DVD Comment

Commentary on DVD releases, both old and new. There is a lot to like about the digital realm and in addition to examining specific titles, we will also discuss the merits of new technology like Blu-Ray and HD-DVD, as well as digital downloading.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

DVD Review - 30 Rock Season 2

There are too many highlights to 30 Rock Season 2 to list them all, and the 15 episodes in this set (the season was shortened due to the writers' strike) are more engaging and in many cases, funnier than Season 1. The show won the Emmy Award for Best Comedy Series for its second year, and Tina Fey won the well-deserved Emmy for best actress in a comedy. It's not often that the award winners are really the best in their fields, but in this case, it is so.

Season 2 begins with a guest appearance by Jerry Seinfeld and any struggling comedy show would love the endorsement of the man behind one of television's most enduring and respected shows. But the truth is that 30 Rock is not Seinfeld; its characters may be as wacky and the show may put Liz Lemon in similarly uncomfortable predicaments, but Seinfeld was about four people, and it didn't matter much what their professions were. 30 Rock is about life on a television show and its corporate bosses. Audiences need a sense of what the business roles of the characters are to understand the dynamics of the show.

While it may be slightly more complicated than Seinfeld, 30 Rock may be funnier. Tracy Morgan's character is played as both a self-absorbed celebrity and a deranged lunatic. Both are divorced from reality. When Morgan does a 12-second bit from a music video called "Werewolf Bar Mitzvah," you can see the depth of the writing, putting thought and hilarious detail into the corners of the characters' backstories.

The second season had a lot of guest stars, none of whom dominated the show in the way the guests on a show like Will & Grace did. When Carrie Fisher guested as a former comedy show writer and Liz' hero, her real-life celebrity wasn't the basis for the show; instead, her character was a way for the show to examine the depth of social commentary in television comedy today and 30 years ago. It was about the character, not the star. The same goes for David Schwimmer's guest turn as "Greenzo" (an episode that featured an appearance by Al Gore as well), and Buck Henry and Andy Ritcher as Liz' father and brother. (It helps that the show doesn't have a laugh track, or audience applause when a new guest star emerges.)

Edie Falco's arc as a love interest for Jack (Alec Baldwin) provided some of the highlights of the season. After so many years of seeing Falco as Tony Soprano's long-suffering wife, it was a pleasure to see her as a confident, powerful and funny Congresswoman. Baldwin continues to be the show's steady straight man, providing wonderful delivery of lines like "'Businesswoman? I'm not sure that's even a real word."

With the exception of Jack McBrayer and Jane Krakowski, most of the supporting cast seemed absent in the second season. A show's focus should be on its stars, and 30 Rock does a lot with Fey, Baldwin and Morgan, but with talented supporting players (used to greater effect in season 1) like Scott Adsit, Judah Friedlander, Katrina Bowden, Keith Powell, Lonny Ross, and more, it's hard not to want to see more of them and their eccentric characters. Of course, maybe the shortened season also shortened what we saw of the cast. But it's Fey's show and she commands your attention as Liz Lemon, who seems a sensible character with her own weird traits (she's more in love with food than anything). Fey clearly has a good time writing and playing a comedic version of a comedy show's head writer, and her enjoyment is infectious. Watching 30 Rock, you can't help but love Lemon and Fey.

Three moments to seek out in this group of episodes: Kenneth's party, which is only seen in brief flashbacks ("Greenzo") but is presented as the most insane gathering on screen yet; the cast singing "Midnight Train To Georgia" ("Episode 210") with Gladys Knight looking on; and Dean Winters' reappearance ("Subway Hero") as Liz' old boyfriend Dennis Duffy, who always provides some of the best moments of the season.

The DVD extras are pretty good and include one particularly special item: Video of the cast performing live in New York (during the writers' strike to raise money for their laid off staff workers). This was a very cool undertaking on its own, and for fans to be able to see this stuff demonstrates the dedication to the show's audience. Also, linger on the menu for the bonus material and you will hear the full audio for "Werewolf Bar Mitzvah."

30 Rock is the best and smartest comedy show in many years. If you're not watching it, you're really missing something. Tune in to the show in its third season and play catch up with these season two discs.

Monday, April 7, 2008

DVD Review: Battlestar Galactica Season 3

Ronald D. Moore's Battlestar Galactica is The Sopranos of science fiction.

More than just another well-made genre program, Galactica has changed the landscape for science fiction and given viewers something they've never seen before, and done so in a way that transcends the genre and is as mature - and as brutal - as what David Chase did with The Sopranos.

The original 1978 program was fun, and remains charming in a nostalgic way. But the original was fairly shallow; the characters weren't well-developed and despite the life-and-death premise of the show (a small group of survivors from a holocaust search for salvation), the mood on the show never seemed very dire. Of course, at the time, Galactica was made to cater to the 11-year-old Star Wars fans who were being merchandised to on a scale no one had ever seen before.

Enter Ronald D. Moore, one of the best writers to come out of the many Star Trek series. His work on The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine created a new standard for science fiction television, and even genre feature films often could not match the complexity and depth of the episodes he wrote. (Trek, especially Deep Space Nine, produced a wealth of great writers; DS9 is the best example of the potential of Gene Roddenberry's universe.) Moore took the original Galactica concept by Glen A. Larsen and developed it into a post-9/11 world. It's impossible to look at the show and not consider and re-consider the events of the world in the past several years. Like his hero Roddenberry, Moore has made a science-fiction show that is about now, but crafted in such a way that its stories are universal. Forty years from now, audiences will still be turning to this show for insight.

The third season of Galactica turns modern history on its head. Humans ("the good guys" - or not?) resort to suicide bombings as their land is occupied. They execute their own when they feel betrayed. They steal elections when they feel it's in the best interests of the people. They eliminate civil rights when they feel it's for the greater good. They torture prisoners. And all the while, they live in tough conditions and find themselves drinking too much and having too much sex.

In Edward James Olmos, the cast has its father figure and the show has its anchor. It would be hard to imagine a more world-weary figure than Olmos, whose presence brings the show the same kind of respectability Patrick Stewart brought to The Next Generation. Katee Sackoff plays Starbuck, and brings a rogue element to the show that the original show wanted but was never willing to go far enough to get. James Callis plays the traitor Baltar and brings humor, sadness and brilliance to the part. Among the supporting characters, it is Michael Hogan's Tigh - a throwaway character on the original show - who is the show's most remarkable player. He grips the audience in every scene he is in, and brings several dimensions to the show.

Universal's DVD sets have always left a lot to be desired. The DVDs of the original program were of the double-sided variety, which caused a lot of unplayable discs to arrive in customers' sets. The new show's DVDs have been pretty good. The transfers are nice, the sound is good and the extras are interesting. Even if you are not one to listen to commentaries, give Moore's podcasts a try, and don't forget to watch Executive Producer David Eick's video blogs - always interesting and frequently hilarious stuff. But is it really too much to ask of Universal to include scene selection menus on the discs?

If you're a fan of the show, be assured that the third season won't let you down. The four-part season opener (including the series highpoint Exodus, Parts 1 and 2) is worth the price of admission alone. If you've never seen it, start with the mini-series (included on the Season One DVD set) and go from there. Don't let the term "science fiction" stop you either; there are no bug-eyed aliens or talking muppets. This is serious stuff for an adult audience. Before long, you'll understand why the show is being labeled the best show on television -- a title that not long ago belonged to those guys from New Jersey.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Best Films of 2007

Once again, it's time for Oscar, and time to examine the best in movies in 2007. We caution again that all critical lists are subjective, so let's not take it too seriously. Our favorite films of the year are either on DVD, or are coming, as noted.

1. Enchanted. A Walt Disney picture that both sends up and celebrates the classic Disney film formula has to be a winner. Amy Adams - who was absolutely robbed of an Oscar nomination - carries this movie and makes it work. No other performance this year - not even Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood, which is one of the great movie performances in recent memory - was as essential to a film. And anyone who's ever spent time in Central Park will appreciate the movie's show-stopping "That's How You Know," since you can almost seeing it happening with New Yorkers in a good mood. Any film that lets you see the enchanted village alive in the heart of the Big Apple is deserving of your time. Susan Sarandon plays the wicked queen with glee, and James Marsden lets us see that all those Disney princes are about as exciting as the Flanders kids from The Simpsons. On DVD March 18.

2. Zodiac. David Fincher's best film to date. More than a movie about the notorious Zodiac killer from decades past (about whom numerous movies and movie characters have been based), this captures the late 60s-early 70s era and works as a procedural and a thriller. No other images on the big screen this year were as terrifying or as chilling as the scene with broad-daylight murders at the lake. Great work by Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr. and Jake Gyllenhall. On DVD now.

3. Michael Clayton. The only Best Picture nominee on our list. The movie develops interesting characters as it tells a larger story about corporate shenanigans. Great performances by George Clooney, Tilda Swinton and Tom Wilkinson highlight a film that seems like a long-lost cousin of the best dramas of the 70s, like Network, Serpico, and All the President's Men. On DVD now.

4. Ratatouille. At this point in time, we can still say that Pixar has yet to make a bad movie. In fact, they've made nothing but great movies. If Brad Bird - director of The Incredibles and The Iron Giant, both classics - can make a concept like this work (a rat makes delicious food), you know there are more great films to come. The animation is brilliant and will look even better when you get it home on those high-def TVs. On DVD now.

5. In the Valley of Elah. Much was written this year about how audiences didn't turn out for war-themed pictures, and this one got lost in the bunch. No box office smash, Elah was the best of them. Tommy Lee Jones - in one of the best performances of his career - plays the father of a murdered Iraq war veteran who decides to uncover what happened to his boy. Charlize Theron continues her streak of choosing great, unconventional parts. The movie's last sequence is the kind of social commentary that has been missing from movies for 30 years. On DVD now.

6. The Simpsons Movie. From the show that premiered nineteen years ago comes a movie that proves dedication to satire and wit can bring longevity. Matt Groening's characters really made the big screen their own, busting out of those tiny boxes in living rooms around the world. The animation is beautiful and way beyond what you're seeing on the small screen. The panoramic views of Alaska are worthy of the best Disney animation, while the satire is worthy of Mel Brooks at his best. On DVD now.

7. American Gangster. Ridley Scott's epic put Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe - arguably the best two actors working today - against each other, with great results. A subtle performance from Crowe, and a broad one from Washington, in a true crime story about one of Harlem's biggest drug dealers of the 1970s. On DVD now.

8. Superbad. The best comedy of the year. The humor was often crude, but the film still managed to pull out a story about friendship and innocence that we never saw in the crude movies of old. This is not a successor to Porky's, but rather is in line with Judd Apatow's great comedies of the past few years, including The 40-Year-Old Virgin and this year's Knocked Up. Michael Cera - also good this year in Juno - and Jonah Hill are the buddies who are trying to - what else? - get beer and meet girls. And if you think that sounds like a movie you've seen a hundred times before, you haven't met McLovin. On DVD now.

9. Blades of Glory. One of Will Ferrell's best efforts, and that's saying a lot. Jon Heder co-stars as Ferrell's ice-skating competitor in a comedy that (finally!) doesn't feel like one more Saturday Night Live skit gone too long. Great dialogue, hilarious stunts, and a wicked turn by Amy Poehler and Will Arnet as a slimy brother-and-sister skating team. On DVD now.

10. Live Free Or Die Hard. Who would have thought that the granddaddy of the modern action movie still had it? But Bruce Willis brings John McClane back to life after 12 years, and we can see why he's still welcome. Perhaps of the best of the average-guy characters in action films, McClane once again finds himself in situations worse than anyone could imagine. Justin Long is terrific as a geeky sidekick, with one-liners as funny as McClane. Parts of the film strain credibility even for a Die Hard movie, but this is perhaps the only sequel (in a year bursting at the seams with them) that didn't disappoint. On DVD now.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

DVD Review: The Man From U.N.C.L.E. - The Complete Series

One year after dazzling DVD fans with the release of Get Smart: The Complete Series (see review here), Time Life has done it again with another '60s spy series with similar elements of adventure, humor and style: The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

At a time when U.S. aggression has made it very unpopular around the world, U.N.C.L.E. resonates, as its characters aren't trying to make the world safe for just American interests, but rather for those of the world. (The "U.N." in the title is no mistake.) The main characters are an American and a Russian - backgrounds that should have made for bitter enemies during the Cold War of 1964 (when the show premiered), but instead made for great working partners and friendship. The message then, as now, is that if these men can work together, anyone can, and everyone has interests that are greater than those of nationalism.

The United Network Command for Law & Enforcement is the organization that employs Napolean Solo (Robert Vaughn) and Ilya Kuryakin (David McCallum), and sends them to all corners of the globe in matters of espionage and intrigue. Vaughn and McCallum bring a lot to the series, and they were among the first on television to have cult followings. Watching these episodes, it's easy to see why. Both men have a charm and a sophisication that's evident. But their characters aren't flawless: Solo gets tripped up on occasion by emotional attachments, and Kuryakin is sometimes overconfident.

Much has been made of the fact that the show's best episodes were in the first and second seasons, and that the third season descended into camp. While it is true that the third season has weaker moments and made more attempts at humor, it is fun in its own way. The fourth, shortened season does its best to return the show to its roots. Whatever shortfalls it may have had, U.N.C.L.E. can sit proudly among its '60s spy counterparts: The Avengers, Secret Agent/Danger Man, I Spy, Get Smart and The Prisoner.

Time Life's set contains just about everything a fan of the show could ask for: clean, crisp transfers, hours and hours of bonus materials, and a cool - if not very convenient - package that puts all four season sets inside a briefcase. With complete series sets of U.N.C.L.E. and Get Smart under its belt, Time Life is going to have to work extra hard to impress fans with their offering for 2008. (Perhaps the long-missing-on-DVD Batman, with Adam West, could fit the bill; getting it out of rights hell alone would be a heroic feat.)

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.- The Complete Series is highly recommended.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

DVD Review: Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers - Runnin' Down A Dream

There are few rock musicians whose careers have had the vitality of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. There are even fewer that have withstood the pitfalls of life in the music business for more than 30 years and stayed on top of it.

In Peter Bogdanovich's new film Runnin' Down a Dream, the story of Petty and the Heartbreakers is laid out over four hours, from very humble beginnings in Gainesville, Florida, in the mid-1970s, to superstardom by the early 1980s, to changing the way the record industry does business, to battles with drugs and alcohol, becoming contemporaries with their heroes, to being one of the last bands standing that still remain true to the mission they set out for themselves all those years ago.

Runnin' Down a Dream is both exhaustive and exhilarating. Unlike many rock and roll stories, much of the drama and changes in Petty's keeps coming up to the present day. Which is not to suggest they ever had it easy - battles with the record company started as soon as the band was hitting it big, and twice Petty held his ground and changed the way business was done. The first time, he was seeking independence for himself and his songwriting, not unlike Bruce Springsteen's fabled battles with his former manager, and the second time, he held ground on increases in record prices. Petty wouldn't allow his label to institute an industry-wide price increase on the back of his band's latest highly anticipated release, a battle he won in 1981.

Petty and his bandmates - most notably Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench and Stan Lynch - are forthcoming in this documentary. While the purpose of the film is to celebrate their achievements, it's no puff piece; all the warts and scars are here in plain view, such as Petty and Lynch's disagreements which led to Lynch being fired from the band, the hurt feelings and bitterness over Petty's solo work, and various members' use of drugs, including the death of longtime bassist Howie Epstein in 2003.

The film contains interviews with music industry pros, such as Rick Rubin and Jimmy Iovine (two of the most important players in the business, both of whom produced records for Petty), and other Hall of Fame artists, like George Harrison, Roger McGuinn, Stevie Nicks and Jackson Browne. The band's growth is seen in their collaborations with legends like Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash. Each time the band goes through a period of working with their heroes, you can see them come out different. The film tracks them going from one phase to the next, throughout their career, and the evolution is evident.

One of the most amazing surprises in the movie is the amount of previously unseen footage, very often in the most unlikely of places. The interrogation room in a German airport where the band is questioned on their first tour of Europe? It's here. In the studio with Stevie Nicks recording "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around"? Yup. Recording with Johnny Cash? Check. Fly-on-the-wall stuff at the famed sessions for the Traveling Wilburys? You got it. There's even footage from a meeting with a pissed-off Petty, McGuinn and the A&R man from his record label, who is trying to get them to record a song Petty thinks is a stinker.

The picture that is presented is one of a band - not a group of musicians who have simply played together for a long time, but rather a unified band. There are several times as their story unfolds that you realize the band wouldn't have made it but for Petty's foresight, Campbell's skill, or Tench's tenacity. Credit also goes to original bassist Ron Blair, who (perhaps unknowingly) prevents the band's undoing after Epstein's death by rejoining after 20 years out of the music business. Throughout it all, the music is a constant, as is the band's dedication to it.

Strangely, the distribution for this film is at odds with its subject matter. How is it that the man who held the line against corporate greed when it wanted to increase his album prices by $1 can have the DVD of this film sold exclusively at Best Buy? That action is plainly inconsistent with what we come away from the film knowing about Petty.

That aside, the film itself is one of the great rock and roll documentaries. It may be in excess of four hours, but you'll find yourself not wanting it to end, just to see Petty and his bandmates triumph over adversity and play those great songs from their legendary songbook.

More info: Mudcrutch Farm

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

DVD Review: Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip - The Complete Series

In the opening segment of the pilot for Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip, Judd Hirsch plays a producer of a late-night live comedy sketch show who is arguing with a standards and practices guy (a censor) over a skit; he's ordered to pull a sketch that the censor says might be offensive to some people. Enraged, he bursts on to the set when the show goes live and gives a Network-style diatribe over what's wrong with television in general. "This show used to be cutting edge social and political satire!" he says, and the point is made: Studio 60, from the outset, was to be just that, and wanted to be smart, relevant television - the kind we rarely see anymore.

And it was.

For 22 episodes, Studio 60 was among the very best things on television. No, it wasn't always funny - it wasn't supposed to be. But audience expectations are vital to how the show is perceived, and when viewers saw a show about a late-night comedy sketch show that wasn't a comedy, the fix was in. Nevermind that NBC never gave the show its due: It was burdened with a crappy timeslot from the beginning (Mondays at 10pm, opposite Monday Night Football) and followed a show that - while popular - didn't appeal to the same audience (Heroes). By the time NBC pulled the series and brought it back to burn off the rest of its episodes on Thursdays, the decision had already been made to kill it.

As a result, the smartest show on TV since The West Wing went away, and signaled the rest of the studios that smart TV - that is, TV that doesn't flinch from controversial topics and which keeps social and political satire alive - wasn't viable. Aaron Sorkin, who created both Studio 60 and The West Wing, fought the good battle.

Like NBC's 30 Rock (see below), Studio 60 was an outstanding show that just happened to be about a late-night comedy program. But where 30 Rock brings the audience that satire in 21 minutes of nonstop comedy brillance, Studio 60 presented a complex set of characters through which viewers could see their own culture. Any show about TV producers that can present meaningful commentary about the war in Iraq, the religious right's culture wars and other timely topics is one that can turn any issue on its head and make it fresh.

In what some will see as another sign of the show's doomed-from-the-start bad luck, it starred Matthew Perry, who was excellent in his role as the show's executive producer and head writer, but who brought with him the baggage of Friends. That this show didn't get renewed is sure to bring up the "Friends curse," which is the same as the "Seinfeld curse," referring to stars of former sitcoms starting new projects that fail. But anyone who saw half an episode would know that Perry leaves Chandler in the dust. The guy is capable of so much more than Friends (which was a good sitcom) would ever allow.

The rest of the cast was also great. Bradley Whitford, just off of The West Wing, played Perry's partner and co-executive producer. He also brought a dimension to his character that wasn't present in Josh Lyman, the White House aide he played for seven years. Amanda Peet, Steven Weber, D.L. Hughley, Timothy Busfield and Nathan Corddry all had moments to shine in the series, but it was Sarah Paulson, playing Perry's ex-girlfriend and the show's lone Christian player, who really jumped off the screen and stole every scene she was in. Her character and Perry's fought constantly, were on opposite sides of most issues and had a history of hurt between them, but the actors made their relationship credible and honest.

Back in the 1970s, when his show Star Trek was flourishing in syndication, creator Gene Roddenberry was asked about the competition from another show that was seen as similiar, Space: 1999. Rather than play to the horse race that the press loves to generate, Roddenberry said he thought the fans were lucky, because they got to watch two good shows, if they wanted.

Sadly, fans of 30 Rock and Studio 60 no longer have that option.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

DVD Review: 30 Rock - Season One

Much has been made of the fact that NBC launched two series last year that dealt with fictitious Saturday Night Live-type programs, Aaron Sorkin's Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip, and Tina Fey's 30 Rock. Both were excellent programs that deserved to survive. Sorkin's didn't, but fortunately for audiences, Fey's did and went on to win the Emmy for Best Comedy Series last month.

The first season of 30 Rock recalls the great HBO series The Larry Sanders Show in the way it presents a behind-the-scenes view of a variety program, as well as NBC's sitcom classic Seinfeld in the way it presents a variety of eccentric characters who may work in television but act like normal folks going to work everyday. You'd never know Fey's Liz Lemon was running a live comedy show every week by the way she dresses, the food she eats, the movies she enjoys and the men she dates. Fey is hilariously uncomfortable in her own skin, and her conflict between the creative and corporate aspects of her life are at the heart of the show.

Alec Baldwin, long an SNL host, won a Golden Globe for his portrayal of the corporate executive that has taken a liking to Lemon and her staff but who also wants to mold the show with his corporate vision, which includes GE ovens. Baldwin's character Jack Donaghy is exactly the type to showcase how corporations have seeped into every surface of our lives.

Tracy Morgan, another SNL vet who is memorable even from small parts, such as in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, gives his character of Tracy Jordan his raging best. Jordan is certifiably crazy, but Lemon has had him forced onto her show by Jack, in an effort to boost ratings. In one episode, Lemon's white guilt brings her to ask Jordan if he can read. Seeing an opportunity to cut out of work early every day to get "tutoring," Jordan asserts "I can't read, Liz Lemon!" In another episode, he invites his co-workers to a party on board a yacht -- one he doesn't own.

The rest of the cast is outstanding as well. Jane Krakowski's Jenna is vain and clueless. Her attempt to convince her boss she's only 29, and her ploys to get what she wants by using her "sexuality," make for a number of embarrassing - and very funny - moments. Jack McBrayer's Kenneth is an innocent farmboy working in the big city, and through him, we see everyone else's faults. Baldwin's Jack becomes fascinated by Kenneth, someone so pure that it upsets the balance at the top of the corporate ladder.

There have been plenty of great guest-stars as well, adding to the show's fun. (The second season opener featured Jerry Seinfeld.) Isabella Rossellini did a couple of great guest spots in season one, much better (and more substantial) than her appearance on Friends all those years ago.

The show's writing has been as consistent and as funny as the best sitcoms - and you could hardly expect less from Fey, one of SNL's best writers in its 30-year history. It's also a very smart show - listen to the references that are thrown in (Jack tells Liz he's busy one night, attending "Ann Coulter's 60th birthday party").

The show's longevity is not assured however, and this second year will establish it or not. But as the Season One DVD collection demonstrates, this is a show as good as anything that has come before it, and which deserves to finish out in style - say, maybe seven or eight years from now.