he quickly growing DVD phenomenon is creating
a living-room paradise for those who thrive on movie franchises
and TV shows. Imagine watching an entire season of “The Simpsons”
with audio commentary on each episode. Or viewing every episode
of “24” within a 24-hour period. Or learning everything
about the music, special effects, costumes and everything else after
watching all three Indiana Jones films.
of the geek has truly arrived.
Perhaps the biggest attraction many people have to the DVD format
doesn’t come from its superior sound and picture quality,
but from the extra features, which are inevitable on most new releases.
Bonus features sometimes require extra discs on films like “Punch-Drunk
Love” and “A.I.” and provide casual viewers with
some interesting insights into how a film was made. The obsessed
fan can also learn everything there is to know about the making
of a film via in-depth bonus material included on a range of films
from “Fight Club” to “The Lion King.”
If the audio commentaries, deleted scenes, making-of featurettes,
trailers and TV ads triple and quadruple the time you can spend
with a two-hour film, imagine how much time comes with a series
of films, a director’s canon or 20-something episodes from
a TV series.
During the heyday of VHS, most successful series were only released
as a few episodes on single cassettes. A bulky box full of an entire
season wasn’t even common for big series with large cult followings.
But times are changing, with cheap-to-produce, compact DVDs aimed
more at consumers than rental outlets. Now, not only series with
large cult followings like “Star Trek,” “The Simpsons”
and “The X-Files” have boxes, but also new and/or less-established
It is now possible to watch and explore “Law and Order: Special
Victims Unit,” “Friends” “Dawson’s
Creek,” “Xena: Warrior Princess,” “Smallville”—OK,
so maybe a lot of these don’t deserve to be closely scrutinized
and some companies are simply taking advantage of current big audiences
to make more money off some already produced product. RED has broken
the selection down to the truly worthwhile films and shows that
are available in quality packages. And keep in mind that you can
usually find these a bit cheaper than retail price.
“The Art of Buster Keaton”
Kino Home Video
Quite possibly the greatest
comedy director of all time, Buster Keaton pioneered new special
effects and uncovered the virtues of long takes after the standard
editing method had been developed. The great silent star, known
for his reserved expression, lets events play out in plain sight—without
standard slight-of-hand editing and stunt tricks. In the 10 features
and many shorts that Keaton directed on “The Art of Buster
Keaton,” there’s rarely a false-looking moment or hackneyed
close up. Every film is a cohesive work of art.
The box contains all the silent shorts Keaton made in the 1920s
after returning from World War I and starting his own career (his
work with Fatty Arbuckle is also available from Kino) and all his
silent features until his contract was sold to M-G-M and he lost
much creative control.
The disc is loaded with classic sequences, from the special effects
with multiple Busters dancing in sync in “The Playhouse”
to the train chase scenes in “The General”—Keaton’s
Civil War epic that is now considered among his best films.
Another of Keaton’s best films is “Sherlock, Jr.,”
a reflexive meditation on what cinema means to its audience. Keaton
plays a projectionist who, in a dream sequence, walks onto the movie
screen, where he wrestles with the background as it cuts to new
locations surrounding him. On film, he is the hero whom he doesn’t
have the guts to be in real life.
The only real weak spot on the box is “The Saphead,”
which Keaton appeared in as an actor-for-hire before his feature
career really took off. It’s a bland standard work that Keaton
didn’t direct or leave his distinct mark on. The two shorts
included on the disc, “One Week” and “The High
Sign,” however, are brilliant. The former includes the early
version of the famous gag from “Steamboat Bill, Jr.”
in which the front of a house falls on Keaton, but he lucks out
by standing where the window lands.
The box also includes a DVD called “Keaton Plus,” featuring
rare footage, TV ads and shorts from Keaton’s later career.
These will serve as nice surprises to fans, but those foreign to
Keaton will want to immerse themselves in the main films first.
If you haven’t seen them, you don’t know cinema.
“The Three Colors Trilogy (Blue / White / Red)”
Miramax Home Video
Two series by Krzyzstof Kieslowski
that are among the all-time best works of cinema are now available
as they were meant to be seen, in their entirety. Kieslowski’s
series of 10 one-hour films based around the Ten Commandments, “The
Decalogue” and his “Three Colors” trilogy are
two heartfelt masterpieces now out as sets.
Kieslowski made “The Decalogue” for Polish television
as 10 separate, self-contained stories. These aren’t religious
or moral tales, but rich stories about complicated characters in
complicated situations that don’t necessarily correspond to
one simple commandment. The 10th film, which sequentially is “Thou
shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods,” could just as
well be about honoring thy father and mother, as two brothers inherit
their father’s valuable stamp collection.
The poignant stories by Kieslowski and Krzyzstof Piesiewicz combine
with Kieslowski’s great direction, Zbigniew Preisner’s
music and a variety of cinematographers to make a cherished masterwork.
The new boxed set (not to be confused with the featureless one suckers
like me bought in 2000) contains an introductory presentation by
film critic Roger Ebert and three documentaries about the making
of the films and the visionary behind them.
Just as appreciated as “The Decalogue” is Kieslowski’s
“Three Colors” trilogy. Also written with Piesiewicz,
the films “Blue,” “White” and “Red,”
named for the colors in the French flag, are an examination of the
principals of the country.
“Blue,” for liberty, stars Juliette Binoche as a composer’s
wife dealing in unexpected ways with her husband’s accidental
death. “White,” for equality, stars Zbigniew Zamachowski
and Julie Delpy in a dark revenge comedy of a Polish immigrant whose
wife divorces him after he moves to Paris because he becomes impotent.
“Red,” for fraternity, is the best of them. It stars
Irène Jacob as a model in Switzerland who finds friendship
with an old former judge whose life parallels that of a young judge,
who Jacob fails to meet on several occasions.
After years of waiting, Miramax has finally released comprehensive
DVDs both solo and as a boxed set. Fortunately, the wait resulted
in thorough DVDs.
While Kieslowski died shortly after making the films, critics, cast
and crew offer comments in documentaries and audio commentaries,
and there are a few short TV segments with Kieslowski talking about
the films and shooting scenes.
While the films stand alone, they’re best seen as a whole
to more cohesively study Kieslowski’s thoughts on humanity,
chance and life. For example, the recurrence of an old woman trying
to put a bottle in a recycling bin reaches an emotional conclusion
in “Red,” and there’s also a nice, merciful side
note conclusion to the stories at the end.
“The Adventures of Indiana Jones”
Paramount Home Video
The Indiana Jones films,
directed by Steven Spielberg and conceived and produced by George
Lucas, transferred the world of ’30s adventure books and Saturday
serials to ’80s popular culture. “The Adventures of
Indiana Jones” contains the entire trilogy and a bonus DVD
of the classic action franchise.
“Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Indiana Jones and
the Temple of Doom” and “Indiana Jones and the Last
Crusade” star Harrison Ford as an archaeologist adventurer
who always manages to get into trouble in the quest for exploration
and against supernatural evil.
In addition to confirming suspicions that all our dry anthropology
professors are actually quick-witted adventurers, the trilogy also,
for better or worse, set the standard of one action sequence after
another, with highlights like the great tomb-raiding, falling boulder
introduction in “Raiders” and the mine-car chase in
“Temple of Doom.” It was wise to quit after three, with
“Last Crusade” turning back more toward “Raiders”
than the darker “Temple of Doom.” But with Sean Connery
as Indy’s dad adding another dynamic in “The Last Crusade,”
all three films are excellent entertainment.
The three-hour disc of bonus features includes looks at several
documentaries on specific crafts and making-of segments on each
film that combine new interviews of Spielberg, Ford, Lucas and other
cast and crew with old documentary footage from the set. These documentaries
reveal a common problem: not enough slimy, disgusting creatures.
In both the floor covered in snakes in “Raiders” and
the floor of bugs in “Temple of Doom,” Spielberg laments
that there simply aren’t enough, and orders thousands more.
20th Century Fox
“The Complete First Season”
“The Complete Second Season”
“The Complete Third Season”
The currently available boxed
sets of the first three seasons of “The Simpsons”—the
rest will come very, very slowly—offer a look at the developmental
stages of one of the best TV series of all time. Creator Matt Groening
has made a real effort to do audio commentary on every episode,
bringing various writers, producers and voice talent. Writers/producers
Al Jean and Mike Reiss in particular offer insightful comments on
various stages of the show’s creation.
The satire, based on the life of a perpetually average American
family, pokes fun at modern life with buffoonish patriarch Homer,
repressed but thoughtful Marge and their two-and-a-half kids: rebellious
fourth-grader Bart, the younger, intelligent Lisa and non-speaking
baby Maggie. The show has become such a cultural standard that it
seems pointless to describe the family, and also neglectful, since
their town of Springfield is one of the most thorough creations
since Middle Earth (and also more convenient, since there’s
no map, and any geographical need can be added nearby).
While the first few seasons are generally looked at as rudimentary
because the characters aren’t drawn quite right and the voices
not quite perfected, there are a lot of great episodes on these
sets, and by the third season they’re all pretty solid—and
often brilliant. Homer’s dance through the land of chocolate
when the Germans take over the nuclear power plant is a bizarre
and comically surreal experience.
The audio commentary sequences range from insightful comments to
listening to the creators, who haven’t seen the shows in years,
listening and laughing at forgotten jokes. The average viewer might
not want to watch the commentary on each episode since some comments
tend to be repeated, but it’s nice to have the option. There
are usually some funny episodes about what the censors wanted to
take out and how the writers and producers convinced them to keep
it in. There was, indeed, a time when saying “ass” on
TV was unheard of.
The boxed sets are reminders of the series’ early roots and
show how Springfield evolved into a masterful creation in three
years. And all the hilarious throwaway gags that were taken out
to make more room for commercials in syndication are back in.
X-Files—The Complete [First through Eighth] Season[s]”
20th Century Fox
Seven discs on first through fourth seasons
Six discs on Fifth through Eight seasons
And if you’re feeling Crazy…
“The Complete Seasons 1-7”
changed TV’s landscape when it premiered in 1993 with a distinctly
dark visual style that resembled thriller and horror movies much
more than traditional TV photography. Chris Carter’s series
combined sci-fi horror with humor and the great sexual tension between
FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, played by David Duchovny
and Gillian Anderson.
As investigators of unexplained phenomenon, with Mulder as believer
and Scully as skeptic scientist, the pair go on some pretty bizarre
and interesting investigations.
The third season is the best, if for no other reason than it has
three episodes written by Darin Morgan, the brilliant but infrequent
contributor who has only written two things—both of them episodes
of Carter’s later series, “Millennium”—since
leaving the program after season three.
Morgan (who also wrote season two’s freak-show study “Humbug”)
has a funny way of playing with the expectations and formula that
long-running series falls into. In “Clyde Bruckman’s
Final Repose,” guest-starring Peter Boyle as an insurance
salesman who can see the way people die, psychic fraud Yappi kicks
the ever-believing Mulder out of a crime scene for blocking his
powers with bad vibes. Morgan’s final episode, “Jose
Chung’s ‘From Outer Space’” is a cleverer
feat, taking on “The X-Files” usual convoluted versions
of stories with a “Rashomon”-like approach, repeating
scenes regarding an alien abduction from different points of view
until it gets more and more confusing.
Fans of the show’s continuing story line may make their own
special feature by watching all the pertinent episodes back to back
in order to determine if it actually makes any sense. Barring that,
there are a few episodes with audio commentary, some comments from
Carter, behind-the-scenes looks and the TV ads for all the episodes—which
no one in their right mind would want to watch.
While the stories and writing get a little shaky in season seven
and gets worse from there following Duchovny’s infrequent
appearances, creativity is obvious through season six, which includes
“Triangle,” a real-time episode with almost no visible
cuts. (It switches time periods during commercial breaks.) Mulder,
most likely knocked out and imagining things, travels back in time
on a Bermuda Triangle ghost ship while Scully tries to find him.
“The X-Files” might not have ended in glory, but the
DVDs allow a look at the classic episodes that earned a giant cult
“The Complete Monty Python’s Flying Circus Megaset
A & E Entertainment
“Fawlty Towers—The Complete Collection”
Warner Home Video
Before the 1969 premiere
of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” you had to
be a serious French Existentialist to be called an Absurdist, but
that changed with the BBC series that combined surrealism and comedy,
following loose concepts through episodes of sketch comedy and offering
odd bits of reflexivity. Scenes veer off before the punchline. Actors
break character to criticize the scene. A military officer stops
skits for being “too silly.” The skits stop to show
a clock for “10 seconds of sex.”
From the famous dead-parrot sketch to the odd, lesser-known extended
sci-fi story of an evil boulange, this boxed set contains every
forgotten and remembered sketch of the four-season run. Even when
a skit doesn’t work, there’s still humor to be found
in the delightfully wacky writing and acting of Graham Chapman,
Eric Idle, Michael Palin, John Cleese, Terry Jones and the transitional
collage animation of Terry Gilliam.
The boxed set is unfortunately a bit bulky, with only three episodes
per disc, totaling to 14 DVDs, each in regular-size cases. These
are actually sold separately, which accounts for the low episode-to-disc
ratio and repetition of less-than-stellar features (the trivia game
and Gilliam galleries are at least better than the link to the online
store—as if after buying a $200 collection we want more).
Also available are the 12 episodes of Cleese’s later series,
“Fawlty Towers,” in which he plays Basil Fawlty, a rude
hotel manager in Torquay, England. Highlights include Basil’s
failed efforts not to “mention the war” to German guests
following a concussion and Cleese’s perfect responses whenever
a guest has the nerve to complain. The extras include director’s
commentary and a documentary on the real, now-dead Torquay manager
on whom the series is based (although, the disclaimer says, BBC
doesn’t confirm this) and a debate on how bad he was.
20th Century Fox
It’s not exactly a
good, healthy idea to have “24” on DVD. The real-time
series, which takes place over the course of one day with one episode
equaling one hour (apparently the characters eat and go to the bathroom
during the commercial breaks), ends every hour with a series of
amazing developments, then the clock runs out. Without being forced
to wait a week to find out what happens—and with episodes
condensed to about 45 minutes without commercials—you can
watch a whole day (season) in the course of a weekend. That’s
not exactly a good thing if you don’t want to get an ulcer.
The brilliant gimmick creates a sort of action soap opera, with
counter-terrorism agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) trying to
stop a presidential candidate’s assassination in season one
and a nuclear explosion in L.A. in season two.
Sutherland’s wound performance and the fast-paced editing
bring “24” along with high tension, although certain
plot lines occasionally become a bit contrived in the effort to
always have something happening. The subplot involving Jack’s
daughter Kim in season two has little to do with the nuclear threat,
and steadily descends into stupidity, as a badger stalks her.
But the main story is enough to keep you craving that next episode
to find out what the hell is going to happen.
The features include several deleted scenes, most uneventful—although
the second season has a delightfully nonsensical alternate ending
that was shot to confuse extras. There are also select episodes
in which Sutherland and the crew offer insights into their work.
20th Century Fox
“Family Guy, Vol. 1 (Seasons 1 & 2)”
“Family Guy, Vol. 2 (Season 3)
by Eryn Green
was just too smart.
It was just too funny.
Seth MacFarlane’s genius comedic effort, “The Family
Guy,” was just too good, and ultimately, too offensive for
Fox network, which dropped the series after its third season (gasp!?).
Despite its untimely cancellation, “Family Guy” is making
Centered, much as other successful cartoon series are, on the hilarious
everyday events of a seemingly normal family, the complete series—all
three seasons—is now available on two volumes of DVDs.
“Family Guy” was like “The Simpsons’”
or “Futurama’s” evil, maniacal twin brother. Nothing
was off-limits for the show that attacked politics (“Look
Lois, the two symbols of the Republican Party: An elephant and a
fat white guy who is threatened by change”), celebrity (Mayor
Adam West…need anyone say more?) and family values (“Damn
you, infernal woman!”) with equal voracity.
The Griffins consist of bumbling father Peter, stable wife Lois,
moronic brother Chris, socially inept daughter Meg, diabolical infant
Stewie and alcoholic dog Brian.
Writer/creator MacFarlane voices several characters.
While Stewie—with his numerous attempts to kill his mother,
take over the world and one-up the dog—is a shoo-in for most
popular character in the show, Seth Green’s voice for Chris
is absolutely sublime and creates some of the funniest moments.
Green perfectly captures the out-and-out confusion of adolescence
with a cracked voice and a demon monkey in his closet.
Really. Chris has a demon monkey living in his closet.
Peter is more oafish than Homer (“The Simpsons”), more
eager than Fry (“Futurama”) and more prone to serendipitous
accident than any man alive. What happens when Death—who comes
over the to Griffins’ house to collect Peter—twists
his ankle and has to go out of commission for a while? Peter becomes
Death. What happens when Peter becomes Death?
The two boxed sets have commentary on selected episodes and the
second set contains the rare episode ‘When you wish upon a
Weinstein,” which the Cartoon Network recently aired for the
first time ever.
the networks didn’t know what to do with a series, and moved
its time slot around so much that even people who wanted to watch
it couldn’t find it. Maybe most people looking for high-quality
entertainment have given up looking for it on TV. Or maybe, as the
cynic will suggest, most people just don’t want to watch really
Whatever the reason, many shows have vanished from the screen with
only the screams of a few critics and fans to mark their passing.
Now, however, several companies are making their money back on programs
whose small-but-strong following didn’t deliver the ratings,
but might yet generate some money on DVD.
Aaron Sorkin’s first series, before the hit “The West
Wing” (also available, from Warner Home Video), was “Sports
Night,” a half-hour comedy-drama set backstage on a struggling
sports network’s news broadcast. Better than “The West
Wing,” “Sports Night” was filled with Sorkin’s
witty writing with smart characters played by a talented cast, including
Felicity Huffman and Peter Krause.
“Sports Night: The Complete Series” (Buena Vista Home
Entertainment, six discs, $59.99) features the two seasons that
Sorkin and Company made before disappearing, until Comedy Central
started re-running it. There aren’t any bonus features to
speak of, but the clever dialogue of the episodes is enough. Be
careful—the next episode starts automatically, so if you don’t
stop it right away you might have to watch the next story in its
Other canceled series like “Once and Again” (Buena Vista
Home Entertainment, six discs, $59.99) and “The Tick”
(Columbia Tristar, two discs, $29.95) have also been released, much
to the joy of their fans. Even some old, one-season shows like “My
S0-Called Life” (Ventura Distribution, five discs, $89.99)
Other excellent forgotten programming, however, is still waiting.
“Freaks and Geeks,” one of the most poignant, true-to-life
TV series ever made, is one such show. Network shuffling made it
impossible to find by the end of its first and only season on NBC
in 1999, but the 1980 high school story about the not-so-popular
kids captures the pain, frustration, humor and realism of growing
up outside the mainstream. I guess it’s not exactly something
to relax with after work, but it’s very funny and brilliantly
acted, written and directed. A petition to release the season is
currently available at www.freaksandgeeks.com.