The Ultimate Matrix Collection
Gift Guide 3:
Books, Music, & DVDs
Desert Island, Defiant Barflies — The Complete Cartoons of The New Yorker: 79 years of classic gags. By Brian Miller
From MOMA to Moaning — With 30 Porn-Star Portraits, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders sheds new light on the world's oldest obsession. By Tim Appelo
Scarecrow With Brains — Seattle video institution Scarecrow finally delivers a book as idiosyncratic and opinionated as it is. By Brian Miller
Only the Best — When only the best will do, give greatest hits. By Keith Harris
A Chorus Line — Books about pop music work best when they mix it up.By Michaelangelo Matos
Tokyo Calling — If you can't trek to Japan to load up on comics art and DVD anime, here's a shortcut. By Roger Downey
DVD Boxes — From Felicity and The OC to John Cassavetes' greatest, um, hits, plus Elf for the kids.
For once, the title is fairly accurate in this Wachowski overload box set— it surely is the "ultimate" such collection, because there surely won't be any more Matrix spin-offs outside the video-game arena. The brothers saw to that; after their groundbreaking 1999 original, the trilogy took a swan dive into a shallow Dixie cup, dashing the expectations of network administrators, IT professionals, and recovering D&D addicts worldwide. Just when they'd been given new hope, like Neo, all that glorious system architecture of part one collapsed into a familiar mishmash of shoot-'em-ups and Christlike self-sacrifice. Everything new was old again.
But this 10-disc set comes to praise the Wachowskis, not to bury them. And short of refunding our money for Reloaded and Revolutions, it does about all any Matrix fan could ask of the franchise. You get all three films with dual commentaries on each; 35 hours of extras and production minutiae not contained on earlier DVDs; and the neat Animatrix compilation of nine shorts written by the brothers and executed by various animation masters—which almost eases the disappointment of parts two and three.
As always, Larry and Andy are conspicuously absent from their creations (apart from an inane introductory essay to the accompanying booklet). To their credit, however, they've originated a feature that should be standard on all DVD releases—a negative commentary track (!), here from critics, to offset the standard rah-rah-ism of ordinary studio extras. Thus we have Variety's Todd McCarthy, film scholar David Thomson, and John Powers (from SW sister publication L.A. Weekly) at the roundtable, discussing what went wrong after everything started out so right.
One reason, Powers notes, is that so many TV commercials (and other films) have ripped off the original's special effects to the extent that they almost seem banal five years later. Then there's the shaky philosophical regress of how the future came to be so fucked up—through humanity's neglect or stupidity, presumably. The Matrix "fits the teenage mind perfectly," says Powers. "Grievance without responsibility," Thomson chimes in. Neo, the innocent über-teen hacker, is simply born into an already broken world in order to redeem it. Thanks a lot, Mom and Dad.
But it's not entirely a rag-fest. The three critics have plenty of nice things to say about the franchise—and in more direct terms than the second commentary with Cornel West and another academic. And darned if the entire damn DVD set doesn't inspire at least one profound philosophical question: When will the Wachowskis get around to making another movie? BRIAN MILLER
John Cassavetes: Five Films
As The Nation'sStuart Klawans notes in one of the 16 wonderfully illuminating essays accompanying this gorgeously designed box, it's utterly ironic that Cassavetes films should be treated to the museum-quality feats of restoration Criterion is famous for. What the mad Greek is famous for is howling defiance of Hollywood perfectionism. He is the least visual director in history; his sets were lit like handball courts, and if the actors crashing around therein fell repeatedly out of focus, or blocked the star's face in a crucial soliloquy, or collided with the cameraman and fucking killed him dead as a Chinese bookie, he would insist on letting the camera roll on the sacred event, actors plunging to the molten core at the center of their characters, "waiting with great faith and apprehension," as Cassavetes says, "for this miracle to take place."
In fact, the miracles do look better with the Criterion treatment: Every scary pore of actor John Marley's pockmarked face is as crisp as the Voyager pictures of the coruscating craters of Jupiter's moons. More important, these eight discs and 68 pages of scholarship clarify one of the most bewilderingly obscure auteurs who ever lived. You get a five-film fist in the face of the studios: the 1959 improvisational riff on sex and race, Shadows; the Oscar-magnet 1968 masterpiece about marriage, Faces; 1974's A Woman Under the Influence, the greatest mad scene in movie history; both the 1976 and 1978 versions of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and the weirdly stagy 1977 Opening Night. Plus, there are two major bio-documentaries; hours of interviews with Cassavetes' wife and greatest actor, Gena Rowlands, and the also great Lynn Carlin, Seymour Cassel, Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, Sean Penn, Jon Voight, and John Sayles; and every single thing the most rabid fan could want (except Husbands, which probably should've replaced Opening Night). Even Criterion has seldom, if ever, gone this all-out for a director. It's not a box set, it's a film school.
Five Films demolishes the myth that Cassavetes' movies were mostly improvised—almost all dialogue was scripted, and what the cast was doing for 52 takes per 10-minute scene was daredevil exploration of the words' possibilities. The characters' emotional resonance was all that mattered. Plot, rhythm, mise-en-scène—the whole bag of movie tricks was put out with the trash. Cassavetes invented plenty of new tricks, helpfully explicated here: slapping Carlin's face and ordering her not to cry, to get the required silent, stifled shriek in Faces, or impersonating a dead chicken on the dinner table to shake Rowlands and Voight. A startling amount of time-capsule truth about '60s and '70s American domestic life comes through thereby, but it's all about the moment—and he was obsessed with making every single moment a Moment of Truth.
The collection's experts superbly argue that Cassavetes was like Dylan, Mahler, and Eugene O'Neill; critic David Thomson likens his big smile to a shark's. This revelatory set makes me think of that smile as the front of a runaway train. His collisions with actors were dangerous, and produced only two or three great films, but despite his epochal influence (on Scorsese especially), there was, and is, nobody remotely like him. TIM APPELO
The OC: The Complete First Season
My life beforeThe OC: forlorn, meaningless. My life after The OC: fulfilled, content.
I have become one of those girls that I love to hate. Yes, I too was once an OC-hater. That is, until this assignment landed on my desk. Bad-boy Chino native Ryan Atwood (Benjamin McKenzie) moves in with the Cohens, a ridiculously rich, humble, hilarious family; sinfully decadent love-triangles (one includes a mother who sleeps with her daughter's 18-year-old ex-boyfriend), traditional OC parties (balls, galas, and fund-raisers), and plenty of familial conflict (Kirsten Cohen's—Kelly Rowan—father is a money-grubbing, two-faced bastard) follow. Every character is a TV-drama archetype writ large and tweaked (in a recent episode, Ryan announced that he'd go over to the corner, sit there, and brood). My favorite is Seth Cohen (Adam Brody), the sarcastic goofball of the bunch; my second-favorite is Melinda Clarke as Julie Cooper, the conniving, money- hungry bitch. Just as crucial are Peter Gallagher as Sandy Cohen, the laid-back mediator of the family, and Marissa Cooper (Mischa Barton), the not-so-innocent girl next door. With 27 episodes and a plethora of extras (including commentary by creator Josh Schwartz and on-screen music track guides for selected episodes), you can hand this over as a seasonal gift and earn your right to the infamous one-liner: "Welcome to The OC, bitch!" MICHELLE REINDAL
Felicity: Junior Year Collection (The Complete Third Season)
You may nowonly remember Felicity Porter as the shy coed with the big fuzzy hair and whispery voice. But this five-disc box (containing the 2000–2001 season) brings it all back: The party-boy makeover of Noel (Scott Foley), Ben's (Scott Speedman) endless father issues (understood with difficulty due to his sexy yet indecipherably husky voice), the title character's (Keri Russell) drunken indiscretions with frat boys, Sean's (Greg Grunberg) testicle troubles, the nasty nose habit (and even nastier boyfriend) of new roomie Molly (Sarah Jane Potts)—and, of course, a few gunshots, stalkers, and sex scenes to spice things up.
The focus of Junior Year seems to be on exploring the group's complex relationships, particularly the tension among Noel, Ben, and Felicity. Fortunately there's also an emphasis on lightening things up with some humor and partying. That's right, Mom and Dad America—the kids actually drink!
The special features are entertaining, particularly a "Docuventary" featuring Greg Grunberg (playing Sean) as he relives his role as the show's official documenter and confidante, although this time he's actually working with the cast, not the characters. Just don't be shocked to find Javier (Ian Gomez) without a flamboyant accent, Felicity with straight dark hair and an air of confidence (Felicity? Confident?), and Ben actually cracking a smile. It'll shock you, but not as much as MAD TV's Felicity farce that also appears under "Special Features." HEATHER LOGUE
There's an awful lot of adult talent here—Will Ferrell as the tickle-fight-adoring elf- out-of-water lead, Godfather drive-by casualty James Caan as his big poppa, Strangers With Candy and Howard Stern Show potty-mouths Amy Sedaris and Artie Lange in support, and ex-Swinger Jon Favreau behind the lens—yet Elf is strictly a candy cane affair. Wide-eyed grade-schoolers are the target audience, not the cynical Daily Show faithful, so the DVD extras are suitably innocuous. Kids can use the remote to play four interactive, Simple Simon video games based on the film, including a Frogger rip-off in which Ferrell has to navigate the treacherous streets of Manhattan without getting flattened. If your little ones aren't too busy eviscerating monsters in Doom 3, they'll adore the Christmas carol karaoke jukebox, flip-along storybook, and DVD-ROM feature where they can photoshop their own elves.
If you're looking for a little more ironic subtext, flip on Ferrell's and Favreau's commentaries or an extended take of the film's lone knockout scene, where Ferrell mistakes a diminutive children's author for an elf and is thrashed about a boardroom. Of course, there are a gazillion making-of featurettes led by Ferrell, who's affable but uninspiring and vague. Hey, rent Anchorman if you want double-entendre lunacy. This one's for the kids. ANDREW BONAZELLI
EDDIE IZZARD CONCERT VIDEOS
It's a sign ofBritain's superior sense of laissez-faire that a guy with a truck driver's face and the body of a sausage can wear makeup and high heels and become a stand-up comedy sensation. And Eddie Izzard isn't even trying to make a statement when, as in 2000's Circle, he trots out in lipstick, leather, and stiletto boots. He just likes to dress that way. Any comparable American comic would have to make drag the basis for his entire act.
Izzard's breezily convoluted comic rambles make Robin Williams, the comedian to whom he's most often compared, look unnecessarily, oppressively manic. Where Williams' hyped-up digressions can feel like he needs such energy to beat an audience into stunned submission, Izzard seems merely to be at relaxed play when he sidesteps over and over again into some gonzo tangent or other. Witness a brilliant bit in Glorious, an evening from 1997's gig at the Hammersmith Apollo in London, in which Izzard, enacting Noah sawing a piece of wood for the ark, notes that the charade and his accompanying sound effects more closely resemble a man slugging a baboon. It's an absurd detour, and Izzard affably mocks himself for taking it by engaging in an argument with the imaginary primate and insisting it stay out of his mimes; the punch-drunk baboon returns minutes later, stumbling into one of Izzard's other jokes.
The routines aren't all random madness. Izzard can direct his merry lunacy into appropriately ridiculous cultural commentary. In 1994's Unrepeatable, a discussion about how advertising has changed over the years leads to a mention of jam made with "free-range fruit—allowed to casually chat to chickens." The same show finds him neatly summing up the message behind the modern commercial: "Look at that. Those two people like it—and they're shagging."
Dress to Kill, his San Francisco concert, is hugely popular, but Izzard's British concerts (which also include Definite Article) have the slight entertainment edge because it's so obvious he's at home. A London concert means he doesn't have to curb his natural slang—Circle's New York club setting does, however, give him a nice opportunity to explain the proper use of "bollocks" to his American audience—though it also requires letting slide foreign references to BBC talking head Dr. Bronowski and his Ascent of Man docu-series. Wherever you find Izzard, you'll find reason to laugh. The extras on these DVDs are negligible, including superfluous trivia and commentary tracks— who needs commentary on commentary? STEVE WIECKING
THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT! TRILOGY BOX SET
The Oscar-winningsuccess of Chicago may well return us to a culture that appreciates movie musicals, though it's doubtful anyone will ever make anything as sublime as the product regularly churned out by MGM in its glory days. That's Entertainment! and its two sequels display a level of artistry completely missing from modern cinema.
The first compendium, released in 1974 to coincide with the studio's 50th anniversary, is the real gem. All the necessary scenes are here—Gene Kelly's transcendent Singin' in the Rain solo, Judy Garland's iconic "Over the Rainbow," et al.—but, as with the later films in the series, it's the less familiar stuff that you can't get enough of: swimmer Esther Williams' fairly hallucinogenic aquatic showstoppers; Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell tapping "Begin the Beguine" in an astoundingly athletic number from Broadway Melody of 1940.
That's Entertainment, Part 2 is more of the same—there's a great novelty number featuring now-forgotten B-player Bobby Van hopping his way through the streets of 1953's Small Town Girl—but somewhat less enthralling because it was obviously made in quick response to the surprise success of the original. The editing is less certain, the inclusion of comedy and drama clips is a mistake, and connecting vignettes featuring an aged Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire plugging through a dopey original number are wince-worthy.
That's Entertainment III is a return to form, featuring rare outtakes. It's made with surprisingly wry humor and even a touch of repentance: Narrator Debbie Reynolds lightly mocks a garish Joan Crawford blackface bit; Lena Horne bemoans the fact that blatant racism affected her opportunities (a delicious number from Cabin in the Sky, featuring Horne cooing "Ain't It the Truth," is finally shown here after studio heads cut it for fear the sight of a black woman in a bathtub would offend public sensibilities).
A fourth disc, Treasures From the Vault, will send musical fanatics to the moon. A video jukebox of deleted scenes features a plush Garland ballad from In the Good Old Summertime. You get to see all of the 25th-anniversary promotional lunch that hauled out every famous name then on the lot. Even the cheesy fluff is great fun: An excerpt from a 1976 episode of The Mike Douglas Show includes a feather-boa'd Ann "Twinkletoes!" Miller rambling on about glamour after a ruefulJanis Paige nonchalantly admits that life at MGM wasn't all that great. It probably wasn't—but man, did it look good. STEVE WIECKING