The top releases of the year, part 2
Continuing our tribute to the best of 2011, here are my picks for the top TV releases on disc and the best debuts from the manufacture-on-demand mode.
TV on DVD
1. "The Ernie Kovacs Collection" (Shout! Factory) - Ernie Kovacs was the first genius of TV comedy. Not comedy on TV, mind you, but comedy unique to TV. Kovacs used the screen as his stage, the technology as his tools and the possibilities inherent in the medium as his limits. In a medium before computer animation, digital editing or even videotape, when most sketches played out like a filmed stage show, he created gags that played out like cartoons, defying audience expectations with images created with primitive blue-screen and spilt-screen effects, editing surprises and self-reflexive acknowledgements of his place a TV entertainer interacting with an audience. Shout! Factory's six-disc collection presents Kovacs material from the span of his professional TV career and the range and creativity of the work in this collection shows that his work ranks beside "Monty Python's Flying Circus" as landmarks of innovative and creative television comedy. DVD only.
2. "Law & Order: The Complete Series" (Universal) - With less than half of the series available on individual DVD sets, this megaset offers all twenty seasons and 456 (!!!) episodes for the first time. It's 104 DVDs packed into a 12" by 7 1/2" by 5 ½" box, weighing in at just under ten pounds and carrying a retail price tag of $699.99, though you'll be able to find it discounted for up to hundreds of dollars less. DVD only.
3. "Human Planet" (BBC) - Shot over the course of three years by a crew of BBC filmmakers, "Human Planet" follows "Earth" and "Life" quite nicely as the final piece of the unofficial trilogy of world-class natural history documentary series made for British TV. DVD and Blu-ray.
4. "Prohibition" (PBS/Paramount) - Ken Burns' portrait of "the Noble Experiment" turned American disaster follows the director's trademark approach to American history by putting big events into perspective through the personal stories of both significant historical figures and the everyday citizens. DVD and Blu-ray.
5. "Smallville: The Complete Series" (Warner) - All ten seasons of the long-running WB youth superhero series, about Superman before he donned the cape, in a deluxe box set, an impressive collection of all 218 episodes and supplements, plus exclusive bonus supplements, on 62 discs in a box set of hefty digibook cases. DVD only.
The top releases of the year, part 1
The death of DVD has been greatly exaggerated, as we've discovered, but the decline in sales has certainly curtailed the once robust schedule of classic and cult titles on disc. The increase in Blu-ray sales, on the other hand, is reason to celebrate, and the new manufacture on demand model is actually increasing the availability of classic and catalogue films on disc at a greater rate than DVD ever accomplished.
With that in mind, I've created a small compendium of lists: for disc debuts, Blu-ray releases, TV on disc and manufacture on demand. There is a lot of good stuff out there. Here's my perfectly subjective picks for the great stuff.
1. "Island of Lost Souls" (Criterion) - "Are we not men?" Paramount's 1932 answer to Universal's gothic horrors has been one of most requested classics for years. Though released on VHS and laserdisc in the nineties, it had been MIA on DVD, in large part because of the deplorable condition of the vault elements. No negative exists and the best 35mm prints were still damaged and incomplete. Criterion took on the task of preparing the DVD by piecing together the best possible version from multiple sources, from a damaged fine-grain 35mm positive to a 16mm print from a private collector, and digitally repairing as much damage as possible. The result is the first complete presentation of the most perverse and the least seen of thirties horror movie landmarks. There are better looking and sounding discs this year, and more exhaustive collections of supplements, but the effort expended in creating this release and the goodwill of the contributors makes this labor of love my pick for the best of 2011. DVD and Blu-ray.
2. "The Social Network" (Sony) - Ostensibly the story of Facebook, director David Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin are less interested in how the website was created than in how a young, arrogant genius with no people skills managed to deconstruct and reconstruct the social experience as a web-based simulacrum: a club that even Mark Zuckerberg (or, rather, "Mark Zuckerberg") could thrive in. The supplements on the DVD and Blu-ray release offer a glimpse into Fincher's process, from a reflective commentary track to the superbly produced feature-length documentary "How Did They Ever Make a Movie of Facebook?," among the many supplements. And a superbly-mastered disc to boot. DVD and Blu-ray.
3. "Treasures 5: The West, 1898-1938" (Image) - This collection of features, shorts, documentaries, newsreels, travelogues and fragments from the silent and early sound era is more about preservation and education than simple entertainment, but it is entertaining as well as revealing. It's a record of the American West as it was transforming from frontier to modern world, as viewed through fictional representations and documentary recordings. The richness of offerings and the span of formats presents a visual record that makes the case for film preservation better than any lecture. DVD only.
4. "The Prowler" (VCI) - The long-awaited home video debut of Joseph Losey's superb 1951 film noir, a classic of working class envy and brutal opportunism all but absent from TV showings for decades and never officially released on home video in any form, comes from a restoration by the Film Noir Foundation partnered with the UCLA Film and Television Archive and an insightful collection of supplements. It is the best looking disc to come from VCI to date. DVD only.
5. "The Complete Jean Vigo" (Criterion) celebrates the legacy of France’s cinematic poet laureate of lyrical fantasy in everyday life with newly remastered editions of all four films made by the great French director who died in 1934 at the age of 29. These are sublime films and this is a superb presentation. DVD and Blu-ray.
Your guide to our coverage of the new DVD/Blu-ray releases
Here's what's new on DVD and Blu-ray this week as featured on Videodrone
TV on DVD:
'Mildred Pierce' – The Whole Story
TV on DVD Channel Guide: 'Royal Pains,' 'Dr. Willoughby' and the end of 'Man in a Suitcase'
The Cool and the Collectible:
'X: The Unheard Music' - The Landmark Rockumentary
'The Andy Hardy Collection, Volume 1' - Six Adventures With America's Spunkiest Small Town Teenager
Coming next week:
"The Killer Elite" (Universal)
"What's Your Number" (Fox)
"Higher Ground" (Sony)
"There Be Dragons" (Fox)
"Film Socialisme" (Lorber)
"Night and Day" (Zeitgeist)
"The Man From London" (Zeitgeist)
"1911" (Well Go)
"Boardwalk Empire: The Complete First Season" (HBO)
"Primeval: Volume Three" (BBC)
"Hawaii Five-0: The Twelfth and Final Season" (Paramount)
"Columbo: Movie Mystery Collection 1994-2003" (Universal)
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Six adventures with America's spunkiest small town teenager debut from the Warner Archive
"The Andy Hardy Collection: Volume 1" (Warner Archive)
The Andy Hardy films are a snapshot of Hollywood's idea of small town Americana, circa 1936-1944. Simple, familiar, full of family values and homespun wisdom handed down by the thoughtful, white-haired patriarch (who just happens to be the local judge), these films defined MGM head Louis B. Mayer's ideal of American values on the modern age. There is a certain middlingness of American filmmaking here and little of the smooth yet snappy chemistry that MGM's stable of stars and character actors routinely mixed into the studio's cinema cocktails. George B. Seitz directed all of the first fourteen films, and all six of the films in this set, and he approaches each film with an anonymous professionalism that improves with time without actually distinguishing itself or defining the films.
What these films have is Mickey Rooney, the spring-loaded ball of energy who grabbed the spotlight whenever he appeared on screen and soon powered the series. And in that sense, the series chronicles the rise of a career.
The series officially spans sixteen films, all with Mickey Rooney as Andy, but only fourteen of them feature the Hardy family as we know it, with Lewis Stone as Judge Hardy, Fay Holden as wife and mother Emily and Sara Haden as his Aunt Milly (Cecilia Parker is his older sister Marian in most but not all of these films). Six of the best – you might say defining – films in the series are collected in this set.
"You're Only Young Once" (1937), the second film in the series and the earliest in this set, ushered in the full cast (Stone replaced Lionel Barrymore, the original Judge Hardy in the 1936 film "A Family Affair"), but Rooney was just part of the ensemble here and even gets third billing under Parker. The Hardys head to California for vacation and Andy's romantic travails are second to Marian's flirtations with a married man. But in "Out West With the Hardys" (1938) a year later, another vacation entry (this one to an Arizona ranch), Rooney's antics are the star attraction. And for good reason: he powers these films with his energy, attitude, timing and the power of his screen personality. As Rooney's star rose as MGM, Andy began to take over the films, with Judge Hardy offering his son advice at key moments. In "Judge Hardy and Son" (1939), the eighth film in the series, he even hires Andy to play detective in a case he's adjudicating.
Plus 'Serendipity' and 'She's All That'
"Pearl Jam Twenty" (Columbia) is a documentary portrait of the Seattle band by rock journalist-turned-film director Cameron Crowe. Says Philadelphia Inquirer critic Stephen Rea: "A must-see for Pearl Jam fans - and for folks keen on gleaning insights into the pressures that come with megastardom - Crowe's doc has a field day with old archival recordings, videos of nascent club shows, and serious sit-downs with a charmingly contemplative Vedder, bassist Jeff Ament, guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready, and current drummer Matt Cameron." Features commentary by director Cameron Crowe and bonus footage.
"Serendipity" (Lionsgate) – John Cusak and Kate Beckinsale meet cute in a New York department, lose each other, and start searching for one another years later in this sweet but labored romantic trifle. “A fortunate accident” is how Beckinsale’s flighty dreamer defines the word serendipity. It’s a lovely thought, full of magic and chance, which director Peter Chelsom never quite captures. For all his deft direction and the stars’ charisma, the contrived coincidences and criss-crossing paths feel false and calculated, less a “fortunate accident” than a foregone conclusion. Features the supplements of the earlier DVD release: commentary by director Peter Chelsom, a documentary featurette, a still frame record of the director’s production diary and deleted scenes with optional commentary among the supplements.
"She's All That" (Lionsgate) was the high school redo of "Pygmalian" with Rachael Leigh Cook as the "ugly duckling" (who is adorable long before her fashion makeover) and Freddie Prinze Jr. as the big man on campus who bets he can turn her into a beauty queen. The forgettable film is largely remembered as the inspiration for the parody "Not Another Teen Movie." Features director commentary and a music video.
The landmark rock-doc on DVD and Blu-ray, plus 'Swastika'
"X: The Unheard Music" (MVD) is one of the great rock docs of all time. Shot over a period of five years or so by W.T. Morgan, it is a lively, playfully-directed portrait of the defining L.A. punk band of the eighties, filled with interviews, stirred through with tongue-in-cheek archival clips and highlighted by a wealth of live performance footage shot specifically for the film, including footage of the band in the studio recording "White Girl" for their second album, "Wild Gift." In the era of early MTV, they were the real deal, and even the proto-videos created by Morgan for the film have a down-and-dirty authenticity and a sense of humor that honors the band's aesthetic. John Doe and Exene Cervenka articulate themselves well, Billy Zoom is a smiling charmer and D.J. Bonebrake's time signature demonstration is a wonder. But it's not simply a band bio, it's a survey of the music industry of the day and the struggle for independent music in the corporate mindset, which Morgan puts on display next to their story.
Debuts on both DVD and Blu-ray for the film's 25th Anniversary, with new interviews with John Doe and Exene Cervenka, a bonus outtake from a live performance and a behind-the-scenes featurette shot in 1983 among with supplements. And remember, this is a film best enjoyed by following the directions given in the opening credits: "Play this movie loud."
See the trailer below, after the jump.
The controversial "Swastika" (Kino), a 1973 documentary directed by Philippe Mora, is a kind of autobiography of Adolph Hitler constructed from home movie footage shot by Eva Braun and propaganda films approved by Hitler himself. The disc includes a filmmaker discussion and archival supplements.
Plus 'Dr. Willoughby' and the end of 'Man in a Suitcase'
"Mildred Pierce" (HBO), the made-for-cable miniseries from Todd Haynes with Kate Winslet as the depression-era mother blindly devoted to her sneering, status-conscious daughter, is less a remake than a faithful adaptation of the James M. Cain novel. Videodrone's review is here. "Justified: The Complete Second Season" (Sony) confirms the FX original series as one of the TV's best shows, an exceedingly smart piece of pulp fiction with the rough edges of fascinating characters and storylines with dramatic blowback. And Timothy Olyphant isn't bad either. Videodrone's review is here.
"Royal Pains: Season Three, Volume One" (Universal) - Mark Feuerstein and Paulo Costanzo are back in the Hamptons for more episodes of house calls for concierge doctor Hank Lawson. This collection of the first half of the third season finds Hank and brother/business partner Evan (Paulo Costanzo) waiting for Dad (Henry Winkler) to be paroled, meeting their estranged grandfather (Ed Asner) and getting back on the good side of sponsor Boris (Campbell Scott, still the class act of the USA original series). 10 episodes on two discs, plus commentary on one episode and deleted scenes. The final episodes of the season begin in 2012.
"Man in a Suitcase: Set 2" (Acorn) features the final 15 episodes from the late-sixties British espionage drama starring Richard Bradford as a disgraced American spy (wrongly accused, of course) turned free agent in the lucrative European market. There's a neat visual crispness to the production and a continental attitude to the stories, which combined with a budget beefed up by an American partner (it played in U.S. on ABC) gives the show an intriguing sensibility. 15 episodes on four discs in a standard case with hinged trays, plus a video interview with Richard Bradford.
Christmas, snow and disaster: yes, "Ice Quake" (Anchor Bay) is a SyFy Original Christmas thriller starring Brendan Fehr, Jodelle Ferland, Victor Garber and an Alaskan ice quake that threatens the entire planet! Includes a making-of featurette.
Joanna Lumley stars in "Dr. Willoughby" (Acorn), a short-lived 1999 British comedy series about a soap opera star struggling to keep a fading career and a sleazy daytime soap opera from failing. Six half-hour episodes on a single disc.
"The Windsors: From George to Kate" (Athena) is a documentary on the British royal family made up of archival film footage from almost a century of official events.
And the rest:
"Elusive Justice: The Search of Nazi War Criminals" (PBS) profiles the six-decade global hunt for war criminals who sought to escape justice after World War II. "Frontline: The Anthrax Files" (PBS) takes a second look at the anthrax attacks of 2001 and the man who was posthumously accused of the crimes.
Plus 'The Guard,' 'Puncture,' 'Shark Night' and more
In "Contagion" (Warner), Steven Soderbergh uses his camera lens as a kind of microscope to study the effects of a fictional pandemic. It's an eerie medical thriller with a very different atmosphere than the usual disaster thriller. DVD, Blu-ray and Digital Download. Videodrone's review is here.
"Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" (Sony), from producer/screenwriter Guillermo del Toro, is a remake of the 1973 haunted house TV movie, with Katie Holmes and Guy Pearce taking over the roles originally inhabited by Kim Darby and Jim Hutton. "Del Toro's additions to the script -- written alongside collaborator Matthew Robbins -- make the new iteration of the film more in line with his cinematic universe of dark fantasy, where creepy homes are explored by little kids wrapped up shroud-tight in the tenuous membrane between daylight reality and dimly lit nightmare," observes MSN film critic James Rocchi. "They also make it better." Troy Nixey directs this version, which adds a child into the mix of old dark house scares and creepy little creatures. The DVD includes three featurettes and the Blu-ray adds a gallery of conceptual art. The original 1973 telefilm is reviewed here.
"I Don't Know How She Does It" (Vivendi), starring Sarah Jessica Parker as a full-time professional and devoted mother spread thin, is "Toxic drool masquerading as a comedic paean to working moms," in the words of MSN film critic Kat Murphy. "Charm and chemistry don't enter into "I Don't Know How She Does It." No one but Kate Reddy lives in Parker-world; other actors are mostly props and extras in her character's lunatic soap opera." Pierce Brosnan and Greg Kinnear co-star, but Murphy is more impressed with Christina Hendricks and Olivia Munn. On DVD and Blu-ray, with an interview featurette with author Allison Peason.
Chris Evans is a recklessly charismatic personal-injury lawyer and functioning drug addict who takes on a pharmaceutical company in "Puncture" (Millennium), a legal thriller based on a true story. Entertainment Weekly film critic Owen Gleiberman calls the film "a likable oddity: a rambling, low-budget 'Erin Brockovich' with a cokehead hero." Mark Kassen, who also directs the film with his brother Adam Kassen, plays his partner and friend, and Marhsall Bell, Vinessa Shaw, Brett Cullen and Jesse L. Martin co-star. On DVD and Blu-ray with no supplements. Also available via digital download.
View the trailer below, after the jump.
Indie release of the week:
Brendan Gleeson delivers one of the funniest performances of the year in "The Guard" (Sony), a wickedly offbeat black comedy of murder, smuggling and culture clash on the Irish coast. "I'm Irish, sir. Racism is part of my culture," he explains after a succession of impolitic comments at an HQ briefing with an American FBI agent (Don Cheadle) following a drug smuggling ring to rural Ireland. And sure enough, he's an unapologetic wild card in a cinematic world that channels Tarantino patter into British black comedy. John Michael McDonagh is the brother of Martin McDonagh, the creator of the inspired "In Bruges," and while he shares sense of humor, whimsy and dialogue dexterity, if not quite a command his filmmaking command. Still, it's enough to turn this into a skewed treat. Liam Cunningham is his more articulate superior and Mark Strong co-stars as a well-read thug keeping a low profile during the investigation.
The DVD and Blu-ray both feature commentary by writer/director John Michael McDonagh and actors Brendan Gleeson and Don Cheadle, a making-of featurette, director McDonagh's debut short film "The Second Death," deleted and extended scenes and outtakes among the supplements.
View the trailer below, after the jump.
Veteran French director Claude Miller collaborates with his son, Nathan Miller, on "I'm Glad My Mother is Alive" (Strand), the story of a trouble teenager (Vincent Rottiers) who searches for his birth mother, who gave him up for adoption as a toddler. When he finds her, his desire to reconnect becomes wrapped up in his anger and abandonment issues. New York Times film critic Stephen Holden praises the film, calling it "is anything but the clichéd fantasy of a blissful mother-child reunion. Although there are hints of joy once they reconnect, the wounds are too deep, and the characters too complex." In French with English subtitles.
"Shark Night" (Universal) sends seven comely college kids to Louisiana lake that is filled with sharks. But of course! David R. Ellis of "Snakes on a Plane" fame executes this one and Sara Paxton, Dustin Milligan, Katharine McPhee and Donal Logue star. Originally released in 3D but standard definition on home video. The DVD includes two featurettes, the Blu-ray adds two additional featurettes and a bonus digital copy.
"A Turtle's Tale: Sammy's Adventure" (Vivendi) is an animated film from Belgium arriving on DVD with a new title (it was also called "Sammy's Adventures: The Secret Passage" and "Around the World in 50 Years") and an American voice cast.
Jeremy Irons narrates "The Last Lions" (Virgil), a documentary that follows the life of a mother lioness and her three cubs surviving the African jungle.
"The Chateau Meroux" (Anchor Bay) is a romantic drama in California wine starring Marla Sokoloff, Barry Watson and Christopher Lloyd.
"Don't Let Him In" (Image) is a horror film about a serial killer known as The Tree Surgeon and fresh blood in a cabin in the woods, and "The Undying" (MTI) is a ghost story with a doctor (Robin Weigert) who brings the spirit back to the physical world in the body of a dead patient.
View select trailers after the jump.