My computer was at the Apple Store being repaired so I'm cramming in two weeks of columns in one week and I'll try to be less windy than usual. So here goes....
The Best TV Box Set of the Year -- Studio One Anthology ($99.98; Koch/Archive Of American Television) is easily one of the most welcome TV boxed sets in years. Critics often talk knowingly of Jack Paar and Ernie Kovacs and the glory days of live television. But the truth is most of us are too young to really know much of anything about the early days of television except for what we've read in books. A classic example is Studio One, the great live drama anthology that ran on CBS for almost a decade from 1948 to 1958. This set contains 17 of the show's best hour-long dramas, including Sal Mineo in Dino, a young Jack Lemmon in June Moon and the original 12 Angry Men. The prints are great, the set is bursting with extras and we can finally WATCH these memorable performances rather than just read about them. And while I've always read that this series was especially focused on lively visuals (rather than just filming a stagey sort of performance), now I can see it for myself. This isn't just for scholars: it's highly entertaining, whether you're watching Charlton Heston (almost a permanent member of the cast) in Wuthering Heights or the great but little known Francis L. Sullivan as King Herod in Pontius Pilate. A feast.
Wall-E vs. Panda Death Match -- Two terrific animated films come to DVD. I knew Wall-E ($39.99 for the Special Edition; Disney) was a knock-out. The first 40 or so minutes are so pure and perfect I can't help feeling a little let down when we head to the spaceship and the movie starts being populated with people who talk. Wall-E's bleeps and blurps had me at bleep. But the overall structure is solid and the switch to a more conventional storyline not so jarring on repeated viewing. And this is a lovely film. The bounteous extras include a so-so short called "Burn-E," about a robot trying to make repairs who is stymied in his efforts by the events of the main film. The real surprise for me was Kung Fu Panda Two Pack ($34.98; Dreamworks), a massive blockbuster that I wanted to see but somehow missed. It turns out to be a delight as well. I didn't expect it to rival Wall-E and it's not quite that good but it might very well make my list of the best films of the year. The animation is slyly amusing, the storyline witty and sweet and -- here's the kicker -- the action set pieces are probably the best I've seen all year (including Indiana Jones and Bond). The fight over a dumpling is a particular highlight. Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, and David Cross are among the voice talents that shine. The only problem is that Angelina Jolie and Lucy Liu are stars but not voice actors and so their characters make little impression. Movie star does not equal talent for cartoons. This bonus set includes a separate DVD with most of the same talent in a 24 minute short called Secrets of the Furious Five that is not as elaborately animated but engaging and fun, along with other extras.
Diminishing Returns -- Several franchises faltered creatively. The animated Star Wars shorts on TV were fun in small bites. But Star Wars: The Clone Wars Special Edition ($34.98; Warner Bros.) proved repetitive and dull on the big screen. Hellboy II: The Golden Army ($34.98; Universal) failed to capture the modest, B movie charm of the original, though I'm still confident Guillermo Del Toro is the right man for The Hobbit. Both of these movies are stuffed with extras and include a bonus digital copy you can download for your computer or other device. And The Sisterhood Of The Traveling Pants 2 ($28.98; Warner Bros.) was like a high school reunion. Everyone's a little older and doing their own thing and you want to hang out but just don't have as much in common anymore.
Comedy + Big Budgets = Disaster -- Why are big budgets the enemy of comedy? From the exhausting all-star efforts of the 50s and 60s like It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World to Steven Spielberg's 1941 and now Ben Stiller's Tropic Thunder Director's Cut ($34.98; Dreamworks), there's something about a big budget that just kills the spontaneity and lightness that comedy demands. TT has a painfully convoluted plot (actors in a war movie on location are sent into the jungle to be filmed while facing hardships only to be facing real drug runners who are actually big fans of the action film star's godawful stab at an Oscar by playing a mentally challenged farm hand...) that goes to a whole lot of bother for very little. Robert Downey Jr. is indeed hilarious playing a Russell Crowe-type actor in black face but it's hardly worth slogging through the film to see it. Do any big budget comedies work? Ghostbusters springs to mind, but precious little else.
Disney Gems -- Few studios do as good a job presenting the titles in their catalog with care and enthusiasm as Disney. Case in point: their Walt Disney Treasures series, which packages cartoons and TV shows and specials in tin collectable cases that make a fanboy's heart beat fast. The best here is Dr. Syn: The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh ($32.99; Disney) a three-part TV special about a British man of the cloth by day and smuggler by night in the 1700s who protects the villagers in his seaside town from the rapacious King of England. Patrick McGoohan (just before Secret Agent and The Prisoner ensured his fame) is notably good as the do-gooder. What's striking today is how adult and mature this "family fare" seems. There's no comic relief, no pandering to children; just a daring tale told with seriousness. Extras include the UK theatrical edition. The Mickey Mouse Club Presents Annette ($32.99; Disney) is the entire 20 episode series of shorts that aired during the show's third season telling the story of a girl who moves from the country to the suburbs. Annette was always the breakout star of the show and this showcased her perfectly, even launching her music career. Finally, The Chronological Donald Volume Four: 1951-1961 ($32.99; Disney) contains 31 shorts, some of them Oscar-winning and shown in their widescreen format for the first time since originally airing in movie theaters.
TV Boxed Sets Done Right, Done Okay, and Done Horribly Wrong -- My campaign against stupidly designed, bulky boxed sets that prove wildly impractical for the people who own them continues. I Dream Of Jeannie: The Complete Series ($174.95; Sony) is an almost laughably good/bad example of what I'm talking about. The show itself has a certain dated, sexy charm but fans will only be frustrated by this set's design. It's a cheap, cardboard giant genie bottle, complete with a goofy cardboard stopper to insert in the top. You'd literally have to clear off a mantle to put this anywhere; it certainly won't fit on a bookcase or DVD rack. It's also very flimsy, with the DVDs themselves resting in an accordion-style case that flops over and threatens to tear every time you take it out. The DVDs are color-coded so you can see them by season but simply taking out a disc to play it is a laborious, dangerous affair. Disastrous. Get Smart: The Complete Series is the exact opposite. Yes, it's encased in a goofy sort of phone booth with doors that slide open or pull aside. But it fits neatly onto most shelving, takes up relatively little space and best of all each season is contained in its own beautiful looking cases that can be pulled out and stored in your library with ease. The show itself hasn't dated so well. A best-of disc would give me everything I want. But for fans, this is lovingly presented, with commentary from Mel Brooks and Buck Henry among others adding to the fun. Star Trek Season Three Remastered Edition ($84.98; Paramount) is the third and last season of the original classic sci-fi show. I hate the new special effects they've added in to "spruce up" a show that didn't need any sprucing. Classic sci-fi doesn't endure because of cutting edge special effects. It endures because of great characters and a great story. On top of that, the casing for this is compact and well-sized but the DVDs themselves are a real pain to pull out. As you can see, I like compact packaging and a low price with the entire series available in one set. Sony came through with some classic TV shows, almost to a fault. NewsRadio, Good Times and Sanford and Son ($59.95 each; Sony) fulfill all my wishes almost too well. The casing is a cardboard exterior with the discs themselves housed in an ultra-cheap plastic tray with every disc stacked on top of each other like LPs on a spindle. I'm not sure what that will mean for scratching down the road. But you know what? I don't care. You get the entire series of each show for a very cheap price and they'll fit on your shelf neatly and compactly with no fuss. Loads of extras come on the discs themselves. Would a giant radio housing all of NewsRadio in a plastic case that would have to go into my closet and bump up the price $20 more make it better? Not to me. Keep 'em coming, I say.
Classic Movies -- "Mastered in HD" is the new calling card for reissues of classic films they want you to buy again. And frankly, if you're a big fan of the films it's worth it since DVDs remastered with care in high definition from an original camera negative do look terrific. I don't need any other reason to watch Buster Keaton's The General again (($29.95; Kino). It's one of the all-time greats (and maybe an example of a big budget comedy that actually works?) and this new HD print includes three different scores to choose from, intros by Gloria Swanson and Orson Welles, video tours of the train and filming locations and more. An essential. Paramount has three gems also mastered in HD. More recent movies don't show as dramatic an improvement but they still look great. Roman Holiday and Sabrina show Audrey Hepburn in top form (though I find Sabrina a tad dated today, she still charms) and Sunset Boulevard is a gothic gem from Billy Wilder. All are two-disc editions loaded with extras ($24.99; Paramount) but Sunset is the only one with a commentary track, this one by my friend Ed Sikov, the author of the acclaimed, best-selling Wilder biography On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times Of Billy Wilder. Roberto Rossellini: Director's Series ($29.98; Lionsgate) contains two movies (Where Is Freedom and Escape By Night) from the neo-realist director I've never been terribly fond of. I am however a huge fan of the iconoclastic Derek Jarman Collection ($79.95; Kino), which includes three of his groundbreaking films (Sebastiane, The Tempest and War Requiem) and the loving 2008 documentary by his friends Isaac Julien and Tilda Swinton. I confess I've yet to watch the classic French swashbuckler Fanfan La Tulipe (($29.95; Criterion) because I can't get the awful recent remake with Penelope Cruz out of my head yet. But the print looks great and Criterion always take tremendous care. If you like The Three Musketeers, check it out. Isabelle Huppert always pushes boundaries and that's never more compelling than when the restrictions are great. Hence the success of her Madame Bovary ($29.98; Koch) with Claude Chabrol. This new edition includes a substantial documentary on Huppert herself. Finally, The Boys In The Band ($26.98; Paramount) has had a strange career. It began as a groundbreaking film, turned into a relic that people saw as horribly dated but has now become a sometimes camp sometimes poignant record of a time and place when depicting gay people openly on screen (however self-hating) was revolutionary.
More TV Done Right -- The Complete Monty Python's Flying Circus Collector's Edition ($159.95; A&E) is no more than the lads deserve, a new slightly more compact edition of their groundbreaking, wall-breaking and indeed ceiling-breaking TV series, along with loads and loads of extras. It's got some new fine extras, but if you have the previous slightly more sprawling edition, you needn't feel envy. But if you don't own that one, this set is essential -- TV sketch comedy doesn't get and won't get and couldn't get any better than this. But that's the sort of care you'd expect someone to take with such a massively influential and popular show. How nice to see care taken with something as relatively obscure as M Squad: The Complete Series ($119.98; Timeless/Universal). Lee Marvin's no-nonsense cop show set in Chicago and running for 117 episodes captures a grittiness and jazzy insouciance that later shows can't match despite all their flailing camera angles. You get every episode in a nice compact box and even a CD soundtrack including the classic theme by Count Basie. Well done.
Can you think of any big budget comedies like Ghostbusters that were actually funny?