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THE MONEY PIT - 03/10/2006

Posted by Ken in Shopping Guides (March 10, 2006 at 12:46 am)

Before we dive into this week’s guide (and I begin the always painful process of packing for a trip), I wanted to let you all know that my good buddies over at TV Shows on DVD” are hosting a poll allowing fans to choose the box art for the long-awaited release of The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. on DVD. Click here to head over and vote.

Also, on a programming note, check out the new comedy special from Carlos Mencia, No Strings Attached, premiering this weekend on Comedy Central (Sunday, March 12 at 10:00pm, to be exact). I really dug Mind of Mencia, and his stand-up is caustic, un-PC tonic that’s truly refreshing – and funny – in this day and age.

I wasn’t a terribly big fan of the incredible amount of story compression that went into the 3rd Harry Potter adaptation, The Prisoner of Azkaban – it just seemed like I was strapped to a bullet train that wasn’t even bothering to stop long enough at important story points to attain comprehension. Oddly enough, I actually thought the compression on the much more sprawling Goblet of Fire (Warner Bros., Rated PG-13, DVD-$30.98 SRP) worked a lot better, and left me feeling much more satisfied with the end result. Harry’s fifth year was a big affair, containing the budding romances for all of our heroes, the return of Voldemort and the Deatheaters, and the massive TriWizard Tournament. Like I said – there was a lot going on… Yet, somehow, screenwriter Steve Kloves and director Mike Newell make it work, along with the ever-strengthening acting skills of the kids. There are both a single disk vanilla and 2-disc versions available – but who in the heck wants the single disc? The 2-disc edition features cast interviews, deleted scenes, a behind-the-scenes featurette, and an in-depth look at the TriWizard challenges.

To view the design work of Chip Kidd – which has graced both the covers and interiors of many fine books from dozens of authors on just as many different topics and genres – is to witness a unique artist practicing a craft wholly unique from the surrounding pack. If you doubt that high-falutin’ assessment, look no further than the collected work found in Chip Kidd: Book One (Rizzoli, $65.00 SRP), covering the astonishingly productive period between 1986 2006 – a period during which Kidd worked on everything from John Updike to Superman. Speaking of Updike, he’s crafted the massive tome’s introduction, heaping loving praise upon Kidd’s achievements. Heck, when you’ve become a Jeopardy question, you know you’ve accomplished something – and Kidd has certainly accomplished quite a bit.

Why did people flock to mediocre garbage like Chicken Little and ignore a gem like Zathura (Sony, Rated PG, DVD-$28.95 SRP)? Based on another boardgame-centric children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg (What is with him and board games? Someone’s got some issues…), it’s the first film in a long, long time that reminded me of the flicks that enraptured me during my 80’s youth – flicks like The Goonies, Explorers, The Neverending Story, and The Last Starfighter. Much like Jumanji, it features a pair of completely unprepared kids – this time it’s bickering brothers – who are swept up into the space adventure of the antique gears and motors board game Zathura that the youngest sibling stumbles across in the basement of their new home (occupied by their recently divorced, over-stressed and somewhat distant Dad, played by Tim Robbins). What follows is a rollicking, dangerous, and action filled journey through the cosmos – and they never even leave the house. Unlike Jumanji, though, the warmth of the main story – that of two brothers finally able to see eye to eye – is never drown out by CG or Robin Williams. Kudos to director Jon Favreau for pulling off a great film, and one I hope gets a much-deserved life on home video. Bonus features include an audio commentary with Favreau and producer Peter Billingsly, behind-the-scenes featurettes, and a spotlight on the world of Chris Van Allsburg…. But again, buy the guy “Chutes & Ladders” already.

The press likes to claim that the Priceline ads were the reason for William Shatner’s most recent cultural comeback, but Shatner would not have gotten those legendary ads if not for a beautiful little comedy gem called Free Enterprise (Anchor Bay, Not Rated, DVD-$19.98 SRP), about a pair of geeks (Eric McCormack & Rafer Weigel) in pursuit of love in sunny LA – who just so happen to encounter their childhood hero… Who’s nothing like they expect him to be. Full of pop culture wit and – what makes it all work – real heart, I’m glad the flick is finally getting a bonafide deluxe treatment on DVD, with a 2-disc special edition featuring remastered sound and picture, audio commentaries from filmmakers Mark Altman & Robert Meyer Burnett and the cast (yes – even Shatner), a making-of documentary, deleted scenes, screen tests. The music video for Shatner’s rap opus “No Tears For Caesar,” a TV spot, and the theatrical trailer.

In the annals of war flicks, Jarhead (Universal, Rated R, DVD-$39.98 SRP) is a unique case. It’s got all of the elements – gung ho soldiers ready to utilize their training to fight for their country in a foreign land. Only it’s about a war that was over practically before it started, after months of build-up, leaving those highly trained soldiers not just stir crazy, but completely unfulfilled. This particular tale follows Marine Corps sniper Anthony Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) from his stint in boot camp to the deserts of Kuwait and Iraq during the first Gulf War, and all of the uncertainty and lack of clarity inherent in that conflict for those on the ground. It’s a sobering look at modern warfare and the highly trained cogs in the war machine. Ignore the single disc editions and go with the 2-disc special edition, featuring deleted scenes, interviews, Jarhead diaries, and behind-the-scenes documentaries.

Much like the spin-off “Best-of” collections that came out of the Rocky & Bullwinkle sets for features like Fractured Fairy Tales and Dudley Do-Right, a pair of recurring classics from the Underdog show get their own Best-ofs – Go-Go Gophers and Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tails (Classic Media, Not Rated, DVD-$12.98 SRP each).

Coming so close on its heels, it’s hard not to compare the Johnny cash biopic Walk the Line (Fox, Rated PG-13, DVD-$39.99 SRP) with the story of Ray Charles in Ray. Both men had hardscrabble depression-era childhoods, both men were scarred by the deaths of their brothers while they were kids, both suffered from a lust for women and substance abuse – but most importantly, both found refuge in music, and eventually gained international stardom while facing down their demons. Walk the Line – again, like Ray – is held together by a remarkable performance, with the Man in Black being brought to silver screen life by Joaquin Phoenix. Just as vital to the story, though, is Reese Witherspoon as the eventual rock in Cash’s life, his wife June Carter. As always, stick with the 2-disc collector’s edition (rather than the single disc affair), which features an audio commentary with director/co-writer James Mangold, deleted scenes with optional commentary, a trio of extended music sequences, an extensive making-of/tribute to Cash, a featurette on the Folsom Prison concert, a featurette on Johnny and June’s love affair, and the film’s theatrical trailer.

I’ve praised them in the past, but in an age where shrinking shelf space in bricks & mortar stores has left little room for catalogue releases from most artists, Universal Music’s 2-disc “Gold” collections are ready-made primers for anyone unfamiliar with an artist’s work – and even manage to throw a couple of rarities (including live, alternate, and demo tracks) that make them worth picking up for even the diehard fans. The latest artist-specific releases feature Loretta Lynn and the Righteous Brothers, while there’s also a pair of genre collections spotlighting the 70’s and Love Songs (UMe, $19.98 SRP each). Similar to the “Gold” line is the “Definitive” collection, which condenses a given artist down to a single disc of must-have material at a lower price point – sort of a desert island disc. The latest addition is from Satchmo himself, Louis Armstrong: Definitive Collection (UMe, $13.98 SRP). “And I think to myself, what a wonderful world…”

Consider this another one of my gong-banging exhortations to buy the latest issues of Uncle Scrooge and Walt Disney’s Comics & Stories (Gemstone, $6.95 SRP each) – the latest issues of which are 351 & 666, respectively – featuring some great stories (and even one or two by the master, Carl Barks.

For some, Japanese cinema begins and ends with Kurosawa, but a newly-released box set celebrates a trio of films from a forgotten maverick, Seijun Suzuki. Reinventing his 60’s penchant for yakuza psychedelia, his Taisho Trilogy (Kino, Not Rated, DVD-$79.95 SRP) were set in a 1920’s Japan being remade by modernity and on the cusp of the militarist 30’s. This 3-disc set features all three films – Zigeunerweisen, Kagero-za, and Yumeji – plus an interview with Suzuki, trailers, and essays.

I’m still on the fence about themed episode collections like the new Star Trek Fan Collective series, the first of which focuses on the Borg (Paramount, Not Rated, DVD-$39.95 SRP). With 14 episodes spanning 4 discs and 3 series (TNG, Voyager, and Enterprise), owners of the previous season sets of each series will be a bit miffed that this set features a new audio commentary on the Enterprise episode “Regeneration” and Okuda text commentaries on another 3 episodes. Why weren’t these included in the season sets?

Along with a 2-disc special edition release of Miyazaki’s Academy Award-nominated Howl’s Moving Castle (Walt Disney, Rated PG, DVD-$29.99 SRP), we get another pair of must-have Studio Ghibli classics, My Neighbor Totoro and Whisper of the Heart (Walt Disney, Rated PG, DVD-$29.99 SRP each). Each 2-disc set features behind-the scenes featurettes, while Howl’s and Totoro also contain trailers, storyboards, and more (with Howl’s getting a wonderful interview with Pixar’s Pete Docter).

With all of the animation books out there, you’d think that at least one would have been written about the art of character design. Well, you’d be wrong. Sure, there have been chapters in many a volume devoted to it, but none that have taken that alchemical art as the main focus – until Tom Bancroft’s Creating Characters With Personality (Watson-Guptill, $19.95 SRP). Bancroft, a former Disney animator and creator of the gorgeous you-should-be-reading-this comic book Opposite Forces, expertly distills the process of unlocking appealing designs in diverse styles, depending on the project at hand. It’s an excellent foundation on which to build a solid knowledge about the process, and a necessary addition to any art library.

A few years back, Fox tried marketing their 2-disc editions of catalogue classics under the banner of “5 Star” editions. Long out of print, the titles were eventually re-released as single-disc editions – which was unfortunate, since the bonus materials on those second discs were often exceptional in-depth documentaries and interviews. Thankfully, Fox is bringing back those 2-disc editions, packaged in gold foil slipcases, as their new “Awards Series.” The films in question are Cleopatra, Speed, The French Connection, and M*A*S*H (Fox, $19.98 SRP each).

If you like your rock southern fried, and you think “Free Bird” is one of the greatest rock anthems ever penned, then you’ll probably want to pick up the 2-disc Deluxe Edition of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Gimme Back My Bullets (Geffen, $29.98 SRP). The first disc features the album, completely remastered and sounding better than ever, while disc 2 features the group’s live appearance on the BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test. Keeping it in the family is just what Lynyrd Skynyrd Family (Hip-O, $13.98 SRP) does, featuring both Skynyrd hits and tracks from the various spin-off bands formed by the former members after the band broke up.

Still flush from women’s lib, the 70’s were literally flooded with series starring powerful female characters – Maude, Charlie’s Angels, Wonder Woman, Alice, and Angie Dickinson in Police Woman (Sony, Not Rated, DVD-$49.95 SRP). As Sergeant Suzanne “Pepper” Anderson, Dickinson starred as the LAPD’s top undercover cop, backed up by a bevy of guest stars – from Larry Hagman and Pat Morita to Bob Crane and Philip Michael Thomas. The 5-disc complete first season features audio commentaries form Dickinson on select episodes.

By the time Hogan’s Heroes hit the halfway point of its 6 season run in season 3 (Paramount, Not Rated, DVD-$38.99 SRP), the formula was completely locked – Hogan and his motley crew subvert the authority of prison camp commandant Col. Klink through farcical hilarity. It’s a solid TV classic in the same mode as Gilligan’s Island or Green Acres, and if that’s good enough for you, then this set is worth adding to your collection. Personally? I dig it.

Every time you looked around, it seemed like there was another celebrity starring in another TV movie series in the 80’s – and one of the most viewed was the series of telefilms based on Kenny Rogers’ song “The Gambler.” All three of those initial telefilms (The Gambler, The Adventure Continues, & The Legend Continues) starring the bearded one himself are collected in The Legend of the Gambler (Time Life, Not Rated, DVD-$39.95 SRP). Heck, you even get a limited edition set of Kenny Rogers playing cards… So you better know when to hold ‘em, and know when to fold ‘em…

On the eve of the hideous Tim Allen-starring remake of Disney’s The Shaggy D.A., thank the gods of cursed human-to-canine transforming jewelry that we at least get remastered special editions of the original Dean Jones Shaggy D.A. and its Tommy Kirk-starring predecessor, The Shaggy Dog (Walt Disney, Rated G, DVD-$19.99 SRP each). Both films sport audio commentaries and featurettes, with the original Dog sporting a touching tribute to the late Disney staple Fred MacMurray).

Next Friday is St. Patrick’s Day, so why not start getting a bit o’ the Irish into your entertainment rotation early, starting with The Essential Chieftains (RCA Victor, $24.98 SRP), with 2-discs spanning 40 years as Ireland’s musical ambassadors, featuring both traditional tunes and their star-studded collaborations. If you’d just like a 2-disc set that will make your St. Paddy’s even more traditional, pick up Whiskey in the Jar: Essential Irish Drinking Songs & Sing Alongs (Sony Legacy, $19.98 SRP) – and yes, “Danny Boy” is there. Finally, what’s an Irish celebration without a concert film from the Irish Osmonds – The Corrs: Live in Geneva (Rhino, Not Rated, DVD-$19.98 SRP).

If you want a quick and easy visual clue to identify the fifth and final season of The Brady Bunch (Paramount, Not Rated, DVD-$38.99 SRP), look no further than the ludicrously uniform perms that all of the show’s menfolk took to sporting. It’s almost like they all caught the hair version of a cold. Not only did these 22 episodes give us the musical stylings of Johnny Bravo, but also the utterly forgettable jumping the shark of Cousin Oliver.

It’s not the worst, but I can’t help but cry out “inappropriate touching” when I view a touchy-feely fuzzfest like Curtis Hanson’s In Her Shoes (Fox, Rated PG-13, DVD-$29.99 SRP). Like oil and water, flaky Maggie (Cameron Diaz) and dependable sister Rose (Toni Collette) who share a lot, bicker a lot, and eventually fall out – only to be brought back together on a quest for a recently discovered long lost grandmother (the teary-flick touchstone Shirley MacLaine). Bonus features include a trio of behind-the-scenes featurettes.

Based on the exploits of NYPD detective Barney Ruditsky in the roaring 20’s, The Lawless Years (Timeless Media Group, Not Rated, DVD-$39.95 SRP) was a 1959-1961 TV series that recreated those exploits long before shows like Law & Order. This 3-disc set contains all 27 first season episodes, guest-starring up-and-coming actors like Burt Reynolds and Martin Landau.

How many people actually remember there was a short-lived TV show based on the true life fight of small-town sheriff Buford Pusser, starring Bo Svenson is the role made immortal by Joe Don Baker? If you don’t remember, then you might want to pick up the 2-disc collection of the complete Walking Tall (Sony, Not Rated, DVD-$24.96 SRP), containing all 7 episodes.

If The Producers has gotten you thinking about the surprisingly interesting tales of Hollywood musicals gone horribly wrong, then you’ll get a real kick out of Second Act Trouble: Behind the Scenes at Broadway’s Big Musical Bombs (Applause, $27.95 SRP). As the title suggests, it’s a journey through all of the times shows on the Great White Way went so very wrong.

Why didn’t Lisa Loeb ever take off beyond her hit Reality Bites hit “Stay”? Listening to the 18 tracks found on The Very Best of Lisa Loeb (Geffen, $13.98 SRP), I found myself wondering that again and again as I dug what I was hearing. Why don’t you giver her a spin and see for yourself…

Paper Clips (Hart Sharp, Not Rated, DVD-$24.99 SRP) is the interesting story of a middle school class in Tennessee whose study of the Holocaust resulted in a project that brought home the horrible nature of the Nazi’s crime in a unique fashion – via paper clips. Invented as a means of showing anti-Nazi solidarity by the Norwegians, paper clips were collected as a means of quantifying the horrific death toll inflicted by the Holocaust – and once word of the project spread across the world, the tiny fasteners flowed in – eventually totaling 11 million, all of which were then housed in an authentic German rail car and made a permanent memorial to a dark chapter of modern history. The only thing marring this poignant documentary is the wretched “PTC Seal of Approval” that adorns the DVD’s cover – but don’t hold that against the film.

If you’re in the mood for a piece of harmless romantic comedy confection, there are worse flicks than Prime (Universal, Rated PG-13, DVD-$29.98 SRP), which stars Uma Thurman as a 37 year-old single woman who falls for a 23 year-old painter… Who happens to be the son of her therapist (Meryl Streep). Romantic comedy ensues. Bonus features include deleted scenes and bloopers.

Comments: None

THE MONEY PIT - 03/03/2006

Posted by Ken in Shopping Guides (March 3, 2006 at 12:44 am)

No gibber-jabber this week… let’s get this convoy rolling on down the road so I can get the heck out of Dodge for the weekend… Happy Oscar Weekend… or something…

If I were pressed to choose my favorite sitcom of all time, the answer I’d have to give is Newsradio. I still think it remains one of the finest written and acted ensemble comedies to ever hit the tube, and I can only hope that the DVD releases cement its classic status. Out of the show’s 5 seasons (the last of which was after the untimely death of Phil Hartman), I can’t name a single bad episode – in fact, event he weakest outings still topped the majority of its competitors. What can I say? I love the show. The third season (Sony, Not Rated, DVD-$39.95 SRP) was a banner year, featuring Bill McNeal’s massage chair, the fever dream episode (in which a faulty AC inspires hallucinations), Jimmy James’s run for president, Rocket Fuel Malt Liquor, the Halloween party, and the space finale (in which the show had an “imaginary” what if episode, wherein WNYX was turned into a space-bound news station in the distant future). The 3-disc set features 9 commentaries (with cast and crew), behind-the-scenes footage with optional commentary, and a great gag reel. Bring on the final two seasons!

No matter what happens at the Oscars this weekend, the only film deserving of the Best Animated Feature award last year was, hands-down, Aardman’s big screen adventure of a cheese-loving adventure and his much cleverer canine companion, Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (Dreamworks, Rated G, DVD-$29.99 SRP). I love the fact that, in the age of CG, the greater achievement comes from a hand-crafted feature that – like Pixar – realizes character and story are more important than the animation methods employed… And Wallace & Gromit was simply one of the funniest films I saw last year. Bonus materials include deleted scenes with optional commentary, a behind-the-scenes featurette, and the Aardman short film Stagefright.

Midnight Cowboy (MGM/UA, Rated R, DVD-$29.95 SRP) is one of those classic films that have cried out to be treated right on DVD, in a fittingly reverent deluxe special edition featuring behind-the-scenes material and – most of all – a fully restored print. Thankfully, that has come to pass with the new 2-disc edition of John Schlesinger’s controversial Academy Award-winning flick about the unlikely bond between the endearingly naïve Joe Buck (Jon Voight) and the consummate New York outcast Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman). The movie also gave us the Fred Neil tune immortalized by the late Harry Nilsson, “Everybody’s Talkin’” – a true gem in film history. The 2-disc set features an audio commentary from producer Jerome Hellman, a retrospective documentary, a documentary on the film’s controversial X rating and its success in spite of it, and a featurette on John Schlesinger.

I really don’t need to tell you how much of a page-turner the 350 international and domestic versions collected in the Star Wars Poster Book (Chronicle Books, $50.00 SRP) are to a guy who grew up with the Star Wars trilogy (yes – it remains a trilogy to me… deal with it). Culled from the massive collection of LucasFilm ubergeek Steve Sansweet, there are posters in here that range from the beautiful to the truly ludicrous. And even though I detest the prequels, there are still some quite nice poster images that were done for them. I would love if a companion volume for Indiana Jones were contemplated.

The next Disney Platinum DVD release has come down the pike, and this time it’s the film that gave us the most evil Siamese cats ever, Lady & The Tramp (Walt Disney, Rated G, DVD-$29.99 SRP). Beautifully restored and looking and sounding much better than the original, long out-of-print DVD release from a few years back, this is definitely the edition of the film to own. I only wish the 2-disc special edition would stick to the rarities – like deleted scenes a making-of, and the original 1943 storyboard version of the film – than the crap games and trivia that pull these affairs down to their crassest level.

As I mentioned in my original review, Dream On Silly Dreamer (WestLund Productions, Not Rated, DVD-$20.00 SRP) is a poignant documentary featuring interviews with former Disney animation artists – some of whom were present at the closing of Disney’s Burbank facility, only to be shunted over to Florida and fired for good a short time later – who paint a portrait of an artform whose vitality remains, but is currently without a home. It can’t help but come off as a polemic against Disney management, even though it is not overtly so, by the very nature of the story it tells – that of a studio too blind, or unwilling, to see the reasons behind traditional animation’s recent lack of box office success (too many managerial cooks in the kitchen). The DVD release of the film just happens to be on the cusp of a potential revival or Disney’s 2-D division – ironically enough from the 3-D mavens at Pixar and John Lasseter in particular, who has inherited the role once occupied by Uncle Walt himself. The DVD features additional footage, animation tests, radio interviews, departmental goodbyes, and much more. Here’s hoping the golden age has returned and these people get back to doing what they love…

One of the most heartbreaking things about the absolutely brilliant Good Omens (William Morrow, $29.95 SRP) is that Terry Gilliam’s film adaptation of the Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett novel never got off the ground. Why? Because as soon as I read it, I could instantly visualize the story of hell’s and heaven’s representatives on Earth, who are caught completely flat-footed after centuries of “going native” when the Antichrist is born and the call to arms is issued. After years of being available solely as a tiny paperback, it’s getting the hardcover treatment again, featuring an interchangeable cover, a new foreword, FAQ’s, an interview of Pratchett by Gaiman, and a Gaiman interview by Pratchett. If you’ve never read this book, you must.

Not merely another retread collection of classic Python bits, the Personal Best series (A&E, Not Rated, DVD-$19.95 SRP each) presents the favorite sketches of each of the Pythons, personally chosen by the legends in question. What makes the series hard to dismiss is the new material the each of the Python’s have provided for their discs, with the latest batch spotlighting John Cleese, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam, and the late Graham Chapman (with Cleese’s sporting a hilarious “behind-the-scenes” featurette as well).

You know, some days are just really bad days to rob a bank. Just ask Sonny and Sal (Al Pacino & John Cazale), a pair of New York nobodies decide to go for broke at a Brooklyn bank on a sweltering summer day. What started out as an little old-fashioned robbery turns into a media circus and a public attraction in Dog Day Afternoon (Warner Bros., Rated R, DVD-$26.98 SRP), one of the true classics of the 70’s, which is just as funny and thrilling 30 years later. The 2-disc special edition features an audio commentary with director Sidney Lumet, a 4-part making-of documentary (including an exploration of the real-life inspiration), a vintage featurette on Lumet, and the theatrical trailer. The film is also available alongside All The President’s Men and Network in the second volume of Warners Controversial Classics collection (Warner Bros., $59.98 SRP).

When you think about, even though it sometimes seems like there’s a new DVD released just about every second, there’s still a staggering amount of rare material that has yet to make it to disc. Case in point are a pair of releases that are such a pleasant “must-have” surprise that it makes you hope more are on the way. The discs in question are a collection of short films from the late humorist Robert Benchley titled, appropriately enough, Robert Benchley and the Knights of the Algonquin (Kino, Not Rated, DVD-$29.95 SRP) and an amazing collection of shorts under the title Cavalcade of Comedy (Kino, Not Rated, DVD-$29.95 SRP). The latter title in particular is a fun discovery, featuring early Paramount comedy shorts starring young comedians like Jack Benny, Milton Berle, George Burns & Gracie Allen, Eddie Cantor, and more. Please, Kino, release more!

Just when I was beginning to lose faith in one of my favorite comedy directors, Harold Ramis, he goes and surprises me with the pitch-perfect The Ice Harvest (Universal, Rated R, DVD-$29.98 SRP). Starring John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton as a pair of n’er do wells that steal a load of cash from a mob boss – and then run into an ever-increasing string of predicaments and betrayals – it’s an endearingly Coen-esque affair. Bonus materials include an audio commentary with Ramis, alternate endings, behind-the-scenes featurettes, a scene analysis, and a Billy Bob outtake.

The first CD I ever purchased, sometime in the late 80’s, was the soundtrack to Ghostbusters – my favorite flick growing up. I remember showing off my new prize to all my cassette-owning friends. As such, it’s remained a sentimental favorite of mine, so I was quite happy to learn that it would finally be getting the remastered treatment (Arista/Sony Legacy, $13.98 SRP). The new sound quality is an immense improvement, and they even put a pair of bonus tracks in there as well – “Disco Inferno” and the 12” remix of Ray Parker’s title track.

Also getting the remastered treatment is the soundtrack to Rocky IV (Volcano/Sony Legacy, $11.98 SRP). This was the Rocky vs. Russia flick that gave us Survivor’s anthemic “Eye of the Tiger” and James Brown’s “Living in America.”

Before romantic comedies developed a bad name in the 90’s, the unassuming flick that launched a thousand clichés was Four Weddings and a Funeral (MGM/UA, Rated R, DVD-$19.94 SRP) – the romedy (and Mr. IGN Proofreader – don’t touch my incredibly brilliant combination of “romantic comedy,” okay?) that gave the world the ultra-foppish Hugh Grant. After years as a bare-bones disc, the film finally gets the special edition treatment with an audio commentary, behind-the-scenes featurettes, a retrospective documentary, and deleted scenes.

Re-watching the 27 episodes comprising the complete 3rd season of Third Rock from the Sun (Anchor Bay, Not Rated, DVD-$39.98 SRP), I can’’ help but marvel at what an amazingly fun show it was at its height – which it most certainly was during this season, which included guest stars John Cleese and Roseanne. The 4-disc box set features audio commentaries a profile on French Stewart, interviews, TV spots, and a gag reel.

Admittedly, it’s not the season sets I was hoping for, but it was nice to sit down with 6 episodes of The Drew Carey Show and an additional 6 episodes of Night Court (which did receive a 1st season set) as part of Warners’ TV Favorites sampler line (Warner Bros., Not Rated, DVD-$9.98 SRP each). Here’s hoping those season sets are on their way in the very near future.

In the pantheon of artists whose work elevated the desirability of any project I found them to be gracing, Arthur Adams ranks right up there with the likes of Byrne, Mignola, Perez, and Buscema. Kudos to the fan-friendly folks at Twomorrows for choosing Adams as part of their ongoing Modern Masters series of artist spotlights (Twomorrows, $19.00 SRP), featuring tons of rare artwork and an in-depth interview. Even better, their next volume is on my favorite comic artist, John Byrne. Can we get a Walt Simonson volume soon?

I honesty think that A&E is trying to bankrupt people. How else can you explain the uber-release of – wait for it – The Complete Emma Peel Megaset Collector’s Edition of The Avengers (A&E, Not Rated, DVD-$179.95 SRP). Spanning 16 discs, it features every single episode of the classic Brit-adventure series starring Diana Rigg as the beauteous Peel, of the ultra-tight cat suits. That’s 51 remastered and completely uncut episodes, all in one heavy brick. Also available exclusive to the set is a bonus 17th disc, featuring a trio of “lost” episodes from The Avengers’ first season, a wonderfully in-depth documentary on the series originally produced in the UK and never-before-seen in the US, an excerpt from the rare promotional short “The Strange Case of the Missing Corpse,” an alternate US opening sequence, and an Avengers ‘77 episode featuring a Peel cameo. They really do want to bankrupt people… Damn them and their amazing set!

In the annals of Disney’s abysmal track record of direct-to-video train wrecks, Bambi II (Walt Disney, Rated G, DVD-$29.99 SRP) stands out as a pleasant surprise, featuring remarkably solid animation (thanks in large part to the presence of Andreas Deja, who treated the project as a creative lifeboat as Disney dismantled traditional animation) and a story that doesn’t automatically make me reach for the remote, as Bambi reunites with his father and learns the ways of the forest. Bonus materials include a behind-the-scenes featurette and a fun little “How to Draw Thumper” featurette with Deja.

Once known for their often stuffy, utterly faithful literary adaptations, the BBC has finally discovered the 20th century with their fast-paced, gripping adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House (BBC, Not Rated, DVD-$39.98 SRP). With a cast that includes Gillian Anderson, Charles Dance, and Johnny Vegas (if you’re a Brit, you know why I laugh as I type that) it’s a classic tale of love and murder given a fresh coat of paint.

If you were to take the addictively offbeat sensibility and personality of Mythbusters and apply it to a show that visits the oddest locations in America, you’d have the History Channel’s Weird U.S. (History Channel, Not Rated, DVD-$19.95 SRP each). Hosted by Mark Sceurman and Mark Moran, it’s a spirited trip across the continent, encountering the stories of the Emperor of the United States, hollow-earth cults, creepy graveyards, a dead-talking town, and more. I only wish they had released a full season set instead of these 3 individual volumes.

As I said when the flick was originally released to DVD, I found myself really getting a kick out of Jennifer Garner’s much-cleverer take on the kid-to-adult genre made popular in the late 80’s (Big, Vice Versa, etc.). 13 Going on 30 was a real hoot, and the new Fun & Flirty Edition (Sony, Rated PG-13, DVD-$19.94 SRP) pluses the bonus features found on the original disc (deleted/extended scenes, blooper reel, cast interviews, and behind-the-scenes featurettes) with both an alternate beginning and ending and a featurette on the 1980’s fashions.

Rather than make fans wait for multiple volumes, aficionados of those more than meets the eye robots can snag the entire series of Transformers: Beast Machines (Rhino, Not Rated, DVD-$59.95 SRP) via a 4-disc set containing all 26 episodes. Awakening on Cybertron after their defeat of the evil Megatron, the Maximals find themselves confronted with radically reformatted bodies and facing the return of an even more powerful Megatron, who now rules Cybertron. Bonus features include interviews (with series developer Marv Wolfman, voice artist David Kaye, voice director Susan Blu, and story editor Robert Skir) and audio commentaries.

I don’t know if the world really needed yet another adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice (Universal, Rated PG, DVD-$29.98 SRP), but if you have to have one, it doesn’t hurt to have Keira Knightley as reluctant Darcy-devotee Elizabeth Bennett. Bonus features include an audio commentary from director Joe Wright, behind-the-scenes featurettes, and the HBO first look special.

Alyssa Milano worked a little bit of her own magic and got Shannon Doherty banished from this dimension, which left a vacancy in the witchy triptych at the start of the fourth season of Charmed (Paramount, Not Rated, DVD-$49.99 SRP). That slot was filled with Rose McGowan as the clichéd “unknown half-sister” Paige Matthews. This is also the season when Cole (Julian McMahon) went all demony and I keep wondering why no one realizes this is Buffy-lite.

If, like me, you just never got around to picking up Eddie Murphy’s surprisingly enjoyable Nutty Professor flicks, you can now get both in a single, double-sided disc edition (Universal, Rated PG-13, DVD-$19.98 SRP). See, sometimes it pays to be lazy.

I never cease to be enthralled every time I see color footage shot during World War II. Growing up, it was always a black & white war, making its triumphs and tragedies seem at arms length. Digging into the remarkable footage contained in the 5-disc, 17-program The Color of War (History Channel, Not Rated, DVD-$49.95 SRP), I was mesmerized all over again – in each frame of color footage, there’s an immediacy and renewed relevance to a conflict that no longer exists as a museum curio.

Based on the novels by John Mortimer, Rumpole of the Bailey starred Leo McKern as attorney Horace Rumpole – defender of the lower class and all that is good and decent. It’s brilliant satire done with a real character-driven flair, and you can now own the complete series in a 14-disc megaset (A&E, Not Rated, DVD-$159.95 SRP). Bonus features include the feature-length Rumpole’s Return, episode intros and an interview with John Mortimer, an interview with McKern’s daughter, and much more.

If mystery is more your speed, sleuth along with Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple in Marple: The Classic Mysteries Collection (A&E, Not Rated, DVD-$59.95 SRP). The 5-disc set features 9 Marple films, digitally remastered and looking better than ever, so pour yourself a cup of tea and don’t mind the body.

The Hobart Shakespeareans (Docurama, Not Rated, DVD-$26.95 SRP) is one of those documentaries that can’t help but renew your faith in the future of mankind. The doc revolves around teacher Rafe Esquith who, against all odds, manages to get through to the violence-scarred children of a Los Angeles neighborhood with the likes of Shakespeare, Mark Twain, mathematics, and more. At the end of the year, they even pull of a production of Hamlet – with special guests Michael York and Ian McKellen. Must-see.

I admit, I was a fan of Ellen by the time it rolled around to its third season (A&E, Not Rated, DVD-$49.95 SRP). The cast had solidified, including the always-welcome Jeremy Piven and David Anthony Higgins, and the unfunny, awkward, socially-relevant end of the show was still in the future. Bonus features are limited to a blooper reel.

Comments: None

THE MONEY PIT - 02/24/2006

Posted by Ken in Shopping Guides (February 24, 2006 at 1:36 am)

It’s a week after I returned from Toy Fair, and I’m still flat on my back. I think it’s time to pop more caffeinated Foosh Mints and get ready for my upcoming trip to LA, during which I’ll be lining up some major surprises for the coming months…

Why do the gods of TV take the good ones so young and let shows like According to Jim linger on for eternity? As a scathing satire of the vapid, cutthroat world of Hollywood filmmaking, Action (Sony, Not Rated, DVD-$24.96 SRP) was probably far too inside (and accurate) to exist in the homogenizing milieu of middle-American TV fare. But by golly, I do so love Jay Mohr as the bastard son of Joel Silver and Jerry Bruckheimer, uber-producer Peter Dragon. The show only lasted 13 episodes, all of which are included here uncensored, but oh what genius they are. If you ever want to see exactly what Hollywood is all about, Action lays it all out in brutal, absurd, and hilarious form. Bonus materials include a trio of audio commentaries and a behind-the-scenes featurette.

While I got a huge kick out of the Rock Legends, Ray Charles, and John & Yoko-themed releases of classic Dick Cavett Show episodes, the honor of being my absolute favorite has now been awarded to the 4-disc Comic Legends (Shout! Factory, Not Rated, DVD-$39.98 SRP). Featuring full, uncut episodes with new introductions from Cavett, the set contains must-see interviews with Groucho Marx, Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, Lucille Ball, Jack Benny, Jerry Lewis, Carol Burnett, Mel Brooks, and The Smothers Brothers. Cavett was an amazing interviewer, even if his dry style takes some getting used to – but he was able to make his guests feel completely comfortable, which resulted in the only candid pieces I’ve ever seen with famously “on” comedians like Jerry Lewis and Bob Hope. There’s also a new interview with Cavett, promos, and a rare “best of” episode from his summer replacement series run in the late 60’s. I really, really, really do hope a follow-up volume is planned.

In the ever increasing list of books written by anyone even remotely associated with the Beatles, Geoff Emerick’s memoir Here, There, and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of The Beatles (Gotham Books, $26.00 SRP) is a true highlight and well worth a read. From their earliest Abbey Road sessions, Emerick was the engineer behind the board of some of the most legendary recordings ever put to tape, and this collection of anecdotes and insights into the process and dealings with the Fab Four is the perfect companion to the massive biographical tome The Beatles, released last year.

Compared with the current level of poor decision-making skills, ineptitude, and corruption in Washington today, it makes the events depicted in All The President’s Men (Warner Bros., Rated PG, DVD-$26.98 SRP) – events which brought down a President - seem trivial. I mean, even Oprah thinks an author lying about the details of his own memoir is more important than events on a national, or international, stage. But All The President’s Men remains a positively crackling tale of journalistic daring-do, solidifying the legend of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and their Watergate exposé, and making journalism (the real act of journalism – not sticking a camera in someone’s face and asking inane questions) a noble profession to enter. It’s sickening to think how far the once-mighty pillars of journalism have deteriorated – if crimes like these were exposed today, it would be met by talking heads, public dismissal, and a quick change of the channel to American Idol. The new 2-disc special edition features an audio commentary with Robert Redford, a making-of documentary, an interview with Woodward & Bernstein, a featurette on the recent revelation of Deep Throat’s identity, a vintage making-of featurette, an appearance by Jason Robards on Dinah!, and a trailer gallery.

Speaking of fools sticking cameras in people’s faces and asking inane questions, all you have to do is re-watch Network (Warner Bros., Rated R, DVD-$26.98 SRP) to marvel at just how frighteningly prescient its prediction of the idiot-ification of network TV has proven to be. Paddy Chayefsky’s blistering satire of the TV business and its endless pursuit of ratings – and one veteran newscaster’s ultimately futile declaration of “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore” – is a painful reminder that the decline of western civilization is not a new invention… It’s just got better graphics and faster editing now. The 2-disc special edition features an audio commentary with director Sidney Lumet, a 6-part making-of documentary (including an interview with Walter Cronkite, who fell victim to the “newer, younger” scenario), an interview with Lumet, an appearance by Chayefsky on Dinah!, and the theatrical trailer.

It’s almost frightening just how prescient – and still relevant – the comedy of the late Bill Hicks remains. Recorded in Oxford on November 11, 1992, the 2-disc Salvation (Rykodisc, $17.98 SRP) finds Hicks at the absolute top of his game. Running almost 2 hours, Hicks hits on all of the topics he made his own – religion, drugs, smoking, and politics. Why, oh why, did he have to die and leave us with a world so in need of his caustic, pointed social commentary?

On the subject of comedy CDs, how can you not pick up Ron White’s new CD, bearing the “I must listen to this!” title of You Can’t Fix Stupid (Image, $18.98 SRP)?

It takes a special kind of intellect to delve into the sticky wicket of The Physics of Superheroes (Gotham Books, $26.00 SRP), but author James Kakalios does just that with a clarity and commitment to the premise that can’t help but be a page-turning bit of fun, offering a scientific analysis of an alternate universe in which flight, super-strength, invisibility, and x-ray vision are everyday occurrences.

From out of the blue, HBO has decided to release a half-dozen of their always-fascinating documentaries (HBO, Not Rated, DVD-$24.98 SRP each). In fact, I’d go so far as to say that HBO is to the US what the BBC is to the UK, in terms of presenting risky social subjects and topics most outlets won’t touch. Twist of Faith tells the story of a Toledo firefighter who faces ostracization from both family and community after he reveals childhood sexual abuse at the hands of a priest. Naked World is a new documentary on photographer Spencer Tunick, and his now-legendary photographs of naked subjects in public places. Death in Gaza examines the culture of hate that informs the continued conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and ends up involving the filmmakers as much as the people that try to make a life in the political hotbed. Soldiers in the Army of God, on the other hand, tries to understand what drives the members of the violent anti-abortion group The Army of God to commit murder. On a much lighter note, A Father… A Son… Once Upon a Time In Hollywood is the story of Kirk and Michael Douglas, a tinsletown dynasty built on iconoclasm, told via conversations between the father and son, film clips, and home movies. Finally, there’s the almost-failure of the liberal radio network Air America, whose rocky launch and eventual rebound is chronicled in Left of the Dial. All 6 films feature bonus materials including audio commentaries, additional footage, and more.

There’s a definite depressed ennui that permeates the life of Chicago weatherman David Spritz (Nicolas Cage). Even though he’s a local celebrity with a nice income with a minimal work requirement, he’s a divorced father with an increasingly distant relationship with his kids and a Pulitzer Prize-winning father (Michael Caine) who won’t take him seriously. I always love Cage best when he sets aside his blockbuster idiosyncrasies and makes a quirky little character piece (a la Raising Arizona), and The Weather Man (Paramount, Rated R, DVD-$29.95 SRP) fits the bill nicely. Bonus features include 5 featurettes (focusing on the script, the characters, the look of the film, becoming a weatherman, and collaboration), and the theatrical trailer.

It’s nowhere near the pleasant surprise that the original film was, but there’s no doubt that Transporter 2 (Fox, Rated PG-13, DVD-$29.99 SRP) has a propulsive, almost Bay-esque energy to it. Really, when does story matter when you can have action scene after action scene? Bonus features includes making-of and music featurettes, deleted/extended scenes, and a blooper reel.

Remember that Shelly Long movie from the 80’s, Hello Again, in which she plays a recently departed woman who returns to earth? Yeah, well, it seems to have been loosely remade as Just Like Heaven (Dreamworks, Rated PG-13, DVD-$29.99 SRP) with Reese Witherspoon in the Long role, as a woman who shows up at the newly-leaded apartment of David (Mark Ruffalo) insisting it’s hers… and then proceeds to vanish before his eyes. Is she dead? Is she alive? Will they inevitably fall in love? Gee, what do you think? It’s an affable romantic comedy made much more palatable by the presence of Jon Heder. Bonus features include a making-of featurette, deleted scenes, and a gag reel.

If you don’t recognize the name Jon Heder, then you’re obviously not a fan of the cult hit Napoleon Dynamite, and probably wouldn’t want the Napoleon Dynamite: Final Shooting Script (Simon Spotlight Entertainment, $12.95 SRP), featuring deleted scenes. If you’re one of those yet to be converted, it’s your loss. Give it a spin.

In the mad flood of albums at the end of last year, I somehow missed the new album from fellow Jacksonvillian Ryan Adams, 29 (Lost Highway, $13.98 SRP). Of course, I can almost be forgiven since it seems like Adams released 29 albums last year, as every time I turned around another one seemed to be hitting. I can forgive his prodigious output since I’ve largely enjoyed each of the albums that have dropped, this one included.

You’ve got to love how firmly entrenched the 60’s TV version of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (Fox, Not Rated, DVD-$39.98 SRP) is in its cold war time frame, as the crew of the submarine uber-weapon Seaview take on mankind’s enemies, like an underwater James Bond. The 3-disc first volume contains the first half of the show’s lengthy first season, plus the original (never-before-seen) pilot, Irwin Allen’s home movie footage, a promotional reel, and still galleries. But why, oh why, do these studios insist on giving us double-sided discs? Stop already!

I have to admit – by the third season of Moonlighting (Lionsgate, Not Rated, DVD-$39.98 SRP), I was elated by the addition of Curtis Armstrong to the cast – I still think he’s an underrated actor, as anyone who saw Ray will attest. This is also the season in which the meta-comedy reached its height – and the one which ended with the infamous “sleeping together” mis-step. The 4-disc set features all 15 second season episodes, plus commentaries and a brand-new half-hour documentary with cast & crew interviews (including a Shepard/Willis reunion).

I’ll admit – all I really know about Living Single (Warner Bros., Not Rated, DVD-$29.98 SRP) is that is starred Queen Latifah and Tootie from The Facts of Life. There – that’s the sum total of my knowledge about the show. The 4-disc set features all 27 first season episodes, plus a retrospective featurette.

Like sands through the hourglass, so is the snail-like page in which new seasonal sets of NYPD Blue are released. Years after the first season’s release, we’re finally getting the third season (Fox, Not Rated, DVD-$39.98 SRP).The relationship between Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) and Simone (Jimmy Smits) is running at full tilt, and the show really got into its groove. The 4-disc set features audio commentaries on a few episodes and a trio of featurettes (“Life in the 15th Precinct,” “Father and Son,” and “Women o NYPD Blue”). And yes, Fox has done double-sided discs with this release. Don’t you people learn? Stop! Now!

I still have trouble wrapping my brain around the idea that Billy Elliott has become a musical, but if Abba can have one, why not? With music by Elton John, the cast album (Decca, $ SRP) is a surprisingly punchy affair. The 2-disc set features a bonus disc with a trio of Elton demos.

Congrats must go to Marvel for somehow managing to completely ignore the precedent set by Bruce Timm & co.’s excellent handling of DC’s iconic characters in animation with a complete 180 handling of their own big-hitters in Ultimate Avengers: The Movie (Lionsgate, Not Rated, DVD-$19.98 SRP). Crap story, crap casting, and crap animation add up to – you guessed it – a crap direct-to-video abomination. Bonus features include a behind-the-scenes featurette and a – get this – sneak preview of Ultimate Avengers II. Feh.

Comments: None

THE MONEY PIT - 02/17/2006

Posted by Ken in Shopping Guides (February 17, 2006 at 5:35 pm)

I’m currently typing this from my none-too-palatial hotel room in NYC, overlooking a cab repair shop and having just changed rooms after waking up in the middle of the night to find a freshly engorged bed bug sharing my pillow. The things I do for IGN. Speaking of which, on to this week’s guide!

For some reason, Quick Change (Warner Bros., Rated R, DVD-$14.98 SRP) doesn’t get the respect that it deserves. Co-directed by and starring Bill Murray, it was a quirky little low-key heist comedy co-starring Geena Davis and Randy Quaid as Murray’s cohorts in crime. Featuring a performance more akin to the kind of subtle roles that would mark his career resurgence in the late 90’s in films like Rushmore and Broken Flowers, Murray is a stressed city-dweller desperate to get out of the rat race, by any means possible – even if that means robbing a bank to fund his flight. Hot on our trio’s heels is a veteran cop (Jason Robards) eager to get the bank’s millions back and put our anti-heroes behind bars. If you’ve never seen this film, you don’t know what you’re missing… It really is a lost gem.

On the other hand, Club Paradise (Warner Bros., Rated PG-13, DVD-$14.98 SRP) can’t, in good conscience, be called a gem – but I love it so. It’s a comedy that truly epitomizes 80’s comedic fare – light, fluffy, and so endearing it’s got to be bad for you. It’s like a cinematic Twinkie. In what must seem like a theme, Robin Williams is a stressed-out firefighter who decides to use his disability settlement to purchase a ramshackle tropical club whose grand opening is jeopardized by a corrupt island politico and a foreign developer intent on getting Club Paradise’s land. Directed by Harold Ramis and starring SCTV castmembers Rick Moranis, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, along with Peter O’Toole and Jimmy Cliff (whose soundtrack is still a favorite of mine), it’s packed with Twinkie charm.

While not as primo as the two previous flicks, Warners has been digging through the vaults to unleash a slew of catalogue titles. Some are from Hollywood’s Golden Age, and some are from the 80’s… Not exactly a Golden Age, but certainly packed with many a film that saw endless repeats on cable, searing themselves into the minds of an entire generation. Along those lines, we’ve got Madonna and Griffin Dunne in Who’s That Girl? (Warner Bros., Rated PG, DVD-$14.98 SRP), the Mad Magazine Police Academy/Stripes rip-off Up the Academy (Warner Bros., Rated R, DVD-$14.98 SRP), the legendary (and underrated) teaming of Gene Wilder and Harrison Ford in The Frisco Kid (Warner Bros., Rated PG, DVD-$14.98 SRP), and the flawed teaming of Chevy Chase, Gregory Hines, and Sigourney Weaver in Deal of the Century (Warner Bros., Rated PG, DVD-$14.98 SRP). All of the discs are featureless save for the theatrical trailers.

As both Marvel and DC eliminate their company historians (Marvel eliminated Peter Sanderson years ago, and DC just axed Bob Greenberger), thank jebus that Twomorrows exists to shine a light on the past. Their latest must-have tome is the Legion Companion (Twomorrows, $24.95 SRP), which goes in-depth into the 40-year history of the Legion of Super-Heroes.

And while we’re on the topic of Twomorrows, be sure to pick up their DVD spotlight/interview on George Perez as part of their Modern Masters series (Twomorrows, Not Rated, DVD-$35.00 SRP). Not only does it feature interviews with George and his friends and colleagues, but also sports footage of Perez at work. Maybe Twomorrows can do the same thing with John Byrne if I beg enough…

If only for Courtney Love’s hopped-up-on-goofballs-and-out-of-her-mind appearance, the Comedy Central Roast of Pamela Anderson (Paramount, Not Rated, DVD-$19.99 SRP) is a glorious train wreck that puts all previous roast wrecks to shame – well, maybe not Chevy Chase’s, but his was more brutally funny than surreally funny. The DVD features the uncensored version of the roast, plus additional “rehearsal” footage, outtakes, interviews, and more.

I didn’t think it was possible, but with Saw II (Lions Gate, Rated R, DVD-$28.98 SRP), they found away to make an even more uncomfortable gorefest that made me seriously wonder why in the heck I was even watched it… It just makes you feel… Dirty. Bonus features include an audio commentary (with director Darren Bousman and actors Donnie Wahlberg & Beverly Mitchell), featurettes on the props and traps, storyboard & conceptual galleries, and trailers.

So help me, I really do love the infectious fun of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, including the newly-released third season set (Warner Bros., Not Rated, DVD-$29.98 SRP). Like a Fresh Prince song of old (before Will Smith made the decision he wanted street cred), it’s bright and fluffy. The 4-disc set still doesn’t have those Alfonso Ribeiro commentaries I keep hoping for, but it does have a blooper reel.

Tori Amos has always been one fascinatingly odd bird who’s marched to the beat of her own drummer, and nowhere is that more evident than in the 19 videos collected in the 2-disc Fade to Red: Tori Amos Video Collection (Rhino, Not Rated, DVD-$24.98 SRP). Even the vids that don’t quite succeed offer something to think about and a decidedly unique personality. Bonus features include a remix of “Professional Widow,” the UK version of “Cornflake Girl,” and audio commentaries from Amos.

Just when I began to think that Disney Home Video gave a damn about fans of their animated shows – albeit with the flawed (where are those missing episodes, ya mooks??!!) multi-disc releases of DuckTales and Rescue Rangers – they go and release single-disc, 3-episode volumes of Goof Troop and Quack Pack (Walt Disney, Not Rated, $14.99 SRP each). What the heck??? Granted, I though Quack Pack was a truly crappy show, but Goof Troop deserves better treatment than this. Get your heads out of your nethers, Disney, and start to wonder why we get special edition releases of He-Man while the quality of your animated TV releases… well… suck.

The 80’s – for a devout TV junkie kid, such as I was – were a time when, admittedly, I had yet to develop any real quality filters. With that in mind, realize that I have fond memories of shows that I really shouldn’t – 2 of which are getting complete first season releases. The first is the Scott Baio “classic” Charles in Charge and the second if Nell Carter’s Gimme a Break (Universal, Not Rated, DVD-$34.98 SRP each). If you’re of my generation, I dare you to try and keep their respective theme songs from out of your mind… Go on… Just try… “Charles in charge of my life…” “Gimme a break, I sure deserve it…” Charles in Charge features a second season preview episode, while Break features bonus episodes from Kate & Allie’s first season, Charles in Charge, and Break season 2. Both sets also contain an engaging documentary on the 80’s television landscape.

The fifth season of The Andy Griffith Show (Paramount, Not Rated, DVD-$38.99 SRP) features a landmark that forever changed the dynamic of the show’s final seasons – it was the last to feature Don Knotts as lovably bumbling deputy Barney Fife (though there would be later guest appearances). Lured away by a film career, Knotts decided to move on, which meant a far different feel in Mayberry’s later years. In other words, enjoy Barney’s swan song for all it’s worth, and fear the coming color seasons.

In today’s monotonous entertainment climate, we need more shows like Significant Others (Shout! Factory, Not Rated, DVD-$26.98 SRP) – a completely improvised show that looks at the strained and sometimes surreal, but always relatable, relationships of four couples. It’s like a classic Woody Allen film sans excessive neuroses, and all the more fresh in its execution. The 2-disc set features all 12 episodes of the show’s 2 season run. Bonus materials include audio commentaries with the show’s creators.

Jarod is still on the run in The Pretender’s 3rd season (Fox, Not Rated, DVD-$39.98 SRP), still using his massive IQ to master any profession, still looking into his background and that of his ex-captors, and just a little surprised that his long-lost Dad has entered the picture. Bonus features include audio commentaries and a 3-part making-of featurette.

No one can deny that Richard Pryor had quite a spotty movie career, and a few of those spots are featured in the extremely value-priced Richard Pryor Collection (Universal, Rated R/PG, DVD-$26.98 SRP). The double-sided disc features Bustin’ Loose, Car Wash, Which Way Is Up?, and Brewster’s Millions. Of the four, I still dig Brewster’s Millions – if for no other reason than it teams up Pryor and John Candy.

I know everyone has taken to it as the next best thing, but I can’t quite get over the fact that Grey’s Anatomy lies in a nebulous, uninteresting middle-ground on the TV landscape – it’s a medical show that’s neither as fun as Scrubs nor as serious as ER. You’d think I would spark to its middle ground, but no-go – it just lies there for me. Well, you fans out there will be sure to clutch the complete first season (Buena Vista, Not Rated, DVD-$29.99 SRP) to your breast, and you’re welcome to it. Bonus features include deleted scenes, commentaries, an analysis of the pilot, and a behind-the-scenes featurette.

Proof (Miramax, Rated PG-13, DVD-$29.99 SRP) is one of those unfortunate cases where an adaptation from stage to screen fails to interject anything to overcome the tendency towards small-scale sterility that is the mine field of that tricky process. In other words, it’s just a long, boring flick punctuated by a great performance from Anthony Hopkins as the brilliant, mentally unstable father of Gwyneth Paltrow’s Catherine, who must decipher the mystery her father leaves behind as his mathematical genius slips away. Bonus features include an audio commentary with director John Madden, deleted scenes with optional commentary, and a making-of featurette.

The only thing with a more awkward track record on the big screen than comic book adaptations are the routinely abysmal flicks based on video games. Case in point is the latest schlockfest, Doom (Universal, Not Rated, DVD-$29.98 SRP), which wasn’t even bright enough to import the serviceable storyline of the games. Oh, and the Rock is here, being the Rock… Which is a shame, because he’s a good actor deserving of better material. As expected, the unrated edition simply amps up the gore factor… What, you were expecting plot? Bonus features include behind-the-scenes featurettes and an extended version of the first-person shooter sequence.

Ignore the clichés – The Golden Girls, in its prime, was one the funniest, best-written sitcoms on network TV. It was still firing on all cylinders in its 4th season (Buena Vista, Not Rated, DVD-$39.99 SRP), but the biggest reason to check out that year on DVD is for the cameo from an unknown actor named Quentin Tarantino. I kid you not.

Finally, let’s wrap things up this week with a quartet of catalogue titles that are part of Warner’s Black History Month promotion – Passing Glory, Buffalo Soldiers, Heat Wave, and Freedom Song (Warner Bros., Not Rated, DVD-$19.98 SRP each).

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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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THE MONEY PIT - 02/3/2006

Posted by Ken in Shopping Guides (February 3, 2006 at 2:19 am)

We’re one week from my long drive up to Toy Fair, and that means all kinds of prep work for covering the mother of all trade shows (well, at least for a toys and collectibles nut like myself). The “to do” list is a long one, but there’s plenty of cool coverage on the way. By the way, don’t forget to check out this week’s Scrubs blog for a special trivia contest.

When I first saw longtime pals Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman’s travel documentary Long Way Round (Goldhil, Not Rated, DVD-$19.98 SRP), I wished I had the nerves and gumption to go on a road trip like that. The two decided to circumnavigate the globe on motorcycles, disembarking to other modes of travel only where absolutely necessary, with only a minimal camera crew as support (engaged as a means to cover the costs of the trip – their original hope was to go off and do the trip just for themselves, but who could turn down the underwriting of such a costly venture?). There’s no star trips here – both McGregor and Boorman get hurt, push their bikes to the limit, nearly destroy their friendship, but eventually come through with a stronger bond and an amazing journey under their belts. I can’t recommend this chronicle enough… And only wish I could one day do something similar.

While Tim Burton’s The Corpse Bride (Warner Bros., Rated PG-13, DVD-$28.98 SRP) certainly looks like it should be just as enjoyable and appealing as the now-classic Nightmare Before Christmas, there’s just a certain something missing that prevents the package from jelling. Maybe it’s that the story – about a socially advantageous marriage between two parentally-oppressed young lovers that goes horribly wrong when, naturally, the groom-to-be (Johnny Depp) becomes inadvertently wed to the titular corpse (Helena Bonham Carter) instead of his true love (Emily Watson), and is then whisked away to the colorful land of the dead (a far departure from his drab Victorian world) – just lacks the zing of Nightmare. The stop-motion animation is still a beautiful way to execute a film, but there’s no real spark there, which is a shame. It’s a flick worth checking out, though, but just don’t expect NBX-level greatness. Bonus features include 7 behind-the-scenes featurettes, a pre-production art gallery, a music-only track, and the theatrical trailer.

There are a few shows that truly deserve their groundbreaking, legendary status, and one that absolutely deserves that recognition is Hill Street Blues, which you’ll quickly determine for yourself as you view the 17 episodes comprising the show’s first season (Fox, Not Rated, DVD-$39.98 SRP). The cops of the Hill Street Station are not Friday’s – they’re multi-layered, fallible, stressed human beings fighting the good fight on the street and at home as best they can. Without nuanced, shads of gray Hill Street there would have been no NYPD Blue or The Shield. Bonus materials across the 3-disc set include audio commentaries on 2 episodes and a retrospective featurette. One big request, though – stop giving up the crappy double-sided discs, like Universal’s TV releases. It just comes off as cheap, and it’s a pain the a** to deal with.

I may sound like a broken record on this topic, but Warners remains the studio to beat when it comes to proper mining of an extensive back-catalogue of classic films – many of which haven’t seen the light of day in decades, let alone in the beautiful presentation they’re getting on DVD. The latest batch of classics to hit the pike include Spencer Tracy & Lionel Barrymore in Rudyard Kipling’s Captains Courageous, Paul Muni in The Good Earth, Jane Wyman & Lew Ayers in Johnny Belinda, Ginger Rogers in Kitty Foyle, Edna Ferber’s Cimarron, and Kirk Douglas’s memorable portrayal of Vincent Van Gogh in Lust For Life (Warner Bros., Not Rated, DVD-$19.98 SRP each). The discs feature classic cartoons, vintage shorts and newsreels, and Lust For Life sports an audio commentary from film historian Dr. Drew Casper.

Crikey, how I love Twomorrows. Striking a balance between historians, scholars, and fans like no other company, they manage to produce the most consistently enjoyable – and must-have – comics reference and appreciation books on the market yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Their latest is a look back at the grim, gritty, graphic, and ultimately destructive period that permeated the 1990’s – The Dark Age (Twomorrows, $19.95). Featuring interviews with the perpetrators themselves – names like McFarlane, Lee, Gibbons, Ross, Smith, and more – it’s an essential overview of the point when comic books abandoned their traditional child audience and began fashioning an ever-tightening noose around the neck of a once-mighty industry.

Suck all of the pigment from Steven Wright, give him a manatee fixation, and make him look like a mad cross between Elton John and Philip Seymour Hoffman, you’d get Jim Gaffigan. Easily one of the most offbeat and surreal comics of the current generation, his odd delivery and often subtle, left-field wit remind me of the glory days of Emo Phillips. All of this is to say you should check out his new CD, Beyond the Pale (Comedy Central Records, $12.98 SRP) and its companion DVD (Image Entertainment, Not Rated, DVD-$ SRP), which also contains his first stand-up appearance from 1991, a cartoon, and more.

If I were to go for the cheap and easy way to mention that the 2nd season of Diff’rent Strokes (Sony, Not Rated, DVD-$29.95 SRP) has made its way to DVD, I’d probably mention Arnold’s pop culture lynchpin, “What’s you talkin’ ‘bout?” But I’m not going to say that. Nope. Not going to succumb to the pressure to go for the cheap pop reference. Instead, I’ll take the high ground and mention that the 3-disc set features all 24 episodes, with guest stars like Muhammad Ali and Reggie Jackson. Sadly, this was also the season that Mrs. Garrett (Charlotte Rae) left to go work at some girls school and was replaced by Adelaide Brubaker. Oh, and there are absolutely no bonus materials. What’s you talkin’ ‘bout, Sony?

I know you’ve been absolutely dying to know for the past 20 years who shot J.R., and it’s during the 4th season of Dallas (Warner Bros., Not Rated, DVD-$39.98 SRP) that you get your answer. Not only do you get that little mystery out of the way, but the 4-disc set also features much more Ewing intrigue, plus the 2004 reunion documentary The Return to Southfork, featuring cast interviews, behind-the-scenes footage, and bloopers. Oh, and for the record, it was Waylon Smithers.

All Brian Herzlinger wanted was a date with Drew Barrymore. Of course, in today’s media age, that meant Brian had to take up a camera and build a film around his nigh-impossible quest, which – strangely enough – has become My Date With Drew (First Look, Not Rated, DVD-$14.98 SRP). Armed with only a pair of friends, $1,100, and a camera that has to be returned to Circuit City within 30 days, he goes out in search of his quarry – a move that would be creepily stalkerish if it weren’t so funny and endearing. I promise I won’t ruin the ending for you. The DVD features a behind-the-scenes featurette and a trailer.

Margaret Cho has gotten years of comedy out of the network notes admonishing her on her weight and “suggesting” ways of broadening the appeal of her short-lived sitcom All-American Girl (Shout! Factory, Not Rated, DVD-$39.98 SRP), but I was one of those people who actually liked its non-traditional Asian-centric cast and thought it was pretty dang funny, and I always thought Cho was hilarious (her stand-up bears this out), and thought Amy Hill’s performance as grandma was priceless. You can check out the entire 19-episode run via this 4-disc set, featuring commentary by Cho and Hill on select episodes, plus interviews.

Like the Spruce Goose, few (myself included) ever thought we would see the long-rumored extended edition of Dune (Universal, Not Rated, DVD-$27.98 SRP) fly, but like the Goose before it, fly it has… finally. This edition contains both the 2 hour 17 minute cut, plus the extended 2 hour 57 minute epic, all with great-looking video that makes all of those old VHS boots obsolete. Bonus materials include featurettes (on FX, wardrobe, design, and models), deleted scenes, and a photo gallery.

It’s the guiltiest of pleasures, but I still get a kick out of every episode contained in the fourth collection of Benny Hill episodes (A&E, Not Rated, DVD-$49.95 SRP), presented completely uncut. Covering the period from 1978-1981, the 10 episodes comprising this 3-disc set featured the introduction of the legendarily buxom Hill’s Angels, a visit from Michael Caine, and Benny’s receipt of the “Funniest Man on Television” award. The set also sports the interview featurette “I was a Hill’s Angel.”

With the departure of Gloria and Mike, it became a little harder to find new stories as All in the Family ended its 10th season. In an effort to keep the ball rolling a little bit longer, the show morphed into Archie Bunker’s Place (Sony, Not Rated, DVD-$29.925 SRP), which shifted the focus out of the Bunker’s home and into Archie’s Queens bar, partnered in the business with Murray Klein (Martin Balsam). To keep a little of Archie & Edith’s home life going, they were saddled with a niece (Danielle Brisebois). Though the show lasted 4 seasons, the writing was clearly on the wall – despite Carroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton’s still reliable performances – that the end was near. The 3-disc set features all 24 episodes from the show’s debut seasons, but nary a bonus feature to speak of.

Putting aside the sensationalistic title meant to grab your attention, Da Vinci and the Code He Lived By (History Channel, Not Rated, DVD-$24.95 SRP) is a nicely in-depth analysis of the famed genius. From his masterpieces on canvas to the mind that was able to give form to inventions that still astound the thinkers of today, Da Vinci’s life is worth the exploration, especially via this excellent documentary. The disc also include a behind-the-scenes featurette.

With Black History Month upon us, the History Channel brings to DVD their 2-disc Voices of Civil Rights (History Channel, Not Rated, DVD-$29.95 SRP), which contains a trio of documentaries on the movement itself, and a pair of A&E Biographies of Civil Rights legends. The documentaries included are Voices of Civil Rights, Mississippi State Secrets, and Crossing the Bridge, with Biographies of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Thurgood Marshall.

The rich & famous – and eccentric – clientele of Las Vegas’s Hart & Huntington Tattoo Company and it’s equally eccentric staff – led by Motorcross champion Carey Hart – is the focus of A&E’s latest reality series Inked, which hits DVD with a best-of covering the show’s first season (A&E, Not Rated, DVD-$19.95 SRP). Honestly, I can’t stand tattoos, but every reality series has a nice train wreck realism to it, and this one is no exception.

As a kid, there were two subjects in history that held my tender little psyche enthralled – the Titanic, and Ancient Egypt. Therefore, it goes without saying that I’m a sucker for documentaries on either subject, which includes the newly released King Tutankhamun: The Mystery Unsealed (History Channel, Not Rated, DVD-$24.95 SRP), which examines not only the death and archeological afterlife of the boy king, but also his short life. Hosted by Frank Langella, it tells its tale via a bevy of scholars, plus some pretty nifty computer animation.

No matter how many times I hear Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd (Nonesuch, $21.98 SRP), there’s always some new color that I take away from the experience. That goes doubly for the cast album to the newly relaunched and retooled revival starring Patti LuPone and Michael Cerveris, which manages to breathe new life into the old barber’s tale. The package also features a deluxe booklet packed with photos and the lyrics.

I do think that you can reach a saturation point with the explosion of TV-to-DVD releases, particularly when it’s the cheese-fest of the 80’s. Case in point – and a warning, certified I’m sure by some doctor or another – you should never, ever, watch the complete third seasons of Knight Rider, Magnum PI, and The A-Team (Universal, Not Rated, DVD-$49.98 SRP each) back-to-back. You’re risking permanent brain damage and potential blindness… So it’s heavily advised against that you even attempt to do so. A little bit here and there, sure, but not consecutively. You have been warned.

Raised as an evangelical prodigy from the age of four, Marjoe was a fire and brimstone preacher until the 60’s counterculture lured him away in the swinging 60’s before he returned to preaching with a vengeance and full of rock n’ roll salesmanship. The documentary Marjoe (Docurama, Not Rated, DVD-$26.95 SRP) picks up with the titular preacher as he embarks as his “farewell to faith” tour, revealing the hucksterism used to take advantage of the easily led of religious persuasion. The DVD also features the documentary Thoth. Of course, I can’t get away from this week’s documentary mentions without bringing up another fervor-raising subject, discussed in Kim Cattrall’s Sexual Intelligence (Docurama, Not Rated, DVD-$26.95 SRP). Through art, history, cultural, and social discussion, the topic of sex is covered from many a fascinating angle.

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THE MONEY PIT - 01/27/2006

Posted by Ken in Shopping Guides (January 27, 2006 at 11:32 pm)

Yes, it’s been another one of those killer weeks, loaded with deadlines and myriad details that needed to be addressed *right now* or the entire world collapses in upon itself with a crash, thunder, and thud. I hope you all check out this week’s Scrubs blog, which features not only a video mailbag with the cast & crew answering fan questions, but also an audio commentary for the 100th episode.

On its surface, The Aristocrats (ThinkFilm, Not Rated, DVD-$29.99 SRP) is 90 minutes of the same hoary joke, told over and over again by a who’s who of comic luminaries (the short list including Eric Idle, Billy Connolly, Robin Williams, Dom Irrera, Whoopi Goldberg, Martin Mull, Fred Willard, Chuck McCann, Emo Phillips, Sarah Silverman, Jon Stewart, Gilbert Gottfried, Bill Maher, Drew Carey, George Carlin… the list, literally, goes on and on). The joke itself is like Felix’s bag – it has an outside structure, but a performer can pull anything from inside it. All one has to do is start with the premise that a family walks into an agent’s office to pitch their act, and then end the joke with the name of their troupe – “The Aristocrats.” Within those two goalposts, generations of comics have filled in the details of the act itself as a freeform improv containing the most vile, off-color material they can come up with – as long as it eventually gets to the endpoint. It’s a joke told amongst comedians as a way of showing off, and what this documentary – co-produced by Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette – does is use it as a mirror to our modern culture and the changing face of social morays. Honestly. It may sound highfalutin’, but it does a brilliant job of it. Bonus materials include an audio commentary with Provenza & Jillette, additional interview footage, and a tribute to Johnny Carson (whose favorite joke was “The Aristocrats”). Oh – one thing you’ll most definitely learn from the whole thing? Bob Saget is a very, very dirty man.

The second season of the George Reeves Adventures of Superman (Warner Bros., Not Rated, DVD-$39.98 SRP) finds the Man of Steel still in glorious black & white, and still operating near the top of its game. Featuring all 26 episodes, the 5-disc set features a pair of audio commentaries from Noel Neill & Jack Larson, a documentary on Neill, and the special savings bond promotional episode “Stamp Day for Superman.”

Every time I see the amazing work that Ray Harryhausen was able to accomplish without a single computer, it makes all the ooooing and aaaahing over massive CG-fests like Peter Jackson’s King Kong less impressive by comparison. With nothing but a love of his craft, a creative vision, and a lot of patience, Harryhausen created creatures of myth and the fantastic – and we bought the reality, because no matter how slick we think we are as an audience, there was a genuine sense of life and immediacy that Harryhausen imbued in his animation. You can explore the conceptual designs, storyboarding, and extensive preparation that went into constructing those cinematic fantasies with The Art of Ray Harryhausen (Billboard Books, $50.00), which is filled with scores of drawings and photos, as well as an introduction from Peter Jackson.

Since it seems HIT is intent on torturing Fraggle Rock fans with yearly waits for the show’s 5 season sets (Season 2 is currently scheduled for September), the only thing you can do to get that Fraggle fix is pick up their single-disc collections featuring episodes from across the seasons. The latest is Down in Fraggle Rock (HIT, Not Rated, DVD-$11.99 SRP), featuring 3 episodes (“Boober’s Dream,” “Wembley’s Egg,” “ and “Red’s Blue Dragon”), plus episodes of the excruciating animated series, and a behind-the-scenes featurette with Traveling Matt.

Originally released by Anchor Bay, the bizarre sci-fi “cult classic” Repo Man (Universal, Rated R, DVD-$19.98 SRP) gets a brand new DVD release from Universal with remastered picture and sound. No sight in cinema disturbed me more as a kid that seeing what befell of the highway patrolman after looking the car’s trunk… I’ll never forget that scaring the bejeesus out of me. Bonus material includes deleted scenes, an interview with Harry Dean Stanton, a filmmaker featurette, and an audio commentary.

Even though the new edition of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (Paramount, Rated PG-13, DVD-$19.99 SRP) inexplicably leaves writer/director John Hughes’s commentary from the original release off, there are enough new bonus features here to justify a second purchase – including a cast retrospective, a making-of featurette, and a wonderful featurette with Ben Stein. Save Ferris!

We still haven’t gotten “Best Of” releases from cast members like Martin Short, Billy Crystal, Chevy Chase, or Bill Murray, but the “Powers That Be” thought the time was right for Saturday Night Live fans to lay down their dollars for The Best of David Spade (Universal, Not Rated, DVD-$19.98 SRP). Much more enjoyable (and welcome) is The Best of Alec Baldwin (Universal, Not Rated, DVD-$19.98 SRP) – easily one of the finest recurring guest hosts the show has ever had (though I’d like if this actually sets enough of a precedent to give us a Best of John Goodman). Both discs feature audio commentaries and dress rehearsal sketches, while the Spade disc includes additional outtakes as well.

In the early 80’s, the most popular comic book at DV was not one starring Superman or Batman – it was one starring the former DCU sidekicks, the Teen Titans. Filled with creator interviews and plenty of background information, The Titans Companion (Twomorrows, $24.95 SRP) is a fantastic chronicle of the adventures of DC’s teen superteam, from their silver age roots right up through their cartoon success and continuing presence in the modern DC universe.

If it were anyone but Jodie Foster and Peter Sarsgaard, I don’t think I would have been able to tolerate the pseudo-Hitchcockian Flightplan (Touchstone, Rated PG-13, DVD-$29.99 SRP). Foster plays a mother who, following the death of her husband, takes her young daughter and her husband’s body on a transatlantic flight back to the States on a brand new commercial aircraft she helped design. Shortly after take off, she falls asleep – and wakes up to find her daughter, and any evidence she was ever on the flight, has disappeared without a trace. Frantic to find her daughter and faced with compelling evidence that her daughter never boarded the flight with her, she’s faced with either she’s gone mad with grief, or a conspiracy is afoot, possibly including the entire flight crew, passengers, and the plane’s air marshal (Sarsgaard). Either way, like I said, it’s only held together on the strength of the performances and whatever popcorn and soda you’ve got on hand. Bonus features include an audio commentary and a pair of behind-the-scenes featurettes.

Does anyone watch bullriding just to see how long some schmo can hang onto the backside of a bucking he-cow? I didn’t think so… Which is why Ultimate Bullriding (Time Life, Not Rated, DVD-$14.95 SRP) is the perfect disc for over 40 years of the best off what the “sport” has to offer – lots and lots of spills, thrills, and near-mutilations.

When it came to easily-accessible sci-fi shows built for the audiences of the 60’s, there was but one name to turn to – Irwin Allen. Shows like Lost in Space, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, and Time Tunnel were perfect family viewing, presenting sci-fi that even grandma could understand. We’ve got the entire run of Lost in Space available, so now we get to start filling in the Allen holes, starting with the first volume of Time Tunnel (Fox, Not Rated, DVD-$39.98 SRP), featuring the first 15 episodes of the show’s first season, as a government time travel project (Project Tic Toc) faces the pulling of its funding, forcing a rash decision from scientists Doug Phillips and Tony Newman – who decide to test the technology for themselves and prove it works. Well, it does work – and they’re lost in time, ping-ponging from period to period as their fellow scientists attempt to bring them home. The 4-disc set features an unaired extended version of the pilot, Allen’s behind-the-scenes home movies, a VFX camera test, still galleries, promos, and radio spots.

Compared to the stilted, easily mocked hosting style of Tom Snyder (just check out Dan Aykroyd’s take-off on the original SNL), Dick Cavett was Mr. Smooth. Still, Snyder’s late night Tomorrow program was every bit the risk-take as Cavett’s program when it came to booking guests – and no where is that more evident than in the 2-disc The Tomorrow Show with Tom Snyder: Punk & New Wave (Shout! Factory, Not Rated, DVD-$29.98 SRP). As the title suggests, it features Snyder hosting groundbreaking acts like Elvis Costello, The Ramones, Joan Jett, John Lydon, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, and more. It’s a slice of musical history well worth checking out.

So, how about a trio of music DVDs to jazz up your weekend? If you actually want to literally jazz up your weekend, then there’s a pair of 1977 concerts from Norman Granz’s Jazz in Montreaux shows featuring Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie’s Big Band (Eagle Vision, Not Rated, DVD-$11.98 SRP each). If you prefer a bit of rock along with your roll, then there’s Deep Purple: Live in California 74 (Eagle Vision, Not Rated, DVD-$14.98 SRP), which even sports some audio commentaries.

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THE MONEY PIT - 01/20/2006

Posted by Ken in Shopping Guides (January 20, 2006 at 11:29 pm)

Did you ever have one of those weeks where your entire schedule was thrown into whack, and you find you’re greeting the dawn and getting only a few hours of sleep… You know, an overproductive whirlwind.

While many fans of the original Batman: The Animated Series were still mourning its cancellation in the mid-90’s after a groundbreaking (and definitive) run (count me amongst the mourners), Warner Bros. decided to give the producers a new order. They took full advantage of the second run by completely renovating the show’s look and cast, and it as re-christened The New Batman Adventures – the complete run of which is featured in the fourth and final volume collecting Batman: TAS (Warner Bros., Not Rated, DVD-$44.98 SRP). In addition to all 24 episodes, there are also a trio of audio commentaries (the one on the universally reviled “Critters” is a hoot).

So what were Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, and co. doing in that period post the original Batman: TAS run? They were reinvigorating the Man of Steel with the equally memorable Superman: The Animated Series, the second volume of which is finally getting its release (Warner Bros., Not Rated, DVD-$26.98 SRP). The 2-disc set features another 18 episodes (the run will be completed in just one more volume), and contains the introduction of Jack Kirby’s Fourth World characters (which would pay huge dividends in the series’ finale). Bonus features include a pair of audio commentaries, a video commentary, and a spotlight on Superman’s rogues gallery.

With the two available volumes of Walt’s People (Xlibris, $19.54 each), editor and animation historian Didier Ghez has compiled a pair of essential tomes for any fan of animation, and Disney animation in particular. Each collection contains in-depth interviews with legendary Disney artists including Ward Kimball, Eric Larson, Ollie Johnson, Marc Davis, Frank Thomas, and Woolie Reitherman, as well as contemporaries and new guard like Friz Freleng, John Hench, and Glen Keane. Combining decades of the best pieces by Disney experts like Michael Barrier, Jim Korkis, and Ghez himself, these really are priceless insights into a fascinating artform. Here’s hoping Volume 3 is already in the pipeline…

Hurray for the release of the penultimate season of The Kids in the Hall (A&E, Not Rated, DVD-$59.99 SRP), which has made its direct-order debut at prior to its commercial roll-out a few months from now (you know, for you impatient ones). It was during the 4th season that the show moved off HBO and on to CBS, but fear not – the 4-disc set features the Kids’ preferred CBC cuts of the episodes, so you won’t miss out on any risqué or edited content. Bonus features include another commentary track from the guys, the 2 Season 4 best-of compilations, and archival footage.

There was a time, after a multi-year gap, that I feared we’d never see another season of the ground-breaking Mary Tyler Moore Show hit DVD (poor sales on set 1 didn’t help matters). But then, last year, the logjam broke and we were graced with the second season, and now we’ve got Season 3 (Fox, Not Rated, DVD-$29.98 SRP). All 24 episodes are featured across 3-discs, but not a single bonus feature is in sight… Granted, it’s just great that this is available. Bring on Season 4!

It wasn’t until viewing Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (Magnolia, Rated R, DVD-$26.98 SRP) that I fully understood just what a massively corrupt, infuriating, and devastating fiasco the rise and brutal fall of Enron truly was. The massive greed of the 80’s was nothing compared to the naked criminality enacted by this once-mighty behemoth, whose actions were aided and abetted by the very checks and balances that are meant to keep monsters like this from ever getting as bad as Enron did – a rogues gallery that includes executives, banks, and politicians. If you’ve ever wondered exactly what all of the fuss was about – and why people continue to point fingers at the Bush administration – then this documentary is required viewing. Bonus features include an audio commentary, deleted scenes, Enron skits, a behind-the-scenes featurettes, an update on all the players involved, and more.

Ever since I first saw its skyline from a distance while traveling to Long Island on a family trip, I’ve fallen in love with the wholly unique character that is the city of Manhattan. Others have fallen in love with the “City that Never Sleeps,” and it’s their artistic vision of the Big Apple that makes up Impressions of New York: Prints from the New York Historical Society (Princeton Architectural Press/Chronicle Books, $50.00 SRP). If that’s whetted your appetite for more fascinating views of the city, you might want to snag yourself a copy of New York Changing (Princeton Architectural Press/Chronicle Books, $40.00 SRP), which recreates the shots of famed photographer Berenice Abbott, making for a fascinating contrast in just how much the city has changed – buildings gone, statues weathered – yet still feels the same.

I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I’m a fan of the trainwreck quality of MTV’s Viva La Bam, and lament the fact that the 3-disc release of the complete 4th and 5th seasons (Paramount, Not Rated, DVD-$39.98 SRP) marks the end of Bam Margera’s parent, friend, and especially uncle-endangering misadventures. In addition to all 16 episodes, the set also features audio commentaries, deleted scenes, the MTV Cribs episode on Bam, and more.

While music lover’s looking for the next hip act in the 70’s might turn to shows like SNL and The Midnight Special in the US, Brit viewers made their discoveries via the BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test, which showcased bands and singers on the cusp of superstardom along with long-established acts. The second volume collecting performances from those groundbreaking shows (BBC, Not Rated, DVD-$24.98 SRP) includes artist as diverse as Roxy Music, Meat Loaf, The Who, Thomas Dolby, Jim Croce, Hall & Oates, The Pogues, and over a dozen more. Bonus features include an audio commentary from presenters Mark Ellen and David Hepworth, reminiscences from the artists, and a gallery.

As someone raised on Queen’s greatest hits albums (you know – the red and the blue – it’s wonderful to go back and discover all of the fantastic album tracks they had, particularly from their breakthrough album, A Night At The Opera (Hollywood Records, $24.98 SRP). It was serendipity that I viewed an in-depth documentary on the making of this landmark album just as it was getting a completely remastered special edition release, featuring not only a crystal clear version of the original album, but a bonus DVD with remastered 5.1 surround and music videos (including the classic “Bohemian Rhapsody” video).

If you’re looking for the high stakes tension and drama of 24 with a decidedly British feel, then you’re going to want to check out the UK spy thriller MI-5, whose third season (BBC, Not Rated, DVD-$79.98 SRP) is now available for adrenaline junkies the world over. The 5-disc set features all 10 episodes, plus commentaries, cast & crew interviews, deleted scenes, and behind-the-scenes featurettes. Hey, at least it’s something to catch up on when you’re filling time between Bauer-a-thons.

In recent years, I’ve been more annoyed with Nic Cage flicks than enamored, but I did enjoy Lord of War (Lion’s Gate, Rated R, DVD-$30.98 SRP), which stars Cage as an arms agent who reaches a brick wall that even he, with all of his skills, may be unable to scale. As far as bonus features go, the 2-disc special edition contains an audio commentary with director Andrew Niccol, deleted scenes, a pair of making-of documentaries, a featurette on weapons, and trailers.

The BBC’s CG science and speculation Walking With… series continues with an exploration of the creatures that populated the earth prior to the rise of the dinosaurs, Before the Dinosaurs: Walking With Monsters (BBC, Not Rated, DVD-$19.98 SRP). The 26-foot sea scorpions are still freaking me out. The disc also contains a 30-minute making-of documentary focusing on the making of all 3 Walking With… specials.

I’m sure, somewhere, there was an exec that thought The Man (New Line, Rated PG-13, DVD-$27.98 SRP) was a can’t miss concept – A comedy starring the unlikely partnering of Samuel L. Jackson and Eugene Levy when a case of mistaken identity leads a group of arms dealers to believe that dental salesman Levy is an arms buyer, forcing Jackson’s tough-as-nails federal agent with little choice but to keep the misunderstanding going if he wants to make the bust. Oh, the comedy that… should have ensued. Unfortunately, it’s a listless enterprise that invokes all of the worst black/white cliches you can imagine. Ah well… Not everything’s a sure thing. Bonus features include behind-the-scenes featurettes, deleted scenes, and a blooper reel.

Do yourself a favor and put and lingering memories of the wretched American version out of your head when digging into the hilarious 3rd & 4th seasons of the original UK version of Men Behaving Badly (BBC, Not Rated, DVD-$19.98 SRP each). Martin Clunes & Neil Morrissey are brilliant as the slovenly, testosterone-laden flatmates Gary and Tony, to whom the touchy-feely 90’s were merely an annoyance. You’ll love it. Bonus features are limited to quizzes that, thankfully, at least reward you with outtakes from the show.

Saddle-up! They’re not the season sets most were hoping for, but at least we’re finally getting some classic Gunsmoke on DVD via a pair of 3-disc sets (Paramount, Not Rated, DVD-$36.99 SRP each) celebrating the show’s 50th(!) anniversary. Volume 1 contains 17 episodes from the first 9 seasons, while Volume 2 features a dozen from seasons 10-19. Both sets feature special episode intros from James Arness, gag reels, audio commentaries, interviews, Emmy footage, documentaries, promos, and more. While you’re at it, make sure you grab the complete third season of Have Gun Will Travel (Paramount, Not Rated, DVD-$50.99 SRP).

Titus (Anchor Bay, Not Rated, DVD-$39.98 SRP) was one of those shows whose longevity baffled me – here was a show that was just too dark, too subversive, and too funny to avoid the network axe (much like Arrested Development’s avoidance of the be-suited reaper). I mean com on – a sitcom with an abusive father and schizophrenic mother, and even Phyllis Diller? The 21-episodes comprising the third and final season are collected in a 4-disc set, with cast interviews and commentary from Christopher Titus and creators Brian Hargrove and Jack Kenny.

Though far from a great film, one of the best, quirkiest things to come out of Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic were the Portuguese versions of classic David Bowie hits performed by Seu Jorge. All of those tracks and more are featured on The Life Aquatic Studio Sessions (Hollywood Records, $18.98 SRP), and is definitely worth picking up.

By the second season of Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (Warner Bros., Not Rated, DVD-$59.98 SRP), the soap opera element – always intended to be the main thrust of the show, anyway – really began to take hold, and left very little for viewers who wanted a little bit of superhero action with the bubbly. Still, the show enjoyed its greatest success this season, becoming a hit with audiences who, sadly, loved the bubbly. The 6-disc set features an audio commentary with Dean Cain, a season 2 retrospective featurette, and a featurette focusing on the show’s fans.

It’s a shame when a great film with an amazing performance falls through the cracks, but I think that’s just what’s happened with Hustle & Flow (Paramount, Rated R, DVD-$29.95 SRP). Terence Howard delivers a powerful performance as DJay, a pimp caught between impending fatherhood and the street life who, after a chance encounter with an old school friend, realizes there may be more to his dead end life than he’d dare to hope for. Just check it out. Bonus features include an audio commentary with writer/director Craig Brewer, behind-the-scenes featurettes, footage from the Memphis premiere, and promotional spots.

By the third season of Doogie Howser, M.D. (Anchor Bay, Not Rated, DVD-$39.98 SRP), star Neil Patrick Harris had begun to age out of the cute concept of a baby-faced doctor prodigy and the show was forced to deal with Doogie’s virginity, moving out on his own, girlfriend issues – you know, all that growing up stuff. You go, Doogie. Bonus features include new interviews with Harris and James Sikking.

Well, it took awhile, but eventually a zombie flick had to be merged with hard-partying teens on a spring break jaunt in Mexico, and that’s just what All Souls Day (Anchor Bay, Not Rated, DVD-$19.98 SRP) delivers in gory spades. Horror fans will dig it. Bonus features include an audio commentary with director Jeremy Kasten and producer Mark Altman, behind-the-scenes featurettes, deleted/extended scenes, and a trailer.

So what are the three albums featured in this week’s soundtrack round-up? Well, if there’s a new Spielberg film, then there must – the law states – be a John Williams release, and in this case it’s the score for Munich (Decca, $18.98 SRP). Spielberg-related (tangentially) is the original cast album for the Broadway version of The Color Purple (Angel Records, $18.98 SRP). Finally, there’s the soundtrack album for Capote (RCA/Legacy, $18.49 SRP), which features both Mychael Danna’s score as well as 1964 recordings of the real Truman Capote reading excerpts from In Cold Blood.

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THE MONEY PIT - 01/13/2006

Posted by Ken in Shopping Guides (January 13, 2006 at 11:22 pm)

Another week has come to its inevitable conclusion, and we barrel into the weekend with another pulse-pounding collection of geeky acquisitions-in-waiting. Hunker down, strap in, and let’s get this train a’movin’…

It’s been a long wait, but I’m thrilled that the first season of Black Books (BBC, Not Rated, $24.98 SRP) is finally hitting the US. Giddy, in fact, since it’s one of the finest comedies – British or American – ever produced. Created, co-written by, and starring Shaun of the Dead co-star Dylan Moran it centers around the twisted world of customer-hating bookshop owner Bernard Black, a man fond of drink, swearing, antipathy, anger, but definitely not customers… Imagine if Basil Fawlty’s antisocial tendencies were given full reign and a bottle of vodka. Paired with Black is new-hire Manny (Bill Bailey), a good-natured man clearly out of his element and an easy target for Bernard’s ire and ridicule - which is only mitigated somewhat by the presence of daffy friend Fran (Tamsin Greig). Crikey, how I love this series. The complete first series features all 6 episodes from the premiere run, plus commentaries and outtakes. Here’s hoping they hurry up and release the already-available-in-the-UK second and third series post-haste.

As his covers so helpfully (and delightfully tactlessly) point out, John Swartzwelder is the writer of 59 episodes of The Simpsons – probably more by now, as he’s the most prolific writer the long-running comedy fixture has going for it (although he still stubbornly refuses to do commentaries on the DVDs, the bastard). So, right off the bat – before even reading a page of his novels – you get a sense of where the guy’s sensibilities lie. To say that I enjoyed both of his forays into self-publishing – The Time Machine Did It & Double Wonderful (Kennydale Books, $15.95 SRP) – is an understatement. Both are full of sublime comedy, while the former weaves it within a detective potboiler and the latter takes it into western territory… But not wholly in ways you would expect. If it seems like I’m dancing around it a bit, I’m hoping you’ll take me on blind faith and pick up both of these books for yourself, and be just as pleasantly surprised as I was by the narratives that unfold within them. In terms of style and wit, I will even go as far to say that both of these books could just as easily have been penned by the late, great Douglas Adams. Head over to Kennydale Books and pick up your own copies. Also, be aware that the next volume in the adventures of Frank Burly, the central character of Time Machine, is due out this spring. Its too good to pass up title? How I Conquered Your Planet. You’d be a fool to pass up a book like that. Don’t be a fool.

The seventh and (as of this writing – barring the movie or a return to TV) penultimate series of Red Dwarf (BBC, Not Rated, DVD-$44.98 SRP) was filled with changes galore. Co-creator/co-producer/co-writer Rob Grant was gone, Chris Barrie’s Rimmer was written out after the second episode (recurring sporadically throughout the series via flashbacks and dream sequences), the addition of Chloe Annett as Kochanski, the live audience was eliminated, and the series went for a more filmic look (in anticipation for the as-yet-realized movie). What resulted was a season that didn’t feel quite like the show I’d come to know and love, as there was definitely a far different vibe due largely to the missing live audience reaction an the energy that creates in the performers (the episodes were later shown to an audience and the responses recorded for the laugh tracks featured on the eps). Is the season a failure? No - it’s just… different. The stories became a lot more ambitious (the Kennedy assassination time travel tale of the premiere, and Rimmer’s departure, for example), and at least, this far in, they were willing to play with the form. And honestly – for the “Rimmer Munchkin Song” alone, this season was worth it. The 3-disc set features all 8 episodes (in both their original and extended forms), audio commentaries with the cast, a brand-new 90-minute documentary, deleted scenes, smeg-ups, featurettes, effects footage, and much more. As usual, these Dwarf releases feature some of the best bonus materials out there. Now where’s Series VIII?

I love when I run across a book that lives of to the very definition of a “coffee table book” – and by no means do I mean that as a denigration. No, what I mean is that it’s a book so fascinating that you can pick it up at any time, flip to any page, and be immediately sucked in by what you find there. Such is the case with the massive American Cities: Historic Maps and Views (Assouline, $69.95 SRP). As the title implies, this tome features incredibly rare maps of major American cities dating back to the 17th century (in the case of old New York, then a Dutch colony), presented in full color and in a large enough scale that you can pore over every minute detail. Also include are Washington, DC, Boston, San Francisco, New Orleans, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Chicago, and Denver. This is a fantastic resource and a great page turner, and I’d love to see a companion volume focusing on the great cities of England, or Europe.

Due to rights issues, there’s one film missing from MGM’s fancy Pink Panther box set released last year – and it was the film that reinvigorated the franchise after the legendary A Shot in the Dark. Newly remastered, you can now fill that glaring hole with Blake Edwards’s The Return of the Pink Panther (Universal, Rated G, DVD-$14.98 SRP). This was also the flick that inaugurated the no-holds-barred slapstick from Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau that would characterize the remaining Panther flicks.

The World According to Garp was a shot across the bow in regards to Robin Williams’ desire to be taken seriously as an actor and not just a comedian, but it wasn’t until the late 80’s that he dove in with both feet via a pair of films aimed at fully establishing him as an Oscar caliber actor – Good Morning Vietnam and Dead Poets Society (Touchstone, Rated R/Rated PG, DVD-$19.99 SRP each). Both films have finally gotten deluxe, feature-laden special editions (of the two, Vietnam is still my favorite – from the rapid-fire adlibs to its dramatic turns that resonate even more in the age we find ourselves currently living in). Vietnam features a multi-part production diary, unedited versions of Williams’ monologues, and the original theatrical trailers. Dead Poets features an audio commentary, a retrospective documentary, cinematography and sound featurettes, raw footage, and the original theatrical trailer.

There are black comedies, and then there are *black* comedies – and for the outrageously sadistic Britcom Nighty Night (BBC, Not Rated, DVD-$24.98 SRP), we’ll have to create a whole new term for just how dark its humor is – maybe “Pitch Comedy.” Julia Davis’s unflinching comedy focuses on the maniacally self-centered beautician Jill Tyrell, who immediately decides to move on with her life as soon as her husband is diagnosed with cancer… that he’s soon after given a clean bill of health doesn’t deter Jill – she just neglects to tell him that the doctor said he was fine, and instead convinces him he’s still terminal. Free in her own mind to pursue new love, she latches onto the husband (Angus Deayton) of her wheelchair-bound new neighbor (Rebecca Front) – pathologically show. What follows is a tale of lies, lust, and murder that, despite the aforementioned “pitch” bent, is extremely funny… guiltily so, in very much an “I can’t believe they did that” kind of way. The disc features all 6 episodes of the first series, plus outtakes and deleted scenes.

Unfairly cast aside as awards season takes hold, I thought The Constant Gardener (Universal, Rated R, DVD-$29.98 SRP) was one of the best films of 2005. Based on the John le Carre novel, it stars Ralph Fiennes as a diplomat on the hunt for his wife’s murderer, who instead uncovers a massive conspiracy that threatens the lives of millions. I love it when a great thriller comes along, and this certainly fits the bill. Bonus materials include deleted scenes and behind-the-scenes featurettes.

Warners continues to be the studio to beat when it comes to honoring their back-catalogue, as their spotlight falls upon a quartet of westerns under the appropriately titled Sam Peckinpah’s The Legendary Westerns Collection (Warner Bros., Rated R, DVD-$59.98 SRP), featuring Ride the High Country, The Ballad of Cable Hogue, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and the director’s cut of The Wild Bunch. All four films are fully remastered with audio commentaries and featurettes, while Pat Garrett and Wild Bunch are 2-disc editions with extensive documentaries and commentaries (Garrett features the 1988 Turner Preview Edition of the film, as well). All in all, Warners remains the studio to beat.

If you need further proof that Warners truly are the kings of catalogue releases, they’ve decided to celebrate Black History Month with three films from the vaults that were quite a rarity upon their release, focusing on black actors and stories – The Green Pastures, Cabin in the Sky, and Hallelujah (Warner Bros., Not Rated, DVD-$19.98 SRP each). All three films feature commentaries with Black Cultural Scholars and actors like LeVar Burton and Lena Horne, plus musical shorts, featurettes, and more.

While not as stunning as Warner Bros.’ treatment of their catalogue, Fox’s efforts to get their likewise extensive back-catalogue of classics into cineastes’ hands is worth praise as well, as they’ve been presenting remastered editions of titles that should be required viewing for any film fan as part of their “Cinema Classics Collection.” The latest additions to the line are the story of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in Stormy Weather, Jeanne Crain & Ethel Barrymore in Darryl Zanuck’s Pinky, and the steamy Caribbean romance and intrigue of Island in the Sun (Fox, Not Rated, DVD-$19.98 SRP each). All three films feature audio commentaries, while Island gets the A&E Biography of star Dorothy Dandridge.

This week’s soundtrack spotlight falls on the Latin-themed songfest for The Matador (Superb Records, $16.98 SRP), the perfect companion to a flick that looks to be the first positive step in Pierce Brosnan’s post-Bond career.

A natural outgrowth of the concern that brought forth the landmark Live Aid and Live 8 concerts, relief svengali Bob Geldof journeys into Africa in the 6-part documentary series Geldof in Africa (Rhino, Not Rated, DVD-$19.98 SRP). Intent on dispelling myths that have long mislabeled it as the dark continent, Geldof’s journey instead reveals a beautiful, fascinating, and varied land full of vibrancy and potential. The 2-disc set features audio commentaries, deleted scenes, a behind-the-scenes featurette, and an introduction from Geldof.

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THE MONEY PIT - 1/06/2006

Posted by Ken in Shopping Guides (January 6, 2006 at 1:33 am)

The holidays are, in many ways, thankfully over – gone is all the stress, awkwardness, and strain of a supposedly “restful” break. Ah well… They can’t all be gems. Either way, we’re back and ready to go, armed with a whole bunch of money-sapping items just waiting to burn through your post-holiday cash stash.

Over the long holiday, when I wasn’t listening to the requisite seasonal tunes, I was spinning and re-spinning the latest pair of John Lennon remasters – Walls & Bridges and Some Time In New York City (Capitol, $18.98 SRP each). The clarity of the remasters are a revelation on what traditionally have been some rather muddy albums (particularly the original CD issue of Some Time. Recorded during his “Lost Weekend,” Walls & Bridges has always been one of my favorite Lennon albums, being a far more playful beast than some of the more strident, social-minded albums of his early solo career (Some Time in New York being a prime example of that mode). Both albums contain a couple of bonus tracks, but sadly not the still-missing “Move Over Ms. L” – a not very favorable tune about Yoko written during their break-up period.

In a disappointing cinematic year (for every Batman Begins there was an Elektra or a Fantastic Four), there were a few comedies that stepped up to the plat and actually hit the ball out of the park. One was about a 40-year-old virgin, and the other was about a pair of Wedding Crashers (New Line, Not Rated, DVD-$28.98 SRP). Jeremy Grey (Vince Vaughn) and John Beckwith (Owen Wilson) are a pair of divorce mediators that use the annual wedding season to crash parties and pick up emotionally malleable women for non-committal flings. But, as you can probably see from a mile away, one of them – John - breaks their sacred “rules of wedding crashing” by falling in love at the biggest nuptials of the year – to the daughter (Rachel McAdams) of the United States Secretary of the Treasury (Christopher Walken). That leaves Grey at the mercy of her clingy sister and at odds with his best friend, as he tries to defend the rules and pull his buddy back from the brink. And then come the glorious twists… that I’ll refrain from spoiling. Why aren’t there more comedies like this in any given year? It’s like the end of a long, dark tunnel. The “uncorked” edition includes 8 ½ additional minutes, commentary with Vaughn & Wilson, deleted scenes, featurettes, an audio commentary with director David Dobkin, and also the theatrical addition of the film.

With the holidays over, the luckier among you have pockets overflowing with gift cash and cards, and an eagerness to blow it all. If you’re an anime fan, there are a couple of titles that should be near the top of your self-gifting list – first and foremost being the 21-disc Robotech: Protoculture Collection (ADV, Not Rated, DVD-$129.98 SRP). Containing – for the first time ever – the complete 85 episode run (comprising the Macross Saga, The Masters, and New Generation) completely remastered, it’s also loaded with 7 discs full of extras (including pilots, deleted scenes, rare promos, and much more). This, sans hyperbole, is the mega-set that fans have been salivating for.

If you’re not broke yet, than you probably will be after you pick up the 2nd and 3rd collection of the uncut and uncensored Gatchaman collections (ADV, Not Rated, DVD-$34.98 SRP each). Better known as Battle of the Planets here in the US, these 3-disc sets feature the 12 episodes apiece of the original Japanese versions, plus a bonus disc of extras. Alex Ross’s beautiful box art is just icing on the cake.

I don’t care if the holidays are over or not – you *MUST* pick up a copy of He-Man – She-Ra: A Christmas Special (BCI, Not Rated, DVD-$19.98 SRP). It is, simply put, one of the most mind-blowingly bizarre holiday specials ever produced, in any medium. I can’t even put into words just how disturbing it is. Just get it. It’s even got bonus materials, including a pair of documentaries, a music featurette, and collectible 4×6 art cards (by artists Phil Jimenez & David Mack). How’s them apples?

The fourth season of The Man Show (Eagle Vision, Not Rated, DVD-$19.98 SRP) marked the end of two eras – it was the final season hosted by creators Adam Corrolla and Jimmy Kimmel, and it was also the final season that was actually enjoyable. After Adam & Jimmy’s departure… well, let’s just say that their replacements weren’t nearly as fun. This 3-disc set features all 21 episodes (including the final show and best-of), plus outtakes, additional highlights, and more.

Any Bill Hicks on DVD is great, and it helps that Bill Hicks: Sane Man (Ryko, Not Rated, DVD-$19.95 SRP) – filmed before Dangerous – features a newly-sober Hicks firing on all cylinders. This DVD issue features both the original 60-minute and newly expanded cut of the film, outtakes, the story of Sane Man, previously unseen footage, and more.

When it comes to insights into the creative mind – be it filmmakers, comic artists, or writers – I continue to be impressed by the Interviews series put out by the University of Mississippi Press. Collecting a career’s worth of in-depth interviews from various sources into one tome, they provide a unique view of the creative process – and lives - of the personalities they spotlight. The latest releases focus on Sidney Lumet and Roman Polanski (University of Mississippi Press, $20.00 SRP each) and are just as essential as the previous volumes in the series.

If you’re a Queen fan, Queen: Under Review 1973-1980 (Chrome Dreams, Not Rated, DVD-$19.95 SRP) is a surprisingly in-depth analysis of the group’s output from its inception through their meteoric rise with albums like A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races and ending right at the dawn of what would be their final decade (I hope a follow-up disc is already in the works). Packed with rare footage (both interviews and performances) as well as unvarnished critical insight, it’s a welcome look at a legendary rock band.

Farscape fans who have been enjoying the feature-packed Starburst reissues should be thrilled that ADV, responding to consumer dislike of the double-sided discs of the previous editions, have opted to commence a single-sided 4-disc presentation for future sets, beginning with Season Three, Collection 1 (ADV, Not Rated, DVD-$24.98 SRP). Now, if only Universal would follow their lead and get rid of their double-sided TV-on-DVD releases.

THUNDERCATS, HOOOOOO-boy, am I embarrassed that I’ve actually been looking forward to the second volume of Thundercats’ extra-long first season (Warner Bros., Not Rated, DVD-$64.98 SRP). Does that make me sad? Come on… you can be honest with me. What if I were to tell you that I used to imagine Mumm-Ra kicking Skeletor’s bony butt? Okay… maybe that is a bit sad. Either way, this 6-disc (!) set features the reaming 32 episodes from the show’s premiere season, plus an interview with Executive Producer Arthur Rankin, Jr. about the show’s enduring appeal.

Originally a DVD release, the rare performances contained on Have You Heard Jim Croce Live (Shout! Factory, Not Rated, DVD-$11.98 SRP) finally get a CD release, and a welcome one at that. Croce was a master singer/songwriter whose career was cut short by a plane crash, but his body of work endures –and it’s true that, even though I love his album cuts, he was an amazingly charismatic live performer (much like Harry Chapin, whose career was likewise cut short by an accident). There was many a reflective night I spent during my time at NYU that I would play his “New York’s Not My Home” – followed in quick succession by Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Only Living Boy In New York.” Give it a spin and you’ll see what I mean.

I was mostly indifferent to the original Alien Nation feature film, but I absolutely dig the TV series. After re-watching the show’s complete, all-too-brief 22-episode run on DVD (Fox, Not Rated, DVD-$49.98 SRP), I’m happy to confirm that my original love for the show was well-founded, as it’s interstellar immigrant’s tale still rings true and the interplay between its two leads is still great buddy-cop material. The 6-disc set features commentary from director Kenneth Johnson on the pilot film and a behind-the-scenes featurette (tho, sadly, not the TV film that wrapped up the series a few years later).

I find it interesting that the latest Spike & Mike collection – Contagious (Shout! Factory, Not Rated, DVD-$14.98 SRP) – features a quote from Spike comparing Adult Swim to a Honda and S&M’s festival of the animated weird to a Harley Davidson – basically pointing out that a lot of that Cartoon Network’s adult animation block has stolen a lot of the uniqueness and thunder of the original bad boys of animation. Still, there are gems to be found here, and these collections are always worth checking out.

Even in its 5th season, All In The Family (Sony, Not Rated, DVD-$29.95 SRP) was still a force to be reckoned with, with scripts as sharp – and often sharper – than those of earlier seasons. This is the season that featured the “pilot” for the Jeffersons as the Bunker’s moved on out, and by the end of the year, Gloria and Mike had decided it was high time they did the same.

If you were to excise any of the charm and heart that made the American Pie trilogy more than just a teen raunch-fest, you’d get a teen raunch-fest like the direct-to-video American Pie: Band Camp (Universal, Not Rated, DVD-$26.98 SRP). Reduced to its basest qualities and set in what rapidly became an overused joke – yet, sadly, retaining the too-good-for-this Eugene Levy from the original cast – the less said about this atrocity, the better. Bonus features include outtakes, deleted scenes, a behind-the-scenes featurette, and more.

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