DVD Reviews for 06-08-09 - Reviews by Two's

THE ADVENTURES OF YOUNG INDIANA JONES: Volume Three (CBS)

When you get one to two dozen disks to review, you look for interesting combinations to keep things interesting. In the past I’ve done nothing but horror, animation and all things Asian. This time I found an incredible number of releases could be paired off against each other. How could I resist? Here goes:

THE ADVENTURES OF YOUNG INDIANA JONES: Volume Three (CBS) (10 DVDs)

INDIANA JONES: The Adventure Collection (Paramount) (3 DVDs)

When you get down to it, the difference between the original Indiana Jones movies and the TV series is simple. The Young Indy series was supposed to be based on historical events. The classic film trilogy is based on those wonderfully purple pulps of the pre-WWII era, and history be damned… especially if it got in the way of a good story.

So why should you buy the movie set? Frankly, the restoration isn’t the selling point. Anyone with even the slightest knowledge of Lucas and Spielberg would be shocked if it wasn’t top notch. All three films, even Temple of Doom, have their high points as far as story goes. Let’s be real, Indy is a rousing, fun hero and his universe is chock full of strong supporting characters. And if you’re a fan of the series you probably have them already.

Obviously it has to be in the extra content, of which Paramount provides an even dozen offerings. Three of them are the principles providing insight before each and every film. The three LEGO animated adventures are purely out to sell the toys and leave it at that. From there, they range from highly informative (interviews of the three main women of the three films) to the easily forgettable.

Actually, what I find interesting is just how many people can’t remember the bulk of the Young Indy series, something no one says about the movies. This brings back my opening statement. Just how many history lectures do you personally remember? The same problem applies to the TV series.

The boxed set makes matters even worse. Yes, it includes seven episodes from the series. Still, more time is devoted to the various historical events young Master Jones traipses through. Even a cameo appearance by Harrison Ford, who’s in top form as always, can save the episode “Mystery of the Blues.” The various subjects it covers—Chicago during the Jazz age, with characters like Louis Armstrong and Al Capone, Elliot Ness as Indy’s college roommate and a certain investigative reporter named Hemingway—feel as subjectively detached as the metaphorical academic harangue.

When you think about it, it’s no wonder Dr. Jones apparently would do anything to get out of his classroom. Even he looked like he was having a better time.

BOB DYLAN: IN PERFORMANCE (Victory) (2 DVDs)

I’M NOT THERE (Genius) (2 DVDs)

I’ll admit I was never one who was overly impressed with Bob Dylan. Yea, the man could write some mean songs. At the same time he always struck me as emblematic of what was the worst of the 60s. He bought into his own creation and swallowed it whole. The brilliant artist was oft times swallowed whole by the self-indulgent poser; and for each Highway 61 Revisited there’s a New Morning.

To top it, I’m sure there were times, as he floated on whatever was his latest addiction, he didn’t have the critical capabilities to know the garbage he pumped out.

These two latest DVD sets will definitely add to the Dylan mythos, especially Todd Haynes’ sorta bio-pic/documentary on the man. As some might remember, this film earned Cate Blanchett an Oscar nomination for playing Dylan. Let’s correct that, she played one “incarnation,” the one that was probably the most infamous from 1965-66. Different actors play Dylan at different periods. This includes Christian Bale, Richard Gere, Heath Ledger and a few others. Probably the most notable, at least in my books, is John Doe (formerly of X) playing Dylan when he was deep into his neo-Christian phase.

The film itself is a semi-surreal evaluation of the former Robert Alan Zimmerman’s life story, based loosely on stories Dylan used to tell about himself and the overall folklore spread about the man. Don’t look for solid continuity, Dylan’s own stories contradicted themselves. Where Haynes steps in is taking these stories for all their visual value and adding his own touches. Richard Gere plays Dylan shortly after Blanchett's period, from the albums John Wesley Harding to Pat Garrett. Instead of Blanchett running around and freaking the mundanes, Gere is walking through a world that’s part El Topo part Carnavale. The end result is a film that’s as conflicted and intuitive as its subject. Yes, there’s some magnificent images, there might even be a few grains of truth, just make sure to bring a shovel to plow through the ton of manure that’s gonna come with it.

The In Performance set is literally what it says. One disk is composed over various, mainly televised, concerts Dylan has done throughout his career. These include pretty much everything from his Renaldo & Clara period on back to his one appearance on the Johnny Cash Show doing “Girl From the North Country” with the real Man In Black. If this set brings home a point, it’s that you don’t need a film director going all surreal to make something interesting out of this living character Then again, documentarian DA Pennebacker already did that with his 1965 Dylan-inspired documentary Don’t Look Back. Dylan was a man who constantly created, changed, returned to and debunked various images of himself. The only thing that remains the same is his high nasal voice and occasional bolts of lyrical genius. Here you get to see about a half dozen of them.

To aid and abet the casual Dylanologists, both set come with an extra disk devoted entirely to the biographical information of their subject. This includes complete bio-, disco- and filmographies, time lines, and other collections of usually factual data. In their own way, I found these more interesting, and worth the price of admittance in and of themselves.

Because, let’s face it, these are only the latest movies/docs we are going to see on the man. He may not be here, but he ain’t dead either. I wouldn’t be surprised that there will be a lot more similar efforts about him in the very near future. Whether that’s a good thing or not is a matter of opinion.

CONTROL

JOY DIVISION (Miriam Collection)

Mr. Zimmerman isn’t the only rocker who’s getting the docu-fictional treatment these days. Then again, after seeing these two films I must admit that Joy Division truly is a worthy subject.

For those who’ve forgotten what real rock’n roll was all about, Joy Division hailed from Manchester, England. Along with the Fall and Buzzcocks helped established that British punk rock had a lot more depth and diversity than compatriots like the Clash, Damned and Sex Pistols.

What set Joy Division apart was two-fold. The first was its leader, Ian Curtis, whose too-short career produced its share of immortal lyrics and imagery. The band itself also mattered, providing a dark, chilling world that pulsed and throbbed hypnotically and forcefully; a truly compelling backdrop for Curtis.

The tragedy was Curtis. He wasn’t your classic rock’n roll over-drugged and under-brained idiot savant. He was a married man with a baby on the way, an actual civil servant who apparently did help people and a generally very friendly and humane person…until he started having epileptic fits. The medication they put him on turned him into a bipolar monster incapable of performing but also able to right songs like “Love Will Tear Us Apart” in barely three hours.

His career ended with a jolt also. Just when he and his lads were about to go on their first U.S. tour, he hung himself. After changing their name to New Order, the survivors would hook up with Quincy Jones and go on to international success. Their music was a pale shadow of their three LPs and handful of singles under the name Joy Division.

If you want this story in more detail, definitely pick up a copy of Joy Division. Directed by Grant Gee and written by noted rock journalist Jon Savage, this film explores the very real history of the band in minute detail. Savage and Gee manage to round up all those who had any intrinsic relationship with the man, including his wife, lover, bandmates and just about everyone else. The openness of their confessions, recollections and remembrances range the whole gamut. They also explore the relevance of Joy Division from the point of view of rock, the punk movement and to their native city of Manchester. Yes, the film itself is like two hours, but it goes fast. The additional content, which includes videos, added interviews and more, make great footnotes. It’s how a documentary about a single subject should be done. You can’t ask for better than that.

Control is an equally compelling view. Directed by the band’s friend and photographer Anton Corbijn, and based on a script by Curtis’ widow Debbie, the film creates some incredibly good drama out of Curtis’ too-short career. Two things that really help it is the casting of Sam Riley, who’s a dead ringer for the late singer and Corbijn maintaining the camera keep a critical distance from its subject. Even with this separation, the viewer is hypnotically drawn into what’s presented.

If my previous arguments aren’t enough to sway you, consider this. Joy Division made their first recordings in 1978. Curtis died in 1980. That’s 28 years ago. With the possible exception of Nick Drake, very few artists would have so much impact with so little product. Now you can not only hear why, but see it as well. It will be well worth your while.

DEAD ZONE: The Final Season (Lionsgate) (3 DVDs)

JERICHO: Season 2 (CBS) (2 DVDs)

When reviewing cult SF shows, these two deserve all the attention they can get. Each have their share of hardcore fans, not to forget very interesting stories regarding their last seasons.

Maybe too appropriately, Dead Zone was taken for dead after its fifth season. Then, after being off the air for nearly two years, it got picked up for sixth season. Much to every fan’s pleasure, the producers did manage to assemble the original cast. The only key shift was moving production from Vancouver to Montreal which, as explained in the extra content, actually worked to everyone’s advantage in many ways.

As it turned out, this wasn’t too bad a season, either. Producers Michael and Shawn Pillar used their additional 13 episodes to flesh out the family background of its forecasting lead, John Smith (Anthony Michael Hall). It also pushed up a potential love triangle between main female lead Sarah Bannerman (Nicole DeBoer) and now VP Greg Stillson (Sean Patrick Flannery). Yes, Smith losing best bud Sherriff Walt Bannerman (Chris Bruno) hurt, but he manages to make a very interesting twist return at the end …and still stay dead, too.

Now if you pay close attention, the Pillars leave an out if there ever is a seventh season. Don’t know if that would ever happen, but I wouldn’t mind if they did. Based on this last season, I’d bet it would have some nice touches no one would predict.

As for Jericho, this collection is worth having just for its recounting of CBS first canceling, the fans creatively rallying, and then the network putting the series back on the air for a “definitive” ending. I mean, isn’t it fun seeing network execs admit they made a mistake?

Even better, the Pillars definitively resolve a lot of issues regarding who are the true powers that be in this series. Yes, they leave an opening for some possible movies (yes, again). At the same time, the series feels complete in and of itself.

No matter what, the addition of Esai Morales, as the all-military but honest Major Edward Beck, was a very strong move for the series. The rest of the cast do their respective jobs as if their careers depended on it, which inevitably did. As everyone now knows, the ratings for the second season were still so weak that CBS cancelled the series. Again. As it stands, there are rumblings of this series managing to spring from the atomic ashes one more time. Personally, I wouldn’t mind if it did. There’s still plenty of story left in this series.

So do these DVDs mark the true ends of Dead Zone and Jericho? These days TV has become as nearly as unpredictable as political elections. At least if both do end, they ended on right notes and these collections are worth having just for that.

DR. JEKYLL & MR. HYDE (Genius)

THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL & MR. HYDE (Image)

For some reason, Hollywood just can’t get enough of this Robert Louis Stevenson examination of the darker side of a person’s mental makeup. It seems that ever five years another version pops up. Here’s two that made their debut in the last year alone.

The first stars Dougray Scott as a modern day neurosurgeon. Like the classic version starting Frederick March, Scott decides to use the minimum of makeup and rely on his own acting skills. From there, all one can say is his performance is undeniably tame. Even the twist ending, involving some interesting side effects of the injection and some fancy lawyering doesn’t save this from being a true snoozer.

One can’t say the same thing for Tony Todd, who in this second version plays Hyde with a gusto worthy of Robert Englund’s always-entertaining Freddie Krueger. Still, while this Hyde is having a party literally biting the ears and noses off his victims, everything else about this project is pretty hokey. You have absolutely no sympathy for Todd’s performance as the troubled doctor or just about anyone else. The horror is guttural, with carnage all over the place, but left me with a giant feeling of so what.

So there you go. Two new versions of a tale we will no doubt be seeing more versions of in the near future. I’ll see if I can find my copy of Abbott & Costello Meet…” Guess which one has more scares.

THE ENTRANCE

SIGHT (Lionsgate)

The world of micro-horror continues to grow and impress. Apparently even an organization as big as Lionsgate will skin the market for the cream of the crop.

The Entrance is a multiple award winner purportedly based on a real incident. It tells the tale of a detective trying to get to the bottom of a cult that plays Saw-like games with its victims. If they “win,” they must help the cult recruit more fodder. If they lose…this is a horror movie after all.

While Entrance doesn’t take things to the extremes of Saw, it has its moments. It also has an Exorcist angle that screams for further explanation. Fear not kids, I get the feeling sequels are in the works. Honestly, I wouldn’t mind.

As for Sight, it’s a film that tries real hard, and only falls apart at the end. It stars Clayton Haske as a man who not only sees, but is mentally tortured by, dead people. He also suffers more than his share of abuse from his father, who blames him for his mother’s death during childbirth. Then Haske’s character is beaten to near death himself by super thug Tony Luke Jr. When he miraculously recovers, it sets in motion a killing spree that is wonderfully gritty and full of tension.

Actually, if this film has a weakness, it’s the horror elements. Yeah, Haske sees nasties in your closet, but they really never have that much effect in the overall plot. I’m sure the producers wanted us to wonder if they are real or figments of the lead’s tortured psyche, but I get the feeling Sight would have been a better film without them altogether. Otherwise, it’s a solidly shot and acted film. I hope it promises even more and better from creator Damon Vignale.

So while these films may not be the greatest things to hit horror since Evil Dead or Night of the Living Dead, they have potential. Netflix them out and see what you think.

HE-MAN/SHE-RA: THE SECRET OF THE SWORD

HE-MAN & THE MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE: Volume Two (3 DVDs) (BCI)

It seems it’s hard to keep a Master of the Universe down.

The year is 1985 and Filmation is riding the absolute heights with the original He-Man. As it was, a spin-off wasn’t a good idea, it was obligatory. Thus, She-Ra.

What many might not remember is they didn’t just kick it off with a series, but actually did an origin movie. King Randor and Queen Marlena harbored a dark secret. They original had twins. Prince Adam and Princess Adora. Shortly after their birth, she was kidnapped by Skeletor’s mentor, Hordak. When Hordak’s attempt to conquer Eternia failed miserably, he took the baby girl with him, with a long-term plan of raising her as his own and then using her and training her in his evil ways. Of course, it will now be Adam’s secret identity, He-Man, to bring out the truth and start the new series.

You know what? The origin movie really isn’t that bad. It introduces the world of Etheria as relatively different from Eternia, even if everything else was a mirror of the original series. Yeah, many of the sidekicks She-Ra generally had on her side were shallow spin-offs of He-Mans, right down to the ditzy wizard, but Hordak and his crew were actually a lot more threatening. They did run Etheria and were only dealing with token resistance until She-Ra showed up. The animation was also starting to show improvements, or at least less of Filmation’s beloved stock footage. As it turned out, this spurt of creativity was short-lived. The series itself never quite had the built-in mileage of He-Man. Still, this wasn’t a bad start.

The second set here is actually from the 2002 remake of the original series, which was produced by Mattel and Mike Young Productions. This set collects the second half of the first season, 13 episodes in all. As with all BCI collections, it also comes packed with a ton of extra content and a lot of love both in the packaging and presentation.

To be honest, I prefer this version of the He-Man over the original and the New He-Man spin-off. The animation is incredible. The backgrounds are lush and eye-popping while the action is much more fluid when compared to the 1983 original. Yes, they rewrote the origins of Skeletor (no Hordak here), but it fit nicely. He was much more threatening than the previous version.

Speaking of, the creators, spearheaded by original writer Larry DiTillio, put a lot more background and detail into their new version of the universe. They also kept much of the kid-friendly charm that was part of the original series. The only shame here is even though Cartoon Network did finance two full seasons of the show, it never took off.

Still, both of these sets should please the heck out of MotU fans. I know I’m planning on holding on to them.

HIYA KIDS! (Shout! Factory) (4 DVDs)

THE THREE STOOGES COLLECTION: 1937-1939 (Sony) (2 DVDs)

They are names that are often cited, but never truly remembered. They included Winky Dinks, Pinky Lee, Captain Z-Ro, Time for Beany and Howdy Doody. They were the original kids shows of the 1950’s. Most have been lost due to time and general abuse, but now Shout! Factory has done us all a tremendous service in collecting a number of them. The set also comes with a sweet little booklet describing the history of each episode.

One must remember, when the kids shows started, TV in the U.S. was still very much in its own infancy. In 1949, which is when these shows took off, the giants of entertainment were still radio and movies. As such, early kids entertainment started off using them as their prototypes. Each show usually came with one primary sponsor, whether it was General Mills or Bonomo’s Turkish Taffy. There were no cartoons as the idea for creating animation specifically for the new medium wouldn’t happen until a little later. So what we got were a ton of puppet-based variety shows and some decent action-adventures ala Sky King, Sheena Queen of the Jungle, Flash Gordon and The Roy Rogers Show.

It’s the puppet shows that fascinate me the most. Some of them, like Andy’s Gang was seriously twisted. It was populated with characters like Froggie The Gremlin (home of the immortal Ghoulardi line “Twonk That Magic Twanger, Froggie!”). Andy was noted character actor Andy Devine, and the big guy was actually a pretty enjoyable kid's show host. Others who grew out of this milieu included Paul Winchell, Buffalo Bob Smith and the immortal puppet team of Kukla, Fran and Ollie.

More important, there were three people who really took this new format and ran with it. The first was noted animator Bob Clampett. He left Warner Bros. to start Time for Beany, bringing such voice artists as Stan Freberg and Daws Butler with him. The episode included here finds the puppets traveling past the Nothing Atoll to the Fifth Corner of the World to hunt a 200 ft. tall white gorilla. The antics they got into while there was nothing short of hallucinogenic.

Probably the most innovative and infamous of the hosts was Jack Barry. In the late 1940’s, he created Juvenile Jury, where kids formed their own panels to solve their own problems. He took things even further with the creation of Winky Dink & You. Winky was a very, very, very limited animated character voiced by the legendary Mae Questel. What made the show amazing though is with each episode, Barry would tell kids to put a special plastic screen over their TV’s and, utilizing erasable crayons, the kids would then be able to draw whatever Winky and Barry told them to. The show became known as the first true example of interactive TV. As for Barry? Well, he would go down as one of the primaries of the game show scandals in the early 60s, but that’s history for you.

Finally, there’s Pinky Lee. Pinky was an old vaudevillian who’s manchild character can still be seen today in the likes of Pee Wee Herman and Uncle Floyd Vivino. While not that many of his original kids shows apparently survive, he had a true anything goes attitude that the likes of Soupy Sales and Winchell would take even further in the near future.

So why is the Three Stooges collection included with Hiya Kids? Quite frankly, one would be hard-pressed to find a person alive today who remembers seeing them before the advent of TV.

As many might remember, they were the staple of the Columbia Pictures shorts department, producing eight shorts a year pretty much non-stop until the early 50’s. Then Columbia repackaged all these incredible stabs of humor for TV syndication, and became a huge success on kids TV, literally restoring their careers and making them the idols of young whippersnappers, myself included. .

This set finds the Stooges at the peak of their abilities. They were now experienced enough with the film medium to make the most of the limited budgets Columbia gave them. They were also young enough to take much of the bruising stunts and schedule and come up for more. While I wish Sony would have included some extra content here, like some of the cameos they made, the shorts in and of themselves, immaculately restored and placed in proper chronological order, are well worth the price of admission in and of themselves.

For that matter, so is the Hiya Kids collection. While it may not be as out-and-out hilarious as the Stooges, it collects some very rarely seen TV and gives us a lot of perspective about youth back in the days of Vitalis, hula hoops and bobby socks were the norm.

POPEYE & FRIENDS: Volume One

POPEYE THE SAILOR: 1938-1940 (2 DVDs) (WB)

The extra content of the 1938-1940 set asks a very interesting question. Just who was the first true superhero of the animated world?

Guess what guys…it’s the irascible, spinach-chomping sailor man. Not that other guy in the blue union suit and cape.

As the title implies, this set collects the further misadventures of Elzie Segar’s sea salted seaman in a very interesting period. Thanks to the animated work of Charles, Max, Dave and Lou Fleischer, he now rivaled a certain rat as far as popularity was concerned. Yet circumstances were going to make some very insidious changes to his nature.

The year previously, the Fleischers settled a monstrously crippling labor strike. Leader Max didn’t take this indignity easily though. He went over to his buddies and distributors at Paramount Pictures, and convinced them to underwrite one incredibly large loan. With the money, he built a new, state-of-the-art studio; not in his native New York City, but in the complete union-free, “right-to-work” state of Florida and the city of Miami. From there, he took all his primary creators, family and a few selected others and left those leftist-leaning inkers, inbetweeners and similar lowlifes back in Gotham.

The results can be seen almost immediately. It wouldn’t be long before Popeye, Olive Oyl and the rest of that crew would stop living in five story walk-ups and start having nice suburban homes. The rough neck antics also started to tone down as bit. The voice of Olive also changed considerably as her originator, Mae Questel, refused to make the trip down south. Instead, she was replaced by a number of others, among those who tried, but ultimately failed, was no less than the wife of Popeye’s now primary voice artist, Jack Mercer.

Not that the Popeye franchise was anywhere near its last legs. In fact, there was still plenty of inventiveness in these incredible shorts. Characters such as Eugene the Jeep, the Goons, Poopdeck Pappy and more were introduced. The last of the great color two-reelers, “Aladdin and His Magical Lamp,” was produced during this period. Most important, while Popeye may not have had the urban edge of his earlier period, he still the funniest funny man on the silver screen as the likes of the Looney Tunes and Hanna-Barbera’s Tom & Jerry were yet to make their debuts.

Like the previous set, this collection comes chock full of incredible extra content, including full bios of the Fleischers, Questel and Mercer. Of particular interest is an old Paramount newsreel giving us all a tour of this incredible Florida animation facility. They also include some very rarely seen earlier and later works of the legendary studio, including a fairly crisp short from the Out of the Inkwell series (the series that put the Brothers on the map way back in the 19-teens). In all, this is an absolute must-have for any animation fan and a truly worthy successor to the first.

Which makes one wonder why in the world Warners bothered to put out Popeye & Friends. For those who want to know, this was the series Hanna-Barbera did much, much later. In 1978-79. Yes, H-B surrounded Mercer with their then incredible voice cast, among them Daws Butler, Jan Van Der Pyl, Don Messick and Frank Welker. That’s just about where the talent stopped, too. The plots are hackneyed beyond all repair. The animation is some of the ugliest H-B would ever do in its fabled history. Everything about it is listless, torpid and overall formulaic. It even made the seriously on-the-cheap TV syndicated version of the early 60s look good.

So kids, I think it’s pretty obvious where my sympathies like when it comes to these two sets. Do yourself a favor and act like the second one never happened and get the first volume of the Fleischer collection. You’ll certainly be glad you did.

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