This column we abandon the themed format for a little bit of this, a little bit of that, and a whole lot of interesting DVDs. Let’s get it started. FEATURED PICKTHE LITTLE RASCALS: THE COMPLETE COLLECTION (Genius) (8 DVDs) The legend of the origins of this series is two-fold. In the early 20s, legendary producer Hal Roach was on lunch break. He watched a group of kids leave a junkyard and then have an argument over a bunch of sticks. Their natural comedy kept Roach so entertained he didn’t see the time fly. At that time, he had a naturally charismatic youngster supporting superstar Harold Lloyd named Sunshine Sammy. Realizing the marketing potential, he quickly recruited a group of six other kids from his employees. With Sunshine Sammy in the lead, he gave the group the title “Hal Roach’s Rascals.” Fans preferred to call them “Our Gang.” This collection contains the 80 talking Our Gang shorts released from 1929 to 1938. Initially they were distributed by Pathe, then by MGM. By this time, Sammy and many of the original cast were gone. Roach had a philosophy of when a kid got too old, he’d be “retired.” Part of Roach’s was always finding sterling replacements. What you have here are the major performances of Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer, Darla Hood, William “Buckwheat” Thomas, Matthew “Stymie” Beard, Pete the Pup and, of course, George “Spanky” McFarland. Look carefully and you’ll find some others who grew into interesting (or notorious) careers of their own. This includes Robert “Mickey” Blake, Dick Moore and Annie Ross (of jazz group Lambert Hendryx & Ross). But Roach and initial director Robert McGowen’s true genius was they kept things as natural as possible. The kids weren’t heavily rehearsed. Yes, many of the situations were pre-fabricated. From there if a kid came up with a better line or reaction than the script, that was the one that went to print. The end result was a wonderfully “soft” form of comedy only matched by the original Laurel and Hardy films. McGowen and later directors also knew how to maximize the comedic potential of each 20 minute short they produced. Even at their most soapy or saccharine, and boy some of these episodes go for the floodgates, the kids’ naturalness overcame the most artificial set-up. The extra content includes three of their last silent shorts. It doesn’t include their only feature-length film, General Spanky, nor the shorts they did after Roach sold the rights to MGM (the series went on until 1944). The interviews with the few survivors left, especially Dick Moore’s, are eye openers. Even the legendary “curse” of being a Rascal is discussed. And, as it should be, the restoration job is truly sharp and in satisfying black and white. In all, if you are a fan of true classic comedy, the stuff that has endured now for nearly a century, this exhaustive collection is an absolute must-have. Here’s to hoping the silents and even the later MGM shorts someday are given the same treatment.
BEAUTY & THE BEAST: THE COMPLETE SERIES (CBS) (16 DVDs)It’s understandable if fans are on the fence about this collection. In the last year, CBS put out all three seasons of the incredible fantasy adventure as individual sets. The one bonus disk you get here, which is mainly a map of Vincent’s various travels through the New York underground and his love letters, is really not worth the freight. On the other hand, Ron Perlman really hasn’t topped this performance as the ultimate romantic/ misunderstood and noble monster. For the two seasons Linda Hamilton co-starred as the fantasy object of many a TV geek - tough and tender, attractive in a classy way, and loyal beyond a fault. Further, who could forget the performances of Tony Jay, Ray Doltrice, Armin Shimerman, or Stephen McHattie? The acting throughout the entire run was always top notch, even when the shark was jumped in the final season. More important, creator Ron Koslow, script editor George RR Martin and writers like Marc Scott Zircee created an alternative universe inside New York City that was both incredibly fantastic yet highly believable. The concept of homeless living in Gotham’s underground tunnels was already news, Koslow and company just took it to a semi-logical conclusion. Yes, it was urban fantasy, but grounded enough to make this series a classic. So, if you don’t have the three previous sets, you now have no excuse for not having this box. If you do, you’re well ahead of the curve.
CAPRICORN ONE (Lionsgate)When this smart sci-fi potboiler was released in 1978, it got its share of favorable reviews and then was completely forgotten. Too bad. Writer/director Peter Hyams (Outland, 2010) took the concept of the Moon landing being faked to the next level; extrapolating the space program would fake a Mars landing instead. The film only bogs down with some over-the-top political paranoia. Otherwise, well worth looking out for.
COMEDY CENTRAL SALUTES GEORGE W. BUSH: Thanks for the Memories (Paramount)Amazing to think, in barely 90 days we won’t have George W. Bush as president. Fortunately, Comedy Central is reminding us of his true legacy with this DVD. What we have here is a quite pointed collection of skits and satires from a wide group of Comedy Central programs. By that we mean not just the usual suspects like Lil’ Bush, That’s My Bush, South Park, Steve Colbert and John Stewart, but also the likes of Lewis Black, some independent animation and a number of other spiky treats. The only question now is if Barak Obama or John McCain will get the same send off when it’s their turn.
DECEPTION (Fox)Ewan McGregor plays a fairly innocent accountant who accidentally winds up with another man’s (Hugh Jackman) cell phone. The next thing he knows he’s neck deep in an ultimately boring plot that involves sex clubs, murder, kidnapping, and lots of other nasty things. The real crime is the waste of the two principles performances. You’d expect a lot more from Wolverine and Obi-Wan Kenobi, wouldn’t you?
KILL SWITCH (First Look)Watching this film almost makes one feel sorry for Steven Seagal. In this film he’s a detective down in the dirty south with not one, but two, psychopathic killers to hunt down. From there it’s cliché city as he solves the case with lots of big punches and terrible shooting. To top it, he’s getting very thick, slow, apathetic, and boring. It makes you pine for Sly Stallone, who at least gives you the impression he tries.
KRAFTWERK & THE ELECTRONIC REVOLUTION (Sexy Intellectual)This fascinating 3-hour documentary does an exceptional job of uncovering one of the least known and understood yet most influential pop music bands of the latter half of the 20th Century. What is truly impressive is the level of research. Starting with Germany after World War II, it quickly yet thoroughly explores what went into the creation of electronic pop music, it’s coming of age with bands like Tangerine Dream, Ash Ra Temple, Can and Neu. Then how a small group of outsiders from the industrial town of Dusseldorf, even to their fellow countrymen, would hit on the formula that went on to influence just about everyone associated with Western pop music; whether it was David Bowie or Afrika Bambaataa, Donna Summers to Radiohead. Jam packed with rare concert performances, tons of fascinating trivia, some exceptional interviews (particularly from former Kraftwerker Karl Bartos), if you can only get one musical history this year, this should be on your short list.
LARRY FLYNT: THE RIGHT TO BE LEFT ALONE (Liberation)Yes, the subject of this documentary is a boor, a pornographer, a man who’s so full of himself it’s amazing he has room for anyone but himself. At the same time, this is a man who took on the religious powerhouse Jerry Falwell and won, brought down a sitting leader of the House of Representatives and, maybe sadly, is one of the greatest advocates of First Amendment rights in the U.S. Is he a sympathetic subject? Hardly. This documentary shows he’s a toad, a misogynist, and suspect of a lot worse. At the same time, one has to ask oneself the following. If Flynt ever went down, would organizations like the CBLDF be next? Rent it at the least.
MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: SEASON 5 (Paramount) (6 DVDs)If one were to try to find where this venerable spy series finally jumped the shark, one could probably point to here. While the core cast of Peter Graves, Greg Morris, Peter Lupus, and Leonard Nimoy got a nice add-on in the form of Lesley Warren, there was a seismic shift in the show’s content that would lead to problems to come. That shift was the series stopped being about international issues and started turning inward. Instead of taking on terrorists and corrupt dictators, it now concentrated primarily on drug dealers and other more domestic issues. It wouldn’t be long before cast members and the taut, creative scripting would go down too. If you skip this season, you are forgiven.
QUARK (CBS)Calling this series ahead of its time is being only slightly ironic. Originally airing in 1977, this series stars Richard Benjamin as Adam Quark, the captain of a galaxy faring garbage ship. His crew includes a seriously leggy assistant and her clone (he’s not sure which is which though), a male/female, a humanoid plant, and a cowardly robot. The production values were on the level of the BBC version of Hitchhikers Guide with some disco flair. Most important, the concept was by Buck Henry (Get Smart!). Better yet, try a Filmation live-action Saturday morning series, with only slightly more adult audience considerations. Anyway, a true case of “Brilliant but Cancelled,” you get the entire series in this one slim box. Unfortunately no extra content, but for the relatively cheap price its well worth scavenging for.
REVENGE OF A KABUKI ACTOR (AnimEigo)This high art Japanese costume drama tells the tale of a pre-Meiji oyama (a kabuki female impersonator) and his hunt for revenge against a daimyo who ruined his family. Masterfully directed by Kon Ichikawa (47 Ronin), this complicated revenge flick puts retribution up to the Shakespearean level with incredible acting, superlative set and camera work and a plot that will keep you glued to the tube for it’s entire near two-hour length. A compelling classic.
THIS AMERICAN LIFE: Season One (Showtime)Sometimes in journalism you come across a story that even the most brilliant novelist could have thought up. Ira Glass has made a career out of this since he started his This American Life as a National Public Radio series back in 1995. Ten years later, Glass and company managed to convince Showtime that this would also make an excellent TV series, and the proof is now available in this DVD. This disc collects six episodes, each with its own particularly quirky theme. It covers everything from a retirement home doing a live action short with the dream of debuting at Sundance, a pair who loved their bull so much they had it cloned, and a Chicago hot dog stand where the customers trade the most vicious insults possible to each other. Along the way, Glass himself narrates each tale with a dry but poignant style that never forgets either the humor or drama of each situation. Real life TV has never been better.
THE THREE STOOGES COLLECTION: 1940-1942
THE THREE STOOGES COLLECTION: 1943-45 (Sony) (2 DVDs each)These two collections mark two different pivotal periods on the history of America’s favorite morons/icons. In the first set, the Stooges were now established short-subject superstars and probably could have ridden on that rep for some years to come. Then they struck a new comedic gold vein when they were the first to make a parody of Adolf Hitler in the short “You Nazty Spy!” (1940). Moe Howard’s parody of Schickelgruber is absolutely unforgettable and his two cohorts were well able to keep up with him. From that point on, whenever the Stooges got to lampoon the Axis powers (and military life in general), they did, and we are all the better for it. Not that there aren’t other classic shorts in this set. In 1940, they also did “A Plumbing We Will Go,” and how these nincompoops destroy a judge’s home is burned into many a fans' brain. There are another 20 shorts in this two-disc set that’s guaranteed to be just as good. As for the second set, this contains the last performances by everyone’s favorite Stooge, Curly, before he was struck down way too soon by a career-ending stroke. To say this was a true comedic tragedy is a true understatement. In the last short presented here entitled “Micro-Phonies,” the youngest Howard brother is still in top form as a cross dressing opera diva Senorita Cucaracha. Who knew it would be the last one Curly ever starred in? His mugging for the camera is spot on. As for the Stooges, they still had some good years in them, thanks to the recruiting of another Howard brother, Shemp. In the meantime, these are two nice add-ons to one’s complete Stooges library.