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The Spin Sheet

DVD reviews by Peter Schorn and Adam Jones of The Digital Bits


Undeclared: The Complete Series

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Undeclared
The Complete Series - 2001-2002 (2005) - DreamWorks Television/FOX (Shout! Factory)

Program Rating: A-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): C+/B-/A-


While nursing the cough syrup hangover that came from reviewing The O.C.: The Complete Second Season, another package came sailing through my transom. (I need to remember to close that thing.) The attached card read, "Sorry about that 'pretty kid' show thing, buddy. This will make you feel better."

They weren't kidding.

Hot on the heels of his cult-failure Freaks and Geeks, writer-producer Judd Apatow regrouped and came back with the college-set comedy Undeclared which also attained cult-failure status and got cancelled before all its episodes had run. Thanks to resurrecting power of DVD (just ask Firefly and Family Guy), the show now has the potential to come into more homes than ignored it the first time around.


The concept is simple enough - freshman Steven Karp (Jay Baruchel) goes off to the University of North Eastern California and has colorful roommates and neighbors in his dorm. His thespian roommate - that's means "actor", not a girl who's into other chicks - Lloyd (Charlie Hunnam), is an English babe magnet who frequently leaves Steven banished to the suite's couch or rec area with the other "sexiles". Across the suite are Ron (Seth Rogen) and Marshall (Timm Sharp), girl-challenged wiseacres with enough issues between them to open a magazine stand.

Across the hall is a suite of girls: Lizzie (Carla Gallo), Rachel (Monica Keena) and Tina (Christina Payano). Steven has a crush on Lizzie, most likely because they hooked-up in the first episode. Complicating this mutual attraction is her emotionally-unstable/borderline-stalker older boyfriend, Eric (Jason Segal), who manages a copy shop when he's not leaving paranoid messages on her phone.

While these familiar ingredients can be found in many teen sitcoms like Undeclared's lead-in when it aired, That '70s Show, where it excelled is in it's savvy semi-improvisational writing and acting. Filmed on sets without an audience or laugh track it had to earn its laughs the hard way - by making the audience identify with the characters and their situations - and the vast majority of the time, it nailed the underlying truths that make the best comedy click.

Even if you've never lived in a dorm, anyone who has ever lived with someone who has put an infuriatingly catchy pop song into 24/7 rotation will relate to the boom box battle that erupts between Rachel and Tina. Steven's arm-flailing angst over Lizzie and the embarrassment of his father Hal's (Loudon Wainwright) constant visits to share uncomfortable updates on his parent's divorce make us cringe in sympathy. And who hasn't gotten together with their friends, stocked up on mass quantities of junk food and hair dye at the warehouse club and then sat down to a marathon of Girls Gone Wild videos while eating a giant tub of cookie dough? (Other than me, that is.) I'm sure some of our female readers have dated a guy who spoke exclusively in impressions and you have my sympathy.

Adding to the reality is the superb cast who actually look, sound and act like real college students and not like twenty-something fashion plates. (Hmmm, what could I be referring to?) Scrawny Baruchel looks like he's ready to play the lead in The Young Gary Shandling Chronicles; Rogen (who was also a writer for the show) could pass as the singer of Barenaked Ladies; the girls are both very cute, but nothing alike and not exactly your traditional bimbettes. (An episode toward the series' end introduced a more typical-looking girl character because the network wanted to make the show, in the words of one commentary participant, "look like The O.C.")

Second-string characters and dorm-dwellers look even more like, well, normal people than clones from Central Casting. This leads to a funny B-story in one episode when Rachel, who's put on her "freshman 15", is aghast that they're suddenly hitting on her when they were previously too afraid to look her in the eye, so bodacious she was.

The chemistry between the cast members makes this an ensemble show with everyone given a chance to shine. There isn't really a "best" character as much as a buffet of personalities for viewers to take a shine to. I personally liked the sarcastic Ron and the sardonically contemptuous Perry (Jarret Grode) - who makes a killer first impression when he offers to DJ a party with a mix of "straight East Coast thug hip-hop and Brit pop" and verbally demonstrates what that sounds like - for some reason. Nerdy spazzoids will probably like Steven, sad dorks that they are.

I'm not even going into the guest appearances by the likes of Fred Willard, Will Ferrell, Adam Sandler (absolutely uncredited anywhere), Amy Poehler, Kyle Gass (the half of Tenacious D that isn't Jack Black), half the cast of Freaks and Geeks or Ted Nugent(!!) whose appearance was lost in the reconfigured version of the intended episode, Full Bluntal Nugety. Except for a wildly-wrong-for-the-part shot by Ben Stiller, they avoid the stunt casting/special guest star pitfalls well.

For a show that was pretty much long-forgotten - I barely recalled its existence - it's amazing to see the effort put into this set's features when most would be lucky to just get a bare-boned dump onto DVD. The nicely designed fold-out disc holder and 28-page episode guide booklet with synopsis, credits and comments from the writers, Apatow and Baruchel - and even shooting and re-shoot dates! - are only the start.

The disc menus are different for every main, episode and feature menu with very clever artwork and a sound bite from that episode to give you a smile while you're merely navigating the disc. Every single episode has a commentary track from various combinations of the show's makers from both sides of the camera. I naturally didn't have time to check them all out, but the portions I sampled tending to fall into "cheerful old pals party mode" with plenty of joking and little hard commenting. It's clear that everyone got along famously on and off screen and as a nice touch, multiple participants are panned across the stereo soundfield.

The Unaired Scenes are deleted scenes, alternate versions or master takes that were subsequently cut to fit and they show the heavily improvised nature of the show's production. Some bloopers are included and one clip has an explanatory intro from Seth Rogen who appears to have spent his time since the show ended getting enough tattoos to get a job as a roadie on the OzzFest tour.

[Reviewer's Note: Judd Apatow dropped me an e-mail to say this: "Seth has tattoos because he had fake ones put on for The Forty Year Old Virgin. They are gone now. As is the facial hair."]

The fourth disc is all extras starting with 23-minutes of Auditions which are interesting when you see some of the actors reading for roles other than what they ultimately portrayed and how wrong they are for the parts. Next up is about 10 minutes of Rehearsals where we witness the roots of the show's improvisational nature developing.

A 70-minute-long Museum of Television Q&A discussion with a huge panel including Apatow, supervising producer Victor Hsu, directors Jake Kasdan and Greg Mottola and every first and second-string cast member and guest star that also appeared on Freaks and Geeks, too, except for Monica Keena. With 14 people on stage, it's understandable that not everybody gets to say very much, but it's entertaining. Taped while the show's fate was still officially up in the air - but the writing unmistakably on the wall- it feels like an ironic send-off party.

Wrapping up the goodies are a script for an episode intended for the second season called "Lloyd's Rampage" which featured Lloyd going to a townie bar with Steven and a second major plot involving Marshall becoming a campus icon as "Puke Boy" - it's a hoot - and fans of Loudon Wainwright's quirky folk music will be pleased to find an 8-song, half-hour-long live club performance.

With such a wealth of fine shows and extras, it's regrettable to have to report that the technical presentation is a letdown. Previous Shout! Factory DVD sets I've seen have been marked by extremely gritty and grainy transfers and this is no exception. While the full screen picture is OK as far as detail, it looks washed-out with noise in light areas and occasional interlacing errors on cuts. There's a line between rough-edged and sloppy and this crosses it.

The audio is marginally better, but for some reason the option for Dolby 5.1 Surround is left in the setup menu and the default is just vanilla stereo. (I didn't even know a 5.1 option existed until I'd already polished off two of the three episode discs and wandered into the Setup menu!) The surround track is much louder, but occasionally there was clipping and distortion during louder scenes. Surround activity is limited to music and crowd noises, but since there aren't many spaceships flying around, it's not a big deal. In another annoying Shout! tradition, there are no subtitles at all for the hearing impaired or those who wish to read along while listening to the commentary tracks.

With such great attention to the other elements, it's too bad Shout! has these quality problems in the audio-visual department - here's to hoping they do better in the future. In another odd glitch - this time the fault of the show's makers - the episodes are in incorrect order on the discs. According to a message on the official Undeclared web site, Judd Apatow cops to the screw-up and provides the correct order, which still doesn't match the original broadcast order, but helps smooth out some crazy character arc paradoxes. The changes are minor and compared to the idiotic random sequence Fox aired the shows - something they also knee-capped Firefly with - the discs are in OK order.

It's a never-ending source of vexation to people bored to death by formula entertainment of all types that insipid dreck like that decade-themed show starring Demi Moore's cradle-robbed boy toy or a nameless show set in the 92657 zip code can run forever on the same network that couldn't sell a show like Undeclared. Perhaps part of the problem was that people shunned it precisely because it was such a "critic's darling" kind of show. There's something about universal loud acclaim from the maladjusted sociopaths who gravitate into the entertainment criticism racket that sends John and Jane Q. scurrying in the opposite direction. Maybe it's anti-intellectualism or what I call "The Broccoli Effect" in which people turn up their noses because they've been told something's good for them. Either way, it sometimes leads people to miss something that they'd actually enjoy. (Yes, I recognize the irony of this paragraph. Hold the letters.)

had barely heard of Undeclared outside of its glowing reputation and if not for my open transom I would probably have never given it a look or second thought. Don't make the same mistake yourself - go and check out this fine compilation posthaste! If you're an aging member of Generation X you probably recall the quirky sitcom Square Pegs; Undeclared is like a spiritual godchild of that show, but without Sarah Jessica Parker. If you missed it before, here's your chance to catch up with what the loyal fans (and critics) knew all along.

Peter Schorn
peterschorn@thedigitalbits.com




Ghostbusters 1 & 2: Double Feature Gift Set

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

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Ghostbusters 1 & 2
Double Feature Gift Set - 1984 & 1989 (2005) - Columbia TriStar (Sony)

Film Rating (Ghostbusters): A

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/A-/B+

Film Rating (Ghostbusters 2): D

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/B+/D


1984 was a magical year for a kid going to the movies. For $2 dollars, you could check out Bastien, Atreju and Falkor battling The Nothing from The NeverEnding Story. Daniel and Mr. Miyagi learned the value of friendship in The Karate Kid. You were scared watching Gizmo and Stripe wreak havoc in Gremlins. Kermit and Miss Piggy got married in Muppets Take Manhattan. You were horrified when Mola Ram ripped out that guy's heart in Indiana Jones & The Temple of Doom. If you were lucky (and I mean really lucky) you got to hear Axel Foley drop the F-bomb twenty times in the first ten minutes of Beverly Hills Cop. And finally, you were laughing as much as you were scared when Peter Venkman declared that he had been slimed in Ghostbusters. "Who you gonna call?" was just as much of a catch phrase as "Wax on, wax off." Life was great for the nine-year old in 1984. George Orwell was nowhere to be found.


Ghostbusters was the highest-grossing film in '84, pulling in something close to $230 million domestically. And that's when adult ticket prices were $4 bucks. Movies these days just don't do that kind of business anymore, where they would run for three months to sell-out crowds instead of three weeks before the next barrage of studio blockbusters takes your money. It's weird saying it now, but Ghostbusters was unlike anything you had ever seen. A comedy with semi-scary bits (come on, Gozer was scary, even if she/he/it looked liked Sheena Easton), proton packs, unparalleled special effects, and the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man trundling through downtown Manhattan. Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd were your buddies. The sheer originality of the story and cleverness of the comedy brought down the house. Movies like this were events because of the creativity put into them, and the audiences that embraced them.

I'm not spoiling anything here telling you about the story, unless you were living in Nepal at the time. Widespread reports of supernatural phenomena have been circulating around New York City. Three scientists (Murray, Aykroyd and Harold Ramis) have just been fired from their university jobs, and they figure the best way to make some quick cash is to respond to these reports. They have some James Bond-like gizmos to monitor psychic waves in the air, plenty of petrie dishes to examine icky green slime, and even more wit to spare. A ghost is spotted in the banquet room of a posh hotel, and our heroes rise to the occasion sporting equipment that does more damage to the hotel than anything, but the ghost is eventually captured and the movie takes off at high speed with laughs, scares, and action. The movie benefits from just the right balance of special effects and comedy. Many of the gags are visual, but the funniest moments come from the dialogue. Even though the film is twenty-one years old (!), it's still very funny and a sight to behold. So it was a shame when the sequel came out five years later, the magic from the first film was gone completely.

Ghostbusters 2 suffers from the lack of a good story and hardly any genuine laughs. Bill Murray is his usual obnoxious self, chewing up the dialogue and making it better than it actually is. However, we should never have to hear Rick Moranis say "I didn't know you had you driver's license" to Slimer (the green, hot-dog munching apparition from the last film) before boarding a bus. This time, it's the audience who got slimed.

After a five-year break, you would think that the filmmakers could come up with something pretty good. Instead, it's merely a shootable script. Our intrepid scientists are in the midst of a legal battle regarding their save of New York from Gozer and Zuul. They are no longer allowed to engage in any investigative activity of the supernatural. Venkman (Murray) has become the host of a cheesy talk-show. Stantz (Aykroyd) and Spengler (Ramis) run a pawn shop. Only when Dana Barret's (Sigourney Weaver) son Oscar is being threatened by ghosts, do the Ghostbusters illegally investigate. There's also this subplot featuring the second coming of some demon currently trapped in a painting in the museum Dana works at. The only saving grace of this subplot is Peter MacNicol, turning in a wonderful quirky performance as the museum's curator. And, I guess, what would a Ghostbusters movie be without slime? Well, there's plenty of it this time around. A whole river, in fact, running underneath the city feeding off all the negative energy from the denizens above. Eventually, it's up to our heroes to save New York once again. A lot of ideas, and you know what? You don't care... at all.

The jokes induce more groans and rolling eyes than laughs. When the Ghostbusters hitch a ride down 5th Avenue via the Statue of Liberty you can only wonder if The Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man asked for too much to return for the sequel. And, dammit, somebody needed to fire the music supervisor assigned to the soundtrack. Not only do you have to suffer through that dismal Bobby Brown song (nowhere in the league of Ray Parker, Jr.'s tune) four times as the film goes on, Brown himself has a cameo and asks for a proton pack for his kid brother. Who you gonna call this time? Another writer.

So, we finally make it to the disc specs. Both films are presented in anamorphic widescreen video (despite an error on the back of the slipcase packaging to the contrary - just ignore it), and actually look better than they did on the original DVD releases, with improved color, contrast and clarity. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio mixes for each film are also improved compared to the original DVDs, with better sound effects placement and added bass. Ghostbusters' new mix is a significant improvement, though the Ghostbusters 2 audio is much less so.

In terms of extras, Ghostbusters has simply been slightly revamped for this gift set, but most of the special features from the initial release remain, including a terrific "live" video/audio commentary (with Ivan Reitman, Harold Ramis and Joe Medjuck), 10 deleted scenes, storyboards comparisons, a few behind-the-scenes featurettes and other assorted items. What's missing are the trailers, the subtitle trivia track and production notes. Unfortunately (but appropriately given the lack of cleverness so apparent in the sequel), the special features on the Ghostbusters 2 are limited to a pair of episodes from The Real Ghostbusters animated series. In addition to the video extras, you also get a "collector's scrapbook" that contains production notes, storyboard and concept art, cast bios and more.

Even if you already have the original DVDs, you might still want to pick this box up for its A/V quality improvements, especially given the low Suggest Retail Price. On the other hand, if you're happy with the previous releases, you can safely pass on this one and wait for the Blu-ray Disc versions you know are probably coming in 2006.

Adam Jones
adamjones@thedigitalbits.com


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