Buffy The Vampire Slayer: The Complete Fifth Season (20th Century Fox, 2001) w/ Sarah Michelle Gellar, Alyson Hannigan. Six discs. Rating: NNNN
Firefly: The Complete Series (20th Century Fox, 2002) w/ Nathan Fillion, Morena Baccarin. Four discs. Rating: NNNN
The fifth season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, the series' last on WB, was its greatest. There are sustainable arguments for the second and third seasons. But the arc of the fifth, which began with a shark-jumping move of the first order - introducing Buffy's kid sister, Dawn, and treating her as if she'd always been there - worked to systematically strip the heroine down to her core and confronted mortality in a way few other TV shows have. If The Body, the episode that begins the season's final movement, had been part of any series not called Buffy The Vampire Slayer, it would have been showered with Emmys and Peabodys.
While Buffy and Angel made creator Joss Whedon a golden boy, Firefly proved that even he could not overcome the graveyard of a bad time slot. Conceptually peculiar (it is literally an outer-space western), it's about the interplanetary equivalent of a tramp steamer, and every planet it lands on is for some reason locked into the American 19th century. Once you get used to that, it's a fun series, with some excellent guest star work - Richard Brooks as a philosophical bounty hunter in the final episode, Objects In Space, is particularly strong - and impressive visual effects for television.
The ratings for both these series match because, while Buffy is the superior series, Firefly has better presentation (seven commentaries on 14 episodes to Buffy's four on 22), and Firefly actually lets us hear from the actors. It would have been nice to have Sarah Michelle Gellar and Alyson Hannigan comment on The Weight Of The World or hear James Marsters on Fool For Love. But that's been an ongoing limitation of the Buffy DVDs - it's a series with a dedicated and obsessive fan core who would love this stuff, yet we never get it. EXTRAS Buffy: four episode commentaries, four episode scripts, assorted production featurettes, DVD-ROM features. English, French and Spanish versions, English and Spanish subtitles.
Firefly: seven episode commentaries, making-of featurette, blooper reel, tour of the set with Joss Whedon, deleted scenes. English, French and Spanish versions, English and Spanish subtitles.
Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl (Disney, 2003) D: Gore Verbinski, w/ Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom. Rating: NNN on one level, pirates of the carib- bean is good fun, with a baroque Johnny Depp performance as Captain Jack Sparrow, a man who just wants to get his ship back, Geoffrey Rush as a hugely hissable villain and Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley as the young love interests. On another, this thing is an unwieldy 143 minutes long, with a two-headed lead and a plot that parses perfectly and then starts to swallow its own tail. It's not a summer roller coaster movie, it's a roller coaster and a water slide and one of those spinning teacup thingies. And a bungee jump!
The DVD presentation is a standard two-disc studio special edition, with a bunch of fairly generic making-of stuff, 40 minutes of deleted scenes (which means there was once a three-hour cut) and assorted things that look as if they were ruthlessly edited by Disney to remove anything vaguely interesting.
On the plus side, among the three commentary tracks, the writers' commentary is a gem. The scribes were on set for most of the filmmaking, and they have better stories than the director; Verbinski and Johnny Depp just sit and mumble at each other. Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio give us interesting background tidbits (telling us the model for Jack Sparrow was Bugs Bunny, for instance), stronger location stories and a discussion about the challenge of getting a big star to deliver exposition. EXTRAS Director/star, writers and producer/actor commentaries, making-of featurettes, producer's photo diary, additional DVD-ROM content, DTS soundtrack. English and French versions and subtitles. Applause (Kino, 1929) D: Rouben Mamoulian, w/ Helen Morgan, Joan Peers. Rating: NNN
Love Me Tonight (Kino, 1932) D: Rouben Mamoulian, w/ Maurice Chevalier, Jeanette MacDonald. Rating: NNNN kino's almost perversely eclectic catalogue continues to evolve. On the one hand, they've just brought out a box set of Takashi Miike's Dead Or Alive trilogy (look for a review in a couple of weeks, along with the new Miike box from VSC). On the other, here's a pair of archaeological finds from the dawn of sound, Rouben Mamoulian's Applause and Love Me Tonight, with a great Rodgers and Hart score. Mamoulian was the hottest director on Broadway when he signed with Paramount, and with his unusually fluid camera style for early sound (the studios thought you couldn't move the camera during dialogue scenes because the camera noises would be recorded along with the dialogue), he wound up as an innovator without a cause. The tragic melodrama of Applause; City Streets, one of the first talkie gangster movies; the first Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde; the first three-strip Technicolor movie, Becky Sharp - these all part of his filmography. He comes across 70 years later as a superior stylist without either the obsession that marks von Sternberg's films with Dietrich or the urbane fascination with the comic ramifications of class that marks so many of Lubitsch's films from this period.
Applause gives audiences a chance to see legendary torch singer Helen Morgan as a one-time vaudeville star reduced to burlesque, to her own shame and that of her 18-year-old daughter (Morgan was about 27 when Applause was shot) and a show-offy visual style that often seems to bear no relationship to the action. Love Me Tonight, however, is a fluid piece of musical fluff, with Chevalier as a Parisian tailor who finds himself inadvertently passing as an aristocrat in a snooty country house.
Chevalier was the embodiment of French naughtiness, a quality that had a salutary affect on Jeanette MacDonald, who's much more fun when she's not paired with that block of wood known as Nelson Eddy. And can somebody please bring out the two Lubitsch/Chevalier/MacDonald musicals, One Hour With You and The Merry Widow? Applause has a certain historical interest, but Love Me Tonight is a must for anyone who likes musicals. Very good transfers and prints; I'd no idea Love Me Tonight looked this good, having only seen a very bad film school print back in the dark ages. EXTRAS Applause: excerpt from Glorifying The American Girl with Helen Morgan, interview with Mamoulian, stills and promotional gallery, censorship file, excerpt from the original novel, booklet essay.
Love Me Tonight: filmed songs with Chevalier and MacDonald, historical commentary, booklet essay, theatrical trailer, promo and photo gallery, censorship files, production documents. Seabiscuit (Universal) Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges and Chris Cooper in the story of the famous racehorse.
Freaky Friday (Disney) Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan in a remake of the grandmother of all the body-switching movies of the 80s.
Escape From New York (MGM) John Carpenter's classic sci-fi thriller gets the special-edition treatment, including a new Carpenter/Kurt Russell commentary track.
= Critics' Pick
NNNNN = excellent, maintains big screen impact
NNNN = very good
NNN = worth a peek
NN = Mediocre
N = Bomb