#082

Master And Commander Collector’s Edition
20th Century Fox DVD

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Fans of the Patrick O’Brian novels that inspired Peter Weir’s naval epic were doomed to be disappointed by a movie adaptation of these fanatically well-loved books, mostly because no filmmaker, regardless of their own love of O’Brian, would have been willing to devote scene after scene of their film to dense nautical arcana.

It would explain why they voiced the loudest chorus of disappointment with Weir’s film, which grafted two of the twenty “Lucky” Jack Aubrey novels together and cast Russell Crowe as a suitably macho man-of-war captain Aubrey. For anyone who’s made the investment of time necessary to read all of the books, a kind of hostage syndrome develops, where you want all that time spent reading about larboard and starboard, mizzen and fo’csle, to be rewarded with compensatory screen time.

It might also have been the casting of Paul Bettany as ships surgeon, naturalist and spy Stephen Maturin, a character that readers like Weir identified with O’Brian himself, and which more than a few landlubber fans have come to develop and affinity. Between one sea battle and another, and in the teeth of raging storms, Bettany scarcely has time to flesh out a Maturin that readers have gotten to know over almost two dozen books.

Perhaps you have to be a newcomer to O’Brian to really appreciate Master And Commander, the sort of salt-scarred sea epic that screams “boy movie” from the first cannon shot. The two-disc set includes a map of Aubrey’s voyage in the film, as well as a 28-page book rendered mostly redundant by a long, remarkably educational “making of” feature and a handful of featurettes.

This newcomer enjoyed it immensely, even more on a second viewing where Weir’s attention to detail – in pacing, in the shipboard set, in the gallery of faces – could be enjoyed.

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The Office Season Two
BBC DVD

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Ricky Gervais’ David Brent is probably the most brilliant comic character since Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm, which is an achievement only amplified by the fact that David is playing himself.

Brent is not the worst boss you could imagine having, but he’s the most irritating by a league, a hopelessly insecure, delusional twit who’ll do anything to be your friend. It’s not that he’ll overwork or tyrannize you, but that you’ll spend your days crushed between embarrassment and boredom, and a gnawing feeling that you’re wasting your life in the dessicatingly mediocre company of the world’s David Brents.

Season two begins with business as usual – the merging of the Swindon office into Brent’s Slough office – and ends with a cliffhanger, but the meat of the six episodes are Gervais’ cringingly hilarious moments with Brent as a motivational speaker, or showing off his freestyle dancing “skills” at an office party.

There’s an indelible quality to comedy of The Office; you’ll find yourself chuckling at scenes days or weeks later, cued perhaps by some sliver of inanity in your own working life. Comes with priceless deleted scenes, outtakes and a video diary of the shooting.

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The Alamo
MGM DVD

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Remember The Alamo
PBS DVD

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John Wayne’s 1960 film The Alamo is a very different beast from the somber film of the same name (starring Billy Bob Thornton in Wayne’s Davy Crockett role) just released to disappointing reviews this month.

Wayne’s film is mostly remembered as an embarrassment, a triumph of the actor’s crude patriotism over any particular filmmaking skills. It’s definitely the sort of film that began turning Wayne’s hypermasculine image into something of a self-parody, though it’s Richard Widmark as Jim Bowie who turns in the film’s most over-the-top performance, playing through a grimace that plays like chronic stomach upset.

A “making of” featurette included in the package includes vintage footage of Wayne stressing the film’s historical accuracy, a claim that was considered dubious at the time, and which seems fantastic in the light of Remember The Alamo, a PBS American Experience documentary released, like the 1960 film, to cash in on whatever interest the new film might have stirred up.

Joseph Tovares’ film has an overt political agenda: to reveal the role Tejanos – Mexican Texans – played in the revolt that created the Republic of Texas, and who died alongside Crockett and Bowie at the Alamo. The actual battle is dealt with in a few scenes, which reveals it to be more of a slaughter than the grand last stand in Wayne’s film.

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Richard III
Criterion DVD

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Laurence Olivier’s 1955 film of Shakespeare’s darkest historical play is a colourful, rich piece of work, stylized and pinned to Olivier’s spiky performance as the hunchbacked, morally repulsive usurper of the English throne.

Criterion’s reissue is a beautifully restored version that accentuates the garish hues of Olivier’s vision, a marriage of tapestry and cartoon. A second disc includes a wonderfully revealing 1966 interview with Olivier by the renowned theatre critic Kenneth Tynan, and a television trailer made on the set of the film.

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Helter Skelter
Warner Bros. DVD

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The 1976 TV movie of prosecuting attorney Vincent Bugliosi’s account of the trial of Charles Manson and his homicidal “family” is one of the cultural lodestones of the ‘70s, a decade that at its worst seemed little more than the ‘60s endless hangover.

Steve Railsback’s Manson was a revelation, a leering, fiercely charismatic psychopath that became the image of Manson most of us carried with us when we thought of the Tate-LaBianca murders. The film itself is typical TV product, all bright, flat lighting, stabbing zooms and meat cleaver edits, but it captures the sickly social paranoia of the era perfectly. No extras.

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The Haunted Mansion
Disney DVD

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Anyone hoping that Eddie Murphy would have a chance to expand one of his best early stand-up routines – why you never see black people in horror films – with Disney’s “theme park ride turned movie” Haunted Mansion will be duly disappointed. That film, funny as it would be, would be ten minutes long, while Haunted Mansion feels endless, squandering its comic potential early while trapping Murphy in yet another thick gumbo of CGI and loud action. Comes with the usual raft of eager “making of” shorts, outtakes, bloopers, and a music video, and a commentary track notable for Murphy’s absence.

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Reefer Madness
20th Century Fox DVD

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This reissue of the classic drug scare exploitation film is a lovingly produced bit of work, which includes both the original black and white film and a satirically colourized version where actors have Barbie doll skin tone and pot smoke is exhaled in a variety of lurid colours.

A commentary track by Mystery Science Theater 3000 star Mike Nelson is the icing on the cake, though some might find his sarcastic running commentary one layer too many in a film where reefer-addled characters laugh manically and dance with lascivious abandon. Indeed, it’s the munchies, not the giggles, that usually accompany a head full of smoke, and anyone who’s been to a Phish concert can testify to the decidedly unlascivious nature of pothead dancing.

Bonus features also include a shambling bit of pro-pot propaganda by a weedhead grandfather, which makes this package something of a first – an adamantly “legalize it” DVD put out by a major studio.

©2004 rick mcginnis all rights reserved.