DVD Times Favourite... Comedy DVDs
Noel Megahey: The Big Lebowski
Joel Coen, 1998
Unusually for a comedy, the Coen Brothers’ ‘The Big Lebowski’ takes its lead from the pulp noir of Raymond Chandler’s grim, dark vision of the dangerous Californian West Coast, updating his Marlowe character from a 50’s private eye to a 90’s aging hippy. All Jeff ‘The Dude’ Lebowski wants is to be left alone, play a few games of bowling with his buddies, get stoned and have a few drinks without being slipped a mickey. Unfortunately, he gets confused with a wealthy namesake and has his rug ruined by a gang of thugs who break into his house. Becoming a crusader for justice, even if it is just for a rug that really held the room together, he gets involved in the sordid business of a kidnapping and enters a world of pain. Some things have changed in this modern LA from Chandler’s time and some things haven’t. Los Angeles still seems to have its share of rich old men in wheelchairs with wayward wives or daughters. We also have eccentric artists, kidnappers, crazed nihilist gangs and porn stars, all trying to find ways of making a lot of money quickly. Sounds like an accurate portrayal of LA all right.
What makes ‘The Big Lebowski’ funny beyond its setting, colourful characters, richly complex plot (I simply couldn’t follow what was going on the first time I watched the film – rather like ‘The Big Sleep’), a perfect soundtrack and one of the funniest dream sequences ever filmed – is the Coen Bros hilariously profane script, brimming over with one-liners delivered with throwaway ease by a terrific cast that includes Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, John Turturro, Julianne Moore and Philip Seymour Hoffman. You might not necessarily agree that it is the funniest film of all time, but like, that’s just your opinion man…
There is a Scandinavian edition of ‘The Big Lebowski’, supposedly with a DTS soundtrack, short featurette, interviews and a recipe for a White Russian, but the anamorphic UK R2 is pretty good for a barebones release.
Michael Mackenzie: Brass Eye
Michael Cumming, 1997
Tristram Shapeero, 2001 (special)
Brass Eye's place in television history is assured. The brainchild of one Christopher Morris, the gifted satirist whose wickedly accurate lampooning of the format of news broadcasts in The Day Today ensured his swift dismissal from the BBC, Brass Eye is a less time-stamped, more outrageous and infinitely more controversial variant of its predecessor, focusing on Panorama/Newsnight-style shows and absolutely nailing everything about them that makes them so preposterous. Whether he's duping Z-list celebrities into endorsing campaigns against a fictional drug called Cake, revealing the harm that sodomised electrons are doing to the villagers of a non-existent African village or discussing a proposed musical about the life of the Yorkshire Ripper, Morris' razor-sharp brand of humour hits its intended target every time and makes you wonder how you ever managed to take the subjects of his ridicule seriously before.
Brass Eye is only available on an R2 UK DVD that proves to be perfectly serviceable, although a handful of brief segments have been removed for various reasons. Although light on actual worthwhile bonus content, the quality of the episodes themselves shine through, which at the end of the day is what matters.
Region 2 Review
Daniel Stephens: This Is Spinal Tap
Rob Reiner, 1984
Rob Reiner turns up the comedy level to eleven in his superb mockumentary about acclaimed British rock band Spinal Tap. Following their trials and tribulations while on tour in America, Reiner lets his camera peek into the world of a band whose drummers internally combust and whose songs have chorus lines like 'Big bottom, big bottom, talk about bum cakes, my girl's got 'em'. The parody of the genre is beautifully constructed but the biting satire that floods the whole aura of rock 'n roll verges on comic genius. The fact actors Christopher Guest (the film clearly inspired him to make his brilliant directorial efforts such as Waiting For Guffman and Best In Show), Michael McKean and Harry Shearer largely improvise is a credit to their abilities, but the reason why the film is so funny is because the satire is perfectly subtle and genuine.
The region 2 two-disc edition is great featuring plenty of extra features, but it's the commentary by the three lead actors in character that has to be heard. One of the most entertaining commentaries recorded, the yak-track is as funny as the film if not funnier.
Region 2 Review
Nat Tunbridge: Withnail and I
Bruce Robinson, 1987
The A cult hit on its release in 1987, ‘Withnail & I’ has attained legendary status in the near-20-years since, embraced afresh by each new generation of students and lionised repeatedly by film lovers as both a technically superb piece of British cinema and one of the funniest films ever made. Its simple plot, concerning two out of work actors in the last days of 1969 leaving their Camden Town flat on an ill-advised trip into the countryside, is incidental to the incandescent script, a masterpiece of comedy writing that ranks among the very best of its kind. Scabrous invective, philosophical musings and erudite asides combine to create one of the most consistently entertaining examples of wordplay ever to hit the screen. I’ve seen this film more often than any other, at one time watching it religiously every weekend with suitably addled friends, and it’s a mark of its matchless invention and solid cinematic qualities that I can still watch it today without getting bored.
Matching the gleaming dialogue are the superb performances. A 28-year old Richard E Grant shot to fame in the titular role, bringing a combination of manic energy and decaying grandeur to what was a dream of a part. He was ably assisted by a young Paul McGann as the film’s narrator and Richard Griffiths as the rotund, raving homosexual Uncle Monty. Keeping just within the boundaries of out and out farce, writer/director Bruce Robinson does an excellent job of both creating the chaos and steering his hapless characters through it (there is no doubt that ‘Withnail and I’ is, objectively speaking, an exceptionally assured first film). Veteran cinematographer Peter Hannan provides both gorgeous landscapes for the lead character’s country escapade and a grimily authentic London malaise while Andrea Galer’s superb costume design started a fashion trend that has yet to die.
The constant ingestion of drugs and alcohol, the almost scholarly tone of the bile and most of all the clear-eyed and unsentimental way in which the characters’ many faults are depicted, mark the film out as being a uniquely British triumph. Few other nations, I venture, can skewer themselves so accurately on the altar of satire, or take such exquisite pleasure in doing so. In this sense, ‘Withnail and I’ belongs in the same category of British classic as ‘The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp’, ‘Trainspotting’ and Lindsay Anderson’s ‘If’, in that its merciless depiction of peculiarly British perversities is indistinguishable from celebration. This quality is strengthened by the sublime poignancy of the ending (which differed from Robinson’s original script, in which Withnail goes home, drinks a whisky, says ‘chin-chin’ and uses the shotgun he took from the cottage to blow his brains out).
Criterion produced a non-anamorphic, mono version several years ago, with the 1999 ‘Withnail and Us’ retrospective documentary. However, the DVD of choice is Anchor Bay’s 2001 R2 disk which offers the same extras, plus 5.1 sound and a commentary track from McGann and Ralph Brown, who plays Danny in the film.
Region 2 SE Review (UK)
Region 0 Criterion Review (US)
Mike Sutton: North by Northwest
Alfred Hitchcock, 1959
Hitchcock was one of the wittiest of all directors and North By Northwest is his wittiest film; a delightfully mischievous, convoluted romp through the past thirty years of his career in a film which is so much fun that it doesn't matter one bit that the plot makes no sense at all. Cary Grant plays, well, Cary Grant and wanders through an increasingly bizarre series of events with charm and poise so unruffled that one suspects he was able to iron it. Whether careering drunk along the edge a treacherous cliff, throwing himself down in a field to avoid a murderous crop-duster or gradually slipping down the face of a president, Grant is quite simply the coolest man who has ever existed on the face of the earth. No wonder Eve Marie Saint - a more than acceptable substitute for the matrimonially occupied Grace Kelly - falls in love with him, nor that his mother - the divine Jessie Royce Landis, barely older than Grant - is very cross indeed. James Mason is a villain as smooth as a dry martini and Martin Landau ponces about lethally as one of the nastiest henchmen this side of a Bond movie. In the process of unravelling an unfathomable plot and chasing cross-country through a series of Hitchcock's favourite scenes, Grant manages to save the country while still looking about twenty years younger than any man of 54 should.
If this is basically a 'Greatest Hits' package for cineastes, it's so delightfully funny that it puts most so called 'comedies' in the shade - a similar claim can be made for Howard Hawks' contemporaneous Rio Bravo, which I would also have chosen had we been allowed more than one nomination. Hitchcock is at the height of his powers, fluffing up a confection which has enough bitterness to avoid being overly cute. Kudos to his traditional team of craftsmen, among whom Bernard Herrmann deserves to be singled out for his stunning music score. The script by Ernest Lehman contains some fabulous one-liners - mother's naive question "You men aren't really trying to kill my son are you?" is my favourite - and is structured so brilliantly that the narrative coheres without ever stopping for long enough to make us think about the unlikely coincidences. Although Hitchcock made better, deeper films, he didn't make any which were more sheerly entertaining and this is by far his funniest film, much more so than the lugubrious Trouble With Harry or the feather-light To Catch A Thief. I can't think of many other films which are so gloriously life-enhancing as this one and it makes me laugh long and loud every time I watch it.
The film is available from Warner in both R1 and R2. Both contain an excellent visual transfer, a commentary and a nice documentary but the R1 shades its UK counterpart for including the original trailer.
Region 2 Review
Mark Boydell: The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob
Gérard Oury, 1973
Ask your average French person who their favourite comical actor is and they will most likely answer Louis De Funès. Louis who? Though his fame has extended to the unlikely climes of Greece and Germany, he remains cruelly ignored in the UK and the US. Prematurely bald and without many redeeming physical attributes, he slowly but surely established himself as the ultimate funny man of French cinema, usually playing roles of bitter or disagreeable small men. As a testament to France's unusual taste for lead actors, he became a national hero and a guarantee of box-office success.
In The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob, he reprises the role of the angry, narrow-minded Frenchman as Victor Pivert who has the added bonus of being rabidly anti-semitic and racist. Through an unlikely series of events, he ends up being on the hitlist of an Arab terrorist group, searched by the French police for murder and covered in liquid chewing-gum. With few options left, he steals a Rabbi's costume but is inadvertently mistaken for the learned Rabbi Jacob visiting from New York. Forced to play along, Pivert is whisked off to la Rue Des Rosiers where he can wait incognito for the dust to settle.
Although the film's release unfortunately coincided with the Yom Kippur war, it was a runaway success mostly thanks to De Funès brilliant ability to make a clearly despicable character both believable and human. Oury's script seems to have been tailored for De Funès but the more minor roles are equally well cast. Casting Dalio - a man whose face was used by the Nazis to exemplify the "typical Jew" - as the real Rabbi Jacob was a brilliant coup as was Suzy Delair as Pivert's chronically jealous wife. Thirty years later, the film is still seen as one of France's best comedies and, for once, popular taste coincides with my own views. It may not be the most elaborate humour but its sheer energy and bonhomie largely compensates for its low-brow credentials.
The French release is a double DVD set but no subtitles are available - this means it is unwatchable unless your French is top-notch. There is also an R1 release available (with English subs) but no extras.
Michael Sunda: Kikujiro no Natsu
Takeshi Kitano, 1999
Somewhat of a surprise following Hana-bi and Sonatine, not to mention the bizarre comedy Getting Any? Kikujiro marks yet another change of pace in Kitano’s career. Whilst there may not be any Yakuza in sight, the director’s approach to this simple tale of an unlikely friendship bears many similarities to his previous works. Minor spoilers ahead…
Initially, the two lead characters couldn’t seem any more different from each other. Masao is a shy young boy living with his grandmother, whilst Kikujiro (Kitano) is a brash, outspoken man whose idea of bonding is taking a child to the Bookies’. After Masao is left on his own for the summer, Kikujiro’s wife orders him to take the child to see his mother, who he has never met before, and so begins their adventure.
Told from the child’s point of view, the film never fails to be touching, and is consistently comical, despite tackling some surprisingly adult themes. Not to overlook the frequently amusing situations that arise from Kikujiro’s interaction with the other characters – from Baldy and Fatso the bikers, to an unwitting hotelier – the real substance of the film comes from the development of the relationship between Kikujiro and Masao. They both learn a lot from each other (albeit not consciously) and from their experiences together, and although Masao might still be without a mother at the end, he has not only had an eventful vacation, but also gained a father figure.
Sticking to his usual style, which always strikes me as somewhat of an equivalent to minimalism, Kitano’s direction is excellent, as is his contribution to the cinematography. Combine that with a haunting score by the ever-impressive Joe Hisaishi, and this is very much a Kitano movie, just with a change of subject matter.
Both the Korean Region 3 and US Region 1 releases are pleasing, boasting impressive anamorphic transfers (the quality of the Korean release's is slightly superior) with good clarity and impressive colour reproduction. In regards to the audio, only a stereo track is available in both cases, but it does the job, handling both the dialogue and Hisaishi’s melodic score competently.
D.J. Nock: Clerks
Kevin Smith, 1994
Dante Hicks: Hey, whatcha rent?
[reads the cover to Randal's videotape]
Dante: "Best of Both Worlds"?
Randal Graves: Hermaphroditic porn. Starlets with both organs. You should see the box. Beautiful chicks with dicks that put mine to shame.
Dante: And you rented this?
Randal: Hey, I like to expand my horizons.
I've been known to expand my horizons too (not in that area!), and Clerks was one of the first independent pictures that truly bowled me over. On first appearance it was nothing special - black and white, shot on a shoestring, with no-name actors and a one-location plot. But Clerks was never about the art of film-making. It's about zany characters, sharp dialogue and the mundanity of everyday life. Not only has Kevin Smith's crazed debut become my favourite comedy film of all time, it's also a bona-fide cult classic; a reminder that the "Average Joe" can prosper in the film-making arena, and produce a golden oldie in the process. In fact, Smith may never make a better film...
In a movie so powered by conversation, it's often easy to overlook the acute characterisation. Dante and Randal are no-hopers - totally prepared to live out their days in a New Jersey Quick Stop (a situation most of us could relate to.) They'll have to deal with many strange customers, leave the store to attend a funeral, play hockey on the roof, and dispose with a sexually-active dead man in their toilet. Your average day on the job? Not really. Smith has a field day with these scenarios, and his script is close to comedic perfection. Every exchange or discussion is quotable; every personality unique, and the performances of Brian O'Halloran and Jeff Anderson are the cherry on top. A true work of anarchic brilliance, it also introduced the world to immortal stoners Jay and Silent Bob. What's not to like?
Clerks has yet to appear on DVD in the UK, a fact which is so bemusing given Smith's rabid fanbase. Still, those with multi-region capacity have no need to worry. The 10th Anniversary Edition released last year, includes everything you need to know about Quick Stop's finest hour. Boasting three discs, two cuts of the film, a brand new "video" commentary, a feature-length documentary, and a collection of vintage Jay and Silent Bob shorts, this package is truly indispensable. Let's just hope that Smith and the View Askew posses make good on their word, and give Mallrats a dust-off later this year...
Region 1 10th Anniversary Review
James Gray: Ghostbusters
Ivan Reitman, 1983
Although it's hard to imagine, originally Ghostbusters was going to be very different. Dan Ackroyd's original idea was to make a film called Ghostsmashers which had a group of guys headed by John Belushi running round in space after ghosts and ghoulies. Fortunately he was talked out of it by Harold Ramis and instead we got this sublime film that is still the best thing to ever come from Saturday Night Live alumni. Endlessly rewatchable, from the moment the library ghost turns and shushes the trio through to the climax which gave us one of the memorable moments of the 1980s (what must it have been like to not have known what was coming?) it is a film that has entered the collective conscious - all one has to do is recite one of its many quotable lines to bring a reminiscent smile to people's faces. Murray, Ackroyd, Ramis and Moranis are all pitched perfectly to their roles (Murray especially) and Sigourney Weaver surprised the world by showing she could do comedy while, in Slimer, we got possibly the weirdest tribute ever to a recently deceased actor, modelled as he was on Belushi (Is it any wonder he slimes his replacement Murray?) And, if there was any doubt left over what you should do if there's something strange in your neighbourhood, Ray Parker Jr's irrestible tune left you in no doubt about what you should call. I just wonder what exactly Egon found on examining Louis' brain tissue, if anything?
The film comes with an excellent DVD package. One of the first to take advantage of the idea of DVD extras, it's packed with goodies, including an excellent commentary from Ackroyd, Reitman and Ramis (including a "silhouette" option, MSTK3 style, of the three at the bottom of the screen), a bunch of deleted scenes, storyboard comparisons and before and after SFX shots. The picture isn't quite as good as we're used to these days, but in all other regards this is a quality package.
Kevin Gilvear: Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid
Carl Reiner, 1982
"Marlowe once told me that dead men don't wear plaid - dead men don't wear plaid. I still don’t know what it means".
Shortly after the success of The Jerk Steve Martin sat down with Carl Reiner and came up with his second vehicle. Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid shows Steve Martin at his very best as he goes at loggerheads with an all star cast who dominated the 40's and 50's film noir era. Cleverly incorporating selected clips from well known movies into a story about a cheese conspiracy with Nazi Germans the film is a riot from start to finish. Intentionally filmed in black and white to fit the rest of the pieces, the world of Rigby Reardon becomes instantly believable and with the help of Marlowe, played by Humphrey Bogart he sets out to solve his latest mystery. Rachael Ward matches Martin line for line as if they were competing for the comedy Olympics and visually the gags fly fast. After a gruelling time in choosing the right clips to match their script both Reiner and Martin come away with a comedy masterpiece that never lets up. Laugh as Rigby constantly tells Sam off for not wearing a tie, adjust Rachael Ward's breasts after "falling out of whack", get shot in the same bullet hole time after time, attack those who dare to say "Cleaning Woman", take 45 seconds shaking a pot of java and many, many more that only Martin himself can get away with.
With the help of some of the greatest contributors who once worked during the very era (including costume design by Edith Head in what was to be her final film) for which this film so affectionately draws upon, the look and feel is typically noir-ish yet like no other it is a far more surreal experience in that it had never been seen before nor would be repeated quite so successfully. The key to making the entire film work so well is that Steve Martin, Rachael Ward and the host of stars play every scene as straight as possible, with Martin's hilarious and deadpan narration carrying along events in perfect unison with every onscreen action, from which so many little nuances can be spotted. Never will you see a cast like this together onscreen in the same way again.
On a personal note Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid is the greatest comedy film ever made, proving Steve Martin to be one of the greatest comedic minds of the 20th century and whose collective resume during the 80's could easily make it into any comedy fan's top honours list.
Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid has been available on both region 1 and region 2 DVD for quite some time. The DVD is pretty light in terms of extras, with only production notes and the theatrical trailer (which is the second funniest trailer of all time, next to Orson Well's Citizen Kane). As for A/V the film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 but is sadly non-anamorphic. Aside from some aliasing the image holds up very though and is more than acceptable. Sound wise we get a 2-channel mono track which is nigh on perfect, carrying Miklos Rozsa's score beautifully and for those who require them there are also optional English subtitles. One only hopes that Universal eventually decide to put out an all new "Special Edition" release and if they do I'll be the first to get there.