Blu-ray Review: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) – Ultimate Collector’s Edition

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As the original holder of the film rights to Ken Kesey's Cuckoo's Nest, the first time that Kirk Douglas sent Hair director Milos Forman a copy of the novel, it was seized by Czechoslovakian customs officers in his communist run native country who deemed the book too politically dangerous to read.

Eventually, the rights were transferred to Kirk's son Michael Douglas who wanted to give himself a greater challenge than his TV work acting on The Streets of San Francisco by producing the film and collaborate with the very best including Saul Zaentz (Amadeus, The English Patient) in the ultimate cinematic anti-establishment decade of the 1970s. And with this in mind, it was as easily apparent to the first generation of movie Douglases as it was to the second that Milos Forman was precisely the right choice to tap into the politically allegorical subtext of the novel since it hit him literally where he lived.

Therefore it's interesting that, despite all of the accolades and universal acclaim for the Oscar winning film, the most vocal reception to Cuckoo was otherwise so staunchly divisive as some viewers became completely taken in by the web weaved by Forman and other fans, sadly following Kesey's lead of loathing the picture, felt that the book was the only acceptable medium in which to appreciate the story.

Obviously while it seems foolish to bicker over one's preferred medium, perhaps the most significant part of the Cuckoo reaction was that it stirred up debate that often used the book vs. movie approach as a jumping off point to delve into what makes fighting about Kesey's creation so damn important.

Namely, as Kesey's anti-hero protagonist Randle P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) comes to discover once he's transferred to a state mental hospital to serve out the remainder of a short statutory rape sentence, arguing to challenge authority or preconceived attitudes isn't just our privilege but an important right that we must always exercise to not only keep from going nuts but to remain free and independent citizens.

A top-notch ensemble drama that startles viewers with the unexpected bursts of humor that occur amidst the rather severe setting of the film wherein only one sequence occurs outside the white on white sanitary world of the hospital, Cuckoo's Nest is at once devastating and triumphant.

And while it is guilty of preciousness from time to time as things occur just a little too conveniently for McMurphy, under the guise of Hollywood entertainment Cuckoo subversively and subtextually raises important ethical questions about medical treatment, group think, and abuses of power by those in power in all levels, as well as just how easy it is to play fast and loose with the fragile state of another human being.

But even though Cuckoo purports to be about McMurphy as he rebels against the establishment while (we assume) feigning illness to avoid prison life, the roles of the other patients soon draw us in but perhaps none leave as lasting of an impression as Louise Fletcher's antagonist Nurse Ratched.

Dubbed “Big Nurse” in the novel, the wretched Ratched was of the most heavily avoided roles of the year that was turned down by numerous A-list actresses who didn't want to play the personification of evil in the wake of women's liberation.

Yet having seen Louise Fletcher by chance in a supporting role while attending Robert Altman's Thieves Like Us specifically to evaluate the potential of Shelley Duvall, Forman brilliantly opted to ditch the desire for a “name” by casting the relative unknown less than a week before the cameras were set to roll in Oregon.

One of the most disconcerting issues surrounding Ratched is that she's in the line of healing when in reality she does more harm than good. Since she leads them in group therapy and is in control of their medication and charts, Ratched is that much more capable of evil which makes her far more unsettling as she knows just what buttons to press and precisely which triggers to use to set off a certain patient to ensure total control by humiliating them in front of others, using rules against them, or bending them to her will by dangling fake carrots in front of the patients.

And while initially we're fooled by her pleasant smile and believable wish to improve the lives of her patients, soon we discover just what Ratched is capable of when her alpha position is threatened by McMurphy whom she slowly drives from sane to insane by depriving him of anything that made him even close to her equal.

The skillful way that she's able to kill with kindness and passive aggressively manipulate the men on her floor which leads to one of the film's most Earth shattering tragedies puts Ratched on par with Shakespeare's Iago for their knack to unhinge someone and create drama out of thin air by petty jealousy.

Only the second film in history to receive the five main Oscars for Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director and Screenplay since 1934's It Happened One Night, Forman's masterpiece gets the ultimate Blu-ray collector's set treatment from Warner Brothers for its thirty-fifth anniversary. Cuckoo's Nest serves up a hardback behind-the-scenes book, special features including a documentary and deleted footage, lobby cards, promotional and production stills and a rather silly novelty inclusion of playing cards in the otherwise sterling box packaging.

And while thankfully WB managed to make this one fit one your shelves a little easier than some of the previous oversized limited edition collections, I only wish that it would've included Kesey's original work upon which the film is based, if only to ensure that like McMurphy we'll all keep arguing and challenging one another in an ongoing battle to remain free, equal and with our dignity intact.

Text ©2010, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. 

FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

TV on Blu-ray Review: The League -- The Complete Season One

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Last year around the same time that Jeff and Jackie Marcus Schaffer launched their fantasy football centric buddy comedy series on FX, ESPN revealed that more than twenty-seven million people participate in similar leagues during the NFL season.

Yet I can only hope that the events that occur at gatherings held by real life fantasy footballers are far more amusing than the ones witnessed in the six-episode first season of this lazily crude and unfailingly immature fictionalized universe served up by the Schaffer couple.

Essentially it’s one of the weakest links in the FX schedule which is a shame when you factor in the momentum the daring cable network has built up over the years with critical and cult hits such as It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Rescue Me, The Riches, Sons of Anarchy, Damages among others.

But the failure of The League to achieve anything more than just a smile or soft chuckle is tragic considering the massive built-in audience of those who love football (real and/or fantasy) along with other viewers such as yours truly who could honestly care less about the sport but never lets the topic interfere with the potential for killer comedy.

And laughter is something I was definitely expecting given the track record of Jeff Schaffer, who’s worked on groundbreaking series such as Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm and even contributed material to Sacha Baron Cohen’s misguided but creative Bruno.

The influence and experience of these previous collaborations initially gets The League off to a great start structurally speaking from its loose, largely improvisational feel as a semi-scripted series and also by creating an ensemble cast of characters who wouldn’t think twice about stabbing each other in the back if it would better their chances at winning their group’s coveted Shiva trophy a la Curb and Seinfeld respectively.

While on the surface it does feel like a cross between the two Larry David shows along with the FX network fan-favorite darling Sunny, the one thing that the Schaffers lose sight of is that regardless of how uncomfortable, risqué or daring the humor gets, it has to work within the context of each show’s storyline to serve the plot and the characters in some way.

In other words, just because scatological humor garners the quick laugh by appealing to the lowest common denominator in the audience, Judd Apatow and the Farrelly brothers have proven that it can’t be your ace in the hole every time and as we’ve seen on Curb, when done cleverly enough, scatological material can even become sophisticated on occasion.

Likewise, although the idea of a group of “frenemies” might be fun on paper, it’s a whole different ball of wax if you don’t give us at least something to like or at least enjoy about each character as even the Sunny narcissists have their weekly alliances as they pursue something allegorically topical under the guise of ridiculousness.

Actor and filmmaker Mark Duplass takes center stage as slightly more relatable member of the group, Pete who leaves his wife since she won’t support his fantasy hobby as he goes to great lengths in trying to maintain his position as the frequent trophy winner.

Yet while he’s positioned as the main character, the most interesting duo in the group is the husband and wife team of Kevin (Steven Ramnazzisi) and Jenny (Katie Aselton) as they try to maneuver their way ahead of the rest, often managing to steal the most scenes in the process and similarly remain the two individuals you remember the most long after you’ve pressed eject.

Needless to say, the fact that the show is created by a husband and wife team may have something to do with Kevin and Jenny’s cool factor but even when you throw in Kevin’s stoner songwriting brother Taco (Jonathan Lajoie) in the mix, the combination of the extended family plus Pete would’ve been enough to build a solid foundation for the season.

But the Schaffers topple the dynamic with the interchangeable and mostly dull Ruxin (Nick Kroll) and Andre (Paul Scheer) whom we mainly keep straight since one is married and the other single.

Less fixated on football and far more obsessed in how many references to genitalia and gross-out depictions of sex acts they can fit into six extended episodes as though they were developing the series as a production reel pitch they’re planning to send to Kevin Smith to ghostwrite his endless Twitter feed, The League’s a dismal, dispirited and downright ugly faux sports comedy that disappoints equally on DVD as it does on Blu-ray.

Text ©2010, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

DVD Review: Stomp the Yard: Homecoming (2010)

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AKA: Stomp the Yard 2; Stomp the Yard 2: Homecoming

While in the case of Footloose or Save the Last Dance, the compelling screenplays proved to be a pleasant surprise, the truth is that unlike musicals which cull their performances directly from the situations depicted onscreen, nobody really watches a dance movie for the plot.

With this in mind, it's fairly easy to just jump right into a franchise sequel without worrying about whether or not you've even seen the original as evidenced in recent toe-tappers, Step Up 3D which premiered on the big screen and Stomp the Yard: Homecoming that hit shelves last week as a straight-to-disc second installment to the original smash.

And despite the fact that it was much easier for the former work to Step Up with a mega budget and explosive special effects, Stomp the Yard admirably stays true to itself by presenting us another underdog drama that centers on the art of “stepping.”

A precision based collegiate African-American tradition comprised of dance steps, chanting and percussive techniques utilizing both the hands and feet, Stomp makes stepping come alive as a metaphor for brotherhood and teamwork, arguing that people are always at their most powerful when surrounded by friends on the same page (or step).

In the sequel, we return to the fictitious Atlanta, Georgia set Truth University where the Theta Nu fraternity brothers are determined to dethrone their chief rivals, Mu Gamma Xi at Sprite's National Step Competition during homecoming weekend to ensure that each member will receive a full college scholarship.

And sure enough, the money can't come soon enough for the sequel's brand new lead character Chance Harris (Collins Pennie) who, having fled his home previously following the death of his mother, returns to Georgia to work in his dad's struggling diner while he goes to school.

No longer just a pledge and ready to not only join the Thetas for step practice but also contribute his own choreography as well, as the film opens Chance gets hustled in a fixed underground dance competition before he's threatened with bodily harm if he doesn't pay back the money he owes to street thugs.

Trying to keep his failed attempt to earn enough cash for tuition a secret from his Theta Nu brothers in addition to his father and girlfriend, the increasingly stressed Chance finds himself spread far too thin as the competition draws nearer.

While there's enough plot in the movie to have easily given Homecoming a much longer and more involved running time that would feel natural given the amount of information with which we're presented, this succinct feature admittedly does shortchange the audience on dramatic payoff in favor of just hitting certain predictable and perfunctory plot points while racing through the storyline for the inevitable dance-off.

Likewise, because Chance is such a worthwhile and relatable character, it does annoy us that major problems are resolved either offscreen or with a single line or a look. But despite its shortcomings and my own personal wish that we would've had a fraction less drama and a few more performances, the flaws are ultimately benign.

In the end, the impressive if slightly dully lit Stomp the Yard is salvaged by the fact it's just a really solidly entertaining straight-to-disc feature which gives fans more of what they enjoyed the first time around, making the films harmonize nicely even though there's no prerequisite that you need to see one first to get in step with the other.

Text ©2010, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. 

FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.

DVD Review: Scooby-Doo Camp Scare (2010)

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Eager to volunteer for something other than identifying bad guys and foiling deceptive plots with the Mystery Inc. gang, Fred dons his favorite ascot and brings Daphne, Velma, Shaggy and Scooby to his beloved childhood stomping ground in the hope of spending the summer as camp counselors alongside his friends.

Obviously he's got the right ascot and attitude for the job as his signature fashion accessory is mentioned right off the bat. Yet once the Mystery Machine rolls into Camp Little Moose, three people (in addition to Shaggy) try to get him to turn the van around with warnings of a maniacal ax-wielding maniac lurking in the woods.

Shortly thereafter, Fred discovers that along with his extraordinary allies, it's ultimately his skills as an amateur sleuth rather than his knack for teaching children how to handle a zip-line that will be needed for this summer mystery.

Thus they set aside Little Moose's usual agenda of rivalry with the wealthier snobs from neighboring Camp Big Moose to instead try to get to the bottom of the camp director's claim that all of the urban legends and nefarious baddies from their campfire tales have come to life to wreak bloody havoc.

Are the stories real or is somebody trying to purposely scare kids from coming to camp by sabotaging Little Moose?

Determined to still work in some time for fun and adventure since three children arrive before they can be sent back on the bus, it's evident fairly early on that the Mystery Inc. will have their work cut out for them with this assignment of being counselors and detectives by day and night.

Bouncing back with super bright animation and action packed sequences that combine adrenaline fueled excitement with daring thrills after a slightly frightening opening prologue which may have been a bit too intense for younger fans of the original Saturday morning cartoon, Scooby-Doo Camp Scare is a highly entertaining installment in the ongoing series of direct-to-disc original movies.

As the fifteenth title released from Warner Brothers in the ongoing series, Camp Scare impressively manages that difficult task of remaining true to the past by blending together some classic elements of the Hanna-Barbera series including the gang's love of literally unmasking villains along with finding themselves in comedic jeopardy throughout while subtly updating the pace and spirit of the cartoon to appeal to younger audiences.

Gently spoofing campfire tales along with scary movies set in the woods, the cleverly written children's work even pays homage to some of the series' notoriously quotable comeuppance lines like “we would've gotten away with it too if it wasn't for you meddling kids” as well.

While seasonally speaking, this one should've hit shelves in early June, from food fights to cool chases, Camp Scare is one modern Scooby-Doo DVD that's sure to appeal to new fans and old purists as well, complete with a genuinely surprising albeit outrageously Scooby style resolution to a complex case... ascot not included.

Text ©2010, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  

FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.


TV on Blu-ray Review: Bored to Death -- The Complete First Season

Now Available to Own

While they're key in real life, when it comes to dissecting brand new television shows, first impressions are rarely reliable.

Whether it features a brunette Sarah Jessica Parker's ambition to take a man's approach to having Sex and the City in an odd cross between sultry New Orleans jazz and Jackie Collins cheese in the series' pilot or it uses a sitcom gimmick like escaping a marriage before it even begins with the runaway bride openers of Friends and Will & Grace, a new series – like a toddler – is uncertain of what it wants to be when it grows up.

And this need to grow has become especially evident after reviewing TV on disc over-the-years complete with the benefit of being able to watch the shows in quick succession. Typically it takes three episodes to set-up both the major story arc and themes of the debut season and up to six episodes to get over the growing pains to see if by the time it's evolved into whatever it's going to be, it's managed to grow on us enough to keep us tuned in for good.

Of course, other factors including the right time slot and a likable cast can make or break a series. But obviously if your show also boasts a killer premise and a promising pilot, you're faring fairly well in a country not known for its patience to let you ease yourself into entertaining us as in a commercial heavy ADD addled culture, we want the jokes or the action repeatedly and we want them to begin right now.

Considering both the limited accessibility of the premium cable channel HBO which immediately cuts down audience potential and the fact that the network orders very short seasons for its shows, Bored to Death had a few hurdles to climb right off the bat. Yet the fact that it was paired up with Curb Your Enthusiasm and kicked off in the season wherein Larry David reunited with the Seinfeld gang again gave the Jonathan Ames created series an extra boost in ensuring that it would be quickly extended with a second season order.

And while on the surface, both shows are comedies, they're strange bedfellows nonetheless. Essentially the masterful Curb is another wonderfully executed Seinfeldian “show about nothing,” whereas Bored delivers a high concept, high culture pilot complete with high class characters who make their living in highbrow fields and love getting high.

A series for an acquired taste to say the least, ironically in the same turn it's the “taste” that Bored to Death possesses that intrigues us even though we're not entirely sure we like any of the characters very much.Yet right from the show's retro Catch Me If You Can like title sequence to its Raymond Chandler-esque “noir-otic” premiere plot that pays homage to The Little Sister, film noir and witty '40s banter right from the start, we find ourselves rooting for Bored to be much better than it is because it should be, given the set-up.

Rushmore and The Darjeeling Limited star Jason Schwartzman stars as scribe Jonathan Ames' onscreen alter-ego also named Jonathan Ames in this TV expansion of a story the real author wrote about his heroes Chandler and Hammett a few years ago.

Following the understandable break up of his relationship with Suzanne (Olivia Thirlby) who leaves her perpetually pot smoking, wine drinking, writer's blocked thirty-year old boyfriend, he decides that instead of doing the sensible thing and cracking down on his sophomore novel, he'll take out an ad on craigslist and advertise his services as an unlicensed private detective.

Embarking on minor adventures first solo and then with his magazine publisher friend George (Ted Danson) and Zach Galifianakis' Ray, a slacker ally with a car, Jonathan tackles “shadow jobs” to check a man's fidelity and hunts down everything from a skateboard, a sister, Ray's donated sperm, and a Jim Jarmusch screenplay in the process.

Given the succinct roughly twenty-two minute running time of the episodes, the cases themselves aren't very complicated. Yet admirably instead of making Ames a bumbling idiot, he does actually show some intellect in -- if not the execution of taking back missing items -- then at least in understanding how to locate them in the first place... even though he ultimately loses money with every single case because he pays tipsters left and right.

Admittedly it's hard to warm up to the characters initially. In fact, it not only requires three episodes to get a kick out of Jonathan but it also takes a slightly forced, stagey twist to do so as he loses Jarmusch's screenplay in a shrink's office and must continually try to retrieve it. Yet Danson's character fares far worse since the snobby George in particular seems like he would've been far more at home in the recent Ames adaptation of The Extra Man rather than Bored to Death.

Yet after the staff writers manage to get all three male leads in the same location and allow Danson and Galifianakis to play off one another, the show takes a turn for hysterical rather than ho-hum, in the first season's other standout episode “The Case of the Beautiful Blackmailer.”

However, considering the fact that the screenplay and blackmailer episodes are the two best titles in the brief eight installment season, it's perhaps wiser to rent the series rather than purchase since even though it finally does manage to find its rhythm as it continues, you can't help but wish that the people and the plots would all consistently live up to that ingenious premise that launched the show.

By offering viewers a tour of Brooklyn along with Ames and Schwartzman, deleted scenes, episode commentary and interviews, the technically impressive Blu-ray set attempts to fill in the gaps of some of the uneven shows and its nap-and-you've-missed-it running time.

Entertaining enough to make me optimistic about the second season now that it's discovered which comedy teams work well and what angles enhance the series and which ones take it down, overall, Bored to Death is further proof that you need more than just first impressions to fully investigate a television series.

Text ©2010, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.  

FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.