Category Archives: Buried in DVDs

Lords of Light and Demon Dogs rejoice!

After the disappointing release of the Warner Brothers Saturday Moring Cartoons: 1980s earlier this year, I’ve been in kind of a cartoon on DVD funk.  Included on that set was a single episode of the series Thundarr the Barbarian, which though I had fond memories of watching it as a kid, I didn’t realize just how damn cool that show was until rewatching that one episode.  Because Warners was moving away from full series and season on DVD in favor of cheaper anthology releases, I figured I’d never get a chance to see the rest of the episodes in a format that I really love.

Well, I’m really happy to say that my funk has been broken because the Warner Archive Collection, the company’s print-on-demand arm, has announced that the complete Thundarr the Barbarian will be shipping starting today, September 28th, 2010!

I was excited a year or so ago when the WAC first launched as I was hoping to secure copies of some out-of-print flicks on DVD, but I didn’t hold out any hope that they’d start releasing TV boxsets, let alone of classic cartoons.  But last month saw the WAC release of long overdue series on DVD from the 90s, Pirates of Dark Water

…and from what I’ve gathered from the WAC twitter feed, it looks like a slew of other cartoons are also headed to the POD format…

“We have only just begun to delve into the animation library!  We’ve got a few more series in 2010, +/- 2/month planned in 2011”

Also slated for release are Josie and the Pussycats in Outer Space and the 1973 Addams Family cartoon.   The idea that they’re also planning on around two additional releases per month next year is fantastic!  Do I hear releases of the Herculoids, Grape Ape, Speed Buggy, Frankenstein Jr. and the Impossibles, and Mr. T on the horizon?  I sure hope so!

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You’re friends will be there when your back is to the wall. Well except for Johnny Depp. He hated this show…

I recently had the opportunity to take a look at the Mill Creek re-issue of 21 Jump Street on DVD and I have to say that I was both a little excited about the set and a little bit bummed out.  First off, I have to make it clear that Mill Creek provided a review copy of the DVD, so I didn’t purchase this set.  I am, however, a fan of the show, and I already own a few of the seasons that were previously released by Anchor Bay on DVD.  So for whatever it’s worth, I’d like to believe that my opinions on the set and series are unbiased.

Part of the reason that I wanted to take a look at this set is that I feel like we’re entering an unfortunate stage in the life of DVD as a medium, and Mill Creek is leading the pack into the future.  After living through the first home video boom during the 80s and 90s with VHS, I knew the life cycle of DVD would be relatively short in the grand scheme of things, lasting around 20 years.  Introduced to the public in 1997, I think it’s safe to say that we’re now entering into the last stage of life for the format, its twilight years.  The signs are all around us with discount $3-$5 DVDs available in stores like Big Lots and Wal-Mart, and with a slight improvement of the medium already on the market (Blu-Ray.)  Pretty soon we’re going to see a shift in the releases of films and TV shows as some will only be available on blu-ray or for download, and only the most popular and profitable releases will garner DVD distribution.

So why is Mill Creek important in this scenario?  Well, in the last few years super discounted DVDs have usually consisted of old, discontinued or overstock titles that companies are trying to liquidate to recoup production costs.  Mill Creek on the other hand is leading the charge on first run releases in the budget format, so instead of getting an affordable price on a nicely manufactured set, we’re getting lower quality sets at great prices.  After years of releasing budget public domain fare, Mill Creek is now licensing TV series that other companies have discontinued releases for, as well as picking up the rights to some shows that have never been released on DVD.  One of their first big coups was in acquiring the library of Stephen J. Cannell productions including such shows as Hunter, the Commish, the Greatest American Hero, and 21 Jump Street.  All of these series have been released before, but not at budget pricing.  In addition to these well-known series, Mill Creek is also releasing a lot of Cannell’s lesser known series such as Ten Speed and Brown Shoe, Booker, and Cobra which have never been on DVD in North America (except Cobra which was released in Canada.)  I think this is going to become a trend for the medium in the face of rising music rights costs, especially for TV on DVD, and I’m kind of sad to see it.  I think if it’s successful then it’s going to prove to DVD distributers that subpar sets are perfectly acceptable.

So what about this new 21 Jump Street Complete series DVD set?  Well, being a budget release, the set is attractively priced between $60-$70, which isn’t bad for five seasons of television.  The original five sets released by Anchor Bay in 2004 would have easily set you back $150, so right off the bat we’re talking a 50 to 60 percent drop in price.  But this price reduction also comes with a drop in quality, both in the packaging, features, and in the video quality as well.  First off, the quality of the transfer is pretty close to the original DVDs, at least displayed on a regular player on a non-HD television, but there is a higher compression as there are more episodes per disc on this new set.   The original source material was rough to begin with though, and there’s only so much you can do to pretty it up.

My biggest complaint though is with the packaging which is just medium to subpar.  Though the sets are packaged in clamshell-style cases, the DVDs themselves aren’t housed on individual pegs or spindles.  Instead they’re individually wrapped in plain black paper sleeves which stack together and sort of snap into a frame on one side of the case.  That means that when you want to pull out DVD #17, you have to pull them all out and sift through the sleeves, which can be a pain.  With a smaller set it’s not that big of a deal, but with these complete series sets it really gets to be a pain.

There are also no liner notes and no DVD booklet.  You want to know which episode guest stars Brad Pitt?  Go to IMDB and find it that way because you’ll be searching forever on the DVDs.  Again, with a smaller or season set this wouldn’t be that big of a deal, but with a complete series set it’s really a pain in the butt.  This is also a bare bones, no-special-features release (unless you count the single episode of Booker included in the set.)

Unfortunately, as with the original release of the series on DVD, most if not all of the original music was also stripped from the episodes because of high song licensing issues.  This is the biggest setback for TV on DVD, and in particular with a show like this because the music helped to define the tone, and it provided a boost to the overall quality of the show.  Without the music the series feels so much more cheesy than it was when it originally aired and honestly it’s just a shame.

Talking about the series itself, 21 Jump Street is an example of Stephen J. Cannell at his most playful.  Starring Peter and Michael Deluise, Holly Robinson (Peete), Dustin Nguyen, Steven Williams (the X-Files), Richard Grieco, and of course a young Johnny Depp in his break-out role as Officer Tom Hanson, the show was sort of like the older brother to Saturday Morning cartoons in the 80s.  Usually centered on some hot-button topic of the day, the series was a fun spin on detective shows that gave the actors a lot of range to play all sorts of characters in their undercover roles.

The series is a snapshot of what the Fox Network was like during its inception as well, and helped to define a slightly hipper alternative to the normal programming on the main three networks.  It works best as a time capsule of late 80s television and features a plethora of up and coming and established actors in guest spots like Brad Pitt, Pauley Shore, Mario Van Peebles, Kurtwood Smith, Jason Priestley, Mindy Cohn, Bridget Fonda, Sherilynn Fenn, Josh Brolin, Christina Applegate, Vince Vaughn, John Waters, Shannon Doherty, and Thomas Haden Church.


All in all, for the price, the set is probably worth picking up if you’re a fan and don’t already own the series, though I would wait for a sale.  Right now Best Buy actually has it for the astounding price of $38.

To me the series will always highlight the bittersweet experience of moving on from middle school to high school, and leaving the 80s behind.  It was the beginning of the end for the type of television that I grew up on, and it made the transition into the 90s a little less rocky.  You can pick up this set on July 27th, 2010.

These unofficial trilogies are Officially Awesome in my book!

About six months ago I was having a fun time on Twitter going back and forth with Paxton Holley (of the supremely cool Cavalcade of Awesome), trying to come up with a bunch of unofficial film trilogies.  We got to talking and we decided that it would be epic if we worked on an article together and we decided to flesh out the whole idea of these sort-of-film-trilogies.  So please head on over to the Cavalcade and get your awesome on!

If growing up in the 80s taught me anything it was that any film that was even moderately successful deserved a sequel, and the only thing better than a sequel was a full blown trilogy.  There’s something magical (in the unicorn and rainbow kind of way) about the movie trilogy format that I can’t quite put my finger on, but it’s there all the same.  Something satisfying.  Personally I can point to the experience of growing up with the three original Star Wars films as a point of reference.  In some form, every trilogy I watch is compared to these three films; in particular to their structure of a first film that works as a stand alone piece (incase of box office failure and no sequel money), a second film that enriches the characters and paints a much bigger picture for the world, and a third film which brings a sense of closure to the overarching plot while also giving the characters one more wild adventure.

There seemed to be an endless stream of trilogies that I cherished in and around the 80s.  The Back to the Future films, the Karate Kid flicks, the hillbilly/mutant Jason flicks (Friday the 13th parts 2-4), the Zombie Jason flicks (Friday the 13th parts 6-8), the Bad News Bears flicks, the Look Who’s Talking flicks, the Mad Max flicks, the Naked Gun flicks, the Poltergeist films, and the Meatballs films.  That’s not including other film series that broke into more sequels like the Superman or the Rocky films.  Heck, in doing some research for this crossover I discovered that there was even a trilogy that I was unaware of, Cannonball I, II, and Speed Zone!  I loved the first two and now I have to track down and see the third.

Recently though, I’ve been thinking a lot about conceptual trilogies, film series that aren’t directly connected by characters or story, but have other threads that tie them together.  There are a lot of series written by the same author or that were all filmed by the same director that get a lot of attention; for instance Sergio Leone’s Dollars/Man with No Name trilogy (Fist Full of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly), his epic America trilogy (Once Upon a Time in the West, Fist Full of Dynamite, and Once Upon a Time in America), or John Carpenter’s Apocalypse trilogy (The Thing, Prince of Darkness, and In the Mouth of Madness.)  But there are also a lot of films that just feel like they belong together because of interesting themes and overall concept.  Here are a few of my favorites…

The Ralph Macchio Fight Trilogy.  There are only a handful of films starring Mr. Macchio thoughout the 80s as he was quickly typecast as Daniel LaRusso (not a terrible fate), but of the films that he did make there seems to be a clear throughline of scrapping against all forms of bullies.

Starting in 1983 with Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of The Outsiders, Ralph Macchio stars as Johnny Cade, a 16 year-old greaser runt who’s had enough and is ready to pop.  In the film, Macchio’s Johnny comes to the aid of his friend Ponyboy (played by C. Thomas Howell) who is being attacked by a group of Socs (the rich, douchey, pre-suburbanites of the 50s) because he was hanging out with “their girls”.  Johnny stabs and kills one of the Socs in the scuffle and then he and Ponyboy go on the lam hiding from the law.  Things don’t end well for Johnny, but he does save a bunch of kids from a burning building, so I guess there’s that…

The second film in the Fight trilogy is by far Macchios most famous and probably my favorite film of the 80s, 1984’s The Karate Kid.  Starring as Daniel LaRusso, a kid who moves from Newark, NJ, to Reseda in California and then proceeds to get his butt kicked by bullies right and left.  One chance meeting with the apartment’s reclusive superintendant later and we’re on the awesome rollercoaster ride of banzai-tree-trimming, catching flies with chopsticks, waxing cars, painting decks, and beating the living shit out of a bunch of asshole bullies in skeleton costumes.  Not only did the film give us the ultimate douche in Billy Zabka’s Jonny Lawrence, but it also provided the best fight song in the history of all time, Joe Esposito’s You’re the Best.  It’s to fighting what Barry White is to love making.

The final film in the Fight trilogy is the under-seen 1986 Walter Hill flick Crossroads, starring Macchio as Eugene Martone, a young guitar prodigy searching for the legendary Robert Johnson’s (he of the musical deal with the devil fame) one lost song.  Though there are a couple of dustups in the flick, the fighting all takes place with guitars, in particular in the culmination of the film where Martone accepts a challenge from the devil to out guitar his pet project, rock star Jack Butler (playing with a crazed yet entertaining relish by Steve Vai.)  It seems that in battling the Devil, there is no greater weapon that soulful rock and roll (Just ask Charlie Daniels, the Kids in the Hall, or Tenacious D.)

Crossroads brings me to another themed series, The Walter Hill Musical Battle Trilogy.  Walter Hill is one of those directors that never broke as big as his resume deserves, though he has been a part of some pretty big projects including the first Alien film and the HBO Tales From the Crypt television series.  His eye for style and interesting characters is amazing and I can only hope more people pick up his films as time goes on.  For this trilogy I’ll go in reverse seeing as I’ve already mentioned the culminating flick, Crossroads

The middle film in the Musical Battle trilogy is the insane 1984 flick Streets of Fire.  Starring Michael Pare as Tom Cody, an ex-soldier turned hero for hire who is called back to his home town when his ex-girlfriend, rock star Ellen Aim (played by Diane Lane), is kidnapped by Raven Shaddock, leader of a local gang called the Bombers (played with wicked insanity by Willem Dafoe.)  Cody, along with another ex-soldier McCoy and Ellen’s manager/boyfriend Billy Fish (Rick Moranis in a typecast-breaking performance as a fast talking ass), take on the Bombers and rescue Ellen in a film noir inspired rock opera that culminates in one heck of a kick ass sledge hammer fight that needs to be seen to be believed.  This film drips style much in the same way that Tim Burton or Wes Anderson flicks do.  Hill is a master of creating unique alternate universes that exisit just on the edge of reality, and in Streets of Fire it can be the 50s and the 80s as the same time.

The first flick in this Musical Battle trilogy is probably Hill’s most famous film, 1979’s The Warriors, which is one of those movies that people love, hate, or love to hate.  Personally I love it.  The film is loosely based on the Anabasis an account of a battalion of Greek soldiers, lead by Xenophon, from Sardes to the Black Sea through hundreds of miles of enemy territory.  In the film, Cyrus, the leader of the most powerful gang in New York calls for a peaceful meeting between all the gangs in the city (60,000 strong), in an effort to rally together against the police and the system.  Luther (played by a psychotic David Patrick Kelly), uses this opportunity to assassinate Cyrus, and in the ensuing chaos blames the act on the Warriors, who then have to travel through all sorts of enemy territory in trying to get back to their home turf at Coney Island.  The film is punctuated by updates given by a faceless mouth on the radio informing the various gangs of the whereabouts of the Warriors as they try to evade battle.  Though it’s not an out and out rock opera, it has many of operatic qualities and a very similar visual panache.

Probably my favorite themed film series from the 80s has to be The Alternative/Extreme Sports Trilogy made up of Rad, Thrashin’, and North Shore.  Each film centers on one of the big sports crazes of the 80s including BMX, skateboarding, and surfing respectively.  All of them have similar plots, when a hometown boy (who is pretty damn good at what they do), is confronted with the idea of competing in a tournament that will pit them against the biggest assholes each past-time has to offer. Growing up in Florida in the 1980s I was smack dab in the middle of all three of these crazes, and even though I never tried my hand at surfing I was enamored with all three.

In 1986’s Rad (which I discussed at length before), Cru Jones has to battle against the insufferable Bart Taylor (played by real like Olympian Bart Conner) at Hell Track, along the way winning the hart of pro racer Christian (Full House’s Lori Loughlin.)  1986 also brought us the skateboarding classic Thrashin’.  Starring Josh Brolin as Cory Webster, the plot centers around a friend of a group of local skaters from the Valley who has come to Los Angles to complete in a crazy high speed downhill race.  Webster unfortunately bumps into a insane local gang of punkish skaters called the Daggers, who are led by Hook (played by Robert Russler.)  Of course Cory falls in love with Hook’s more normal sister Chrissy, and the two play Romeo and Juliet while mixing it up with the Daggers (which means plenty of skateboard jousting.)  Lastly we have 1987’s North Shore, which features Matt Adler as Rick Kane, a surfer from Arizona who has never really had a chance to hone his chops in a real ocean.  He wins a local competition and finds himself in Hawaii where noting is quite like it seems or he expected.  Battling against the Hui (locals) on the waves, he ends up simultaneously falling in love with Kiani (Nia Peeples) and being mentored by Chandler, a transplanted soul-surfing guru.  Rick decides that the only way he can prove himself is by winning a surfing competition called the Banzai Pipeline.

Last but certainly not least is the is The William Zabka Bully Trilogy.  I’ve already talked about the Karate Kid (where Zabka plays the leg-sweeping bully we all love to hate, Johnny Lawrence), but he also goes on to play douches in two other 80s flicks, 1985’s Just One of the Guys, and 1986’s Back to School.

Just One of the Guys is my favorite hidden gem movie of the 80s that I must have seen on cable two trillion times.  Starring Joyce Hyser as Terry Griffith, an aspiring teenaged journalist who can’t seem to get any respect because she’s a shapely woman.  Terry hatches a scheme to enroll in another high school (seeing as her journalism teacher has already dismissed her talent), only this time she decides to start cross dressing as a boy so that she can get the respect she deserves for her work.  In the flick Terry is basically playing the Daniel LaRusso role from the Karate Kid, but instead of getting beaten up by Billy Zabka’s Greg Tolan, she instead mentors a geeky guy who can’t seem to get a date, Rick (played by Clayton Rohner.)  Rick has a crush on Tolan’s girlfriend Deborah, and therein lies the Zabka douchery.  Though it’s a slight step down from Johnny Lawrence, Greg Tolan is still a pretty entertaining asshole and it’s fun to see him get his ass kicked by a girl, her little brother and eventually Rick as well.  Whereas in the Karate Kid Zabka was more likely to bust up your ghetto blaster and chase you down with a dirtbike, in Just one of the Guys his coup de grace comes in various forms of exercizing with nerds and geeks.  Between showing off his wedgie-weight-lifting, and his personal favorite lunch table lifting, Zabka had a lot of fun as teh ultimate P.E. bully.

Zabka’s weakest bully performance is in Back to School, the Rodney Dangerfield comedy where he plays Thorton Melon, the owner of a successful string of Big and Tall shops who decides that the only way he can get close to his son is by enrolling in college to be near him.  Zabka plays Chas Osborne, who is the alpha male on the college swim team, and the rival of Thorton’s son Jason (played by Christine’s Keith Gordon.)  Honestly, Zabka is barely in the film and even though he really is supposed to be a douche, he’s kind of justified in his asshole-ery.  He’s a great diver, and he doesn’t even really bully Jason all that much, so when his dive is sabotaged by a young Robert Downey Jr. (playing Jasons best friend), it’s kind of sad.  Though he’s still a douche, I feel sorry for his character and I think it goes a long way to redeeming his much worse bully past.

Anyway, this is only one half of the unofficial trilogies cross-blog special.  For the ultimate in awesomeology and more trilogy fun, head on over to Paxton Holley’s Cavalcade of Awesome, and tell him Branded in the 80s sent ya!

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VHS means forever…

The wife and I have recently been culling through our collections of various things, trying to free up some room and make our place look a little bit neater.   In the quest to let go I came across what’s left of my meager collection of VHS tapes, movies that haven’t been released on DVD (or at least hadn’t when I choose to keep them) and I just can’t seem to part with.  Throughout the 90s and in to the 2000s I had amassed a ton of VHS tapes while working at a local grocery store.  I was a night manager in the drug/gm department which was over our in-store video rental kiosk, and because I was a burgeoning movie freak I always got first dibs on previously-viewed sales stock.

When DVD came along I started the laborious and expensive process of replacing my collection, and to help bolster that project I sold off most of my tapes on eBay when you could still get a decent amount for them.  Even so, there were a few tapes that I decided to hang onto because I figured they’d never get released on DVD.   It’s been fun over time as some of these titles have become available and I’ve been able to throw away a tape here and there (like my two Tick cartoon videos, MTV’s the Maxx series, Buckaroo Banzai, Goonies, and my Thundercats and Transformers the Movie convention bootlegs.)  Well, the collection had shrunk to about ten tapes, a few of which were gifts (I have a hard time parting with gifts), and a couple more which I just hadn’t thrown away yet (I finally bought a copy of the Die Hard DVD last year.)  I thought it would be fun to share some of the straglers…

First up we have the 1988 anti-classic Hot to Trot starring Bobcat Goldthwait, Dabney Coleman, Virginia Madsen and the voice of John Candy as Don the talking horse.   I loved, loved, loved this flick as a kid (it probably didn’t hurt that Nick at Night was coming into it’s own at the time and I was getting introduced to a massive amount of Mr. Ed re-runs.)  First off you have Goldthwait who was becoming my favorite stand-up comedian with his coke-induced sweaty, garble-mouthed HBO specials and his role as the unpredictable and loving Stork brother Egg in One Crazy Summer, not to mention his really fun turn as Zed in the Police Academy movies and his suicidal turn as Eliot Loudermilk in Scrooged.   I think this is sort of the high point of his career as the goofy funny guy with one of his only starring roles.  In a few more years we get the sort of straightened out and much more seriously crazy Goldthwait with Shakes the Clown and his firebug antics.

At the same time I sort of felt that Coleman was reprising his 9 to 5 horrible boss character, which was a role that I loved him in.  He could also sort of do-no-wrong for me after playing dual roles in Clock and Dagger alongside Henry Thomas.  If there’s one thing this film is really notable for, it probably as the beginning of the end of John Candy’s career.  There were a few promising moments here and there (Uncle Buck, and I actually enjoyed the Delirious flick), but for all intents and purposes it was all downhill after Hot to Trot.   It’s kind of sad…

Debuting the next year (’89) was the insane comedy Big Man on Campus…

…which featured an early performance from the Office’s Melora Hardin, as well as Corey Parker (best friend and one-time step son of Patrick Dempsey), Cindy “Shirley” Williams, and Tom Skerritt.  The star of the flick was an unlikely Allan Katz playing the hunchback Bob Maloogaloogaloogaloogalooga (“One Malooga, four looga’s…”)   Katz was the writer/producer on shows like M*A*S*H, Rhoda, Roseanne and Blossom, and his one big film was Big Man on Campus which to this day I content is utter comedy genius.  The film is silly re-telling of the Hunchback of Notre Dame set in present day California on the UCLA campus with Bob living in a click tower and fawning over Hardin’s Cathy from afar.  When he sees Cathy in trouble while she’s defending her boyfriend (played with amazing comic-timing precision by Parker), Bob swoops down to protect her, outing himself in the process.  At first considered violent, the university decides to study Bob, appointing Parker as his keeper/roommate, and it’s from here that the film really takes a weird turn.

Though it could have stayed pretty much to the obvious stock story, Katz imbues the flick with some much comedic life in all of the zany little details.  There’s all sort of left-field one-liners in the film that I still find myself uttering to this day.   At one point in a mall Bob is asked what he wants from a fried chicken stand (legs, breasts, thighs, you know where the joke is going), but instead of making it overtly sexual and hum drum, he asks for “…two faces.”  On top of the well written script, Katz brings an amazing physicality to the character that’s half John Belushi, and half Harold Lloyd.  I’d plotz if the flick ever came out on DVD…

Next up we have an obscure Billy Dee Williams flick from 1995 called Secret Agent 00 Soul…

The flick is excruciatingly bad and it must have been a favor to a family member that got Billy Dee to star in this.  I haven’t even managed to make it all the way through the film, and honestly I don’t think I ever will.   My favorite character from the Star Wars flicks has always been Lando, and that’s more or less why I’ve been hanging on to this tape (it was a gag gift from a friend.)  My favorite aspect is the post-production design work on the promo materials.   Look at that cover!  Have you seen a worse photo-enhancement job in your life (that is Billy Dee’s head, but it ain’t his body.)  Oh wait, there is a worse job than the cover.  Take a gander at that back cover…

Yup, Billy Dee’s head pasted onto a white man’s body (doing a bad impression of Roger Moore from the flick For Your Eyes Only, though it might even be Moore’s body.)  Classic.  If you ever find a copy of the flick, look for an early guest star appearance by Tiny Lister Jr.

Last up is a film that has actually come out on DVD, but it’s a tape that’s been so loved over the years it’s impossible for me to get rid of it, the one and only Monster Squad!

This tape has been watched and rewound at least two hundred times (personally) not to mention all of the viewings it had at the video store where I picked it up.   I just can’t get rid of it.  I even have a swanky bootleg cover that matches this original cover for my official DVD release (since I hate the new cover artwork so much.)  I think I’d get buried with this VHS (if I were planning to be buried that is.)  By the by, does anyone know who the poster artist is for the Monster Squad?  The art on the cover is signed Craig, which looks like a familiar signature, but I’m not sure who it is…

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Obscure 80s TV on DVD…

Though there’s a distinct drought of upcoming 80s cartoons being released on DVD, there are plenty of interesting live action 80s television titles that are about to start popping up on shelves.   If I had to make a guess as to three 80s shows that I figured would never see the light of day on DVD it would have been Small Wonder, Street Hawk, and Max Headroom.  Amazingly enough these three titles are actually becoming a reality thanks to the folks at Shout! Factory (which is quickly becoming my favorite outlet for DVD production and distribution.)

Small Wonder was one of those shows that filled the gap between afterschool cartoon watching and primetime when my parents took control over the TV.   I’m pretty sure I remember watching it on the USA network in first run syndication, and for some reason I seem to remember catching it alongside episodes of Out of this World as sort of a double whammy of crazy girl power insanity (OotW was a show that revolved around a girl named Evie that has some nifty alien powers, in particular the power to stop time around her by putting her fingers together, because her father was an alien.)  For those not familiar, Small Wonder was a sitcom that ran from 1985 to 1989 and revolved around a nuclear family that consisted of genius engineer father Ted Lawson, his wife Joan, their biological daughter Jamie and their adopted robot daughter Vicki (a project Ted brought home from his robotics firm dayjob.)  The series has the same basic premise as ALF, with the Lawson family getting used to their exceptional new family member while also trying to keep her robotic secret from neighbors, friends and family.  Honestly, I figured this was one of those shows that would fester in the mire of obscurity, in particular because were no big stars attached that have gone on to create any buzz for an archival release of the show.  But it’s becoming clear that this is where Shout! Factory really excels when it comes to picking DVD projects.  Small Wonder season 1 is already available on DVD…

If that series wasn’t obscure enough, coming on July 13th (just in time for my birthday) we’re also going to see the release of Street Hawk the complete series

Before the internet, Street Hawk was one of those shows that I only managed to catch a couple episodes of before it fell off of network TV and since then also seemed to fall off the face of the earth.  I could never convince my friends that the show even existed.  Street Hawk featured an awesome futuristic urban combat motorcycle and helped round out the collection of vehicle-based action shows of the 80s alongside stuff like Airwolf, Knightrider, the Dukes of Hazzard, and to an extent, the A-Team.  Starring Rex Smith as Jesse Mach, an ex-motorcycle cop recruited by a secret government agency to fight urban crime at speeds up to 300 miles per hour, Street Hawk featured my second favorite vehicle (right behind the chopper in Airwolf).  In fact, it’s probably because of these two shows that I fell so in love with Brad Turner and his motorcycle/helicopter Condor from the cartoon M.A.S.K. as it joined two of my favorite designs into one badass mode of transportation.  The Street Hawk series was more of a hit in the UK, receiving a series of picture books and novelizations, though there was at least one lunch box released in the US.  There was also an unofficial G.I. Joe figure released abroad that came with a similar black motorcycle.

Rounding out the obscure TV DVD releases in August is the complete Max Headroom.  Starring Matt Frewer and Jeffrey Tambor, Max Headroom was one heck of a crazy sci-fi show whose virtual titular character spilled over into the mainstream in the 80s becoming a cult product spokesman, most notably for New Coke and MTV.   The series used speculative fiction to respond to the insane climate of crass commercialism and greed in the mid 80s, in particular on television, and honestly seemed like a very unlikely candidate for release on DVD.

Between these upcoming titles and Shout! Factory’s recent re-release of classic 80s cartoons the Transformers and G.I. Joe, not to mention releases of shows like Freaks and Geeks, My Two Dads, Mr. Belvedere, Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors, and Punky Brewster, the company is really winning me over as a loyal fan.  Shout! Has even snagged the rights to continue releasing the Facts of Life on DVD.  I’m hoping they get similar distribution rights to stalled DVD releases like Silver Spoons and Perfect Strangers

Getting some more 80s cartoons on DVD…

So aside from some odds and ends here and there, new releases of out of print 80s cartoons on DVD have really been slowing down lately (though we did finally get Scooby Doo’s All Star Laff-a-Lympics on DVD.)  I think a big part of this is a mixture of the switch from DVD to Blu-Ray and the general decline in DVD sales.  Just like with VHS when DVDs became cheap there was a too-quick boom where people bought tons of them and then a year or two later were scratching their heads trying to remember why they accumulated a collection of 300 plus movies and television shows.  DVD collecting is one of my main hobbies, in particular building specific libraries (e.g. 60s, 70s, & 80s cartoons and all of the flicks from the 80s that I loved as a kid), so even though I have what seems like six million DVDs I’m not phased in the least. Back to the 80s cartoons though, it’s kind of a shame since there are still a handful of shows that I think really deserve to be available on DVD (like Kidd Video, the Dinosaucers, the Visionaries, Teen Wolf, TigerSharks, and Jem just to name a few.) 

There are a couple of promising movements in the realm of DVD releasing though, namely print-on-demand technology and anthology sets.  Amazon has been playing around with a p.o.d. model by partnering with MTV/Nickelodeon on a series of 90s releases like Doug, the Rugrats, the Maxx, the Head, and Rocko’s Modern Life.  I’m not sure how well these titles are selling, but I can say that I’ve been more than happy with the quality of both the Maxx and Rocko DVDs, and I’d love to see some future releases of Ahh! Real Monsters, Pete & Pete season 3, Hey Dude, Salute Your Shorts, and maybe some 80s titles as well like You Can’t Do That on Television or a best-of Pinwheel.  Similarly, Warner Bros has also been playing around with p.o.d. with their Warner Archives releases, but so far I’ve found the selection to be wanting and the prices are way too high (but you can finally get Lilly Tomlin’s Incredible Shrinking Woman and the Rankin/Bass Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, which is awesome.)  The one company that’s really got me excited though is Shout! Factory which has decided to start their own p.o.d. service that’s specializing in continuing releases of shows that have received initial sets that didn’t sell well and have since stalled like C.O.P.S. and Mr. Belvedere.  I’m crossing my fingers that there is a volume 2 release of Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors in the cards…

I’m not quite as interested in the anthology releases that have been coming out, mainly from Warner Brothers, but there is one that has peaked my interest called Saturday Morning Cartoons: 1980s, Vol. 1

Warner has previously released two volumes each of 1960s and 1970s sets that are interesting, but unfortunately they were a little off-the-mark in my opinion because they contained episodes of shows already available on DVD.  If there’s one practice I hate with DVDs it’s double dipping, and these are the worst because in order to get episodes of shows like the Herculoids or Shazzan you have to also buy episodes of the Flintstones and Hong Kong Phooey.  Nothing against those two latter shows, but they’re already available on DVD and if you happen to own them than these episodes are just taking up valuable real estate on the anthology releases. I think Warner has finally gotten the message though, and with the 1st 1980s release they concentrating on putting out a collection of shows that have never been on DVD before.  The set consists of single episodes of the following eleven shows:

Mr. T

Thundarr the Barbarian

Dragon’s Lair

The Flintstone Kids

Galtar and the Golden Lance

The Biskitts

The Completely Mental Misadventures of Ed Grimley

The Monchichis

Chuck Norris: Karate Kommandos

Tex Avery’s the Kwicky Koloa Show

Goldie Gold & Action Jack

Though I’d love full season sets of Thundarr and Mr. T, I’m glad at least that these shows are going to see the light of day on DVD.  When I first started collecting cartoons on DVD my mission was to get 1 episode of every show I watched as a kid on DVD, and this set will fill in a good chunk of those gaps.  I can only hope that they continue this trend with at least a second volume.  I’m not sure what shows Warner holds the rights to (even though I realize they own a good chunk of Ruby Spears and Hanna Barbera), but I’d love to see some episodes of Turbo Teen, Pac-Man, Teen Force, Astro and the Space Mutts, Fangface, Captain Caveman, the Frankenstones, The Shirttales, Rubik the Amazing Cube, the Snorks and Kidd Video.

Oh and while I’m on the subject of 80s cartoon releasing, I have to say that there is another “innovation” that’s begun to take a foothold lately that I’m not a big fan of, iTunes only digital downloads.  Whereas I’m all for the idea of more streaming and downloadable content, I hate it when releases are subject to only one medium.  It was recently announced that both the Dinosaucers and the Karate Kid cartoons are going to be available on iTunes.   I’d love to have the Dinosaucers on DVD, but maybe I’ll have to settle for watching them on the computer (or eventually on an iPad maybe?)

What can you really say about a film that involves a nerd deflowering a bowling ball that I didn’t already say with this title?

I’ve been thinking a lot about 70s/80s teen sex comedies lately in the wake of Severin Films’ announcement they’ll be releasing the seminal (in every sense of the word) comedy flick Screwballs on DVD.  By the way, the disc comes out today and you can order your copy by clicking on the cover below…

Anyway, back to pondering teen sex comedies.   It’s really surprising to me how often films don’t deliver on what they promise in terms of content, in particular genre flicks.  I can’t count how many times I’ve rented a horror flick that wasn’t scary, gory, or disturbing, or a comedy that just didn’t try that hard for laughs.  This past year a friend and I sat down and watched a ton of 80s comedies both in the hopes of reliving some nostalgia and to finally expose my friend to the original R-rated bits and pieces that he never got a chance to see growing up as a kid.   My experience to most of the films we watched came through either renting them on video or catching them in the wee hours of the morning on HBO or Cinemax.  My friend on the other hand grew up a bit more sheltered and wasn’t allowed to watch most of them, and the stuff that he did catch was on basic cable over the years so he has felt like he’s really missed out on the raunchy adult humor.

Turns out he didn’t miss all that much.  Even flicks like Porky’s really don’t have all that much in the way of nudity or language so bad that it’d make his grandma blush.  Granted Porky’s was the brainchild of Bob Clark, the same guy who brought us the beloved classic A Christmas Story, but he was also the guy that brought us Black Christmas, so we weren’t sure what to expect.  Overall, after watching flicks like Fast Times at Ridgemount High, Meatballs, Sixteen Candles, Revenge of the Nerds, and Risky Business my friend was starting to feel like he hadn’t missed that much at all.  Personally, I seem to have memories of more raunch in my 80s comedies, though there are a lot of flicks that I watched back in the 80s that we didn’t revisit and were more on the periphery in terms of tasteful content like Hot Dog, Kentucky Fried Movie, Class (which seemed really dirty at the time), and the various academy (Police or Screwball) and school movies (Rock ‘n Roll High, or Ski), all the stuff that I’d catch for years on USA Up All Night with Rhonda Shear or Gilbert Godfried.

Sure, most of these films have some rude language and a jiggling pair of boobs here and there, but none of them feel like they’re delivering on their potential, not at least in the way that a lot of exploitation flicks did in 60s and 70s.  When you sit down and watch a Herschel Gordon Lewis film like Blood Feast or Two Thousand Maniacs, you get what you pay for.  When you watch a Jack Hill flick like the Big Bird Cage, Foxy Brown or Switchblade Sisters, you get plenty of violence, language and T&A.  So with the 80s teen sex comedies, it sad that for the most part you really don’t get more raunch.  That isn’t to say that I don’t like John Hughes (the Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink) and Savage Steve Holland (Better Off Dead, One Crazy Summer) flicks, just that there was a relatively untapped market for making flicks that were a bit more visceral.

Well, getting back to the reason for this post, I have to say that I never saw Screwballs back in the 80s and it was one heck of an oversight.   Screwballs is to teen sex comedies what Last House on the Left is to horror.  There are more naked girls, goofy horny guys, and inappropriate jokes than in most other 80s films combined.   In fact the raunch reaches a level of slapstick that is more on par with the feel of a crazy 30s era gag-a-second Fleischer cartoon than an 80s comedy.  The flick was also produced under Roger Corman, which might have something to do with its level of debauchery (but in the best sense of the word.)

If you haven’t seen it, the basic gist of the film revolves around a pact made by five senior guys who all have a beef with one girl, the ultimately virginal Purity Busch.  She’s either gotten them in trouble or lead them on and the guys decide that by the end of the school year they’ll either get to see her "goods" and score, or die trying.  Though the film should be qualified as terrible, where plot is really secondary to the mass amount of gags in the film, the set dressing keeps bouncing between the 50, 60s, 70s, and the 80s, and with acting that for the most part is insanely bad, it’s still pretty great.  It’s almost like watching a live action adaptation of a much dirtier version of MAD magazine that still manages to be funny.  Between sessions of strip bowling, insane make-out sessions a the drive-in, freshman breast exams, trips to the strip club (with a guest appearance by Russ Meyer star Raven DeLaCroix), ornate brainwashing attempts involving an giant fake hot dog, insanely inappropriate cheerleading practice in bikinis, and a milf mom who is playing the cougar to the point of being overdubbed with animal growls, you’ll never be bored.

I can honestly say that I was blown away by this long-overdue-on-DVD gem, for however contrived and cliché a statement like that can be.  I have to give a hand to Severin Films for taking the time and effort to restore this film (as well as stuff like the original Inglorious Bastards.)  The DVD looks pretty good for a lowbudget early 80s film like this, and has a nice set of special features including a commentary track as well as surprisingly insightful interviews with the director Rafal Zielinski and cast (there are clips with the director and some of the actors online.)  I don’t know what more I can say except that, again, the DVD is available to purchase as of today. If you’re a fan of goofy 80s comedies and boobs, than this is highly recommended…

Review of the Mill Creek Dungeons and Dragons the Complete Series on DVD…

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, Mill Creek Entertainment has picked up the license to the 1983 Dungeons and Dragons cartoon, one of my favorite mainstays from Saturday Mornings as a kid.  The series was originally released by BCI Eclipse back in January of 2007, but has since gone out of print due to Navarre shuttering the BCI Ink & Paint imprint.   I was a huge fan of that original set as it was one of the first bright examples of an 80s cartoon property handled with love and care, and one that wouldn’t make a permanent dent in your pocketbook.   As much as I hate seeing all the BCI titles starting to drop off into OOP obscurity, I was really glad to hear that Mill Creek was picking up some of the pieces.

That being said, I was a little skeptical of what this would mean for the series being kept alive on DVD.  Mill Creek is most known for distributing public domain material in via large box sets like those 50 movie packs (featuring horror and westerns to name a couple) as well as the 150 packs of old public domain cartoons.  The quality of these public domain titles ranges from medium to poor for the most part and the sets are geared more towards introducing one to obscure nostalgic fare than being a source for nice copies of these movies and cartoons.   From time to time Mill Creek will also take on a licensed property like their releases of the Teddy Ruxpin series.  I picked up one of the TR sets in a dump bin for about $5 and that’s pretty much all it was worth.  The video and audio quality of the show left a lot to be desired, but the price was right and honestly that’s what Mill Creek is all about.  So how would the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon fare?

Well, I just received an advance copy of the Complete series set, which will hit store shelves on August 25th, and should be retailing for between $13 to $24 depending on where you find it.   They’re also releasing an entry level disc which features only the first nine episodes of the cartoon in tandem which should retail for around $10.  After cracking open the set I was both pleasantly surprised and a little bit let down with some quality issues that should have been expected…

First off, the bad. The main issue I have with this set is the packaging.  It’s cheap, really cheap and it’s sort of a shame.  I guess I was spoiled by the nice embossed sturdy box that the BCI release came in, the beautiful fold out digi-pak that housed the discs, and the included episode guide.  Compared to that the Mill Creek release is about as bare bones as you can get…

This set features all 27 episodes spread over 3 single sided discs which are housed in black paper sleeves that sort of snap into the plastic case.  Granted it keeps the DVDs sturdy enough, but I can imagine over time these paper sleeves are going to get worn and torn up.  Besides this, it’s just an annoying to have to pull out the sleeves like this and fish out the disc.  DVD packaging companies are doing wondrous things with minimal packaging these days, and a case like the ones used for the Family Ties releases (that has spindles on either side of the inner case and a flap with a DVD spindle in the middle) would have been a vast improvement at very little increase in cost…

As for the DVDs themselves, they’re not bad.   First off, all of the special features from the BCI edition have been stripped.  There is nothing extra on this set, it’s just the episodes.  Like I mentioned above, there are a total of 27 episodes, 9 to a disc, and the DVDs default into the episode selection screen for each disc…

The most surprising aspect of this set is how well the quality of the actual video and audio held up.  The BCI discs had up to 7 episodes per disc, so there wasn’t a ton of added compression to fit a couple more on, especially considering that all the fancy frills were discarded.  To my eyes, the quality is almost a direct transfer.  As far as the audio goes, it’s a little bit quieter on the Mill Creek DVDs, with the background music suffering the most, but it’s certainly not to a level that it’s ever distracting.  With the video, the Mill Creek version isn’t quite as rich, but the difference is really subtle.  Here are some screen to screen comparisons.  The Mill Creek version is on the left, and the BCI on the right…

Mill Creek                                              BCI
Mill Creek                                              BCI

All in all, if you’re more interested in just getting a decente copy of all the episodes, I’d highly suggest picking up a copy of the new Mill Creek set.   It’s a little shoddy on the packaging side, but for $13 on Amazon right now it’s one hell of a deal.  If you’re more concerned with a nicer presentation and a great set of special features, than I suggest picking up one of the remaining BCI sets before they fall into seriously over-priced out of print obscurity.  Amazon still has copies available for around $40.

As far as the cartoon itself, I still love it as much as ever and I’m glad to see it staying in print for a new generation.   If you’re interested, you can find my original review of the BCI set, as well as my expanded look at the first 13 episodes from my Cartoon Commentary! column by following these links:

Dungeons and Dragons Overview
Episode 1
Episode 2
Episode 3
Episode 4
Episode 5
Episode 6
Episode 7
Episode 8
Episode 9
Episode 10
Episode 11
Episode 12
Episode 13


Review of the new Transformers season one set from Shout! Factory

I just received my copy of the new Transformers season one DVD set and I was pretty darn impressed…

For the last few years it’s been a wonderful time for fans of 80s cartoons.  Between the lovely Filmation sets released by the now sadly defunct BCI Eclipse, Warner Bros. stepping up to the plate and offering action cartoons like Thundercats and the Silverhawks, WEP/Anime Works/Media Blasters releasing the complete series of Voltron, Time Life releasing the complete Real Ghostbusters, and Shout! Factory picking up dropped licenses for a ton of DiC and now Sunbow cartoons, releasing 30-odd episode sets instead of the paltry 4 episode discs for shows like C.O.P.S. and Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors, it’s just been great.

With the recently released Transformers season one 25th anniversary edition, Shout! Factory has stepped up its game and taken on a tent-pole series, looking to correct the mistakes in the show’s past DVD releases (both in terms of price point, attractive packaging and actual animation and sound snafus from the 2002 Rhino releases.)  Taking a nod from Time Life and their release of the Real Ghostbusters, Shout! is putting together multiple DVD sets that’ll hopefully appease both casual and hardcore fans.  This set is the first of 4 individual releases that will comprise the complete Transformers cartoon.

This first set includes all 16 episodes from season one, a 20 minute documentary featurette featuring a lot of the creative team responsible for the original toy line, the Marvel comics series, and the cartoon, a G.I. Joe-style "Knowing is half the battle…" PSA featuring Bumblebee, three archival Hasbro toy commercials, a printable script for the episode "Transport to Oblivion", and a large b&w Autobot magnet.   For the most part, these episodes are from the same masters that Rhino used in the 2002 releases, but Brian Ward and his team painstakingly researched the discrepancies between the original masters and the broadcast versions, and replaced most of the incorrect footage (and sound) with the correct sections from the 1" broadcast tapes.  For casual fans these changes will be transparent, but for longtime viewers, these new DVDs are the closest we’ve gotten to how the show was originally shown on TV.  Unfortunately, the 1" tapes segments tend to stick out a bit, and can be a bit jarring as the animation flows between the crisp sequences of the original masters and the softer, slightly duller 1" broadcast tape.  On the whole though, knowing that the original broadcast versions are preserved far outweighs the visual bumpiness.

Here’s an example of the corrected animation from the episode "Fire in the Sky".  Look to the missing Decepticon symbol on Skyfire’s chest in the original master footage from the 2002 Rhino release on the left, and the newly inserted footage from the 1" broadcast tape on the new Shout! DVD on the right…

The episodes included on disc 1:
-More Than Meets the Eye: Part 1
-More Than Meets the Eye: Part 2
-More Than Meets the Eye: Part 3
-Transport to Oblivion
-Roll for It
-Divide and Conquer
-Fire in the Sky
-S.O.S. Dinobots

The episodes included on disc 2:
-Fire on the Mountain
-War of the Dinobots
-The Ultimate Doom: Part 1
-The Ultimate Doom: Part 2
-The Ultimate Doom: Part 3
-Countdown to Extinction
-A Plague of Insecticons
-Heavy Metal War

As far as the packaging, presentation and bonus materials go, I was very impressed by the attention to detail and that Shout! had and eye on the style of the original toy packaging when designing the slipcase, sleeve inserts, disc art and the episode guide.  The foil embossed slipcase is brilliant and just plain beautiful (especially compared to the rather dull silver digipaks of the original 2002 Rhino release.)   This is the best work I’ve seen from Shout! when it comes to their 80s cartoon releases.  The menu navigation is light years better than the old Rhino DVDs as well, with an included feature to play multi-part episodes together without interrupting the flow of the cartoon by cutting out the opening and closing credits on the in-between episodes.  The 20 minute "From Toy to Comic to Screen" featurette takes its cue from the docs that Andy Mangels did for the BCI Eclipse He-Man, She-Ra, and Dungeons and Dragons sets, and is well produced.  The main focus of the doc centers around Hasbro acquiring the toy license from Takara, the development of the Marvel comic series, and eventually how the story-lines for the three platforms differed, and features creative talent that worked for Marvel, Hasbro and Sunbow past and present.  It’s not quite as in-depth as I was hoping, skirting talk of the production of the series for the most part, but according to the specs of the Complete series set, we can expect two more docs in these individual sets, as well as two additional and exclusive docs on the complete set (including a voice actor reunion), so there’s room for more down the road.   Also, it was kind of weird that the interviewees hid all mention of Marvel when talking about the comics, they’d just refer to "a comic company", or "that comic series".  As for the toy commercials, two of them pertain to G1 toys, while a third is for the G2 Optimus Prime re-release.   It’s really interesting seeing these, though it can be distracting while watching them because the child actor’s faces were blurred (I’m guessing for rights or residuals issues.)  There’s also a glimpse of the Sunbow Marvel comics commercial in the documentary which kind of makes me hope that these will be included on future sets or maybe the complete set, but I’m not holding my breath…

All in all, for a set retailing between $20-30, fans couldn’t really ask for anything better considering the Rhino DVDs have been out of print and fetching upwards of $100 a set.  This is the first time the Transformers series has been released with this much loving detail at such an affordable price in the US, and hopefully it’s just the icing on the cake as there are three more sets, as well as the G.I. Joe series to look forward to. Brian Ward and the team at Shout really did a great job with this set.


Adapting the Watchmen, what is the point?

If there’s one thing that I lament about the film-going experience as I get older, it’s that I move further and further away from the boy who used to watch movies with unquestioning wide-eyed amazement.  When I turned thirteen I started looking at film with a slightly more critical and as the years packed on with an increasingly cynical eye.   It’s a very rare experience for me to walk into a film without the baggage of 20 odd years of cinema watching experience, comparing and contrasting to genre and style.  It’s hard to not have a jaded outlook, in particular when I have any sort of vested interest in the material, and growing up a comic book collector during the 80s and 90s it’s hard not to have such an interest in a film adaptation of the Watchmen.

More importantly, if this film accomplishes nothing else, it has made me question the point of adaptation in general.  I can’t claim to completely understand it, but the yearning to see stories from various other media adapted into film is incredible for me.   As a pre-teen I couldn’t think of anything more exciting than seeing the Lord of the Rings made into films.   As a comic collector I burned to see my favorite franchises turned into major motion pictures, and it’s a feeling that’s hard to shake to this day, especially in the wake of the Watchmen adaptation.  But when I stop and truly think about what adaptation requires, and what it ultimately offers, I have to wonder just how pointless it is.  What is the point of making a film like the Watchmen when I can read the comics the way they were intended to be taken in?  Is it to capture new readers of the comic, to hold up the greatness that a lot of us believe the Watchmen holds and force it on an audience that would only take a chance on it in the film medium?   Is it supposed to outshine the original?  As someone who has already experienced the story in its original form I have to say that no matter how spot on the film was, it would only ever be something that can come close to the original, but never supersede it.  The original, for what it is, has little in the way of flaws, and doesn’t need to be told any other way.  It can only ever be a much quicker way to experience the story, something that is antithetical to the original work.  If I wanted to get somebody to experience the story, I’d just give them the book.  At the end of the day, the Watchmen is a specific story that works as it was created and any adaptation would just pale in comparison.  It isn’t something like Spiderman, which is an icon, a concept of a character that can be used to tell any number of stories.  For someone who is not intimately versed in super hero comics to catch the film, well I think they’d be missing the point of the story anyway.

When I walked out of screening with my wife, my first reaction was that the movie was all muffin top and no actual muffin, but let me back up a second.  All the beats were there in terms of story points, and visually the movie is stunning.  I had the same reaction that a lot of comic fans seem to be having with the flick in that it’s amazing to see the characters from the comic leap to the screen picture perfect.  Again, even this reaction is because of the baggage I’m carrying from watching super hero movies for the last 30 years.  Up until the mid 90s it was very rare that a comic book character could be visually translated onto the screen with such faithfulness to the source material.  The Christopher Reeve Superman was good, but only about half right.  The Michael Keaton Batman, though special in his own right, was a bit off from the caped crusader in the comics.  When you get right down to it, the foam rubber Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles from the first live action film were some of the very first truly amazing visual translations of characters from comic to screen.  Over the past decade this has been a focus that filmmakers seem to increasingly nail on a consistent basis, and for a group of characters like the Watchmen to make the transition almost wholly intact, is incredible, if only because the source material isn’t ripe for adaptation.  For a movie studio to put as much time and money into the translation without the benefit of a huge merchandising machine in place in this day in age is wild.

It’s the visual culmination of years of trying to perfect the balance between pleasing the fans, logistics of production, and advances in technology.  The thing is that 30 years of super hero films have trained the audience that anything better than horrible is just fine with us.  So a picture perfect visual adaptation of the Watchmen isn’t an aspect that the film can really rest its laurels on.   The other celebrated aspect to the film is the fact that it managed to keep enough of the tone and content to garner an R rating.  The original comics are unrelentingly “adult” in content; in particular when compared to the rest of the output from the publisher (DC comics) at the time it was published.   When you get right down to it, super hero comics are aimed at a young audience, and that was one of the conventions that the Watchmen sought to challenge.  The hurdle the movie is attempting to leap across is the fact that most films these days are specifically molded to appease the sensibilities of the largest possible audience, which is why most “adult” fare is targeted to a PG-13 crowd.  Show just enough to appease those with darker sensibilities, and hold back just enough so that the content is suitable for most teenagers, and bang, that mystically profitable age range is targeted.  Unfortunately, most uncompromised stories don’t fit very easily into any sort of age specific category.  Life in general just doesn’t fit into predetermined boxes all that well.  So the fact that the Watchmen is rated R, and a deservedly hard R, could be viewed as another accomplishment on the path to an uncompromised adaptation.  Again, though, a laurel not to be rested upon.   Side-stepping the mediocrity of the film industry, as admirable as it is, shouldn’t be celebrated, it should be expected.  Even if it were, the violence and adult content in the Watchmen comics are not a selling point.  I think I’d have to philosophically side with Sam Peckinpah on this one and admit that these characteristics of the original comics are an abhorrent necessity in conveying the story.   It’s not cool to watch Rorschach chain a child murderer to a hot water heater in a building he just set afire, giving him a hacksaw as a means to disfigure himself with the possibility of an uncertain escape.   It’s not cool to watch as an inmate’s throat is cut with a box cutter in order to get him out of the way of cell bars that need to be acetylene torched.   It’s not cool watching a woman brutalized and half raped for character development; it’s necessary to tell the story that Alan Moore set out to write, and it’s there to disgust the reader.

So what’s left?  Story, acting, tone (not just of the R rated variety, but in terms of overall plot and world), and execution (in terms of direction), this is where the film starts to fall apart for me.  It’s been awhile since I’ve read the original comics, and after walking out of the screening I felt like a lot was left out, though I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what.  I know of the fan gripes, that the Black Freighter comic-within-a-comic story was excised for the theatrical cut (to be released on DVD as a cartoon later this month, along with the possibility of be re-cut into the expanded edition of the Watchmen film on DVD), that the Newsstand and the relationship been the proprietor and the kid who reads the comic was left unexplored, the dropping of the prison psychiatrist’s back story, and probably the most popular gripe, the alteration of the final sequence in the film and dropping of the giant squid Macguffin.  Those aspects didn’t bother me as I’m much more concerned with the core story, not all the little details.   I mean when you get right down to it, it would simply be impossible to include all the plot threads and details, there just isn’t enough time to incorporate it all.   No, an adaptation from a long format to a short calls for cuts to be made, fat, no matter how interesting, to be trimmed for the core story to come through.  So does it?  I have to say yes.  All the “important” stuff is there, the dynamic between Rorschach and the rest of the Watchmen (and the rest of the world for that matter), Dr. Manhattan’s abandonment and eventual rediscovery of humanity, the dissection and exploration of super heroes as saviors or gods, the futility of doing things the right way, and an expose on the dark depths to which humanity can find itself when it loses its way on the path to righteousness and moral right.  All of the landmark elements from the comic series are represented, yet the film still seems (at least to me) to lose its own way in the midst of adaptation.

There are a couple themes that seem to have been partially dropped, and an aspect to the original story that can’t translate verbatim and possibly could have been redirected but wasn’t.   First off, I don’t think the overall tone of the story was kept intact in the translation.  Reading the original comics isn’t a fun beautiful experience on the whole.  I believe that many of the characters are drawn (both literally and stylistically) to be so ugly that it’s hard to follow their stories without disgust.  In fact I think it’s really hard to pick a character that as a reader you can truly get behind so that the focus isn’t placed on watching that one character interact within the world created, but instead for the reader to be forced to watch all aspects of the world not unlike the social conditioning of Malcom Macdowell’s character in A Clockwork Orange.  If there is a hero in the book it’s the bond between Dan’s Night Owl II and Rorschach.  Aspects of both characters are admirable, but neither is strong enough to carry the role of a hero for the story.  Back to the point, the world of the Watchmen is ugly and dark, it isn’t polished, and when it appears to be it’s just a thin veneer covering something rusty and broken.  Zach Synder made a conscious effort to adapt the material in such a way that this gritty ugliness is polished and beautiful to watch.  Scenes are set to overbearing music cues that are at once both too perfect and too pop for the good of the story.  The soundtrack is full of hit songs and memorable anthems and don’t speak to the world of the film at all except in the most obvious and coincidental ways.  The one section in which this really worked for me was the opening credit sequence after the brutal murder of the Comedian, which is a couple minute montage set to Bob Dylan’s The Times They are a-changin’ (illustrating the formation and ultimate failure of the Minutemen super hero team, and their impact on society.)   It’s heavy handed, but it works.

Unfortunately, there are too many sequences that follow during the next hour or so that keep up this absurd music video-like quality to the film so that the world of the Watchmen isn’t given a chance to breath on its own.  It’s suffocating, and in the end the obvious tone to the music is what informs the tone of the scene, not really what’s playing out before your eyes.  At its most inhibiting, the music can completely tear you out of the film you’re watching and put the viewer in the mindset of other films.  The flash back sequence of a 70 foot tall Dr. Manhattan obliterating Vietcong troops set to Richard Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries is such an obvious reference to Apocalypse Now that it borders on pretentious (“You’all like crazy overblown scenes from films about the war in Vietnam?  Well here’s a crazy overblown scene about the war in Vietnam, set to the music from that original example!”)

The cinematography itself is also so pretty and picture perfect that it does nothing but damage the tone of the story being told.  Everything is so rich and colorful, every movement of the characters is so choreographed and precise that it’s a wonder to behold, awe inspiring really.  But honestly, I don’t think this is what we’re supposed to be feeling while watching the film or reading the story.  I think the blame doesn’t necessarily fall with the director so much as the source material which is being adapted.   If there is an obvious downfall of the comic book medium it’s in the limitations with which the storytellers and artists have to tell a story.  The medium emulates life, but it’s forced to take snapshots of movement and moments, and begs the reader to read between the panels.  Comic pages end up looking like a collection of all the most perfect moments imaginable in a story, but by nature it almost has to be (where film doesn’t.)  Also, during the 80s (in particular) mainstream comics were still on the precipice of achieving a more realistic coloring style and were still shackled by the garish color conventions that printing had to offer at the time.  Where the film takes these cues and relishes in them, is when I believe it becomes a misinterpretation of the limitations of the medium.  It has to be very difficult as an artist to keep yourself from picking the absolutely perfect moments to draw in a comic.  Aesthetically specking this is process an artist normally goes through to make interesting and pleasing artwork.   To a degree this can translate to film in general, but it’s only one choice of many to convey particular moods and tone.   For whatever beauty there is in the grittiness and violence in the original Watchmen comic, in the picture perfect snapshots of moments and it’s vividly colored world, I think it has to be weighed against how unsettling it was when taken in context of practically every other super hero comic being published at the time.  This beautifully rendered chaos becomes ugly in this comparison.

As for the path not taken with the adaptation (that I alluded to above), another key factor of the original comics are their deconstruction of the super hero mythos within comics in general.  This deconstruction just doesn’t translate well to film because there are too many factors to take into consideration for an audience not steeped in comic history, and it’s too meta (for lack of a better term.)  It won’t work for people who aren’t steeped in these conventions because the concepts aren’t novel to the history of cinema (which obviously wasn’t a concern of Moore when writing the comic.)  Cinephiles and the majority of film goers have been inundated with truly realistic depictions of flawed heroism and the dangers of getting behind anti heroes,a nd honestly I don’t think that audience distinguishes all that much between a character’s chosen occupation.  Flawed cop or caped crusader, it’s all the same to most people.  I believe there was a chance to redirect this deconstruction at a more clearly defined target, the super hero film as a genre in particular.  Sure, the content of this deconstruction would deviate some from the Watchmen source material, but the heart and soul of one of that source material’s original aims would be kept intact.  I truly think that as a piece of “important” literature, the Watchmen’s interpretation of the super hero ladden world is one if it’s crowing acheivements. 

Getting back to the misplaced tone of the film, there are distinct choices to portray certain aspects to the story in a much more grandiose manner that mar the tone.  There is little super heroic fighting in the original comics for instance, and when Synder adapted the material he chose to heighten these moments, turning them into exactly what the original comics were intending to deconstruct and downplay.   Watching Silk Spectre II and Night Owl make an assault on a street gang or a maximum security prison is like watching all of the horribly unrealistic action that is common to films such as the Matrix, X-Men, and Ghost Rider (not to mention that the methodology and consequences of the violence is increased.)  These non-super powered characters are doing truly unrealistic and super powered things like punching through concrete, and throwing people clear across rooms.  Watching Rorschach scale the side of a building evokes the feeling one gets when watching Spiderman do the same thing, and that is a terrible misinterpretation of what the Watchmen is all about.

I will say that incongruous to my feelings on the adaptation above, I loved the change in the ending of the film.  Whereas the giant-squid-alien Macguffins that are used as a doomsday device/deterrent in the original comics are a terribly interesting way of bringing the final outcome of the story to fruition, I am completely blown away by the poetry Snyder managed to squeeze out of the new destructive device.  Having Ozymandias trick Dr. Manhattan into building devices that would emulate his powers of atom level disintegration under the guise of generating a free source of energy is genius.  When the “bombs” go off vaporizing many major cities in the world, both putting into play Ozymandias’ ultimate goal of world peace through banding together against a common foe, and framing Manhattan for this destruction in the process (by using his power’s signature and instrumenting a portion of his loss in humanity and eventual exile from Earth), Snyder effectivly turns Jon Osterman into God, the ultimate deterrent for war.  Synder taking such a stab at Christianity is so much in the vein of what Moore was doing with the original Watchmen comics that it almost makes up for the fast and loose way he handled the build up to the reveal of the story, almost.

I also have to say that again, adaptation issues aside, a good majority of the characters do translate well to screen.  Jackie Earl Haley as Rorschach is amazing (though a tad too emotional when compared to his monotone print counterpart), more so when not wearing the mask.  Patrick wilson’s Night Owl manages to capture the essence of the original character, at some times more convincingly than int he comics.  Some don’t fare so well though, particularly Malin Akerman as Laurie Jupiter.  Her portrayal of the character is too strong and confident, she’s played as a sex bomb and doesn’t seem to be the same broken down dependent character from the original comics.

All in all I still just have to wonder what the point of the whole experience was.

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