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A view on Blu-ray and DVD video by Leonard Norwitz

The Mel Brooks Collection [Blu-ray]

 

(Mel Brooks & Alan Johnson, 1970-1993)

 

 

Review by Leonard Norwitz

 

Comment:

The rear cover page for Fox's Mel Brooks collection reads: "Includes nine of the best Mel Brooks films."  Since there are only ten, and the one that's missing – The Producers – is arguably the best or, at least, the most consistently brilliant, one might as easily have written: "Includes nine of the worst Mel Brooks films".  That would have had a shot at being funny instead of pointing up the obvious oversight.  The Producers is not a careless omission: Since MGM was responsible for the DVD, we can assume that there are other reasons why Fox chose to omit it from this collection.  In any case, this is the same collection that appeared on DVD back in 2006.  The titles are the same, but they are now all in high definition, with a few new extra features and all but one in uncompressed audio.

 

So let's get the most burning questions out of the way quickly: The titles already available on Blu-ray (Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein and Spaceballs) are presented here unaltered.  Even Blazing Saddles comes complete with Warner logos and disc artwork, but no upgraded audio track (thus the only title without uncompressed audio). 

 

But that still leaves six Mel Brooks movies new to high definition and, of them, the only really weak image is High Anxiety.  Sorry, fans.  It's not bad, just thin and lackluster.  The best looking transfers are Blazing Saddles, Silent Movie, and Robin Hood: Men in Tights. The surprise here is The Twelve Chairs, long a personal favorite Brooks film, and given the short end of the video lollypop since forever, looks very good on Blu-ray.  We haven't seen it's like since the day it came out almost 40 years ago.  I'll comment briefly on some of the new extra features as they appear on each disc.

 

Package

 

 

Reviews:

The Twelve Chairs

Written & Directed by Mel Brooks

1970

Runtime: 93 minutes

Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1

Codec: AVC

Capacity: 50 GB

Featured Audio Mix: English 5.1 DTS-HD MA

Dubs: Portuguese, French & Spanish

Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish, Portuguese & Chinese

 

The Movie: 7

Based on a novel by Yevgeni Petrov and Ilya Lif, The Twelve Chairs is Mel Brooks' least hysterical movie.  In many ways, it's the least like him: We have less the feeling that he is constantly waiting in ambush with a trip rope and a wink at the audience.  It's funny and, at times, nutty, but does not exert itself in that direction at every non-opportunity.  Ron Moody (recently Fagin in the 1968 Academy Award winner, Oliver!) is Ippolit Vorobyaninov, once a nobleman in Czarist Russia, who sets out to locate the dining room set of chairs in which the family jewels are thought to be hidden.  He is aided in his efforts by conman and opportunist Ostap Bender, an exceedingly young Frank Langella. Dom DeLuise, soon to be a staple in several Brooks movies, is Father Fyodor, the nemesis in the plot, and the only presence – even more so than Mel himself – that reminds us who is writing and directing this show.  The big chorus "Hope for the Best, Expect the Worst" is based on the same source that Brahms used for his Hungarian Dance No. 4 in F minor. The exteriors are shot in Yugoslavia.

 

Image/Audio: 7/6

Presented at 1.85:1, I can't remember The Twelve Chairs ever looking this good – certainly not on video.  Source elements are transferred with little fuss and relatively free of defects, with film grain intact, though some minor speckling is present on and off.  Color is painterly; contrast, due to lighting that often reminds us of television of the day, is flat.  On the other hand, darkly lit scenes are often too dark.  Audio is front-directed for the most part, as expected for a comedy film of this vintage.  Dialogue is well managed, with a fulsome, if bright chorus.

 

CLICK EACH BLU-RAY CAPTURE TO SEE ALL IMAGES IN FULL 1920X1080 RESOLUTION

 

 

 

 

Blazing Saddles

Written & Directed by Mel Brooks

1974

Runtime: 93 minutes

Aspect Ratio: 2.40:1

Codec: AVC

Capacity: 50 GB

Featured Audio Mix: English 5.1 Dolby Digital

Dubs: French & Spanish

Subtitles: English SDH, French & Spanish

 

The Movie: 8

Roger Ebert observes in his review from 1974 HERE (at "One of the hallmarks of Brooks' movie humor has been his willingness to embrace excess" and Blazing Saddles may be the most successful of his films in that respect.  Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman) is up to earballs in a land grabbing scheme and convinces the governor (Mel Brooks) to send in a black sheriff Black Bart (Cleavon Little) to the white bread town of Ridge Rock so that property values will fall and townspeople will up and leave.  Bart hires the town drunk ex-gunfighter (Gene Wilder) to help him in his hour of need, but Hedley brings in Lili Von Stupp (Madeline Kahn, in a brilliant Marlene Dietrich parody) for distraction.  It would have worked on me.

 

Image/Audio: 9/6

This is the same 2.40:1 transfer that appeared on Warner a while back, and hasn't been upgraded to uncompressed audio.  All the same the image is very good, with telling textures (look at all those leathers and suedes) and glistening gun barrels.  Film grain is present, as it should be, though in the lighter scenes it becomes a little prominent.  Sharpness is very good; blacks are black and uncrushed.  Stereo was SOP for CinemaScope features as far back as 1955, even for dramas and musicals, so it still comes as something of a surprise to me when I come across mono twenty years later.  It's wouldn't have been that hard to pull off, you know – stereo, I mean.  The transition to a surround mix has to be a painstaking operation if done right, which this isn't. I think such things should be left alone except for the music. 

 

 

 

 

 

Young Frankenstein

Written & Directed by Mel Brooks

1974

 

The Blu-ray is fully reviewed and compared HERE

 

 

 

 

Silent Movie

Written & Directed by Mel Brooks

1976

Runtime: 87 minutes

Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1

Codec: AVC

Capacity: 50 GB

Featured Audio Mix: English 5.1 DTS-HD MA

Dubs: French & Spanish

Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish, Korean & Chinese

 

The Movie: 7

It's interesting to follow Roger Ebert's observations on Mel Brooks over the years. HERE he describes Brooks as an "anarchist" who will do anything for a laugh, and there are plenty of opportunities in this bizarre idea for a movie made almost 50 years after the development of sound on film: a movie without spoken dialogue – well, just about, and even the exception makes for a classic punch line.  Set in about the year it was made, Mel Brooks plays a once-respected director who tries to sell the powers that be at Big Pictures Studio on a fantastic idea to get them out of financial doldrums and prevent a takeover from the evil Engulf & Devour conglomerate.  With his sidekicks, Marty Feldman and Dom DeLuise they lookup a bunch of A-list stars (among them: Burt Reynolds, James Caan, Paul Newman and Liza Minnelli) to try to convince them to make a silent movie.

 

Image/Audio: 8/7

Overall the image is bright, colorful, generally but inconsistently sharp, with good blacks and acceptable contrast.  Specks are occasional but not a major problem. It's kind of interesting to hear what a soundtrack could sound like with only music and effects.  The music opens the soundfield beyond reason, which is part of what makes it droll.  Effects are distributed properly, if unremarkably, about the room.

 

 

 

 

High Anxiety

Written & Directed by Mel Brooks

1977

Runtime: 94 minutes

Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1

Codec: AVC

Capacity: 50 GB

Featured Audio Mix: English 5.1 DTS-HD MA

Dubs: Portuguese, French & Spanish

Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish, Portuguese, Korean & Chinese

 

The Movie: 6

Continuing our review of Roger Ebert's reviews of Mel Brooks movies, he liked this movie less than I did HERE:  finding its humor overkill.  But then he saw it more of a satire than I did. I think it plays quite well, maybe better, if you don't know the references. I agree with Ebert that its best moments are not Hitchcock derived (the film is dedicated to the master of suspense) like the casting of Cloris Leachman as the sado-Nazi Nurse Diesel (some would argue this is not satire, but uncomfortably close to the truth).  Brooks plays Dr. Richard Thorndyke who arrives at the Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous as its new director.  Turns out he has a fear of heights to the point where he can hardly bear the glass-faced elevator at San Francisco's Hyatt Regency. Look for director Barry Levinson standing in for Norman Bates.

 

Image/Audio: 5/7

High Anxiety gets the weakest transfer in the collection: its 1.85:1 image is dull, flat, snowy, soft, grainy, and overbright, though it improves slightly in the later reels. Perhaps the real mystery here is: why so weak? On the other hand, I found no digital manipulations in the transfer.  Similarly for the uncompressed audio mix, which is engaging and varied as called for.  The music is good enough to get its own Isolated Track if you're so disposed.  If I counted correctly, Hitchcock and Mel: Spoofing the Master of Suspense is new for the Blu-ray set.

 

The Blu-ray fully reviewed HERE

 

 

 

 

History of the World: Part 1

Written & Directed by Mel Brooks

1981

Runtime: 92 minutes

Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1

Codec: AVC

Capacity: 50 GB

Featured Audio Mix: English 5.1 DTS-HD MA

Dubs: Portuguese, French & Spanish

Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish, Portuguese, Korean & Chinese

 

The Movie: 4

The childish bathroom humor that seeps into High Anxiety ripens to maturity in this vulgar, R-Rated disaster of a movie that, despite itself, manages some of Brook's funniest moments.  Brooks covers the history of mankind from caveman to the French Revolution, with some segments hardly a minute in length other closer to half an hour.  Sid Caesar is funny as the caveman leader.  Mel Brooks is not funny as Moses who walks over his best line as he delivers the fifteen commandments to the Israelites.  Madeline Kahn is Roman Empress Nympho (that says it all).  Pamela Stephenson is a reluctant succulent who begs Louis XVI to let her father out of the Bastille.  Harvey Korman is the lecherous Count de Monet.  Orson Welles is bored as the Narrator.  My problem with the movie is that a good deal of it would have played better as 1 or 2 panel cartoons and that elsewhere Brooks has become lazy as director.  The framing of most shots are pedestrian.  The pacing is . . . well, better ask: what pacing?  Ebert HERE and I are in agreement on this one which he describes as "unfunny bad taste."

 

Image/Audio: 8/8

As with Robin Hood: Men in Tights we are grateful that the 2.35:1 widescreen image with its colorful and varied production values for History of the World: Part 1 made the transition to high definition video pretty much intact.  The two big set pieces: Ancient Rome and The French Revolution are alive with color, texture, gaudy costumes and gaudier makeup. Print damage is close to zero and digital manipulations likewise. The audio mix is also quite good, supporting the bright colorful visuals perfectly.  The music is splashy and the dialogue crisp. There may not be much going on in the surrounds, but that works just fine for this movie.

 

The Blu-ray fully reviewed HERE

 

 

 

 

To Be or Not To Be

Original 1942 Screenplay: Edwin Justin Mayer

1983 Screenplay: Ronny Graham & Thomas Meehan

Directed by Alan Johnson

1983

Runtime: 107 minutes

Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1

Codec: AVC

Capacity: 50 GB

Featured Audio Mix: English 5.1 DTS-HD MA

Dubs: Portuguese, French & Spanish

Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish, Portuguese, Korean & Chinese

 

The Movie: 5

Not satisfied with parodies of movie genres and spoofing the master of suspense, Mel Brooks takes on what should have been impossible or, at best, pointless – spoofing a classic comedy – in this case from none other than the great Ernst Lubitsch. To Be or Not To Be was made late in 1941, just before America's entrance into the war. The idea of satirizing Nazism must have struck the Hollywood establishment as both brilliant and titillatingly dangerous. (Chaplin, by the way, didn't find Hitler funny, just ridiculous and frightening.)  Just how much the American public knew or understood about Hitler's Nazism is anyone's guess – for Americans were the target audience (Where else besides England could this movie have played then?) And yet, there the little man with strange moustaches is for all to see, walking about the streets of Warsaw without a care in the world.  Ach!  With radio star Jack Benny as the egoistic lead actor of a Polish theatre company and comedienne Carole Lombard (recently married to Clark Gable) as his flirtatious wife, it's hard to imagine how Lubitsch thought he could bring this off – or, conversely, how he could have thought he could possibly miss.  As for the remake: it's one thing to insult Mein Fuhrer, but another thing entirely to insult Lubitsch!

 

To be fair and correct, this isn't really a Mel Brooks movie in that he neither wrote nor directed it.  He isn't an actor either in the same sense that Woody Allen is an actor.  We rarely see anything going on inside the broad line reading.  It's all vaudeville and clown makeup.  That said Roger Ebert HERE liked Brooks better than I did. Among other things, the adaptation telegraphs every move the plot is about to make, robbing it of any possibility of suspense. I also felt the idea of folding in homosexual victims of concentration camps and Jewish refugees to be out of place or, at best, pointless in a work of such buffoonery.  The tear shed at Shylock's speech has the opposite of its intended effect.  Like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, after a brilliant opening musical number the movie has no place to go but down.

 

Image/Audio: 6/6

An evaluation of picture quality for To Be or Not To Be is made problematic because of its wildly fluctuating brightness levels.  In a single scene from one camera angle to another the picture inexplicably gets darker.  This effect is so distracting that it made other considerations superfluous.  So unless I missed something else important, the Blu-ray image is otherwise satisfactory, but hardly demonstrable. There is a considerable use of soft filtering that gives the picture a warm - or, in this instance, cool – fuzzy look, but I found little if any transfer issues that further degraded the picture.  The audio, even in its DTS-HD MA mix is not stellar: dialogue is a little wooly and surrounds are employed only occasionally (as for a plane passing overhead), though I would not have expected more.  Brooks and Bancroft: A Perfect Pair is a new featurette that complements the disc nicely.

 

 

 

 

 

Spaceballs

Written & Directed by Mel Brooks

1987

 

The Blu-ray fully reviewed HERE

 

 

 

 

Robin Hood: Men in Tights

Written & Directed by Mel Brooks

1993

Runtime: 104 minutes

Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1

Codec: AVC

Capacity: 50 GB

Featured Audio Mix: English 5.1 DTS-HD MA

Dubs: French & Spanish

Subtitles: English SDH & Spanish

 

The Movie: 4

Well, Mel, it's been quite a climb, sort of like the one by Dante and Virgil. He started with the likes of The Producers, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein and ended with Robin Hood: Men in Tights. Itself a parody of the Kevins Reynolds and Costner's Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Brook's last movie is a better vehicle for sending up or hommaging or whatever than To Be or Not To Be, this much is certain.  I like the title and the line by the generally underrated Cary Elwes ("unlike some other Robin Hoods, I can speak with an English accent.")  A couple of the supporting actors are worth our time: Roger Rees as the Sheriff of Rottingham and the awesome Tracey Ullman as Latrine, the ugliest witch on the planet with a yen for Prince John.  Amy Yasbeck is lovely to look at, but Richard Lewis as Prince John is a bore, and Dave Chappelle as Achoo is not nearly as funny as he can be.  Mel Brooks' direction here is lazy and without a clue as to how to fill his frame.  There is no excuse for a parody to look amateurish in the bargain. (I couldn't find a review from Mr. Ebert – perhaps Brook's last movie was more than the usually affable Roger could take.)

 

Image/Audio: 8/8

Wouldn't you know that one of the lesser movies in this collection gets one of the better transfers!  Such is death, I guess.  In all fairness I should add that the visuals benefit from its highly resolved, color-rich image.  Dimensionality would be better is it were lit accordingly; on the other hand, detail and contrast are very good.  The DTS-HD MA mix does what it can to breathe some life into this otherwise dull movie, and I have to admit it almost succeeded.  The music score, once again ably supplied by John Morris, as he has from the start for Mr. Brooks, offers some majesty and the occasional humping.  Effects busily engage the surrounds with everything from whistling arrows to Latrine's bubbling pot.

 

The Blu-ray fully reviewed HERE

 

 

 

 

Extra Extras:

Fox's presentation for their new Mel Brooks Collection takes into account the criticism of their Planet of the Apes set, namely the problematic disc holders.  For that set, the hubs are so pointless that I have had to remove the discs and store them in separate sleeves altogether.  Here, they receive a simple slot, one or two per page.  The book that holds the discs is a trifle flimsy but it works.  In complete contrast is the second of the two books in the set: a 120-page hardcover of the same dimensions: "It's Good to be the King" which is a hefty, full color glossy overview of the movies in the set.  In such a comprehensive book, it is absurd that The Producers gets no mention, even though not in the "collection".  I can't say much for the text, it just heaps praise upon praise in flowery language that is entirely unlike the subject of these essays.  Kind of nauseating after a stretch.   For all the text, there is no index for extra features anywhere.

 

Extra Features Summary

7 Previously Issued Featurettes

6 New Featurettes for Blu-ray

4 New Trivia Tracks

5 Isolated Score Tracks

Previously Issued Commentaries

Previously Issued Interviews

Previously Issued Documentaries

Still Galleries

 

Expanded Blu-ray Case w/ flippages

Street Date: December 15, 2009

 

Recommendation: 7

To Buy or Not To Buy, that is the congestion.  In Fox's new Blu-ray Mel Brooks Collection of nine movies, six are new to HD. Two of Brooks' three best films are already available on Blu-ray, and they are identical to the ones in this set.  (The Producers is still holding out.)  All but one of the transfers look good, some very good.  (High Anxiety being too nervous to look normal.)  The hardcover book is nice looking, but repetitive and uninformative.  The new extra features are nice, but not reason enough for purchase.  It comes down to how much you like Mel Brooks unique brand of humor.  If you do, the price is reasonable when you consider it on a per title basis – about $10 per movie at Amazon right now.  If you already own Mel Brooks on Blu-ray, buy now and give away your present titles as holiday gifts.

 

Leonard Norwitz

LensViews

December 16th, 2009

 


 

About the Reviewer: I first noticed that some movies were actually "films" back around 1960 when I saw Seven Samurai (in the then popular truncated version), La Strada and The Third Man for the first time. American classics were a later and happy discovery.

My earliest teacher in Aesthetics was Alexander Sesonske, who encouraged the comparison of unlike objects. He opened my mind to the study of art in a broader sense, rather than of technique or the gratification of instantaneous events. My take on video, or audio for that matter – about which I feel more competent – is not particularly technical. Rather it is aesthetic, perceptual, psychological and strongly influenced by temporal considerations in much the same way as music. I hope you will find my musings entertaining and informative, fun, interactive and very much a work in progress.


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