Blu-Ray Round-up: 8/19/13

The Muppet Movie

The Muppet Movie (James Frawley, 1979) – A metatextual opening followed moments later by one of the most singularly recognizable twangs of a string instrument in musical history sets the stage not only for the mission statement of a new franchise, but an inside look into the heart and soul of a true visionary. Released in the middle of his successful run with The Muppet Show and a decade after Sesame Street, Jim Henson and company brought their finely felted friends to the big screen for the first time in what might be the puppeteers most deeply personal work. Aside from being exceedingly well made, thoughtfully paced, and being astoundingly witty, it’s a fully realized look into all of the values that Henson himself believed in throughout his career. His was a career that was playful, gleefully self-deprecating, not afraid to seem ridiculous and frivolous, and ultimately uncompromising in the face of outside influence.
As Kermit the Frog says off the top the story is more or less how The Muppets became the inseparable band of merry makers they are today. Leaving the swamp after a sleazy agent (Dom DeLuise in one of the films dozen or so cameos) rows past his log, Kermit meets up with struggling comedian Fozzy Bear (voiced by the wonderful Frank Oz and having the immortal line “I’m a professional! I’ve had three performances!”), and they’re off on an adventure to Hollywood. Along the way they have run-ins with future cohorts Gonzo, Miss Piggy, Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, and Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and his assistant Beaker en route to potential fame and fortune for all.

The real mirror between Henson’s life and art comes in the form of the villain. Now while Henson never actually wrote the first Muppet film (it was handled by former Muppet Show head writer and Second City/SNL alum Jack Burns and his successor Jerry Juhl), but there’s definitely something somewhat autobiographical about Kermit’s facing off against the nefarious Doc Hopper (Charles Durning in one of his best performances). Hopper wants Kermit to be the face of his brand: Doc Hopper’s French Fried Froglegs. Aside from not wanting to endorse a product that essentially implies cannibalism on Kermit’s part, it’s an interesting metaphor for how Henson lived his life.

The very nature of selling out and “cutting the legs” off from talent is front and centre. There had to be a plethora of times in his career before this point where Henson was asked to loan his characters’ likenesses to any number of suspect products or merchandise. While there wasn’t any shortage of money to be made from the marketing of The Muppets on the side, the characters themselves only ever appeared on screen (under Jim’s watch, anyway) in quality product. He never sold out even when it would have made perfect sense for everyone around him to do so. It’s that same unwavering faith that makes one of the film’s climactic scenes so potent. Kermit makes his way to Hollywood to get signed – and have the torch passed on to him – by no less an iconoclast than Orson Welles (who was a fan of the Muppets and never was given else decent to do on screen following his cameo here ever again).

It’s that same point of view that makes Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher’s song “The Rainbow Connection” so stirring to listen to if you think about it with Henson in mind and not just the character. It’s a song about knowing you have talent and not compromising it for anyone. It’s about staying true to yourself and living harmoniously with those around you even when they question why you’re such a hopeless dreamer or romantic. It’s the same general work ethic that Henson’s childhood icon Edgar Bergen – who cameos here in his final onscreen appearance with his puppet Charlie McCarthy and to whom the movie is dedicated in memory of – grew up with and never lost. It’s, as Kermit says in a vision quest moment talking to himself in the desert, “The dreams I got from watching too many double features.”

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It’s been noted, however, that the actually shooting of The Muppet Movie was somewhat of an unhappy experience, and that’s probably because Henson wasn’t able to direct the film himself. Instead, directing duties fell to journeyman director James Frawley, who was placed in power by production company ITC Entertainment despite giving off the vibe that he never wanted to be there. (I’m sure he was thrilled to sign on for his follow-up to this, the 1985 sex comedy Fraternity Vacation, though.) Whatever the discord was between the director and the production itself, Frawley’s vision was incredibly ambitious and serves the material quite well. It’s highly inventive when it comes to disguising the puppeteers in exterior environments and often features a lot of highly complex tracking shots and crane work.

That says nothing of the masterful jokes and gags that pepper the film. Every form of comedy is represented here in an almost anarchistic hodge-podges of styles that it becomes akin to a comedic kung fu epic. There’s puns, running gags, countless figurative phrases turned literal, fourth wall breaking, sarcasm, bizarre cameos from comedic royalty (Elliott Gould, Steve Martin, Richard Pryor, and Mel Brooks faring the best) and quick wit at every turn. While this film’s sequel, The Great Muppet Caper, might have a better hit-to-miss ratio, The Muppet Movie still stands as one of the ten funniest comedies ever created without a shadow of a doubt.

Making its way to Blu-Ray for the first time, Disney has cleaned up the transfer quite nicely and given a great sound mix. It’s just a shame that they couldn’t come up with a better package for it. While the film was constructed to appeal to as wide of an audience as possible, the special features are definitely made with the kids in mind. Aside from an amusing camera test to see if the puppets would actually work in natural outdoor lighting (highlighted by the riffing of Henson and right hand man Frank Oz), everything else is fairly lacking. There’s a version of Durning’s hilariously off kilter commercial for his restaurant glimpsed outside of the TV screen Kermit and Fozzy watch it on. There’s a strangely worked “For Your Consideration” teaser trailer and what might be one of the best proper trailers for a film ever constructed. Outside of that, there’s just a three song selection of tunes from the film to karaoke to. There should be more to this package, but the movie is far more than enough on its own to warrant buying it. (Andrew Parker)

Sword in the Stone

The Sword in the Stone (Wolfgang Reitherman, 1963) – You would be hard pressed to find anyone who would ever call The Sword in the Stone their favourite Disney animated feature. It makes its way to Blu-Ray in time for its 50th anniversary, but the lack of any real fanfare about it should be telling. It’s scattershot, episodic, largely forgettable white noise that will appeal to the very young, but hardly anyone else. It’s a shame because buried within the actual source material is something that would be tailor-made for an old school Walt Disney production. At the time it was received quite tepidly, and now it’s really more of a curiosity that marks off a transition period for the house the mouse built instead of establishing a new one.

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Loosely based on the first story in T.H. White’s tetrology The Once and Future King (itself based on Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur), go-to Disney storyteller Bill Pete penned this look at young Wart, a.k.a. Arthur, as an orphan boy being taught the ways of the world by the wizened wizard Merlin. He’s being raised as a page by the boorish father figure Hector who wants Wart to always remain a servant to his brawny older boys in kind of a reverse Cinderella situation.

Instead of actually creating characters or an appealing story almost three quarters of the film are set pieces that espouse sometimes disjointed and muddled moral tales. It plays more like random episodes of a longer television series instead of an actual film. Instead of doing what Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Pinocchio, and even Dumbo (all of which Pete worked on) usually pulled off in terms of making fully realized characters, the film simply sets up occasions to turn Arthur into a fish, a squirrel, and a bird to learn different life lessons that really won’t have any bearing whatsoever on him actually becoming a leader later in life. The titular sword gets spoken of at the beginning (and not at all in an alternate opening available on the Blu-Ray that just pretty much launches into the nothingness of it all), and then never comes back into play until the last five minutes of the film without building or really reminding of its importance.

It’s all uncharacteristically lazy, but that might have to do with the increasing unhappiness of Pete working for Disney. His Merlin is based almost entirely on Walt, who Pete saw as a boundlessly playful, but incredibly stubborn and aloof man. He would leave following a fight with Disney about the direction of their next feature, The Jungle Book, which would ultimately end up being one of the best films the studio ever produced.

One of the good things to come out of this sadly messy affair, however, was the installation of director Wolfgang Reitherman as the studio’s all-time-director for the better part of a decade. The former chief animator became the first person to ever direct an animated film for the studio entirely on his own with no one else helping. He would continue making every animation the studio produced until 1977, an almost impossible to touch benchmark now. And if there’s anything that’s right about The Sword in the Stone, it’s the direction and look of everything. Despite not a lot going on, it always moves at an agreeable pace and the new Blu-Ray fully restores all the rich colours and cell animation at work.

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The Blu-Ray also comes with a very nice remastered 5.1 DTS-MA audio track, and not very shockingly decides to focus on anything other than the film for its special features. Aside from the previously mentioned jettisoned opening, there’s an old Walt Disney Presents episode where Walt just goes around performing magic tricks, a brief documentary on the musical stylings of the Sherman Brothers (making their first appearance on a Disney production, as well, but still not adding much of anything memorable), and a pair of old school shorts (one with Mickey and one with Goofy) that are easily the best things about the disc. It’s a shame because there has always seemed to be more going on behind the scenes of this one that no one has really been letting on. Let’s hope we won’t have to wait another 50 years to hear the whole story. (Andrew Parker)

Swamp Thing

Swamp Thing  (Wes Craven, 1982) – Shout Factory is one of the most interesting home video companies around right now, not just because they’re releasing cult movies in impressive packages, but because they’re digging up a lot of damaged, campy gems and giving them the A-plus treatment. Case in point: their new Swamp Thing Blu-Ray. The film isn’t a classic and has plenty of glaring flaws, but it’s an interesting little flick filled with wonderful behind the scenes stories of a production gone wrong. It’s the type of film that used to get a cursory DVD release, but thanks to Shout now has a full on special edition. You can’t call it “great” or even “fully realized,” but it’s a deliriously enjoyable watch with the right mindset.

The tale comes from Len Wein’s original 70s Swamp Thing run for DC comics. It’s a sort of mix of superhero mythology and EC Comics horror, one ideally suited for the big screen treatment by a younger and emerging director director like Wes Craven. At least for the first 40 minutes or so Craven delivers a perfectly entertaining comic book origin story with some wonderful sequences (particularly a science compound raid led by Last House Of The Left star David Hess rocking a ridiculous curls and a bandana that concludes with one of the most dangerous man-on-fire stunts ever filmed). Unfortunately, Wes wasn’t a genre power player at the time and the rickety production led by the future producers of all things Batman promised more money than they had and the filmmaker was forced to cut the script drastically while working. So, from that point on the special effects go from passable to terrible and whether intended or not the movie turns into a comedy.

The biggest problems are the special effects, and particularly the Swamp Thing suit itself. The face is fine, and when filmed in shadow it’s effective. However, most of the movie was shot in bright daylight, making a tragic creature look like six feet of rubber. Presented in a meticulously restored HD transfer, the suit is extra laughable. Now you can even see holes in the cheap rubber costume caused by the unexpected erosion from shoving it into swamp water. That’s not even the worst effect in the movie (the villain’s costume would have been rejected by Power Rangers for being too unrealistic), and that’s part of the charm of the movie. Craven tried for a Frankenstein-style tragic monster and ended up with 80s camp. The movie has become something of a cult classic in the ensuing years and now Craven was even happy to pop up for an entertaining audio commentary on the Shout Factory release.

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Much like their Halloween III disc, Swamp Thing is filled with features where the creators laugh about how things went wrong, while still smiling about the unexpected legacy of cult success. Wes spins some hilarious yarns and giggles through the feature in a surprisingly jovial commentary from the former academic, revealing that the entire last third of the movie was reconceived on the fly during production, and that a certain famous explosion was much bigger than intended and could have easily cost a ballsy stuntman his life. Adrienne Barbeau also pops up for an interview were she happily discusses the troubled production, including why certain cuts of the film (though not the one featured here) included some nudity that she never intended to be seen. Former child actor Reggie Batts also pops up to recall being discovered locally and shoved into a strange role. Swamp Thing creator Len Wein gets a chance to discuss the origin of the character and his love/hate relationship with the film.

Hopefully now that super hero movies are a multi-billion dollar industry someone (ideally Guillermo Del Toro) will get a chance to deliver on Alan Moore’s iconic take on the character in what could be a genre-bending masterpiece. But for now, Swamp Thing’s cinematic legacy is an enjoyable slice of 80s cheese more than worth an afternoon of entertainment when framed by Shout’s hysterical and informative special features. It ain’t a classic, but it sure is a fun time capsule from a now unthinkable time when no one would dare to take comic books seriously. (Phil Brown)

Kentucky Fried Movie

Kentucky Fried Movie (John Landis, 1977) – Some movies age like wine, others become relics. The Kentucky Fried Movie falls into the dated category, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The sketch comedy combines the talents of the ZAZ (Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and David Zucker) and John Landis right before they made their iconic, career launching comedy hits Animal House and Airplane! The film was released just as SNL was exploding on television and the edgy underground comedy of Second City and National Lampoon started to slide into the mainstream. Seen in a theater in 1977, The Kentucky Fried Movie must have felt like a subversive new comedy experience, finally offering all the filth, satire, parody, and poo jokes the kids loved on the big screen. Watched today, the movie obviously doesn’t have the shock of the new to its advantage anymore, but there are some big laughs (along with stinkers) and the film’s influence on the decades of comedy to follow is deeper than just launching the careers of some famous behind the scenes players. I suppose that’s the very definition of a cult movie, and like all cult movies these days, it’s now debuting on Blu-Ray thanks to the good folks at Shout Factory.

Based on the ZAZ team’s live comedy shows, The Kentucky Fried Movie is a sketch movie. and as a result it’s as hit and miss as those ventures tend to be. It was John Cleese who famously pointed out that sketch doesn’t really work in the feature-length format, as audience exhaustion from all the starting-and-stopping tends to set in after an hour. That’s certainly true of The Kentucky Fried Movie, but at least the digital age provides chapter selection and pausing to ease the pain. When the movie’s flying, it can be crudely brilliant, like the bizarre fake exploitation trailers made decades before Grindhouse (Cleopatra Schwartz, anyone?), the filthy shot-on-video news parodies, and most famously/successfully a dead on Airplane!-style spoof of Enter The Dragon that takes up a good 30 minutes of the running time.

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The ZAZ team’s Mad inspired comedy formula of pummeling the audience with fresh jokes every few seconds applies, while John Landis’ cinematic eye and love of gorilla costumes flavors the proceedings nicely. Aside from a few particularly raunchy bits (like a delightfully outrageous faux sexploitation trailer) the movie doesn’t have nearly the same shock value that sold it in the 70s. It makes up for that with comedy nerd appeal, as it’s something of a ground zero for a certain brand of big screen comedy. You may not appreciate the legacy and if so, there’s no need to indulge. But for those who love the countless filthy comedies it inspired, The Kentucky Fried Movie is a fascinating little relic packed with 83 minutes of vastly influential comedy. The hit-to-miss ratio is surprisingly high as well, making this one of the most successful entries in the troubled sketch comedy film genre.

Shout Factory’s new Blu-Ray spruces up the visuals as much as possible. Make no mistake, this was a shoestring production that often went for a deliberately low-fi aesthetic. It’s never going to clean up pretty, so expect plenty of film grain and blurred video. But within the limitations of the source (and particularly during the EntertThe Dragon parody that sucked up most of the budget), The Kentucky Fried Movie looks quite rich and cinematic. It’s certainly the best it’s ever looked on home video at the very least.

On the special features front, a hilariously exuberant commentary from ZAZ, John Landis, and producer Robert K. Weiss is carried over from the old DVD that’s just as funny as the movie itself (well, during the film’s slow bits anyways). To add a little new value for folks who had that DVD, Shout also conducted an hour long interview with David and Jerry Zucker. It’s a fantastic piece delving not only into Kentucky Fried Movie, but also their comedy influences, early careers, Airplane!, and even their collaboration split that led to Jerry making Ghost. It’s possibly the finest interview ever conducted with the Zuckers, which combined with an HD edition of The Kentucky Fried Movie makes this one hell of a treat for comedy nerds. Now if only Shout could go ahead and release a Blu-Ray of Top Secret!, then we’d really be talking.  (Phil Brown)

The Producers

The Producers (Mel Brooks, 1968) – As The Kentucky Fried Movie proves, shock comedy doesn’t always hold up over time. But as The Producers proves, that really doesn’t matter if the jokes are painfully, unbearably funny. Sadly, when most people hear the title The Producers these days, they think of the musical. That’s not to say it wasn’t a wonderful piece of theater, because it was. But the massive, perennial success of that Broadway show has sadly erased the original film from the memory of anyone above a certain age or below a certain level of obsession with classic comedy. That’s something that needs to be addressed immediately, because few movies are as hysterical as the original and as fun as the musical is, you just can’t top the casting of Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder. It’s impossible. I dare you to try.

The plot follows a sleazy theatrical producer (Mostel) and squealing accountant (Wilder) who figure out a scam that would allow them to make more money off of a Broadway flop than a hit. So they go out of their way to create the worst show in the history of Broadway, hiring a local Nazi to whip up a musical ode to the Fuhrer and then casting a hippie as the lead. Of course, this being a comedy, Springtime for Hitler is a massive hit and wacky failure/comeuppance are handed out to our anti-heroes.

The film succeeds not just with the outrageous gags, but through tight-plotting, iconic characters, and two of the funniest lead performances in the history of laughter. Mostel’s raging aggression and Wilder’s raging neuroses are a match made in comedy heaven. The laughs come simply from looking at the duo sharing the screen, then hit hard and long thanks to the finest and edgiest script Mel Brooks ever wrote. The comedy icon may have followed up The Producers with movies packed with more jokes, but he never found a story this original or satisfying. Hard it might be to believe, Brooks won an Oscar from the comedy loathing Academy for the script. Thankfully, he deserved it. Scripts this dense and strong come once a career you’re lucky, and Mel certainly had plenty of luck to go with his mountains of talent.

The Producers arrives on Blu-Ray in a pleasing package. It might not boast the stylized visuals of his follow ups Young Frankenstein or Blazing Saddles, but it was shot on 60s era film stock with the type of gorgeous pastel Technicolor that simply doesn’t translate to DVD. Every color pops of the screen in a way that isn’t remotely realistic, and yet it suits Brooks’ wild and crazy comedy style. The final musical numbers alone are worth the HD upgrade, but getting to see the sweat slip out of each individual pore on Wilder’s face doesn’t hurt either.

In addition to making the film look pretty, Shout Factory also ensured the disc was packed with features. The hour long documentary from MGM’s old DVD arrives and is absolutely wonderful, filled with contributions from cast and crew members who aren’t around to do it today. Also ported over are a deleted scene, a reading of Peter Sellers’ infamous praise for the film, and some trailers. As a nice new addition, Shout tossed in a fresh 20-minute interview with Brooks featuring comments on a variety of Producers origin stories left off the doc, as well as some chatter on the musical. Perhaps the best part is just how energetic and downright goofy contemporary Mel Brooks is when discussing the movie. It’s enough to make you wish Hollywood would give him one more shot at a big screen comedy even though it’ll never happen. At least there’s a remarkable career of Mel Brooks joints to enjoy, even if he never quite matched the perfection of his debut again. (Phil Brown)

 Revolution

Revolution (Rob Stweart, 2013) – Coming out earlier this year with a wider release than any Canadian made documentary in history, Rob Stewart’s Revolution takes a pretty simplistic, but undeniably personal look at the steps we all need to take to make our world a lot more liveable on an ecological level. The science isn’t all this shocking in this pseudo-sequel to Stewart’s own critically acclaimed Sharkwater, but for as bland as the film is sometimes on a factual level, there’s a really interesting and raggedy charm that Stewart brings to the film just by being himself.

Concerning how we might all the on the brink of extinction thanks to our own unhealthy reliance on everything that depletes the world of its natural resources, one of the best moments in the film comes early on. It shows the almost exact impetus for the film. At a screening of his previous film in Hong Kong, someone asks him something he very clearly never thought about: Why save only sharks if in about 60 or so years everything in the world’s oceans will be dead anyway? The look of shock on his face as he stammers to put together some kind of bullshit answer is priceless, and yet, it works because it sets Stewart down a new road of activism on a much more global scale.

Stewart effectively comes across as someone who has pretty much seen the face of the future and he’s terrified by what he saw, and for better or worse, the film feels genuine and heartfelt. The problem with making something so very much from-the-hip is that sometimes the factual basis of the story feels rote and passé. Talks with activists and scientists about how climate change is more than just an atmospheric issue won’t surprise anyone familiar with the basics.

But how Stewart interacts with those people yields the best footage. Acting as his own cameraman he can’t even hide how viscerally he feels about the situation when he isn’t front and centre. As a straight-up documentary it doesn’t raise the advocacy game even slightly. Yet by that same token, that same unique personability that Revolution has could make this an invaluable future resource for high school teachers and anyone looking for very basic ways of making the world a better place.

The Blu-Ray captures all of Stewart’s splendid photography quite nicely. Special features include a making-of featurette and tips on how to start your own ecological revolution. (Andrew Parker)

The Fog

The Fog (John Carpenter, 1980) – Made immediately after the record breaking success of Halloween, The Fog was John Carpenter’s attempt at a good old fashioned ghost story. After essentially inventing the slasher movie, Carpenter wanted nothing more but to take a step back into the shadows and offer viewers an old timey collection of jump scares, suspense, and atmosphere so thick it affects the audience’s breathing pattern. There was only one problem: it didn’t work. With the gore era taking off, audiences had no taste for slow burn spookies. So, Carpenter added a bunch of ghost pirate gore shots at the last minute and ended up with a movie that wasn’t quite old timey or modern. Looking back now, The Fog is a strange mix of sensibilities that combine for something that might not be one of the director’s best, but certainly his most underrated. I guess that’s what tickled Shout Factory’s fancy when they decided to give the flick the Blu-Ray treatment.

The movie opens with a campfire ghost story about a haunted pirate ship to set the scene and then delivers that exact type of experience, 80s horror style. Carpenter weaves a story about a fishing town haunted by an ancient curse, combining competing narratives about a whole village worth of 80s genre actors like Jamie Lee Curtis, Adrienne Barbeau, and Tom Atkins, as well as a few classic Hollywood types like Janet Leigh and John Houseman. Who they are and what they do doesn’t really matter that much.

Carpenter and his then filmmaking/life partner Debra Hill weave a fairly well crafted narrative, but ultimately it’s all just an excuse to get the cast in tricky situations fighting off fog covered ghost pirates in the dark. The results are just as fun as it sounds, and with Carpenter in charge every shot is carefully calculated to create unease and the scares still hold up. Carpenter was every bit the audience manipulator that Spielberg was in the 70s and 80s. He was just committed to genre movies that kept his budgets low and respect from the critical and Hollywood community even lower. Time tends to erase such snobbery and these days his early work holds up remarkably well. The Fog might not pack the punch of Halloween or The Thing and it certainly has its share of cornball moments/dialogue, but you’d be hard pressed to find a contemporary American horror film more lovingly and carefully crafted with a cast this good. It’s about time someone stepped up to fill that man’s void.

The Fog looks easily better than ever has before on the new Shout Blu-Ray, however, that statement comes with some reservations. The film was shot for less than $1 million using mostly natural light and fast grain film stock. That look gives the film a dark, unnerving atmosphere, but isn’t ideal for Blu-Ray. Colors rarely get enough light to pop, and wide shots are often filtered through layers of grain. As long as you know that’s what’s you’re getting the film has a faithfully vintage cinematic look. Just don’t expect it to pop like a blockbuster. The HD audio mix on the other hand suits the upgrade quite well, with Carpenter’s synth score and loud folly effects sure to freak out your neighbors as much as yourself. The Blu-Ray also rounds up the documentary, audio commentary (with Carpenter and Hill) as well as other bits and bobs like outtakes, trailers, and effects test shots from the old MGM DVD. That was a fantastic disc, so it’s nice to see it all here.

On the new feature front we get a fresh audio commentary from production designer/editor Tommy Lee Wallace, Tom Atkins, and Adrienne Barbeau that’s much more jovial and entertaining than the original track, if not as informative. Then there’s a wonderful interview with Jamie Lee Curtis looking back at her entire career as a scream queen, with some less than kind things to say about some of her less than fantastic movies from the period. Legendary Cinematographer Dean Cundey also delivers an 18-minute interview about his 8 year collaboration with Carpenter that’s fascinating for photography snobs given how influential their work turned out to be. Finally, there’s a tour guide of the film’s location for the horror geeks to round out a jam packed disc that should make any Fog fan giggle with delight and will probably win over some new fans to one of the hidden gems of the golden age of horror movies. (Phil Brown)



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