Yearly Archives: 2012

David Blaine: Decade of Magic

Posted on December 31, 2012 at 2:53 pm

In 10 Words or Less
Endurance artist tries his hand at magic

Reviewer’s Bias*
Loves: Magic
Likes: David Blaine, Criss Angel
Dislikes: The hip magician attitude, the focus on endurance stunts
Hates: Not knowing how he does it

The Story So Far…
David Blaine’s been one of the best-known American magicicians over the last decade, thanks to a series of network television specials and several attention-grabbing feats of endurance, as well as his quiet, intense personality. Three of his specials were collected on the 2002 DVD “David Blaine: Fearless.” DVDTalk has a review of that release.

The Shows
At the risk of sounding like a magic hipster, Criss Angel and David Blaine were at their best as magicians when they were first on their way to the big time. I frequently tell the story of catching Angel in a small basement theater in New York City, and having the single best time I’ve had at a magic show. While not the same, I remember being utterly amazed watching Blaine’s 1997 TV debut in Street Magic. Unfortunately, in the years that have passed since then, both men have seemingly put more of a focus on their mysterious personas than their amazing magic, even if it would be hard to find anyone much better at their craft.

What made Blaine such an innovator and an instant star was partially his dark, brooding personality (and lets face it, his dark, brooding good looks) and partially his focus on up-close street magic, performing his magic directly to small audiences and the camera, stripping the art of its glitz and flamboyance, giving it an extra coating of gritty authenticity, perfect for an era defined by reality TV and YouTube. Watching a magician in a showy tuxedo on a Vegas-style stage performing a disappearance is easy to explain away as show-biz. Having the magician standing a foot from the audience makes the magic all the more real (even if it depends on the camera even more.) Thus. you get plenty of sleight of hand tricks, along with some mental manipulation and a few odder bits, like exploding glass with his mind, which defy explanation outside of everyone on the special being in on the trick (which, as a magic fan and hopeless optimist about the existence of the supernatural, is not what I want.)

Unfortunately, as Blaine’s fame grew, his focus shifted from magic to endurance, as he put himself through a series of physical and mental challenges, which became the core of his TV specials. The main issue for many when it came to these tests where their very static nature. In each, he was basically staying still while combating some sort of obstacle, be it height, water or a bullet. It’s not the most exciting experience watching someone focus, even if the act itself, in context, is rather impressive. As a result, the three specials on this DVD, Vertigo, Drowned Alive and What is Magic? fill out their time with up-close magic, preparation and goofy stunts, making Blaine into something of a magic Jackass.

Though his grand-scale feats can be a bit boring to watch and certainly formulaic (you can guarantee the big endurance tests will end with Blaine exhausted, held up by his crew and thanking his fans via a tiny microphone) the specials make each one seem like he’s working some sort of messianic miracle, through a combination of man-on-the-street interviews, celebrity endorsements (watch for appearances by Howard Stern, David Arquette and Courtney Cox, Eli Manning and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-her Fiona Apple) and Blaine’s special brand of voiceover philosophy. It all works together to show how Blaine can be all things to all people, whether you see his stunts as man’s ability to overcome his limitations or his magic as a reason to believe in the unknowable. Let’s be thankful he seems satisfied with fame rather than leading his own cult.

The DVDs
This two-disc release arrives in a two-tray digipak (covered in nice artwork) in a foil-embossed, spot-coated slipcover that repeats the cover art. The discs have anamorphic widescreen main menus, with options to play all the specials or select shows. Audio options include English Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 tracks, and while there are no subtitles, closed captioning is included.

The Quality
With the specials having been shot in 2002, 2006 and 2010, there’s a bit of variety in terms of the video quality here, though everything is presented in full-frame format, with some letterboxing here and there (one would think by 2010 we would have been in widescreen, but guess not.) Things improve over time, with the 2010 special naturally looking the most impressive, and the 2002 show looking older than 2002 seems like it should, even if it was 10 years ago. For their age, the images are solid, sporting appropriate color and a decent level of detail, while staying clear of any obvious issues eith compression artifacts.

Delivered with Dolby Digital 2.0 tracks, these specials sound like any TV special from the pre-HD days, with straight-forward, center-balanced audio. Don’t expect anything impressive, like dynamic mixing, and you won’t be disappointed by the presentation.

The Extras
The second disc holds all the extras, starting with a 13:41 featurette on Above the Below, Blaine’s 44 day stay in a clear box by the London Bridge. Like a digest version of the specials, this goes through the prep and ordeal in short order, including a lot about the reaction of the Brits to the stunt, and includes a bonus appearance by Flavor Flav (for some reason.) There was a full special, directed by Harmony Korine (who’s seen in the featurette), but it’s unclear if this is excerpted from that special or a different production.

After his Drowned Alive stunt didn’t go as planned, he gave the old holding his breath trick another try, this time on Oprah Winfrey’s show. This 2:48 clip shows some of the attempt, which was under different rules, and went much longer. It’s also not nearly as interesting, with the camera solidly on Blaine’s fishbowl basically the entire time.

It would interesting to know who booked Blaine to speak at the 2009 TedMed talks in San Diego, where he talked about the physical lengths he goes to for his stunts, but they probably should have taken into consideration what his monotone voice would sound like over his 21-minute appearance. He gets off a few crowd-pleasing jokes, but it can be a bit difficult to listen to.

The disc wraps with two short clips, one of Blaine in various costumes, swimming with Great White Sharks, cleverly titled “Dressed for Dinner” (4:18), while the other is a 2:23 bit of Blaine doing card tricks for kids on a Soweto street. That it’s not too far off from the reaction he gets in some of the specials, says a lot about the universality of magic,

The Bottom Line
David Blaine is an outstanding magician, in both his skills and his presentation, and at his best, he’s simply amazing to watch. The focus here though is his feats of endurance, which may be impressive, but aren’t nearly as entertaining as his tricks, bringing down the overall effect. On the plus side, the quality level is rather high and there’s a decent amount of extras for fans.

Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Check out 1106 – A Moment in Fictional Time or his convention blog called Conning Fellow

*The Reviewer’s Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer’s biases lie on the film’s subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.

Posted in Fun and Games

The Incredible Mel Brooks: An Irresistible Collection Of Unhinged Comedy

Posted on December 29, 2012 at 2:53 pm

In 10 Words or Less
An outstanding, enlightening tribute to a comedy legend

Reviewer’s Bias*
Loves: Mel Brooks, Madeline Kahn, Learning Something New, Blazing Saddles, History of the World, Part I
Likes: High Anxiety, Robin Hood: Men in Tights
Dislikes: Not having new Brooks films to enjoy, lacking historical context
Hates: Not a damn thing here

The Collection
Way back in 2006, I had the opportunity to review The Mel Brooks Collection, an incomplete (thanks to licensing) set of the funnyman’s films, including classics like /Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. After winding my way through that release (and its inevitable Blu-Ray upgrade) I figured that would stand as the ultimate tribute to a man who has made some of the best comedies the world has ever seen. Little did I know that six years later Shout! Factory, hero to the fan of the niche and cult, would raise the ante and release The Incredible Mel Brooks: An Irresistible Collection of Unhinged Comedy a TRUE tribute to the legend, unbound by studio rights or structure.

Before anyone gets confused, this set doesn’t contain any of his timeless feature films. This is an overview/retrospective of Brooks’ work, going back to his days as a writer on television, right through to his latest film and Broadway work. As one of the few people who have walked this planet to achieve EGOT status (winning an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony), Brooks’ career is long and impressive, and this set attempts to span all of it, and actually does a fine job of it, touching on basically everything at one point or another, while obviously focusing on his biggest achievements, namely the early run on television that established him, the famous “2,000 Year Old Man” bit that made him and partner/friend Carl Reiner stars and the films that cemented his place in pop-culture history. Along the way, little rarities are tossed in to round out the vision of Brooks’ career, along with plenty of insight from the man himself, his contemporaries and fans.

With a set as diverse and deep as this, an overview won’t quite cut it, so we’ll go piece by piece to see what The Incredible Mel Brooks has to offer. On many of the elements, there are informative video introductions from Brooks himself (with a guest on one of them), which will be indicated by an asterisk, with a length of the intro. Note: The set is not presented chronologically.

“The Hitler Rap” (1983)
(4:36) *(2:31)
Well, that was quick. Might as well get to Brooks’ offensive material right off the bat, and this very ’80s video featuring glamorous dancing girls sultrily singing “Seig heil,” lithe S&M-inspired German soldiers slinking through and Mr. Tiny Moustache himself leading the way, is probably as offensive as it comes. Even so, the idea of a rapping Fuhrer is ridiculous, and by making it era-appropriate, it just becomes even funnier. That Brooks’ rapping is so catchy is probably the most surprising and impressive thing about this song, which, aside from the lyrics, probably could have made it onto the radio at the time.

Mel Brooks and Dick Cavett Together Again (2010)
(56:20)
Frequent collaborators throughout their careers as interviewer and guest, Cavett and Brooks are a great team, as seen in this HBO special, which took place on stage in Beverly Hills. The two talk about classic stories from Brooks’ life, covering topics like Alfred Hitchcock, Bob Hope, James Cagney having sex, the 2,000 Year Old Man, and Richard Pryor. It’s an incredibly relaxed and therefore open and funny conversation, and even features a guest appearance by Carl Reiner, who’s in the audience. On top of the 56-minute special, There’s also an additional 12:30 of footage that didn’t air, including a bit about Hope and Maurice Chevalier, which is both funny and quite dirty.

The Tracey Ullman Show: “Due Dilligence” (1990)
(10:08)
It’s been a while since I’ve seen an episode of The Tracy Ullman Show, so what struck me immediately is how it doesn’t feel like a sketch show. It’s more of a slice of a sitcom, in this case, a sitcom about a down-on-his-luck producer (Brooks) who has to convince a big star (Ullman) to be in his last-chance movie. Featuring a lot of slapstick, including Brooks’ troubles with a slippery office chair, and roles for the underappreciated Sam McMurray and Dan Castellaneta, it’s a silly bit of work, that while not Brooks at his best, is a welcome flashback.

The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson
(12:54) *(1:25)
I have to confess, I’ve never been much of a fan of Johnny Carson. Yes, I was raised on his talk show, taking my feedings as a baby while he graced NBC, but I always found his show to be a bit stuffy and for him to be a bit smug (though his interactions with animal acts, much like Jimmy Fallon’s, were always funny.) Here, with a true clown on his couch, he’s much funnier, though they are definitely bits, rather than natural interactions, as Brooks shows off his Sinatra imitation, shares a story about Cary Grant and shows up in rags to promote his homelessness film Life Stinks. Either way, Brooks is funny in these clips, coming from across Carson’s career as a host.

Peeping Times (1978)
(4:33) *(1:31)
Another Hitler bit from Brooks, this time from David Frost’s TV newsmagazine parody. In this one, done with collaborators Bary Levinson and Rudy de Luca, Hitler gets a bit meta, as he’s seen in some found home movies, hanging around with Eva Braun. Short and silly, it does the trick without too much excess. Inside Danny Baker (1963)
(25:29)
This is probably the least-known of the material in this set, as it’s a never-picked-up TV pilot from the early 1960s, but it’s got quite a pedigree, with Brooks as the writer (working from source material by the creator of Shrek) and Love Story‘s Arthur Hiller behind the camera. The story of a kid with a big imagination looking to get into the world of modern art (with a cameo from Yankees legend Whitey Ford), it both feels like an early sitcom and doesn’t, as it has a bit of a subversive sense of humor and a voice that’s a bit more interesting than your usual black-and-white slice of suburbia. You’re not likely to return to it often though.

“In The Beginning: The Caesar Years”
(46:26)
Though it is more about Sid Caesar and his Your Show of Shows, it was there that Brooks emerged into a top comedy writer, and looking at his career serves the dual-purpose of exploring Caesar’s legacy and Brooks’ development. This is probably the first time I’ve taken any real consideration of Caesar (who was more of a hack in my lifetime) but this special, which includes clips from a 1996 reunion of the writers, including Reiner, Neil Simon and Larry Gelbart, and scenes from the original series, gives a new appreciation for him and shines light on the foundation of Brooks’ creations.

60 Minutes (2001)
(12:51)
Interviewed by Mike Wallace as his The Producers arrived on Broadway, Brooks turns the tables on the newsman and creates a memorable, hilarious interview, with a look at Brooks’ writing process, rehearsals and his interaction with director Susan Stroman. It’s a classic 60 Minutes piece and offers a delightful bit of fun as they talk about whether the now-iconic show will work on the musical stage.

American Comedy Awards (1991)
(2:35)
Probably the shortest entry in this set, this bit from a tribute to Reiner shows Brooks at the height of his powers, as he jokes about his Jewish background and bashes his pal. Also seen here are Rob Reiner, Kirstie Alley and a bearded Steve Martin. It’s cute but basically inconsequential.

The Critic (1963)
(3:27) *(3:07)
The intro here is nearly as long as the film, an Oscar-winning animated short I was somehow unaware of until this point. It’s presented here in solid form, so you can enjoy an obnoxious old man as he evaluates modern art forming in front of him. It’s a fun, breezy little bit of experimental art, and should appeal to fans of Brooks’ 2,000 Year Old Man especially.

I Thought I was Taller: A Short History of Mel Brooks (1981)
(43:41)
Created by the BBC as History of the World, Part I was coming to theaters, this is a strange little faux documentary, guided in essence by Brooks, and looking at his work and the film it was made to promote. It’s a fun bit of self-deprecating silliness, as the crew struggles alongside Brooks to complete the documentary, as Brooks’ career seems to be spiraling down around him. Well worth watching for fans of mockumentaries.

The Dick Cavett Show (1970/1972)
(20:53)
Whereas I never really enjoyed Carson, Cavett’s long been a favorite of mine, as he’s always seemed fun and cool, never taking things too seriously and quick and clever enough to keep up with the funniest in the business. But what’s best about him is the way he respects the talent he’s interviewing, letting them do their own thing, adding when he sees an opening, without stepping on their toes. With Brooks, he’s at his best in this regard, as seen in the two segments included here.

Commercials
(4:57) *(1:40)
Directed by Brooks, with voiceover on some ads, these commercials for Frito-Lays and Bic Banana pens are amusing, mainly thanks to Brooks’ voice, but they are pretty standard ads. They seem to be here mainly to show a slightly different side of Brooks’ career.

Excavating the 2,000 Year Old Man (2012)
(43:54)
No retrospective of Brooks’ career is complete without a look at the classic character he created with Reiner, and this PBS special, narrated by Chris Parnell, is a near-perfect evaluation of this bit. Featuring clips from various performances, and testimonial from fans like Richard Lewis, Garry Shandling, Bob Newhart and Paul Reiser, it’s a beatifully crafted loveletter to a comedy classic, and an excellent way for newcomers to get to know the routine and appreciate its impact on an industry.

Bonus 2,000 Year Old Man Routines
(13:24)
The bit was never the same, and these three versions, one from an Art Fleming episode of Jeopardy!, one from the Colgate Comedy Hour and one from The Danny Thomas Variety Hour, serve as examples of how Brooks would take the same general structure and concept and tweak it for each re-telling, keeping it fresh and entertaining.

Mel’s Television Debut (1951)
(2:35) *(2:55)
The only time where the intro is longer than the clip, this bit from Texaco Star Theater, features Brooks’ first appearance on TV, but it’s a bit hard to recognize him as the goofy mechanic. Part of the series’ product placement, it’s not the funniest bit ever, but it’s certainly historic and appreciated for its inclusion.

An Audience with… Mel Brooks (1984)
(43:52) *(1:23)
Though presented as a Q&A with an audience, this British special is pretty obviously scripted out to the last detail, as Brooks chats with and about celebrity guests like Ronny Graham, Helen Mirren and Jonathan Pryce, in promotion of To Be or Not to Be. Though the show is awkwardly constructed in its conceit, it is funny, but it’s most memorable for Brooks’ duet with his wife Anne Bancroft on “Sweet Georgia Brown” in Polish.

Wogan (1984)
(16:02)
Terry Wogan’s pretty much unkown to me, but it’s pretty clear from this interview with Brooks that he’s something like a British version of Cavett, able to keep pace with the super witty comic. The best part is when Brooks comes up with a system to help the director cut between cameras, and Wogan rolls right long with him into ridiculous territory.

Mad About You: The Penis (1997)
(22:38)
Like with Carson, I’ve never enjoyed Mad About You. I’ve always found the lead characters, played by Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt, to be incredibly self-absorbed and annoying, in much the same way I’ve viewed the Seinfeld crew. As a result, I never had the opportunity to enjoy Brooks’ appearances on the show. He’s quite enjoyable as Uncle Phil, but to have to suffer through the other characters is asking a lot. I just wondered who the competition was that allowed Brooks to win three Emmys in the role, which is fun, but not world-changing.

The Electric Company (1971-73)
(2:23)
These short animations show Brooks’ character of the Blond-Haired Cartoon Man, who struggles with sentence construction. There’s not a lot to the bit, but again, this seems to be more about being complete than great.

My Son, The Hero Trailer (1963)
(2:03)
Brooks’ trailer for the Italian sword-and-sandals film is better remembered than the film itself, thanks to his work at subverting the genre to create a memorable trailer. I’ve always felt trailers could be more effective if they weren’t just highlights from the film, and this trailer does a long way toward proving me right.

The David Susskind Show: How to Be a Jewish Son (1970)
(28:31)
Sitting down with Susskind, George Segal, David Steinberg, Brooks takes part in one of the most unusual panels seen on TV, as they discuss various aspects of being male and Jewish and the resulting relationship with their mothers. These clips, taken from the overall show, show Brooks’ main contributions to the chat, and represent one of the strangest moments in TV talk history. It’s not even always funny, with a few awkward moments between the panelists, but Brooks tries to keep things light.

Get Smart: Pilot (1965)
(25:34) *(10:46 with Buck Henry)
Sometimes it’s easy to forget that Get Smart was developed by Brooks, since his films were such a bigger part of his career, but one look at this brilliantly hilarious show, starring the great Don Adams and Barbara Felton, will tell you quickly that it fits right in with his other output. The intro with Brooks and Henry is also quite enjoyable, as they talk about the credits issue that arose on the series, diffused with Brooks’ trademark wit.

Hollywood Walk of Fame Induction (2012)
I’ve seen quite a few of these lately, and every time they feel cheesier and slightly creepier, in large part thanks to the Chamber of Commerce personnel running the show. The problem’s been solved here, by going right to the tributes and unveiling, with Brooks’ son Max, Reiner and Brooks himself speaking. As one would expect, you’ve got laughs and genuine emotion working together to create a good time.

When Things Were Rotten: “The French Dis-connection” (1975)
(25:42) *(1:36) Brooks’ first shot at Sherwood Forest was this fun series full of the hallmarks of Brooks’ most popular work. A fun cast (including Sid Caesar in a guest-starring role, along with Dick Van Patten, Dick Gautier and Bernie Koeppell) makes the broad comedy work, while you can see some of the groundwork being laid that would eventually pay off in Men in Tights. Though it didn’t run very long, based on this episode, it seemed like a pretty entertaining show.

New Faces Sketch: “Of Fathers and Sons” (1952)
(7:22) *(3:22)
Featuring Paul Lynde, this is a bizarre little sketch making fun of the relationships between fathers and sons, taken from a movie based on the New Faces Broadway show. Over the top to a degree unseen in the rest of the collection, it’s probably the wackiest Brooks has ever been, and as a result it’s not as funny as his more understated work.

Free to Be…You and Me Sketch: “Boy Meets Girl” (1974)
(3:50) *(1:04) Essentially an afterschool special about tolerance and differences, this show based on Marlo Thomas’ popular work is a bit too earnest to fit in with the rest of this collection, as Brooks and Thomas give voice to puppet babies discovering their genders. It’s cutesy, and has a decent message, but it’s just too message-based to enjoy fully.

Mel and His Movies (2012)
(2 hours, 19 minutes)
The gem of this set, this newly-produced five-part sit-down with Brooks (and occasionally de Luca) is spread across the five DVDs, and is a perfect way to revisit his films, as you get the word right from the man himself. Each part focuses on a couple of his movies, moving forward chronologically, until the fifth part, which features, alongside Robin Hood: Men in Tights, possibly his two least-regarded works, Life Stinks and Dracula: Dead and Loving It. Interestingly, aside from the first part, which looks at The Producers and The Twelve Chairs, the final entry is the longest. Brooks’ has obvious affection for these movies, and his involvement in this set is clear in the attention paid to these productions.

With clips from the movies, mostly big musical moments, interspersed throughout, it’s mainly just Brooks talking, telling old stories and sharing behind-the-scenes info, including his distaste for the corporatization of the movie business, a period of time he saw first-hand, and suffered because of. Though some of the info is well-known to those who have listened to previous Brooks’ commentaries (not to mention several of the entries in this collection) having it all in one place (or rather five closely-situated places) is great, especially since some of these films were never getting the right treatment in terms of special features. It’s hard to say what the best way to enjoy this special is, since fans will want to plow through all five parts in a sitting, but making your way through the set with pitstops on these pieces (which end each disc) gives them a nice sense of pacing.

The DVDs
The five DVDs in this collection, along with a bonus CD, are housed in a square, hardcover 60-page book with thick two-sided envelope pages for the discs in the back. The book features essays from Leonard Maltin, Gene Wilder, writer Bruce Jay Friedman and critic Robert Brustein and full descriptions of all the content in the collection. The Maltin essay is quite good, while the Wilder and Friedman entries are a bit short, and the Brustein piece, which focuses on the Jewish elements in Brooks’ works, was just less interesting. Take a look at the video below to get a better look.

The discs have static anamorphic widescreen menus that list the content you can watch. There are no audio options and no subtitles available.

The Quality
When you’re talking about content that spans seven decades, you’re going to have a spread of quality, and you get everything here from beautifully crisp anamorphic widescreen video to scratchy, grainy full-frame images, and everything in between. Nothing seems dramatically out of place, though nothing is surprisingly sharp (with the possible exception of the beautiful look of the Get Smart episode) and there seems to be no issues with compression artifacts.

The audio is basically the aural equivalent of the video, with tracks from across the spectrum, though nothing you’ll hear will test your system’s capabilities, largely because of the nature of the material. Overall, nothing here will leave you disappointed.

The Extras
In addition to the book and DVDs, there’s a bonus CD of audio content to enjoy. Up first is a recording of Brooks made while he was at the New Schiool in 1947, as he worked on his diction. Though he just reads Keats’ “The Eve of St. Agnes” and a Bible passage, you can hear the personality that would eventually make him a star. There are more rarities in the form of 22 minutes of clips from the 1960s The New Les Crane Show, where Brooks sat in as an immediate critic for the show’s first episodes. It’s an interesting idea, but when you don’t see/here the bits he’s reviewing, it has limited impact. His appearances on Open End with David Susskind and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson from 1964 are more self-contained and therefore more entertaining, though his reparte with Carl Reiner on the 1965 The Celebrity Game is naturally much better, though the show itself doesn’t sound like much fun. Far more entertaining are the commercials for Circus Nuts, where Cavett doesn’t even try to hide his inability to not laugh at Brooks’ historical routines.

Also included are eight songs from Brooks’ films on this disc, which serve to prove just how good a songwriter Brooks is, even when you separate the, from the visuals. “The Inquisition” from History of the World, Part I may just be his best work in both comedy and catchiness. The songs on this disc are:

    • “The Inquisition” (History of the World, Part I)

 

  • “Springtime for Hitler” (The Producers)

 

 

  • “Theme from Blazing Saddles

 

 

  • “I’m Tired” (Blazing Saddles)

 

 

  • “Le Grand Frisson” (the French High Anxiety)

 

 

  • “Men in Tights” (Robin Hood: Men in Tights)

 

 

  • “It’s Good to be the King” (History of the World, Part I)

 

 

  • “Hope for the Best, Expect the Worst” (The Twelve Chairs)

 

 

 

The Bottom Line
As a big fan of Brooks, this set was eye-opening, as you get to see work from across his career, plus a huge amount of self-analysis in the new entries, which offer insight you may not have heard before. The mix of new and old material and the excellent packaging make this a must for the shelves of any Brooks fan, as it’s unlike anything in your collection.

Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Check out 1106 – A Moment in Fictional Time or his convention blog called Conning Fellow

*The Reviewer’s Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer’s biases lie on the film’s subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.

Posted in Fun and Games

Waterloo Road: Series 1

Posted on December 27, 2012 at 2:53 pm

The TV Series

The densely plotted British public school drama Waterloo Road is apparently a big deal in the U.K., where its eighth series is currently running strong. It was produced by Shed Productions, the same outfit responsible for the better-known (here in the U.S., anyhow) Footballers’ Wives. Trading manipulative, sexed-up trophy wives for overburdened teachers and snotty students gives a slight idea of what Waterloo Road deals with in each drama-packed episode.

Waterloo Road‘s ever-present turmoil mostly emanates from the lower middle-class Manchester, England middle school where it is set. In each episode, faculty members’ complex personal lives butt up against their pupils’ misbehaviors and the constant threat of closure due to an apathetic staff and underperforming students. The things that go on in each installment can get overwrought and kinda stupid, sure, but it’s generally done with a thoughtful nuance for portraying complex, intriguing characters. The stories generally focus on the adult faculty members of the school, with the teen population’s myriad problems taking up about a quarter of the show’s running time (you just know that that adult/kid storyline ratio would be reversed if this was an American production).

As Waterloo Road opens at the beginning of a new school year, the old headmaster at the embattled institution is seen crazily tossing around paperwork on the roof of the school’s administrative wing. It is into this boiling cauldron of incompetence that our newly promoted headmaster arrives – presiding over a faculty with so many neuroses of their own, it’s a wonder that any real instruction gets accomplished in the first place. The eclectic cast of characters include:

  • Jack Rimmer (Jason Merrells) – new headmaster at Waterloo Road. Jack is a volatile type who keeps a flask of liquor in his desk, having little patience for disorderly students or faculty that go against the complacency-encouraging grain.
  • Andrew Treneman (Jamie Glover) – Newly hired deputy headmaster and English teacher. Andrew’s strict, regimented teaching method shocks the other faculty members and Jack. Perhaps they had it wrong?
  • Kim Campbell (Angela Griffin) – No-nonsense art teacher who serves as a caring mentor to many of the students. Kim and Andrew share a bit of sexual chemistry between them.
  • Steph Haydock (Denise Welch) – Blowsy, flirtatious French teacher who has a drunken fling with Jack in the second episode. Steph’s casual teaching style will result in dangerous consequences as the season progresses.
  • Tom Clarkson (Jason Done) – Laid-back, rather spineless English teacher who is engaged to one of the other Waterloo Road teachers. Tom carries a torch for another woman, who also happens to work at Waterloo Road, but can’t find the strength to tell his fiancée (later wife) about it.
  • Lorna Dickey-Clarkson (Camilla Power) – Another English teacher, who becomes Tom’s bride in the first episode. Tightly wound, manipulative Lorna essentially guilt-trips Tom into marriage, then further shames him by secretly aborting their baby. All this without suspecting that he’s in love with her best friend.
  • Izzie Redpath (Jill Halfpenny) – Drama teacher and frazzled single mom to two teen girls who also attend Waterloo Road. As if battling the girls’ father for custody rights wasn’t enough, her older daughter gets into a scrape with the law along with her outcast boyfriend. Izzie is also friendly with Tom and Lorna, but that will change when she finds out Tom’s true feelings for her.
  • Chlo Grainger (Katie Griffiths) – Izzie’s petulant daughter, a student at the school. In the first episode, a tragic accident involving her and a few other classmates will land Chlo’s boyfriend in jail, but ever-mounting suspicion casts much of the blame on her.
  • Donte Charles (Adam Thomas) – Another surly Waterloo Road student, Chlo’s boyfriend. Donte spends much of series one in jail, being manipulated by his portly, limo-driving dad, various Waterloo Road officials, and his girlfriend.
  • Lewis Seddon (Craig Fitzpatrick) – Thuggish student (who bears a passing resemblance to the Dead End Kids’ Leo Gorcey) and the epitome of the hell-raising student body at Waterloo Road. Lewis will eventually be involved with a legal scrape involving one of the faculty members.

Shot mostly within the confines of a real school, Waterloo Road has an immediacy that is usually missing from dramas of this ilk. That bracingly realistic setting helps out the show a lot, especially when the many intertwining subplots get too baroque for their own good. Although Waterloo Road been shown around the world to good ratings, the first eight episodes collected on Series 1 were the only part of this elephantine saga to get any exposure in the U.S. (they were broadcast on the BBC America channel). If the other seasons are as juicy and watchable as this one, hopefully Acorn will eventually get around to releasing them soon.

The DVD:

Acorn Media’s Waterloo Road – Series One comes on two discs in a standard Amaray case with paperboard slipcover. The locker design on the package is interesting, since I don’t believe they even have lockers at the school depicted in the show.

Video

Presented in 16×9 anamorphic widescreen, visually the show is given a decent but not spectacular treatment on disc. Each DVD contains four episodes, which results in some pixelization, splotchiness and lack of detail. The cinematography, which appears to be filmed on celluloid, accurately captures the school’s gritty atmosphere.

Audio

The stereo soundtrack on each episode was just fine, not very showy but serving its purpose adequately. English subtitles are also provided (helpful for the sometimes thick accents, although I never needed them).

Extras

Excepting trailers for other Acorn Media products on the first disc, there are no extras.

Final Thoughts:

Compulsively watchable and full of British piss and vinegar (but not quite as gritty as it aspires to be), the first season of Waterloo Road is an entertaining seven-hour grand tour of the goings-on at a “typical” UK middle school. Though it isn’t outstanding in any particular way, the carefully drawn characters and absorbing plots make one understand why it became a huge hit in its native country. Hopefully Acorn Media will be issuing the other seasons on DVD soon. Recommended.

Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist and sometime writer who lives in sunny (and usually too hot) Phoenix, Arizona. Among his loves are oranges, going barefoot and blonde 1930s movie comedienne Joyce Compton. Since 2000, he has been scribbling away at Pop Culture weblog Scrubbles.net. One can also follow him on Twitter @scrubbles.

Posted in Fun and Games

The Cottage (2012)

Posted on December 25, 2012 at 2:53 pm

David Arquette makes me giggle…not scream in terror. E One has released The Cottage, the 2012 straight-to-DVD thriller starring le goofballe extraordinaire David Arquette and assorted other very pretty, anonymous actors. Purportedly based on a true story, The Cottage is sleek-looking but incredibly dumb, with a derivative storyline and all the expected character logic stupidities you’ve come to expect in this kind of mindless, mechanical suspenser. Cripes, we don’t even get any decent nudity or violence, and therefore I ask you: what’s the point? A trailer is included in this sharp-looking transfer.

Tensions are running high in the plush home of the Carpenters. New mom Chloe (Kristen Dalton) not only has a baby to care for, but she also has to put up with two difficult stepkids: Danielle and Rose Carpenter (Morissa and Alana O’Mara). Rose is quiet and shy and awkward around others, while Danielle, deeply resentful of her former teacher Chloe immediately screwing her dad, composer Michael (Victor Browne), right after her mother died, is a snotty, disobedient brat. Into this happy home comes Robert Mars (David Arquette), a romance novelist (hee hee!) who’s looking to rent the Carpenters’ spacious “cottage” (it’s bigger than most people’s homes) back by the Carpenters’ $75,000+ swimming pool. You see, the “cottage” was rented to a nice girl, Lauren, for the summer, but Lauren’s sister, Vanessa (Lorraine Nicholson), comes by in tears and lets Chloe know that Lauren was in a bad car accident, so the “cottage” is up for grabs. Enter Robert. However, the too-good-to-be-true Robert begins to creep people out at the Carpenters, and before you know it, those same people start disappearing….

Jesus what a waste of time. Now, to begin: let’s get categories out of the way. First, The Cottage isn’t a horror movie (why did I think it was from that artwork?); it’s a thriller. And it’s most definitely not an exploitation work. The blandly glossy tech credits are the opposite of enjoyable cheapjack, while the movie delivers zero nudity (despite Dalton’s nice body) and, relatively speaking, little if any blood during its killings. Nice camerawork + 0 nude scenes (or even simulated sex, fercrissakes) ± lame killings = non-exploitive material. So what does that leave us with? Boring, exceedingly timid melodrama masquerading as a thriller, I guess. Anyone who’s read my reviews knows I’m an avowed fan of Lifetime Movie Network, where sh*t way more primal and enjoyable than The Cottage goes down every day. So if you’re going to muscle in on LMN‘s territory, trying to grab the attention of those frazzled, pissed-off, overworked, underpaid, cheated-on and lied-to women who want to see 1) good-looking guys taking their shirts off to simulate slo-mo humping with pretty, non-threatening viewer surrogates, 2) same-said guys either cheating on or trying to kill same said pretty, non-threatening viewer surrogates, and 3) same-said guys getting their brains bashed in by same said pretty, non-threatening viewer surrogates…then you best have your game face on.

Alas, The Cottage is way too tame to spark the interest of exploitation fans, and way too derivative and dumb to work as a mainstream shocker. Part Unlawful Entry, part The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, part The Strangers, and part about a thousand other similar outings, The Cottage fails to bring anything new or interesting to its conventional set-up, nor does it at least do its familiar job simply and competently (hey, “familiar” is fine as long as it’s got some balls). There are lot of places you can start when trying to find out where and why The Cottage bombs…from the most mundane and nit-picky (why do the apparently loaded Carpenters need to rent that “cottage” out in the first place?), to clichéd (characters always winding up alone, or going back inside houses they shouldn’t, or, um…leaving babies in trucks with madmen running around in the woods…), to the absolutely vital (who the hell is Arquette, exactly; who the hell are his “brides,” exactly; and why the hell, exactly, are they killing people―and don’t give me that dodge about “you’re not supposed to know; it’s random and mysterious”).

But let’s face it: it’s pointless and a waste of time racking your brain for answers here. Screenwriter Nick Antosca obviously doesn’t know, nor does director Chris Jaymes. And if they don’t know, how (or why) should we? Besides…how can you take The Cottage seriously with David Arquette as the head psycho? Now, I’m actually a fan of the perpetually guffawing actor; with the right material and a strong director, he can be quite funny and charming (check him out on talk shows like Stern or Watch What Happens Live: he’s always quick and quirky and amusing). However, “threatening” or “dangerously sexy” or “charismatic cult leader” or “Manson-like death dealer” or “psycho-sexual sheik to twenty-some gonzo killer brides” he most decidedly ain’t. If another version of The Cottage, just as inept and formulaic as this one, had starred a different actor better suited to the role…it still would have stunk. But you might have at least jumped once or twice…instead of giggling and gradually zoning out.

The DVD:

The Video:
The anamorphically enhanced, 1.78:1 widescreen image for The Cottage looks super-clean, with bright, vivid colors, blacks that held, and no compression issues. Nice.

The Audio:
You can choice either a Dolby Digital English 5.1 (not bad for discreet directionality at times) or a 2.0. English subtitles are available.

The Extras:
A trailer is included.

Final Thoughts:
The Cottage is low-wattage (yes!) Not dirty or nasty enough for exploitation; not nervy enough for LMN…but weak enough for a 1985 CBS “Movie of the Week.” A miscast drag. It would seem a natural to write, “You can rent The Cottage,” but you’d be well-advised to skip it.

Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.

Posted in Fun and Games

Airborne

Posted on December 21, 2012 at 2:53 pm

The Movie:

Directed by Dominic Burns (who recently popped up as an actor in Strippers Vs. Werewolves), 2012’s Airborne will instantly be of interest to some simply because it features Mark Hamill in a live action role. Those who have followed Luke Skywalker’s career post Return Of The Jedi will tell you that he hasn’t done much in front of the camera since then, but he has been incredibly prolific and successful as a voice actor.

At any rate, the film finds Hammill playing an air traffic controller named Malcolm who is toiling away at his job just as he has every other day. Fast approaching his retirement, he sends one last plane to the runway for takeoff so that it can get on its way before a large storm sweeps into the area. Things seem alright at first but soon enough the plane starts running into problems. When Malcolm loses contact with the plane, which is supposed to be on its way from London to New York City, things go from bad to worse and before you know it, the passengers are starting to die. What exactly is causing all of this remains a mystery, but it seems to stem back to an antique vase brought on board by one of he travelers…

Airborne starts off rather well, though understandably it is going to draw some comparisons to The Twilight Zone as it really does go for that sort of oddball mystery feel, but unfortunately starts to bog down in the latter half. The set up isn’t particularly original but it is effective enough to get our attention – we meet a few of the different passengers on the plane, there’s some decent foreshadowing here and there and the impending storm serves as a believable device for adding tension to the plot. Most of these early scenes are very heavy on the dialogue but it’s written with enough snap and personality that it’s easy enough to take in.

Once the plane is off the ground and things start to get chaotic, however, the movie begins to show some cracks. While there are some creative kill scenes here and a few decent scenes of carnage and gore, it quickly becomes apparent that the setup was there not to give us interesting characters but to basically just get a bunch of people into an airplane to be murdered. The violence is there, sure, but it lacks much in the way of impact or substance and this definitely hurts the film. You can probably blame the script for this problem more so than anything else, as on a technical level the film is rather well put together, it just doesn’t have a whole lot of meat on its bones.

So what about the cast? Luke Skywalker is in this, damn it – does he do anything awesome? Well it’d be unrealistic to expect any lightsaber duals so there’s none of that but he’s fine in the role, the main issue, however, is that he’s not really in the movie all that much. He’s top billed, presumably for commercial reasons, but it’s more of a supporting role than a starring one. The rest of the cast, made up of some fairly recognizable British actors including Craig Conway and Billy Murray, seems to be overdoing it here and there and many of the performances border very closely to or head straight on into hammy territory. The fact that there are some serious logic gaps in the storyline don’t help much either.

The cinematography is fine, the set design believable enough and the editing fairly decent but there’s really just not a whole lot here to make this one stand out. By the time that the end credits hit the screen it’s all turned out to be pretty unremarkable.

The DVD:

Video:

Airborne arrives on DVD in a nice looking 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. The image is clean and clear and free of any obvious defects. There are no issues with print damage nor are there any edge enhancement problems. Some minor compression artifacts are evident in a few of the darker scenes but otherwise, things look just fine. Color reproduction is good, skin tones look lifelike and accurate and detail is about average for a modestly budgeted straight to video feature.

Sound:

The only audio option on the disc is an English language Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound track. It gets the job done without any issues, spreading the score and the effects around rather well. Levels are properly balanced, there are no issues with any hiss or distortion and there’s good depth to a few of the more action oriented scenes. No alternate language options or subtitles are provided.

Extras:

There are no extras on this disc, just a menu and chapter selection.

Final Thoughts:

Airborne starts off reasonably well, working in some effective elements of mystery and suspense, but tends to lose focus in its last half resulting in a conclusion that isn’t particularly satisfying or original. Image’s DVD looks and sounds fine but doesn’t offer up any extras. This is one you can safely skip – hardcore Mark Hammill fans may find it enough of a curiosity item to warrant a rental but should be warned that he’s not really in it all that much.

Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop! and has contributed to AV Maniacs. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.

Posted in Fun and Games

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