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Featured Blu-ray Review: The Mel Brooks Collection

May 20th, 2010

The Mel Brooks Collection - Blu-ray - Buy from Amazon

I know what you are thinking. "The Mel Brooks Collection? Didn't that come out on Blu-ray six months ago?" Yes, it did. And no, I'm not that bad at procrastinating. I'm bad, just not that bad. More recently, three of the films featured in that box set were released on Blu-ray separately, High Anxiety, History of the World, Part I, and Robin Hood: Men in Tights. While I will be doing short write-ups on the other films presented here, this featured review will focus on those three.

Twelve Chairs
Ron Moody stars as Ippolit Vorobyaninov, a Russian noble disposed by the Communist revolution who now he lives his days as a mere clerk. When he learns his mother had sown the family fortune into one of the twelve dinning room chairs, he's off to try and recover the jewels. But he's not the only one looking. There's a con artist, Frank Langella; a priest, Dom DeLuise; and his former servant, Mel Books.
It's only one of three films in this box set that are not based on an original script by Mel Brooks. It is also the earliest in this set and only has the director in a small role. The reviews on Rotten Tomatoes are excellent, but this is one of the weaker efforts here because the film as a whole is a lot more restrained that the style of parody we normally associate with Mel Brooks.
Extras on the Blu-ray are limited to the collection of trailers, which are found on all Blu-rays.

Blazing Saddles
It's Blazing Saddles! If this isn't Mel Brooks' best known film, it is in the top three. It's a parody of Westerns involving corrupt politicians, land deals, etc. In the film, Harvey Korman plays Hedley Lamarr, the corrupt politician in question. He uses the incompetent governor, Governor William J. Lepetomane, to appoint Bart as the first black sheriff ever. He claims it's to help the governor cement his place in history, but in reality he wants the town of Rock Ridge to turn into a lawless hellhole so he can buy it cheap and make a fortune when the railroad is built there.
This film earned amazing reviews, three Oscar nominations, and a win at the WGAs awards. It was also recently added to the National Film Registry. It deserves all these accolades, and more. It's a movie I could watch repeatedly in a single sitting and still want to watch it again. In fact, I now own it on VHS, DVD, and Blu-ray, and if they somehow make it 3D, I'll probably buy that one too.
Extras on the Blu-ray include an audio commentary track with Mel Brooks, a 28-minute long making of featurette, the TV pilot to the Black Bart spin-off, deleted scenes, and the collection of trailers.

Young Frankenstein
I mentioned that Blazing Saddles is arguably Mel Brooks' best know film. Well, this is its main competition. It's a parody of monster movies, specifically Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Gene Wilder stars as Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, a descendant of the infamous mad scientist. He is nearly driven mad every time someone mentions his heritage. Trying to get away from his past gets even more difficult when he inherits his grandfather's estate in Transylvania. Once there he meets Inga, who encourages him to continue his grandfather's work; Frau Blucher, whose very name cause lightning to crash; and Igor, his less than trusty lab assistant. After some initial problems, they are able to revive a corpse of a man who recently died, but due to a problem getting the proper brain, the result is a little monstrous.
While this film didn't earn as much at the box office as Blazing Saddles did, this is arguably the better movie. Both are extremely funny, but this film has a more conventional plot, while Blazing Saddles has the tendency to slip into silliness and fart jokes. I'm not saying that's a bad thing, but it is harder to be funny within a solid plot, so this is the more impressive accomplishment. This film earned two Oscar nominations, two Golden Globe nominations, a WGA nod, etc. It is also a film I could watch over and over again and never tire of.
Extras include an audio commentary track, a trivia track, an isolated music score track, several making of featurettes, deleted scenes, outtakes, interviews, and even an Blucher Button. What's a Blucher Button? You press it and you hear horses whinnying. If you've seen the movie, then that makes sense.

Silent Movie
Mel Brooks stars as Mel Funn, a movie director who is in a bit of a slump. In order to revive his career and protect the small studio he works for, he comes up with a daring plan: make the first silent movie in 40 years. His boss thinks it's a terrible idea, but Mel convinces him that if he can get enough big stars in the movie, then it will be a hit. So he and his two sidekicks, Dom Bell and Marty Eggs, are off on their quest to fill the movie with as many gratuitous cameos as humanly possible.
This is a high concept comedy, which is both a strength and a weakness. It is practically unique in its execution and the humor is amazing, if a little broad at times. That said, it's very episodic in nature and the concept does feel a little stretched thin, even at just over 80 minutes long.
Extras include a trivia track and a 25-minute long "making of" featurette that focuses mostly on the inspirations.

High Anxiety - Buy from Amazon
The first of the three films from the box set that were recently released separately.

Here Mel Brooks stars as Dr. Richard Thorndyke, a newly hired administrator at The Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous; a psychiatric institute where the staff are as crazy as their patients. He's replacing Dr. Ashley, who died of a heart attack, although Brophy, Dr. Thorndyke's driver, thinks it was murder. It was assumed by Dr. Charles Montague that he would have been promoted to the top spot after the death of his boss. The other main doctor at the institute is Dr. Philip Wentworth, who is quite the nervous fellow himself. Leading up the nurses is Nurse Diesel, who could make the most serene person nervous and appears to be the one that is really in charge.

When Dr. Richard Thorndyke arrives, he also meets Professor Lilloman, one of Richard's teachers. Richard was his star pupil. This is also when we learn that Richard is suffering from a psychiatric condition, High Anxiety. But Professor Lilloman promises to help him overcome it.

That's not his only problem, as the more Dr. Richard Thorndyke learns about the institute, the more troubled he becomes. Dr. Ashley was planning big changes before he died, Dr. Philip Wentworth complains about way things are run now, and everyone seems scared of Nurse Diesel. Patients never seem to recover and this includes their most prestigious patient, the millionaire Arthur Brisbane, who thinks he is a cocker spaniel. And after Dr. Philip Wentworth dies under mysterious circumstances, Dr. Richard Thorndyke is even more suspicious.

After traveling to San Francisco, Arthur Brisbane's daughter, Victoria Brisbane, learns the man he met at the institute is not Arthur Brisbane. Now he has to unravel the mystery before it's too late and he becomes the latest victim of the conspiracy.

This film is not quite as successful as the previous two, but still very funny. I think the issue is that it is spoofing a specific filmmaker, Alfred Hitchcock, instead of a genre in general. Because of this, sometimes it feels like Mel Brooks had a checklist of famous scenes in Alfred Hitchcock films that he wanted to lampoon. This does hamper the flow of the film at times, as the jokes can seem haphazard and there isn't a solid story at the core of the movie. However, it is still incredibly funny and has more than enough Mel Brooks silliness to thrive.

Extras on the Blu-ray include a nearly 30-minute long making of featurette, a trivia track, and a feature called The "Am I Very, Very Nervous?" Test. The last extra is an interactive personality quiz you take while watching the movie. By the fourth question it looked like my heart monitor was going to explode.

As far as the film's technical specs go, it's a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand, the film is more than 30 years old, and it looks it at times. It's a bit grainy, the colors are off, the detail levels are not up to today's standard, etc. On the other hand, it's better looking that the most recent DVD release. The sound is clear, but your surround sound speakers will not get a workout. This is not surprising, as the film was not made with 5.1 surround sound in mind, for obvious reasons.

The History of the World, Part I - Buy from Amazon
Next up in the trio of individual releases.

The plot of this movie is... it doesn't have a plot. It's an anthology about the whole of human history from the dawn of man to the French revolution.

The Stone Age
Here we see a group of cavemen deal with their harsh, primitive existence and the creation of the tools they need to survive from fire to weapons. We also see the creation of art and music.

The Old Testament
Just a quick gag, which I won't spoil here.

The Roman Empire
The first section with an actual plot. Comicus, a stand-up philosopher, gets a gig at Caesar's Palace. On his way there, he befriends an Ethiopian slave, Josephus, and a vestal virgin, Miriam. After a run-in with the law, Josephus is hired to work the palace as a wine-bearer. Comicus' set goes poorly when he makes fun of the Emperor's weight and they all end up having to run away.

The Spanish Inquisition
The entire 9-minute bit is a song and dance number, so there's no plot to talk about, but it is arguably the best part of the movie.

The French Revolution
Here Mel Brooks plays duel roles as King Louis of France and one of his lowly servants. One of the lowest of lowly servants. As the peasants are preparing to revolt, one of King Louis' advisors, Count de Monet, tells the king he needs to go into hiding and have Jacques pretend to be him till things cool over, which will obviously cost Jacques his head.

Coming Soon
The film ends with a series of short sight gags from Hitler on Ice to Jews in Space.

Overall the film is hit and miss, as are almost all anthology type films. Unfortunately, the longest bit, The Roman Empire, is also the weakest. It runs out of steam about halfway through. On the other hand, The French Revolution is very funny and the song for The Spanish Inquisition is hilarious and the musical number is has such pageantry.

There is an 11-minute featurette on Mel Brooks' music and not just this movie, but for his whole career. There is a 10-minute making of featurette, and finally a trivia track with real history tidbits.

This is a much better looking film than High Anxiety, while the sound is solid, but still not challenging to your home theater system.

To Be or Not to Be
A remake of the 1942 film of the same name. This one stars Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft, who play married actors, Frederick and Anna Bronski, in Poland during the early days of World War II. He's a self-important ham and she's a flirtatious actress who starts an affair with a young pilot, Lieutenant Andrei Sobinski. When Germany invades, Frederick doesn't care, as long as it doesn't interfere with his acting career. However, over his initial objections, the theater becomes a hiding place for Jews, but no good deed goes unpunished and quickly they are in trouble with the Nazis and they have to find a way to get themselves and all the Jewish (and Gay) refugees to the safety of the west.
In 1980 Mel Brooks created Brooksfilms, a production company set up to handle more dramatic works he wanted to produce, because he felt like having his name listed as producer would make people assume the film would be a comedy. Brooksfilms did make some comedies, but it also made The Elephant Man, The Fly, etc. To Be or Not to Be does have a lot of comedy, but it is by far the most dramatic film in this set. This is both a strength and a weakness. It's quite jarring to go from the baked beans scene in Blazing Saddles to this film dealing with the persecution of Gays by the Nazis (the first Hollywood film to deal with this subject). The film earned an Oscar nomination for Charles Dunning, while the film earned two Golden Globe nominations and a WGA nod.
There is a 15-minute featurette on the relationship between Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft, who were married for 40 years till her death in 2005. It's touching and absolutely worth checking out. On the other hand, the three-minute archival featurette is mostly fluff. Finally, things wrap up with a trivia track.

President Skroob is the leader of Planet Spaceball, which is in crisis because it has run out of air. He sends Lord Dark Helmet aboard Spaceball One to Planet Druidia to kidnap Princess Vespa to force her father, King Roland to hand over their air. King Roland enlists the help of Lone Starr and his copilot Barf the Mog. Normally these two are too cautious to go after the Spaceballs, but they owe a lot of money to Pizza the Hutt and are desperate. So they are off to save Princess Vespa and her robot servant, Dot Matrix, but in the process they crash upon the Moon of Vega where they meet the all-powerful Yogurt, the master of the Schwartz. After discovering their location, Lord Dark Helmet arrives to kidnap Princess Vespa and now Lone Starr has to confront Lord Dark Helmet to rescue her.
When this movie was first released, its reviews were only mixed. However, ironically, what hurt the film back in 1987 helps the film now. Back in 1987, a lot of critics complained that the movie wasn't timely enough because it was spoofing Star Wars and at the time the last film had come out four years previously. Many critics said that was just too long ago. On the other hand, now it feels a lot more timeless. It has a solid plot to go with the parody and the rapid-fire style of comedy ensures that if you didn't like the last joke, you won't have to wait long for one you will like. And you will like most of them.
Extras on the Blu-ray start with an audio commentary track with Mel Brooks, there is a 30-minute making of featurette, a 20-minute interview featurette, a memorial for John Candy, you can watch the movie in Ludicrous Speed and that takes about 20 seconds, there are "Film Flubs" that are mistakes that made it to the end cut of the movie, a finally storyboard to film comparisons.

Robin Hood: Men in Tights - Buy from Amazon
The final recent Blu-ray release, which was likely timed to take advantage of Robin Hood's theatrical debut.

The film stars with Robin of Loxley, a.k.a. Robin Hood, locked in a prison after he was captured during the Crusades. He escapes with the help of Asneeze with the promise that when he returns to England, he will take care of Asneeze's son, Ahchoo. Once he does return, he finds that Prince John has taken over the crown. It is up to Robin Hood to raise a band of Merry Men, defeat Prince John, and save Maid Marian.

This is the pretty standard re-telling of the Robin Hood myth, just with some of Mel Brooks's brand of humor added in. He didn't come up with the script and only helped polish up the script that was co-written by J.D. Shapiro, the man who wrote the screenplay for Battlefield Earth. In comparison, this movie is Oscar worthy, but it is still the weakest in this set. The jokes are hit and miss with a few that are 'borrowed' from earlier movies. In some cases ("It's good to be king!") it works. Other times, it just feels lazy. Also, the joke density is well below average for Mel Brooks and jokes that miss tend to go on way too long. It's not a terrible movie, it's just average. So very average.

Extras include an audio commentary track, a 13-minute making of featurette that focuses mostly on the cast, and a 26-minute making of featurette that's less specific. Both are worth checking out.

Looking at the film's High Definition presentation, it's the best looking of the group, but generally speaking, any film made before the dawn of DVDs probably won't look that great on Blu-ray. Not unless the studio went out of their way to remaster the film. Color detail is great, there's very little grain, and the overall picture pops. The audio is also stronger than most of the other films. The dialogue is clear and there's better use of the surround speakers than the other two recent Blu-ray releases.

The Verdict

While not every film in The Mel Brooks Collection is a hit, for fans of the director, they are all worth checking out and even if you are being stingy, more than enough are worth picking up that it is better to buy the box set than to buy the Blu-rays individually.

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