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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, April 7, 2006

Mel Brooks' genius well represented in new set

By Terry Lawson
Detroit Free Press

Arriving just in time to get the bad taste of the recent movie version of Mel Brooks' "The Producers" out of our mouths is "The Mel Brooks Collection" (Fox), showcasing the eight films Brooks made at 20th Century-Fox.

Fans argue this is Brooks at his best, and the set contains two bona-fide classics in "Blazing Saddles," the western spoof co-written by Richard Pryor that made flatulence safe for the screen, and the pitch-perfect "Young Frankenstein," both released in the same year, 1974.

Both have also been previously issued, and the versions here are the special editions with outtakes and Brooks' commentary.

Also included: 1970's Russian folk-tale slapstick "The Twelve Chairs," previously released in a less-than-great transfer that is much improved here, and 1993's "Robin Hood: Men in Tights," whose specific target is the Kevin Costner version of the legend.

The "Men in Tights" cast includes Patrick Stewart as King Richard, Tracey Ullman as a character called Latrine and Dave Chappelle in the small role of Merry Man Ahchoo, with Isaac Hayes as his counterpart Asneeze all of whom deserved a sharper script than they got.

The remaining films are previously unreleased on DVD in the United States, although 1981's "History of the World: Part 1," a hit-and-miss Monty Python-style sketch collection, and Brooks' 1983 remake of the great Ernst Lubitsch World War 11 comedy "To Be or Not to Be" with Brooks and his late wife, Anne Bancroft, were released in Europe.

Available only on Laserdisc and videotape were Brooks' often hilarious 1977 Hitchcock parody "High Anxiety," whose opening tracking shot is a dazzler, and 1976's "Silent Movie," which saves its best gag for the end.

Of these, only "To Be or Not To Be" contains any extras.

OSCAR OFFERINGS

It's difficult to imagine what has gone unsaid about best-picture Oscar favorite "Brokeback Mountain" (Universal), but Oscar winners Ang Lee, Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana are interviewed in the extras that accompany this beautifully made story about two cowboys (Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger) who give in to their true feelings for each other.

The film that did win the Oscar, "Crash," was available on DVD before its nomination, but it's out today in a two-disc "Director's Cut Edition" (New Line) that adds 4 minutes of footage to the film, more deleted scenes and background material.

The religious-allegory-fantasy "The Chronicles of Narnia" won only one Oscar, for makeup, but it still merits a two-disc "Collector's Edition" (Disney), whose extras include a video diary from the director, a featurette on author C.S. Lewis and a blooper reel.

DRAMAS OF THE CLOTH

The Easter holiday provides an excuse to package three religious-themed dramas under the title "Films of Faith" (Warner). Best of this trinity is 1959's reverent "The Nun's Story," with Audrey Hepburn seeing her faith tested upon returning to Belgium after service as a nurse in the Congo and finding her church remaining neutral as Hitler's army goes on the march.

I've always had a soft spot for 1968's admittedly pretentious and overheated "The Shoes of the Fisherman," which was based on Morris L. West's best-seller with an all-star cast including Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud and David Janssen. Anthony Quinn plays a Russian dissident, freed after 20 years in a gulag, who is elected pope in time to deal with a Cold War crisis and famine in China.

The only film in the set that is not available individually is 1952's "The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima," a dramatization of the alleged appearance of the Virgin Mary to Portuguese children in 1917.

'ROLLING THUNDER'

Religion also plays a crucial role in "Bob Dylan, 1975-1981: Rolling Thunder and The Gospel Years" (Highway 61 Entertainment), which rightly bills itself as a "totally unauthorized documentary." Director Joel Gilbert (who also fronts a Dylan tribute band) explores a fascinating period in a fascinating life through interviews and news footage. Rolling Thunder was the circus-style revue that saw Dylan re-embracing his Greenwich Village troubadour days. Its first leg culminated in an all-star benefit concert in support of boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, who Dylan believed had been wrongly convicted of murder.

Carter is seen in a rare interview, along with Ramblin' Jack Elliott and other members of the troupe, before the film segues into Dylan's conversion to evangelical Christianity, which was the preoccupation of three albums, including Grammy winner "Slow Train Coming."

MORE CLASSIC CREAM

Less epochal but almost as interesting is the latest entry in the behind-the-music Classic Albums series, "Cream: Disraeli Gears" (Eagle Vision). With Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker (whose reunion shows were last year's hottest concert ticket) contributing, this documentary reviews and enhances our appreciation of their second, and best album, originally released in 1967.

It includes new acoustic performances of two of its songs by Clapton, as well as unseen archive footage of the band performing in 1967 and 1968.

'DOLL' DOCUMENTARY

Bridging the gap between glam rock and rock, "New York Doll" (Visual Entertainment), is a documentary about the New York Dolls bassist Arthur "Killer" Kane, who after years of alcohol and drug abuse converted to Mormonism to live a solitary life.

Kane put the glitter back on to play in a special reunion show in 2004, captured here, only to die before the band mounted a comeback tour shortly after.