2014 Holiday Gift Guide: Television

Television fans must love the holidays, because it’s the one time of year when studios unleash a host of massive box sets collecting their favorite dramas and comedies. This year is no different, with several critically acclaimed shows getting the complete series treatment. But while we like to devour an entire TV show just as quickly as the next person, sometimes a little self-discipline is required, which is why we’ve also included some less time-consuming (and more affordable) suggestions as well.

Click the links to purchase each product online, and for more gift ideas, check out the other categories in our Holiday Gift Guide.

The Wonder Years: The Complete Series

wonder-years

Can it really have been way back in 2006 when we put “The Wonder Years” at the top of our list of the 15 shows that we most wanted to see released on DVD? 2014 has been a damned good year for that list – now that “Batman” and “WKRP” are finally available, the only things left that we’re still waiting to see released are “Sifl & Olly” and “Ed” – but nothing’s made us as happy as the arrival of a miniature locker containing two faux Trapper Keeper notebooks filled with 26 discs worth of “The Wonder Years.” In addition to the 115 episodes, there’s also over 23 hours of bonus material, including footage from the recent cast reunion, tons of interviews with cast, creators and numerous guest stars, 10 newly-created featurettes, and outtakes from the filming of Kevin and Winnie’s first kiss…which, in case you didn’t know, was also Fred Savage and Danica McKellar’s first kiss as well! Lastly, when you pop open the locker – don’t worry, there’s no lock, so you don’t need to memorize a combination – you’ll also find a hardcover “yearbook” filled with behind-the-scenes pictures and notes from the cast. It’s so totally worth the wait.

Batman: The Complete Television Series

batman

Whether you grew up in the late 60s when it originally aired, or watched the reruns that played throughout the following decades, chances are that the “Batman” TV series was a big part of your childhood. One of the best things about the show is that it operates on multiple levels, so whereas you were attracted to the suspense, action and colorful production design as a kid, when revisiting the series as an adult, you’re able to enjoy the subtler, campier aspects. It certainly helped that it had such a game cast, from stars Adam West and Bruce Ward, to its cavalcade of villain guest stars – most notably Frank Gorshin, Cesar Romero, Burgess Meredith and Julie Newmar – all of whom understood exactly what kind of show they were making. “Batman” is one of the few classic TV series that still holds up today, which is why it’s so surprising that it took this long for it to be released on Blu-ray. The new digital restoration looks fantastic for a show that’s nearly 50 years old, with all 120 episodes presented in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The Blu-ray set also comes with hours of bonus material, including a retrospective on the show’s production and its legacy, a roundtable discussion with West and other Bat-fanatics, the original “Batgirl” pilot, screen tests for West and Ward, as well second-choice Lyle Waggoner (Batman) and Peter Deyell (Robin), and much more. And as if that wasn’t enough, it also comes with a Hot Wheels replica Batmobile, while the box itself plays the “Batman” theme song. Holy Fan Service, Batman!

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Blu Tuesday: Tammy, Jersey Boys and Getting On

Every Tuesday, I review the newest Blu-ray releases and let you know whether they’re worth buying, renting or skipping, along with a breakdown of the included extras. If you see something you like, click on the cover art to purchase the Blu-ray from Amazon, and be sure to share each week’s column on Facebook and Twitter with your friends.

“Tammy”

WHAT: After she wrecks her car, is fired from her job and discovers that her husband has been cheating with their neighbor, all in the same day, Tammy (Melissa McCarthy) is desperate to leave town as quickly as possible, and her alcoholic grandmother Pearl (Susan Sarandon) – who has the two things Tammy needs most: a working car and some cash – decides to tag along. But when they end up driving the wrong way, the two women decide to make the most of the mishap in an attempt to patch up their troubled past.

WHY: Like pretty much anything that Melissa McCarthy does these days, your enjoyment of “Tammy” will depend entirely on how you feel about the actress as a performer, because for those who were already sick of her tedious, one-trick pony act after “Bridesmaids,” sitting through McCarthy’s latest movie is about as pleasant as a punch to the face. It’s bad enough that Tammy never shuts up, but director/co-writer Ben Falcone wants the audience to sympathize with her as well, even though she’s largely to blame for much of what happens over the course of the film. She’s not as mean-spirited as Diana from “Identity Thief,” nor as vulgar as Shannon from “The Heat,” but she’s not someone you’d necessarily want to be friends with either. So when the movie suddenly tries to manufacture a romance between Tammy and Mark Duplass’ nice-guy farmer in the final act, it doesn’t just feel unearned, but completely unrealistic considering he had zero interest in her only a few days prior. That initial meeting takes place shortly after an exceedingly confident Tammy brags about how men are attracted to her like “flies on shit,” and in that instant, McCarthy provides the perfect ammunition to describe her recent career, because that’s what this movie is – a big, steaming pile of shit.

EXTRAS: In addition to a short featurette about a family road trip that Melissa McCarthy and director Ben Falcone took following production on the film, there are four deleted scenes, some alternate takes and a gag reel.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

“Jersey Boys”

WHAT: The story of Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young) and the Four Seasons, from their early days as two-bit gangsters in New Jersey, to their rise to fame thanks to hits such as “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and “Walk Like a Man.”

WHY: Clint Eastwood is one of the last people you’d expect to direct a film adaptation of “Jersey Boys” – or any stage musical, for that matter – and it definitely shows, because it’s one of the worst stage-to-film adaptations in recent memory. In fact, the movie isn’t really a musical at all (save for the end medley/production number), instead going for more of a rockumentary feel that doesn’t translate very well to the screen. The main problem is that with the exception of the great catalog of songs, the film isn’t terribly interesting, barely scratching the surface with its “Behind the Music”-esque narrative. It’s rife with all the usual melodrama of a music biopic, but the characters are never fully developed, despite the fact that the film’s bloated 134 minute runtime gives plenty of opportunities to do just that. Vincent Piazza (as group member Tommy DeVito) and Christopher Walken (as Jersey mobster Gyp DeCarlo) both shine in supporting roles, but the rest of the acting is mediocre at best, particularly theater vets John Lloyd Young and Michael Lomenda. Eastwood was clearly having a senior moment when he agreed to do “Jersey Boys,” because not only is it one of the weakest movies in his oeuvre, but it fails to showcase why the Broadway production was such a huge hit.

EXTRAS: There are three featurettes in total, covering the movie’s journey from Broadway to the big screen, actor Donnie Kehr’s experience working with Christopher Walken, and filming the grand finale.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

“Getting On: The Complete First Season”

WHAT: After agreeing to serve as the temporary Director of Medicine in the Extended Care Unit at Mount Palms Hospital, Dr. Jenna James (Laurie Metcalf) is disheartened when the assignment is made permanent, relegated to work in the soul-crushing facility alongside new supervising nurse Patsy De La Serda (Mel Rodriguez), head nurse Dawn Forchette (Alex Borstein) and rookie nurse Denise “DiDi” Ortley (Niecy Nash).

WHY: Though it flew pretty far under the radar during its first season, this U.S. remake of the BBC series of the same name is one of the more underrated shows in HBO’s lineup. Every bit as much a satire as it is a drearily honest and sobering look at our country’s broken healthcare system, “Getting On” makes the typical black comedy seem lighthearted in comparison. Though the humor on the show can be a little too dry at times, and some of the in-jokes are only funny if you’ve worked in a hospital setting before, it features sharp writing and excellent performances from its cast. Laurie Metcalf, Alex Bornstein and Niecy Nash all deliver great work in their respective roles, while the guest stars (including Molly Shannon, Daniel Stern and a potty-mouthed June Squibb) provide many of the best moments. The only weak link is Mel Rodriguez’s sexually ambiguous Patsy De La Serda, whose character is so annoying (even if that’s kind of the point) that the show becomes infinitely less entertaining whenever he appears on screen. That’s not the only area where “Getting On” could improve, but although it’s not quite the hidden gem that it could have been for HBO, it’s definitely worth checking out for fans of likeminded comedies like “Derek.”

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes some deleted scenes and a gag reel.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

  

Blu Tuesday: The Newsroom, Hercules and More

Every Tuesday, I review the newest Blu-ray releases and let you know whether they’re worth buying, renting or skipping, along with a breakdown of the included extras. If you see something you like, click on the cover art to purchase the Blu-ray from Amazon, and be sure to share each week’s column on Facebook and Twitter with your friends.

“The Newsroom: The Complete Second Season”

WHAT: Following an exclusive report on a top-secret U.S. drone strike that turns out to be untrue, the “News Night” staff becomes embroiled in a legal battle when the producer responsible for the story sues the network for wrongful termination. Meanwhile, Jim (John Gallagher Jr.) goes on the campaign trail with the Romney press bus and Maggie (Alison Pill) deals with the aftermath of a traumatic trip to Uganda.

WHY: Some people really love to hate “The Newsroom,” and for the life of me, I don’t understand why. Though the show can be a tad exaggerated at times (both dramatically and comically), it has great characters and the kind of clever, rapid-fire dialogue that’s become synonymous with every Aaron Sorkin production. Season Two isn’t as strong as its debut season – due to the more focused, season-long drone storyline and certain subplots that remove key characters from the very environment they thrive best – but with the exception of the new title sequence, it’s the same old “The Newsroom,” particularly when taking on real-life topics like the 2012 Elections, Occupy Wall Street and Trayvon Martin. Sorkin’s writing dazzles as always, but it’s the performances by the ensemble cast (from stars Jeff Daniels and Emily Mortimer, to supporting players like Sam Waterson, Olivia Munn, Dev Patel and Thomas Sadoski) that makes it such a joy to watch. It’s a shame that more people didn’t feel the same way, because although the series is returning for a shortened third season, it still feels like a loss, especially with so few great shows left on HBO outside of “Game of Thrones.”

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray set includes four audio commentaries with various cast and crew, the usual collection of “Inside the Episode” featurettes and deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

“Hercules”

WHAT: After enduring his legendary 12 labors, Hercules (Dwayne Johnson) and his band of mercenaries are hired by the King of Thrace (John Hurt) to protect his people from a tyrannical warlord, only to discover that he may be fighting on the wrong side.

WHY: It’s actually quite surprising that someone hasn’t tried making a Hercules movie with Dwayne Johnson sooner, because it’s a role that he was born to play. But while the film is marginally better than Renny Harlin’s “The Legend of Hercules,” it’s rooted even less in the original myth, instead using Steve Moore’s comic book series as its inspiration, which suggests that Hercules wasn’t a demigod at all, but rather a mortal man whose legend far exceeds his abilities. Johnson does a good job in the title role, though he doesn’t have a lot to work with, and Ian McShane and Rufus Sewell (as fellow swords-for-hire) add some color to the otherwise drab story, but there’s nothing really special that sets it apart from the many other sword-and-sandal movies. The action sequences are incredibly generic, the twists aren’t surprising at all, and although the story offers a unique interpretation of the Hercules tale, it’s hard not to feel disappointed by the bait-and-switch approach to the material. After all, would you rather see a movie about the Hercules from Greek mythology, or one about an ordinary guy named Hercules who just happens to be stronger than most? Exactly.

EXTRAS: In addition to an audio commentary by director Brett Ratner and producer Beau Flynn, there’s an introduction to the film from Ratner and Dwayne Johnson, featurettes on the characters, weapons and specials effects, a behind-the-scenes look at filming one of the major actions sequences and 15 deleted/extended scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

“Maleficent”

WHAT: When she’s tricked by her human friend, Stefan (Sharlto Copley) – who steals her wings in exchange for a place on the throne – vengeful fairy Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) curses the king’s newborn daughter with a spell that will take effect on her 16th birthday. Sent away to a remote cabin for her protection, Maleficent comes to care for Princess Aurora (played as a teen by Elle Fanning) after realizing that she may be the land’s only hope for peace.

WHY: Hollywood loves a good fad, and two of the more popular trends these days are fairy tales and villains, so it’s not surprising that Disney would want in on the act, especially after the mild success of Universal’s “Snow White and the Huntsman.” Just like that movie, “Maleficent” attempts to humanize its iconic baddie by turning her into a misunderstood antihero whose fall from grace wasn’t entirely of her own making. But just like every other cinematic villain to get the revisionist treatment (from Dracula to the Evil Queen), Maleficent is stripped of everything that made her such a great character in the process, and perhaps even more troubling, as the victim of a creepy drug rape that’s never addressed. Angelina Jolie has the physicality and talent required for the role, but while she does a good job with the material provided, it would’ve been more fun to see her play a full-fledged villain compared to the morally gray character here. Though “Maleficent” is an admirable attempt at breathing new life into a classic tale, there are so many problems with the story and supporting characters that it would have made more sense to go the direct route and make a live-action “Sleeping Beauty” movie instead.

EXTRAS: There are five short featurettes – including a look at Elle Fanning’s involvement in the film, Maleficent’s costume design and the various stages of the writing process – as well as a handful of deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

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DVD Review: “WKRP in Cincinnati: The Complete Series”

wkrp

Cult classic sitcom “WKRP in Cincinnati,” now making its complete series DVD debut, takes viewers to a much different time – a time before iPods and Sirius, when AM radio was still a very real thing that people listened to and relied on for news and entertainment. Yes, radio once upon a time had character, and helped dictate and define our culture, pop and otherwise. Running for four seasons on CBS, from 1978 to ‘82 – a time of major transition in America – “WKRP” was a wacky workplace comedy that helped pave the way for shows like “The Office,” “30 Rock” and “Parks and Recreation” today. To discuss what makes the series tick, one must first understand its lunatic cast of characters, who are at the root of every episode, every laugh and every plot development. There are eight principles that can be broken down into three categories.

Management: Arthur Carlson (Gordon Jump) is WKRP’s sometimes bumbling but always good-hearted station manager, also known affectionately as “The Big Guy.” Though from time to time he appears to possess a modicum of business acumen, for the most part, he’d rather not be bothered with the day-to-day operations of the station, instead focusing on his hobbies, which include fishing and model trains. The series kicks off with Carlson’s hiring of Andy Travis (Gary Sandy) as the station’s new program director. The level-headed center of the bunch, Travis has been living town to town, up and down the dial, and doesn’t see WKRP as anything more than another stop in his career of rebranding stations and making them profitable. Soon enough, he’ll discover there’s something special about this station that keeps him from moving on to the next one. Jennifer Marlowe (Loni Anderson), Carlson’s bombshell-with-brains secretary, shouldn’t technically fit under management, and yet as the series progresses, it becomes all too clear that without the glue that is Jennifer, the entire enterprise would fall to pieces.

The Disc Jockeys: Dr. Johnny Fever (Howard Hesseman) is the station’s morning drive man. Like Travis, Johnny’s worked at more stations than he can remember, though that may have more to do with years of drug and alcohol use, which is more hinted at than ever explored. Fever is the show’s wild card, and “WKRP” never shies away from throwing bizarre, unpredictable plotlines in his path. Venus Flytrap (Tim Reid) is Andy’s first move upon changing the station’s format to rock and roll, hiring the jock “away from a station in New Orleans.” Shrouded in a mysterious past, Venus takes care of the evening shift, playing soothing, laid-back tunes for the greater Cincinnati area. “WKRP” peels away the Venus onion, giving him a little more backstory every season, and one of the show’s very last episodes (“The Creation of Venus”) brilliantly redefines his introduction way back in the two-part pilot.

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R.I.P. Jan Hooks

Jan Hooks passed away today. She was part of one of the best SNL casts in history from 1986 to 1991 and was funny as hell. Here she stars with Phil Hartman, Chris Rock, Mike Myers, Victoria Jackson and Sting in the classic “Sinatra Group” sketch. Hooks plays Sinead O’Connor, who Frank refers to as Sinbad, cue-ball and Uncle Fester throughout the skit. RIP Jan . . .

  

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