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August 2, 2006

Welcome back to the Late Show! This week, I’ve got reviews of virtually every damned TV-on-DVD box set that’s shown up in my mailbox over the last couple of months…and that’s a lot!

Since I don’t have cable or satellite, the only TV shows I watch these days are on DVD, and I prefer it that way. No commercials, pop-up blurbs or station I.D. “bugs,” no trimming for syndication, and most of the time, there’s extra features like bloopers, cast and crew interviews and creator commentaries to enrich the experience… as far as I’m concerned, it’s the only way to watch TV. Judging from the DVD-on-TV sales figures, a lot of other people think that way, too.

So, let’s get to the reviews. We’ve got private eyes, outer space adventurers, live-action and cartoon superheroes and even a couple very different kinds of secret agents, so there should be something here for just about all of you…

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Of all of the genre shows that I loved as a child, very few hold up well today. Fortunately, one of the rare exceptions has just hit DVD in its first full-season set: THE INCREDIBLE HULK – SEASON ONE (1977).

Based on the Marvel Comics character and starring TV veteran Bill Bixby (MY FAVORITE MARTIAN, THE MAGICIAN), THE INCREDIBLE HULK told the tale of a benevolent scientist named David Banner, who accidentally overdoses on gamma radiation during an experiment. Because of this, whenever he gets angry or stressed, he physically transforms into a muscular, inarticulate green giant (Lou Ferrigno, THE ADVENTURES OF HERCULES). When a fellow scientist is killed in an explosion blamed on the Hulk, Banner is also presumed dead in the blast. Rather than turn himself in to the authorities to be locked up and experimented on, Banner instead decides to take to the road, hiding his true identity and searching for a way to reverse his condition. Cue the sad piano music.

With the sincere and sympathetic Bixby as Banner, THE INCREDIBLE HULK was a surprisingly successful remake of the previous decade’s mega-hit show, THE FUGITIVE, spiced up with just a dash of fantasy. In both shows, our hero wanders the countryside, pausing briefly in his travels to involve himself in people’s lives, and managing to solve their problems just as the time comes to move on again. The beauty of the formula, though, is that it works. What you end up with is essentially an anthology show with a continuing lead: one episode can be pure soap opera, another a crime thriller, the next, a scaled-down disaster flick. The drama keeps the grownups watching, and as long as Banner “Hulks out” twice an episode, the kids are happy, too.

Universal has released various episodes of this show on DVD previously (to tie-in with the Ang Lee feature film from a few years ago), but this is the first full-season release. As such, it contains both original 2-hour TV movies, and the ten episodes that followed, when the show was picked up as a mid-season replacement series. Compared to other TV shows of this vintage – especially from Universal – HULK looks incredible! Presented in its original 1.33:1, full-frame format, most of these episodes look like they were shot today. Picture quality is remarkably sharp, with solid colors, no obvious artifacts and only occasional instances of print damage, dust or speckling. The only audio option is good old Dolby mono, but it’s crystal clear and well-balanced.

Extras are minimal: there’s a commentary track by writer/producer/director Kenneth Johnson on the first TV movie (recycled from a previous DVD release of that film), and an episode from Season Two, “Stop the Presses,” has been slapped onto the last disc. Originally, it was announced that the set would include an interview with Ferrigno (also recycled from that previous release), but it doesn’t appear to be included in this set.

For fans of the show, this set is unreservedly recommended. The picture and sound quality is stellar, the lenticular packaging is clever, and generally speaking, the writing, direction and performances hold up wonderfully, even after nearly thirty years.

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Like many B-movie fans, I’m a big fan of actor Bruce Campbell (THE EVIL DEAD, ARMY OF DARKNESS, BUBBA HO-TEP). Thus, I was pleased to see both of the one-season television series he starred in – THE ADVENTURES OF BRISCO COUNTY JR. and JACK OF ALL TRADES (2000) making it to DVD this month. Of course, Warners doesn’t send me review copies, but Universal does…so it’s JACK we’re taking a look at here.

Set in 1801, Bruce plays Jack Stiles, a Revolutionary War hero and U.S. spy, who is sent by Thomas Jefferson to the tiny South Pacific island of Polau-Polau to work with British operative Emilia Rothschild (Angela Marie Dotchin) to foil the advances of the French Emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte (Verne Troyer) in his bid for world conquest.

Originally syndicated as half of an hour package with the dismal (despite the presence of the stunning Gina Torres) CLEOPATRA 2525, JACK OF ALL TRADES is a half-hour adventure comedy filled with broad, anachronistic humor, double-and-triple-entendres, Stooges-styled slapstick, and plenty of Campbell charm. In fact, if it had been a full-hour show and hadn’t been chained to the derivative CLEO, JACK might have had a chance.

Universal’s Complete Season set of JACK OF ALL TRADES is a bare bones affair, but while it would have been great to have Campbell involved with the release (nobody provides more entertaining commentaries than Bruce), it’s good to have this show on DVD at all. The 22 episodes of the series are presented in crystal clear, 1.33:1 full frame transfers, and look and sound perfect. They are spread across three separate discs, each in its own slimcase. There are no extra features whatsoever.

For Campbell fans, this is a must-buy. While it lacks the Chinned One’s personal participation, the episodes themselves are presented perfectly.

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ADV Films originally released the Sci-Fi Channel series FARSCAPE to disc back in the early days of the DVD format. About a year ago, they started re-issuing them in new special “Starburst” editions. I’ve been reviewing ADV Films’ FARSCAPE STARBURST EDITIONS since they began, and I recently finished viewing all three volumes in their THIRD SEASON collection.

FARSCAPE tells the increasingly twisted tale of American astronaut John Crichton (Ben Browder, STARGATE SG1), who is flung through a wormhole to the distant reaches of the galaxy, where he is reluctantly taken in by a rag-tag band of escaped prisoners on a living spaceship. Fugitives, they have to keep moving, avoiding Peacekeeper forces, bounty hunters and assorted other malevolent aliens. By the chaotic third season, the primary villain is a galactic Frankenstein known as Scorpius (Wayne Pygram), who desperately wants the secrets of wormhole travel, and has forcibly extracted the relevant data from Crichton’s brain, leaving the astronaut more than a mite mad. And, if that wasn’t bad enough, our hero is soon cloned – and then there’s two Crichtons running around the galaxy having separate adventures! It’s all insanely fun.

The production values and digital effects are among the best seen on television, and the writing is razor sharp, embracing the absurd without ever making it seem anything but completely reasonable. Humor is dark and edgy, and the already well-drawn characters continue to deepen, with relationships that get more and more convoluted with virtually every episode. The production and costume designs are amazing, and somehow, the Henson shop manages to keep coming up with cooler alien make-ups and space Muppets for each installment.

FARSCAPE Season Three is presented full-frame, and the transfers are perfect. Sound is offered in both Dolby stereo and a more robust 5.1 surround mix. Thankfully, with season three, ADV abandoned the glitch-plagued dual-sided double-layered discs of the earlier volumes, and have switched to single-sided discs. This means that each of the three sets in the season have four discs instead of three, and are a bit more expensive, but this is the first time I could watch a whole season without any episodes seizing up.

As before, ADV continues to load these editions down with bonus features, starting with on-screen liner notes and trivia for each episode. There are also cast and/or crew commentary tracks on many episodes, Sci-Fi Channel promos spots, and a slew of video featurettes and interviews with cast and crew.

The show is highly recommended, and kudos to ADV for making a great series of DVDs even better!

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By the time the heroic He-Man made his debut in afternoon syndication, I was too old for cartoons (or so I thought), so I missed out on the whole phenomenon (I kinda liked the Dolph Lundgren movie though). But for those who grew up with the blond-tressed muscleman and his animated adventures, BCI/Eclipse has been steadily unleashing the action figure heroes and villains of Eternia upon the marketplace in pretty nifty, collectible box sets. In fact, I’ve got HE-MAN AND THE MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE SEASON TWO, VOL. 1 (1983) right here on my desk.

Set on the planet Eternia, THE MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE focuses on mild-mannered Prince Adam and his cowardly green tiger, Cringer. And a bigger pair of losers the galaxy has never seen. Yet, whenever the evil Skeletor and his henchmen threaten the peace of their kingdom, Adam and his pet call upon the magical power of Castle Grayskull and become the heroic, sword-wielding He-Man and armored Battle Cat.

Produced by the notorious Filmation Studios to sell a line of Mattel action figures and accessories, the syndicated weekday afternoon toon was astoundingly popular in the Eighties, spawning a spin-off series for girls (SHE-RA, THE PRINCESS OF POWER), an animated feature film (THE SECRET OF THE SWORD), and even a live-action feature from Cannon Films. Its following included not only young children and toy collectors, but college students as well. Like all Filmation shows, the animation was limited, although colorful and well designed, constantly recycling shots and sequences. As the series was really nothing but a toy commercial, FCC regulations required a certain amount of socially redeeming or educational content, so each episode also had a ham-fisted moral. Yet, there’s something appealing about the simplicity of its good vs. evil formula and the endless parade of bizarre characters. I’m not a fan, but I can see how people of a certain generation could still have a nostalgic affection for it, and my best friends’ five-year-old loved it when I showed it to him.

BCI/Eclipse has pulled out all the stops with these sets. Each volume includes 30 half-hour episodes spread across six discs, tucked into lavishly illustrated packaging. The episodes – presented in their original 1.33:1 full frame aspect ratio – look very good overall, with bright colors and sharp details. There’s a fair amount of dust and debris – much of it inherent in the animation processes of the time – but I saw no digital artifacts or major print damage. There’s also two new behind-the-scenes documentaries featuring interviews with many of the staff and writers that created the series, three full-length episode commentaries, fifty detailed character profiles, two beautiful comic art cards, and on-screen trivia games.

Like I said, I’m not a HE-MAN sorta guy myself, but I know a lot of people my age or a little younger that have a strong nostalgia for the show. BCI has put together a set that should satisfy any hardcore fan.

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Another Filmation endeavor making its DVD debut is the Saturday morning classic, THE NEW ADVENTURES OF FLASH GORDON, from 1979-80.

When the rogue planet Mongo enters our solar system on a collision course for Earth, scientific genius Dr. Hans Zarkov, athlete Flash Gordon, and his girlfriend Dale Arden blast off in a rocketship of the doctor’s invention, hoping to find a way to turn the alien planet from its course. Crash landing on its surface, they find Mongo inhabited by a vast array of sentient creatures, all under the rule of the tyrannical Ming the Merciless. It soon becomes clear to the Earthmen (and Earthwoman) that the only hope of saving Earth lies in uniting the distrustful, ever-warring races of Mongo against the sinister space tyrant.

I have to say, that in my book, this show (first season only) is right up there with Jonny Quest, Thundarr and Batman The Animated Series among the great animated adventure shows. By Filmation standards, the animation is rather lush, with lots of rotoscoping and elaborate backgrounds and character designs. Being a limited-budget, limited-animation product of the Seventies, there’s the usual relentless recycling of footage and repetitive music cues, but it is executed with a level of care and ingenuity that is rare in cartoon shows of this vintage.

In the first season episodes, the writing is not dumbed down for kids and follows the continuity of the original Alex Raymond comic strips quite faithfully. Characters are actually killed (disintegrated) on-screen, and the female characters are designed to be blatantly sexy. Ming’s got his harem and King Vultan’s got dancing slave girls… there’s no way they would have been able to get away with that even a few years later in the 80s.

The first season is presented as an ongoing serial with cliffhangers. The second season is made up of 16 fifteen-minute segments that are, unfortunately, aimed squarely at small children, with simpler, sillier stories and the addition to the cast of a pink baby dragon called Gremlin.

Once again, BCI (under their new Ink and Paint label) and animation expert Andy Mangels have put together a very nice DVD set. While the episodes definitely show their age, with a considerable amount of visible dirt and debris (inherent in this kind of animation) and somewhat faded colors, there are no noticeable digital artifacts or compression problems, and the audio is sharp and clear.

There are some great extras included – a 20 minute documentary wherein Filmation head honcho Lou Scheimer and other studio staffers reminisce about the show and the TV feature that proceeded it. There are character model sheets, some storyboards, the series bible and some scripts on DVD-ROM, and even the entire first episode of the 1980’s syndicated series DEFENDERS OF THE EARTH. This 80’s series (coming from BCI later this year) also starred Flash Gordon, along with The Phantom, Mandrake the Magician, his sidekick Lothar and their teenaged children, all teaming up to battle Ming. The premise was okay, but looked and sounded like every other show that Marvel Productions made in the 80s: bland. Also inserted into the set are a fold out episode guide and two collectible art cards featuring beautiful illustrations by comic book artists Frank Cho and Gene Ha.

Overall, I think that the first season of the Filmation Flash Gordon is one of the best adaptations of the character to film (right up there with the Buster Crabbe serials of the Thirties), and one of the best animated adventure series ever. The DVD set is very nice – the picture quality’s not perfect, but better than I expected after nearly 30 years.

Recommended.

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In the mid-Sixties, the television Westerns, which had dominated the medium virtually from its conception, were starting to lose ratings to a handful of upstart spy shows, inspired by the cinema success of a certain double-O agent. Trying to find a way to exploit the success of the spy genre without losing the still-vast Western audience, producer Michael Garrison proposed combining the two genres, and the result was the one-of-a-kind adventure series, THE WILD WILD WEST (1965-66).

This innovative show chronicled the adventures of Civil War heroes-turned-Secret Service agents James West (Robert Conrad) and Artemus Gordon (the late Ross Martin), as they toured the Western frontier in a private train, foiling the evil machinations of rogue Confederate generals, mad scientists and all the assorted other bad guys that threatened the peace and stability of our young nation. Chief among those menaces was the charming Dr. Miguelito Loveless, a brilliant inventor only three feet tall, whose capacity for murderous mischief reigned unparalleled. But no matter how bizarre or formidable the threat – be it flame-throwing cannons, deadly duplicates, earthquake machines, steam-driven cyborgs, or LSD-carrying ducks – Jim and Arte always managed to save the day with wit, style, some astounding stunts and an arsenal of anachronistic gadgets that even Bond’s Q might envy.

Paramount/CBS Video have just released the entire first season of this amazing show on DVD in a high-quality package. The set includes all 28 episodes from the black & white first season, restored and remastered and looking virtually brand new. Each episode includes a brief audio introduction by star Robert Conrad, and there are a number of other audio features on the set, including a commentary track on the pilot episode, and interviews with some of the writers and other crewmembers from the show. There’s also a still gallery, TV spots, the original title animation (minus one “Wild”), and one of Conrad’s famous Eveready commercials, in which he dared viewers to knock a battery off his shoulder.

The 70-year-old Conrad sounds weary and a bit feeble in his audio introductions, and that’s kind of startling, as I – and most fans – remember him as one of TV’s perpetual tough guys. But age catches up with everyone, I suppose, and I’m glad he was able to participate in this release at all. He certainly still sounds proud of the show and his work on it, 40 years later.

It’s a superior DVD set for a superior television series, and it gets my highest recommendation. Vintage TV rarely gets as creative, unique and smart as this.

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Not only is Universal’s release of THE ROCKFORD FILES – SEASON TWO (1975-76) a marked improvement over their first season set, they’ve finally made available on DVD the original TV-movie pilot, which was notably (and annoyingly) missing from the first release.

THE ROCKFORD FILES was a huge mainstream hit in its day (running from 1974 to 1980 with eight TV movies in the 90’s) and has been a syndication mainstay ever since, and for good reason. Simply put, FILES was the best private eye show in the history of the medium. Grounded by James Garner’s incomparable charm and some of the sharpest writing on the tube (mostly by a young Stephen J. Cannell), the show chronicled the decidedly non-glamorous life of Jim Rockford, an ex-con (he was innocent) turned private investigator in Los Angeles. Rockford was one of the first TV eyes who didn’t wear expensive suits and operate out of a fancy office. He worked out of (and lived) in an old mobile home on the beach, and realistically had to deal with overdue bills, collection agents and deadbeat clients.

The Second Season improved on the first in many ways, with even tighter scripts, an expanded supporting cast, and some top-notch guest stars like Louis Gossett, Jr., Rob Reiner, Linda Evans, and John Saxon, among others. Stand-out episodes include the two-part “Gearjammers,” in which Rockford’s dad (the great Noah Berry Jr.) is unknowingly targeted for assassination, and “The Hammer of C Block,” which guest stars Isaac Hayes as an ex-con acquaintance of Rockford’s who’s out to clear his name. Series regular Gretchen Corbett gives a remarkable performance in “A Portrait of Elizabeth,” a powerful episode which focuses on (and gives some real insight into) Rockford’s attorney/sometime-girlfriend Beth Davenport.

Picture and audio quality of season Two is on a par with the first set – full-frame, 1.33: 1 transfers with a fair amount of age-related wear. Overall, though, the image is solid, with bright colors and only minimal print damage. For a show of its thirty-year vintage, THE ROCKFORD FILES looks pretty damned good. The soundtrack is Dolby mono, as is to be expected, and it’s more than adequate.

With the Second Season set, Universal has abandoned the trouble-plagued dual-sided/dual-layered flipper disc and have instead spread the 22 episodes across six discs. For extras, Universal has provided a video interview with head writer and co-creator Stephen J. Cannell, and the complete TV movie/pilot film, “Backlash of the Hunter,” which co-stars Lindsey Wagner.

Recommended.

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I’m going to wrap up this installment of the Late Show with a review of another episode of Showtime’s hit horror series, MASTERS OF HORROR: LUCKY McKEE – SICK GIRL (2005).

To quote my own previous description of the series: the big event for fright film fans in 2005 was the debut of an original Showtime anthology series created by filmmaker Mick Garris (SLEEPWALKERS) called MASTERS OF HORROR. The premise was simple: take thirteen of the most acclaimed directors of modern horror films and have them each direct a one-hour mini-feature, with no restrictions or network censorship. The resulting series was – as is probably inevitable with anthologies – something of a mixed bag.

Director Lucky McKee is a relative newbie, with one released feature (MAY) and one unreleased feature (THE WOODS) to his credit when he was asked to join the MASTERS. His entry, SICK GIRL, stars Angela Bettis (MAY, THE TOOLBOX MURDERS) and Erin Brown (better known to Late Show regulars as “Misty Mundae,” star of THE SCREAMING DEAD, SPIDERBABE and SHOCK-O-RAMA) as a pair of lesbian lovers whose perfect romance takes a decidedly deadly turn when one of them is stung by an unusual South American insect.

Mixing dark humor with a bit of sapphic romance and plenty of last reel gross-outs, SICK GIRL is an amusing trifle, playing out as sort of a R-rated TWILIGHT ZONE story. It’s not particularly scary or challenging, but it is definitely fun.

As usual, Anchor Bay provides a pristine1.77:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer and a robust Dolby Digital 5.1 audio mix. (A 2.0 Dolby stereo track is also included). Anchor Bay (their parent company, IDT Entertainment, co-produced the series) has chosen to release each episode separately rather than the whole bunch in a season set, as the individual releases allow the company to really load down each disc with episode-specific bonus features. First of all, McKee, composer Jaye Barnes Luckett, and cast members Bettis and Jesse Hlubik team up for an entertaining audio commentary. Then there’s the usual slew of “making of” featurettes, with the usual cast and director interviews, behind-the-scenes montage and career retrospective. The bonus material is rounded out with a still gallery, MASTERS OF HORROR trailers, a Lucky McKee text bio, and a DVD-ROM screensaver.

That’s it for this mother. I’d like to remind you that every review I’ve written for this column is archived at www.dvdlateshow.com, searchable both by publication date and by title. We’re talking over 200 reviews now – that’s a lot of shiny plastic discs! There’s bonus reviews by my drinking buddies, and a couple of other features, too. So why not head over when you’re finished here, and browse around for a while?

Next week, we’ll be back to the B-movie grind, with a mixed bag of cult-film and exploitation goodness (and badness – but that’s good, too, right?) both domestic, and from the far corners of the world. See you then!

Comments about this column or DVD-related questions? Feel free to contact me at dvdlateshow@atomicpulp.com.

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