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DVD Reviews for 3/10: When Bad Things Happen to Good Comedians

by Peter Sobczynski

In which your faithful critic looks at some of the lesser achievements on one of the greatest of all film icons, uncovers an film noir gem, asks important questions about “Harry Potter” and is forced to deal with the ultimate symbol of uselessness–the infamous Cousin Oliver.

Watching the new DVD set “Buster Keaton-65th Anniversary Collection” is a bewildering and confusing experience to say the least. On the one hand, it is an impeccably presented set that presents a look at a generally unknown area of film history with nicely restored prints and a compelling array of bonus materials that should keep both experts and novices alike interested. On the other hand, all of this effort has gone into the service of a series of films that weren’t particularly well-received when they were originally made and which haven’t exactly aged very well over the decades. Even worse, they provide a stark illustration as to the personal and artistic depths that one of the true geniuses of the film industry was reduced to in an effort to keep working. The result is a DVD that is fascinating from a historical perspective but absolutely deadly as simple entertainment.

Although silent film comedian Buster Keaton is regularly regarded today as the equal, if not the superior, to rival Charles Chaplin, his technically dazzling films (including “The General,” “Sherlock Jr.” and “The Cameraman”) never captured the fancy of the audience in the way that Chaplin’s more sentimental works did and his ever-increasing ambitions (and equally expanding budgets) didn’t make him a favorite with the studios either. After a series of personal and professional disasters caused him to lose control of both his life and his work in the early 1930's, Keaton was forced to struggle in order to make a living–he did a series of largely uninspired features for MGM and then worked for the studio as a gag man for other comedians. Finally, in 1939, he was hired by Columbia Pictures to star in a series of two-reelers over the course of the next couple of years.

Unfortunately, the style of comedy that Columbia preferred was the kind of roughhouse knockabout humor that could be brilliant in the hands of the Three Stooges, who made 190 shorts for the studio, but which was ill-suited for Keaton’s more unique style. As a result, most of the ten shorts that he made look as if they were originally designed to be Stooge shorts–many were directed by longtime Stooges director Jules White and feature performers who will be familiar to Stooge fans. It is a style that simply doesn’t comfortably fit with Keaton, whose comedic stylings were more conceptual and relied more on his astonishing physical grace rather than being bopped on the head endlessly, and throughout most of the films here, he looks visibly uncomfortable with the goings-on (though part of this may be the result of his battles with alcohol, which he had overcome by this time but which left him looking far older than his years). And yet, some of the films do have their simple charms–“Mooching Through Georgia” is an amusing Civil War romp and “Nothing But Pleasure” gets a lot of mileage out of the simple idea of a disastrous car trip–and every once in a while, a bit of the old Keaton magic bursts through with such clarity–such as an astonishing bit of physical comedy in the otherwise excruciating “His Ex Marks the Spot” that involves a pair of pants and a wall-mounted ironing board–that even those unfamiliar with his work will recognize it as something true and genuine amidst all the recycled nonsense.

Although fans of Keaton would probably prefer to forget these films altogether, this so-called “65th Anniversary Collection” (apparently named because the last of these shorts were made in 1941) is probably still an essential purchase. As I mentioned before, the shorts look amazingly good, especially when you consider that they probably weren’t a high priority for the studio (they look better, in fact, than a lot of their “Three Stooges” DVDs) and the extras are more than just the usual fluff. Each short gets a commentary track from a film scholar that discusses the circumstances behind each film and the short documentary “Buster Keaton: From Silents to Shorts” delves deeper into the history behind this particular chapter of Keaton’s life–both the commentaries and the documentary frankly admit that these films weren’t Keaton’s finest hour and the latter includes clips from some of his earlier masterpieces to show what he was capable of in his heyday. As a nice packaging bonus, the set also includes a reproduction of Jules White’s original screenplay for the short “She’s Oil Mine” that comes complete with his notations, additions and deletions. Although the resulting film isn’t much to speak of, it is fascinating to watch it with the script in hand to see how even the quickest bit of product could change on its journey from the page to the screen.

1939-1941. 176 minutes. Unrated. A Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. Release. $24.95


THE BRADY BUNCH-THE COMPLETE FINAL SEASON (Paramount Home Video. $38.99): In the last season of the sitcom perennial (before a never-ending series of spinoffs, sequels and other reunions), Greg turns into Johnny Bravo (in an episode featuring B-movie queen Claudia Jennings) and kidnaps a rival school’s mascot, Bobby hustles his dad’s boss at billiards, the family has a wild adventure at the amusement park, Joe Namath makes an appearance and Cousin Oliver arrives for reasons that still have never been adequately explained. The fact that I know all this, even though I cannot recall ever having watched an entire episode of the show from start to finish, depresses me in ways that you couldn’t possibly imagine.

FALLEN ANGEL (Fox Home Entertainment. $14.95): The latest wave of Fox’s Film Noir series is led off with this nifty nail-biter from Otto Preminger. In it, Dana Andrews stars as a down-on-his-luck con man who drifts into a small town and plans to marry rich local Alice Faye and then disappear with the money and slutty local waitress Linda Darnell–that is, until an untimely murder fouls up his plans and leave him looking guiltier and guiltier. The other titles included in this wave are Robert Wise’s “The House on Telegraph Hill” (in which Valentina Cortese survives the war by assuming the identity of a concentration-camp victim, journey to America to be reunited with her “family” and discovers that she might have been safer back home) and Joseph L. Mankewicz’s “No Way Out” (in which Richard Widmark plays a hospitalized racist criminal who becomes obsessed with the notion that black intern Sidney Poitier was responsible for the death of his brother).

HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE (Warner Home Video. $30.98): Okay, maybe one of you Potter fanatics out there can answer a question for me. That contest in the film where the competing wizards dive into the water to battle weird-ass undersea creatures while saving their zombified friends–what happens to the friends if they can’t complete the task? Do they drown or what? Are the Hogwarts administrators covered by the signed permission slips? If anyone can provide an answer, I may even buy them a Corona (apparently the preferred brew of sweet Hermione), though not if they insist on dressing like one of the characters (unless they are trying to look like those saucy French schoolgirls).

HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE (Walt Disney Home Entertainment. $29.99): Although I was perfectly happy that “Wallace & Gromit” won the Best Animated Feature Oscar, I would have been just as happy if Hayao Miyazaki’s visionary fantasy, in which a young girl befriends a mysterious wizard and then finds herself cursed by an aging witch jealous of their friendship. As part of their latest round of Miyazaki releases, Disney is also releasing his classic “My Neighbor Tortoro,” generally regarded as one of the all-time great family films, and the lesser-known “Whispers of the Heart,” a continuation of his earlier “The Cat Returns.” All three are must-sees for viewers of all ages.

I WALK THE LINE (Sony Home Entertainment. $14.95): Not another Johnny Cash biopic (though his music does feature on the credits), this was an odd 1970 melodrama from the late John Frankenheimer in which morally righteous small-town sheriff Gregory Peck finds himself embroiled in a scandalous affair with local jailbait Tuesday Weld (and can you blame him?)

JARHEAD (Universal Home Video. $39.98): Although Sam Mendes’s Oscar-baiting adaptation of Anthony Swofford’s Gulf War I memoir failed to live up to the promise of its Kanye West-inflected trailer, it does have a few stylish moments and a nice supporting performance from Peter Sarsgaard going for it. Beyond that, you would be much better served taking another look at the infinitely more inspired “Three Kings.”

JUST FRIENDS (New Line Home Entertainment. $28.98): A nerd-turned-stud returns home to cruelly mistreat the girl who rejected his romantic advances by being his best friend instead. (That bitch!) The film that proved once and for all that the only thing worse than watching Ryan Reynolds doing his snarky Chevy Chase impression is watching Ryan Reynolds trying to gain sympathy by encasing himself in an unconvincing fat suit.

KIDS IN AMERICA (Universal Home Video. $28.98): As one of the few people who actually saw this dreadful rebellious-teener epic–imagine “Pump Up the Volume” made by and for idiots–I can vouch that unless you want to confirm for yourselves that Rosanna Arquette and Samantha Mathis are still foxy as all get out, there is absolutely no reason to sit through this bomb. Roger Ebert, on the other hand, gave it a rave review. Of course, he also said “Crash” was the best film of 2005, so take that recommendation with several grains of salt.

POLICE WOMAN: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (Sony Home Entertainment. $49.95): Until I watched this semi-legendary Angie Dickinson cop show, I never realized how many crimes could be solved simply by having a leggy blonde going undercover in a series of revealing outfits.

PRIME (Universal Home Video. $29.98): A silly romantic comedy in which a thirtysomething divorcee begins dating a much younger man and discovers that he is the son of her therapist. What elevates the film from its sitcom plotting (not to mention an over-the-top turn from Meryl Streep as the therapist) is a wonderful lead performance from Uma Thurman, some of the best work that she has done to date.

THE SHAGGY DOG (Walt Disney Home Entertainment. $19.99): Instead of blowing your money on watching the incredibly dour and unfunny Tim Allen remake, you’ll be better off picking up the still-charming original about an ordinary teen who finds himself magically transformed into a sheepdog. As an additional tie-in, Disney is also releasing the less-successful 1976 follow-up “The Shaggy D.A.” as well, which may be worth it simply for the Tim Conway commentary track.

SPIKE LEE JOINT COLLECTION (Universal Home Video. $26.98): To tie in with the upcoming release of Lee’s latest joint, “The Inside Man,” Universal has repackaged five of his films into one two-disc set. For your money, you get one masterpiece (1989's “Do the Right Thing,” though this version pales in comparison to the still-in-print and essential Criterion Collection edition), one strong and underrated gem (the 1995 adaptation of Richard Price’s “Clockers”), two deeply-flawed-but-interesting titles (1990's “Mo’ Better Blues” and 1991's interracial romantic drama “Jungle Fever”) and one out-and-out dog (his 1994 autobiographical mishmash “Crooklyn.”) If that isn’t enough mid-level Lee for you, Anchor Bay is also releasing one of Lee’s worst efforts, the 1996 phone-sex melodrama “Girl 6,” this week as well.

THE THING CALLED LOVE (Paramount Home Video. $14.99): Barely released into theaters in 1994–a victim of studio politics–this film is usually remembered today only because it was the last film completed by River Phoenix before his untimely death. However, Peter Bogdanovich’s romantic comedy about a group of young country singers trying to make it in Nashville is worthy of a second look–it is sweet and funny, contains a lot of good music and features a bright cast including Phoenix, Samantha Mathis and, in a performance that would have made her a star pre-“Speed” if anyone had seen it, Sandra Bullock.

THREE’S COMPANY-THE COMPLETE SIXTH SEASON (Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. $29.98): Further proof that the late, great Don Knotts, no matter what the situation, could wring laughs out of even the lamest situations and believe me, this 28-episode collection of wacky misunderstandings and pratfalls is chock-full of them.

ZU WARRIORS (Miramax Home Entertainment. $29.99): A few years ago, Miramax bought the American distribution rights to Tsui Hark’s bizarre and electrifying fantasy-adventure, in which a group of martial-arts clans (including the always-reliable Ziyi Zhang) must band together to battle a terrifying demon bent on destroying the world, and proceeded to dub it into English while chopping out 20-odd minutes from its original running time. Shockingly, this version tested poorly and they put the whole thing up on their shelf until now, even though most Hong Kong cinema buffs have probably seen the uncut version through various channels. Happily, they have thoughtfully included the original Cantonese-language version along with the shortened American cut on the same disc so you can gauge their misjudgement for yourselves.

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originally posted: 03/10/06 15:45:36
last updated: 03/23/06 18:49:10
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