24 January 2007

Piracy: It's Those Flappy-Headed Canucks!!!...again...

So listen up fellow Canadians and put down those camcorders: Bush somehow didn’t get around to the subject during last night’s address, but the (alleged) increase in contraband videos currently plaguing the U.S. is all our fault, according to the other president, one Bruce Snyder (nope, I haven’t heard of him either, but he’s apparently the prez of U.S. distribution for 20th Century Fox).

Yeah, I know, first the presence of terrorist cells in the U.S., then the blackout of 2003, and now this.

According to the Hollywood Reporter, Snyder recommends delaying the Canadian release dates of Fox’s future releases if this nonsense doesn’t stop soon. But first, he’ll move to withhold films from theatres that are known to be the popular haunts of “camcorder-happy individuals”. The obvious question here is: if he can pinpoint the theatre from which the bootleg tape originated (does every congealed nacho puddle make a unique sound?), why not just send up the National Guard to bust the mini-DV nogoodnick? Oh right, they’re all in Iraq…

(Question number 2 is: just who’s clamoring for a bootleg of the studio’s yuletide bomb, “Deck The Halls”?)

So of course, the Canadian Motion Picture Distribution Association has responded in the expected spineless fashion, issuing a press release promising it will push the Canadian government to pass stronger copyright-protection laws. That’s because Snyder further blames our twisty, nefarious Canadian legal system—which, like most democracies, ain’t what it’s all cracked up to be on a good day—which fails to label camcorder possession in cinemas as a criminal offense. Seems the U.S. has already passed a law making it illegal to carry a camcorder into a movie theatre.

Wait--they can do that?

If it’s that easy, why not some legislation to guarantee me--a loyal, longtime, and increasingly frustrated patron of first-run theatres--an enjoyable viewing experience? How about slapping on the cuffs for cell phones, incessant talking, and annoying seat kicking first? I see about 70-80 films a year in theatres, and I’ve never witnessed anything remotely resembling piracy in progress, but I’ve constantly pleaded with theatre staff to hush up unruly and disruptive patrons and no one ever does a damned thing.

Considering Fox’s upcoming 2007 theatrical releases include something called “Firehouse Dog” and an “Alvin And The Chipmunks” feature, the delayed release threat doesn’t seem much of a deterrent. And easily-entertained Canucks who can’t stand the wait can always buy their bootleg DVDs from Malaysia like everyone else.

23 January 2007

Yes, There's (still) "Life On Mars"

A great day in geekdom: first up, five noms for Guillermo Del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth", and this official confirmation that "Life On Mars" will be returning for a second season next month.

This intriguing and utterly oddball animated promo has been designed as an homage to "Camberwick Green", which I have to admit I knew nothing about until I saw this bit in The Sun and asked my friend Phil about it, who hails from Manchester and thus knows all about this stuff. Originally produced by BBC One in the mid-60s, this stop-motion childrens' fave ran for just thirteen episodes, but spawned a couple of spin-offs and the characters were revived a few years ago for a series of popular Quaker Oats spots. The show was set in the fictious village of "Camberwick Green", and sounds pretty loopy: recurring characters included Windy Miller, who operated a traditional windmill, his archrival Jonathon Bell, who operated a "mechanical farm", and Captain Snort and Sgt. Major Grout of the nearby Pippin Fort military academy. Weekly perils included a water shortage and a bee invasion. And to think, the Brits got this cool stuff while I grew up with "Max The 2000 Year Old Mouse" and "Harrigan".

"Life On Mars", in case you haven't seen it, is the story of Sam Tyler (John Simm), an idealistic Manchester policeman who's hit by a car in 2006 and wakes up, somehow transported back in time, in the year 1973 . Or so it seems. Because you never really know whether there's time travel at play, or if this is all a fantasy playing out in Sam's damaged subconscious as he fights for his life on life support (he periodically receives messages from his loved ones on "the other side" via phone calls, radio broadcasts, etc.) A man out of time--or out of his mind--Sam nonetheless presses on with his police duties but clashes constantly with his 1973 fellows in the force, who have been trained in an era decidely pre-"political correctness"--esp. the hot-tempered berserker Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister), who doesn't hestitate a moment to beat a witness, plant evidence, or take the occassional swig.

Season one episodes are still airing on Canada's Showcase channel and BBC Canada. Or, you can scour the Bit Torrent boards where the show remains a popular download. Trust me, it's as brilliantly done and as addictive as "Heroes" and "Lost", and well worth your time (no word on a DVD release yet, unfortunately).

Check out the promo here. And here's more good news: BBC Canada will begin airing season two of "Life On Mars" starting Feb. 28., 2007.

12 January 2007

My Top DVDs Of 2006: New Release Pt. 1

Masters Of Horror (various volumes)
(2006) (Anchor Bay Home Entertainment, 1 disc)
As Masters Of Horror plummets deeper into mediocrity with each new installment (can Garris or someone please please please declare a moratorium on plots concerning unbalanced white males obsessed with lost-and-or-dead-or-dying loves?), a handful of feature-packed Anchor Bay releases featuring some of the stronger segments from the inaugural season remind us of why many of us horror fans got excited over this project in the first place (but alas, not why some like myself continue to tune in each weekend…).

Reactions from the fan base were predictably "mixed" (of the "my Master Of Horror" is better than "your Master Of Horror" vein), but almost everyone is in agreement that MOH 1.0’s bonafide masterwork was Joe Dante’s "Homecoming", the veteran fantasist’s most brazenly political work and a rare North American-produced drama/none Michael Moore production that dared to take on the Bush Administration’s “War On Terror” catastrophe head-on. Not that the episode is just a sixty-minute liberal polemic—it’s a deliriously funny, angry, and, yes, blood-splattered zombie parable in which the bodies of the Iraq war-dead rise to (literally) cast their vote to end the madness and bring the boys back home, much to the chagrin of the powers-that-be, embodied in the form of a loudmouthed, gun-toting, Washington skank whom the producers assure us isn’t meant to be Ann Coulter (remember, Gremlins 2’s “Daniel Clamp” wasn’t based on Donald Trump, either)..

John Carpenter has long been one of my all-time favorite directors, and while I’m myopic enough in my devotion to have leapt to the defense of Ghosts Of Mars and Village Of The Damned (look, I just like the way the guy makes movies, so sue me…), I’ve long harbored the fear that the chance of us getting another Halloween or The Thing from his camp was about as likely as a Criterion edition of Day The Clown Cried. But his installment, “Cigarette Burns”, proved to be very good stuff indeed, falling just short of “return to form”, if only because he didn’t get to shoot it in 2.35:1 Panavision. The tale of a film researcher hired to track down a lost pseudo-snuff feature said to be able to bring about the “absolute end of the world” (“La Fin Absolut Du Mond”) while trying to cope with the death of his girlfriend allowed Carpenter to revisit the Lovecraftian surrealism he first attempted in In The Mouth Of Madness and craft some truly haunting imagery , chief among them an enslaved angel and snippets of the apocalyptic film itself, with some perfectly envisioned odes to Jodorowsky and Bunuel. It was fueled by an impressive score by Carpenter’s son Cody as well, who obviously spent his childhood hanging out in his dad’s studio with Alan Howarth, listening to old Mike Oldfield LPs.

Season one’s most notorious entry came last, or at least, was supposed to: Takashi Miike’s “Imprint” was refused broadcast by Showtime Networks after it had already been produced, prompting the message boards to fill up with accusations that the whole controversy was staged by Garris and co. (Anchor Bay, in fact, financed the series, and not Showtime) to generate publicity. I doubted that very much, but the more obvious question was: didn’t anyone on staff ever see a typical Miike film and know what they were getting into (it’s like ABC hiring David Lynch to produce the Mulholland Drive pilot and hand it back, dismissing it as “too weird”)? The story of an American journalist who returns to Japan in the 19th century to—yep, track down his lamented, lost love--is harrowing for two reasons: the excruciating, drawn-out torture of the pursued geisha at the hands of her sadistic house Madam, and star Billy Drago’s own kabuki-esque performance, in which he bellows and howls and eyebrow rolls for the folks in the back row, except this ain’t no stage play. Despite that, it bewitches and repels with an atmosphere of dread, nuanced period design, and some truly unsettling imagery even for Miike (along with Fruit Chan’s 3 Extremes and spin-off feature Dumplings made 2006 Asian horror cinema’s “Year Of The Fetus”).

In addition to these essential episodes, I also recommend Don Coscarelli’s “Incident On And Off A Mountain Road”, in which he splendidly adapted Joe R. Lansdale’s twisty short story into a taut, girl-power battle cry (thankfully, the lead character isn’t trying to get over her dead boyfriend…anything but!) that delighted in turning the typical slasher-in-the-woods scenario on its severed ear, and Stuart Gordon’s “Dreams In The Witch-House” which I felt was a pretty successful attempt to transplant H.P. Lovecraft’s abstruse prose and misanthropic internal musings into a coherent spook show, if only it wasn’t hampered by a weak male lead. Dario Argento's "Jenifer" and Larry Cohen's "Pick Me Up" are also worth a look.

Sold individually and in double-packs (the latter option saves a few bucks but the chances of finding a pair-up of two episodes you’d want to own are iffy), the discs might at first seem overpriced at $15-$20 (Canadian) for programs running barely an hour in length, but the supplements are so exceptional--considering the shows are only a few months old there probably wasn’t a lot time to prepare--that fans will find it money well spent. Commentary from the directors and writers can be found on almost all of them (Dante, sadly, does not appear on his entry), as well as the usual behind-the-scenes EPK stuff, closer looks at the makeup and FX, and best of all, career overviews for the superstar directors that are very comprehensive and well-researched.

10 January 2007

My Top DVDs Of 2006: Restoration Pt. 2

Superman 2:
The Richard Donner Cut
(1980/2006) (Warner Home Video, 1 disc)

Let’s hear it for bitchy message-board junkies: the creators of this DVD fully acknowledge that it was the outcry from the fan community that made this ultimate geek supplement a reality. I don’t mean to use the term pejoratively—count me in among the adolescent comic book nuts who fell hard for Richard Donner’s definitive 1978 “Superman” adaptation and its equally accomplished 1980 sequel. Hell, nearly 30 years later I’m still an adolescent comic book nut, and like many have long wondered what the follow-up would have been like had the Salkinds not drop-kicked the director unceremoniously out of the picture and brought in “A Hard Day’s Night”/”Help” vet Richard Lester to gut Donner’s existing footage and refashion a shtickier take on The Man Of Steel’s smack-down against Kryptonian nogoodnicks General Zod, Ursa, and Non.

Well, none-too-coincidentally timed as part of the hoopla over Bryan Singer’s long-in-development “Superman Returns”, the accommodating folks at Warner Bros bankrolled Donner’s 26-years-overdue chance to fashion the sequel he never got to finish.

The result is “Superman 2: The Richard Donner Cut”, and while it doesn’t really work as a self-contained film, it makes for an utterly joyous one-time viewing experience (I can’t imagine revisiting it often, though), and a clarion call to all future producers of superhero adaptations to install someone behind the camera with not only the directorial prowess to pull off the technical demands but a reverence for the source material as well. As much as I’m a fan of the “official” “Superman 2”, Lester saw Big Blue’s universe as a vehicle for slapstick and campy melodrama (which he put into overdrive by turning “Superman 3” into a showcase for Richard Pryor), whereas Donner regarded the world’s first superhero as a genuine 20th century myth. His ersatz cut, then, is a more serious one than Lester’s, but nowhere near as poker-faced as Singer’s quasi-sequel.

Much of the footage is previously-unseen (outside of an extended network TV edit) and just wonderful: Brando’s been restored as Jor-El (replacing Susanna York’s holographic Lara) in all of his majestic glory (which came with a hefty, then record-setting price tag, hence his removal from Lester’s version), even if some of the disembodied head effects are cheesy and give him the look of a silver-haired Zardoz (the scowl of contempt Jor-El gives Lois as Kal-El agrees to surrender his powers is worth every penny of the millions Brando pocketed for a few days’ work). Gone is the entire Paris/nuclear terrorists opening (which in Lester’s defense, was a good scene)—instead, the prologue backtracks to “Superman: The Movie” and we see that it was Luthor’s first missile (the one due for Hackensack, NJ) that shatters The Phantom Zone prison after Superman re-routes it. The lengthy Niagara Falls “newlywed” undercover bit with Lois and Clark is thankfully truncated, with Lois’ discovery of Clark’s alien alter ego now played out from rehearsal footage (Lois pulls a gun on Clark and fires, even though it’s just a blank), given that Donner was dismissed before he had the chance to reshoot it with Margot Kidder and Christopher Reeve in proper costumes and makeup.

There are many alternate line readings and noticeable differences in staging and scene length throughout, with much of the second act’s epic Metropolis slug fest playing out pretty much as it did in the theatrical version, with some new FX (a Statue Of Liberty gag) to dazzle (such as optical printing and miniatures circa 1987-1980 can provide). Some of the southern town comedy has been trimmed, and Zod is certainly a nastier hambone here than he is in Lester’s cut (evidenced by when he takes an M-16 and gleefully opens fire in The White House on unarmed soldiers).

What prevents “The Donner Cut” from succeeding completely is its lack of a proper climax and coda, which drops the “magic kiss” that wipes Lois’ memory in Lester’s version and merely repeats the identical footage from the climax of “Superman: The Movie”. Donner had planned to shoot “Superman” 1 and 2 as a single film and release it in two parts (ala Lester’s own “The Three Musketeers” and “The Four Musketeers”, and the recent “The Matrix Reloaded” and “The Matrix Revolutions”) with the plan for the globe-reversal gag to undo all of the damage caused by Luthor in the first adventure and the Krypton villains in the second. But when plans changed to release “Superman” as a stand-alone movie in time for Xmas 1978, it became the wrap-up for the first tale (where it is more powerful, following Lois’ death after Superman honours his promise to Ms. Teschmacher and chooses the lives of faceless millions over the life of the one he loves).

Considering it’s something of Bizarro version, the image quality is surprisingly consistent--considering most of this material has sat in canisters for decades now--and looked great in its 2.35:1 aspect ratio on my 42” plasma. As well, the cut has been given a complete 5.1 sound mix and there’s a very candid commentary from Donner and co-writer/”creative consultant” Tom Mankiewicz in which neither is afraid to name names (although Donner only refers to Lester as “the other director”). I’m generally not one for tinkering with old films that were fine in their time, but the flying scenes in this one had me thinking: am I the only one who thinks it wouldn’t be a bad idea to re-composite some of the sloppier effects shots? If we can pump Dolby 2.0 stereo up to DTS surround, why not get rid of obvious matte lines and differences in film grain?

“Superman 2: The Richard Donner Cut” is available individually or as part of Warners’ “Superman: The Ultimate Collection” 14-disc boxed set, which includes all of the Reeve films, the Singer update, every Fleischer Bros. cartoon, George Reeves in “Superman And The Mole Men” feature, the very rare “Superpup” half-hour pilot, as well as the 2 hour documentary “It’s A Bird, It’s A Plane” and documentaries both vintage and newly produced for each feature. The Salkind’s atrocious “Supergirl”, once rumoured to be included, has been wisely left out—but where’s footage from the Broadway show?

08 January 2007

My Top DVDs Of 2006: Restoration Pt. 1

"Murder A La Mod" (with "The Moving Finger")
(1968) (Something Weird Video, 1 disc)

Brian DePalma, still the critical establishment’s favorite whipping boy, has disappointed me more times lately than I’d like to admit, but I still think he’s one of our greatest living filmmakers; while each was flawed, his recent Euro-financed thrillers Femme Fatale and The Black Dahlia showed that Mission To Mars didn’t turn him into Peter Hyams...yet.
Like most horror buffs of a certain age, I first grooved to DePalma’s series of hyperstylized mid-70s shockers--of course, I eventually learned that he’d had a whole other career before he became Hitchcock’s heir, or pillager, depending on whether you read Kael or Sarris.
Before “indie film” meant emo rock scores and ironic, anti-suburban ‘tude—DePalma shot independent comedies on the streets of New York, most of them loping, counter-culture romps reflecting the unrest and ennui of the Vietnam era. Some, like Greetings, Hi Mom!, and Get To Know Your Rabbit have been available on home video in one form or another since the advent of VHS. But MIA was something intriguingly titled Murder A La Mod, reportedly his debut feature, which legend has it was shelved after a single theatrical screening and therefore became something of a Grail Quest for me, even though I’d more or less decided a long time ago that like Tod Browning’s London After Midnight, it was a lost cause.
September 2006: While killing some time between screenings at the annual Toronto film fest (and awaiting my annual DePalma sighting), I walked into a downtown video store and stumbled upon the thing sitting right there on the New Releases wall. I couldn’t believe it—where was the pre-release fanfare?
Admittedly, this is hardly a lost classic or a Criterion uberedition of some essential Film Forum darling--this modest package is strictly for DePalma die-hards only, as Murder A La Mod is very much “of its time”, to use the diplomatic expression. Which means, of course, that it was produced in 1968 and is thus awash in not only the Paraphernalia fashions and “with it” expressions of the day (heightening the camp factor for some, but not me), but also in all the French New Wave indulgences that tempted New York film students at a time when Breathless and Jules Et Jim were viewed on campuses about as often as ‘Bum Fights” and “Girls Gone Wild” are today.
Its elliptical, fractured time structure is nothing more than a gimmick in the end (but an engrossing one) that might not seem quite so revolutionary post-Jackie Brown and Memento, and the murder caper never really adds up, but who cares? Much of the film is concerned with technique purely for technique’s sake—a standard reason for condemnation to DePalma’s detractors but to his fans a scholarly opportunity to marvel at just how much of what would become his later thriller “signatures” were being sketched out in his far-reaching (and frequently succeeding) debut.
Just as 1981’s Blow Out was as concerned with the malleable “reality” of audio and its power to alter perception and rewrite “facts”, so is Murder A La Mod with the photographed image, but pre-Watergate, there’s nothing political about it. As with the later film, the influence of Antonioni’s Blow Up is staggeringly obvious: the series of stills of a blonde model cavorting around Manhattan that make up the titles tilt, flip flop, pixilate in sync with co-star William Finley’s groovy theme song (preferably to the plinky-plonky DeVol-ish cues that make up most of the film’s music cues). Then, the first of many rug pulls, as the titles end with a gruesome ice pick stabbing to her eye that could be real or faked.
Next, we are staring down the eyepiece of a camera at a nervous co-ed sitting on the edge of a mattress, as an offscreen voice coerces her into disrobing as part of her audition for a new “art film” (the voice is DePalma’s in a discomforting scene that anticipates his auditory cameo under similar dramatic circumstances in last year’s Dahlia). As she explains the plot synopsis of the film she’s trying to land, she reluctantly strips. She is replaced by a second, more aggressive actress, who follows the director’s orders and demands her cash.
From verite (seemingly) we move to a more conventional narrative setup. Blonde Karen(Margot Norton in her only screen role according to the IMDB) meets up with her socialite friend Tracy (Andra Ackers, who would enjoy a prolific career in television until she died in 2002) and as the two shop for a weekend getaway Karen confides that her fiancĂ© would like to marry her but is immersed in a messy divorce. Christopher (Jared Martin, later of the sci-fi TV series “Fantastic Journey” and “War Of The Worlds”), her besmirched beau, is an up-and-coming photographer who has pioneered a new art form: the “photobiography”, but toils in the smut flicks of producer “Mr. Wiley” (Ken Burrows, in his only credited turn as actor and producer)and his assistant Otto (one-time DePalma regular William Finley in full-on sleaze mode) in order to raise the $10,000 his ex is demanding (it’s worth noting that the plot summary explained by the first auditioning actress is pretty much what has just been set up here). Christopher is a vain, hectoring hothead curiously reluctant to sleep with his obviously-willing and patient bride-to-be (he wants to keep their relationship “pure”).
Meanwhile, Tracy goes to her bank to withdraw some jewels and cash, much to the chagrin of the branch’s doting Mr. Fitzsimmons (an amusing if bizarrely overlong scene, seemingly improvised, with the actors on the verge of giggles), who reminisces on about her grandfather’s fiscal conservatism like a combination William F. Buckley and Floyd the barber. She takes the valuables away in an envelope and leaves them under her car seat, then leaves a note informing Karen she’s going to a dress shop and will be right back.Karen just misses her friend as she exits the building, heads to Tracy’s car, finds the note, steals the envelope, and avoids a suspicious cop.
She goes back to her fiancĂ©’s studio, where she’s attacked by Otto in the lobby. But his repeated ice pick jabs aren’t fatal. The creep flees and Tracey discovers she’s covered in—ketchup? She quickly showers up but is attacked again. This time, her gushing wounds are fatal.Now things get interesting: the onscreen time stamp changes from 3:42 to 3:32. The events are now replayed from Tracy’s perspective, once she spots Otto’s hasty exit and suspicious trunk and decides to give chase. We rewind again to Christopher, who tracks the girls. And finally, it’s Otto’s manic take, as he reveals himself to be more of a twisted practical joker than homicidal maniac. But why does Otto brandish two ice picks, one a fake, the other one all-too real? When they discover that Christopher has been photographing models with his own hidden camera, Wiley and Otto scheme to blackmail their moody young partner. And just what is on that roll of film from the hidden camera that Christopher is afraid will be seen once Wiley returns from the lab?
For a very low-budget film that’s nearly 40 years old, it looks about as good as one could expect—better, in fact, considering that the negative likely wasn’t preserved with a great deal of care or concern for potential fans of what was then probably just another bearded Sarah Lawrence student with a Bolex. Image quality is sharp with occasional lapses into muddy Tri-X grain that give certain scenes an appropriately seedy Roberta and Michael Findley quality (its impressive black and white photography is courtesy of DOP Bruce Torbet, who would later shoot Henenlotter’s Basket Case in bleeding primary hues). SWV doesn’t identify the print source, but given DePalma’s lack of participation in the release, I assume it’s not from his own collection.
The cast is likeable and the multiple stagings and re-enactments are impressively done—too bad there’s an unfortunate heavy reliance on Tony Richardson-styled undercranking for comedic effect (which DePalma still thought was funny years later in Wise Guys). The audio is a comparatively shaky overall and heavy on the ADR and catalogue sound, which gives it a Carnival Of Souls feel perhaps not intended.
Extras are depressingly puny (read: none)—I wouldn’t expect them to have hired the services of Lawrent Bouzereaux but couldn’t someone have penned some more informative liner notes? Instead, SWV adds a co-feature, the Beatnik noir melodrama (a first) The Moving Finger (which costars Vanishing Point's Barry Newman and features music by Shel Silverstein), and laughably tawdry 60s short subject on how to photograph nude models that soon becomes painful in its length and technical ineptitude (you’d expect anything less from a Harold Klein production?).

05 January 2007

My Top DVDs Of 2006: Television Pt. 3

The David Steinberg Show
(1976-1977) (Koch Vision Entertainment, 4 discs)

Although this collection was released by Koch Vision Entertainment in 2005, I hummed-and-hawed on purchasing it (once upon a time, I swore on oath not to collect television series on DVD) and eventually received it as a gift in early 2006 (but it’s okay if other people buy ‘em for me). “What’s the allure of a largely-forgotten, short-lived Canadian variety series?” you ask (assuming you’ve even heard of it)? Well, no mere nostalgic fool am I: The David Steinberg Show is significant for two reasons: 1) it anticipated the “show-within-a-show” postmodernism as perfected a good decade-plus later by Garry Shandling (before deteriorating into what Salman Rushdie has termed the "gibberish with attitude" that passes for deconstruction in today's irony-saturated landscape) and 2) offered viewers a preview of the ensemble that would make up a good part of the classic comedy series Second City Television.

Well, three (3) reasons. It’s actually pretty funny if you’re in the mood for some lite-laughs.

The David Steinberg Show debuted on Canada’s CTV network in September 1976 and ran for a full season of 21 episodes to the spring of 1977 (there were five episodes of an earlier incarnation produced in 1972 as a summer replacement series) is certainly nowhere near as caustic in tone or indicting of the egos and backstage machinations of show business as Shandling’s fauxtobiographies It's Gary Shandling's Show or The Larry Saunders Show , nor does it aspire to be—it’s very much in the breezy spirit of most of the Bicentennial-era programming of the time (back when there were really only three major networks), embracing the glitzy conventions of the then-modern American variety show while at the same time only gently mocking them (and trying to do it on-the-cheap at Toronto’s Glenn-Warren studios, home of The Starlost).

Each week finds our hapless host struggling to fine tune his material for his latest broadcast, only to be keelhauled into one of Vinnie’s business schemes hatched from his “Hello Deli” restaurant across the street, endure yet another of Johnny Del Bravo’s indefatigable attempts to turn the show into his own gaudy vehicle, avoid an inadvertent scrape with top brass “Mr. Bijou” (its seems that Steinberg’s show is always on the verge of cancellation), or coddle a difficult guest (most of whom were of the Match Game echelon of celebrity, with the odd surprise). A sampler: Ruth Buzzi takes offense at Steinberg’s meeting with Vinnie’s sexist “Muskrat” lodge, Jon Voight will appear on the condition he gets to discuss environmental issues, James Coco struggles to maintain his diet, Ed McMahon demands to perform his W. C. Fields act…you get the idea...

Steinberg’s monologues are dated by the issues of the time, but they’ll elicit a chuckle or two: observations on California-based spiritual fads, Canada’s ego-sensitivity, the scandal over Last Tango In Paris, his early days in New York Theatre, the concept of a Beverly Hills “blues band” (what do they have to be “blue” about?), to name but a few.

I don’t think it’s much of a reach to suggest that Steinberg was the proto-“Seinfeld”: a lanky, pleasant-looking-but-not-too-handsome Jewish conduit of urbane detachment who opened his show with an observational monologue and was content to play straight man to a colourful gang of misfits and hangers-on. Unlike Jerry, Steinberg occasionally attempted character bits with dubious results: ever wonder where his catch phrase “booga booga” comes from? It’s from his insane “existential psychiatrist” who bounded around his office in a sombrero and oversized clown shoes like a live-action “Duck Amuck”. Just as Seinfeld concluded that he “couldn’t act”, so eventually did Steinberg, who more or less retired from stand-up (he was a popular guest on The Tonight Show and The Smothers Brothers) to pursue a directing career than has since bestowed him with several awards for series television (including Seinfeld), and commercials.

Bill Saluga (here's his official site), who began in comedy as part of the Acme Theatre Company with Fred Willard, assays the “Kramer” role (more or less) and his Vinnie DiMilo is likeable foil, constantly scheming to bilk his diner’s customers for more money, conniving ways to expand his buddy David’s public profile, or revealing some unlikely association with the week’s high-profile star. Always pulling double duty, Saluga manages to work in his trademark character, the zoot-suited pest Raymond J. Johnson, Jr., into each episode. Whether he’s wandered onstage by accident and/or interrupts Steinberg’s monologue to question a misheard statement, either scenario prompts Steinberg to address him as “Mr. Johnson” and invite Saluga’s “you can call me Ray, or you can call me Jay…” routine (you can listen to it here).

Martin Short, who wouldn’t join SCTV until its fourth season (after it had moved to NBC to become “Network 90”), revels in the prissy flamboyance of Johnny Del Bravo—Steinberg’s “cousin” on the show—an overreaching hambone who served as a seedling for Short’s later, and considerably more grotesque, Fosse-era androgyne Jackie Rogers, Jr. (and depending on who you talk to, his current Broadway show).

Future fellow Melonvillers Joe Flaherty, John Candy, Dave Thomas, Andrea Martin, round out the rest of the backstage antics. Some of their characters anticipate their SCTV staples, too, like Thomas’ irritable Scottish security guard McGregor (shades of Scottish bluesman "Angus Crock"), Martin’s Julie Liverfoot, a hippie activist (anyone from her repertoire of militant oddballs, like "Libby Wolfson") and Candy’s Spider Reichmann (“Dr. Psychedelic”) As the season progressed, these cursory characterizations became more consistent and some characters even developed their own “arcs” (with “guest star” time shorn to extended cameos, like Joseph Campanella’s barely-there appearance), like Flaherty’s Kirk Dirkwood, who begins as a backstage hand and eventually realizes his dream of performing on Steinberg’s show.

(And let’s not forget that SCTV’s Juul Haalmeyer, of “The Juul Haalmeyer Dancers”, was the costume designer for TDSS)

Trudy Young, who also starred in the popular CBC sitcom The Trouble With Tracy and on Canada’s Dark Shadows rip-off Strange Paradise, plays the dual roles of starlet Bambi Markowitz and Vinnie’s put-upon waitress Margie (suitably with the period’s Betty Frieden-inspired feistiness).

Another stage bound, videotaped effort ala my other CanCon noms SCTV and Kreskin, The David Steinberg Show won’t win any awards for presentation (frankly, I’m amazed these episodes exist at all), and the package offers up serviceable video quality (soft, smeary) and audio (yer standard Dolby 2.0), with the lone extra being a good one: a 30-minute interview with Steinberg taped exclusively for the collection. Too bad the folks at Koch couldn’t have tracked down those earlier summer replacement episodes, or caught up with the rest of the cast to reminisce (Short does a wicked Steinberg impression, evidenced in the delirious “Peter Pan Live At The Melonville War Memorial” sketch on SCTV, with Short’s Steinberg as Captain Hook and Candy’s Divine as Peter Pan). Saluga continues to perform today--you might have seen him as Richard Lewis’ cousin Louis on Season 5 of Curb Your Enthusiasm, or as the miffed usher in the Seinfeld Pagliacci-themed episode “The Opera”, and still gets mileage out of the shtick: Wouldn’t it have been great to see a clip from Raymond J. Johnson Jr.’s The Simpsons appearance, or Saluga’s disco-era novelty single “Dancin’ Johnson” as an Easter Egg?

A single-disc “Best Of” collection is also offered, but if you’re interested in this thing at all, why wouldn’t you cough up the extra few bucks and spring for the whole set?

02 January 2007

My Top DVDs Of 2006: Television Pt. 2

SCTV: Best Of The Early Years
(Shout! Factory, 3 discs)

Quick--which do you like better? SCTV? or Saturday Night Live? If "who cares?" is your answer, relax, it's mine, too. Questions like this are just another one of those annoying non-conundrums like choosing between The Beatles and The Rolling Stones devised to express something about who you are but in the end revealing absolutely nothing. Each is an example of how a particular era can inspire movements and expressions that are reflective of their shared births with completely polarizing approaches. But--if I had to pick one, it would have to be SCTV, aka “Second City Television”, a quieter revolution comparable (perhaps) to The Beatles’ cheery mom-friendly subversion, while SNL erupted onto the scene with the showy, hormonal throb of Mick, Keef, and co. (ironically, the latter approach would suggest a quickie rape and pillage burn-out, but here we are in 2007 and the Stones are still touring and SNL continues to plod along in its traditional place).

Okay, I'll just admit it--it's probably my favorite television show of all time. I managed to stumble onto SCTV’s first episode when it premiered on the then-new Global Television Network in Ontario back in 1976, when I was a precocious kid with a wild imagination and a flair for the theatrical who was unconsciously looking for an outlet--as well as validation—for a sensibility I was far too young and unskilled to properly identify and articulate. Of course, it helped that my hometown didn’t get any American television networks—so long “Not Ready For Prime Time Players”—so by default, I could only indulge in what the “free airwaves” of my vast and underpopulated homeland could offer.

And yes, my mother enjoyed watching it with me, and we rarely agreed on programming, even to this day...

Unfortunately, the show’s fractured history wreaks havoc with the possibility of ever owning a complete SCTV catalogue (I’ve been flipping back and forth through Dave Thomas’ superlative backstage history SCTV: Behind The Scenes, which offers exhaustive episodes guides to the series in its original broadcasts, NBC reworkings, and current Canadian syndication package), as the program’s multiple incarnations negate a “definitive” version (if my PVR would allow for a digital output, I could complete the series on my own for want of a event scheduler and a spindle of DVD-Rs). So with the three season run of NBC’s “Network 90” incarnation having released to DVD (after years of having to resolve music rights issues on the producers’ parts), what was to be done with the remainder of the episodes from the series’ early Global and CBC days and post-NBC “Cinemax” incarnation? I think I can speak for most SCTV mavens when I say that I’m not terribly pleased with the direction taken, but anything is better than nothing, especially when the material is so consistently brilliant and for a good long time it looked like we’d never see the Melonville archives on those little miracle platters at all.

Disc One begins with a trio of episodes from the second season which brought about its first major cast shuffle (Ramis left after the first year to write Animal House), with Discs 2-4 comprised of shows from the third season (which resumed after a year-and-a-half hiatus from 1978-1980), which saw the production move to a new network (CBC), a new location (Edmonton, Alberta), and the cast change again to include chameleonic firecracker Rick Moranis (who, unlike his peers, did not hail from the improv theatre) as a performer and writer following the departure of John Candy (who took a hiatus from the series to host the ill-fated “Big City Comedy”, produced by The Osmonds!)) and Catherine O’Hara. As well, Toronto Second City stage vets Robin Duke and Tony Rosato expanded the ensemble further and while neither proved to be as inventive as the show's founding fathers/mothers, their contributions should not be undervalued (both would later join Saturday Night Live in 1981 and remain for a handful of seasons).

While the individual episodes are presented sequentially and in their entirety, this package does not offer complete seasons. This is due to the fact that the Global and CBC years were raided as filler for the expanded “Network 90” re-edits, before the series eventually became comprised of original content by the time Martin Short joined (not until 1982, although he did costar with Candy, Joe Flaherty, and Dave Thomas pre-SCTV on Canada’s The David Steinberg Show, as Johnny Del Bravo, a precursor to his Jackie Rogers Jr. character). Episodes that had sketches lifted from them for the NBC shows have been dropped completely from the collection, which is frustrating for purists who will have to make due with TV recordings from syndication if they want to own sketches like Robin Duke’s first “Krazy Krafts With Molly Earl”, “Grizzly Abrams” (“where do you get turtle soup out here?”), Mel Torme’s Canadian National Anthem, and my all-time favorite Great White North topic, “Name That Smoke”.

So while one regards the latest volume with suspicion and the whiff of finality (there’s an online petition here to pressure Second City curator Andrew Alexander to release more sets, although word has it the collections haven’t been deemed profitable enough and that Volume 4 will be the last—maybe if you dropped the price to under $70 guys you’d sell more?!), one certainly can’t complain about the content: easily some of broadcast medium’s most inspired and enduring comic moments, nuanced characters, pointed satire, and far-reaching lampoons which just blow through 30 minutes in no time.

Here you’ll find parodies of “Gaslight”, Norma Rae (“My Factory, Myself”), and Woody Allen’s “Play It Again Sam” (“Play It Again, Bob”, with the first of Moranis’ bang-on Allen riffs and Thomas in perfect ski-nosed swagger as Bob Hope), Irwin Allen’s disaster plagued talk show, a venomous piss-take on the SNL rip-off “Fridays” (here it’s “Thursday Night Live”), hack comic Bobby Bittman’s sequel to “On The Waterfront” (perfectly skewering Jerry Lewis in his “Complete Filmmaker” phase) and one of the troupe’s truly definitive meta-masterworks: “The Midnight Express Special”, in which Abbott (Levy) and Costello (Rosatto) host a rock revue from a Turkish prison in which MOR musical acts like John Denver and Anne Murray have been imprisoned due to their drug-referencing lyrics (“Rocky Mountain High”, “Snowbird”s snowy mountain…), with Rick Moranis’ Wolfman Jack (literally a howling, Chaney-esque wolf-man) dealing with corrupt officials backstage. And of course, amidst it all abides the town of Melonville, home to SCTV’s broadcast operations, which is a wholly fictional community as internally realized via laughably low-rent commercials, local newsbreaks, and community announcements and thus “real” as Stephen Leacock’s Mariposa or Stephen King’s Castle Rock.

Because the bulk of the sketches for seasons two and three were written in advance in Los Angeles and Toronto, it was hard for the show to be “topical” when the bits were ultimately recorded in Edmonton (as Thomas laments in his book), but I would argue that this worked to the show’s advantage. Because they couldn’t respond immediately to the news of the day, the cast and writers were encouraged to cast their satiric nets wider and focus on crafting their own internal universe, which in the long run, secured a unique timelessness to the material unlike that of its more high-profile inspiration and competitor. TV always sucked and will always suck (even though it’s been pretty damned good lately, prompting me to shell out for a plasma), so broad romps like “Chip Monck, Roadie For The Defense” and the pitch-perfect daytime drama spoof “The Days Of The Week” seem as fresh as this afternoon’s (all too credible) network schlock, while Chevy Chase’s one-note Gerald Ford impersonations seem as quaint and utterly alien today as a Looney Tunes’ Tojo caricature (that being said, this was SNL’s job back in the day, before The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and The Onion).

As a youngster, I lwas hooked on the show because it was funny, even though admittedly I didn’t get half the references (who the hell was Jean Luc Godard or William F. Buckley to a 13 year old living in the Ottawa Valley?)--the unique trick of SCTV is that it never neglected the comedic basics even as it mined some pretty heady and baroque stuff.

As with the other collections, the bonus materials here are worth the hefty price alone: commentary on select episodes from Flaherty and Duke, reminiscences from Andrea Martin and Andrew Alexander on Second City’s theatrical roots, and best of all, a vintage CBC “Newsworld” feature piece--cheap telecine’d graphics and bad chroma-keying and all--on the “Bob And Doug MacKenzie”/hosers phenomena, which found Moranis and Thomas paraded (literally) down Toronto’s Yonge Street and recording an album (the first of two) with Geddy Lee of Canadian prog-rock royalty “Rush” (the single, “Take Off To The Great White North”, was quite the hit in its day) before taking their CanCon-mandated schtick to the big screen with the MGM-financed (and Hamlet-inspired) production Strange Brew (on which Max Von Sydow took on the role of the villainous Brewmeister Smith at the insistence of his daughter).

Now, I can only assume that plans are afoot for the Cinemax years? “Lewis Sings Dylan” and “Oliver Grimley” deserve their rightful place in my collection.

Oh yeah!