DVD Reviews - Avatar, Tiny Toons, Transformers, More

Cover to 'Avatar, The Last Airbender: Book 3 - Fire - Volume 4'

FEATURED DVD: AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER BOOK 3 – FIRE - VOLUME 4 (Nickelodeon)

What truly makes a great TV series isn’t how you start it, but how you wrap it up. That being the case, Avatar: The Last Airbender is a serious contender for being the best animated series of the decade. The proof is now in your hands.

Yes, it’s not perfect. I could quibble about Azula’s rapid descent into madness. After spending so much time on Sokka and his “space” sword, it certainly seemed like an idea that was quickly discarded. The episode “The Ember Island Players,” included here, was a clunker from beginning to end. Still, when you compare these trivial points over the remaining 30 hours of storytelling, relative rookie producers Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko have come rapidly establishing themselves as two of the best talents in the field, period.

As always, the animation, from action timing to character design, is spot on. While there are some plot holes and gaffs, everything else is wrapped up nicely. Outside of Azula’s mental breakdown, every character felt true from their introduction to end. We see how the kid heroes mature considerably in the time we’ve been introduced to them. Considering we’re talking about 61 half-hours of episodes, that’s a considerable achievement in and of itself. Besides, DiMartino and Konietzko promise there will sooner or later be more stories set in this universe—after the M. Night movie, of course—so any problems can easily be resolved.

Yes, I’m very serious about this being one of the best TV series of the decade. The craft, as stated, was top notch. More important, when you look at the virtual hundreds of other series this decade, it’s highly original adaptation of the savior theme (particularly considering American values), how it mixed various disparate cultural values yet remained whole, and created an involving and satisfying universe is truly remarkable. It also presented itself to kids without ever looking down on them. I wouldn’t be surprised if viewers learned a thing or two while it aired. How many other shows can you say that about? Very few.

Are there other shows that could potentially end up with my #1 spot for the decade? At the moment I’m waiting to see the conclusion of Samurai Jack before I make a final decision. The final battle between Jack and Aku better be up there with the final confrontation of Aang and Ozai, and let’s be real it was one of the best TV animation sequences of this decade.

Otherwise I’ll be dusting off the throne for Avatar.

BILL BRUFORD’S EARTHWORKS: FOOTLOOSE IN NYC (Summerfield) (2 DVDs)

Let’s keep it simple. Bill Bruford is currently the greatest drummer to sit behind a kit.

With this collection, you get to see why, twice over. The first is the recording of a concert he did at New York City’s Blue Note Club with his immaculately acoustic Earthworks quartet. Yes, most people know Bruford for his work with various incarnations of Yes or King Crimson, but he openly admits he uses those bands to finance his Earthworks music.

One listen and it’s easy to see why he does this. Like most of the truly great percussionists, Bruford can navigate just around any time signature you present him. He can alternate between eight bars of ¾ and then smoothly shift to another of 4/4 without breaking a sweat. What’s impressive is his Earthworks units do it with such style and swing.

The second treat is the additional disk. Bruford takes time out to discuss his evolution as a musician and composer, his key influences, and the various groups he’s worked with. He does so with disarming warmth and modesty, to boot. Vintage clips of his various outfits are included, whether it’s working out with the unit he built around Alan Holdsworth, David Sinclair and Annette Peacock to just him and Patrick Moraz trying to outgun each other.

So, if you like adventurous music, this is for you. If not, give it a try anyway. You’d be surprised what the man delivers.

CHOP SHOP

MAN PUSH CART (Koch Lorber)

On the north shore of Queens, behind Shea Stadium, is a dilapidated district of warehouses, chop shops and junk yards the natives call the Iron Triangle. It’s a true no man’s land. Yet people do live there.

Chop Shop is a feature film by the multi-award winning director Ramin Bahrani. It tells the tale of a young boy, Alejandro, who lives in squat/garage in the Triangle, along with his sister, Isamar. There isn’t a scam the boy hasn’t pulled, ranging from selling candy on the subway, ripping off hubcaps, to shredding a stolen vehicle in a matter of hours. His dream is to save up enough money to buy a food van and slowly but surely leave the Triangle behind. As one can imagine, it’s not easy.

What sets Bahrani apart is he doesn’t blink in showing a neighborhood right in the U.S. every bit as mean and lowdown as in films like Brazil’s City of Men or Pixote. Bahrani adapts a style that does owe some influence from the Italian Neo Realist movement, especially early Rosselini. That doesn’t stop us though from soon being totally absorbed by this boy’s plight.

The same can be said for Bahrani’s previous film, Man Push Cart. In this case we move from Queens to midtown Manhattan. The subject is a Pakistani food cart peddler recently widowed. We watch as the man scraps and scrapes to earn the money to own the cart he works in, dragging it back and forth from its storage space every wintry morning and icy evening. It’s also quietly observes what a Muslim exile must put up with in order to survive in this post-911 world. No overt violence, just crushing loneliness and brutal alienation.

The word is Bahrani has completed his fifth and latest film, set in the Carolinas. If it’s anything like these two films, the man will probably have another ton of awards to add to his collection.

DOOMSDAY/Uncensored (Universal)

In 1981, George Miller set the B-Movie world on its ear when he wrote and directed Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior. It was a fast-paced and wonderfully original bit of post-apocalyptic fun that has yet to meet its match. Well, I’ll give Splat Pack director Neil Marshall credit for capturing the fun part of Miller’s epic bit of ultra violence. I just wish Marshall’s plot wasn’t such a god damn shallow rip off.

Doomsday starts off like 28 Days Later. A new virus turns Scotland into a disease-laden wasteland where the survivors are turned into cannibals. One young girl manages to escape just before the UK sets up an impenetrable wall along the Hadrian line. 25 years later the girl (Rhona Mitra), is ordered by the Prime Minister (Al Seddig) to find out why the population hasn’t been completely wiped out. His theory is the last scientist in the region (Malcolm McDowell) has found a cure.

Quicker than you can say Wez, Mitra and company are beset by mohawked Scots with a taste for Adam Ant, Siouxsie & the Banshees and long pork. Fortunately, Mitra is well up for the task and looks absolutely fabulous in skin-tight kevlar. Marshall also makes sure the blood and gore keeps flying at a maximum velocity. So, if you don’t mind Mitra making a mad dash back to old Blimey in a Bentley instead of a Ford Falcon GT Coupe, you’ll have a good time. I know I did while watching the thing. It was only later that I felt I had this bad taste in my mouth, and it wasn’t of freshly grilled human, either.

EXTASIS (Lionsgate)

I guess we better get ready. Thanks to No Country For Old Men we are now going to be plagued by films starring Javier Bardem. This is one of them.

The basic premise is Bardem leads a small pack of violent petty thieves who prefer to rob and kill their own families. His reasoning is their defenses are down, so the pickings are easier to obtain. Then he learns one of his crew is related to a very famous actor, and things get very weird.

The end result is this little psychodrama falls apart under its own pretensions. It’s a pity too as the first half sets up some interesting concepts. Yet when the actor starts playing all kinds of mind games, one realizes this art house job could have used a final edit or two. So it goes.

In the meantime, we know a lot more Bardem films will be coming. Hopefully they’ll show why this man earned his Oscar much better than this one.

FREAKAZOID: Season One (2 DVDs)

TINY TOONS: Season One/Volume One (4 DVDs) (WB)

Well fanboys, Warner Bros. heard your pleas and has complied. It started releasing these series. I don’t think that’s a good thing.

So a little history.

As explained in the extra content of Tiny Toons, the late 80s saw a major animation Renaissance spearheaded by the likes of Disney’s Little Mermaid and Disney Afternoon block; Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the rise of Nickelodeon and The Simpsons. The WB wanted some of that action. Steven Spielberg, after producing Roger, wanted a lot more. So the two Hollywood powerhouses put together a veritable bank of money, hired Jean MacCurdy from Hanna-Barbera, and decided to resuscitate the venerable Termite Terrace. It wasn’t hard to start attracting top notch talent such as writer Paul Dini, animator Bruce Timm, and voice talent like Charlie Adler or a young up-and-comer like Cree Summer.

And to quote one of the last survivors of that period, Chuck Jones, they just didn’t get it.

For whatever reason, MacCurdy, Spielberg and company felt the need to start with miniaturized versions of the characters that made Looney Tunes famous, not the real deals themselves. Yes, the immortals, including Bugs, Daffy, Elmer, Porky, etc., were there, but to teach a “new” generation of characters with handles like Buster and Babs Bunny, Plucky Duck and Hampton Pig.

They also forgot Friz Freleng, Tex Avery, Tish Tash, the McKimsons and Jones didn’t make cartoons to entertain kids, but to entertain everyone in the audience, whether the kid was eight or 80. The originals only had to contend with the Hays Commission, who only took a dim view of Betty Boop, not the absolutely subversive stuff that went on the big screen. There was no such jargon as “imitatable behavior” either. That came with Batman: The Animated Series.

So there definitely was a need for Acme University. But it would have been for the creators, not the characters. Heck, I’d put MacCurdy and her cronies deserved remedial school. Plot-wise what they produced were just shallow, standards-approved simulations of the originals. Yeah, Twinkies may last forever, but too many of them and you’d better have a blood sugar test.

On the plus side, the animation was superlative, especially for the day. While the writers needed to channel the likes of Maltese and Pierce, the animators were masters of squash and stretch. So yes, this was a hit series for its day, but when you compare it to later efforts such as Animaniacs and especially Pinky & the Brain, it becomes pretty obvious these kids had a lot to learn.

Which leads to Freakazoid. Thanks to the extra content provided I now see why it ended up such a disaster.

By this time, one gets the feeling the relationship between Spielberg and WB was getting kind of strained. As it was, the big guy fell totally in love with Batman: The Animated Series. So he contacted Timm and Dini to do something similar for him. The big difference is he wanted to go for laughs instead of drama.

Well, Dini and Timm came up with their initial take on Freakazoid. Spielberg was so impressed the two quit. Fear not kids, the dynamic duo took the pilot to Steve Gerber. He turned it into “Beware the Creeper,” simply one of the best Adventures of Batman episodes, ever. As for Spielberg, he put the same plot into the hands of Tom Ruegger, who came up with this sad compromise.

I’m sorry Freakazoid fans (the few out there), a hero based on horrific Jerry Lewis imitations is worse than bad. It’s incredibly boring. While Ruegger appears to be too professional and polite to say so, the series suffered from too many cooks and not a single chef. Freakazoid was a long chain of bad puns, gags and shallow parodies. Yes, the occasional funny bit did surface. That’s due to the old maxim of if one throws enough crap against a wall, some is going to stick…and Freakazoid was chock full of you-know-what.

So OK Tiny Toons and Freakazoid fans, you got what you wanted. Me personally? I’m now going to immerse myself in some Golden Collections and clean out my system. I need it.

MASTERS OF HORROR: SEASON 2 (Anchor Bay) (11 DVDs)

Sometimes just the packaging alone screams it’s a must own. The packaging genius who crammed these 11 DVDs inside such a gorgeously decrepit skull deserves some kind of award.

As for the content of these 11 disks? What you have here are the original 13 episodes from the second season of the venerable Showtime series. Yes, there were a few stiffs in the ossuary that just stunk to the heavens (say “We All Scream For Ice Cream”). On the other hand, the slabs of purely vicious pleasure outweigh the garbage two to one. This includes Dario Argento’s “Pelts,” John Carpenter’s controversial “Pro-Life,” and Joe Dante’s “The Screwfly Solution.” All the original extra content from the individual disks is included, too.

I don’t know about you, but this looks good in my collection.

NARUTO THE MOVIE: LEGENDS OF THE STONE OF GELEL (Viz) (2 DVDs)

The second of the three movies based on Cartoon Network’s venerable anime series is a pleasant affair, but honestly not that memorable either.

Set after Sasuske has deserted the Leaf Village and his best friend, we start off with Naruto on a mission with Sakura and one of my favorite side characters of the series, the brainy Shikamaru. At the same time, the Sand Village ninjas, are being invaded by a nation from “the West” in a manner that recalls Japan’s experience with Admiral Perry. This brings in another favorite pair of characters, the Sand’s new leader, Gaara, and his brother, the puppet master Kankuro (although I wish there was more of their sister Temari).

The main problem here is the plotting is just too plain pat, even for a Naruto project. You have an evil invader that includes a sympathetic antagonist (Temujin) being totally misled by his two-faced leader (Haido). You have a wiser-than-he looks caravan leader and an ancient secret. After acres upon acres of real estate being leveled, Naruto saves the day, more from sheer persistence than using his brains. Even the dialogue and side gags don’t have their usual snap.

Still, the animation itself is several levels above what one has become used to from the TV series. While the lines they deliver aren’t the greatest, voice actors like Maile Flanagan (Naruto), Kate Higgins (Sakura) and Liam O’Brien (Gaara) still deliver them with the gusto we’ve come to expect from them. The extra content disk includes interviews with the cast and crew, a video statement from the creators and the usual fare.

So while it’s business as usual for this latest Naruto big screener, it’s not a truly bad thing. If you like the series, you’ll more than likely like this movie. On the other hand, I would have liked a little more and didn’t get it. Maybe next time.

ROBIN HOOD: SERIES 2 (BBC) (5 DVDs)

If you suffer from a nagging sense of déjà vu while watching this series, you shouldn’t be the slightest bit surprised.

After all, you have a series of young, “sexy” actors running around in remarkably modern dress. I mean, did Guy of Gisbaine really run around in such a cool all-leather duster at the turn of the last millennium? With the exception of the Sheriff of Nottingham, all the actors could also run around doing cheesecake shots. As for the plots? They’re a mix of broad humor and remarkably modern side comments.

Sound familiar doesn’t it? Say Xena and Hercules.

If you didn’t believe this series is just the BBC’s attempt to rip on Sam Raimi and Rob Taipert’s hit syndicated series of ten years ago, this second season hammers it on our heads. Not that I’m really minding, I used to enjoy the late night reruns of the Raimi and Taipert’s cult faves back in the day. What helps is Robin Hood has much the same spirit and sense of fun. All it’s really missing is the occasional guest appearances of Bruce Campbell’s Autolycus and Ted Raimi’s Joxer or a properly psycho villain like Hudson Leick’s Callisto.

So grab a turkey leg and a bottle of ale. Enjoy for what it is.

TRANSFORMERS: CYBERTRON/The Ultimate Collection (7 DVDs)

TRANSFORMERS: ANIMATED/Season One (2 DVDs) (Paramount)

If you ever want to see a case of night and day, wrack these two series against each other.

Transformers: Cybertron was the last chapter of a trilogy (the first two parts were Armada and Energon) that ran on Cartoon Network from 2005-6. Set after the good guys take down Unicron, it tried to revamp the whatever was left in the Autobot universe on a truly cosmic scale. The problem was it ended up as stiff and ill-conceived as any series could possibly be. Yes, the character design was top notch, but the action had our favorite robot heroes moving around like they were rusting from the inside out. The plotting has holes so big that old Optimus can roll out through them without a single dent. The dialogue gets so preachy one wonders if they were writing an animated sci-fi series or some sort of political screed. So what we have here is some very pretty eye candy, but so is a coffee table book…and you can thumb through a book more easily than these 52 episodes. The fact that there’s no extra content doesn’t help, either.

Now with Tranformers: Animated, you do get a visual style that’s much more kid-friendly than the aforementioned Cybertron. You also get some plot points borrowed from previous series Beast Wars (in the revamping of Black Arachnia) and the Michael Bay movie (the bodiless but still scheming Megatron). Everything else is severely stripped down, concentrating on only five Autobots and Decepticons each, plus some fun side elements like the Dinobots.

You know what? I like this one.

The reason for this is simple. In stripping the series down as much as it did, what remains get much better developed from a character point of view. They also amped up the humor considerably, and that is a remarkable improvement from the dour, unfriendly and honestly pretentious Cybertron. I find I’m repeating episodes just for the pure enjoyment element, especially when it’s heavy on the new human kid character, Sari Sumdac and her bumbling brilliant father, Isaac.

So, gee, guess which series I’m going to recommend? While some may gripe about how they hate the anime-like stylings of Animated, I find it less offensive than the overly detailed and stiff semi-CGI fashionings of Cyberton. In other words, give me some fun any day. This is a kid's series after all.

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