DVD Round-Up: 6/14/13

Oz the Great and Powerful

Oz: The Great And Powerful (Sam Raimi, 2013) – As one of the most iconic movies ever made wraps up, the great Wizard Of Oz we were all promised is proven not to be a giant floating green head made of magic, but a sad little man just pretending he had those abilities. Weirdly, that scene feels like an appropriate metaphor for Disney’s new decades late prequel about that very wizard. The studio spared no expense on their $200 million recreation of Hollywood legend and brought in almost $500 million worldwide for their troubles. This version of Oz is massive and candy colored with cute creatures crammed into ever corner of the expensive frames (even popping out at the audience in 3D from time to time because that’s still a thing that blockbusters do). The trouble is that it’s not a genuinely magical Oz picture. Nope, it’s just an average-at-best family blockbuster pretending to be a classic. There’s definitely a disappointment felt in discovering the man behind the curtain in this turkey, but I suppose that’s what we should have all expected. The wizard was always a charlatan folks, how could his movie be anything else?

A particularly dazed and confused James Franco steps into the wizard’s shoes for an origin story of sorts that introduces the wicked witch and other iconic characters because that seemed like the thing to do. It’s overflowing with references to the original without ever eliciting a fraction of wonder, laughter, and joy from the audience that the 74-year-classic can still achieve. The film is a sad wasted opportunity from director Sam Raimi, who previously had no problem cramming movies full of exciting spectacle, in jokes, and memorable characters in his Evil Dead trilogy, Darkman, and the first two Spider-man pictures But here, Raimi seems stifled by a tired script that’s driven more by merchandising opportunities than storytelling opportunities. Acting is wooden and jokes are tiresome from the black and white opening to the CGI factory finish. The whole thing is about as impersonal and technically driven as Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland and should have the same quick journey from theatrical hit to forgotten obscurity. To be fair, it’s not a total disaster featuring some remarkable effects and sequences. The trouble is that combination of talent and source material should have lead to something magical rather than something so predictable. Ah well, at lest Return To Oz still exists.

On the plus side, Disney remains one of the best studios for home video release and the disc is at least treated with the love and care that the script deserved. The transfer is absolutely gorgeous and suits the blue screen/CGI overload aesthetic better than theaters since HDTVs are more forgiving to digital manipulation. The special feature section is also quite robust. Things kick off with one of those IPAD second screen behind-the-scenes tracks that don’t quite work as well as they should just yet. The standard making of doc is replaced by a 20-minute video journal by James Franco featuring candid interviews with the cast and crew that is actually more amusing and in-depth than the usual EPK fluff piece. Then there’s a ten-minute doc about Walt Disney’s obsession with Oz with some wonderful archival footage of Walt staging Oz scenes with The Mickey Mouse Club and a few of ten minute docs about Danny Elfman’s score, the Oz design team, and the wicked witch make up crew that are all a little too brief, but well produced. Finally there are some particularly dull bloopers if you feel like watching Zach Braff giggle and that’s it. There are certainly some missed opportunities on the disc like not including a track from audio commentary master Sam Raimi, but overall it’s a pretty fantastic Blu-ray package. In fact, if you felt like being cruel you might even say it’s a better package than the movie deserves. That is a bit harsh…too bad it’s true.

 Medium Cool

Medium Cool (Haskell Wexler, 1969) – The trouble with making a movie that’s topical and perfectly captures a specific time and place is that it tends to age almost instantly and can often unfairly slide into obscurity as a result. Such was the case with Medium Cool, a groundbreaking mixture of documentary and fiction made by legendary cinematographer (Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Wolf, In The Heat Of The Night) and documentary filmmaker Haskell Wexler, who shot the movie in the blazing hot Chicago summer of 1968 that peaked with infamous police riot at the Democratic convention. Wexler was commissioned to make a feature film about an impoverished child, but once he arrived in Chicago and smelled blood in the air, he shifted tactics to make a movie of the moment that peaked with an unforgettable climax that shoved his characters into the disgusting chapter of American history. Revered at the time, Medium Cool slowly disappeared into obscurity in the ensuing decades with politically indifferent audiences gradually losing interest and music rights disputes preventing any consistent home video release. Now Criterion has rescued Medium Cool for an unexpected Blu-Ray release and while the film doesn’t quite stand up to the drooling praise critics slathered all over it at the time, it remains an undeniably fascinating and unique project that will likely never be matched in it’s fascinating fudging of truth and fiction.

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The great Robert Forster stars as a TV news cameraman willing to go anywhere and do anything for a shot. The film opens with Forster and his soundman shooting a bloody car accident, careful to get as much clean footage as possible before bothering to call the police. From there, Forster moves onto interviewing activists, impoverished Chicago residents, gun nuts (cue hilarious Peter Boyle cameo), and most chillingly the national guard practicing riot control techniques and being taught to dole out violence. There’s not much of a plot there since pretty well all of the subjects are real, but it all boils towards a scene where Forster discovers his footage is being given to the FBI and quits in a rage of journalistic integrity. While that plot chugs along we’re also introduced to Verna Bloom’s impoverished single mother who moved to Chicago to start over. She meets Forster and they do the love dance, but her son (the excellent Harold Blankenship in his only screen role) catches them kissing and runs away. Bloom sets out to try and find the boy and ends up in the middle of the 1968 democratic convention, just in time to see the peaceful protest explode with police brutality.

The actual plot of Medium Cool is fairly meaningless. The moment to moment realism of the scenes and performances is impressive, but Wexler seems to get bored with the material as the film wears on and turns his attention increasingly towards the documentary material (he essentially discards the characters in the end, which is fair because he never could have predicted the extremity of the riot footage and no tied up fiction could top it as a conclusion). Understandably so, that’s what gives the film its power and prescience. Watching Bloom in her vibrant yellow dress wandering through the destructive riot is one of the most haunting and unique images in cinema history and the overall portrait of Chicago in the summer of 1968 is remarkably insightful. With Forster playing a cameraman onscreen, the door is open for exploration of media ethics and the value of turning life into infotainment, which then feeds back into Medium Cool itself. Wexler wisely offers no comfortable conclusions to the questions he raises, instead turning his camera on himself in the conclusion to suggest all forms of visual media are subject to the same critique. It’s a film more intriguing than enlightening, but the fact that the issues raised and the fact/fiction games played are often just as relevant today and have not been matched or topped by other filmmakers in the ensuing decades speaks to just how special Medium Cool really is.

Criterion presents Medium Cool with a gorgeous transfer above and beyond any other release the film has received. Obviously Wexler’s natural light, documentary shooting techniques lead to grainy, shaky images so the film will never pop on Blu like Fast Five, but that’s almost irrelevant. This is how the film is supposed to look and it’s gorgeous. The only unfortunate issue is that Criterion was not able to reinstate the Wild Man Fischer song that was originally on the soundtrack due to rights disputes with the Zappa estate, so like the previous DVD the Harlem Globetrotters theme is inserted instead and it’s just as distractingly out of place as it was before. The disc comes with two audio commentaries, one imported from the previous DVD with Wexler, editor Paul Golding, and actress Marianna Hill, which is filled with information and sadly plenty of silences during a few crucial sequences worthy of discussion. The second commentary comes from historian Paul Cronin who expertly puts the film within historical context in a track that is vital listening for those unfamiliar with the time and events the film explores.

Want more extras? Don’t worry Criterion’s got your back. First up is an hour of footage from the brilliant BBC documentary Look Out Haskell, It’s Real that is filled with fascinating insights about the production (including the fact that the title line seemingly shouted at the director when actual tear gas is launched at the camera was actually dubbed in later, further complicating the film’s relationship between truth and fiction). Unfortunately that doc has also been truncated due to rights issues, but what included in no less interesting. Next up is about 15 minutes of footage from a documentary about the long lost child star of the movie Harold Blankenship, a new interview with Wexler, and perhaps best of all Wexler’s 30-minute film Medium Cool Revisited, which he shot last year at the 2012 Nato summit that chillingly shows just how many of the issues and explosions of police brutality depicted in the 1969 film are still playing out today.

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Overall, it’s one hell of a package (it is Criterion, so I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised) that finally offers up a genuine lost classic for new audiences after ten years in out-of-print limbo and stacks the deck with piles of fascinating special features about one of the most unconventional film productions in history. With digital cameras becoming increasingly beautiful and easy to conceal, there’s a chance that someone else might be lucky and talented enough to pull off a fact/fiction mix like Medium Cool again in the future. But for now, this is one of the few genuine one-of-a-kind movies that exists and it’s hard to imagine anyone creating doc/fiction mix as powerful as what Haskell Wexler managed to pull off in the tumultuous summer of 1968.

 National Lampoons Vacation

 National Lampoon’s Vacation: 30th Anniversary Edition (Harold Ramis, 1983) – Christmas Vacation might get more play on cable around Christmas, but for anyone who cares or pays attention the original National Lampoon’s Vacation remains the finest and funniest entry in the awkward adventures of the Griswolds. Made on for a low budget by a National Lampoon film wing that was desperate to recapture the success of Animal House, Vacation came out with small expectations and terrible reviews, yet somehow still launched a franchise. Made by a collection of genius comedy minds hitting their creative peak, Vacation remains one of the great American comedies despite some cringe worthy sequences that haven’t aged well. It’s a perfect mix of universal observations about family BS from John Hughes and the vaguely radical comedy of a young Harold Ramis who delighted in tearing down American values with movies that half-heartedly and satirically confirmed them. Plus it has that scene where Chevy Chase promises the family will have “so much fucking fun you’ll be whistling ‘Zip-A-Dee Doo-Dah’ out of you’re assholes,” and that’s pretty great too.

So if you haven’t heard, the Vacation movies are that Chevy Chase franchise where he plays an overcompensating geeky super-dad for whom no good deed goes unpunished. In the first chapter he promises to take the family to a barely concealed Disney World stand in Walley World and somehow manages to commit infidelity, get his son drunk, crash a car, kill a dog, kidnap John Candy, and tie an old woman’s corpse to the roof of his car along the way. Yep, there was a time when John Hughes was a subversive comedy voice and National Lampoon’s Vacation was the peak. The family values and good times vibe that defines the franchise is very much there in the original, but times were different and Harold Ramis also smuggled them into an R-rated romp taking the piss out of family and American values along the way. Chase has never been better, Beverly D’Angelo has never been more charming or naked, Anthony Michael Hall never had more pronounced braces, Eugene Levy and John Candy delivered two of their greatest cameo roles, and even Randy Quaid’s iconic Uncle Eddie had a sad, dark, and possibly incestuous core. If you’re used to edited cable TV broadcasts of Vacation, it might come as a bit of a surprise just how subversive the film actually is. But at the same time, it’s only as dark as any comedy featuring John Candy making funny faces on a rollercoaster can be.

You wouldn’t think that National Lampoon’s Vacation would be an ideal choice for a Blu-Ray release and yet this is the second time the movie has made it on an HD disc. The transfer for this disc is identical to the 2010 release. It’s nice, but Harold Ramis’ early movies weren’t exactly renowned for their visual experimentation. He shot in a fairly straightforward style that put performance first and his flicks were always funnier for it. Granted Vacation is a little better in HD then say Caddyshack given that the road movie set up and amusement park finale does feature a handful of postcard beauty shots, but it’s not exactly the reason to buy the disc.

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The special features that have been kicking around on Vacation DVDs for a decade remain including a hysterical, if scattershot audio commentary featuring Harold Ramis, Chevy Chase, Randy Quaid, Anthony Michael Hall, Dana Barron, and Matty Simmons. That’s a lot of voices on one track and can get just as confusing as you’d imagine, but it’s also a group of people who clearly like each other and enjoy a good josh or three, so it’s a funny listen.

The big new addition on the disc is a 90-minute documentary about the making of the film commissioned by A&E. Even though restrictive TV editing prevents much discussion about the R-rated aspects of the film, virtually everything else is covered from the original ending that was deleted for sucking all the laughs out of the theater and the day that Chevy Chase got so fed up by the desert heat that he kicked a suitcase at Harold Ramis in the middle of a shot. It’s a pretty hilarious and info-packed doc that reveals plenty of behind the scenes details about the film that have never been out there before. I’m not sure if it’s reason enough to buy the Blu-ray again if you already have the other version. But certainly if you’ve never picked up a copy of Vacation the awesome doc makes this the disc to get. As the sweat stains currently under my pits confirm, summer is officially here and National Lampoon’s Vacation is one of the great summer time comedies. If you’re lucky enough not to have to face the horrors of a family car trip this summer, the movie is a nice blast of nostalgia. If you will be forced into that fate, it’s a nice way to ease the pain. Either way, this sucker is a comedy classic for a reason and if you’ve never seen it, you’ve clearly been wasting your life (ok, maybe that’s too harsh. But you should see it. It’s funny, I swear!)

 Safety Last

Safety Last! (Harold Lloyd, 1923) – Film buffs might still explode into rounds of sweaty rage debating whether or not the heartfelt Charlie Chaplin or the death wish stunt specialist Buster Keaton was the true genius of the silent comedy era, but sadly Harold Lloyd has been lost in the debate. In some ways it’s appropriate that the perpetual big screen loser has been tossed aside all these years later, but it’s a mistake to simply dismiss the silent slapstick specialist in favor of his more famous contemporaries. Thankfully Criterion have continued to do their lords work of film preservation and given Lloyd a little overdue love with a gorgeous Blu-ray restoration of his 1923 masterpiece Safety Last! Orson Welles once dubbed the movie “an impeccable piece of comic architecture” and he wasn’t talking trash. Known mostly for the iconic image of Lloyd dangling off of the hands of a clock face (constantly referenced in flicks like Back To The Future), the film is a perfect work of silent slapstick silliness that can still get plenty of laughs out of anyone willing to giggle without sound.

Harold Lloyd stars as a country boy who moves to the big city to make it big, but ends up as little more than a cog in a department store machine. Of course, his gal back home doesn’t know that. Lloyd keeps sending her letters bragging about how successful he is and she decides to take the train into town to see him. So, as you’d expect that leads to a bunch of ridiculous lies and misunderstandings in an attempt to keep the ruse alive. Eventually Lloyd ends up having to climb to the top of the building in a publicity stunt, additional silliness ensues, la la la, happily ever after. It’s pretty simplistic stuff like all silent comedies. The genius is in the execution. Lloyd as director does a remarkable job of executing a simple set up that pays off with endless gags. The plot is as much a collection of joke payoffs as it is story beats and the laughs come furiously. When the big building climb comes, the death defying stunts Lloyd pulls off still pack a nausea-inducing punch. It’s insane that Lloyd was willing to put himself on the line and go that far for a laugh and the even the Jackass crew should be jealous. The life threatening stupidity was certainly worth it though. 90 years later the movie still holds up as one of the greatest big screen comedies ever made.

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The transfer Criterion whipped up for the disc is pretty impressive. Sure there’s some grain and print damage, but for a flick this old what do you expect? Still, the depth and clarity is remarkable and given all of the crowd scenes and cityscapes on display in the building clinging finale, there are plenty of wonderful scenes that take full advantage of the HD presentation. The film has never looked remotely close to this good before and Criterion deserves a round of applause and a few rounds of drinks for pulling it off. On top the feature, Criterion also cleaned up and included three classic Lloyd shorts as well in Take A Chance, Young Mr. Jazz, and His Royal Slyness. The shorts aren’t ambitious or carefully restored as Safety Last, but they are pitch perfect works of silent comedy choreography and nice way to introduce viewers to ever more of his sadly forgotten body of work. Ontop of that are a sweet introduction from Harold’s granddaughter/preservationist Suzanne Lloyd, a wonderfully informative audio commentary track from Leonard Maltin and Richard Correl (one of the most detailed film historian tacks Criterion has ever produced), a documentary by John Bengtson describing how the stunts/effects were achieved, an interview with conductor Carl Davis on his 1989 Safety Last score, and an excellent two-part 1989 documentary about Lloyd’s life narrated by Lindsay Anderson. Overall, it’s an incredible Blu-ray package that not only provides an impressive archive for Safety Last, but also the life and work of Harold Lloyd himself. It’s an invaluable disc for silent movie buffs is frankly also a damn entertaining watch for those who have never dabbled in that particular brand of old timey entertainment before (just read the dialogue cards out loud if it bothers you that much).

Town That Dreaded Sundown

The Town That Dreaded Sundown (Charles B. Pierce, 1976)As Shout Factory continues its bid to usurp Blue Underground as the definitive horror movie Blu-Ray label, they’ve started to inch their way into genre movie deep cuts. It’s not enough to keep horror fans happy by just releasing Halloween sequels and Tobe Hooper joints. Nope, you’ve got to dig a little deeper than that into the cult movies amongst cult movie fanatics. And so we come to releases like their latest, The Town That Dreaded Sundown.

This 1976 serial killer picture was something of a proto-slasher movie, offering up elaborate kills bordering on the surreal and a masked killer practically begging to be an icon (in fact, he would kind of become one when the folks behind Friday The 13th Part 2 practically stole the costume wholesale for the first version of Jason). It’s definitely a movie that anyone who adores horror should see at least once. However, it’s sadly not a forgotten masterpiece. The Town That Dreaded Sundown is as flawed as it is influential, but at least worth a look for one scene alone.

Loosely based on a true story, the film is about a hooded serial killer known as “The Phantom” who terrorized a small Arkansas in 1946. A handful of people were murdered and all of the children were actually sent away for a few years out of fear that they would become the next victim. Of course, that’s not really in the movie. It’s actually more of a police procedural following Andrew Prine’s small town deputy struggling to deal with the murders, while Western Hollywood legend (The Wild Bunch, The Last Picture Show) pops up as an out of town ringer brought in to track down the killer.

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The movie flip flops from being pure drive-in sleaze to something more serious, often from scene to scene. At times an awkwardly serious voiceover explains the characters’ backstories in an attempt to add a sense of reality and gravity to the tale. Then there will be scenes when the killer stages elaborate slasher kills like stabbing a woman to death with a knife attached to a trombone (actual scene, not a joke). The result is a bizarre flick that is neither art nor trash with as many intriguing sequences as laughable tossed off sequences of B-movie silliness. That’s part of the movie’s considerable charm and also the primary reason why the film isn’t a universally beloved classic. It’s earned a deserved cult status for being ahead of it’s time in the horror genre, but probably won’t ever extend to an audience much farther than genre movie obsessives due to it’s undeniable flaws. 

Shout Factory did treat the movie like a classic though and the fans should be thrilled. The transfer is surprisingly clean and clear, which is a bit of a miracle considering how difficult it must have been to track down the elements for the long lost exploitation movie (although the added definition doesn’t do one particularly distracting mistake involving an onscreen cameraman any favors). Andrew Prine and director of photographer James Robinson contribute some nice in-depth interviews filled with love for a movie that was significant in their early careers and are visibly delighted n’ shocked that it is still remembered. Actress Dawn Wells pops up for a five-minute interview to tell an amusing story about a pitbull in her death scene, but offers little else. Then there is an essay about the actual killer, a trailer, still galleries, and an commentary with two film scholars discuss the making of the film and how it departs from the actual events.

The best addition by far comes on the second disc, a DVD of The Town That Dreaded Sundown director Charles B. Pierce’s 1979 horror follow up The Evictors. Mixing haunted house and slasher conventions, its tale of a housewife stalked by a prowler in a dilapidated Southern house. Until the silly finale, The Evictors is an entirely worthy follow up with some great scares and strong performances from cult movie stalwarts Jessica Harper (Suspiria), Vic Morrow (The Twilight Zone), and Michael Parks (From Dusk Till Dawn). That’s got to be one of the most pleasant surprise special features in ages and turns this Bluray into one hell of a package. The film itself might not be quite as strong as it’s reputation suggests, but it’s a worthy addition to any 70s horror lover’s collection and with an extra movie tossed in as a bonus feature…well, how could you not want to pick this thing up?

 Airheads

Airheads (Michael Lehmann, 1994) – Some movies age and some movies date. It’s pretty well impossible to guess which option you’ll end up with, but somehow Michael Lehmann made two flicks in the latter category over his sadly shortened career. In the late 80s he made the pop culture defining Heathers, which pushed the shoulder pad teen sex comedy into a dark n’ twisted world of suicide and bombings that would be unthinkable today. Then in the 90s the man turned in Airheads, a fairly innocuous, but funny comedy at the time that now looks like a relic of a bygone area. It’s a virtual museum piece of 90s culture featuring grunge, hair metal, shock jocks, Michael Richards, Nerf, an Adam Sandler with cult appeal, crash test dummies (the actual dummies not the band), toy guns that look like the real thing, Chris Farley, Stretch Armstrong, and radio stations/record companies who actually had the power to make or break careers. Watching the movie as someone who didn’t live through the 90s must feel like watching a science fiction fantasy of alternate world. I have no idea how it would play to that crowd beyond utter confusion, but for those ho survived the 90s in tact, Airheads is an amusing blast from the past that actually holds up fairly well as a comedy even if seemingly every element on screen is intensely dated.

The plot is fairly threadbare, a struggling/stupid rock group (Brendan Fraser, Steve Buscemi, and Adam Sandler) decide to take drastic measures to jump start their career by taking a radio station hostage to force their demo on the air. It’s the type of high concept script that sold like gangbusters in the 90s, filled with all the generically snappy dialogue and half-hearted social commentary that implies. What makes it work comes down entirely to the cast. Back when he was still allowed to make movies, Michael Lehmann had a knack for casting and fills the movie with comedy talent who can deliver the laughs that aren’t always there in the script. The central trio isn’t exactly Spinal Tap, but they are more than capable: Brendan Fraser has always been fairly underrated as a bonehead lead, Steve Buscemi is an expert of angry whiny comedy, and Adam Sandler was still trying to create surreal comedy goofballs at the time. They charm up a storm, but some of the biggest laughs come around the edges from Joe Montegna’s Mamet-rant infused Shock Jock to Michael McKean’s sleazy (and hilariously ponytailed) radio station manager, Judd Nelson’s slick record exec with one of the most hysterically inappropriate soul patch wigs in the history of cinema, Chris Farley doing his loud-quiet spaz routine as a young cop, Beavis And Butthead making an unexpected cameo, and of course Michael Richards doing what Michael Richards does (a.k.a. Kramer routines).

The story can feel a little tiresome, but at least it’s unpredictable and filled with some amusing attacks on the formerly powerful record industry. Essentially, you’re watching the movie for the performances and those guys deliver (good thing too, since the faux rock hits don’t exactly rock). Other than that, it’s just amusing to see how many hilariously dated 90s references slip in (insert White Zombie and Stuttering John cameos here). Airheads is not a cult classic like Heathers for a reason. This isn’t an edgy dark comedy masterpiece. It’s a movie that movie executives decided kids would find cool in the 90s and everyone involved was just lucky that they hired a director and cast who could overcome the limitations of the script and still charm the pants of audiences all these years later.

The new Anchor Bay Blu-ray boasts a nice, clean transfer that’s leagues above any of the shoddy DVDs released over the years. And sadly that’s absolutely everything on the disc. There aren’t even menus or the music videos and in character promo-doc from the ancient Fox DVDs. That’s a shame, since it would be entertaining to hear what everyone thinks of the movie all these years later. But if you’re a fan of Airheads or 90s nostalgia, there’s no home video presentation of the movie that’s come remotely close to this before. So that’s something.

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