DVD Reviews for 12/4: Back On The Air!
By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 12/03/09 06:01:50
After a couple of weeks that have been slightly off, the column gets back to business with the highlights from the last couple of weeks (such as they are) and takes a look at a couple of fascinating early crossovers between the worlds of film and television.
Although most of the thing that I write about at length in this column tend to be theatrical films of one type or another, I will occasionally shift the focus to televisions programs. When I do that, it usually means one of three things--the program is of some kind of historical significance, it has some kind of connection to the world of cinema or the rest of the week’s offerings were on the slim side. In the case of this week’s column, which does deal with three new TV-related packages, all three of those circumstances come into play to a certain degree. Yes, it is kind of a weak week for DVDs (actually two weeks since this column includes selections that came out last week) but even if it wasn’t, I probably still would have chosen them to highlight because each one has a certain degree of historical significance and each one has some equally fascinating ties to the movie world as well.
It seems strange to believe at a time when “reality” programs and game shows are dominating the airwaves but there was once a time when some of the most popular shows around were live television dramas--sometimes adapted from books or plays and sometimes written expressly for the medium by such new voices as Paddy Chayefsky and Rod Serling--that offered viewers gripping storylines, sterling performances from a canny mix of veterans and up-and-comers striving for a big break and innovative direction from young hotshots eager to prove themselves in a medium where the rules had not yet been set. Although many of these programs would be lost in the mists of time, kinescopes of many of them were collected by PBS in the 1980’s and shown under the title “The Golden Age of Television” with contemporary interviews with many of the participants. The new Criterion box set “The Golden Age of Television” collects seven of the most famous of these shows and as a result, a new generation of viewers can see them for the first time. The titles in this set include 1953’s “Marty” (with Rod Steiger in the role that Ernest Borgnine would win an Oscar for a couple of years later), 1955’s “Patterns” (the corporate drama that made Rod Serling one of the hottest writers around), “No Time For Sergeants” (an amiable military comedy that introduced America to the talents of Andy Griffith) and “A Wind from the South” (a drama featuring Julie Harris as a working-class woman looking for love and a theme song sung by Merv Griffith), 1956’s “Bang the Drum Slowly” (a sports melodrama starring Paul Newman in one of his earliest roles) and “Requiem for a Heavyweight” (another Rod Serling triumph whose success was largely responsible for the eventual development of a little thing called “The Twilight Zone”) and 1957’s The Comedian” and 1958’s “Days of Wine and Roses” (both of which were duly celebrated for the innovative directorial stylings of newcomer John Frankenheimer, who would quickly become the medium’s hottest director before moving on the features.) Although this collection will most likely be appreciated by students of film and television who are interested in looking at what the medium was like during its infancy, what makes them so interesting is that the shows all hold up quite well today--even though many of the titles featured here would eventually be remade for the big screen, these original versions are just as strong and interesting than their more famous retreads and in many cases, even more so.
Although most Hollywood bigshots looked down upon television in its early years, one who saw genuine possibilities in the new medium was Alfred Hitchcock. From 1955 to 1965, he produced and hosted the anthology show “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” an endeavor that gave him the opportunity to try out new techniques and performers that he might use in the future in his big-screen projects (“Psycho” was shot almost entirely with his TV crew) and, thanks to his wry introductions to every episode, made him easily the world’s most recognizable filmmaker at the time. “Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Season Four” compiles the 36 installments that made up its 1958-59 season, generally regarded by most observers as one of the best in its history. Among the well-known faces that pop up here include James Coburn, Fay Wray, Cloris Leachman, Claude Rains and Steve McQueen while then-unknown director Arthur Hiller helmed a couple of episodes. Of course, the two of most interest to most people are the ones directed by Hitchcock himself--the season opener “Poison” is a squirm-inducer about a man trapped in bed with a poisonous snake that will strike and kill him if he makes even the slightest move and the hilarious “Banquo’s Chair,” in which a detective hires an actress to appear as the ghost of a woman murdered two years earlier in the hopes of scaring her suspected nephew into finally confessing to the crime.
Like Hitchcock, Jerry Lewis saw the possibilities of television but despite his success in other artistic mediums, he was never quite able to break through on the small screen as a solo artist. In 1962, at the height of his popularity, he tried it for the first time with an enormously hyped and largely free-form variety/talk show that turned out to be an enormous critical and commercial flop--pretty much the “Chevy Chase Show” of its day--and disappeared from the airwaves after a couple of months. In 1967, with his career starting to wane, he decided to give the medium another shot with the more conventional comedy/variety series “The Jerry Lewis Show” and while it was a little more successful--it stayed on the air for two years--it wasn’t particularly well-received and has remained largely unseen since its original network run. “The Jerry Lewis Show Collection” is a two-disc compilation of highlights from various episodes--all but one from the first season--featuring him cavorting with the likes of the Osmonds, Nanette Fabray, Lynn Redgrave (with whom he would infamously fall out with a decade later during ill-fated stage tour of “Hellzapoppin”), Flip Wilson, Barbara Feldon, Janet Leigh and Shirley Jones. In all honesty, a lot of the material on display here is not prime Lewis--many of the skits go on for far too long with far too little effect and his tendency to try to break his co-stars up in the middle of them gets wearisome after a while. However, if you are a massive Jerry Lewis fan like I am, the 5 ½ hours of material collected here is definitely worth checking out--each episode usually has one or two enormous laughs and it is interesting to see him deploying familiar characters like The Nutty Professor (under a different name, however) in unfamiliar settings. Even at his weakest, Lewis has always been a comedic force to be reckoned with and this collection proves that beyond the shadow of a mahoygen.
THE GOLDEN AGE OF TELEVISION: A Criterion Collection release. $49.95.
ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS: SEASON FOUR: A Universal Home Entertainment release. $39.98.
THE JERRY LEWIS SHOW COLLECTION: ]An Infinity Entertainment release. $24.98.
NEW AND NOTABLE
ANGELS & DEMONS (Sony Home Entertainment. $36.98): With its combination of an incoherently screwy plot, one-dimensional characters, dialogue that sounds as if it has been put through an imperfect Babelfish translation program at least three times before being put in the mouths of the actors, characters frantically trying to piece together a number of seemingly inexplicable clues, a generally cynical depiction of ordinarily revered institutions and a series of gruesome and thematically-linked murders (including one in which much damage is rendered upon someone’s eyeball), this follow-up to “The Da Vinci Code” (in which brilliant symbologist Tom Hanks runs around the Vatican trying to decipher a series of ancient clues before something or other happens) resembles nothing so much on the surface as it does a typical outing from legendary Italian horror director Dario Argento. Alas, like the first film, it has been directed by Ron Howard and he somehow takes all of these potentially juicy elements and transforms them in something so deadly dull and dopey that it may actually be worse than the previous installment.
A CHRISTMAS TALE (The Criterion Collection. $39.95): In the last few years, French director Arnaud Desplechin has vaulted into the ranks of the top names on the international cinema scene thanks to films like “Esther Kahn” and “Kings and Queens.” This time around, he returns with a sprawling saga in which a dysfunctional family reunites for the holidays when it is revealed that the matriarch is in desperate need of a bone marrow transplant. Of course, there is a lot more to this comedy-drama than that but even though it doesn’t quite hit the emotional peaks that it is reaching for (mostly because at 150 minutes, it runs on too long for its own good), the incredible cast that Desplechin has brought together (including Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Devos, Jean-Paul Roussillon, Chiara Mastroianni and Catherine Deneuve) help to keep things always watchable.
DEADLINE (First Look Studios. $28.95): In this direct-to-video horror film, Brittany Murphy plays a screenwriter who retreats to a remote Victorian home to recover from a recent mental breakdown and to complete work on her latest screenplay before its fast-approaching deadline. Needless to say, things don’t go according to plan once she encounters some strange apparitions and uncovers some old videotapes in the attic that may offer some clues as to what happened to the couple (Thora Birch and Marc Blucas) who were the previous tenants.
FOUR CHRISTMASES (New Line Home Entertainment. $28.98): Apparently hell-bent on demonstrating that he could produce and star in a holiday film even worse than his “Fred Claus,” Vince Vaughn spearheaded this ugly, obnoxious and painfully unfunny lump of cinematic coal (in that it is at its best when being burned) in which he and Reese Witherspoon play a self-absorbed couple who are forced to visit all of their divorced parents (Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Mary Steenburgen and Jon Voight) on Christmas Day when their vacation plans fall through. It is hard to say what is the worst thing about this film--is it the unpleasant slapstick (including a bit in which Witherspoon is kicked in the stomach when we are meant to think she is pregnant), the even-more-unpleasant stabs at sentiment or the endless scenes in which the increasingly obnoxious Vaughn stops things dead to go off on one extended verbal riff after another while the other actors all but stare at their watches while waiting for him to wrap things up? I don’t know but there is no way I am ever sitting through it again in this lifetime in order to answer that question.
GOMORRAH (The Criterion Collection. $39.95): Through the eyes of a group of disparate characters, this sprawling and uncommonly fascinating Italian drama examines the ways in which Naples’ organized crime industry (known as the Camorra) has managed to infiltrate its way into nearly every aspect of daily life ranging from the expected criminal enterprises to an alleged major investment in the planned rebuilding of the World Trade Center. Just in case you think that this is all just a lot of fictional nonsense, it should be noted that Roberto Saviano, the author of the book that the film is based on, has been living with round-the-clock police protection since his work was published a couple of years ago and a mob snitch recently testified in court that the Camorra intended to have him killed before the end of the year.
THE INDIAN (E1 Entertainment. $24.98): Hey, did you hear the one about the troubled teen, the long-lost father and the sexy mechanic who find themselves bonding and coming to terms with themselves and each other while rebuilding a classic 1917 Indian motorcycle? Well, if you haven’t, it is all here in this 2007 direct-to-DVD drama.
KOBE DOIN WORK (Buena Vista Home Entertainment. $29.99): Perhaps realizing that it will probably be a long time before his beloved New York Knicks do anything worthy of being commemorated on film (other than the occasional blooper reel), Spike Lee takes his cameras (30 of them, to be precise) to the West Coast for this look at the 2008 NBA Western Conference finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and the San Antonio Spurs through the eyes of Lakers star player Kobe Bryant. Although originally commissioned for ESPN, this is much more than just a puff piece designed to celebrate a famous athlete--Lee’s approach actually gives viewers a fascinating glimpse at what goes into a high-pressure athletic event that even non-jocks will find compelling.
LIFE ON MARS: SERIES TWO (Acorn Media. $59.99): No, this is not the American version of the trippy sci-fi/cop drama about a contemporary cop who is hit by a car and wakes up 30 years in the past and goes about solving crimes in a decidedly low-tech manner while trying to figure out what happened to him--that wound up going to the place where most things featuring Gretchen Mol do and has already made its DVD debut. This is the second and final season of the fairly brilliant British original and those who are only familiar from it because of the remake are advised to check out both this collection and the previously released first season because it is one of the most clever and intriguing shows to appear on either side of the pond in the past decade. Other TV-related DVDs being released this week include “Better Off Ted: The Complete First Season” (Fox Home Entertainment. $29.98), “Beverly Hills, 90210: Season Eight” (CBS DVD. $59.99), “Hogan’s Heroes: The Komplete Series, Kommandant’s Kollection” (CBS DVD. $179.99), “Law & Order: Criminal Intent--Season Four” (Universal Home Entertainment. $59.98), “Melrose Place: Season Five, Volume Two” (CBS DVD. $36.99), “Mental” (Fox Home Entertainment. $49.98), “Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XVI” (Shout! Factory. $64.99), “Saturday Night Live: Season Five” (Universal Home Entertainment. $69.98) and “The Spike Jones Show” (Infinity Entertainment. $29.98).
LIVE! (The Weinstein Company Home Entertainment. $19.97): In an effort to score higher ratings for her network, TV executive Eva Mendes hits upon the brilliant idea of turning Russian Roulette into a game show in this documentary that is just another retread of the likes of “The Running Man,” “Series 9” and too many other heavy-handed media critiques to list here.
THE MAIDEN HEIST (Sony Home Entertainment. $16.97): Despite the presence of such heavy hitters as Morgan Freeman, Christopher Walken and William H. Macy, this comedy about three museum guards who learn that their favorite pieces are being thoughtlessly shipped off to Denmark and conspire to steal them and replace them with replicas never made it into theaters. I suppose it is easy to see why--it is fairly silly and completely insubstantial--but the performances from the three stars (as well as Marcia Gay Harden as Walken’s wife) are amusing enough to help make it reasonably amusing, provided that you aren’t looking for anything more than that.
MY ONE AND ONLY ($19.99): Inspired by the formative years of Hollywood icon (for lack of a better term) George Hamilton, this coming-of-age film depicts him as a young man (Logan Lerman) who, along with his brother, goes on an extended road trip with his free-spirited mother (Renee Zellweger) as she goes on a cross-country search for a rich new suitor to marry and marvels as she goes from one to the next without ever losing her feisty spirit or belief that everything will work out in the end for her and her brood. Alas, anyone watching her misadventures will find it hard to work up the same kind of indefatigable spirit because this is pretty much a groaner from beginning to end--the whole thing feels like a literal road company production of “Auntie Mame” and Zellweger so overdoes her Southern dynamo shtick (her work in “Cold Mountain” was quiet and restrained by comparison) that by the time it finally comes to an end, you may find yourself never wanting to see her again.
NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM: BATTLE OF THE SMITHSONIAN (Fox Home Entertainment. $29.98): This is strange--I know that I saw this sequel to the enormously popular “Night at the Museum” but outside of the basic gimmick of the artifacts of the Smithsonian coming to life before the eyes of Ben Stiller, I don’t remember a single thing about it. In this case, I am going to assume that this is a good thing and simply move on.
SHORTS (Warner Home Entertainment. $28.98): Unfortunately, I haven’t yet forgotten this incredibly obnoxious family-oriented misfire from Robert Rodriguez following a group of kids and their parents (including the slumming likes of William H. Macy, Leslie Mann and James Spader) whose lives are turned upside-down when they encounter a space rock with the power to grant wishes. Lacking the charm and ingenuity of his “Spy Kids” franchise, Rodriguez simply tosses out one not-so-good idea after another and the result is a loud and dumb mess that will bore anyone under the age of 10 and annoy everyone else.
TERMINATOR SALVATION (Warner Home Video. $28.98): Although most people went into this continuation of the long-running “Terminator” franchise under the assumption that the biggest problems with it would be the PG-13 rating and the presence of uber-hack McG in the director’s chair, the biggest flaw is that it never for a single moment makes a convincing argument for its own existence. This is a story that came to an entirely satisfying conclusion nearly 18 years ago and there is nothing in this loud, dumb, brutish, ugly and mechanical mess that suggests otherwise. Lacking all the things that made the “Terminator” films so notable--stunning action, dark humor, compelling characters and, oh yeah, Terminators--this is a heartless bit of mayhem that feels as if it was produced by Skynet itself rather than by actual human beings. Even worse, they didn’t even have the wit to include Christian Bale’s legendary behind-the-scenes meltdown as one of the bonus features.
TOI ET MOI (Koch Video. $24.98): In this romantic comedy-drama from France, Julie Depardieu plays a writer of romantic fiction who uses her work as a way of escaping her own relationship problems and Marion Cotillard plays her sister, who own romantic escapades help fuel her fictional endeavors. For the most part, this is standard-issue French fluff but as such things go, it isn’t too bad and is helped immeasurably by the charming contributions of its two lead actresses.
AIR AMERICA (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $19.99)
ANGEL HEART (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $19.99)
BLOOD: THE LAST VAMPIRE (Manga Entertainment. $29.97)
CUJO (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $19.99)
FRAILTY (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $19.99)
GHOST IN THE SHELL 2.0 (Manga Entertainment. $29.97)
THE GREEN MILE (Warner Home Video. $34.99)
GREMLINS (Warner Home Video. $28.99)
LOCK STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS (Universal Home Entertainment. $26.98)
THE MASK OF ZORRO (Sony Home Entertainment. $24.96)
THE MONSTER SQUAD (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $19.99)
MY BLOODY VALENTINE (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $19.99)
MY BRILLIANT CAREER (Blue Underground. $29.99)
SECONDHAND LIONS (New Line Home Entertainment. $28.99)
SNATCH (Sony Home Entertainment. $28.99)
THE SOPRANOS: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (HBO Home Entertainment. $69.98)
THE WAY OF THE GUN (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $19.99)