All posts by Sheldon Wiebe

Do We Really Need Another Sitcom About a Sportswriter? If It’s TBS’ My Boys, The Answer Is An Emphatic YES!

My BoysI'm going to just come right out and say it – I'm in love! Her name is PJ Franklin and she's a sportswriter for The Chicago Sun-Times. She's smart, funny, dead cute and loves sports [obviously!]. She also loves the Cubbies! She's the heroine/narrator of the new TBS series, My Boys [Tuesdays, 10 p.m./9 Central], and she is some kinda player [oh, look! The sports metaphors have already begun!]…

PJ [Jordana Spiro] is a twenty-something sportswriter who has always been something of a tomboy. Her colleagues – and most of her friends – are guys, and she really fits in. When she tries to work in an evening out with her [one] girlfriend, she has to skip three straight evenings because of football [watching] and baseball [work]. She hosts the weekly poker game, and makes a would-be beau feel weird because she "says all the guy things!"

It's the gang at the poker game around whom this show is built. Besides PJ, there's Andy [Jim Gaffigan], her older brother [married to a micromanaging woman named Meredith]; Kenny [Michael Bunin], a sports memorabilia store owner who's afraid of commitment [or even taking a chance]; Brendan [Reid Scott], a DJ who is caught in the drama of an eternally on-again/off-again relationship; and Bobby [Kyle Howard], a sportswriter with a rival paper, whom she finds… shall we say… interesting?

PJ's one girlfriend, Stephanie [Kellee Stewart], on the other hand, is about as girly as they come. She's feminine with a capital FEMME, and frequently despairs over PJ's less than feminine approach to all aspects of her life, including the romantic. She's also smart, funny and drop dead gorgeous…

Since PJ is a sportswriter, you know that her narration will be riddled with sports metaphors, which could be annoying after awhile – if they weren't so completely appropriate and funny. Spiro, it turns out, has a combination of a slightly husky voice and impeccable timing, so that everything she says takes on an unexpected depth [and no small amount of sexiness…].

My Boys - Kenny, Michael, PJ & Brendan

The show's title, My Boys, refers to the idea that men may come and go – but the boys are forever. The idea for the series comes from the experiences of the show's creator, Betsy Thomas [My So-Called Life, Then Came You] – who developed the series with former network head, Jamie Tarses [who is one of the inspirations for Studio 60's Jordan McDeere]. The series is a one-camera show with no laugh track – and none is needed.

Watching PJ and her friends navigate the pitfalls of life can be as enlightening as it is funny. When Brendan wonders aloud if any of the group has plans for Sunday night, for example, no one wants to answer because if he's got something great planned, they miss out – but if he's got something lame planned, they get sucked into the abyss with him! Talk about a life lesson!

Then there's the PJ/Bobby dynamic – when she meets him in the press box, in the pilot, and chemistry arises, it leads to the two of them sending extremely mixed [and odd] signals to each other. The ensuing discomfort and situational reassessment is a wonder to behold. And how about Brendan's biggest fan – who invades PJ's space when she allows him to crash in her guest room after he breaks up [yet again] with his girlfriend. It seems she [PJ] has no problem with a one-night stand, but a five-night stand? Not so much…

Of course, being a sitcom, we might not expect the characters of My Boys to grow – but if you stick around, you'll see even Kenny, the commitment phobe, stretch. Of course, you'll also get to meet Fun Andy – an experience that may be hilarious, but is also something of a revelation. It's instances like these that set My Boys above the average sitcom. It's not just smart and funny – it's also real. So not what I was expecting…

My Boys may not be the next great sitcom, but it has that kind of potential. I love it and I'm not even a baseball fan [except, of course, for the Cubbies and the Blue Jays – but Jays only because they're a Canadian team… but I digress!]. Let's just say that in the course of the five eps I screened this week [numbers one to four, and nine – I don't know why], I laughed harder than I have since Arrested Development got cancelled. In baseball parlance, My Boys bats cleanup.

Grade: A

Animated TVonDVD: Star Trek: The Animated Series; The Tick vs. Season One; HarveyToons; The Dick Tracy Show

Star Trek: The Animated Series Box ArtStar Trek: The Animated Series won the franchise's only Emmy; The Tick vs. Season One introduced comics' funniest superhero satire to television; HarveyToons: The complete Collection is a spirited mix of film and TV animated shorts, and The Dick Tracy Show: The Complete Animated Crime Series fails to do justice to Chester Gould's sharp-jawed sleuth…

Star Trek: The Animated Series

Star Trek: The Animated Series

The twenty-two animated episodes of Star Trek that ran over two seasons in 1973-74 are finally available on DVD – in a package that does them justice – thirty-two years after their original run ended. A single screening is enough to tell even the casual viewer why there has been a demand, for so many years, for a home video release of the series – despite the usual limited animation common to television, Star Trek: The Animated Series tells stories that would be at home in the middle of seasons one and two of the original, live-action series.

Under the guidance of original series veteran D.C. Fontana, the animated series dealt with some pretty heady subjects for a cartoon show that aired on Saturday mornings. Yesteryear used the Guardian of Time [first seen in original series episode The city on the Edge of Forever] to tell the story of how Spock became a man – after an accident had changed the timeline so that he had died at age seven; Eye of the Beholder found our heroes stuck in a zoo created by slug-like creatures whose intelligence far outstripped that of humanity [or even Vulcans!]; The Counter-Clock Incident placed the Enterprise in a reverse universe, where black stars shone on a white void…

One of the reasons the show was of high quality was the insistence of Gene Roddenberry that Filmation [who created the series for NBC] use the original cast and many of the same writers. With the exception of Walter Koenig [Ensign Pavel Chekhov], the entire cast from the original series returned to voice their characters. Koenig was given an opportunity to write an ep and turned in one of the series' best – The Infinite Vulcan. Animated Series writers who worked on the original series included Samuel A. Peeples, David Gerrold, D.C. Fontana, and David Wise. The result was an Emmy win – for Best Children's Series. The show was described as a "Mercedes Benz in a soap box derby" in one review.

Features include: three text commentaries by Michael and Denise Okuda [Yesteryear, The Eye of the Beholder, and The Counter-Clock Incident – all excellent]; two audio commentaries by David Gerrold [More Tribbles, More Troubles and Bem]; an audio commentary by David Wiser [How Sharper Than a Serpent's tooth]; Drawn to the Final Frontier – The Making of Star Trek: The Animated Series; What's the Star Connection? [examples of original series references in TAS, and instances of later references back to TAS]; Storyboard Gallery [from The Infinite Vulcan]; Show History.

Star Trek: The Animated Series – Grade: A

Features – Grade: A

The Tick vs. Season One Box Art

The Tick vs. Season One

From its bizarre, scatting theme song to its witty deconstruction of the superhero genre, Ben Edlund's The Tick was one of the brightest, sharpest, funniest animated series to ever reach television. The dispenser of Mighty Blue Justice [with the aid of accountant-turned Moth Man, Arthur], The Tick was an avenger like no other: a large, noble, enthusiastic, but thoroughly unintelligent fusion of man and bug.

Given to proclamations and long-winded similes and metaphors, The Tick [perfectly voiced by Townsend Coleman] appeared to be a human behemoth in a blue costume – until you noticed that his antennae moved! His personality and intelligence could be summed up in his audition for a superhero assignment, when he straps himself into a nasty looking device to demonstrate his invulnerability with the warning, "Stand Back! I might be dangerous!"

This is a hero whose battle cry is "Spooooooooooooooooooon!" […because all the good battle cries were already taken…] His sidekick, Arthur [Mickey Dolenz], wears a moth-man suit and flies – but he's out of shape and easily terrified. Other heroes who pop up to help out include: American Maid [Kay Lenz] – Wonder Woman in red, white & blue French maid's uniform; Die Fledermaus [Cam Clarke] a Batman-like character who's more interested in his press clippings – and women – than actually fighting crime because… he's a coward, and Sewer Urchin [Jess Harnell] – a rain man/puffer fish combination.

The show's villains match the delightful absurdity of the heroes: Chairface Chippendale [Tony Jay] – an evil genius with a chair for a head [who began etching his name on the moon in his first appearance]; Dinosaur Neil – a mild-manner scientist who accidentally becomes a raging dinosaur [and can only be defeated by a common household remedy], and Human Ton & Handy [Maurice Lamarche] – a hulking dimwit who takes orders from a hand puppet. The there were The Idea Men – who couldn't communicate their ideas because their masks completely muffled their voices. And there's always The Evil Midnight bomber [What Bombs At Midnight]…

The Tick vs. Season One collects twelve of the first season's thirteen episodes [legal complications, apparently] and that's over four hours of totally mind-boggling fun. Watch for thrilling origin stories; riffs on talk shows; insane gadgets and mad scientists – and did I mention the brainy hand puppet and his dimwitted handler…?

The DVD is free of extras, but the package includes an insert with a complete episode list, and an exclusive lithograph.

Grade: A+

HarveyToons: The Complete Collection

HarveyToons: The Complete Collection

Most people know of certain legendary animators like Tex Avery, Fritz Freleng, Chuck Jones, and the like. When I was a kid, I used to watch a series built around characters like Casper, The Friendly Ghost and Baby Huey. Classic Media has now released all fifty-two episodes of that series under the titles of HarveyToons: The Complete Collection – and, while they might not always match the work of the three giants I named earlier, they had more than a few moments where they did challenge them.

Directors like Izzy Sparber and Seymour Kneitel brought a combination of fluidity and chaos to these characters' adventures and, while less well known than, say, Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse, provided a lot of quality laughs. Casper, of course, was their best known character, and a ghost who didn't want to scare anyone was a great concept.

Each early Casper cartoon had Casper scaring away the people with whom he wanted to be friends – until he would somehow save the day. In one short [Ghost of the Town], he saved a baby from a burning building. Not only did he make a lot of friends that day, he also ruined the lives of his fellow ghosts – no one was afraid of them because of his courage and helpfulness. One of the trademarks of a Casper cartoon was his unfailing cheerfulness and determination – he made a great role model for kids.

Such was not the case with Baby Huey – a humongous baby duck who was a few brain cells shy, and always hungry. Then there was Little Audrey, whose imagination was always getting her in trouble – as when she decided to visit the zoo to find a pet! There was also a pairing, Herman & Catnip, that owed much to Tom & Jerry but had their own slapstick charms.

When the HarveyToons ran on TV, an episode would be composed of two theatrical shorts and an original TV short [usually not featuring one of the main Harvey characters]. My personal favorite [and indicative of the intelligence that lurked behind every HarveyToon] is T.V. Fuddlehead, a lovely satire in which a TV addict insists on buying everything he sees advertised on TV.

With over nineteen hours of material on four double-sided discs, there's no need for extras. This is a terrific collection, with very few duds. For animation aficionados [and kids of all ages], HarveyToons: The Complete Collection is an unexpected treat.

Grade: B+

The Dick Tracy Show Box Art

The Dick Tracy Show: The Complete Animated Crime Series

When I was in grade school, I used to run home at lunchtime to watch The Dick Tracy Show. Even though Chester Gould's immortal sleuth barely appeared in it, I still loved it. The problem is, it really hasn't held up well…

I don't know [or care] how The Dick Tracy Show: The Complete Animated Crime Series came to be made. What was charming and funny to a ten-year old kid [that would be 1961] turns out to be bad slapstick, punchless puns and a whole lot of boring going on.

Part of the problem is that characters like Jo Jitsu, Heap O'Calory, Hemlock Holmes and Go Go Gomez are all stereotypes, and/or rip-offs of better characters [Go Go Gomez, for example, is a dumbed down Speedy Gonzalez – himself a stereotype, but at least a witty use of one]. Jo Jitsu is Mister Moto played for clich

Déjà Vu: Surreal Action Film Kicks Temporal Mechanics!

Deja Vu - Carlin Watches HimselfDeja Vu's publicity campaighn has hammered home that it is a time travel movie, but the actual time travel portion of the film is limited to the third act – and what a third act it is! With a cast that includes Denzel Washington, Val Kilmer and Jim Caviezel, Deja Vu does have a lot of star power – but unlike a lot of star showcases, this one includes stars who are fine actors, and the script really puts them through their paces.

Washington is ATF [Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms & Explosives] Agent Doug Carlin, who is but one of a task force investigating a terrorist bomb that destroys a ferry with a full complement of over 500 passengers. When he picks up on the discovery of the corpse of a young female who was, apparently a victim – and the call-in on the discovery of the body turns out to be half-an-hour before the bomb – he immediately suspects that the murder and the bomb are related.

He's drafted to a special, under-the-radar unit headed by Val Kilmer's FBI Agent Pryzwarra, which has some impressive technology at their disposal – they claim it's an ultra-advanced form of satellite surveillance that is always four-and-a-half days into the past because it takes that long for their supercomputer to render it accurately [he suspects it's something else, because when they surveil the woman, she seems to sense she's being watched].

Deja Vu - Carlin watches Carol

Deja Vu is intricately structured, and the way the film plays with temporal mechanics is consistent and logical throughout. Carlin's fascination with the soon-to-be-murdered woman on his monitor is built beautifully – Washington needn't say a word for us to know what he's thinking. During these scenes, Paula Patton makes it extremely easy for us to see why a cynical ATF agent might fall for her…

As the title suggests, there is a lot of material that comes back in on itself. Particularly impressive is the way the dialogue recurs from different characters' mouths – in different situations. Very smart stuff, indeed. As a science fiction fan, I was impressed that screenwriters Bill Marsilii and Terry Rossio [Mark of Zorro, Pirates of the Caribbean] never let the science get out of hand, or become inconsistent [it's also cool that, like a lot of breakthroughs, this technology is the result of a fluke!]. As an action fan, I note that the action set pieces are extremely well done – to the point of providing the first truly unique car chase in decades!

The way Carlin finally deals with the terrorist is inspired – and well within the "deja vu" structure that has been careful built over the course of the film. Even the ending, with its moment of sacrifice and ensuing moments of hope, is a unique take on the Hollywood happy ending that is, ultimately, satisfying. Try as I might, I can't really find any major flaws in the film – and the little ones aren't really enough to make a difference to the overall experience. This is be Tony Scott's best film – and I suspect that D

Done The Impossible: Browncoats Celebrate The Little Show That Wouldn’t die!

Done The Impossible Box ArtIf you have any Browncoats among your friends and family, you will know about it. Browncoats are fans of the Joss Whedon TV series, Firefly, and the film for which their support was largely responsible. Done The Impossible is another unlikely chapter in the Firefly/Serenity saga…

When Joss Whedon's TV series, Firefly, was prematurely cancelled, its legion of fans rose up – first prompting a DVD release, which then sold so well it helped Universal decide to acquire the movie rights. Finally, a movie, Serenity, was made. Done The Impossible is a fan-made documentary that looks at how that process occurred.

Although the documentary is largely concerned with Browncoats [their feelings about the series and the movie] and the way their support [unrivalled since the original Star Trek write-in campaign] made it possible for the nearly unheard of to happen, it is most notable for interviews with Joss Whedon and some of the cast and production crew of Serenity – and for enlisting the aid of Adam Baldwin to introduce each section of the film, and Jewel Staite for voice-over work.

This is one of those "if-I-had-a-camera-I'd-do-this" films that usually wind up boring people to tears at family gatherings. The big difference between those vanity projects and Done The Impossible is simple – Done The Impossible is a very good documentary. The done The Impossible team [Brian Wiser, Jared Nelson, Jason Heppler, Jeremy Neish and Tony Hadlock] have filmed and edited a tidy little doc that really works as a film.

It traces the story of Whedon's series from before its out-of-sequence run on FOX and cancellation, through to just after its big screen big screen release – and it gives the viewer some keen insights into how this remarkable little series affected people's lives enough that they wouldn't let it die. As a Browncoat myself, I was prepared for Done The Impossible to be an earnest, awkward, emotional Rollercoaster ride. Thus, I was more than pleasantly surprised to see that it was made with the same kind of professionalism that Whedon and his cast and applied to both Firefly and Serenity.

Done The Impossible - Browncoats

Done The Impossible captures the love, outrage and insistence of the Browncoat movement, while revealing that the series/film's cast and crew are equally enthusiastic fans [we hear from folks like stars Nathan Fillion, Alan Tudyk, and Ron Glass – as well as production people like Christopher Buchanan and Tim Minear]. Baldwin's contribution and the Whedon interview [which is dispensed in bits throughout the film] show just how important both projects were to them – but neither seems forced or staged. The result is that any non-Browncoat who watches the film will likely want to see what all the fuss is about [and if you know a Browncoat, you will see this film].

There is also a CD release of the Done The Impossible soundtrack, featuring artists who have become such fans of Firefly and Serenity that they've written songs about them. Some of the best tracks include: Big Damn Trilogy, by Celtic band, The Bedlam Bards [their hope that their would be a Serenity trilogy]; Rob Kuhlman's medley, Done The Impossible [The Ballad of Serenity], and Emerald Rose's fine take on The Ballad of Serenity. Because the songs on the soundtrack were composed by acts that were fans of Whedon's work, they both stand alone as great songs and work within the framework of the Done The Impossible soundtrack.

Done The Impossible - Baccarin & Staite Interview

With Christmas shopping being flogged before Thanksgiving these days, here's a tip: if you know a Browncoat who doesn't have Done The Impossible, or its soundtrack, you can't go wrong giving them one or both. Chances are that you'll enjoy them, too. If you are a Browncoat and don't have one or both… what were you thinking?

DVD & DVD-ROM features include: Audio Commentary [extremely good]; Interactive Timeline; Extended Interviews; Trivia Game;

The Cartoon Network’s Thanksgiving Treat: Good Wilt Hunting – A Foster’s Home For Imaginary Friends Special Event!

Foster's Home For Imaginary Friends - Good Wilt HuntingGood Wilt Hunting [Thursday, 7 p.m. ET/PT, check your listings] gives the tall, red, one-armed imaginary friend his own adventure. When his creator fails to show for the latest Creator Reunion, Wilt sets out to find his creator and right what he perceives to be a grievous wrong…

Ever since the mid-point of its first season, Foster's Home For Imaginary Friends has become increasingly mean spirited and less and less whimsical. The series' special, one-hour event, Good Wilt Hunting, reverse that trend spectacularly. From the opening moments, when we see all the orphaned imaginary friends reuniting with their creators, this strange and wonderful movie recaptures the pure fun and zaniness of those early episodes.

Part of the fun is seeing the creators of the imaginary friends – some are very familiar but others are very different. The similarities and contrasts provide a lot of laughs and a couple of warm and fuzzy [but not annoying] moments. When it turns out that Wilt's creator hasn't shown – again – Bloo's incessant questioning seems to spark the big red guy's disappearance. We know, however, that he's made an appointment by phone and is off on a quest to right what he perceives to be a grievous wrong.

Naturally, once Mac and the gang discover that Wilt has disappeared, they decide to go after him and find out what's wrong [they eventually deduce that he's searching for his creator – well… all except Bloo, who seems to think that Wilt is on the lam for some horrendous crime!]. Meanwhile, Wilt's journey is complicated by his good-heartedness [think of it as a kind of "tasks of Hercules" for the poor guy].

Foster's Home For Imaginary Friends

Good Wilt Hunting may be the cleverest episode of the series to date. A lot of thought has gone into the creators of Foster's orphaned imaginary friends [Eduardo's creator is a particularly appropriate and funny choice – with just a hint of poignancy to make their reunion especially effective], and Wilt's tasks [undertaken out of the goodness of his heart – without even being asked] show what a wonderful friend he is – even if he doesn't think so.

The gang's road trip to find Wilt is also a lot of fun – Coco's adoptive friends [two nerds who came upon her shortly after her creator left her] provide a lot of discomfort for Frankie, whom [it turns out] they practically worship. The gang also has a habit of just missing Wilt – and learning each time what a good friend he's been to people [and imaginary friends] he's never met before.

Good Wilt Hunting is a fable about the nature of friendship. As such, it teaches a valuable lesson without seeming to be saying anything at all. It doesn't even hit anyone over the head with its moral – everything is communicated in the giddy whirlwind of whimsy that series has been in need of refreshing. We can all be thankful that The Cartoon Network has delivered this wonderful little paean to friendship at this most appropriate time of the year.

Grade: A

TVonDVD: Bones – Season One; Masters of Horror: Haeckel’s Tale; NCIS – The Complete Second Season; Edward R. Murrow: The Best of

Bones: Season One Box ArtThe chemistry between Emily Deschanel and David Boreanaz gives FOX procedural, BonesSeason One a different kind of edge; Clive Barker's Haeckel's Tale makes for a truly different episode of Masters of Horror; humor helps set NCIS – The Second Complete Season apart, and Edward R. Murrow: The Best of Person to Person is a veritable clinic in how to interview the famous and powerful…

Bones: Season One box Art

Bones – Season One

Bones is based on the books [and life] of forensic anthropologist, Kathy Reichs. Emily Deschanel plays Dr. Temperance Brennan who works for the Smithsonian Institute. She is dragged into an FBI investigation – much against her will – headed by Special Agent Seeley Booth [David Boreanaz] and a team is created that puts the fun back into procedural drama.

Tempe [as her few friends call her] is wholly focused on her job. Her team at the Smithsonian is kind of like a forensic version of Doc Savage's band of adventurers: Zach Addy [Eric Milligan] is a grad student working under Brennan's tutelage and specializes in skeletal reconstruction and identifying causes of damage; Jack Hodgins [T.J. Thyne] is the "bugs and dirt guy," and Angela Montenegro [Michaela Conlin] is the artist whose holographic invention, referred to an the Angelator, creates 3D imaging that allows her to approximate what her long dead subjects might look like [she is also Tempe's best friend].

Booth is a mostly by-the-book FBI agent who usually limits his rebelliousness to chunky belt buckles and a variety of very odd ties. He's the one who understands people, has hunches, and is not comfortable around the remains that form the bases for most of their investigations. He's not comfortable with Brennan's team, either – and refers to them as squints – a term brought to the series by a technical advisor to refer to the close-up work required [as in squinting] in Brennan's team's line of work. Both also refers to Brennan as Bones – hence the title of the series…

Over the course of the first season, Brennan and Booth develop from a partly adversarial relationship to one of trust and increasing affection. Part of that growth of affection can attributed to their backgrounds [Booth as an armed forces sniper; Brennan as a product of the foster care system]. Together, they form a terrific team – a team that has determined if the victim of a car bomb was really a victim, or a terrorist whose timing was off; raced to determine whether a convict about to be executed was actually guilty of the murder; and investigated whether a skull in the desert belonged to someone close to Angela.

Bones proved to be a success – mostly on the strength of the chemistry between Deschanel and Boreanaz – right from its premiere and it's easy to see the show get better and better from episode to episode. By the first season finale, with its personal impact for Tempe, the show had become appointment viewing.

Features include: two commentaries [Pilot, by series creator Hart Hanson and co-executive producer Barry Josephson; and Two bodies In The Lab, by Deschanel and Boreanaz – the latter is fun but not really informative; the former is both]; Squints – the cast members talk about their preparation to play forensic scientists; The Real Definition – a quick guide to the squints' terminology; Bones: Inspired By The Life of Forensic Anthropologist and Author Kathy Reichs – Reichs and the cast and creators of Bones talk about the show and how it's inspired by the very real work of Ms Reichs.

Bones: Season One – Grade: B

Features – Grade: B

Final Grade: B

Masters of Horror: Haeckel's Tale box Art

Masters of Horror: Clive Barker's Haeckel's Tale

Clive Barker's Haeckel's Tale is John Mc Naughton's [Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Wild Things] entry in Mick Garris' hit Masters of Horror series. It's a tale of strange love, necromancy and frustrated dreams. When a shattered young man seeks out an alleged necromancer to bring his wife back from the dead, she tells him the cautionary tale of Ernst Haeckel [Derek Cecil] – a young medical student who intends to learn the secret of life.

Learning that his father is near death, young Haeckel sets out to see him for the last time, but is waylaid by a sudden storm and, at the behest of an older man he meets on the road, is persuaded to take shelter with a very odd couple – the older man [Tom McBeath] and his lovely, but faraway wife [Leela Savasta]. He immediately finds the wife far too compelling, but her husband warns him that she cannot be satisfied by mortal means.

Haeckel's Tale tackles a lot of taboos and former taboos: the much older man/much younger wife; adultery; raising the dead – even necrophilia [sort of]. It's a lurid, but very smart, little film. As Haeckel becomes more and more fascinated with Elise, he finds himself following her out into the nearby graveyard – where all Hell literally breaks loose!

McNaughton directs Mick Garris' screenplay with an elegance that captures the Mary Shelley meets Night of the Living Dead ghoulish period weirdness of Barker's original story. The effects are spectacular and grotesque, and when the story finally reaches its moments of goriness, it comes with a suddenness that is almost devastating.

Haeckel's Tale is as much pure fun as the best horror movies, and manages to say something [though not as subtly as it might've]. Just attempting to adapt a Clive Barker tale in such a manner has to be considered an accomplishment, but getting the job done so well… that's impressive!

Features include: Commentary by McNaughton; Breaking Taboos: An Interview With John McNaughton; Working With a Master: John McNaughton; On Set: An Interview With Leela Savasta; On Set: an Interview Derek Cecil; On Set: An Interview with Jon Polito; Script to Screen: Haeckel's Tale; Behind the Scenes: The Making of Haeckel's Tale; Stills Gallery; Storyboard Gallery; John McNaughton Bio; DVD-ROM Screenplay, and DVD-ROM Screensaver. The set also includes an insert and a John McNaughton trading card.

Masters of Horror: Haeckel's Tale – Grade: B+

Features – Grade: A+

Final Grade: A-

NCIS Season Two Box Art

NCIS – The Complete Second Season

NCIS is an oddity among procedural series. It relies heavily on the judicious use of humor; frequently switches from humor to drama in the middle of a scene; and virtually all its cases are based [however loosely] on actual NCIS cases. Considering that many critics call it the worst written hit on television, it's interesting that it's the show's writing that draws guests like the legendary Charles Durning, David Keith, Joe Spano, Elizabeth Pena, Frank Whaley, Nina Foch, Danica McKellar, Mariette Hartley and Rudolph Martin.

The series is also blessed with a very solid ensemble: Mark Harmon [Special Agent Jethro Gibbs], David McCallum [Dr. Donald "Ducky" Mallard], Michael Weatherly [Special Agent Anthony DiNozzo], Sean Murray [Special Agent Timothy McGee], Sasha Alexander [Special Agent Caitlin Todd], and Pauley Perrette [Forensics Specialist Abby Sciuto]. It's a good mix of veterans and relative newcomers and a source of an undeniable – if odd – energy.

The second season found NCIS changing its look a bit. The show spent a great deal more time on the NCIS office set [which they didn't have in season one], and the overall tone of the series brightened – both in terms of lighting and the use of humor. It also became more focused, giving us more of a look at the lives of its characters.

The best episodes of the season included: The Bone Yard [a Marine bombing range turns out to be a Mafia dumping ground – and the body of an undercover FBI agent is found there]; Call of Silence [Charles Durning plays a veteran of Iwo Jima who claims to have murdered his best friend a battle on the island]; Doppelganger [a hoax takes a nasty turn when a petty officer actually turns up dead]; SWAK [DiNozzo opens the wrong envelope and contracts The Plague – this was a bottle show and a highlight for Weatherly and Alexander], and Twilight [a game of cat and mouse with a terrorist; the death of a member of the team – and the best kept character-death ep of the season].

Features include: two commentaries [The Bone Yard, by Chas. Floyd Johnson; Twilight, by John C. Kelley, Pauly Perrette and Michael Weatherly – neither is particularly good, though Johnson's is certainly more informative]; Investigating Season 2 – an overview of the season; The Real N.C.I.S. – a brief, reasonably satisfying look at the real investigative unit [and an agent suggests that Mark Harmon might have made a good N.C.I.S. agent]; What's New In Season 2 – how the series changed and evolved from season one; Lab tour With Pauly Perrette – a look at Abby's lab [some of the equipment is real!].

N.C.I.S.: The Complete Second Season – Grade: B

Features: C+

Final Grade: B-

Edward R. Murrow: Best of Person to Person Box Art

Edward R. Murrow – The Best of Person to Person

Edward R. Murrow is one of the all-time great television interviewers. Person to Person, was nothing more than a series of remote interviews done from a simple set [chair, microphone, chair, ashtray, picture window] but Murrow's casual attention to detail allowed viewers to see sides of the rich, famous and powerful that they would otherwise never have known.

The Best of Person to Person is a three-disc collection of thirty-five twelve-minute interviews, divided into three categories: American Icons, Hollywood Legends and Legendary Entertainers. The format is as simple as Murrow's set: he sits in the chair and asks questions of subjects whose current location [usually their homes] is shown in the picture window. It's the kind of long-distance conversation that is commonplace now, but was unheard of before Murrow's series.

Some of the best interviews are with a younger Andy Griffith [after "No Time For Sergeants, but prior to The Andy Griffith Show], Senator John F. Kennedy [from his former bachelor pad a few weeks after his marriage] and Frank Sinatra. Murrow manages to put his subjects at ease with little effort, and they tell him [and therefore us] things that they might not otherwise say.

From these twelve-minute interviews, we learn how luck helped make Griffith a star – and what wedding present was JFK's favorite. Little details like these help make all Murrow's subjects more relatable and it's quite amazing to watch him draw these things out in his interviews. There are no special features here, but then, you might say that the entire set is a series of special features.

Edward R. Murrow: The Best of Person to Person – Grade: A

Casino Royale: Sorry, Haters – Daniel Craig IS James Bond!

Casino RoayalWell, the suspense is over: Daniel Craig has shaken the Bond franchise and stirred Bond fanatics. Now, we can say it – Daniel Craig's Bond is, at the very least, the best since Sir Sean…

About the only things that haven't changed in Casino Royale are the running time, and M [the always fascinating Dame Judi Dench]. The script is tighter and more character-driven; the international cast is composed of actors [not just pretty faces]; the stunts are simultaneously more real and more dangerous; the gizmos, while few and far between, are more firmly rooted in reality, and – despite his cleverness – this Bond is still pretty much a rookie.

The film opens in glorious black & white – giving Bond's first two kills [required to attain a double-oh ranking] a very noir feel. Oddly, the first kill, a very messy affair, actually gains much impact from this treatment. After the second, it also gives an extra edge to the laconic Bond.

When the film shifts to color, it is to lead into what may be one of the most entertaining foot chases in film history. It also leads to the first of the newly minted 007's mistakes – mistakes that get him thoroughly dressed down by M. On the other hand, he does discover M's home, hack her computer and learn her real name.

Casino Royale: Bond & Vesper Lynd

To rectify his mistake, Bond is assigned to break a banker-to-terrorists known as Le Chiffre [Mads Mikkelsen] at a high-stakes poker game in Montenegro. Because of his earlier error in judgment, he is assigned a watchdog – the lovely Vesper Lynd [Eva Green], a Treasury Agent who will oversee Bond's use of the ten million dollar buy-in and crack Bond's emotional armor – but not before some ego puncturing on both sides…

Casino Royale is quite the ride. The smart script clearly benefits from Oscar

Mission: Impossible 3 – The Best Mission Yet

Mission: Impossible 3 - Box ArtTom Cruise and director J.J. Abrams both loved the Mission: Impossible TV series. It shows in their collaboration on Mission: Impossible 3 – the film features the kind of action we expect in a big-budget movie blockbuster, but it also features some deft characterization [long an Abrams trademark]. Paramount's two-DVD Collector's Edition lives up to the expectations raised by the quality of the film…

It's interesting to note that J.J. Abrams so loved Mission: Impossible that it was one of the two main inspirations behind the creation of his cult-fave series, Alias. The other inspiration was when the thought crossed his mind that it would be interesting to see what might happen if Felicity [the lead character from the eponymous college soap that Abrams had also created] were to be recruited by an espionage agency. When Tom Cruise asked Abrams to direct M:I3, he not only accepted, he brought Keri Russell [Felicity] along for the ride in a role that tied all three projects together.

The main plot of M:I3 is to prevent arms dealer Owen Davian [Philip Seymour Hoffman] from selling an item code-named "The Rabbit's Foot" to anti-American forces. Subplots include the rescue of Ethan Hunt's prot

Day Break – Variations On A Really Bad Day!

Day Break - Hopper & FriendDetective Brett Hopper is about to have a really, really bad day – over and over and over! In a dramatic take on what has come to be known as The Groundhog Day Plot, ABC's Day Break [two-hour premiere Tuesday, 9 p.m./8C] finds Hopper framed for murder and trying to save not only himself, but his girlfriend, his sister and their children – and maybe even his partner [who is being investigated by Internal Affairs]. Somehow, he has begun to repeat the day he is arrested for that murder…

It's just another day. Detective Brett Hopper [Taye Diggs] wakes up with the woman he loves – Rita Shelten [Moon Bloodgood] – and heads off to get ready to testify for his partner, Andrea Battle [Victoria Pratt] who is being investigated by Internal Affairs. He finds his apartment trashed and is about to take his dog, Rambis, for a walk when a S.W.A.T. bursts into the apartment and arrests him for the murder of an assistant district attorney named Alberto Garza.

Other events that brighten his day include: learning that his sister's husband is beating her; the safe house he where he had stashed a witness he was protecting turns out not be so safe; and his sister's husband is beating her. Clearly, he has been set up – and there are a number of people who could have done it.

For whatever reason, my screener for the Day Break premiere only included the pilot – but that was enough to see that the series – which will allegedly solve the big mystery by its thirteenth episode – is clever enough to work. There is a great deal of attention paid to details – as one of Hopper's recurring tormentors says, "Decision – Consequence." An early example is a lady whose life Hopper saves when a bus driver has a stroke and loses control of his vehicle…

Day Break - Pratt & Diggs

It doesn't take Hopper long to figure out that he's re-living a day, either. When he looks out his girlfriend's bedroom window and sees exactly the same people and vehicles doing exactly the same things, he manages to accept the evidence of his senses. Thus, a series of events is set in motion that causes changes – each with its consequences.

Even in just the first hour, it becomes clear that there is more than a simple frame-up going on here. An encounter with Chad Shelten [Adam Baldwin] – Rita's ex, as well as Hopper's ex-partner – of Internal Affairs, and Rita's suspicious disappearance seem to point to a lot of things going on behind the scenes. When Hopper sets up a meet with his current partner, Battle, things again go awry.

Diggs is a very talented actor, and though his previous series, Kevin Hill, was well received critically, it bled viewers like a slit carotid. Day Break is also a quality piece of work. It is well thought out – if the pilot is any indication – and the actual writing is pretty tight. The cast is terrific and the pilot was directed like a good action/suspense feature.

I find it interesting that the Groundhog Day Plot has almost invariably been put to use by a number of TV programs – and that even the lousy ones seem to find a way to create excellent episodes around the premise. From "Xena – Warrior Princess" to "Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda," the premise has been done well – if only for one episode. Day Break is attempting to take the premise a lot further but based on the pilot, I expect it can do the job. The big question is, will it?

Grade: B+

The Da Vinci Code: A Clunky Potboiler – Adapted From a Clunky Potboiler

The Da Vinci Code Box Art"The Da Vinci Code" is my idea of a perfect summer movie: a clunky potboiler of a film, based on a badly written, clunky potboiler of a novel. In the end, it's entertaining but, ultimately, something you can put out of your mind after viewing.

Tom Hanks' Robert Langdon is even more dour than in the book – whatever humor the character evidenced in the novel, it has been excised here. Audrey Tautoo is, to my mind, the perfect choice to play Sophie Neveu – she has an almost otherworldly beauty, and there is a kaleidoscope of emotion going on behind her eyes regardless of what she chooses to show us on the rest of her face.

Paul Bettany's Silas [the murderous albino monk] clearly believes himself to be an Avenging Angel of God. His extreme manner of worship makes him seem to be a fanatic, though he more of a loyal foster son who would literally do anything for his benefactor.

Sir Leigh Teabing, as portrayed by Sir Ian McKellen, is the one source of consistent humor and nuance in the film. Because Teabing is the source of much of the film's exposition, McKellen plays up his Grail obsession to a point just between over-the-top and outright camp. It works, too.

Da Vinci Code - Langdon, Neveu & Mona

Of course, the movie, like the book, proceeds in fits and starts: a gunshot here, a treatise on the mortality of Christ there; a car chase here, the difference between effigies and graves there. Ron Howard somehow manages to keep the balance between action and exposition balanced, though there are some near misses on either side of the equation.

In the end, "The Da Vinci Code" is a movie filled with sound and fury, signifying not a lot – but providing some harmless, mildly thought-provoking entertainment. It's definitely not a threat to Christianity [and anyone who thinks it is either lacks faith, or needs psychiatric attention – fast!].

Note: the review copy I received was of the full-screen [pan & scan] version, which cost the film as presented on this DVD a full letter grade.

Features include: First Day on the Set with Ron Howard [Director Ron Howard introduces the film and the excitement of beginning production at the Louvre in Paris]; Interview with The Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown; A Portrait of Langdon; Who is Sophie Neveu?; Unusual Suspects – The international cast – Colorful, memorable and frightening characters; Magical Places; Close-up on Mona Lisa; The Filmmaking Experience Part 1 – Includes a DVD exclusive look at filming the last and revealing scene; The Filmmaking Experience Part 2; The Codes of The Da Vinci Code; The Music of The Da Vinci Code, and Da Vinci Code Puzzle Game PC Demo. As always, lack of a commentary track costs the features a full letter grade

The Da Vinci Code – Grade: C- [Widescreen – B-]

Features – Grade: C+

Final Grade: C [widescreen – B-]