Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Bruno - Blu-Ray Review

After re-watching Bruno this past weekend, the same problem began cropping up that had occurred after seeing it theatrically – I was calling it Borat. Not just because they were both based on characters created by Sacha Baron Cohen for Da Ali G Show (they were) and not just because their formats are closely related (they are) but because the memory of the sublimely hysterical Borat looms so large over poor Bruno that it feels like an also-ran before the Universal logo is even off the screen. Interestingly, Cohen’s third character from that show – Ali G himself – had his own feature long before even Borat back in 2002; a misbegotten, unfunny flop called Ali G Indahouse that should have clued Cohen to the fact that traditional narrative storytelling was a mistake for these improvisational characters. It was easy for Borat to follow a film that most people outside the UK had never even heard of, but the decision to launch Bruno’s eponymous feature film behind one of the most surprisingly successful comedies of the decade was a poor one, as borne out by the tepid box office receipts (things got so desperate in Cohen’s native UK that the film was voluntarily edited after its release to secure a more audience-friendly 15 certificate from the BBFC). Universal, hoping that Bruno – debuting on Blu-Ray and DVD on the 17th – will make up some lost financial ground on home video, have packed the film with nearly an hour of deleted and extended scenes with a very interesting feature that appears to be exclusive to the BD release. But the question remains, is there enough bigotry and hatred in Middle America for both Bruno and Borat?

The structure of the film is astonishingly similar to that of Bruno’s Kazakhstani cousin; flamboyantly gay Austrian fashionista, having suffered the indignity of a breakup with boyfriend Diesel and the loss of his show, Funkyzeit, treks to America to regain his lost stardom. With adoring assistant Lutz in tow, Bruno travels to the ground zero of meaningless fame – Hollywood – where he interviews a remarkably nonplused Paula Abdul while sitting (literally) on the backs of immigrant laborers, attends a focus group for a celebrity interview show that’s about 5% interview and 40% flailing penis, and getting instructed on hooking up with only the most fashionable charities. Bruno also goes international, attempting to broker a peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians (focusing on the terror group, Hummus) before returning to the states – including Washington, D.C., where he attempts to make a celebrity sex tape with Presidential candidate Ron Paul, and finally Texas, where, in the realization that his homosexuality might be what’s holding him back, reinvents himself as the straightest wrestler alive, ‘Straight Dave’.

Right out front, we need to mention that Bruno contains a solid number of hysterical gags; an overnight hunting trip with a stereotypically “Texas” quartet is brilliantly funny (“That is such a Samantha thing to say”) but an early scene where Bruno visits a psychic to get in touch with the spirit of ex-lover and Milli Vanilli frontman Rob Pilatus may possibly have been the hardest that we’ve ever laughed inside a theater. But the nagging concern that many had with this film holds true for us as well; on Cohen’s television show, the Bruno segment was typically the least funny of the three, mostly because spoofing the vapidity of the fashion industry is as soft as targets come. Like the feature, the TV show had its share of funny moments (like his interview of a bunch of frat boys on a beach during spring break who were clueless to Funkyzeit’s gay overtones until the very end) but the mock interview format had already been better covered by Ali G and Borat, and Bruno just felt the tiniest bit stale bringing up the rear (pun unplanned but enjoyed). After the enormous success of Borat, it just feels like Cohen is retreading the same tire, here, and one gets the feeling that even he knows that this will be the last time he’s going to get away with enough material to craft a feature (during the commentary track, Cohen and director Larry Charles mention just how many times Cohen was recognized and a skit had to be abandoned).

It’s also worth noting that Borat’s innocence in regard to the world around him was actually kind of sweet (even while he throws cash at two cockroaches he believes to be the transmogrification of the sweet Jewish couple who own the bed & breakfast he’s staying in) and helped negate the baseline of cruelty that this sort of humor plays off of. As due-paying members of the intelligentsia, we love to mock people that are dumber, poorer, and smellier than ourselves; laughing at a bunch of narrow minded hicks wearing confederate caps and shirts confirming that their anus is used for defecation only makes us feel wonderful – mostly. One could say that we reached a minor breaking point with ambush-based humor while watching Bruno, and began to feel for the mockees rather than simply laughing with the mocker. When Bruno and Lutz are bound together in an array of dildos and sexual appliances and dumped on a city bus in a mid-sized southern town, we actually caught ourselves hoping that one of these people might pick them up and toss them right off into the middle of the street. Our other issue might have more to do with necessity than intent; after Borat, there are simply too many people who will recognize Cohen, leading to far more bits that had been prepared and scripted in advance (what was our reaction to Bruno and Lutz’s fight and breakup outside of a police station supposed to be?) and Bruno simply isn’t as likeable as Borat. Is sounds silly to pit fictional characters against each other in this way, but it might well explain the low box office receipts.

Universal’s Blu-Ray release of Bruno will be making fans of Cohen very happy this week, as it marks one of the few times that Cohen discusses his work out-of-character. He and Charles appear in a PIP window discussing the film and, at certain points, literally pause the film to discuss one aspect or another (we assume that this is the feature that’s exclusive to BD). Both men are quite funny and have great stories about the shoot (like the fact that only time that Cohen was so afraid for his life that he broke camera was while being chased by orthodox Jews) and the frankly disappointing number of people who were already in on the gags. There’s also at least an hour of deleted/extended scenes, including footage of a few of the other would-be sex tape participants (again, some very big Washington names turn up here) some disturbing footage of Bruno at a gun show, and the not-nearly-as-infamous LaToya Jackson sequence that was removed when Michael died (like Paula, she happily sits on the Mexican gardener’s back and takes waaaaay too long to be freaked out by Bruno’s questions (maybe better to get someone less well acquainted with crazy next time). It’s hard to judge the 1080p image; due to the nature of the shoot, many different cameras with different resolution levels were apparently used, but this perfectly matches the look that we saw in theaters earlier this year. We did love the menu layout, featuring German-ish phrasing for each menu option, but working off the familiar Universal BD functionality.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Edward Woodward

Another sad passing to report. This morning, the superbly talented Edward Woodward, who spent a long career comfortably straddling the fence between character actor and leading man, died in a British hospital at the age of 79. Most of my fellow Americans remember him from The Equalizer (talk about an actor absolutely making a show) but to us he will forever be the doomed Sergeant Howie in 1973’s The Wicker Man.

On paper, Howie must have read like a near unlikeable stiff – an almost unbearably pious and humorless Christian who travels to the remote Scottish island of Summerisle in search of a missing girl – and it must have been a concern for director Robin Hardy and writer Anthony Shaffer that no one would care what happens to this jerk one way or another. But Woodward, with his tough, unforgiving countenance and soft heart breathed humanity into the role, making his ultimate fate all the more tragic. In fact, it isn’t an exaggeration to say that the conclusion of the film represents one of modern horror’s most truly disturbing sequences, and Woodward’s cries of “Oh, God – Oh, Jesus Christ!” will echo in memory long after the film has ended.

Another fine remembrance would be to revisit the fine Breaker Morant, Bruce Beresford’s absorbing courtroom drama about two Australian officers being court-martialed for the murder of prisoners during the Second Boer War. The film arrived on US shores in 1980 as part of a wave of extraordinary Australian films of the late 70s and early 80s that included Mad Max and Gallipoli and announced the extraordinary careers of directors like Beresford, George Miller, and Peter Weir. Morant is an actor’s showcase all the way, making international stars of Woodward and Bryan Brown, who arguably give career-best performances. Woodward would always excel at the tough-as-nails military type, but never let you forget that they were real, three dimensional men. Morant probably led to his acceptability for CBS as the lead in The Equalizer, and throughout 4 seasons of thug-busting his way through mediocre scripts, there was never even the slightest hint that he considered the material to be beneath him. For a more satisfying dose of Woodward in a weekly series, check out the little seen (at least in the US)series, Callan, an espionage drama set during the height of the cold war; he’s disarmingly young, but looks at the world around him with the same weary suspicion and droll humor that Woodward brought to nearly everything he did.

Though it wasn’t his final appearance, we’ll regard his appearance in Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz as Woodward’s true career capper. It’s a film lover’s delight to watch him along with contemporaries like Jim Broadbent, Billie Whitelaw and Paul Freeman having a grand time as members of the Sandford Neighbourhood Watch Alliance, keeping the city safe from absolutely everyone.

Summer is Icumen in
Loudly sing cuckoo
Grows the seed and blows the mead
And springs the wood anew
Sing cuckoo
Ewe bleats harshly after lamb
Cows after calves make moo
Bullock stamps and deer champs
Now shrilly sing cuckoo
Cuckoo, cuckoo
Wild bird are you
Be never still cuckoo

Thursday, November 5, 2009

DVD Review - Zorro, The Complete First & Second Seasons (Walt Disney Treasures)

Once again, Disney has dipped into its seemingly bottomless vault of television productions for another gem, the complete series run of Zorro, including all 78 half-hour episodes from both seasons, plus the 4 hour-long specials. It’s been difficult to see the series since its initial run, lasting from October 1957 through June 1959; shot in crisp black and white, the series suffered a grotesque colorization for reruns on the Disney channel in the early 90s (though some episodes were shown in their original versions to please us nitpicking purists). Disney had released small groups of shows in 3-4 episode spurts through the Disney Movie Club (which for us is a nice way of saying “out of print”) making this large scale release all the more tantalizing.

Upon the return of Don Diego de la Vega (Guy Williams) to the southern California (still under Spanish rule) estate of his father, Don Alejandro (George J Lewis) a wealthy and respected rancher, he learns that the region has fallen under the control of the villainous Capt. Enrique Sanchez Monasterio (Britt Lomond). Don Diego vows immediately to use his newly acquired swordsmanship and riding skills to resist Monasterio, but decides to do so behind a black cape and mask in order to protect his family. He christens himself ‘Zorro’ (Spanish for ‘The Fox’) and becomes a thorn in the side of the Captain and his men, particularly the oafish Sergeant Garcia (Henry Calvin). But when not protecting the innocent as Zorro, Don Diego adopts the personae of a foppish intellectual, incapable of even defending himself with a sword, while his faithful manservant, Bernardo (Gene Sheldon) pretends to be ‘deaf and dumb’ allowing him to eavesdrop with impunity. But Don Diego’s lifestyle of leisure deeply disturbs his father, Don Alejandro (George J Lewis) who whishes that is guitar-strumming son were more like the heroic Zorro.

New York City born Guy Williams worked as a fashion model before a string of bit parts in the 50s brought him to the attention of Walt Disney. Italian by birth, Williams slid easily into Zorro’s cowl, and the actor’s 6’3” frame and matinee-idol looks made him an instant sensation. Missing the original airing of these episodes (and though we enjoyed the Antonio Banderas retooling, Zorro-mania has heretofore been lost on us) we were startled by Williams’ effortlessly charming performance. The actor’s natural athleticism (he apparently did quite a bit of his own sword fighting) made a formidable match with his easygoing charm. But we also found ourselves falling for the comic buffoonery of Henry Calvin’s Sergeant Garcia (think of Schultz from Hogan’s Heroes in the Spanish army and you won’t be far off). In keeping with the Disney tradition of largely non-threatening villains, Garcia barely makes a move on-camera that isn’t accompanied by a muted trumpet refrain, but Calvin always made it work, and helped the show strike that elusive balance of comedy and drama that keeps it in the radar of both adults and children (we were incredibly relieved that the show was largely devoid of Apple Dumpling Gang-style hijinks.)

The first season is neatly divided into 3 separate 13 episode story arcs, making for an astonishing 39 total episodes (compare this to any modern network series, which typically top out at 26 episodes per season, or cable, at 13). Some episodes, like the first season’s Monasterio Sets a Trap and Zorro’s Ride Into Terror even flow together, cliffhanger-style. The above description accounts for the first storyline of the first season, but the core cast (minus Lomond’s Monasterio) remained through both seasons, with a rotating cast of villains against whom Zorro battled. The remaining two storylines of the first season involve a criminal conspiracy led by the mysterious Eagle (who was more of a presence once his identity was revealed and played thereafter by Charles Korvin). The second season played a bit looser with the story arcs, allowing for more flexible storyline lengths and even the occasional one-shot (Spark of Revenge, featuring an incredibly young Robert Vaughn) though our favorite features an extended guest appearance by Cesar Romero as Diego’s scheming uncle, Estavan. Sadly, the series came to an abrupt end after the second season due to an ownership dispute between Disney and the ABC network (which also extended to the Mickey Mouse Club). During that time, four hour-long episodes were produced (all of which are included in the new sets) Williams was paid full salary during the 2 years or legal rumblings that followed, but even after a courtroom victory, Walt decided that the Zorro fad had peaked, and did not bring the series back for a third season.

Each of Disney’s new Zorro sets feature an entire season spread across 6 discs, all kept in amazingly good order within a standard-size case (something Sony can’t seem to figure out how to do without resorting to disc stacking). The image is amazingly rich for a half-century old show, with the original black and white episodes looking wonderful – much better than most other shows of this era that we’ve seen recently and easily on par with Image’s Twilight Zone sets. Disney’s historical shows of the period were generally quite sumptuously produced, with lavish attention paid to period detail and production authenticity (see 1963’s Dr. Syn for our own favorite example). The first season set leads off with Leonard Maltin’s typically good-natured intro, and also features the exhaustive The Life and Legend of Zorro, a well-produced documentary on the production of the show, along with a Zorro-related clip from The Mickey Mouse Show (the second season set features the Behind the Mask documentary). In a striking – and pleasing – packaging change from previous Walt Disney Treasures collections, the outer boxes are black-lacquer in color, but feature the usual artwork and photo reproductions along with the ubiquitous Disney ‘certificate of authenticity’. And even though they never fit comfortably back into the outer tin once opened, we enjoyed the collector’s pins enclosed in each and will be wearing the crossed swords emblem fare more often than we should.

It’s impossible to say what children today might think of the Disney variant of Zorro, but we hope that the appeal of these wonderful sets isn’t limited to the adult collector. It would be interesting to get these shows into the hands of kids who haven’t yet developed an aversion to black and white programming, as it’s far more engaging than most current kids fare (including much of Disney’s own output) and, frankly, at least as smart as a good chunk of our present prime time programming.