Seinfeld: Complete Seasons 1 & 2 (Sony, 1989-90) created by Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld, w/ Seinfeld, Jason Alexander. Rating: NNNN
Seinfeld: Season 3 (Sony, 1991-92) created by Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld, w/ Seinfeld, Jason Alexander. Rating: NNNN
Given what a cultural icon Seinfeld became in its Nielsen-dominating years as the defining comedy of the 90s, it's interesting to note that it didn't get a full-season commitment from NBC until its third season. The first two seasons combined contain only 18 episodes, and only a couple of those are classics, including The Chinese Restaurant, which NBC executives held from air for weeks because they simply didn't understand it. In the hour-long documentary in the Season 1 & 2 box set, NBC programming boss Warren Littlefield says that it was seen as an insult - where's the comedy? Nothing happens. Which was kind of the point, though the idea that the show was about nothing was never quite true. It was certainly about minutiae, tiny moments of observational truth about four remarkably unlikeable characters. Think about those four - vain, insecure, promiscuous, utterly self-obsessed - and ask if you'd want any of them for a close friend. But funny.
To watch Season 3 in a concentrated burst is to witness the beginning of a sustained stretch of comic brilliance. It includes The Pen, The Library, The Tape, The Nose Job, The Red Dot, The Subway, The Limo, The Good Samaritan and The Keys. We get the JFK parody in the hour-long two-parter The Boyfriend, George's assertion of "hand" in The Pez Dispenser and Kramer toting the air conditioner through The Parking Garage. In his commentary, director Tom Cherones says Michael Richards was actually carrying an air conditioner in that box.
These discs are stuffed with extras - blooper reels, episode introductions, commentaries. The cast commentaries are the most fun - Jason Alexander's comments on Seinfeld's performances are quite interesting - while series creators Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld mostly crack up at their own material in their commentaries.
In a remarkable spasm of corporate paranoia, Sony sent out the two-box sets for Seinfeld as mislabelled test discs in envelopes without packaging, and every frame of every episode has a seven-line anti-piracy warning burned into the image. An enclosed document demanded the return of the screeners in 10 days. (Reviewers usually receive street product and are allowed to keep it.) All of which would be a lot more convincing if you couldn't buy in any computer store a Sony-manufactured piece of hardware that will let you burn dual-layer DVDs. Sony's fighting a war it's already lost.
EXTRAS Season 1 & 2: six commentaries, blooper reel, hour-long making-of, gallery of trailers and promo spots, deleted scenes, alternate cut of the pilot, cast and crew introductions to every episode. English, French, Spanish versions and subtitles. Season 3: eight commentaries and pretty much the same sort of material as the other box, only related to this season.
Fritz Lang Epic Collecton (Kino, 1925-1929) Rating: NNNN
American critic Andrew Sarris suggests that, of all the European directors driven to Hollywood by the rise of Hitler, Fritz Lang benefited the most, artistically speaking, simply because the studio system enforced a certain narrative discipline on a director who had no qualms about making a crime thriller that ran over four hours. This new box from Kino combines two existing issues, Metropolis - which made my Top 10 DVD list last year - and his five-hour treatment of Die Nibelungen (Siegfried and Kriemhild's Revenge), plus two new issues, the latest Murnau Institute restorations of 1928's Spies and Woman In The Moon, Lang's last silent film. These two are available singly, so if you already have the other two (and if you don't own the stunning restoration of Metropolis, why not?) these new DVDs can be bought separately.
Spies, restored to its 143-minute running time - there was an American VHS release that ran 90 minutes a few years back - is a baroque and paranoid thriller about the head of a vast criminal enterprise (Rudolf Klein-Rogge, who also played Mabuse) trying to forge an alliance with Japanese spies. In addition to the film's merits and a really beautiful print, it's fascinating to see all the obsessions that'd mark the spy thriller for the next 70 years: high-tech gadgetry, menacing villains bent on world domination, hot babes.
In Woman In The Moon, an elegantly designed rocket takes off for the moon, where gold has been discovered. The 1929 film marks the first time anyone used a countdown to launch a big rocket.
The beautiful print has been constructed from a handful of surviving nitrate prints, and while it has some scientific oddities like air on the moon, it's still fascinating and the most "sophisticated" science fiction film of its era.
EXTRAS Spies and Woman In The Moon come without extras. In the box set, there are extensive extras on Metropolis and Die Niebelungen - documentaries, restoration demonstrations, a scholarly commentary on Metropolis.
The Terminal (Dreamworks, 2004) D: Steven Spielberg, w/ Tom Hanks, Catherine Zeta-Jones. Rating: NNN
So the most successful actor and director in American movies - guys who can do anything they want - decide to do this odd piece of whimsy. You can see the attraction for Spielberg, who faced the daunting challenge of having his people construct an airport terminal for him to shoot in, but Hanks is thinking I've no idea, that he's never done a big accent role? He plays a man who lands at JFK only to discover that his country's disappeared overnight, trapping him in the international departures lounge - can't come in, can't go back. As much as I like Hanks,watching him as a character from Lower Accentovia, I think, "What? They couldn't get Robin Williams?" Hanks is such a great naturalistic actor that the accent is just distracting. Really worth a look, though, for the remarkable orchestration of crowds and architecture. Spielberg's monumental set is designed to give the camera the maximum opportunity to explore this recreation of an artificial world.
EXTRAS The standard Dreamworks format for Spielberg releases, nothing but the movie on disc one, a full-disc of making-of featurettes on the second. The third disc is the John Williams score on CD. English, French versions; English, French, Spanish subtitles. DTS soundtrack.
Coming Tuesday, November 30
Hero (Miramax/Alliance Atlantis, 2002) - In January, I listed Zhang Yimou's eye-popping martial arts film as one of the chief reasons to own a multi-region DVD player. Not any more.
Spider-Man 2 (Sony, 2004) A wide-screen two-disc special edition and a superbit movie-only version of this sequel that recreates the heart-rending angst of Marvel's franchise comic.
Daredevil: The Extended Director's Cut (Sony, 2003) The what? Hopefully, the 30 minutes of extra footage is of Jennifer Garner and Colin Farrell.
The Fantastic Films Of Ray Harryhausen: The Legendary Science Fiction Films (Sony, 1957-64) Mysterious Island, 20 Million Miles To Earth, First Men In The Moon, It Came From Beneath The Sea and Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers, or what people did before CGI.
= Critics' Pick
NNNNN = excellent, maintains big screen impact
NNNN = very good
NNN = worth a peek
NN = Mediocre
N = Bomb