A Hollywood classic, a blistering contemporary satire and one of the most influential television shows of all time are all featured in this week's DVD review column.
Billy Wilder was one of those directors who hit home run after home run in his career. "The Lost Weekend," "Double Indemnity," "Stalag 17," "The Apartment" and "The Fortune Cookie" are just some of his great films. Now one of his best films, "Sunset Boulevard," is given the two-disc treatment in a new DVD edition.
I used to show the film regularly in my films classes at Western New England College, as it was not only a stunning example of film noir, but also a subtle but scalpel sharp commentary on the movie business in 1950.
Joe Gillis (William Holden) plays a down on his luck screenwriter who dodges repo men after his car by hiding it in the garage of a slightly run-down Hollywood mansion. Through a case of mistaken identity he is introduced to the house's resident, Norma Desmond, a silent screen star long retired from acting.
While Norma may be not be acting any longer, she longs for a return to the screen. Joe sees an opening when he learns she has a screenplay that needs some re-writing. Soon, Joe find himself playing a role that clearly he doesn't like Norma's reluctant boy toy but he is willing to do so to get some much needed money.
Gloria Swanson, a huge star in the silent days who had appeared successfully in sound pictures in the 1930s, played Norma. Swanson was nothing like her character, but the casting was so perfect that it influenced a generation of movie fans on how they viewed her.
This is a hard-edged cynical movie that seems as fresh to me today as the first time I saw it. It's sad, tender and very, very tough all at the same time.
The extras are well done and feature interviews with surviving cast member Nancy Olson.
If the satire of "Sunset Boulevard" cuts like a scalpel, "Tropic Thunder's" approach to the movie industry is more like a sledgehammer it gets the job done, only things are a tad messier.
Director and co-star Ben Stiller's take on the film industry includes a bunch of ignorant self-absorbed actors and crude profit-driven execs who make bloated unrealistic pieces of cinematic trash.
The interesting thing is if the film had tanked at the box office, Stiller might be facing some ugly music from his peers. But you can spit in the face of folks as long as your film is on the black side of the account book.
"Tropic Thunder" tells the story of a group of spoiled stars (played by Robert Downey Jr., Stiller, Jack Black and Brandon T. Jackson) making a Vietnam War story in Vietnam. When the director can't control his cast (played by Steve Coogan), he takes the advice of the author of the book on which the film is based (Nick Nolte), a hard-as-nails vet, to bring the cast into the jungle and film them secretly as they try to really survive.
The problem is the cast isn't truly aware of what is waiting for them in the jungle and what isn't just part of a movie.
There are some funny bits on the film, although I didn't think it was as laugh-out-loud funny as I had expected it to be. I appreciated the satire, but didn't always laugh at it.
The film was controversial as it supposedly made fun of people with developmental problems. The reaction from various advocacy groups was unwarranted in my opinion as the film comments on how Hollywood shallowly uses metal retardation as fodder for stories.
The extras are pretty comprehensive in how they profile the making of the film, although I was surprised there was a blooper reel.
If you don't care for some rough and tumble satire, then stay away from "Tropic Thunder."
The Complete Monty Python's Flying Circus Collector's Edition
Like many people who discovered "Monty Python's Flying Circus" during its first American television run in the early 1970s, I was amazed. As a high school kid I couldn't believe what I was seeing and although I didn't understand all of the jokes, the ones I did get were hilarious.
When I saw the group's first feature film, "And Now for Something Completely Different," a re-filming of their best television bits, I laughed so hard my face ached.
And years later the skits I've seen a hundred times still make me laugh.
For me, there's a short list of the most influential comics of the 20th century: Buster Keaton, W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers, the Firesign Theater and Monty Python. These are my comedy gods.
And owning this new 21-disc Monty Python set is like going to church.
Not only are all of the television episodes here, but one of the feature films, "Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl," is here as well. Plus there are two amazing new documentaries about the Pythons, six "personal best" collections, the shows the boys did for German television and much more.
I particularly enjoyed seeing Terry Gilliam explain not only how he did his animated linking pieces, but also how he arrived at the imagery.
This 36-hour collection is something every Python fan should have.
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