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ISSUE NO.
156 NOVEMBER 6, 2003
 
 
  coverStory
  All Boxed Up and Ready to View
RED Picks the Highlights of the DVD Boxed Set Phenomenon
  By Jeremy Mathews
   
 

he quickly growing DVD phenomenon is creating a living-room paradise for those who thrive on movie franchises and TV shows. Imagine watching an entire season of “The Simpsons” with audio commentary on each episode. Or viewing every episode of “24” within a 24-hour period. Or learning everything about the music, special effects, costumes and everything else after watching all three Indiana Jones films.

The age of the geek has truly arrived.

Perhaps the biggest attraction many people have to the DVD format doesn’t come from its superior sound and picture quality, but from the extra features, which are inevitable on most new releases. Bonus features sometimes require extra discs on films like “Punch-Drunk Love” and “A.I.” and provide casual viewers with some interesting insights into how a film was made. The obsessed fan can also learn everything there is to know about the making of a film via in-depth bonus material included on a range of films from “Fight Club” to “The Lion King.”

If the audio commentaries, deleted scenes, making-of featurettes, trailers and TV ads triple and quadruple the time you can spend with a two-hour film, imagine how much time comes with a series of films, a director’s canon or 20-something episodes from a TV series.

During the heyday of VHS, most successful series were only released as a few episodes on single cassettes. A bulky box full of an entire season wasn’t even common for big series with large cult followings. But times are changing, with cheap-to-produce, compact DVDs aimed more at consumers than rental outlets. Now, not only series with large cult followings like “Star Trek,” “The Simpsons” and “The X-Files” have boxes, but also new and/or less-established programs.

It is now possible to watch and explore “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit,” “Friends” “Dawson’s Creek,” “Xena: Warrior Princess,” “Smallville”—OK, so maybe a lot of these don’t deserve to be closely scrutinized and some companies are simply taking advantage of current big audiences to make more money off some already produced product. RED has broken the selection down to the truly worthwhile films and shows that are available in quality packages. And keep in mind that you can usually find these a bit cheaper than retail price.

“The Art of Buster Keaton”
Kino Home Video
11 discs
Retail: $199.95
Quite possibly the greatest comedy director of all time, Buster Keaton pioneered new special effects and uncovered the virtues of long takes after the standard editing method had been developed. The great silent star, known for his reserved expression, lets events play out in plain sight—without standard slight-of-hand editing and stunt tricks. In the 10 features and many shorts that Keaton directed on “The Art of Buster Keaton,” there’s rarely a false-looking moment or hackneyed close up. Every film is a cohesive work of art.

The box contains all the silent shorts Keaton made in the 1920s after returning from World War I and starting his own career (his work with Fatty Arbuckle is also available from Kino) and all his silent features until his contract was sold to M-G-M and he lost much creative control.

The disc is loaded with classic sequences, from the special effects with multiple Busters dancing in sync in “The Playhouse” to the train chase scenes in “The General”—Keaton’s Civil War epic that is now considered among his best films.

Another of Keaton’s best films is “Sherlock, Jr.,” a reflexive meditation on what cinema means to its audience. Keaton plays a projectionist who, in a dream sequence, walks onto the movie screen, where he wrestles with the background as it cuts to new locations surrounding him. On film, he is the hero whom he doesn’t have the guts to be in real life.

The only real weak spot on the box is “The Saphead,” which Keaton appeared in as an actor-for-hire before his feature career really took off. It’s a bland standard work that Keaton didn’t direct or leave his distinct mark on. The two shorts included on the disc, “One Week” and “The High Sign,” however, are brilliant. The former includes the early version of the famous gag from “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” in which the front of a house falls on Keaton, but he lucks out by standing where the window lands.

The box also includes a DVD called “Keaton Plus,” featuring rare footage, TV ads and shorts from Keaton’s later career. These will serve as nice surprises to fans, but those foreign to Keaton will want to immerse themselves in the main films first. If you haven’t seen them, you don’t know cinema.


“The Decalogue”
Facets Video
Three Discs
Retail: $79.95

“The Three Colors Trilogy (Blue / White / Red)”
Miramax Home Video
Three Discs
Retail: $39.99
Two series by Krzyzstof Kieslowski that are among the all-time best works of cinema are now available as they were meant to be seen, in their entirety. Kieslowski’s series of 10 one-hour films based around the Ten Commandments, “The Decalogue” and his “Three Colors” trilogy are two heartfelt masterpieces now out as sets.

Kieslowski made “The Decalogue” for Polish television as 10 separate, self-contained stories. These aren’t religious or moral tales, but rich stories about complicated characters in complicated situations that don’t necessarily correspond to one simple commandment. The 10th film, which sequentially is “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods,” could just as well be about honoring thy father and mother, as two brothers inherit their father’s valuable stamp collection.

The poignant stories by Kieslowski and Krzyzstof Piesiewicz combine with Kieslowski’s great direction, Zbigniew Preisner’s music and a variety of cinematographers to make a cherished masterwork. The new boxed set (not to be confused with the featureless one suckers like me bought in 2000) contains an introductory presentation by film critic Roger Ebert and three documentaries about the making of the films and the visionary behind them.

Just as appreciated as “The Decalogue” is Kieslowski’s “Three Colors” trilogy. Also written with Piesiewicz, the films “Blue,” “White” and “Red,” named for the colors in the French flag, are an examination of the principals of the country.

“Blue,” for liberty, stars Juliette Binoche as a composer’s wife dealing in unexpected ways with her husband’s accidental death. “White,” for equality, stars Zbigniew Zamachowski and Julie Delpy in a dark revenge comedy of a Polish immigrant whose wife divorces him after he moves to Paris because he becomes impotent. “Red,” for fraternity, is the best of them. It stars Irène Jacob as a model in Switzerland who finds friendship with an old former judge whose life parallels that of a young judge, who Jacob fails to meet on several occasions.

After years of waiting, Miramax has finally released comprehensive DVDs both solo and as a boxed set. Fortunately, the wait resulted in thorough DVDs.

While Kieslowski died shortly after making the films, critics, cast and crew offer comments in documentaries and audio commentaries, and there are a few short TV segments with Kieslowski talking about the films and shooting scenes.

While the films stand alone, they’re best seen as a whole to more cohesively study Kieslowski’s thoughts on humanity, chance and life. For example, the recurrence of an old woman trying to put a bottle in a recycling bin reaches an emotional conclusion in “Red,” and there’s also a nice, merciful side note conclusion to the stories at the end.


“The Adventures of Indiana Jones”
Paramount Home Video
Four Discs
Retail: $69.98
The Indiana Jones films, directed by Steven Spielberg and conceived and produced by George Lucas, transferred the world of ’30s adventure books and Saturday serials to ’80s popular culture. “The Adventures of Indiana Jones” contains the entire trilogy and a bonus DVD of the classic action franchise.

“Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” and “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” star Harrison Ford as an archaeologist adventurer who always manages to get into trouble in the quest for exploration and against supernatural evil.

In addition to confirming suspicions that all our dry anthropology professors are actually quick-witted adventurers, the trilogy also, for better or worse, set the standard of one action sequence after another, with highlights like the great tomb-raiding, falling boulder introduction in “Raiders” and the mine-car chase in “Temple of Doom.” It was wise to quit after three, with “Last Crusade” turning back more toward “Raiders” than the darker “Temple of Doom.” But with Sean Connery as Indy’s dad adding another dynamic in “The Last Crusade,” all three films are excellent entertainment.

The three-hour disc of bonus features includes looks at several documentaries on specific crafts and making-of segments on each film that combine new interviews of Spielberg, Ford, Lucas and other cast and crew with old documentary footage from the set. These documentaries reveal a common problem: not enough slimy, disgusting creatures. In both the floor covered in snakes in “Raiders” and the floor of bugs in “Temple of Doom,” Spielberg laments that there simply aren’t enough, and orders thousands more.


“The Simpsons”
20th Century Fox
“The Complete First Season”
Three discs
Retail: $39.98

“The Complete Second Season”
Four discs
Retail: $49.98

“The Complete Third Season”
Four discs
Retail: $49.98
The currently available boxed sets of the first three seasons of “The Simpsons”—the rest will come very, very slowly—offer a look at the developmental stages of one of the best TV series of all time. Creator Matt Groening has made a real effort to do audio commentary on every episode, bringing various writers, producers and voice talent. Writers/producers Al Jean and Mike Reiss in particular offer insightful comments on various stages of the show’s creation.

The satire, based on the life of a perpetually average American family, pokes fun at modern life with buffoonish patriarch Homer, repressed but thoughtful Marge and their two-and-a-half kids: rebellious fourth-grader Bart, the younger, intelligent Lisa and non-speaking baby Maggie. The show has become such a cultural standard that it seems pointless to describe the family, and also neglectful, since their town of Springfield is one of the most thorough creations since Middle Earth (and also more convenient, since there’s no map, and any geographical need can be added nearby).

While the first few seasons are generally looked at as rudimentary because the characters aren’t drawn quite right and the voices not quite perfected, there are a lot of great episodes on these sets, and by the third season they’re all pretty solid—and often brilliant. Homer’s dance through the land of chocolate when the Germans take over the nuclear power plant is a bizarre and comically surreal experience.

The audio commentary sequences range from insightful comments to listening to the creators, who haven’t seen the shows in years, listening and laughing at forgotten jokes. The average viewer might not want to watch the commentary on each episode since some comments tend to be repeated, but it’s nice to have the option. There are usually some funny episodes about what the censors wanted to take out and how the writers and producers convinced them to keep it in. There was, indeed, a time when saying “ass” on TV was unheard of.

The boxed sets are reminders of the series’ early roots and show how Springfield evolved into a masterful creation in three years. And all the hilarious throwaway gags that were taken out to make more room for commercials in syndication are back in.


“The X-Files—The Complete [First through Eighth] Season[s]”
20th Century Fox
Seven discs on first through fourth seasons
Six discs on Fifth through Eight seasons
$149.98

And if you’re feeling Crazy…
“The Complete Seasons 1-7”
46 Discs
Retail: 1,049.86
“The X-Files” changed TV’s landscape when it premiered in 1993 with a distinctly dark visual style that resembled thriller and horror movies much more than traditional TV photography. Chris Carter’s series combined sci-fi horror with humor and the great sexual tension between FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, played by David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson.

As investigators of unexplained phenomenon, with Mulder as believer and Scully as skeptic scientist, the pair go on some pretty bizarre and interesting investigations.

The third season is the best, if for no other reason than it has three episodes written by Darin Morgan, the brilliant but infrequent contributor who has only written two things—both of them episodes of Carter’s later series, “Millennium”—since leaving the program after season three.

Morgan (who also wrote season two’s freak-show study “Humbug”) has a funny way of playing with the expectations and formula that long-running series falls into. In “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,” guest-starring Peter Boyle as an insurance salesman who can see the way people die, psychic fraud Yappi kicks the ever-believing Mulder out of a crime scene for blocking his powers with bad vibes. Morgan’s final episode, “Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space’” is a cleverer feat, taking on “The X-Files” usual convoluted versions of stories with a “Rashomon”-like approach, repeating scenes regarding an alien abduction from different points of view until it gets more and more confusing.

Fans of the show’s continuing story line may make their own special feature by watching all the pertinent episodes back to back in order to determine if it actually makes any sense. Barring that, there are a few episodes with audio commentary, some comments from Carter, behind-the-scenes looks and the TV ads for all the episodes—which no one in their right mind would want to watch.

While the stories and writing get a little shaky in season seven and gets worse from there following Duchovny’s infrequent appearances, creativity is obvious through season six, which includes “Triangle,” a real-time episode with almost no visible cuts. (It switches time periods during commercial breaks.) Mulder, most likely knocked out and imagining things, travels back in time on a Bermuda Triangle ghost ship while Scully tries to find him.

“The X-Files” might not have ended in glory, but the DVDs allow a look at the classic episodes that earned a giant cult following.


“The Complete Monty Python’s Flying Circus Megaset
A & E Entertainment
14 discs
Retail: $199.95

“Fawlty Towers—The Complete Collection”
Warner Home Video
Three discs
$44.98
Before the 1969 premiere of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” you had to be a serious French Existentialist to be called an Absurdist, but that changed with the BBC series that combined surrealism and comedy, following loose concepts through episodes of sketch comedy and offering odd bits of reflexivity. Scenes veer off before the punchline. Actors break character to criticize the scene. A military officer stops skits for being “too silly.” The skits stop to show a clock for “10 seconds of sex.”

From the famous dead-parrot sketch to the odd, lesser-known extended sci-fi story of an evil boulange, this boxed set contains every forgotten and remembered sketch of the four-season run. Even when a skit doesn’t work, there’s still humor to be found in the delightfully wacky writing and acting of Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, John Cleese, Terry Jones and the transitional collage animation of Terry Gilliam.

The boxed set is unfortunately a bit bulky, with only three episodes per disc, totaling to 14 DVDs, each in regular-size cases. These are actually sold separately, which accounts for the low episode-to-disc ratio and repetition of less-than-stellar features (the trivia game and Gilliam galleries are at least better than the link to the online store—as if after buying a $200 collection we want more).
Also available are the 12 episodes of Cleese’s later series, “Fawlty Towers,” in which he plays Basil Fawlty, a rude hotel manager in Torquay, England. Highlights include Basil’s failed efforts not to “mention the war” to German guests following a concussion and Cleese’s perfect responses whenever a guest has the nerve to complain. The extras include director’s commentary and a documentary on the real, now-dead Torquay manager on whom the series is based (although, the disclaimer says, BBC doesn’t confirm this) and a debate on how bad he was.


“24”
20th Century Fox

“Season One”
Seven Discs
Retail: $59.98

“Season Two”
Seven Discs
Retail: $69.98
It’s not exactly a good, healthy idea to have “24” on DVD. The real-time series, which takes place over the course of one day with one episode equaling one hour (apparently the characters eat and go to the bathroom during the commercial breaks), ends every hour with a series of amazing developments, then the clock runs out. Without being forced to wait a week to find out what happens—and with episodes condensed to about 45 minutes without commercials—you can watch a whole day (season) in the course of a weekend. That’s not exactly a good thing if you don’t want to get an ulcer.

The brilliant gimmick creates a sort of action soap opera, with counter-terrorism agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) trying to stop a presidential candidate’s assassination in season one and a nuclear explosion in L.A. in season two.

Sutherland’s wound performance and the fast-paced editing bring “24” along with high tension, although certain plot lines occasionally become a bit contrived in the effort to always have something happening. The subplot involving Jack’s daughter Kim in season two has little to do with the nuclear threat, and steadily descends into stupidity, as a badger stalks her.

But the main story is enough to keep you craving that next episode to find out what the hell is going to happen.

The features include several deleted scenes, most uneventful—although the second season has a delightfully nonsensical alternate ending that was shot to confuse extras. There are also select episodes in which Sutherland and the crew offer insights into their work.


“Family Guy”
20th Century Fox

“Family Guy, Vol. 1 (Seasons 1 & 2)”
Four discs
$49.98

“Family Guy, Vol. 2 (Season 3)
Three discs
$49.98

by Eryn Green

It was just too smart.

It was just too funny.

Seth MacFarlane’s genius comedic effort, “The Family Guy,” was just too good, and ultimately, too offensive for Fox network, which dropped the series after its third season (gasp!?).

Despite its untimely cancellation, “Family Guy” is making a comeback.

Centered, much as other successful cartoon series are, on the hilarious everyday events of a seemingly normal family, the complete series—all three seasons—is now available on two volumes of DVDs.

“Family Guy” was like “The Simpsons’” or “Futurama’s” evil, maniacal twin brother. Nothing was off-limits for the show that attacked politics (“Look Lois, the two symbols of the Republican Party: An elephant and a fat white guy who is threatened by change”), celebrity (Mayor Adam West…need anyone say more?) and family values (“Damn you, infernal woman!”) with equal voracity.

The Griffins consist of bumbling father Peter, stable wife Lois, moronic brother Chris, socially inept daughter Meg, diabolical infant Stewie and alcoholic dog Brian.

Writer/creator MacFarlane voices several characters.

While Stewie—with his numerous attempts to kill his mother, take over the world and one-up the dog—is a shoo-in for most popular character in the show, Seth Green’s voice for Chris is absolutely sublime and creates some of the funniest moments. Green perfectly captures the out-and-out confusion of adolescence with a cracked voice and a demon monkey in his closet.

Really. Chris has a demon monkey living in his closet.

Peter is more oafish than Homer (“The Simpsons”), more eager than Fry (“Futurama”) and more prone to serendipitous accident than any man alive. What happens when Death—who comes over the to Griffins’ house to collect Peter—twists his ankle and has to go out of commission for a while? Peter becomes Death. What happens when Peter becomes Death?

Pure hilarity.

The two boxed sets have commentary on selected episodes and the second set contains the rare episode ‘When you wish upon a Weinstein,” which the Cartoon Network recently aired for the first time ever.

eryn@red-mag.com

Classic/Canceled

Maybe the networks didn’t know what to do with a series, and moved its time slot around so much that even people who wanted to watch it couldn’t find it. Maybe most people looking for high-quality entertainment have given up looking for it on TV. Or maybe, as the cynic will suggest, most people just don’t want to watch really great material.

Whatever the reason, many shows have vanished from the screen with only the screams of a few critics and fans to mark their passing. Now, however, several companies are making their money back on programs whose small-but-strong following didn’t deliver the ratings, but might yet generate some money on DVD.

Aaron Sorkin’s first series, before the hit “The West Wing” (also available, from Warner Home Video), was “Sports Night,” a half-hour comedy-drama set backstage on a struggling sports network’s news broadcast. Better than “The West Wing,” “Sports Night” was filled with Sorkin’s witty writing with smart characters played by a talented cast, including Felicity Huffman and Peter Krause.

“Sports Night: The Complete Series” (Buena Vista Home Entertainment, six discs, $59.99) features the two seasons that Sorkin and Company made before disappearing, until Comedy Central started re-running it. There aren’t any bonus features to speak of, but the clever dialogue of the episodes is enough. Be careful—the next episode starts automatically, so if you don’t stop it right away you might have to watch the next story in its entirety.

Other canceled series like “Once and Again” (Buena Vista Home Entertainment, six discs, $59.99) and “The Tick” (Columbia Tristar, two discs, $29.95) have also been released, much to the joy of their fans. Even some old, one-season shows like “My S0-Called Life” (Ventura Distribution, five discs, $89.99) are available.

Other excellent forgotten programming, however, is still waiting. “Freaks and Geeks,” one of the most poignant, true-to-life TV series ever made, is one such show. Network shuffling made it impossible to find by the end of its first and only season on NBC in 1999, but the 1980 high school story about the not-so-popular kids captures the pain, frustration, humor and realism of growing up outside the mainstream. I guess it’s not exactly something to relax with after work, but it’s very funny and brilliantly acted, written and directed. A petition to release the season is currently available at www.freaksandgeeks.com.

jeremy@red-mag.com

 
     
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HBO'd Out
 
 

Premium cable channel HBO has been scaring the networks with its original programming division. Winning Emmys and viewers away from the major channels, HBO has been developing more sophisticated programming than most of its network counterparts—and not just because of the swearing and the sex.

HBO Home Video offers most of HBO’s original films, miniseries and regular series. The miniseries include the Tom Hanks-produced “From the Earth to the Moon” (1998), featuring 12 hour-long episodes about NASA’s Apollo missions, and “Band of Brothers” (2001), with 10 episodes following the Easy Company U.S. airborne division during World War II.
Sometimes the shows get a little more credit than they deserve, but are still ambitious and interesting. “The Sopranos” might have been better as a miniseries than a never-ending soap opera. “Sex in the City” suffers from obvious humor explained in the obnoxious voice-over of Sarah Jessica Parker’s sex columnist. “Six Feet Under’s” portrayal of a family undertaking business often loses itself in pretensions and forced drama. And Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” is horribly photographed and the stories often equate to masturbation from David rather than any thoughtful stories. Of course, many boxed set-buying fans and Emmy voters have found plenty to like in the shows, so my detraction is more an plea for reasonable praise than a condemnation.

“The Godfather DVD Collection”
Paramount Home Video
5 discs
Retail: $99.99
by Chris Bellamy
For those of you who, like me, get goose bumps just thinking about the baptism scene in”The Godfather” or the Hail Mary scene in “The Godfather, Part II,” the five-disc set of the greatest trilogy in American history is a must-own.
The three films chronicle the life of mafia boss Michael Corleone (Al Pacino, in a career-starting role), who unexpectedly takes over the family’s dealings following the near-assassination of his father, Vito (Marlon Brando), and the successful killing of his older brother, Sonny (James Caan).

Michael is the tragic hero of this brilliant Shakespearean tragedy, a story told with the hands of Francis Ford Coppola and through the camera lens of cinematographer Gordon Willis, whose rich, dark tones — particularly in the first two films — set these movies apart like almost no other.

Having three great films (yes, the third film is much better than most people give it credit for) in one set would have been good enough, but this collection also offers historical and behind-the-scenes goodies that are sure to satisfy the movie nerd in all of us.

More than anything, the documentaries reaffirm the sentiment that studio executives are idiots. The executives on the original “Godfather” film didn’t want Coppola to direct. They didn’t want Brando to play Vito, a role Brando won an Academy Award for. They didn’t want Michael to be played by an unknown like Pacino. In fact, with all the near-firings and near-shutdowns during production, it’s a miracle the movie ever got made.

Or, perhaps, there was some other, somewhat powerful entity pulling strings behind the scenes. Hmm…

Yeah, it’s a good thing the actual filmmakers didn’t know what they were doing…the first two movies only won nine Academy Awards, including two Best Picture nods.

“A Look Inside” the Godfather trilogy shows you rarely seen footage, including embarrassingly bad studio-ordered screen tests by Martin Sheen and Caan for the role of Michael. (In fact, the studio originally wanted Jack Nicholson or Robert Redford for the role.)
And one can finally discover just how the filmmakers of “Part II” answered Robert DeNiro’s most pressing question: To mustache or not to mustache?

They decided, of course, with a coin toss.

“The Pianist Limited Soundtrack Edition”
TVA Films
3 discs
Retail: $28.99
Available through Canada only
by Chris Bellamy
Polish-born director Roman Polanski waited for decades before finally translating his childhood experiences of World War II into a film—doing so with his 2002 masterpiece, “The Pianist,” a film that should have won Best Picture at last year’s Oscars instead of the very good, but overglorified, more commercially popular “Chicago.”
Polanski—whose mother and other family members were killed in a concentration camp during the war—did win Best Director for his efforts, and deservedly so.

The film tells the true story of Polish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman, who survived the Nazi occupation of Warsaw and spent months and years in hiding as a Jewish refugee. It is based on Szpilman’s autobiography.

Unfortunately for American moviegoers, the film didn’t get very good DVD treatment in the States. The version released here has one disc and absolutely hideous cover art.
But with the two- and three-disc special editions available through Canada, viewers can get much, much more. In addition to the fascinating “Story of Survival” also available on the American DVD, the Canadian version goes deeper into the film’s background with Polanski. The second disc also includes background of Szpilman himself and the history of the Warsaw Ghetto.

The third disc is the film’s soundtrack, which includes eight gorgeous Frederic Chopin piano solos.

All in all, the three-disc set is worth even more than the asking price of $28.99—and it’s a lot more worth your time than “Chicago.”

Copies of “The Pianist” set are available through www.videoflicks.com, and usually ship within 24 hours.

 
     

 

       
 
   
 

RED Magazine is a publication of The Daily Utah Chronicle. RED is published every Thursday. For information on advertising, call 801-581-7041. To have your event considered for publication, write to jeremy@red-mag.com. Copyrighted material remains the property of the original owner.

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