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Aisle Seat Holiday Gift Guide Part Three

From BUFFY to STAR TREK, more DVD goodness!

By Andy Dursin

Still reading? Good! Time to wrap up our annual season's highlights with a look at TV titles newly unveiled on DVD, a few assorted titles just for kids, and what's new from Paramount.

Please see the preceding columns: Part One and Part Two.

Small Screen On TV

One of the more welcome recent developments on DVD has been the rise in popular TV series coming to the small-screen. 2002 will see the release of titles like MASH and STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION on DVD, but in the meantime, we've seen several examples of small-screen fare seeking to recapture their viewers' initial interest in the digital format.

Paramount has just concluded their release of STAR TREK: THE ORIGINAL SERIES on DVD, finishing up with four volumes culled from the series' goofy, colorful, and sometimes unintentionally amusing third season.

As with all of their prior Trek DVDs, each disc ($19.98 each) has been newly remastered with beautiful new transfers and 5.1 Dolby Digital mixes that wonderfully open up the sound field for stereo without adding needless new effects.

Volume 37 offers the fairly enjoyable episode "The Lights of Zetar," centering on a newly-arrived Starfleet Lieutenant (Jan Shutan) and her possession by an alien presence from a recently-destroyed planetoid. Chief among the pleasures here is watching Scotty's giddy crush on his young love, enabling James Doohan to succumb to some hilarious cliched writing. Speaking of that, "Lambchop" creator Shari Lewis (!) penned this episode with her husband, Jeremy Tarcher, while David Gerrold provided the story for the disc's companion episode, "The Cloud Minders," which is fairly forgettable but does offer some interesting sets (it's a predictable tale of a rich, aristocratic government that literally lives in the clouds vs. the poor working people they enslave below).

Volume 38 pairs the insanely hilarious, dated love-in "The Way to Eden" with the sometimes just-as-funny "Requiem For Methuselah," the latter best appreciated for one of William Shatner's most over-the-top performances ("love me!") of the entire series. "Eden," though, is the main draw here -- best known as the "Hippies on the Enterprise" episode, it's supremely memorable for Spock's jam session with the young, misunderstood peace-folk (including, ironically enough, future "Rambo II" villain Charles Napier!). Definitely recommended for fans!

Volume 39 offers not one but two of season three's few seriously "good" episodes: the Gene Roddenberry co-authored "The Savage Curtain," with alien being Yarnek pitting Captain Kirk and Abraham Lincoln (!) against assorted evil scum from around the universe in a test of man's abilities, and "All Our Yesterdays," with guest star Mariette Hartley in a time-travel yarn written by a UCLA librarian! (The heroine of the episode, of course, is also a librarian).

The series wraps up with Volume 40, which is highly recommended to die-hard Trekkers and even casual fans who may own just a few episodes of the series. Wrapping up the third and final season of Trek, "The Turnabout Intruder" is one of the program's most hilarious episodes -- featuring arguably the definitive overwrought Shatner performance - - as deranged ex-Kirk flame Janice Lester desires to take control of the Enterprise by switching bodies with our beloved Captain. The end result culminates in a courtroom trial and laughs for all.

On a serious note, the DVD also includes the series' very FIRST episode, "The Cage," in dual versions to boot.

The B&W/Color version of the series' rejected first pilot offers the initial home video release version, as introduced by Gene Roddenberry and released to video in the mid '80s.

Combining color footage from "The Menagerie" with what was believed to be, at the time, the only surviving footage of the pilot (in rough B&W), this version is presented here primarily for prosperity, since the DVD includes the fully-restored "The Cage," with the newly-discovered, "lost" color footage seen for the first time. The sound has also been remixed for 5.1 in one of the most impressive Dolby Digital remastered soundtracks of the entire series.

Discs of "The Next Generation" are expected to follow later in 2002, with Paramount reportedly aiming to release the DVDs one season at a time. In the interim, if you've waited for the entire Original Series to be released before collecting it, now's the time to start buying!

The release of Tim Burton's PLANET OF THE APES sparked interest in the fondly- remembered (but not very good) 1974 CBS TV series, which Fox has released in its entirety as a four-disc DVD release ($49.98).

Featuring all 14 episodes (including the unaired "The Liberator"), this basic simplification of the Arthur P. Jacobs film series is essentially "The Fugitive" on the Planet of the Apes, with astronauts Ron Harper and James Naughton as the newly-arrived humans on a planet where apes enslave man. Roddy McDowall is back, this time as the playful primate Galen, in a role that provides the program with its only real energy. The stories are basic and characterizations are at a minimum, but kids and die-hard Apes fans will still likely enjoy the program, which I recall fondly through its TV-movie recyclings that aired when I was a kid (with titles like "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Justice on the Planet of the Apes" and "Treachery and Greed on the Planet of the Apes"!).

Fox's DVD box-set features so-so transfers and mono soundtracks, plus trailers for each individual episode.

The studio has done a more elaborate job packaging the first season of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER ($39.98) on DVD, which is due out on January 15 and should prove to be a must-have for all fans of the show -- as well as new viewers who might have missed the start of the program's run and want to start fresh.

Speaking of that, I've always found it frustrating that people who have never watched Buffy often poke fun at the program simply because they assume that it's a mindless show for teenagers, based on a mediocre movie at that. However, as Buffy has proved over the years since its 1997 debut, it's one of the sharpest, funniest, and most consistently excellent programs on television -- a hip horror-comedy with smart writing and a great ensemble cast that does everything right in both tone and execution.

Don't believe me? Fox's three-disc set offers the entire first season for the uninitiated, which does fluctuate a bit between character-developed interplay, the season's main bad guy (the somewhat forgettable vampire villain "The Master"), and general "Monster of the Week" episodes. However, while a lot of series take their time to fully get in stride, BUFFY hit the mark right off the bat, making a good impression on critics and its initially small-but-devoted viewing audience, which would increase as Season 2 progressed.

Fox's three-DVD set offers sterling transfers of the individual episodes, presented in 2.0 stereo with interviews with Whedon split up between the respective discs. Retail is an affordable $40, with subsequent volumes to follow (including the series' truly outstanding second season) hopefully later in 2002.

Artisan, meanwhile, has gone beyond the call of duty with their four-disc DVD release of TWIN PEAKS' first season ($49.98) -- the off-the-wall David Lynch/Mark Frost ABC series that premiered to solid ratings and critical acclaim in 1990, only to lose the majority of that audience during its disappointing and unfocused second season.

This Special Edition DVD set offers the first season in its entirety -- encompassing, in the process, the best that the program had to offer. With its mix of small-town soap opera, bizarre Lynch visuals, and surreal, horrific overtones, PEAKS was deeply involving at the start, and captivated its audience through all of its first seven episodes (remember the jelly donut and cherry pie meetings viewers would have?). Kyle MacLachlan essays endearing FBI agent Dale Cooper, sent to investigate the death of popular teen Laura Palmer in the sleepy, Pacific Northwest town of Twin Peaks, where Palmer's death is just the tip of the iceberg in regards to the town's strange and unexplained happenings.

These first episodes of PEAKS show Lynch and Frost at their best: mixing horror with humor, utilizing strong work from quirky veterans (Russ Tamblyn, Peggy Lipton) and then-fresh young newcomers (it's surprising Sherilyn Fenn didn't achieve stardom after watching her sizzling performance here), and wrapping it all up with Angelo Badalamenti's supremely memorable music and stylish direction.

For me, the balance between the often disparate elements fell out of whack during Season 2, and I won't even comment on the certifiable disaster that was TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME. But Artisan's First Season DVD box-set shows what the fuss over "Twin Peaks" the series was all about, showcasing the talents in front of and behind the camera at their best. Even now, the program still ranks as one of the quirkiest network hours in TV history -- it's just a shame that the series never lived up to the promise of its inaugural episodes.

Artisan has remastered the seven episodes with excellent high-definition full-frame transfers, DTS and Dolby 5.1 soundtracks, select commentary tracks, interviews with the cast and even introductions to the various programs by "The Log Lady," script notes and other extras.

If there's any complaint to be found with this elaborately-designed and tremendously- produced set, it's that the Pilot episode isn't included (due to an ownership issue with Warner Bros., apparently). For new viewers, this will prove to be a tough nut to crack, since the series opens with the characters and dramatic situations already having been established.

However, curious viewers are urged to check out the pilot episode on a forthcoming DVD import from Hong Kong, which is quite affordable and should be available soon from your import specialist.

New DVDs From the Big Screen

MOULIN ROUGE. Fox, $29.98.

THE NUTSHELL: Lavishly designed and often superbly scored with mostly- contemporary rock songs arranged as Hollywood musical fare, MOULIN ROUGE spins a tragic tale of love in the infamous Parisian nightspot. Nicole Kidman essays the Moulin Rouge's top diva -- a courtesan whom penniless writer-composer Ewan McGregor falls for even as she fights consumption. Supporting turns include John Leguizamo as one of McGregor's fellow struggling artists and Jim Broadbent as the Rouge's producer, but the often overbearing star of the movie is director Baz Luhrmann's filmmaking, which veers from Busby Berkley-styled musical numbers to the most headache-inducing editing of an MTV video.

ANDY'S ANALYSIS: Luhrmann's sumptuous visual extravaganza will have you admiring its imagination one moment and being completely turned off by its excesses the next. On the plus side, McGregor and Kidman give two of their best performances, and the soundtrack is a gas, with Craig Armstrong's marvelous orchestral backing making the seemingly disparate songs come together. The problems with the movie can all be attributed to Luhrmann's hyperkinetic direction, which repulses as much as it draws you in to its unique visual universe. Fortunately, the movie calms down after a headache- inducing opening 20 minutes, and it's much more tolerable on the small screen, where somehow the excesses don't seem quite as self-indulgent, and the relationship between McGregor and Kidman doesn't seem as lost.

DVD GOODS: Easily one of the year's best DVD packages, Fox's DVD offers hours of bonus features, from commentary to interactive features that pop up during the movie itself (via an optional menu icon that brings you to background information on the scene being viewed). Disc 2 houses deleted scenes, multi-angle features on the choreography (which often comes across as jumbled in the final cut), interviews with the cast and filmmakers, a nice featurette on the music recording with Craig Armstrong, trailers, music videos, and even a live MTV performance of "Lady Marmalade." The 2.35 transfer is impeccable and the Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 tracks are exceptionally good.

GIFT POTENTIAL: One of the 2001's top DVDs, MOULIN ROUGE looks great and sounds great. The movie is an acquired taste but if you know a fan of the movie, it's safe to say you can't go wrong purchasing this one. Highly recommended.

SCARY MOVIE 2. Dimension, $29.98.

THE NUTSHELL: The inevitable sequel to last year's box-office hit primarily spoofs "The Haunting," with the surviving members of the original film participating in a paranormal experiment conducted by university professor Tim Curry (wasted in a lame role). The predictable jokes ensue, though Chris Elliott's semi-spoof of Julian Beck from "Poltergeist II" is sort of amusing.

ANDY'S ANALYSIS: I didn't much care for the original "Scary Movie," and didn't find this sequel to be any worse than its predecessor. It's less frenetic, but the targets are unbelievably obvious (even for this kind of film) and the raunchy jokes grow tiresome after a while. Elliott is funny, and the opening "Exorcist" spoof is pretty amusing (with ex-Conan O'Brien cohort Andy Richter and James Woods, subbing for Marlon Brando!), but what's the point of casting two 90210 alums if there's no punchline? (That said, Kathleen Robertson is looking good these days). Once again, Anna Faris lends the movie a fair amount of goodwill as the heroine -- hopefully she can parlay this into a role in a "real" movie next time out.

DVD GOODS: A seemingly endless array of deleted scenes shows how quickly this movie was assembled, with no less than three alternate endings (the last of which skewers "Pearl Harbor" and is actually funny). Interviews, make-up and FX featurettes, and DVD- ROM features round out the supplemental package, which is nearly ruined by the appearance of the movie's astoundingly unfunny profane parrot. The 1.85 transfer and Dolby Digital soundtrack are both fine.

GIFT POTENTIAL: Only for fans of the original. Trust me.

GHOSTS OF MARS. Columbia, $26.98.

THE NUTSHELL: Natasha Henstridge is a policewoman on Mars in the 21st century who uncovers that the human Martian colonists are being possessed by -- yes, you guessed it -- ghosts of Mars! In a direct throwback to "Assault on Precinct 13," Ice Cube plays a prisoner who just may help her out in combating the army of the Martian undead that threatens to take over all the invaders.

ANDY'S ANALYSIS: So this is what John Carpenter has come to? After the mediocre "Vampires," Carpenter sinks to an even lower level with this tepid but so-bad-it's-almost- good rock & roll actionfest, complete with bad make-up (the Martians look like refugees from a KISS concert, as many pointed out) and weak performances, plus a recycled storyline from Larry Sulkis and Carpenter himself, who now leaves no doubt that his best work is all behind him.

DVD GOODS: Columbia's 2.35 transfer and 5.1 sound are both excellent, and has rounded out the DVD with plenty of extras: commentary, featurettes on Carpenter's scoring of the film (and it's not one of his best scores, either) and the special effects.

GIFT POTENTIAL: Lovers of bad movies and Carpenter die-hards are about the only recipients I can imagine for this one. Still, as a gag present, the movie may fit the bill, and Columbia's excellent DVD is up to their usual standards.

APOCALYPSE NOW REDUX. Paramount, $29.98.

THE NUTSHELL: Re-edited edition of Francis Ford Coppola's seminal 1979 epic scored big with some (but not all) critics during its re-release last fall. Featuring 50 minutes of new footage, APOCALYPSE's "Heart of Darkness"-influenced plot now features a slightly more coherent storyline, including a lengthy visit by Lt. Willard (Martin Sheen) to French colonists still living in luxury, a new scene with the USO girls, and extra footage with Marlon Brando's Col. Kurtz.

ANDY'S ANALYSIS: One of the defining films of the '70s remains a must-view for any film scholar, though truth be told, I find Coppola's shorter version to be superior -- better-paced and less meandering. The new scenes are great for fans of the film, but for me, they detract from the overall power of the movie. Still, there are rewards to be found with the longer version, and the small screen is the best way to appreciate the longer running time (202 minutes), the splendor of seeing the movie on a big screen aside.

DVD GOODS: The 2.20 transfer is still a hair short of the 2.35 aspect ratio, but once again it's at the request of director Coppola. The 5.1, newly overhauled soundtrack is sensational, making full use of the surround channels. The theatrical trailer is the DVD's only extra.

GIFT POTENTIAL: A definite must for fans of the film or movie scholars in general, though if the recipient has never seen APOCALYPSE NOW before in any form, I'd stick to the original theatrical cut, available separately on DVD.

Also New From Paramount

FRANKIE & JOHNNY ($24.98): Garry Marshall's entertaining, low-key 1991 adaptation of Terrence McNally's play (scripted by the author) features Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer as co-workers in a NYC coffee house who improbably stumble upon a relationship.

With a score by Marvin Hamlisch and engaging performances by the two stars (too glamorous for these roles, but hey, it IS a movie!), FRANKIE & JOHNNY holds up as an entertaining star vehicle from the early '90s.

Paramount's DVD features a good 1.85 transfer and matching 5.1 and 2.0 Dolby mixes, plus the trailer.

SOAP DISH ($29.98): Manic 1991 comedy has developed a cult following over the years, mainly because of its excellent cast: Sally Field, Kevin Kline, Elisabeth Shue, Cathy Moriarty, Whoopi Goldberg, and Robert Downey, Jr. among them (be on the

The Robert Harling-Andrew Bergman script takes an unabashedly comic look at the backstage lives and loves of a TV soap opera cast. The actors play it to the hilt, even if the material isn't always of top comedic quality, while Michael Hoffman's direction keeps things short and sweet, so you can't criticize it too heavily.

Paramount's 1.85 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack are top-notch. The trailer and a short behind-the-scenes featurette are included for extras.

'TIL THERE WAS YOU ($29.98): Slow-moving but enjoyable and overlooked 1997 romantic comedy looks at the separate lives of future couple Jeanne Tripplehorn (in one of her most appealing performances) and Dylan McDermott, both involved with other partners. The stars are appealing and the supporting cast excellent (including Jennifer Aniston and Sarah Jessica Parker), making it a pleasant production that deserved better than being barely released to theaters.

The fine score by the late Miles Goodman, incidentally, includes a reworking of his rejected score from INDIAN IN THE CUPBOARD.

Paramount's 1.85 transfer and 5.1 soundtrack are up to the studio's usual standards. The trailer is also included.

For Kids (in Brief!)

THE PRINCESS DIARIES (Disney, $29.98): Last summer's adaptation of Meg Cabot's novel became a $100-million plus box-office hit for Disney, even if it's another one of Garry Marshall's recent comedic misfires.

Anne Hathaway is charming as a nerdy teen who finds out she's the new princess to the faraway kingdom of Genovia; Julie Andrews is the grandmother who tutors Hathaway in how to successfully live as a member of royalty.

Gina Wendkos' script is awfully pedestrian, even for this kind of film, and Marshall spends far too much time on tired comic gags that detract from the central performances. Still, kids and teens are bound to enjoy the film, with Hathaway shaping up as a young actress worth watching.

Disney's 1.85, Dolby Digital DVD includes eight (thankfully) deleted scenes, a featurette, two music videos, and a pair of audio commentaries with Marshall and Andrews and Hathaway, respectively.

DUMBO (Disney, $29.98): Another excellent remastering job by Disney for one of their all-time classics, DUMBO has never looked or sounded better than it does in Disney's fully restored, 5.1-mixed DVD. The picture and sound are both exemplary, and the DVD includes several extras: audio commentary, a Michael Crawford music video, art galleries, Walt's introduction to the TV version, featurettes, publicity materials, and more. Disney's 1941 classic is still one of the studio's finest works.

MICKEY'S MAGICAL CHRISTMAS (Disney, $29.98): Kids will enjoy this 65- minute made-for-video effort, which finds countless Disney stars (Mickey, Donald, Minnie, plus Snow White, Beast, the Little Mermaid, and Pooh himself) snowed in at the "House of Mouse," and trying to break cranky Donald out of his holiday blues. The DTS and Dolby Digital soundtracks are crisp and the DVD should provide plenty of holiday fun for children.

ELMO'S WORLD: WILD WILD WEST! (Sony, $19.98): Inaugural release of several specials starring the furry Sesame Street character is a charming, hour-long production focusing on Elmo's exploits in the old west. Travis Tritt, Broadway favorites Kristen Chenoweth, Bill Irwin, and Michael Jeter join the Sesame Street cast (including Grover and others) in a tuneful, fun program that kids should love. DVD extras include interactive features for children, including printable coloring pages and bonus Sesame Street segments.

AND THAT'S IT! I want to wish everyone a Merry Christmas (and a Happy Hanukkah belatedly), plus a Happy New Year to all. We'll see you on the other side in 2002, so until then, have a merry one!

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