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THE MONEY PIT - 02/10/2006

Posted by Ken in Shopping Guides (February 10, 2006 at 3:17 am)

Can you believe that this mark’s the 200th shopping guide I’ve written? Do you know how tired that makes me feel? Oy, what a blur it’s all been. I’m currently up in New York covering Toy Fair, so be sure to check out all the fun at IGN Comics next week.

It takes a lot for a book to make it onto my “By crikey, this is brilliant!!!” list. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy… Terry Jones’s Chaucer’s NightHuckleberry FinnGreen Eggs and Ham… and The Prydain Chronicles are just a few past honorees. Anyhoo, just such a work of literary brilliance has recently come to my attention – its name is The Areas of My Expertise (Dutton, $22.00 SRP), and its author is John Hodgman, a man of letters (26, to be exact – and he used every last one of them to write this book). Presented in the form of an ersatz almanac, it’s a hilarious journey into the secret Hobo culture (and the list of 700 Hobo names), the American presidents who had hooks for hands, little known facts about the 51 U.S. States, Lycanthropic Transformation Timetables (very important), and much, much more. Hodgman writes in an easily accessible, quite matter-of-fact style about matters most surreal – yet disturbingly plausible. I love this book, and I think you will, too…

Hot on the heels of Batman’s massive success at the box office and the Superman franchise entrenched in its post-IV cooling off period, Warner Bros. was keen to get another superhero franchise off the ground, and they decided it would be a TV project starring the scarlet speedster himself, The Flash. Starring John Wesley Shipp as police crime technologist (think CSI, only even more science-y) Barry Allen, the show only lasted 22 episodes, all of which are contained in the 6-disc The Flash: The Complete Series (Warner Bros., Not Rated, DVD-$59.98 SRP). There are no bonus features to be found, but it’s nice to have one of the better superhero series to hit the tube all in one place after years of nothing but crappy convention bootlegs, and where else do you get to see Mark Hamill cut lose as the maniacally evil Trickster?

I love Shout! Factory. I really, really do. What other company would have gone to bat and given up feature-laden special edition of Freaks & Geeks, Undeclared, Home Movies, and SCTV – show’s the other studios were hesitant to deal with the clearance issue on. But Shout! stepped up to the plate and delivered a boffo release in every case. From a sentimental point of view, though, I’d have to give bonus judos to their latest release – 1 4-disc overview of The Electric Company (Shout! Factory, Not Rated, DVD-$49.98 SRP). Featuring 20 full-length, uncut episodes including the very first outing, it’s a pop culturist’s dream. It’s still amazing to see the original cast – featuring Rita Moreno, Bill Cosby, and Morgan Freeman… oh, and Spider-Man. Best of all, though, this set is clearly aware that adults will be snapping it up, as it features retrospective interviews with Moreno, June Angela (“Julie” in the Short Circus), the creative team, and creator Joan Ganz Cooney. Not only that, but it also contains a gag reel! A gag reel with some decidedly more adult references! I fervently hope we’ll get additional volumes, and that this release also paves the way for Shout! and Sesame Workshop (formerly Children’s Television Workshop) to deliver sets of unedited classic Sesame Street episodes in a similar fashion, full of bonus materials. Come on, people…

It’s certainly no substitute for the interminable wait between seasonal releases (although the recent short gap between the release of seasons 6 & 7 was a welcome change), the 4-episode “theme” discs make the wait at least a little easier. The latest is The Simpsons: Kiss and Tell – The Story of Their Love (Fox, Not Rated, DVD-$14.98 SRP), which features a quartet of Homer & Marge-centric episodes about their relationship – “Natural Born Kissers,” “Large Marge,” “Three Gays of the Condo,” and “The Way We Weren’t.”

It’s certainly a hit, but Peter Jackson’s King Kong certainly wasn’t the 9,000-lb gorilla that most were expecting. Still, there is plenty of fun and fascinating information to be gleaned from the process of bringing the film to the screen, all of which is nicely covered in the aptly-titled The Making of King Kong (Pocket Books, $19.95 SRP). Far more unique, though, is WETA’s faux field guide to the film’s mysterious locale, The World of Kong: A Natural History of Skull Island (Pocket Books, $35.00 SRP). As the title suggests, it uses the extensive design and pre-production art done by the WETA team to present a fictional history of Skull Island’s ecosystem and inhabitants, and is most certainly a offbeat companion volume to the film.

In 1968 Prague, under the oppressive air of communism, surgeon and inveterate womanizer Tomas (Daniel Day-Lewis) is completely oblivious to the political storm around him, intent instead on pursuing pleasure and a “lightness of being.” With The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Warner Bros., Rated R, DVD-$26.98 SRP), director/screenwriter Phillip Kaufman does a wonderful job adapting Milan Kundera’s novel – and Roger Ebert wasn’t kidding when he compared its eroticism to Last Tango In Paris. The 2-disc special edition features an audio commentary, an in-depth making-of documentary, and the theatrical trailer.

I was shocked to discover that the 2-disc special edition of Ryan’s Daughter (Warner Bros., Rated R, DVD-$26.98 SRP) was the first time David Lean’s epic story of adultery and treason had made it to DVD. While not as well-known as Bridge on the River Kwai or Lawrence of Arabia, it’s still a powerful – and visually impressive – tale worth picking up. The 2-disc special edition features an audio commentary (with over a dozen contributors), a 3-part making-of documentary, two vintage documentaries, and a pair of theatrical trailers.

Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom) is a top-flight tennis shoe designer whose revolutionary new shoe – years in the making – is a complete flop… to the tune over almost a billion dollars in development and production costs. Suffice to say, his downfall is swift – but not so swift that that the news has hit the press yet. Unfortunately, he returns to his apartment to an urgent call from his family – his father has died, and he has to fly back to his father’s hometown of Elizabethtown, Kentucky for the memorial. Depressed and listless, he encounters a vivacious young stewardess on the flight out (Kirsten Dunst) and a family completely alien to him. Now, before I say what I’m about to say, let me make it clear that I do love Cameron Crowe. In fact, I had a decidedly powerful reaction to Almost Famous. And then came Vanilla Sky… and I hated it. There was no wit, so magic, no interest – it was, to say the least, a disappointment. Therefore, I really wanted to like Elizabethtown (Paramount, Rated PG-13, DVD-$29.95 SRP)… and I didn’t. It’s almost as if Crowe has made a cliché of a “Cameron Crowe Film” – there’s a heavy dependence on music, a heavy “awwww” saccharine content, plenty of daddy issues… It’s all there, cranked up to 11. Saddest of all, Bloom is a cipher as Baylor – a young man cut adrift without an emotional investment in anything – but Bloom plays him like an actor without a hook. Is it wretched? No. It is disappointing? Yes. Bonus features include extended scenes, behind-the-scenes featurettes, a photo gallery, and trailers.

I was first introduced to the infectious sound of Los Lobos when they recreated the hits of Ritchie Valens for the film La Bamba, and instantly fell in love with their sound. Those La Bamba tracks and over a dozen more Lobos originals are featured on their very first greatest hits compilation, Wolf Tracks (Rhino, $18.98 SRP)

Certainly, there’s an undeniable low-rent charm to low-budget horror flicks like Demon Hunter (Anchor Bay, Not Rated, DVD-$14.98 SRP), which stars Sean Patrick Flannery as a bargain-basement John Constantine up against a Satan intent on impregnating LA’s prostitute population. I kid you not. The DVD features an audio commentary, behind-the-scenes featurettes, and a trailer.

Squad 51 and Rampart Hospital are back just in time to treat California’s endlessly sick, dying, and accident-prone citizens in the second season of Emergency! (Universal, Not Rated, DVD-$39.98 SRP). The 3-disc (sadly double-sided) set features all 21 episodes, plus guest shots from John Travolta and Dick Van Patten.

There’s no rhyme or reason to the release schedule, but I assume that eventually we’ll get the entire Survivor run. The latest full-season set is the show’s seventh, which found its cast of money-desperate castaways toughing it out in the Pearl Islands (Paramount, Not Rated, DVD-$49.99 SRP). The 5-disc set contains all eps (including the finale and reunion), 5 episodes worth of cast commentaries, and a pair of featurettes featuring interviews and behind-the-scenes footage.

With all the attention garnered by the big screen look at Truman Capote, it’s no surprise that Paramount dipped into the vault and pulled out a special edition re-release of the classic adaptation of Capote’s novel Breakfast at Tiffany’s (Paramount, Not Rated, DVD-$19.99 SRP) starring Audrey Hepburn in the role that made her a legend, and helped the massive hat industry immensely. The new special edition features a commentary from producer Richard Shepherd, a making-of featurette, a look at Audrey’s sartorial sense, and more.

For the longest time, Grounded for Life was the little sitcom that could – a perfectly enjoyable family sitcom featuring Donal Logue and Megyn Price as the early-30’s, party-loving parents of a trio of headstrong teens, it survived multiple networks and multiple seasons with the axe always on the verge of falling. If only for the extremely likeable Logue, the 4-disc complete first season (Anchor Bay, Not Rated, DVD-$39.98 SRP) is worth checking out. Bonus features include cast & creator interviews, audio commentaries, and bloopers.

If you’re a Sex and the City fan who can’t afford the still-costly season sets, or the recently released compendium – or maybe you just want to sample the series – there’s now a quartet of themed releases dubbed Sex and the City Essentials (HBO, Not Rated, DVD-$14.98 SRP each). The themes in question are “Mr. Big,” “Lust,” “Breakups,” and “Romance,” and features 3 episodes apiece… and absolutely no bonus features.

What’s all is new again, and the resurgence of punk-flavored anti-bubblegum is on the rise, slapping the Britneys, Justins, and Christinas upside the head. Case in point is the beautifully-named Morningwood (Capitol, $12.98 SRP), whose eponymous debut album is just such a biting breath of fresh air.

You know, watching episodes of Growing Pains via the new first season set (Warner Bros., Not Rated, DVD-$29.98 SRP), I now realize just how poorly it compares to its nearest family sitcom competition at the time, Family Ties. Maybe it’s the presence of the life-sucking Kirk Cameron, but there’s just nothing to spark to in Pains… Except for Alan Thicke. Just for penning the theme tunes to Diff’rent Strokes and The Facts of Life, the man deserves a pop culture medal. The 4-disc set features the original pilot (with unaired scenes and different casting for Carol), the cast reunion, and a gag reel.


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