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DVD Reviews for 11/14: You Gotta Syn To Get Saved!

by Peter Sobczynski

A little bit of sex, a little bit of Syn and a whole lot of singing--those are some of the treats to be found in this week’s column.

Since 2001, Disney Studios has been providing an annual year-end treat for their most ardent fans with “Walt Disney Treasures,” a series of two-disc collections of restored cartoons from the studio’s entire history featuring their best-known characters as well as intriguing one-offs, key episodes from the various TV shows that the studio has aired over the last few decades and even programs dedicated to a behind-the-scenes look at the studio in its heyday and the various contributions that they made to the war effort during World War II. Last year, there were rumors that the series was going to come to an end with that year’s offerings but in a happy development, that decision was at least temporarily reversed and as a result, we now have Wave 8, a trio of offerings that include tributes to one of the studio’s most beloved animated characters, one of their most beloved live-action stars and the long-awaited arrival of a cult favorite. For anyone who grew up watching these things on the big and small screens, these sets are pretty much worth their weight in gold but I think that even younger viewers will get a kick out of most of these things as well.

First up is “The Chronological Donald: Volume Four” and as the title suggests, it includes the final 31 cartoons featuring the excitable duck whose comic misadventures actually made him more popular than Mickey Mouse for a time. Part of that was because while Mickey was considered the standard-bearer for the studio and too pristine for the knockabout slapstick normally found in animated cartoons of the time, the studio had no such compunctions when it came to Donald and he was pretty much allowed to run wild (or as wild as the relatively staid Disney would allow) and he became a fan favorite as a result. Granted, the series had kind of run into a bit of a rut by the time these shorts were produced--Donald would set out to do something and would be driven to distraction by such supporting characters as the chipmunk duo Chip & Dale or nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie until time ran out--but as long as you don’t try to watch them all at once, there are plenty of laughs to be had here. In addition to the cartoons, the set includes an introduction from film critic/Disney expert Leonard Maltin, commentaries from Maltin and fellow animation historian Jerry Beck on the shorts “Working For Peanuts” (which was originally produced in 3-D) and “Grand Canyonesque” (the first of the Donald shorts produced in Cinemascope), the featurette “Donald Goes to Press” that deals with his equally impressive popularity in the pages of newspapers and comic books, another featurette, “The Unseen Donald Duck: Trouble Shooters,” that offers a look at a never-produced cartoon through the storyboards that were created before it was abandoned and, last and certainly least, a collection of lame Donald cartoons produced in the 1990’s as part of the “Mouse Works” series.

When this wave was originally announced, the most fascinating title of the three was one that was going to explore “Destino,” a 2003 Disney cartoon that originally began production 58 years earlier as a collaboration between Disney and Surrealist artist Salvador Dali. Alas, soon after the set was announced, it was quickly pulled from the lineup with little explanation other than the fact that the studio claimed that it would hit DVD in 2010. In replacing that eagerly-awaited package, Disney turned to another one of their beloved icons with “The Mickey Mouse Club Presents--Annette,” a celebration of Annette Funicello, the first big flesh-and-blood star to be created by the studio in a long-running process that would eventually give us the likes of Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera, Miley Cyrus and the “High School Musical” thugs. Upon realizing just how popular his new star was, Disney created a serial called “Annette” that would run as a daily part of the show between February 11 and March 7 of 1958 and tell the tale of a young and innocent country girl who is sent to the big city to live with her aunt and uncle and tries to fit in with her new surroundings. Of the three sets, this is easily the weakest of the bunch--the show itself isn’t of much interest unless you are a true-blue Funicello fanatic--but it does offer an interesting glimpse of Disney’s television offerings during this period and it does let us get a Ground Zero look at a genuine cultural phenomenon from the past as it was emerging. (Besides, as someone who named his first teddy bear Annette in tribute, I can’t possibly come out completely against it.) In addition to the 20 chapters that comprised the story (actually 19--the first episode is a strange thing in which co-star Mary Wickes explains what we are going to see and essentially tells viewers the entire story--the set also includes the full “Mickey Mouse Club” episodes featuring the first and last episodes of the serial and two documentaries on Funicello, one a newly produced broad overview of her career and the other a 1993 featurette originally produced to tie in with a CD box set of her music that was being released at the time and featuring interviews with the likes of Frankie Avalon and Fabian.
However, the Wave 8 title that is getting the most attention is “Dr. Syn: The Scarecrow Of Romney Marsh,” a presentation of both the three-part miniseries that originally appeared on “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color” in 1964, known as “The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh” and the feature film version, titled “Dr. Syn, Alias The Scarecrow” that was shown overseas at that time and which finally premiered Stateside in 1975. Adapted from the stories from author Russell Thorndike, both versions star Patrick McGoohan (just before attaining cult stardom as “The Prisoner”) as Dr. Christopher Syn, a man who spends his days working as the vicar of a parish in a small town in Southern England and his nights roaming the countryside as the Scarecrow, a masked avenger who fights for the rights of the overtaxed people of his town against the forces of the greedy King of England and his minions. Of the two versions, I have to admit that the more streamlined feature version is the one that plays better--it is far more streamlined and easy to follow and it doesn’t get bogged down in unnecessary detail in the way that the TV version did. However, whichever version you choose, you have to admit that the theme song is one of the catchiest in Disney history. Besides the two versions of the story, the set also includes a history of the story and how it made the leap from the printed page to the screen and, more intriguingly, a short documentary on the early days of Walt Disney and his decision to branch off into live-action filmmaking in England as the result of needing to make use of funds that had been frozen there.

THE CHRONOLOGICAL DONALD-VOLUME FOUR: A Buena Vista Home Entertainment release. $32.99

THE MICKEY MOUSE CLUB PRESENTS ANNETTE: A Buena Vista Home Entertainment release. $32.99.

DR. SYN: THE SCARECROW OF ROMNEY MARSH: A Buena Vista Home Entertainment release. $32.99.


THE APPRENTICE (Somerville House. $15.98): The good news is that this has absolutely nothing to do with that Donald Trump nonsense. The better news is that it is a rarely seen 1971 erotic melodrama about a model whose decision to live life as a sexual free spirit drives her long-suffering boyfriend to distraction and criminal behavior. The best news is that the model living life as a sexual free spirit is played by none other than Susan Sarandon in one of her earliest roles.

BEER FOR MY HORSES (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $27.98): Because I live in one of those blue states that all the kids and pundits talk about, I did not get an opportunity to see this theoretically wacky comedy, in which deputy sheriff Toby Keith (who also co-wrote the screenplay) teams up with fellow officer Rodney Carrington to save his girlfriend from the clutches of a Colombian drug lord, when it briefly appeared in theaters a couple of months ago. However, I must admit that the supporting cast--which includes the likes of Tom Skerritt, Ted Nugent, Claire Forlani, Willie Nelson, Gina Gershon and David Allan Coe--is intriguing enough to possibly make it worth checking out. Then again, probably not.

THE BOYS IN THE BAND (CBS DVD. $26.98): While choking back your rage at the passing of California’s vile, hateful and unfair Prop 8 (the one dark spot on an otherwise glorious Election Day, you might want to pass the time by watching this 1970 adaptation of the 1968 Mart Crowley play as a group of homosexuals gather for a birthday party that eventually turns into a long and painful evening of truth-telling. Although much of the material is on the dated side and the cast, all of whom were recruited from the stage production, still seem to be playing for the rafters, it does still have a few affecting moments and it is also historically significant for a couple of reasons--it was one of the first major motion pictures to address gay sexuality on screen and it was the first significant feature from the then-rising filmmaker William Friedkin (who chimes in on a commentary track and three-part retrospective documentary that make up the bonus features), made just before his back-to-back successes with “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist.”

THE GENERAL (Kino Video. $29.95): Generally regarded as one of the supreme achievements of the silent cinema as well as one of the greatest comedies ever made, Buster Keaton’s 1926 classic, in which he plays a Southern rail engineer who risks life and limb to rescue his two loves--his girlfriend and his locomotive engine--when both are absconded with by Yankee spies, returns to DVD in a spiffy new 2-disc set that includes a remastered picture, three different accompanying musical scores, video tours of the actual engine and filming locations, vintage introductions from Gloria Swanson and Orson Welles and a montage of train-related business from a number of Keaton’s other films.

HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY (Universal Home Entertainment. $34.98): I can’t be the only person who was slightly disappointed when they heard that visionary director Guillermo del Toro follow-up project to the brilliant “Pan’s Labyrinth” was going to be a sequel to his relatively lackluster 2004 comic book movie in which Hellboy (Ron Perlman) and his paranormally-equipped buddies do battle with an evil prince who plans to destroy mankind with the help of the subtitular fighting force. That said, I am willing to admit that I enjoyed this sequel far more than I did the original--it is funnier, it makes a little more sense and it provides so many visual astonishments that it proves once again that del Toro is one of the great fantasists of our time.

HOLLYWOOD MUSICALS COLLECTION (MGM Home Entertainment. $499.98): This week’s holiday box-set behemoth is a 61-disc collaboration between MGM and 20th Century Fox that brings together 50 musical titles from their archives, including classics like “The Sound of Music,” “Oklahoma” and “West Side Story,” cult favorites like “The Apple,” “Moulin Rouge,” “Hallelujah, I’m A Bum” and “All That Jazz” and space-fillers like “The Fantasticks,” “A Chorus Line” and a number of lesser Elvis Presley vehicles.

KUNG FU PANDA/SECRETS OF THE FURIOUS FIVE (Dreamworks Home Entertainment. $34.98): Look, I have tried to warm up to this animated hit about a lovable kung fu-obsessed panda bear (Jack Black) who is chosen by an ancient prophecy to possess a mystical dragon’s scroll that provides its owner with limitless power, much to the consternation of the wizened martial arts master (Dustin Hoffman), who now has to train him to be worthy of receiving such a gift, his students (including Angelina Jolie, Lucy Liu and Jackie Chan) and the evil former student (Ian McShane) who is on the way to claim it for himself. However, even on a second viewing, it still strikes me as another fairly heartless Dreamworks Animation epic in which more concern has gone into getting big-name stars and inserting goofy pop-culture jokes than in providing a solid story or characters worth caring about. However, many of you felt otherwise and as a result, you may enjoy this two-pack DVD more than I. The first disc contains all the standard bells and whistles for a kid-oriented disc (puzzles, games and even a primer on how to operate chopsticks) while the second contains an all-new made-for-DVD adventure (one that runs only a scant 22 minutes, it should be noted) featuring Black and Hoffman reprising their original roles.

LOVE SONGS (Somerville House. $24.95): Looking to spice things up in their relationship, young couple Ishmael (Louis Garrel) and Julie (Ludivine Sagnier) invite Alice (Clotilde Hesme), a co-worker of Julie’s, to move in with them and share their bed in a blissful menage a trois that is abruptly thrown into upheaval when tragedy strikes in this interesting French film. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that it is also a musical to boot.

MADAME BOVARY (Koch Vision. $29.98): Gustave Flaubert’s classic novel (whose plot I will assume you recall from your high school years) was given arguably its best screen treatment to date in this 1991 adaptation directed by the great Claude Chabrol and starring the equally great Isabelle Huppert in the lead role. A documentary on the latter, “Isabelle Huppert: Playing Life,” is also included on this disc.

PARAMOUNT CENTENIAL COLLECTION (Paramount Home Video. $24.99 each): The studio celebrates its 100th anniversary with 2-disc special editions of three of its more notable films--Billy Wilder’s 1950 masterpiece “Sunset Boulevard,” Audrey Hepburn’s Oscar-winning 1953 debut “Roman Holiday” and the 1954 Wilder-Hepburn collaboration “Sabrina.” Of the three films, “Sunset Boulevard” is the pick of the litter--it remains as funny, sad, acerbic and terrifying as it was when it was first released and it contains, in Gloria Swanson’s mesmerizing turn as Norma Desmond, one of the greatest screen performances of all time. Of the others, “Roman Holiday” is a perfectly acceptable piece of fluff that gets by almost entirely on the charming rapport that develops between Hepburn and co-star Gregory Peck while “Sabrina” is a frankly terrible film (Wilder’s direction seems way off and co-star Humphrey Bogart is so visibly ill at ease that he looks in every scene as though he wants to punch whoever convinced him to sign on) that almost convinces you that it isn’t because of Hepburn’s ethereal presence.

THE PERFECT HOLIDAY/THIS CHRISTMAS (Sony Home Entertainment. $28.96 each): Last year, there two African-American-themed holiday films, both of which tried to attract the audiences that flocked to the works of Tyler Perry, came out at virtually the same time and wound up confusing practically everyone--I actually skipped the screening of one because I thought that I had just seen it a few days earlier. Now, of course, the same studio is releasing both film on the same day and aiming them at presumably the same audience. One involves a large family getting together for a holiday celebration in which ancient hurts are reopened and shocking secrets are revealed while the other involves a little girl who asks a hunky department store Santa to bring her divorced mommy a new husband for Christmas--I’ll leave it up to you to figure out which one is which.

PLAYBOY: 2009 VIDEO PLAYMATE CALENDAR (Playboy Home Video. $14.98): Obviously, there is no sense or use in offering up any real critical analysis of a DVD that is literally nothing more than 80 minutes worth of footage or 12 naked girls gamboling about. That said, that Miss April is a bit of all right, if you ask me.

QUO VADIS (Warner Home Video. $20.97): One of those Fifties-era Biblical epics that haven’t exactly stood the test of time, this often-told tale of a Roman general (Robert Taylor) who finds himself struggling to save a beautiful Christian girl (Deborah Kerr) and her family from a date with the lions courtesy of the increasingly mad Emperor Nero (Peter Ustinov). Frankly, outside of Ustinov’s gloriously unhinged performance, the film is kind of a bore and doesn’t even work that well on the level of camp. If you are interested, however, this 2-disc set includes a commentary from critic F.X. Feeney and a documentary chronicling the history of the story from its roots as a Nobel Prize-winning novel through its various early film incarnations (including a 1925 Italian/German production in which an extra was allegedly actually eaten by a lion in a hideous on-set mishap) to the lavish production of this particular version.

SMASHING PUMPKINS: IF ALL GOES WRONG (Coming Home Media. $21.98): In 2007, the newly-reunited Smashing Pumpkins decided to forgo a conventional tour for a couple of extended residencies in Asheville, North Carolina and at San Francisco’s famed Fillmore Auditorium. The first disc of this two-disc set is a documentary covering the entire process from the first rehearsals to the final show while the second offers a full 15-song concert from one of the Fillmore gigs along with performances of five more tunes captured during a sound check rehearsal.

THE SOPRANOS: THE COMPLETE SERIES (HBO Home Video. $399.98): This week’s other noteworthy box-set behemoth is a 33-disc set that includes all 86 episodes of the landmark HBO series, 3 soundtrack CDs, deleted scenes, an episode guide, a 56-page photo album, an interview with series creator David Chase conducted by Alec Baldwin, two “Supper with the Sopranos” featurettes in which cast members sit down to eat and discuss their favorite episodes and one fade to black that continues to inspire arguments to this day. Other DVD sets debuting this week include “7th Heaven--The Seventh Season” (CBS DVD. $49.98), “The Cosby Show: 25th Anniversary Commemorative Edition” (First Look Home Entertainment. $139.98), “The Commander: Set One” (Acorn Media. $59.99), “George Gently: Series 1”(Acorn Media. $49.99), “Little House on the Prairie: The Complete Television Series” (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $279.98), “Mind Of Mencia--Uncensored Season 4” (Paramount Home Entertainment. $26.98), “M Squad: The Complete Series” (Timeless Media Group. $199.98), “Scrubs: The Complete Seventh Season” (Buena Vista Home Entertainment. $29.99), “Son of the Beach: Volume 2” (Shout! Factory. $39.99), “The Streets of San Francisco: Season 2, Volume 2” (CBS DVD. $39.98) and “Three Sheets: Season 3” (Infinity Releasing. $24.99).

STAR WARS: THE CLONE WARS (Warner Home Video. $34.98): Created to simultaneously fill in some of the blanks between “Attack of the Clones” and “Revenge of the Sith” and to serve as the launching pad for a weekly TV series for the Cartoon Network that will be premiering later this fall, this is an insipid rip-off that even the most devoted fans of the long-running saga will find almost impossible to defend on any artistic or aesthetic level. It is so bad, in fact, that it could well rival the infamous “Star Wars Holiday Special” as the single most useless piece of “Star Wars”-related entertainment ever made and ironically, at least the animated aspect of that legendary disaster was actually not too bad. The only worthwhile aspect of this film is that it pretty much tanked in theaters, which suggests that perhaps audiences have finally gotten tired of swallowing the increasingly juvenile crap that George Lucas has been feeding them over the years.

STUDIO ONE ANTHOLOGY (Koch Vision. $99.98): Back in the early days of television, long before the airwaves were inundated with grisly cop shows, grotesque reality programming and, okay, the glory that is “Gossip Girl,” the networks used to make an effort to supply viewers with shows of a higher cultural purpose. One of the most famous was this well-known CBS anthology program that produced a slew of dramas--some originals and some adaptations of books or plays--that ran for nine years and featured any number of soon-to-be-famous faces in early roles. This six-disc set features 17 full-length episodes, complete with the original commercials, and includes “1984” starring Eddie Albert and Lorne Greene), “June Moon” with Jack Lemmon and Eva Marie Saint and “Wuthering Heights” with Charlton Heston as Heathcliff. In addition, the set also features a panel discussion on the film held at the Paley Center for Media, an interview with frequent show director Paul Nickell and a featurette chronicling the entire history of the program.

WARNER BROTHERS AND THE HOMEFRONT COLLECTION (Warner Home Video. $39.98): During World War II, Warner Brothers made a series of all-star musical-comedy confections designed to raise money for the war effort and to boost morale on the home front and this box set brings them together on DVD for the first time. Although none of them are particularly great examples of filmmaking, they are fascinating to watch today, especially for the chance to see some well-known movie stars acting out of character and goofing off for a worthy cause. 1942’s “This is the Army” tells the story of a father and son who strive to put on a big show before the latter leaves for combat and features the likes of George Murphy, Joan Leslie, Alan Hales, Kate Smith (one guess as to what she sings), Lt. Ronald Reagan, 350 actual GIs and Irving Berlin himself, whose songs are featured throughout. 1943’s “Thank Your Lucky Stars” gathers together the likes of Humphrey Bogart, Errol Flynn, Dinah Shore, Eddie Cantor, Olivia DeHaviland, John Garfield and a jitterbugging Bette Davis. Finally, 1944’s “Hollywood Canteern,” whose plot revolves around an ordinary corporal who wins a date with Joan Leslie, features (in alphabetical order) the Andrews Sisters, Jack Benny, Joe E. Brown, Eddie Cantor, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Sydney Greenstreet, Paul Henried, Peter Lorre, Ida Lupino, Roy Rogers (with Trigger and the Sons of the Pioneers), Barbara Stanwyck and Jane Wyman. While all three discs in this set feature bonus cartoons, newsreels and short subjects, “This is the Army” gets the most impressive special features--a commentary track with Joan Leslie and historian Dr. Drew Caspar, the restoration of the original overture and exit music that haven’t been seen since its original release, a musical number, “My British Buddy,” that was never show in North America and “Warner at War,” a new documentary on the studio’s war efforts narrated by Steven Spielberg.

WARNER BROTHERS CLASSIC HOLIDAY COLLECTION VOLUME 2 (Warner Home Video. $29.98): Warner Brothers dips into their archives again to give us this 4-disc collection of holiday-related films for those who are in the mood for something other than the standard titles. “Blossoms in the Dust” (1941) tells the true (not counting the numerous Hollywood exaggerations) story of the life of Edna Gladney (Greer Garson), a Texas woman who devoted her life to finding homes for unwanted and orphaned children. “It Happened on 5th Avenue” (1947) is a screwball comedy in which a hobo (Don DeFore) and his pals move into an empty mansion for the holidays while the family that lives there is out of town. “Holiday Affair” (1949), probably the best-known title of the bunch, is a romantic comedy in which beautiful young widow Janet Leigh finds herself romantically torn between stuffy businessman Wendell Corey and hunky bad boy Robert Mitchum. Finally, “All Mine to Give” (1957) is a melodrama about six pioneer kids (including “Bad Seed” Patty McCormack) struggling to stay together for Christmas following the deaths of their parents.

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originally posted: 11/14/08 09:34:47
last updated: 11/14/08 10:17:02
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