By Gary Dretzka Dretzka@moviecitynews.com
The DVD Gift Guide
Now that we’ve put Black Friday and Cyber Monday in our rear-view mirrors, it’s time to consider the gift that keeps on giving: entertainment. The DVD/Blu-ray economy is such that the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas no longer is reserved for the release of special and collector’s editions, boxed sets and videos with toys attached to them. Neither did one need to wait until Black Friday for the best deals. Here are few titles that have arrived recently or didn’t arrive for the normal consideration. If the recipient of your generosity doesn’t yet own a Blu-ray player, however, I recommend starting there.
The Incredible Mel Brooks: An Irresistible Collection of Unhinged Comedy
Steve Martin: The Television Stuff
Get a Life: The Complete Series
Today, when it comes to comedy, gifters need look any further than the Shout!Factory website for ideas. Just as radio introduced listeners to the top comedians of the first half of the 20th Century, comedy and other spoken-word albums served the same purpose in the latter half. An entire generation of Baby Boomer comics honed its collective sense of humor on albums by Bill Cosby, Bob Newhart, Redd Foxx, George Carlin, Dick Gregory, Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Tom Leher, Lord Buckley, Shelly Berman, Nichols & May and Firesign Theater. This was especially true for those of us too young to enter nightclubs, travel to Las Vegas and the Catskills, or stay up long enough watch Johnny Carson. HBO and Showtime’s comedy showcases would fuel the 1980s’ comedy-club boom, just as YouTube, dedicated apps and genre-specific satellite-radio stations would hasten the evolution.
More than any other label, Shout!Factory is releasing the kind of DVDs and CDs that allow today’s generation of performers to examine their roots and gain an understanding of what’s made people laugh for the last 100 years. In its essential Ernie Kovacs collections and the revelatory “Lenny Bruce: Let the Buyer Beware,” alone, Shout!Factory as effectively bridged three generations of comedy aficionados.
The multitalented Mel Brooks has been making people laugh for more than 60 years. Unlike such Methuselan comics as George Burns, Milton Berle and Bob Hope, Brooks hasn’t had to rely on audiences nurtured on vaudeville for his fan base. After serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, he made a modest living playing piano and drums at various Borscht Belt resorts. When one of the featured comedians called in sick the Brooklyn-born entertainer volunteered his services. His first offstage gig came writing for Sid Caesar, whose “Your Show of Shows” and “Caesar’s Hour” would benefit as well from the contributions of Carl Reiner, Neil and Danny Simon, Mel Tolkin and Larry Gelbart. Before getting into the movie racket, he and Reiner originated their wonderful “2,000 Year Old Man” routine and Brooks would collaborate with Buck Henry on the 007 parody, “Get Smart.” Sending up Hollywood film genres came naturally to Brooks. “The Producers,” “Blazing Saddles,” “Young Frankenstein,” “High Anxiety,” “History of the World, Part 1” and Spaceballs” continue to be discovered and enjoyed by comedy lovers. Thirty-three years after “The Producers” was awarded an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, his theatrical adaptation of it won three Tonys. The honor made him one of the few performers to claim an Oscar, Tony, Grammy and Emmy.
The six-disc, 660-minute DVD set, “The Incredible Mel Brooks: An Irresistible Collection of Unhinged Comedy,” examines his career through interviews, talk-show appearances, short films, documentaries, tributes, songs and clips from his television, film and theater work. The discs also contain countless anecdotes recalled by friends, collaborators, actors and other admirers. It’s very funny stuff. The boxed set includes the featurettes, “Mel Brooks and Dick Cavett Together Again,” “I Thought I Was Taller: A Short History of Mel Brooks,” “In the Beginning: The Caesar Years,” “Excavating the 2,000-Year-Old Man” and “Mel and His Movies”; appearances on “The Tonight Show, Starring Johnny Carson” and “The Dick Cavett Show”; episodes of “Get Smart,” “When Things Were Rotten” and “Mad About You”; award-winning short films and commercial; a CD with long-lost comedy bits and songs from his movies; and a 60-page book with photos, program notes and essays by Leonard Maltin, Gene Wilder, Bruce Jay Friedman and Robert Brustein.
Steve Martin would follow a similar route to stardom. The three-disc, 390-minute “Steve Martin: The Television Stuff” sidesteps most discussion about Martin’s nearly 35-year film career in order to focus on his rise to fame as a standup comedian and his many memorable appearances on television variety shows. Like Brooks, Martin has excelled as a TV writer, actor, comedian, musician, essayist, novelist, playwright and producer. Lately, he’s even become something of a professional tweeter. The Borscht Belt may not have been available to the Garden Grove teenager, but Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm offered him stages to hone his skills as a magician, juggler and creator of balloon animals. These skills would serve him well when he turned from writing – for the Smother Brothers, John Denver, Sonny & Cher, among others — to performing before stadium-sized audiences. His comedy routines were described as “absurdist” and “ironic,” but, watching them now, it’s easy to see how they were zany extensions of what he did at Disneyland. Audience members related to the silliness of it all because they’d enjoyed, feared or ridiculed the same shtick at countless birthday parties, amusement parks and bar mitzvahs. Television proved to be the perfect medium for such self-effacing material. It played well on “Johnny Carson” and even better on “Saturday Night Live,” where he was surrounded by kindred spirits. Alongside Richard Pryor and George Carlin, Martin was responsible for reinvigorating the nearly lost art of standup comedy. The Shout!Factory compilation includes more than six hours of standup routines and shows, television specials, guest appearances and interviews. The most welcome additions here are his four NBC sketch-comedy specials, one of which was totally devoted to commercials. There’s also “On Location With Steve Martin (Live at the Troubadour, 1976)”; “Homage to Steve,” including “The Absent-Minded Waiter” short and “Steve Live at the Universal Amphitheatre, 1979”; interviews; introductions; and music videos.
Although the Fox sitcom “Get a Life” only lasted a total of two years and 35 episodes, its lineage can be traced backward, as far back as 1951, and forward to comedy shows on all of today’s cable networks today. In 1991, when the show launched, its star and co-creator, Chris Elliott, was best known as “the guy under the seats” or “the fugitive guy,” “the conspiracy guy” and “Marlon Brando,” among other recurring characters on “Late Night With David Letterman.” On “Get a Life,” Elliott played a 30-year-old paperboy who lives with his parents, interjects himself into the lives of friends and relatives, and refuses to accept any of the responsibilities of adulthood. He’s a slacker’s slacker and, as co-creator David Mirkin has said, was somewhat modeled after the comic-book character Dennis the Menace.
On the show, Chris Peterson’s father, Fred, is played by Elliott’s real-life father, Bob Elliott, one half of the brilliant comedy team, Bob & Ray. Their TV show, which co-starred Cloris Leachman and Audrey Meadows, aired concurrently with “Your Show of Shows.” In 1994-95, Elliott appeared in various roles on 20 episodes of “Saturday Night Live,” where his daughter, Abby, was a cast member from 2008 to May, 2012, and Bob appeared in 1978. Writers on “Get a Life” included the ubiquitous writer/actor Bob Odenkirk; Charlie Kaufman, writer of “Adaptation” and “Being John Malkovich; Jace Richdale, writer and co-executive producer of “Dexter”; and Mirkin, a producer of “The Simpsons.” The set adds a conversation with Mirkin, Richdale and writer/producers Steve Pepoon; a new featurette with James L. Brooks, Judd Apatow and Peter Chernin; a special commentary with psychologist Dr. Wendy Walsh, analyzing Chris Peterson’s mental issues; an alternate audio version without laugh track on select episodes; additional commentaries on every episode; and a discussion with cast and crew at Paleyfest 2000.
The Dark Knight Trilogy: Blu-ray
Only time will tell if the movie version of Batman (a.k.a., the Bat-Man, Caped Crusader, Dark Knight) returns to the megaplex. If it were up to Time Warner shareholders, there would be a new installment every three or four years, like “James Bond” and “Spider-Man.” The final scene in “The Dark Knight Rises” leaves room for conjecture – as does the introduction of a young crime-fighter played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt – even if director Christopher Nolan has already said that his participation in the franchise in complete. Certainly, no one is anxious to return to the days when the media paid more attention to the casting of the Joker and the Riddler than to whom played Batman or what the addition of nipples and codpieces to the Bat-costumes was meant to imply. The question before us today, however, is what to buy the rabid Caped Crusader fan on your list: the new Blu-ray edition of “The Dark Knight Rises,” alone, or “The Black Knight Trilogy,” with all three of Nolan’s installments. I suspect that a super-duper edition lurks somewhere down the road with all of the theatrical releases and a collectible mask and model of the Batmobile. One thing at a time, though.
“The Dark Knight Rises” was greeted with critical raves and a $1-billion return at box offices worldwide. It is set eight years after the devastating climax of “The Dark Knight,” after the Joker sicced the dogs of hell on Batman and he was scapegoated in the death of duplicitous District Attorney Harvey Dent. Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne has lost the ability to focus on his personal fortune and the leadership of Wayne Enterprises. He has withdrawn into a psychological Batcave of his own making and lost his super-strength. It is until Wayne becomes convinced that the only thing standing between the secure future of Gotham City and a takeover by the devious terrorist, Bane (Tom Hardy), is the return of Batman from self-imposed exile. It’s to Nolan’s credit that he’s created a Batman we could simultaneously trust with our lives and fear might succumb to his deepest, darkest demons, unable to distinguish between good, evil and shades of gray. On one side of him stand Commissioner Gordon, Lucius Fox and Alfred, who know what really happened to Two-Face (Dent), while the other side is populated with question marks disguised as business associates and potential lovers. Nothing complicates the life of a great man as much as the addition of a beautiful woman to his universe. Here, there are two such beings. Board member Miranda (Marion Cotillard) convinces Wayne to invest in a clean-energy device that may be more dangerous to society than beneficial and the cat burglar Selina (Anne Hathaway), who’s playing on both sides of Wayne’s fence. Beaten, bowed and sent to an infamous underground prison by Bane, Wayne must finally decide if he wants to put his life on the line once again for an ungrateful Gotham City or crawl back into the shadows.
When viewed as a unified whole, Nolan’s trilogy becomes the “War and Peace” of superhero movies. Almost nothing that happens in “Batman Begins,” “The Dark Knight” and “The Dark Knight Rises” is insignificant to the collected opus. One either buys into Nolan’s grand design or looks for something in the movies that is less cosmic, such as Heath Ledger’s Joker, Liam Neeson’s Ra’s al Ghul, Cillian Murphy’s Scarecrow or Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Rachel. The “Trilogy” collection contains all three feature films, two discs of bonus material and a 64-page excerpt from “The Art and Making of the Dark Knight Trilogy.” The supplementary features on “Dark Knight Rise,” alone, include a documentary on the Batmobile; the multipart making-of doc, “Ending the Knight”; character studies; “The End of a Legend”; an art gallery; and UltraViolet.
Watchmen Collector’s Edition: Ultimate Cut + Graphic Novel: Blu-ray
Just as “The Godfather” trilogy has been sent out in radically different version’s – theatrical, chronological cut, director’s cut, director’s restoration – Zach Snyder’s adaptation of writer Alan Moore and illustrator Dave Gibbons’ near-mythic graphic novel continues has grown like Topsy. This isn’t to imply that “Watchmen” is comparable artistically or commercially to Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola’s gangster epic, because they exist virtually on two different planets. It is accurate to say, however, that devotees of both books live and die with each new film adaptation and re-interpretation of the original. Fortunately for everyone involved in “The Godfather,” its appeal wasn’t limited to a cult following or genre loyalists. Not having read the graphic novel or watched any version of the movie, I can only base my opinion on the back-and-forth on blogs, movie-review sites and my own screening of the so-called “Ultimate Cut.” Between the 128-minute theatrical edition, 168-minute “special edition,” the 186-minute director’s cut (“The End Is Nigh Complete Experience” and “Night Owl Ship” packages), 215-minute “Ultimate Cut,” the 26-minute stand-alone “Tales of the Black Freighter & Under the Hood” and 325-minute “The Complete Motion Comic,” there’s plenty of room for debate. “Watchmen Collector’s Edition: Ultimate Cut + Graphic Novel” weaves “Tales of the Black Freighter” through the “Ultimate Cut,” while also adding a handsome hardcover edition of the novel, a DVD version, a separate disc with special features, “The Complete Motion Graphic,” UltraViolet capability and a snazzy 3D cover photo. All in all, that’s a pretty good starter kit for anyone interested in getting into the superhero game on its darkest side.
Adults unfamiliar with either the novel or the movie might have a difficult time coming to grips with the “alternative history” offered by Moore. In it, superheroes who actively supported the United States in World War II and Vietnam — helping us win both conflicts – have been put out to pasture. By the time Richard Nixon was about to enter his fifth administration they’d practically become answers to trivia questions. Fearing their power and ethical stance, the government banned new ones from exercising their given talents. This, even as the nuclear Doomsday Clock clicked steadily toward midnight. Even so, the only thing standing between a war between the U.S. and Soviet Union has been the supercharged superhero, Doctor Manhattan, who could wipe both entities out before their red buttons could be triggered. It seems as if world leaders itching for another major conflagration, however, and the vacuum created by the lack of superheroes has opened the door to supervillains. It’s the new, clandestine generation of superheroes who are left to deal with the threat from within their own ranks. “Watchmen” was published in response to such world leaders as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, who, in Moore’s estimation, represented the watchmen who needed watching more than anyone else. Snyder’s adaptation is considered to be true to Moore’s vision and there’s no questioning the Blu-ray’s visual and sonic force. The special features included in the boxed set are abundant, as well. I suppose that someone somewhere is already planning a 3D version of “Watchmen.” It should arrive at about the same time as “The Godfather 3D.”
Lawrence of Arabia: 50th Anniversary Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
If I were put in charge of the home-theater department of a large electronics store, the first thing I’d do would be to show the new Blu-ray edition of “Lawrence of Arabia” on every HDTV unit that wasn’t already showing a Disney “Diamond Edition” title or “Titanic 3D.” If these movies can’t move products, nothing will. Obviously, “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Titanic” are best served on the largest available screen in a digitally equipped theater. Given that the odds against that happening again anytime soon are prohibitive, even a modestly priced home-theater unit provides a decent option. Everything about the “50th Anniversary Collector’s Edition” is stunning; the deep blue of the sky against the bright gold of the sand; Sherif Ali ibn el Kharish emerging from the shimmering heat of the desert on his way to “his” well; the magnificent vistas; and, far from least, the brilliant whiteness of Lawrence’s tunic and kufiyya. I was reminded of the rumors that swirled in 1963 that subliminal plugs for Coca-Cola were strategically inserted into the desert scenes to encourage runs to the concessions stand. Sonically, the presentation is similarly impeccable: the charging hoofs of the horses and camels as they approach Aqaba; the echoes that accompany Lawrence’s singing; the motorcycles’ throaty roar; and even haunting silence of the desert night. At 227 minutes, the story is never less than compelling.
Here, buyers can choose between the two-disc Blu-ray package, with the same technical specs and enough bonus features to keep a buff busy for hours, and the super-duper four-disc “Limited Collector’s Edition.” In addition to a second disc of bonus features, it contains a soundtrack CD, commemorative 70mm film frame and a coffeetable book. The tendency is for American audiences to see in T.E. Lawrence a larger-than-life costumed superhero, whose accomplishments were limited to a specific time and place. One thing I was surprised to learn while watching a bio-doc of American spy boss William Colby is that Lawrence’s “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” is still considered essential reading by members of our spook community.
Cinderella Trilogy Limited Edition Blu-ray and Collectible Jewelry Box
While I was duly impressed by Disney’s “Cinderella Diamond Edition,” upon its release early last month, I suspect that the little princesses on your list will be more impressed with the bounty of treasures to be found in the “Limited Edition Collectible Jewelry Box.” Technically, it would be difficult to find a more spectacular rendition of any classic fairy tale. In addition to the 1950 original feature, the package includes “Cinderella II: Dreams Come True” and “Cinderella III: Twist in Time” on Blu-ray and DVD, and a digital copy of “Cinderella.” The discs are contained in a storybook that fits inside a beautifully crafted jewelry box. Other bonus features include the “Tangled Ever After,” animated short; “Behind the Magic: A New Disney Princess Fantasyland”; an introduction by Diane Disney Miller; the “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-You” Disney Second Screen experience; “The Magic of the Glass Slipper: A Cinderella Story”; and DisneyView.
Desperate Housewives: The Complete Collection Deluxe Edition
Sassy, sexy and completely unexpected, ABC scored a direct hit when it added Marc Cherry’s “Desperate Housewives” to its Sunday night lineup in October, 2004. Equal parts dark comedy and soapy drama, the show immediately became the season’s water-cooler sensation, inspiring the reality series “The Real Housewives of Orange County” and a half-dozen other city-specific shows starring horrifying American gold-diggers. It’s worth recalling that the “Desperate Housewives” characters were decidedly middle class, if only in the way Hollywood producers see that sector of society. (Incredibly, many profess being middle class themselves.) Blessedly, too, stars Teri Hatcher, Felicity Huffman, Marcia Cross, Eva Longoria, Nicollette Sheridan often provided fans with off-set gossip to savor. “Desperate Housewives: The Complete Collection Deluxe Edition” arrives in a sturdy travel case, containing all eight seasons’ worth of episodes, representing an astounding 7,700 minutes of entertainment on 45 discs (sorry, purists, they’re inserted into dreaded slip cases). Inside an apple-shaped sleeve is a bonus disc with the featurettes “The End of the Lane: Last Days on Set,” “Curtain Call: The Desperate Housewives Family,” “Cherry Cam(eo),” “Desperately Dead” and some new supplementary material from Seasons 3 and 5. Cherry adds a fancy-looking letter to fans.
Marvel Knights: Astonishing X-Men: Blu-ray Set
Here’s the perfect gift for anyone who gets antsy whenever there isn’t a superhero movie playing at the local megaplex and their favorite video store has nothing new to offer. Shout!Factory has packaged four motion-comic arcs from the “Marvel Knights: Astonishing X-Men” series and made them available in Blu-ray for the first time. A creation of the hugely prolific Joss Whedon (“The Avengers”) and Eisner Award-winning artist John Cassaday, the motion comics were released on Hulu, iTunes and the PlayStation Store before sent out on DVD. Blu-ray adds yet another level of fun. The two-disc Blu-ray collection contains 280 minutes of Mutant-specific entertainment, including interviews with producer Joe Quesada and veteran artist Neal Adams; a behind-the-scenes look at Marvel Knights Animation; and an original music video. The story arcs include: “Gifted,” in which Dr. Kavita Rao develops a controversial mutant “cure” and the X-Men once again find themselves battling science, prejudice and a new alien foe; “Dangerous,” which requires the Mutants to find a mole with access to secret records; “Torn,” in which Emma Frost’s erratic behavior has the X-Men spinning in a nonstop downward spiral; and “Unstoppable,” during which the X-Men are required to protect the Earth from its destruction at the hands of the Breakworld.
Harold & Kumar: Ultimate Collector’s Edition: Blu-ray
The ideal recipient for “Harold & Kumar: Ultimate Collector’s Edition” is someone who’s pulled himself away from his Xbox long enough to gather signatures for a petition to legalize marijuana. Harold (John Cho) and Kumar (Kal Penn) are the Cheech & Chong of the Millennial Generation, the only difference being that they’re college educated and the THC level of the pot smoked is exponentially higher. The new collection arrives in a tin container, which probably relates to something in one of the duo’s movies, but I have no idea what it might be. Contained therein are “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle” (2004), “Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay” (2008) and the 2D Blu-ray version of “A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas” (2011). They are accompanied by extended cuts of the “H&K” epic adventurers, as well as a sled load of supplementary materials. This ‘highly flammable” set also offers White Castle-scented car fresheners and White Castle-scented drink coasters.” I get hungry just thinking about it.
Anyone who’s considering gifting a friend or relative with the excellent PBS documentary series, “Broadway: The American Musical,” may also think about tossing in “Oklahoma!,” which releases on December 4. The warhorse musical has been trotted out more times in its 70-year lifetime than there are trailer parks in danger of being blown away by tornadoes in the southern Plains. The new Blu-ray adapts the 1999 production of “Oklahoma!,” which was directed by Trevor Nunn for London’s Royal National Theater. Of more general interest is the appearance of the multitalented Aussie Hugh Jackman, as Curly, a year before he broke through to the masses as Wolverine, in “X-Men.” Nunn restored Oscar Hammerstein’s more dramatic full text, which isn’t always the case when performed in the hinterlands. Also crucial to the production’s success were choreographer Susan Stroman (“The Producers”) and cast members Maureen Lipman, Peter Polycarpou, Shuler Hensley, Josefina Gabrielle and Vicki Simon.
History: Ancient Egypt Anthology
History: Ancient Rome Anthology
History: UFO Archives
It’s said that youth is wasted on the young. The same can be said of a college education. I don’t know how history is currently taught to rooms full of bored, overindulged and hung over students, but I hope it’s every bit as interesting as the many non-fiction shows on cable TV that make learning fun. DVDs released under the History banner are especially easy on the eye and light on the brain, as they’re informed by CGI re-creations of important sites, re-enactments of landmark events and the testimony of professors and archeologists whose mere presence puts students to sleep. Even better, you’re not required to take notes.
“Ancient Egypt Anthology” and “Ancient Rome Anthology” extend the various History franchises by culling material from episodes of several of the network’s series. The six discs in “Ancient Egypt” cover the period between the nation’s unification in approximately 3100 B.C. to its conquest by Alexander the Great in 332 B.C. It explores the technology, religion, culture, wars, peace and significant individuals that contributed to the dynasties’ cultural, scientific and architectural greatness. And, yes, this does include virtual tours of the pyramids and other monuments. I’d be willing to bet that most of what we think we know about the Roman Empire comes from Shakespeare, high school Latin, Hollywood epics and, more recently, such sex-and-sandals mini-series as “Spartacus.” The 11-hour “Ancient Rome” adds much needed context and historical background to the roles played by Crassus, Pompey, Julius Caesar, Caligula, Hannibal, Alexander the Great and the real Spartacus. Among other things, CGI graphics allow us to visit the catacombs and survey the 50,000 miles of stone-paved roads that crossed three continents.
I’d be very surprised to learn that UFO-logy is being taught in our universities, but, then, if a course on the films of Keanu Reeves can be justified, why not extraterrestrials? History has long been in the vanguard of quasi-educational entities dedicated to promoting the likelihood that we’re not alone in the universe. “UFO Archives” revisits Roswell, Area 51, alien abductions, Shag Harbour, numerous government conspiracy theories, the Majestic 12, SETI program and inter-galactic transport. The discussions may be channeled through the theories of believers, but the arguments of skeptics and non-believers also are given full weight. Ironically, perhaps, the six-disc set weighs in at 15-plus hours, four more than the time devoted to the separate histories of Rome and Egypt. Make of that what you may. The sets add bonus material, as well.