVD transfer from Paramount.

Mission: Impossible (Seasons 2 & 3)
Perhaps the most densely plotted hour since the end of Playhouse 90, a season of Mission: Impossible really does feel like a box set of 25 short spy films. With very few exceptions, the shows followed a rigid formula under the supervision of producer/writer Bruce Geller, and the lack of continuing story arcs made for a very viewer-friendly experience (missed last weeks show? No problem!). Unlike many other shows of the era, much of the original cast are still with us, and it’s a shame that Paramount isn’t making more of an effort to corral them for interviews, but the more than 4 decade old show looks luminous on the Paramount DVD sets.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (Entire Series)
Where Mission: Impossible concerned itself with the nuts and bolts of spying, UNCLE took the lead of the more escapist Flint and Bond film series. Robert Vaughn and David McCallum starred as “enforcement agents” working for an international group devoted to preserving law and order. It’s amazing to look back on a time when people had so much faith in the United Nations (for which UNCLE was clearly an armed, autonomous stand in) that it embraced the notion that they could send agents all over the world whenever it saw fit! This set (produced by Warner but distributed exclusively through Time Life) features all 4 seasons, beautifully remastered with hours of bonus footage – it’s always great to see McCallum and Vaughn together – encased in a geekgasm worthy briefcase replica.

The Incredible Hulk (Season 2) / The Fugitive (Season 1 Vol. 1)
The debt that Hulk producer Kenneth Johnson owes to The Fugitive had never occurred to me until I watched these sets at around the same time this past year. Today, season-long story arcs are old news, but in 1963 it was a damn near revolutionary. You kids today know The Fugitive’s plot from the Harrison Ford film from ’93 – an affluent doctor falsely accused of the murder of his wife escapes on the way to death row, and goes on the hunt for a one-armed man seen leaving the scene of the crime, always having to stay one step ahead of the police. David Janssen brought an epic world-weariness to Dr. Kimble (his sad eyes and pained expression made him the perfect pitchman for Excedrin in the 70s) and London-born Barry Morse turned the potentially one-note Lt. Gerard into a nuanced, sympathetic character – in spite of the fact that he was out to put the hero back on death row! While the pursuit of Kimble formed the spine of the series, each episode brought him to a new town with a new identity, making it very easy for new viewers to catch up. Each episode appears to be the complete version as originally broadcast, and looks terrific. Sadly, Paramount has again seen fit to split the 1st season into halves (the second is due in Feb) making the cost of a single season well over $60 – and that’s with Amazon’s discount price. Well thought-out supplementals would have helped to put one of America’s most important TV shows in some context, but there are none.

With the exception of a Gamma mutation that turned the hero into a green monster of pure rage, The Incredible Hulk stuck to the Fugitive formula very closely. While experimenting on the human capacity for great strength during times of distress, Dr. David Banner (Bill Bixby, one of television’s most believable intellectuals) ODs on Gamma radiation that transforms Banner into the eponymous creature (former Mr. America, Lou Ferrigno, doused in green body paint that comes off much more often than I had remembered as a child) whenever he’s made angry. Most episodes followed Banner (“Believed to be dead!”) to a small town, often while on his way to another doctor or professor experimenting on aggression control or some such, finding menial work that allows him to hide his identity – all the while being pursued by tabloid reporter Jack McGee (Jack Colvin). The not-so-secret charm of both shows was watching how two extremely intelligent men eek out an existence on the outskirts of society; working for the bare necessities of life (food, shelter, clothing, etc) in menial jobs where any display of intellect brings suspicion. Harassed nerds everywhere found their spirit animals in Banner and Kimble, who constantly find themselves in situations where they must use their considerable brains while pretending outwardly to be plain, simple folk. Though quality control on later Hulk episodes was known to be spotty, the first two seasons are almost uniformly great. Although the “factory” look of Universal television shows of the 70s is something that no DVD transfer can hide, both Hulk seasons look quite good. As for extras, including a full episode from the next season is a nice thought, but anyone who buys one full season of The Incredible Hulk is likely in for the whole ride (I like the second season episode “Stop the Presses” quite a lot, but I don’t need it twice).

Banacek (Season 1)
This lackluster DVD presentation makes it into the top ten only because we never thought that Banacek would ever see the light of digital day! Formerly a two season cog in the Wednesday Mystery Movie wheel on NBC, Banacek brought George Peppard to series television in the title role of a wealthy insurance investigator and proud Pole who works freelance for 10% of the value of the item stolen (diamonds, rocket cars, and even an airliner were just some of the items recovered by Banacek during the course of the series). The role was a perfect fit for Peppard, whose innate smugness meshed perfectly with Thomas Banacek’s confidence. Each episode would famously end with all the suspects gathered at the scene while Banacek breaks the caper down in classic drawing room mystery fashion – television comfort cuisine at its finest. This DVD set, however, is another matter; the pilot episode is MIA and the remaining 8 are rather poorly encoded and look far less sharp than the A&E reruns from the late 90s. Season 2, due Jan 22nd, is said to contain the missing pilot and have several extras, which will be several extras more than season 1.
Next - the HD wrap-up for 2007...