Friday, August 7, 2009

On DVD: "Dollhouse- The Complete First Season"

Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse is a work in progress, a show that struggles and stammers for several episodes, working as hard as it can to find its own voice and its own style. It does some interesting things along the way, and certainly keeps our attention, but it flounders a bit. Then, somewhat miraculously, around the midway point of its abbreviated first season, the show starts to click. There are still stumbles in the season’s back half, but it feels a smoother, more confident program; we can feel the show’s writers exploring the possibilities of the core concept, and providing some tantalizing glimpses of where they can still go.

Our protagonist is “Echo” (Eliza Dushku), one of the high-priced “dolls” that inhabit the titular lab/secret agency. While there, each doll is but an empty shell; once they’re hired (or “engaged”) for a job, they are “imprinted” with the memories, skills, or emotions that each job requires—i.e., a doll can be hired as a thief, a rescuer, a spy, or (of course) a lover. At the end of each engagement, their memories are “wiped”, and they’re back to being a blank slate. The trouble is, they may not be—everyone comes from somewhere, even if they sign themselves over to the Dollhouse for a five-year stint. FBI agent Paul Ballard (Battlestar Galactica’s Tahmoh Penikett) is tracking Echo’s original identity and all roads lead back to the Dollhouse—which his fellow agents are convinced is a myth.

That’s your bare essentials of the plot—one of the show’s pleasures is how it gradually uncoils itself, bobbing and weaving and revealing new complexities and unforeseen motivations within what appear, at first, to be fairly straight-forward characters. The mythology and language of the show also takes some getting used to—in addition to the terms above, we also hear about “actives,” “wedges,” and “treatments,” among other buzzwords. Plotlines are frequently unpredictable; Whedon and his writers love nothing more than throwing us a curveball right before the act break, with a slow push in and a shock music chord.

But those first episodes are, indeed, mighty rocky. Whedon reportedly went through the wringer with the Fox network in the quest for a satisfactory pilot episode; when they rejected his original pilot, “Echo” (included here as a special feature), he first attempted re-shooting some scenes before junking the whole thing and starting over. The “official” pilot (“Ghost”) still isn’t quite on the nose—much of the dialogue is strained, saddled with fumbling exposition, and the entire episode has a feel like we’re missing important information. Penikett’s Agent Ballard gets pretty short shrift in the opening episodes—his scenes are frequently inflicted by unfortunate cop-show clichés, in both dialogue (“I’m an honest citizen!” “And I’m the Easter bunny”) and situations.

The trouble with the first few shows is that you see them laboring to nail the tone—it doesn’t have the Whedon spin. Whether the now-iconic writer is trying not to repeat himself, or merely trying to satisfy the action-first requests of his network, it doesn’t feel like its own creation. Make no mistake, there are good shows in the front half—“The Target” spins some taut suspense out of its Most Dangerous Game storyline, while the “Gray Matter” episode takes the Echo character into some interesting places. But they don’t feel consistent. Whedon states that one of his main aims was to create a clothesline for stories that could showcase Dushku’s versatility, the grab-bag nature of the episodes (this one’s a thriller, this one’s a caper, etc) causes an overall dissonance. And, perhaps more distressingly, Whedon’s trademark sense of humor is mostly absent—the show appears to sacrifice comedy for slickness. As a result, the show is entertaining, but it doesn’t feel like it’s his—it feels like it could be any random Fox hour.

However, the fifth episode (“True Believer”) starts to show some progress; the A-plot has Echo taking an intriguing journey into a gun-hoarding religious cult, while an entertaining B-plot has resident imprinting genius Topher (Fran Kranz) and staff doctor Claire Saunders (Amy Acker) investigating the possibility of the blank dolls developing feelings and affection, as evidenced by handsome Victor (Enver Gjokaj) and his “man reactions.” The show gets even stronger in the Joss-penned sixth episode, “The Man on the Street,” which packs in funny lines, ingenious payoffs (that last turn is a real kicker), and real pathos (mostly provided by guest star Patton Oswalt, in a heartbreaking turn). Most importantly, episode six seems to realize that it’s okay to tone-shift—its final moments follow a shocking reveal, almost instantaneously, with a scene of genuinely moving emotion.

The rest of the season is much smoother sailing. Episode seven, “Echoes,” gives the cast a chance to loosen up and have some fun (surely a relief after the deadly seriousness of those early shows), while effortlessly transitioning into some first-rate backstory (for several characters). “A Spy in the House of Love” (episode nine) does some clever storytelling within its multiple POV construction and repeating timeline. The appearance of Alan Tudyk (Firefly) for two episodes at season’s end should delight Browncoats, and he turns in a frizzy, jumpy, outstanding performance that gives the show a nice jolt; though “Briar Rose” is softened somewhat by its heavy-handed fairy tale symbolism, the show’s dip into darker, neo-Natural Born Killers waters in episode 12, “Omega,” an absorbing trip into some deliciously mind-bending notions. Throughout this pseudo-closing episode, the show’s writers continue digging deeper into the characters, exploring their pasts, and gradually revealing new information. (The show also contains a beautifully realized conclusion, set to Beck’s “Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime,” a song also heard in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind—surely not coincidentally.)

The DVD and Blu-ray release of Dollhouse: The Complete First Season also contains the much-discussed “lost” episode, “Epitaph One.” The story is that, due to the reshooting of the pilot, the show was one episode short of the required thirteen; happy with the conclusion of “Omega,” Whedon decided to devise a one-off story taking place ten years into the future, providing clues about the direction of the story and fates of the characters. (Of course, Fox didn’t end up airing the damn thing anyway, so it’s a home video exclusive.) Though it contains some interesting footnotes and foreshadowing, it ultimately plays like what it is: an afterthought.

In playing Echo, Dushku has something of a challenge: she must garner audience sympathy for a character who is basically (and perhaps literally) a cipher. For that job, her natural charisma (and raw sexuality) go a long way; likewise, her playing of “blank” Echo’s innocent, childlike state is chillingly effective. However, the show sometimes gets stuck putting her into the kind of “let’s get the hot girl into a sexy outfit” situations that occasionally made Alias (the show’s most obvious influence) semi-exploitive. And unfortunately, though she’s plenty convincing as an action heroine, she periodically struggles with some of the denser acting scenes.

The supporting cast is strong—Harry Lennix provides a sturdy presence as Echo’s “handler,” while Dichen Lachman is remarkably versatile as a fellow Doll and Olivia Williams (Rushmore) invests agency head Adelle DeWitt with the right amount of crisp, British impatience. Kranz’s Topher starts out as a walking cliché (junk food-chomping computer nerd) but slowly shows some interesting, morally ambiguous characteristics. Penkiett’s Ballard is stuck being the square-jawed good guy for much of the show, which makes the twisted turn of his sweet courtship with neighbor Mellie (the wonderful Miracle Laurie) that much more compelling (it’s a story thread you wish they’d have carried a little further).

Dollhouse’s first season is, to be sure, a bumpy one—it takes some time to find its footing, and still has some bugs to work out in its coming year. But Whedon and his writers have opened up some intriguing possibilities, both in terms of characterization and the philosophical ramifications of the show’s central premise. Fox’s second season order was a squeaker (ratings started low and got lower), but hopefully they’ll give Dollhouse the room to breathe, grown, and fulfill its considerable potential.

"Dollhouse: The Complete First Season" is currently available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Today's New in Theaters: 8/7/09

G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra: It's the movie so good, they couldn't spoil it with those pesky critics. "We want audiences to define this film," claims Rob Moore, vice chairman of Paramount Pictures. Yeah, that's usually why studios bypass advance screenings, not because their movie is a steaming pile of runny dogshit. I can't imagine that G.I. Joe wouldn't be good-- I mean, after all, it's a movie based on a cartoon based on a toy line, and it's directed by Stephen Sommers (the auteur behind the Mummy movies and Van Helsing). How could it not be totally awesome? Orndorf waited to see it with one of those movie-defining "audiences" and filed a review at DVD Talk that pretty much confirmed everything I suspect about the picture's quality. Plus, I found out for the first time in his review that Marlon Wayans is in it, one of the few pieces of information that makes me want to see it even less.

Julie & Julia: It's got Meryl Streep, it's got Amy Adams, it's got a clever premise and a funny trailer. Why am I not seeing Julie & Julia? Two words: Nora Ephron. She hasn't had a credit in a legitimately good movie for two decades now (that'd be When Harry Met Sally); in the interim, she's burdened us with dreck like You've Got Mail, Michael, Bewitched, Hanging Up, and Lucky Numbers. Not exactly a sterling filmography, that. According to Ebert, Julie & Julia is a pretty bland sauce. My friend Charity gives it higher marks.

Shorts: The Adventures of the Wishing Rocks: Oh, Robert Rodriguez. It's nice that you want to make movies for your kids. I just don't want to see them. (Interesting how, the very week his new, crappy-looking kids movie comes out, they also announce the full cast for his presumably R-rated Grindhouse spin-off, Machete. It's as if that was specifically timed for people who like the guy and wonder why he's putting out this garbage. I'm sure the timing is just a coincidence!)

A Perfect Getaway: As much as I like the cast (Steve Zahn and Tim Olyphant are in it), the trailers for this one sure do make it feel like a late-summer burn-0ff. Might give it a look on DVD, but that's about it.

Cold Souls: So this one looks interesting. I'll see just about anything Paul Giamatti does, and the idea of him pulling a Being John Malkovich certainly sounds like it would be worth your time.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Kael of the Week: A Critic's Job

"The role of the critic is to help people see what is in the work, what is in it that shouldn't be, what is not in it that could be. He is a good critic if he helps people understand more about the work than they could see for themselves; he is a great critic, if by his understanding and feeling for the work, by his passion, he can excite people so that they want to experience more of the art that is there, waiting to be seized. He is not necessarily a bad critic if he makes errors in judgment. (Infallible taste is not inconceivable; what could it be measured against?) He is a bad critic if he does not awaken the curiosity, enlarge the interests and understanding of his audience. The art of the critic is to transmit his knowledge of and enthusiasm for art to others."

-From "Circles and Squares"
Published 1963

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

On DVD: "Jamiroquai: Live at Montreux 2003"

Like most of the American pop audience, I first became aware of the British group Jamiroquai in 1996, when their mind-bending video for “Virtual Insanity” (from their Traveling Without Moving album) became a breakout MTV hit. The accompanying album was an enjoyable slab of neo-Stevie Wonder R&B/funk/pop, and the group has been worth keeping an eye on ever since; though they’ve misfired occasionally, and never really capitalized on that American success (these days, they’re best known for “Canned Heat,” the song that Napoleon Dynamite dances to), they’ve still produced a steady stream of interesting, danceable music.

Which is why Jamiroquai: Live at Montreux 2003 is something of a disappointment. It’s not a bad concert, by any means, it’s just listless and somewhat underwhelming; the long, improvised renditions often run on considerably longer than they should, and some of the song choices are peculiar (seriously, no “Virtual Insanity”?). Most damaging is the odd instrumentation; for reasons unclear, many of the songs are performed with a proto-heavy metal electric guitar as the primary engine, a choice that is wrong, wrong, wrong. At first, it seems they can’t reproduce their recorded sound on stage, but some songs do so just fine—leaving us to assume that they were experimenting with a modified style that just doesn’t quite click.

And it happens right off the top. Lead vocalist Jay Kay makes rather a half-hearted entrance (wearing an Adidas sweatsuit and a peculiar piece of headgear that’s like a cross between an Indian headdress and a Ginsu knife set) as the set begins with a rocked-out rendition of “Use the Force,” and this viewer’s response was instant confusion—where’s the funk? Where’s the horns? “Canned Heat,” which follows, simply doesn’t sound right without strings, and the electric guitar fill-in on the part is a case of a square peg in a round hole.

Things perk up with “Cosmic Girl,” as the bass-heavy funk sound we’re looking for slowly begins to show its face, while “Little L” is a nice groove with a terrific bass solo. Other highlights include a fantastic performance of “Alright” and a rendition of “Love Foolosophy” that really grooves (even if they don’t match the show-stopping energy of that song’s performance on Live from Abbey Road).

The performance is sidetracked in small ways throughout, however. Jay Kay is an engaging performer, but not terribly good with stage patter; his introductions tend to ramble on and not go much of anywhere. Their performance of “Butterfly” is good, even if the intro isn’t, while “Mr. Moon” gets off to a rocky start after an awkward encounter with a fan who tries to give him a joint. The sheer length of some of the numbers is problematic as well; the show’s 15 songs run a total of 137 minutes, averaging out to almost nine minutes each. Some people like jam bands, but from the evidence here, Jamiroquai isn’t much of a jam band; they have a tendency to ride out the last two or three minutes of song with monotonous repetition. They can occasionally keep the energy going, but not often (I made a legitimate mistake, and not a bad joke, when I jotted down “Traveling Without Ending” instead of “Traveling Without Moving” in my notes).

The heavy guitars work fine on “High Times” (it matches the record, after all), but the rock sound returns later in the show, nearly destroying “Soul Education” (one of my favorite Jamiroquai songs). It’s just as intrusive on “Just Another Story” and the show closer, “Deeper Underground.” In those songs, the instrumentation makes the group sound like a bad bar band. Live at Montreux 2003 is a disc that I wanted, badly, to like, but it’s a problematic special that confuses and disappoints more than it excites.

Jamiroquai has made some great records, and they have a reputation for putting on a great live show. But there’s little evidence of that in Jamiroquai: Live at Montreux 2003, which is burdened by indulgent, endless renditions of songs that frequently diverge too broadly from the group’s signature style. For hardcore fans only.

"Jamiroquai: Live at Montreux 2003" is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Today's New DVDs- 8/4/09

Honestly, it's kind of a lame-ass week on DVD. "The Soloist" is the only new release of note; a few other catalog titles are popping up on Blu. And that's about it.

The Soloist: Joe Wright's drama was befuddlingly mishandled by the folks at Paramount, which is too bad--it's a smart, complex, sometimes humorous, surprisingly moving drama for grown-ups. Performances by Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx are top-notch.

Sling Blade (Blu-ray): Billy Bob Thornton's big break-through was, as far as I'm concerned, one of the great indie flicks of the 90s. Miramax's Blu-ray is a little underwhelming, quality-wise, though it ports over most of the special features from its excellent 2006 standard-def DVD.

Elvis: The Ed Sullivan Show- The Classic Performances: Any student of music or pop culture worth their salt should have Elvis' immortal Sullivan apperances in their library. Trouble is, this thrown-together collection just grabs the Elvis clips from a previous box set of the entire shows; that more comprehensive box set is about 3 bucks more expensive than this slim disc.

My Cousin Vinny (Blu-ray): Mean ol' Fox doesn't send out their Blu-rays until just before release date, so I haven't yet received my review copy of Jonathan Lynn's Oscar-winning (yep!) 1992 comedy. But unless my sense of humor has completely changed in the last 17 years, I'm pretty sure I can stand by my original view that this one is a hoot.

Monday, August 3, 2009

On DVD: "Elvis: The Ed Sullivan Show- The Classic Performances"

Elvis Presley appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show three times over the course of five months in late 1956 and early 1957—quite a surprise, considering that Sullivan had vowed in July of 1956 that the oh-so-naughty rockabilly singer and his swiveling hips would never appear on his family-friendly variety show. But when Presley appeared on Steve Allen’s competing show and stomped Sullivan in the ratings, he had a change of heart. Maybe Elvis was ready for prime time after all.

Those three shows were released, in their entirety, in a box set back in 2006. The new, single-disc collection Elvis: The Ed Sullivan Show- The Classic Performances presents only the Elvis clips, free of the context of the variety show that surrounded them. It makes for a slimmer presentation, and will perhaps satisfy some fans who might not want to skip through all the other acts on the previous discs. But this new disc mainly succeeds in merely exacerbating the primary flaw of the previous set, while simultaneously removing much of what made it fascinating.

The 44-minute main program contains no introductions, narration, or on-screen titles—which is a bit of a disappointment (would it have killed them to just throw a date on the screen between each show). So, in the absence of information provided by the disc, these come from Wikipedia (hope they’re right!). Presley’s first appearance, on September 9, 1956, was made not for Sullivan, but for guest host Charles Laughton; he introduces Presley, who performs via satellite from Hollywood. Nervous but charming, Elvis tells the camera that “this is probably the greatest honor I’ve ever had in my life,” and proceeds to perform “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Love Me Tender” (with the help of his backup vocalists, the Jordanaires). For his second set, he brings out the full band and does a tight and electrifying cover of Little Richard’s “Reddy Teddy,” before sending a get-well wish to Sullivan (out recuperating from a car accident) and doing a shortened version of “Hound Dog,” nearly drowned out by the fans screaming for his (below frame) hip gyrations.

His second appearance (his first in New York and his first with Sullivan hosting) came barely over a month later, on October 28. With the exception of Sullivan’s intro, there’s something of a sense of déjà vu to the affair—he begins by again singing “Don’t Be Cruel,” and again following it with “Love Me Tender.” Both are well-done, of course, but we can be forgiven for wondering if we’re going to hear the same set again in the same order, like the September appearance was just a dress rehearsal for when Ed got back. The second set begins with a rendition of “Love Me” that goes down nice and smooth (and is followed by Sullivan thanking the teenage audience for saving their screams for the end—they “made a promise that they wouldn’t yell during his songs”), and is followed by a spirited, full performance of “Hound Dog.” It is worth nothing that, in this rousing number, the swivel-hipped singer is viewed in a full body shot, much to the shock and chagrin of respectable families across the nation, apparently.

Appearance number three came on January 6, 1957, and begins with a medley of his biggest hits—so we get to hear “Hound Dog” and “Love Me Tender” a third time, followed by the first appearance of “Heartbreak Hotel.” And after that, “Don’t Be Cruel” gets yet another spin. For his second set, a snappy, danceable performance of “Too Much” confirms that we appear to have gone back to the above-waist “safe zone” in the Presley photography. It’s followed by a rendition of “When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold Again” that really swings, and the closing number, “Peace in the Valley,” is just plain lovely.

Not surprisingly, the music is marvelous—there’s just too much repetition, particularly when compacted into this reel of highlights (in his review of the box set, my colleague Paul Mavis took issue with this—“Ed's show was supposed to be the very height of variety, but the same songs repeated over and over again by Elvis quickly approaches tedium”—and in that set, they’re part of a three-hour total program). Elvis’ songbook was pretty deep, even this early in his career; it’s a shame he had to keep trotting out the same hit records ad nauseam. That said, the arrangements are strong and instrumentation is solid, while Elvis is in fine voice throughout. This is Presley at his best, when he was young and hungry, full of piss and vinegar. Of course, he tamps that down in his numerous bits of between-song patter, laying on the boyish charm and aw-sucks charisma and selling himself to middle America as a good, clean, wholesome entertainer. He always comes across as humble and thankful (noting, for example, that he “got exactly 282 teddy bears over the Christmas holiday”). Ed does his part as well, joining Elvis at the close of the third performance to assure America that “this is a real, decent, fine boy,” shaking his hand, again noting that he is a “very nice boy.” It sounds a little condescending, frankly, but it did the job: the Sullivan seal of approval meant something to American households, who tuned in to these shows in droves and continued to buy his records in staggering volume.

Any serious music fan or student of pop culture should have Elvis’ seminal Sullivan appearances in their DVD library; they marked a turning point in television and music history, and in spite of the monotony of the song selection, the tunes are terrific. However, this slender volume is currently priced a mere $2.49 less (on Amazon) than the more robust three-disc 2006 set, which includes all of these performances and extras, but within the context of the three shows, seen there in their entirety. Simply stated, Elvis: The Ed Sullivan Show- The Classic Performances is a fine program but a bad buy.

"Elvis: The Ed Sullivan Show- The Classic Performances" arrives on DVD Tuesday, August 4th.

On DVD: "Richard Pryor- Live and Smokin'"

When Richard Pryor took the stage at the New York City Improv on April 29, 1971, he was several years from taking his rightful place as America’s biggest comedy superstar. He first came to fame in the late 1960s, and gained some traction on television and in nightclubs doing clean, innocuous material in the style of Bill Cosby. But he dropped out of the mainstream in 1967 (following a famous incident where he walked off a Las Vegas stage in the middle of a show), moved to Berkeley, and developed an act that was rougher and dirtier, more raw and honest. That new material appeared on his immortal album Craps (After Hours) , recorded at the Redd Foxx Club in Hollywood in January of 1971.

That was pretty much the extent of his career when director Michael Blum filmed Pryor’s brief set at the Improv that April evening in ‘71—he had not yet made a splash with his supporting roles in The Mack or Lady Sings the Blues, hadn’t released his smash Warner Brothers albums That Nigger’s Crazy or Is It Something I Said? , and most importantly, he hadn’t ever done his act on film before. His three subsequent, theatrically released concert films—Richard Pryor Live in Concert, Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip, and Richard Pryor Here and Now—pretty much became the gold standard for an entire generation of comics (and won him the respect of reputable critics; the New Yorker’s Pauline Kael said Live in Concert was “probably the greatest of all recorded-performance films”).

But in Richard Pryor: Live and Smokin’, his first “in concert” movie, he is clearly thrown by the presence of the cameras; he mentions them frequently and seems to let them throw off his timing. As a general rule, his set is loose and rambling, perhaps a bit too much so—by the mid 1970s, Pryor was stalking the stage and landing comic punches like a prize fighter, and even his most off-hand comment or tossed-off ad-lib packed a wallop. Here, he seems (in places) uncertain, tentative, still finding his voice.

And that is, perhaps, what makes Live and Smokin’ so extraordinary for Pryor fans and students of stand-up. Few comics were more distinctively themselves than Pryor, and the chance to see him at this unpolished, embryonic stage is somewhat remarkable. The trademark Pryor candor is fully intact—he talks about growing up in a whorehouse (“That’s where I first met white dudes—they used to come to our neighborhood to help the economy”), delivers some priceless commentary on race, and even goes into an odd, astonishingly frank discussion of his experiments with homosexuality.

But there is no doubt that there are slow spots, chunks where he wanders aimlessly or improvises unsuccessfully, and his segueways are often abrupt. He finally hits his stride about halfway through, when he enacts a face-off between Dracula and a street brother; he seems to get more comfortable when he can get inside some characters. He follows that up with a funny bit about religion and then moves into the classic routine in which he portrays a neighborhood wino (“Man, I knowed Jesus!”) out on the corner directing traffic (“You better slow that car down! This is a neighborhood, this ain’t no residential district!”) before having a tête-à-tête with the neighborhood junkie (he plays both roles). By the end of the act, Pryor achieves some surprising pathos (somewhat obscured by the peculiar freeze frame that closes the film).

So there’s funny stuff in it, but it is a bit of a bumpy ride (this presumably accounts for the fact that, though shot in 1971, it was first seen in a 1985 VHS release). However, some of the online reviews are overly critical, claiming that Pryor is way off his game and bombs in front of the Improv audience. It’s a bit more complicated than that. It’s not a problem of poor material; many of those extended bits, including those listed above and his uproarious comparison of white and black dinner tables, are on That Nigger’s Crazy, and he destroys with them. The trouble is that he did those early albums in front of predominately black audiences, and we can presume (based on the venue and some of Pryor’s comments during the show) that in this film, he’s playing for a mostly-white crowd. When he jokes, “I was a Negro for 23 years. I gave that shit up—no room for advancement,” it doesn’t get a titter, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad line; it means that this white audience didn’t know what the hell to make of Richard Pryor. Maybe it’s just a bad audience; more likely, they’d never seen anything like him before. They hadn’t heard his albums, hadn’t seen his films, and weren’t used to his aggressive style of comedy—or his prickly responses to their lack of enthusiasm (“I hate to see people leaving when I talk,” he says, as an audience member does just that, and continues, only half-jokingly, “I hope you get raped by black folks with the clap”). Twenty years later, white audiences—who tuned in to Def Comedy Jam every week—would pay good money to be insulted by black comics. This crowd didn’t know what hit them—but by the time Pryor did his act for the motion picture cameras again, the audience would know exactly what they were going to get.

Richard Pryor: Live and Smokin’ is definitely the least of Pryor’s concert films, but it is a fine piece of comic archaeology. In my review of Judd Apatow’s Funny People, I pointed out the fine details in the film—specifically, that the young comedy geeks played by Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill do, in fact, seem like the kind of guys who would have framed Redd Foxx and Alan Sherman record covers on their wall. If I may take that a step further, I’ll bet they’re the kind of guys who would pick this disc up on the day of its release. More casual viewers would be better advised to begin with Live in Concert, but Live and Smokin’ offers a valuable document of the early years of our most influential stand-up comedian.

"Richard Pryor: Live and Smokin’" was originally released on DVD by MPI Home Video in 2001; I’m not sure how it fell into the hands of the Weinstein Company, or why they’re re-releasing it now (via Genius Products). The only real changes are much-snazzier menus and a single bonus feature (below), but it’s nice to have it back in stores, I suppose. It's available now.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

On DVD: "Woodstock (40th Anniversary Edition)"

God, do I love this movie. Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock is a gloriously living, breathing film, a pulsating document of one of the most remarkable moments in all of pop culture. It is, I believe, the greatest concert film ever made. It may very well be the greatest documentary ever made, as well—and even if it isn’t, I don’t know that there’s ever been a doc that is so much pure fun to watch.

Warner’s new 40th anniversary Blu-ray box is, I’m willing to bet, as good as this on-the-fly documentary is ever going to look and sound—and make no mistake, it sounds amazing. The lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track is immersive and alive; in the music scenes, you really feel like you’re a part of that audience, while the track makes wonderful use of the directional capabilities during the documentary sections. In his original review, Roger Ebert noted “It gives us maybe 60 percent music and 40 per cent on the people who were there, and that is a good ratio, I think,” and I concur. The music is remarkable—spirited, fiery, energetic. But the documentary footage is downright compelling; we meet so many interesting people, and observe so many extraordinary moments.

Woodstock was edited, from 120 miles of raw footage (they shot most of the weekend, and sometimes had over a dozen cameras going), by a team headed up by a young Martin Scorsese and his future editor, the great Thelma Schoonmaker. The result, in either its original three-hour form or the newer, three-and-three-quarter hours “director’s cut”, is one of the most brilliantly edited films ever seen; they cut to the rhythms of the music, with a variety of visuals and a proximity to the players that is stunning, and the exhilarating split-screen editing may have become a cliché in the years past, but it is so effectively done here, it gobsmacks you. I’ve never been the fan of The Who that I’m probably supposed to be, but the way they cut “See Me Feel Me/Listen To You” makes you into one.

So much of the music is extraordinary, in fact; Canned Heat’s one-shot performance of “A Change is Gonna Come” is electrifying, while Crosby Stills & Nash’s “Judy Blue Eyes” suite is simply luminous. My favorite stretch of the film puts two show-stoppers back to back: the bongo pyrotechnics of Santana’s “Soul Sacrifice” and the joyous funk of Sly and the Family Stone’s “I Want To Take You Higher.” And I can’t imagine what I could say about Hendrix’s set that hasn’t been said better, elsewhere, counteless times over.

One weekend in the summer of 1969, the summer we put a man on the moon, 400,000 people came together as one, and there were no fights and no crime and no bullshit. There was a lot of sex, and a lot of drugs. But everyone kept their cool, and everyone was on the same page. You don’t have to imagine how badly something like this would go these days—just look at what happened at Woodstock 1999. Good heavens.

"Woodstock (40th Anniversary Edition)" is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.