Volume 1 (Shout!/Sony Music Video, 1981) w/ John Candy, Joe Flaherty, Rick Moranis, Andrea Martin. Rating: NNNNN
Just to clarify, this is the first season of SCTV as a 90-minute show on NBC, so it was made in the post-Harold Ramis and pre-Martin Short era. Of course, this season also recycled a fair amount of material from the earlier seasons that had never been seen on an American network. That said, Hallelujah! To watch these shows again, recontextualized from the endlessly chopped and syndicated half-hour versions, is to see an astonishing ensemble of comic talents at their absolute peak. John Candy as Johnny LaRue, Joe Flaherty as Guy Caballero, Andrea Martin as Edith Prickly and even better as eastern European immigrant Perini Scleroso, the symbiotic pairings of Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas as Bob and Doug McKenzie or Woody Allen and Bob Hope, Catherine O'Hara and Eugene Levy - all form a comic group as funny as any since Monty Python. And like Python, they can still inspire helpless laughter.
The daring element of SCTV was the creation of Melonville as a (sur)real place whose inhabitants populated the show's media-obsessive fantasies. These could include anything from trailers for recombinant versions of Taxi Driver (with Woody Allen, Gregory Peck and Levy's diminutive Jewish private eye, Sid Dithers), archaeological excavations of primeval show business and anything else that fit.
The video has cleaned up well for the DVD, and there are some nice extras, including the 1999 cast reunion at the Aspen Comedy Festival, with Conan O'Brien hosting. (Notable in his absence from all the extras is Rick Moranis.)
One question. Why do we not worship Andrea Martin as a goddess?
EXTRAS Four historical documentaries on the show, the Aspen Comedy Festival tribute from HBO, Flaherty/Levy commentary, 24-page booklet including an essay by O'Brien.
The Simpsons Complete Season Four
(1989-90) w/ Dan Castellanata, Nancy Cartwright, Julie Kavner. Rating: NNNNN
It's tempting to skip the review and just list the episodes: Kamp Krusty, Marge Vs. The Monorail, A Streetcar Named Marge, Last Exit To Springfield, Homer's Triple Bypass, Mr. Plow, Duffless.... Season Four is on the very short list of nominees for greatest Simpsons season. Conan O'Brien arrived as a writer-producer on this season - his first solo writing credit is Marge Vs. The Monorail - and his impact was felt in a sudden increase in the density of jokes.
There's an abundance here of what the show's staff refer to as VCR moments, jokes embedded in the frame that pass so quickly you have to rewind and freeze the frame to catch them. This is one of the reasons The Simpsons holds up so well. There's always something new to catch in the best episodes, maybe a sign you missed last time around (personal favourite: the drive-in behind Apu's roof garden playing a double bill of I Spit On Your Grave and I Thumb Through Your Paperbacks), a hitherto undetected Hitchcock homage, that sort of thing.
If you've been resisting The Simpsons - which is closing in on the longest-running sitcom title and already owns the longest-running animated series title - try Season Four. If you don't laugh at this, forget it, because this is the butterfat in a very creamy series.
EXTRAS Writer/director/producer commentaries, deleted scenes, The Cajun Controversy, Bush Vs. The Simpsons, promotional materials, commercials, multi-angle options. English, Spanish and French versions and subtitles.
(Somerville House, 1977) D: David Cronenberg, w/ Marilyn Chambers, Frank Moore. Rating: NNN
Starting with the november release of Criterion's two-disc special edition of Naked Lunch, this has been a great year for David Cronenberg fans. The Blue Underground issue of his car movie, Fast Company, offered as a bonus his classic short features, Stereo and Crimes Of The Future. August will see a two-disc Criterion issue of Videodrome. Now Somerville House has issued his second feature, Rabid, finally in the proper aspect ratio, with one of Cronenberg's distinctively thoughtful and coherent commentaries and a 20-minute interview in which he discusses the particular challenges of financing the film.
Rabid isn't one of Cronenburg's best films, but it's worth seeing for the unexpected performance of Marilyn Chambers (yes, the porn star), as a woman who has radical surgery that saves her life but also turns her into a disease vector - the original title was Mosquito.
One complaint about the transfer - it's a "flat" letterboxed transfer rather than an anamorphic wide-screen transfer. Even so, it looks better than the original theatrical prints, which had that ugly green tint that afflicted Cinepix's films in the late 70s. EXTRAS: Director commentary and interview, theatrical trailer.
The Snow Walker
(Lions Gate, 2003) D: Charles Martin Smith, w/ Barry Pepper, Annabella Piugattuk. Rating: NNN
Twenty years ago, charles martin Smith went to the Arctic to star in an adaptation of Farley Mowat's Never Cry Wolf. In The Snow Walker, he returns to the location and the author to direct of The Snow Walker, with Barry Pepper (Saving Private Ryan) as a cocky bush pilot who finds himself stranded on the tundra when his plane goes down, leaving him and his cultural arrogance to be saved by newcomer Annabella Piugattuk. If it lacks the sheer visual majesty of Never Cry Wolf (it also doesn't have Carroll Ballard directing or Caleb Deschanel shooting it), it is an engaging adventure story that anyone in the family can enjoy. The making-of documentary details the endless search for the film's co-star, which was worth the effort: Piugattuk is a real find.
There are also director/producer and star commentaries. And although the back of the box claims a 16-by-9 transfer for wide-screen TVs, it isn't - it's a 4-by-3 letterboxed presentation.
EXTRAS Director/producer commentary, star commentary, making-of feature.
(Warner, 2004) D: David Mamet, w/ Val Kilmer, Derek Luke. Rating: NNNN
This David Mamet thriller may be the most tersely written film of the past couple of years. Mamet refuses to stop for exposition, so that while we quickly figure out that Val Kilmer is some sort of covert black ops specialist trying recover the president's kidnapped daughter, it's never actually stated. This is a crisp thriller with an unexpected performance from Kilmer, who turns Mamet's syncopated dialogue into a kind of beat poetry, and strong support from Mamet regulars like William H. Macy and Ed O'Neill.
The DVD is very light on extras, but the one they've got is a pip - Kilmer's first commentary, which veers from considerable insight into the process of acting for David Mamet to throwaway jokes.
EXTRAS: Star commentary, theatrical trailer. English with English, French and Spanish subtitles.
Coming Tuesday, June 22
Bad Santa/Badder Santa (Miramax/ Alliance-Atlantis, 2003) Anybody who loved Bad Santa will want the unrated special edition, Badder Santa, which is five minutes longer.Of course, it’s a pathological love. One worry: they’re setting us up for the ultimate version, Baddest Santa.
The Lower Depths (Criterion/Morningstar, 1936/1957) An interesting chance to check out how two great directors approach the same material.This two-disc Criterion includes both Jean Renoir’s 1936 version and Akira Kurosawa’s 1957 adaptation of Gorky’s play.The Renoir is also noteworthy as the sole encounter between French screen icons Jean Gabin and Louis Jouvet.
Secret Window (Columbia/TriStar, 2004) Johnny Depp plays a writer slowly losing his mind in this Stephen King adaptation.
= Critics' Pick
NNNNN = excellent, maintains big screen impact
NNNN = very good
NNN = worth a peek
NN = Mediocre
N = Bomb