Category Archives: DVD reviews

The Clowns (Fellini) Blu-ray review

The tiresome “ohmygod, clowns are so creepy” trope is about as worn-out as the holes in the big, floppy shoes one associates with these face-painted goofballs, but watching The Clowns, one begins to understand that the meme is rooted in truth. Yes, this is a G-rated, made-for-TV look at clowns, but it’s also one written and directed by Federico Fellini, which means you’re gonna get, to quote the box, a “sex-crazed hobo, a midget nun [and] a mutilated Mussolini disciple.” The 1970 film is making its Blu-ray debut and, as with all Fellini works, the crisp resolution adds hugely to the experience, bringing spectacular contrast and color saturation to the director’s fever-dream set pieces. Of particular note here is the inclusion of a beautiful (if small) 50-page booklet filled with Fellini’s production notes and sketches. (available now)

Special Features: Fellini short, visual essay, booklet

Originally appeared October 20, 2011 in Orlando Weekly.

Kids in the Hall: Death Comes to Town DVD review

The thing to keep in mind when settling in to watchDeath Comes to Town for the first time is that this series is not sketch comedy. In fact, it barely qualifies as comedy at all. The Kids in the Hall made their name peddling a brand of humor that was very much devoid of narrative structure; maybe there would be a recurring idea here or a consistent character there, but for the most part, the Kids leaned on their sly delivery, odd characterizations and utterly bizarre imaginations to deliver the laughs.

When the team tried to combine their comedic approach with a story – as they did with 1996’s Brain Candy – they failed pretty miserably. Yet, with Death Comes To Town, the focus is almost purely on the story. Hell, it’s a murder mystery, so they end up trying to drive a cohesive story arc for eight half-hour episodes. They don’t completely succeed.

Stocked to the brim with a baffling array of new and classic Kids characters, Death Comes to Town feels like a Canadian take on “The League of Gentlemen” or “Little Britain”: outlandish and occasionally grating characters orbit around a central plot that alternates between being on-the-nose (who killed the mayor?) and incomprehensible (why is the Grim Reaper hanging out in a hotel?). The astonishing number of characters that are poured into the eight episodes are, for the most part, all played by the five Kids (of course, the women are too), and while such role-switching works in five-minute comedy sketches, it winds up (especially during a DVD marathon of the episodes) muddling the viewer’s ability to play along. Which wouldn’t be too terrible if the jokes were flying, but it appears that the Kids have moved beyond punchy surrealism and into a sort of aggressively cynical weirdness that ends up subverting both the humor and the narrative.

First appeared in Orlando Weekly on May 26, 2011.

Spaghetti Western Collection DVD review

There may be such a thing as a casual fan of spaghetti westerns, but it’s a rare creature. To the contrary, aficionados of the genre tend to border on the obsessive; they treat the Sartana-Django divide as a top-shelf split akin to the Beatles and the Stones, preferring to save their debate strength for deciding whether Gianfranco Parolini or Tonino Valerii has the most appropriate directorial style for the genre.

For those fans, this 44-film collection – yes, forty-four movies on 11 DVDs – is a godsend. Appropriately cheap (list price: $29.98, but you can easily get it for less than half that) and slapdash (the double-sided DVDs come in thin envelopes jammed into an oversized case), this set easily evokes the budget-minded approach that went into the production of spaghetti westerns in the ’60s and ’70s. By grabbing aspiring (or down-on-their-heels) American actors and filming in a quick-and-dirty fashion, these westerns were notable for their lack of formalism, but also for their creation of a film language all their own. Less morally constrained than the Ford school of American westerns, these Italian directors unleashed films that were considerably more violent (and considerably less rehearsed) than their U.S. counterparts.

The sheer quantity of films that emerged during the heyday of the spaghetti western means that even a 44-film set could only scratch the surface; notably, this set just skips right past the surface and goes right to the middle and bottom of the barrel. Although stars like Lee Van Cleef, George Eastman, Franco Nero, and Robert Widmark are here – along with Leslie Nielsen and William Shatner! – there are only a few genre classics to be found. Death Rides a HorseDjango vs. SartanaJohnny Yuma, and 3 Bullets for Ringo are here, but questionable entries like Jesse and LesterFour Rode Out and others claim the bulk of the space.

First appeared Dec. 23, 2010 in Orlando Weekly.

‘Rare Cult Cinema’ DVD review

With 12 movies crammed onto three DVDs, it goes without saying that the fidelity of the 19 hours of cinema in this Cult Classics set is pretty awful. Of course, lo-fi is the best way to appreciate most of these movies, which were produced by Crown International, a company best known for its far better drive-in exploitation fare likeChain Gang Women and The Van. Unfortunately, most of these flicks are from the bottom of Crown’s already bottom-heavy barrel, and more than half are easily forgettable. Still, seeing Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings in their late ’60s heyday (1967’s Road to Nashville) would be a treat even if the movie wasn’t so hilariously cheap. Meanwhile, 1989’sMy Mom’s A Werewolf (marquee star: Marcia Wallace), 1982’s Liar’s Moon (with Matt Dillon as, of course, a kid from the wrong side of the tracks and Yvonne De Carlo as a super-campy matron of a boarding house) and 1987’s Deathrow Gameshow are treats from the waning days of drive-ins. (available now)

First appeared Nov. 25, 2010 in Orlando Weekly, inexplicably attributed to Justin Strout.

‘The Prisoner: The Complete Series” Blu-ray review (Detroit Metrotimes)

One of the most confusing, complex, paranoid and endlessly rewarding television series of the ’60s has been remastered in high-definition just in time for the debut of a revamped new version on A&E. While the new mini-series has been the justifiable recipient of plenty of praise, digging into the original, 17-episode series is still a far superior experience. The densely plotted (and often convoluted) tale of a former spy (known only as “Number Six”) and his perilous travails in “The Village” – a top-secret holding pen for ex-spooks and other high-security-clearance individuals who are no longer working for the government – is not only ripe for repeated viewings, but the new Blu-ray transfer brings out the sort of visual detail that is all too often overlooked in television material this old. The creators of the show took nearly as much care with their set-pieces and camera angles as they did with the action and dialogue in the show, and on Blu-ray, those efforts are on ample display. Although The Prisoner is still a thoroughly British experience (Patrick McGoohan’s “Number Six” perfectly nails the mix of late ’60s zeitgeist and quirky sobriety that were battling for England’s soul at the time), the layers of espionage drama, allegorical fiction, and sheer weirdness translate well to anyone seeking a truly engrossing television experience. Lost fans take note: you may find your favorite show to be a little more derivative than you previously thought.

Talking Heads: Stop Making Sense 25th Anniversary Blu-ray review (Detroit Metrotimes)

As soon as you wrap your head around the fact it has been a quarter-century since Jonathan Demme and David Byrne teamed up to create Stop Making Sense, you may settle into another realization: Despite the intervening years bestowing a sort of classic-rock status upon the band’s hits, the Talking Heads were always an amazingly weird band. After all, what other band would spend nearly the first third of a concert film simply getting all of its equipment and personnel onto the stage? From the opening scenes which find David Byrne plunking out “Psycho Killer” with no other accompaniment other than an acoustic guitar and a boom box, Stop Making Sense slowly builds into an art-rock concert par excellence, and always — amazingly — keeps the focus on the music. Even with Byrne bopping around in his big-ass suit, demanding that everyone acknowledge the concert as An Art Event, the smiles of Tina Weymouth and, more notably, P-Funkateer Bernie Worrell, are far more captivating. This Blu-ray edition offers superb fidelity and a miraculously clean transfer — so clean, in fact, that the film grain is noticeable throughout — but also a wealth of bonus material, including a hilarious Byrne self-interview, two songs (“Cities” and a medley of “Big Business” and “I Zimbra”) that were inexplicably cut from the original version, plus, you get the choice of either the feature film’s audio mix or a studio mix of the material.

First appeared Nov. 4, 2009 in Detroit Metrotimes.

Talking Heads: Stop Making Sense Blu-ray review (Detroit Metrotimes)

As soon as you wrap your head around the fact it has been a quarter-century since Jonathan Demme and David Byrne teamed up to create Stop Making Sense, you may settle into another realization: Despite the intervening years bestowing a sort of classic-rock status upon the band’s hits, the Talking Heads were always an amazingly weird band. After all, what other band would spend nearly the first third of a concert film simply getting all of its equipment and personnel onto the stage? From the opening scenes which find David Byrne plunking out “Psycho Killer” with no other accompaniment other than an acoustic guitar and a boom box, Stop Making Sense slowly builds into an art-rock concert par excellence, and always — amazingly — keeps the focus on the music. Even with Byrne bopping around in his big-ass suit, demanding that everyone acknowledge the concert as An Art Event, the smiles of Tina Weymouth and, more notably, P-Funkateer Bernie Worrell, are far more captivating. This Blu-ray edition offers superb fidelity and a miraculously clean transfer — so clean, in fact, that the film grain is noticeable throughout — but also a wealth of bonus material, including a hilarious Byrne self-interview, two songs (“Cities” and a medley of “Big Business” and “I Zimbra”) that were inexplicably cut from the original version, plus, you get the choice of either the feature film’s audio mix or a studio mix of the material.

First appeared Nov. 4, 2009 in Detroit Metrotimes.