Saturday, November 29, 2008

I haven't posted DVD reviews for a while, so allow me to do so:

M Squad

I vaguely remember seeing "M Squad" when I was little -- the half-hour crime drama ran from 1957 through 1960 -- a time I was more concerned with cartoons and "Howdy Doody."

Now Timeless Media Group has brought out the entire 117 episodes in a 15 DVD set -- a pretty daring movie for a relatively obscure television show.

"M Squad" is a procedural police drama that spends more time showing the cops pounding the pavement and in the crime lab in order to solve a crime than firing their guns. The show is clearly a reaction to "Dragnet," Jack Webb's highly successful police show.

There are key differences here. One is that " M Squad" is centered in Chicago and exteriors were filmed there. Another is use of jazz for the score's show -- Count Basie wrote the theme music for the second season. The tone of the show is more film noir-ish and gritty than other police shows at the time.

And then there was the star, Lee Marvin. Marvin was coming into his own as actor and his portrayal of Lt. Frank Ballinger was far more interesting than Webb's straight-laced and straight faced Joe Friday.

Marvin plays his cop as both a committed public servant and someone who has seen it all. In the first episode, he is seen checking out a pretty girl while investigating a murder -- something most cop characters wouldn't have done at the time.

The half-hour shows move fast and I was surprised in this time of multiple "CSI" franchises to see just how much footage was devoted to forensic investigations.

Marvin's characterization probably will seem more modern and naturalistic to today's audience than those from other cop dramas of the same era. He walks an interesting line between appearing not to care and obviously caring very much.

For serious crime drama fans who don't mind dropping a chunk of change, this set from 51 years ago will provide some fresh material.

Harry Langdon: Three's a Crowd and The Chaser

Of all of the great silent comedians -- Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and Harry Langdon -- it is Langdon who has had the hardest time establishing a new audience in the home video age.

Landon was a vaudeville star whose film persona was that of the "man-boy" a physically mature male who nonetheless has the emotional maturity of a seven-year-old. This type of character has certainly been a popular one in American film. Lou Costello, Huntz Hall, Jerry Lewis and Adam Sandler have all had their take on this shtick.

Langdon's character was often described as having the maturity of an infant. He seems almost incapable of dealing with the world. Made by the right hands, Langdon's films were highly popular, but Langdon himself directed the two films in this double feature and that was clearly a mistake.

Langdon's waif in "Three's a Crowd" is a mover's helper who finds a pregnant woman staggering about during the winter in the slum where he lives. He takes her in and cares for her only to see his heart broken when she reconciles with her husband.

In "The Chase," audiences are asked to accept Langdon as an errant husband chasing women and partying to his wife's disapproval. A judge makes Langdon stay at home for 30 days and take care of the house while wearing a dress. Many of the gags revolve around suicide.

I love silent films and am a huge fan of silent comedy, so I wanted to give Langdon another try, but I just couldn't understand why his character was so popular. I just want to shake him!

These two films from KINO on Video can boast of great scores by Lee Irwin and good-looking restored prints.

Mr. Bean: The Ultimate Collection

Okay, if you're a "Mr. Bean" fan this is your dream collection. The seven-disc collection has all of the television episodes originally aired on HBO, the animated series, and the two feature films.

That's a lot of beans.

If you're not familiar with Mr. Bean, you should know he is the first largely silent comic star developed since the advent of talking films. He can be an incredibly resourceful but also amazingly mischievous.

Rowan Atkinson was already a comedy star here and in his native Great Britain when he developed Mr. Bean with writers Richard Curtis and Robin Driscoll. In an informative documentary in the set, "The Story of Bean," Atkinson and his fellow writers describe how the character was developed, which partly came from Atkinson's youth.

The star described Bean as a nine-year-old boy who operates under the rules as long as they suit him.

I love the "Mr. Bean" series and I think the shorter productions are those in which the character is best suited. The animated cartoons are not my cup of tea and the first feature film "Bean: The Movie" was a mixed bag, I thought.

The extras here are a lot of fun with several Bean skits seen in the United States for the first time: "Torvill & Bean," in which Mr. Bean takes to the ice with the British skating star, was a hoot!

Sunset Boulevard

Billy Wilder was one of those directors who hit home run after home run in his career. "The Lost Weekend," "Double Indemnity," "Stalag 17," "The Apartment" and "The Fortune Cookie" are just some of his great films. Now one of his best films, "Sunset Boulevard," is given the two-disc treatment in a new DVD edition.

I used to show the film regularly in my films classes at Western New England College, as it was not only a stunning example of film noir, but also a subtle but scalpel sharp commentary on the movie business in 1950.

Joe Gillis (William Holden) plays a down on his luck screenwriter who dodges repo men after his car by hiding it in the garage of a slightly run-down Hollywood mansion. Through a case of mistaken identity he is introduced to the house's resident, Norma Desmond, a silent screen star long retired from acting.

While Norma may be not be acting any longer, she longs for a return to the screen. Joe sees an opening when he learns she has a screenplay that needs some re-writing. Soon, Joe find himself playing a role that clearly he doesn't like Norma's reluctant boy toy but he is willing to do so to get some much needed money.

Gloria Swanson, a huge star in the silent days who had appeared successfully in sound pictures in the 1930s, played Norma. Swanson was nothing like her character, but the casting was so perfect that it influenced a generation of movie fans on how they viewed her.

This is a hard-edged cynical movie that seems as fresh to me today as the first time I saw it. It's sad, tender and very, very tough all at the same time.

The extras are well done and feature interviews with surviving cast member Nancy Olson.

Tropic Thunder

If the satire of "Sunset Boulevard" cuts like a scalpel, "Tropic Thunder's" approach to the movie industry is more like a sledgehammer it gets the job done, only things are a tad messier.

Director and co-star Ben Stiller's take on the film industry includes a bunch of ignorant self-absorbed actors and crude profit-driven execs who make bloated unrealistic pieces of cinematic trash.

The interesting thing is if the film had tanked at the box office, Stiller might be facing some ugly music from his peers. But you can spit in the face of folks as long as your film is on the black side of the account book.

"Tropic Thunder" tells the story of a group of spoiled stars (played by Robert Downey Jr., Stiller, Jack Black and Brandon T. Jackson) making a Vietnam War story in Vietnam. When the director can't control his cast (played by Steve Coogan), he takes the advice of the author of the book on which the film is based (Nick Nolte), a hard-as-nails vet, to bring the cast into the jungle and film them secretly as they try to really survive.

The problem is the cast isn't truly aware of what is waiting for them in the jungle and what isn't just part of a movie.

There are some funny bits on the film, although I didn't think it was as laugh-out-loud funny as I had expected it to be. I appreciated the satire, but didn't always laugh at it.

The film was controversial as it supposedly made fun of people with developmental problems. The reaction from various advocacy groups was unwarranted in my opinion as the film comments on how Hollywood shallowly uses metal retardation as fodder for stories.

The extras are pretty comprehensive in how they profile the making of the film, although I was surprised there was a blooper reel.

If you don't care for some rough and tumble satire, then stay away from "Tropic Thunder."

The Complete Monty Python's Flying Circus Collector's Edition

Like many people who discovered "Monty Python's Flying Circus" during its first American television run in the early 1970s, I was amazed. As a high school kid I couldn't believe what I was seeing and although I didn't understand all of the jokes, the ones I did get were hilarious.

When I saw the group's first feature film, "And Now for Something Completely Different," a re-filming of their best television bits, I laughed so hard my face ached.

And years later the skits I've seen a hundred times still make me laugh.

For me, there's a short list of the most influential comics of the 20th century: Buster Keaton, W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers, the Firesign Theater and Monty Python. These are my comedy gods.

And owning this new 21-disc Monty Python set is like going to church.

Not only are all of the television episodes here, but one of the feature films, "Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl," is here as well. Plus there are two amazing new documentaries about the Pythons, six "personal best" collections, the shows the boys did for German television and much more.

I particularly enjoyed seeing Terry Gilliam explain not only how he did his animated linking pieces, but also how he arrived at the imagery.

This 36-hour collection is something every Python fan should have.

© 2008 by Gordon Michael Dobbs

1 comment:

dogboy443 said...

I'm going to put some M Squad's on my NetFlix list. This sounds like a great viewing!!!