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DVD Reviews For 5/18: "You Know What? I'm Happy!"

by Peter Sobczynski

In which your faithful critic celebrates the long-awaited release of an animated classic, two of last year's best films and a prime bit of 1980's sexploitation and marvels at the existence of a direct-to-video film that even Steven Seagal himself wouldn't deign to appear in.

Although his name may not be as instantly recognizable to the general public as Walt Disney or Chuck Jones, Tex Avery was just as significant a contributor to the development and growth of animated filmmaking as we know it. While working in the animation department at Warner Brothers between 1935 and 1941, he was instrumental in developing the on-screen personalities of such perennially beloved characters as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Porky Pig. At MGM, where he wound up after a dispute involving salary and creative control at Warners, he pushed the boundaries of what could be achieved within the confines of a seven-minute cartoon with a series of films that were jam-packed with outrageous sight gags (such as eyeballs popping out of someone’s head at the sight of a pretty girl), bits of pure surrealism (including characters literally running off the edge of the screen) and the kind of split-second timing that is so wildly unpredictable that his cartoons still feel fresh and exciting no matter how many times you have laughed yourself silly over them in the past.

If there was a flaw to Avery’s take-no-prisoners, anything-for-a-laugh attitude, it was that such an approach didn’t really lend itself to the development of recurring characters. Avery made the occasional attempt to create lasting characters–Screwy Squirrel comes to mind–but for the most part, he was more successful with one-shot cartoons in which the gags took precedence over anything else. In fact, he only managed to create and sustain only one significant cartoon character on his own and even that one only appeared in a comparatively meager 24 cartoons between 1943 and 1958 (the last seven of which were produced by others when Avery left MGM in 1957). However, that character, an eternally deadpan basset hound by the name of Droopy, proved to be the perfect character for Avery to display his distinctive comic touch and what resulted from this combination, as you can readily see by picking up the invaluable collection “Tex Avery’s Droopy: The Complete Theatrical Collection,” were some of the funniest cartoons ever produced.

The typical Droopy cartoon generally followed the same basic template. Droopy and some opponent, usually either The Wolf or Spike the Bulldog, would find themselves at odds for one reason or another–they would both be competing for the hand of the same beautiful woman, for example. The villain would, of course, do everything in his power to either cheat our hero or destroy him outright but all of these machinations would blow up in the perpetrator’s face thanks to a combination of bad luck and white magic while the eternally unflappable Droopy just stood there making drier-than-dry comments to the audience. Eventually, the bad guy would get the upper hand and gloat until Droopy would say, in the impossible-to-resist-imitating monotone that he would always use (supplied by Bill Thompson), “You know what–that makes me mad” and would suddenly deploy superhuman powers that would utterly obliterate his oppressor in a manner that would have left even Bugs Bunny himself slack-jawed with envy.

In other words, most Droopy cartoons were one-joke affairs–only the plot details would change from title to title–and were the kind of films that lived or died entirely on the quality and originality of the gags. With the possible exception of Chuck Jones and his Road Runner epics, no animator did more with a one-joke premise than Avery did with Droopy. Every one of the shorts that he did with the character was a literal riot in which he manipulated all of the tools of the trade–aural as well as visual–into symphonies of silliness that were often breathtaking to behold. The weird about the gags that Avery would come up with is that they are almost impossible for someone to describe in print in a way that does them justice–a good portion of the hilarity comes from a combination of the sheer audacity he displays conceiving the gag in the first place and the sheer technical bravado he displays in pulling them off as precisely as he does.
(For proof of this, all you need to do is consult the seven non-Avery shorts on the set–they are funny enough, I suppose, but there is a distinct lack of the manic invention that Avery consistently delivered in his films.)

Although this set isn’t as jam-packed with the kind of extras that Warners has bestowed upon their collections of “Looney Tunes” shorts, it is unlikely that anyone will be complaining about what has been offered. There is a nice documentary on the history of the character and the career of his creator and a greatest hits montage that strings together a bunch of the most over-the-top moments into one long gag reel. However, the most important feature in this collection is that the cartoons on display have been presented in their proper aspect ratios (including a few in beautiful Cinemascope) and fully uncut and unedited. (This means that a few fairly tasteless racial gags crop up here and there, most notably in “Droopy’s Good Deed,” and the packaging does warn that the set “Is Intended for the Adult Collector and May Not Be Suitable for Children.”) That alone should be enough to put a smile on the face of any cartoon fanatic, even Droopy himself.

A Warner Home Video release. $26.95.


AMERICAN DAD: VOLUME 2 (Fox Home Entertainment. $39.98): Although Seth McFarlane’s follow-up to his seemingly indestructible “Family Guy”–a spoof on family-oriented sitcoms in which a gung-ho CIA agent heads a family of wacky TV cliches (including a wisecracking alien sidekick)–is still pretty much a hit-and-miss affair, this second collection of episodes does demonstrate some improvement from the generally weak early episodes and provides enough big laughs to make it worth sitting through most of the stupider bits.

ARMY OF SHADOWS (The Criterion Collection. $39.95): Although Jean-Pierre Melville made this film, a loosely autobiographical work about members of the French Resistance (including Lino Ventura, the recently deceased Jean-Pierre Cassel and Simone Signoret) battling both the Nazis and betrayal from within their own ranks, back in 1969, it was never released in America until 2006 and when it did, many critics wound up placing it atop their Ten Best lists for the year. Besides the beautifully restored film, this edition includes a commentary from historian Ginette Vincendeau, behind-the-scenes footage shot during the production (including interviews with Melville and some of his fellow resistance fighters) and a 1944 documentary short from France on the last days of the German occupation.

ARTHUR AND THE INVISIBLES (The Weinstein Company. $29.95): Instead of dropping your hard-earned money on the soulless likes of “Shrek the Third” this weekend, you should instead pick up a copy of this delightfully entertaining fantasy from Luc Besson about a young boy (Freddie Highmore) who discovers an underground world of tiny creatures (the Minimoys) in his backyard and winds up saving them all from the machinations of the evil Maltazard. Kids will love the bright colors and breakneck action while grown-ups will appreciate the weirdo humor and David Bowie’s hilariously menacing turn as Maltazard.

BANACEK–THE FIRST SEASON (Hart Sharp Video. $29.98): The good thing about virtually every television show in existence getting a DVD set is that long-forgotten titles like this fairly entertaining early-1970's favorite–in which a pre-“A-Team” George Peppard stars as a Polish-American freelance insurance investigator who takes on the cases that regular insurance investigators can’t be bothered with–get a chance to be seen by new generations of viewers.

BECKET (MPI Home Video. $24.98): Long unavailable on home video, this 1964 historical drama chronicles the friendship between King Henry II (Peter O’Toole) and Thomas Becket (Richard Burton) and the rift that grows between the two when the former appoints the latter to serve as the Archbishop of Canterbury as a lark and is horrified to see his friend take the job so seriously that they wind up at odds with each other. The film is kind of long and not as great as its reputation has suggested over the years but it is an undeniable blast to see O’Toole and Burton going head-to-head for 2 ½ hours. The two are also heard from on the extras as well–O’Toole appears on a commentary track while Burton is seen in a couple of old interviews discussing his life and career.

BUNNY WHIPPED (Velocity/Thinkfilm. $27.98): No, not the story of Hugh Hefner’s relationship to Carrie Leigh–this is instead a direct-to-video comedy about a loser sportswriter (Esteban Powell) who poses as a powerless superhero in order to solve the murder of a rap star and help an old girlfriend rescue a bunch of bunny rabbits from certain death. The old girlfriend, by the way, is played by the ever-delightful Joey Lauren Adams and I somehow suspect that if it were up to her, she would prefer that you take the money that you might have used to rent or purchase this particular title and use it to pick up a copy of her wonderful directorial debut, “Come Early Morning.”

CREEPSHOW 3 (HBO Home Video. $19.98): The good news is that this direct-to-video sequel to George Romero and Stephen King’s beloved 1982 homage to the old E.C. horror comics is that it wasn’t made by the same people responsible for the generally abysmal 1987 film “Creepshow 2.” The bad news is that it was made by the same people responsible for the recent DTV Romero bastardization “Day of the Dead 2: Contagium” and the word is that this one makes that effort look downright competent by comparison.

THE FOUNTAIN (Warner Home Video. $29.95): Sadly overlooked when it was released in theaters last winter, Darren Aronofsky’s latest work, a mind-blowing sci-fi epic that follows the search for the Fountain of Youth through the eyes of three pairs of lovers (Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz) in a trio of intertwining stories spanning over 1500 years of time, will hopefully follow in the footsteps of his previous efforts (“Pi” and “Requiem For A Dream”) and find a wider and more appreciative audience on DVD. Although the disc disappointingly doesn’t feature an Aronofsky commentary track, it does include a fascinating documentary chronicling the film’s long and convoluted production history that mostly makes up for that.

HALF PAST DEAD 2 (Sony Home Entertainment. $24.95): Frankly, I don’t know what is more surprising about this particular title–the fact that a film as utterly forgettable as “Half Past Dead,” a film that his remembered today only as the last big-screen vehicle to date for the once-popular Steven Seagal, was able to warrant a sequel–even if it is only one of the direct-to-video variety–or the fact that it actually doesn’t feature Seagal in the cast.

MASTERS OF HORROR–RIGHT TO DIE (Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. $14.99): Apparently feeling that John Carpenter’s “Pro Life” just wasn’t controversial enough, this latest entry in the Showtime horror series uses the Terri Schiavo case as the inspiration for a tale about a man (Martin Donovan) who finds himself at the bottom of a national controversy when he wants to pull the plug on the machinery keeping his wife alive after a horrific car crash–of course, the twist here is that her spirit is still kicking and perfectly willing to slaughter anyone trying to exploit her condition to forward their own agendas. Sounds perfectly reasonable but I have one question–since when has Rob Schmidt, the auteur of the ultra-gory gumdrop “Wrong Turn,” been considered a “Master Of Horror”?

PAN’S LABYRINTH (New Line Home Entertainment. $34.95): If you saw Gullermo Del Toro’s visually and dramatically extraordinary Oscar-winning fairy tale when it played in theaters last winter, you will definitely want to pick up this 2-disc special edition that features an illuminating commentary from Del Toro (one that actually adds to the experience of seeing the film instead of robbing it of its magic), a series of documentaries chronicling every possible aspect of its production and a fascinating episode of “The Charlie Rose Show” featuring a joint interview with Del Toro and longtime friends and colleagues Guillermo Arriaga and Alfonso Cuaron.

SERAPHIM FALLS (Sony Home Entertainment. $26.95): Until it goes completely off the rails in the last half-hour, this gritty post-Civil War revenge drama in which a former Union captain (Pierce Brosnan) is pursued by an unknown man (Liam Neeson) bearing a violent grudge–is a pretty good western in the style of the late Sam Peckinpah that also features gorgeous cinematography from the always-reliable John Toll.

THE SIEGE–MARTIAL LAW EDITION (Fox Home Entertainment. $19.95): This eerily prescient 1998 drama–in which Denzel Washington and Annette Bening try to get to the bottom of a series of terrorist bombing in New York City while chafing under the constraints of martial law brought down by military man Bruce Willis–gets its own tackily-titled special edition DVD with a commentary from Zwick and a series of featurettes chronicling its production.

STOMP THE YARD (Sony Home Entertainment. $28.95): As this film clearly demonstrates, there is not a single problem in the world that cannot be solved with a heavily edited and visually tricked-up dance contest.

THEY’RE PLAYING WITH FIRE (Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. $9.99): Imagine a head-on collision between “Private Lessons” and “Friday the 13th” and you might come up with something like this trash classic about a callow young college student (Eric Brown) is seduced by his sexy professor (B-movie goddess Sybil Danning in one of her all-time nakedest performances) as part of a plot to frame him for the murder of her wealthy in-laws while a mysterious killer goes around chopping up other members of the cast. This bit of 80's-era exploitation is such a strange blend of sex, violence and utter weirdness that it is surprising that Quentin Tarantino hasn’t yet gone off on a hyperactive rant extolling its virtues by now.

THE WAR AT HOME–THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (Fox Home Entertainment. $39.98): The bad thing about virtually every television show in existence getting a DVD set is that unmitigated crap like this painfully unfunny (and just cancelled) “Married With Children” knockoff wind up getting preserved for posterity instead of being allowed to simply disappear into the mists of time. Seriously, if any of you out there are actually planning on buying this set, please drop me a line and explain why–I am genuinely curious.

THE WAR TAPES (Docurama. $26.95): Yes, this is yet another documentary about the ongoing war in Iraq but this particular entry in the subgenre has something going for it that separates it from the rest–the entire film has been compiled from footage shot by National Guardsmen who were given digital cameras by the producers before being deployed into action.

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originally posted: 05/18/07 12:41:54
last updated: 05/19/07 08:52:42
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