|by Peter Sobczynski
This week’s column takes a look at the first wave of DVD box sets hoping to compete for your Yuletide dollar, along with ickiness both foreign and domestic, two of the funniest shows ever broadcast on television and some junk about giant robots beating the metallic crap out of each other.
Even though it is still mid-October as I write these words, the signs of the imminent Christmas season are all around us, at least from a commercial perspective. Stores are already beginning to stock Yuletide paraphernalia even as they continue to hawk Halloween merchandise. Compact discs of holiday tunes new and old are popping up all over the place, including one from Bob Dylan that may well be the single most artistically questionable move of his career since he signed on to appear in “Hearts of Fire.” Finally, and most importantly from the perspective of this column, the home video companies are beginning to unleash the jumbo-sized DVD box sets that they hope will eventually find their places under many a tree come December. Although I will be noting many of these releases over the next few weeks as they come out, I am highlighting this particular trio of titles because they are all hitting shelves this week or next and, more importantly, I know that I would personally be filled with unabated glee if I were to receive them as gifts.
“The Larry Sanders Show,” Garry Shandling’s acerbic series about the backstage life of a put-upon talk show host, is generally regarded by many observers as one of the finest and funniest American television comedies ever produced. While I agree with most of that assessment--if there was an episode that wasn’t uproariously hilarious for nearly all of its running time, I either didn’t see it or I instantly forgot and forgave it--I have to say that despite its brilliance, it isn’t even Shandling’s finest television series. That would be “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show,” the groundbreaking sitcom spoof that aired on Showtime from 1986 to 1990 (later episodes would eventually air on Fox as well) which he decided to embark upon instead of taking the job of Johnny Carson’s permanent guest host. A precursor to such shows as “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” the show followed the occasionally surreal life of a comedian named Garry Shandling, his typical sitcom neighbors and the typical sitcom situations that he would find himself involved in. The difference this time around is that the show was aware that it was a sitcom and Shandling would frequently break the fourth wall to address viewers and comment on the tenets and clichés of the genre from noting the passage of time (“Okay, it is now two weeks later”) to underlining the familiarity of such gimmicks as having him locked in a freezer by announcing that this is the episode in which he gets locked in a freezer--with Jeff Goldblum, not less. Like most sitcoms, there were numerous guest stars but unlike most sitcoms, these guests played themselves and were integrated into the plots in weird and wonderful ways--during the inevitable show where someone gives birth, Tom Petty shows up to croon “The Waiting.” (One episode features the last performance by the late Gilda Radner.) With its combination of hilarious and inventive scripts (the writers would eventually go on to work on shows like “Seinfeld” and “The Simpsons”), Shandling’s hilariously drier-than-dry line readings and, with the sole exception of “The Match Game,” the greatest TV theme song of all time (if you don’t know it by heart, I will leave it for you to discover), “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show” is one of the all-time greats and as this lavishly produced box set, featuring all 72 episodes, commentary tracks, behind-the-scenes futurities, outtakes, promos and more, proves beyond a shadow of a doubt, it has indeed stood the test of time.
The Rock And Roll Hall of Fame is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year and whatever your thoughts may be regarding the institution as a whole--it does seem a bit antithetical to the theoretically rebellious nature of rock music to enshrine it and its practitioners in a museum--you have to admit that their induction ceremonies have a certain charm to them with their combination of heartfelt induction and acceptance speeches and performances from many of the top names in music. As part of the celebration of the anniversary, the Hall of Fame, in conjunction with Time-Life Video, has released “Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame Live,” a 9-disc behemoth composed of a quarter-century worth of highlights from those induction ceremonies. The induction speeches include Mick Jagger for The Beatles, Bruce Springsteen for Roy Orbison, Eddie Vedder for The Doors, Tom Petty for Buffalo Springfield, Phil Lesh and Mickey Hart for Jefferson Airplane and Eric Clapton for The Band and the acceptances include Creedence Clearwater Revival, Santana, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Jackson Browne, Paul McCartney and Springsteen. As for the music, we get to see Cream doing “Sunshine of Your Love,” John Fogerty doing “Green River,” Vedder leading the surviving Doors on “Light My Fire,” Petty and Crosby, Stills and Nash teaming up for “For What It’s Worth,” Clapton jamming with The Band on “The Weight,” Petty, Jeff Lynne, Steve Winwood and Dhani Harrison playing “Handle With Care” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (the latter featuring an up-and-come by the name of Prince), Springsteen leading a newly reunited E Street Band on “The Promised Land” and all-star jams on “I Saw Her Standing There,” “Oh, Pretty Woman” and “Let It Be.” The bonus materials include additional induction speeches for John Lennon (by McCartney) and the Rolling Stones (by Pete Townsend) and rehearsal footage featuring Cream, the Band, Clapton, Springsteen, Fogerty and Robbie Robertson. And if that isn’t enough to impress even the most jaded music fans, consider the fact that all of the things that I have just cited are all contained on the first disc alone--the other feature performances and speeches from other stars such as Tina Turner, R.E.M, U2, The Who, The Mamas & The Papas, Traffic, Jerry Lee Lewis, Etta James, Joan Jett, Chuck Berry, Bonnie Raitt, Aretha Franklin, Green Day, Patti Smith, Jeff Beck, Lou Reed and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Sure, the performances may not be spot-on perfect--the all-star jam sessions are especially egregious for their evident lack of rehearsal--and the decisions to offer only excerpts from most of the speeches and to put the discs together by vague themes instead of in chronological order can be frustrating at times. That said, there are so many invaluable moments contained in this collection that anyone with a real rock and roll heart will have no problem forgiving them as they rock out. (While this collection is currently available only via the internet through www.rockhalldvds.com and www.timelife.com ,a slimmed-down version consisting of the first three discs is scheduled to be available in stores on November 3.)
Although most of the reviews for the current craptacular “Paranormal Activity” have made sure to cite “The Blair Witch Project” as a key influence, some critics with longer memories and a broader sense of genre history have also invoked the name of William Castle as well. For those of you unfamiliar with the man and his work, he was a producer of B-grade horror movies in the Fifties and Sixties who discovered that he could inspire huge crowds to come to see his admittedly silly wares if he lured them in with some kind of silly gimmick--he would rig theaters so that a skeleton would seemingly emerge from the screen at a key moment in “The House on Haunted Hill,” audiences would vote on whether to kill or spare the villain in “Mr. Sardonicus” and, most famously, he set up certain seats in auditoriums showing “The Tingler” with joy-buzzers meant to shock some viewers during a scene in which the titular creature supposedly invaded your theater. By coincidence, this week sees the release of “The William Castle Film Collection,” an 8-disc set comprised of the genre films that he produced for Columbia Pictures during his heyday, including 1958’s “The Tingler” (Vincent Price discovers we all have little creatures in our spines that feed on fear and can only be stopped by screaming--needless to say, one gets out and raises a ruckus), 1960’s “13 Ghosts” (a penniless man inherits a home from a late uncle that contains both his entire fortune and 12 ghosts that can be seen only with a special pair of glasses), 1961’s “Homicidal” (a blatant “Psycho” knockoff that kicks off with a woman killing the justice of the peace that just married her before going to work for a family with many dark secrets that refuse to stay buried) and “Mr. Sardonicus” (a man whose face has been grotesquely frozen by fear--don’t ask--will do anything to look normal again), 1962’s “Zotz” (a comedy in which college professor Tom Poston acquires a coin with the power to control time), 1963’s “The Old Dark House” (a remake of the old warhorse with Poston as an American staying the night in a spooky house in Wales where the family members are being picked off one by one) and “13 Frightened Girls” (in which a United Nations worth of internationally-born babes find themselves embroiled in danger, espionage and, hopefully, the occasional tickle fight) and 1964’s “Strait-Jacket” (in which Joan Crawford returns to her hometown 20 years after being locked up for axing her unfaithful husband, just in time for a new series of murders that make it look as if she has snapped again). In true huckster spirit, it turns out that all but three of these films (“Zotz,” “The Old Dark House” and “13 Frightened Girls”) have already been released before and the new ones are not available separately--in other words, if you are a true Castle fans and want them all, you are most likely going to be repurchasing stuff you already have. However, to ease that pain a bit, Sony is also throwing in “Spine-Tingler!: The William Castle Story,” an entertaining and informative documentary about the man and the long and surprising career that culminated with him co-producing a little thing called “Rosemary’s Baby.”
IT'S GARRY SHANDLING'S SHOW: THE COMPLETE SERIES (Shout Factory. $159.99).
ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME LIVE: (Time Life Video. $119.96)
THE WILLIAM CASTLE FILM COLLECTION (Sony Home Entertainment. $80.95).
NEW AND NOTABLE
BLACK RAIN (Animeigo. $24.98): No, no, a thousand times no--this is not that dreadful 1989 Ridley Scott thriller with Michael Douglas as an idiot cop kicking yakuza ass in Tokyo. This is instead the highly acclaimed drama (coincidentally released in 1989 as well) from Japanese filmmaker Shohei Imamura about a young woman living with her aunt, uncle and grandmother in a village populated almost entirely with survivors of the Hiroshima bombing five years earlier--although she seems to be unaffected, her relatives are concerned that the possibility of one day succumbing to radiation sickness will hurt her marriage prospects. Yes, it is kind of grim and dark and despairing but trust me, it is still 100 times better than that Michael Douglas craptacular, believe me.
BLOOD: THE LAST VAMPIRE (Sony Home Entertainment. $24.96): The best thing that one can say about this live-action version of the popular anime film about a half-human, half-vampire babe (Asian superstar Gianna) hacking and slashing her way through a U.S. military base circa 1970 in pursuit of an all-powerful demon and its countless minions, is that as utterly incoherent action extravaganzas go, it is at least an hour shorter than “Transformers 2.” Beyond that, this is another messy and pointless craptacular burdened with an incoherent script, abysmal acting, poor CGI effects (including rubbery-looking monsters and gouts of thoroughly unconvincing gore) and a grim determination not to offer viewers anything that could be described as fresh or inventive. Granted, the original wasn’t exactly a masterpiece, but it at least had an interesting visual style and it was the kind of film that you could easily trance out to while watching it late at night. This one, on the other hand, is so bad that it almost, but not quite, made me want to go up to the nearest “Twilight” fan and apologize to them for calling that the stupidest vampire-related movie in recent memory. In short, it both bites and sucks--not the most original sentiment, I suppose, but one that definitely fits the circumstances.
CHERI (Miramax Home Entertainment. $29.99): Michelle Pfeiffer reunites with screenwriter Christopher Hampton and director Stephen Frears, with whom she worked on a little thing called “Dangerous Liasons,” for this entertaining adaptations of the works of Colette in which she plays an about-to-retire courtesan who is implored by a colleague (Kathy Bates) to teach her wayward son (Rupert Friend) about the ways of women, only to unexpectedly find herself falling in love with the impudent little twerp. Although this comedy-drama isn’t quite as good as one might expect from such a collection of talent, mostly because Friend is so irritating throughout that his mere presence nearly sabotages many of the scenes he is in, it contains the strongest and sexiest performance that Pfeiffer has delivered in years and that alone makes it worth watching.
THE ELEPHANT KING (E1 Entertainment. $24.98): In this direct-to-video drama, a young man is urged by his overbearing mother (Ellen Burstyn) to travel to Thailand in order to bring his wayward brother back home. In a turn of events that will no doubt shock everyone, he finds himself taking by the exotic beauty of the land--especially the kind represented by a sexy local bartended--and, as the video box says, “Is forced to decide whether he will save his brother’s life or his own.” Since it is rated “R” for “sexual content, drug use, language and some violence,” it appears that whatever he decides, he will have a little fun along the way.
FADOS (Zeitgeist Video. $29.99): Completing a trilogy that he began with 1995’s “Flamenco” and continued with 1998’s “Tango,” acclaimed filmmaker Carlos Saura heads to Lisbon for this documentary about the Portuguese music genre known as fado by examining its African-Brazilian roots and observing some of its best-known modern practitioners in action. Look, if you are going to waste much of your time watching rank amateurs dancing passably at best on television, why not spend an evening watching people who can actually do it well?
FAWLTY TOWERS: THE COMPLETE COLLECTION REMASTERED (BBC Video. $49.98): By far the funniest British television series of all time--yes, even better than “Monty Python” or “The Office”--John Cleese’s 12-episode masterpiece, in which he plays Basil Fawlty, a snooty hotel manager whose attempts to keep things running smoothly are inevitably undone (thanks largely to his own ineptitude), returns to DVD in a new edition featuring interviews, outtakes and newly recorded commentaries from Cleese. Seriously, if you can somehow make it through the episodes in which Basil “deals” with the body of a guest who expired during the night and with a group of German tourists without even cracking a smile, don’t tell me because I don’t think I would want to know that such a person exists. Other TV-related DVDs arriving this week include “Black Adder Remastered: The Ultimate Edition” (BBC Video. $79.98), “Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman--The Complete Series” (A&E Home Entertainment. $149.99), “Hawaii Five-O: The Seventh Season” (CBS DVD. $49.99), “Homicide: Life on the Street--The Complete Series” (A&E Home Entertainment. $149.95), “The L Word--The Final Season” (Showtime/CBS DVD. $59.99), “Numbers: Season 5” (CBS DVD. $60.99), “Top Chef: New York--Season Five” (A&E Home Entertainment. $29.95) and “Vegas: The First Season, Volume One” (CBS DVD. $36.98).
P (Palisades Tartan. $19.99): IN this grisly little horror export from Thailand, a young girl learns the secrets of black magic from her grandmother and when she goes to Bangkok to find work to pay for medicine and winds up working as a go-go dancer, she uses her powers to get ahead of the competition and, perhaps inevitably, things take a dark turn. Yes, it is kind of a cross between “Carrie” and “Showgirls” and you know what--I don’t have a single problem with that. If you finish this film and still have a taste for horror from other lands, Palisades Tartan also has “Terror Pack: Volume 1” ($39.99), a three-disc collection of equally grisly fare from France (“Sheitan,” in which a group of dumb hotties slowly discover that spending Christmas Eve in a remote cabin in the woods with Vincent Cassel is not such a smoking hot idea), Japan (“Carved,” in which a suburban town slowly discovers that screaming in horror when the spirit of a horribly mutilated woman asks “Am I pretty?” is not such a smoking-hot idea) and Denmark (“Slaughter Night,” in which a group of teens slowly discover that breaking into a museum possibly haunted by the centuries-old spirit of a serial killer is not such a smoking-hot idea).
THE TOURNAMENT (The Weinstein Company Home Entertainment. $19.97): In this direct-to-video action extravaganza that seems to consist entirely of bits and pieces from any number of familiar titles, a group of world-class assassins (including Ving Rhames, Kelly Hu and Robert Carlyle) who invade a quiet English town for a winner-take-all tournament in which each one tries to eliminate the competition in order to win $10,000,000 and the title of “World’s Greatest Assassin.” Naturally, all of this is broadcast via closed-circuit television (no doubt on ESPN Ocho) in an effort to ironically criticize viewers for watching violent of violent and mindless entertainment while they are watching violent and mindless entertainment. Man, where are “The Running Man” and Richard Dawson when you need them?
TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN (Paramount Home Video. $34.98): If you have already seen this insanely popular and insanely terrible assault on the senses masquerading as entertainment., then you already know what you are in for with this monstrosity. If you haven’t, why spoil a good thing?[br]
WILLIE NELSON & WYNTON MARSALIS PLAY RAY CHARLES (A&E Home Video. $19.95): Titles don’t get more self-explanatory than this--the two musical icons plow through the songbook of the third in a concert recorded earlier this year at New York’s Lincoln Center with Norah Jones showing up to join in on a few tunes as well. Although Nelson and Jones may be a little too laid-back to capture the fire that Charles brought to his original interpretations of the material presented here, Marsalis does provide a few much-needed sparks and the concert as a whole is pleasant enough, though hardly revelatory.
WRONG TURN 3: LEFT FOR DEAD (Fox Home Entertainment. $29.95): In the latest direct-to-video installment of the surprisingly resilient horror franchise about hillbilly cannibals snacking on intruders who unexpectedly happen upon their deep woods hideaway, a group of escaped convicts find their break for freedom somewhat hampered when they become the latest potential ingredients for inbred redneck stew. The results for this needless sequel may not be finger-licking good, but I can think of at least one finger that most people will be willing to give it after a viewing.
EASY RIDER (Sony Home Entertainment. $38.96)
MONSOON WEDDING (The Criterion Collection. $39.95)
WATERWORLD (Universal Home Entertainment. $26.98)
WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (Warner Home Video. $34.99)
link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=2868
originally posted: 10/23/09 06:21:14
last updated: 10/23/09 07:00:44