'The Twelve Chairs' (2/5) - The fun news stories from years past, in my opinion, weren't the lawsuits, controversies, protests, or political mumbo jumbo. Even more interesting than one in a billion odds stories are the ones of great fortunes found in the oddest of places. Take the (multiple) true stories of copies of the Declaration of Independence being found in picture frames or thrift stores. I've even heard stories of people donating clothing to Goodwill-type charities, only to later discover they had stockpiles of cash in them that they had forgotten about, now gone with the wind, unrecoverable.
In the same vein of these types of stories comes one of Mel Brooks' earlier films, his second directing job (the first being 'The Producers'), with a stockpile of jewelry being hidden inside one in a set of chairs. 'Twelve Chairs,' to be precise.
That's the situation Ippolit Vorobyaninov (Ron Moody) finds himself in, with his mother-in-laws family jewels hidden in one of her chairs so as to avoid having them confiscated. After being forced into taking a partner in his search (a slick tongued and young Frank Langella, 'Frost/Nixon'), Vorobyaninov encounters nothing but disaster as his greed gets the best of him. The thing is, there are more folks after the treasure than just the unlikely couple, as Father Fyodor (Dom DeLuise), who visited the dying mother-in-law shortly before Vorobyaninov, has let the prospect of riches change him, as well. It's a race across Russia to find the Hambs of London chair with a small fortune inside.
Based on the novel by Russian writers Ilf and Petrov (under the name "Dvenadtsat stulyev," roughly translating to 'Diamonds to Sit On'), 'The Twelve Chairs' is a fun classic tale of competing forces, with the tiniest hints of what Brooks would later become. Dialogue isn't as strong as would later be on display in the comedian's later films, but flashes of brilliance come from time to time, including one argument between Vorobyaninov and Bender so full of lightning fast repartee so silly one cannot help but laugh. There are also moments of changed speed, with some zany scenery, like the film were out of the Monty Python mold. 'The Twelve Chairs' isn't Brooks at his best (in direction or acting, as he appears in a small bit role), but it certainly has a few good laughs and fun situations.
'Blazing Saddles' (2.5/5) - An Excerpt of the review by Peter M. Bracke
Welcome to the Old West of 1874, Mel Brooks' style. The railroad is coming to California, and standing to gain the most from the transportation revolution is the unscrupulous Attorney General, Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman). Hedley will do anything to get this railroad built, even when its path encounters quicksand and has to be rerouted through the little town of Rock Ridge -- and Hedley must get rid of is entire population. But when the citizens of Rock Ridge demand a new Sheriff to prevent their relocation, Hedley decides to send in the West's first black law enforcer, Bart (Cleavon Little). Needless to say, hell -- and all manner of racial epithets -- soon breaks loose.
That little bit of "plot" description is more or less meaningless, just as trying to summarize a typical episode of 'All in the Family' could properly prepare you for the character of Archie Bunker. With 'Blazing Saddles,' Brooks set out to skewer not race relations but racism itself, and almost entirely at the expense of white stupidity. It is amazing over thirty years later how un-PC 'Blazing Saddles' seems, almost as incendiary as a Michael Moore film only masked as an innocuous parody of old Western movie cliches. Now, I don't want to give Brooks too much credit as some sort of cultural provocateur -- he was as much in love then as he still is now with a good fart joke, and remains above all else an entertainer -- but never has he so straddled the fine line between witty social commentary and naughty schoolboy antics as he did in 'Saddles.'
I was quite taken aback on this first viewing of the film by just how much Brooks got away with in 1974. The word "nigger" is used freely, so much so it is like all those bare breasts in a Paul Verhoeven movie -- after awhile you just become numb to it all. But just when I would think Brooks was taking the easy way out, resorting to racial caricatures for simple shock value or a cheap laugh, he would turn the tables on those in the audience who would most identify with such prejudicial humor. "You've got to remember," comments the Waco Kid (Gene Wilder) at one point about the dim-witted racist townspeople, "that these are just simple farmers; these are people of the land, the common clay of the new West. You know, morons."
That could also be the battle cry for the film's cast as well -- and I mean that as a compliment. It would be far easier to dismiss 'Blazing Saddles' (as well as Brooks' other seminal '70s comedy, 'Young Frankenstein') if it was not for the inspired lunacy its terrific ensemble brings to his often one-note satire. In addition to Little, Korman and Wilder, how can you argue with the likes of Madeline Kahn, John Hillerman, Dom DeLuise, Alex Karras, Brooks himself and Slim Pickens trying to one-up each other for screen time? (Kahn is so good she even earned an Oscar nomination for her efforts.) No, none of this is literate, or even civil, but say one thing about this cast (and I'll probably get killed for this), but they don't so much act as overact. Which helps balance out Brooks' relentlessly juvenile spoofing with some good-natured comic whimsy and genuine humanity.
Unfortunately, for me it still wasn't quite enough to wash away the acidic aftertaste 'Blazing Saddles' leaves in my mouth. I'd like to say unequivocally that 'Saddles' is a slap in the face of racial intolerance, a work of comedic subversiveness that forces us to both confront and laugh at one of our culture's most insidious social ills. But 'Saddles,' like so much racial humor, wants to have it both ways -- to keep us laughing along with its low-brow cheap shots yet still mock the stupidity of it all. On that level it is no better than one of those sleazy early-'80s teen sex comedies, where we are asked to join in with the filmmakers as they oogle naked women for an hour, only to cheer at the end as the female heroes turn the tables and humiliate their pig-headed, horny oppressors. It's as if, because the good guys ultimately win, it doesn't matter what sort of indignities you heap upon them for the duration of the movie.
'Young Frankenstein' (4.5/5) An Excerpt of the review by Peter M. Bracke
Primarily targeting cinematic adaptations of Mary Shelley’s popular nineteenth century novel, ‘Young Frankenstein’ tells the tale of anatomy professor Frederick Frankenstein (longtime Brooks’ fave Gene Wilder), grandson of the infamous Victor Frankenstein, whose dangerous experiments in re-animating the dead went horribly and publicly awry. After inheriting his family’s estate in Transylvania and discovering his grandfather’s secret laboratory, Frederick follows in Victor’s footsteps. With the help of his assistants and house servants -- Inga (Teri Garr), Frau (Cloris Leachman), and Igor (Marty Feldman) -- the newly-mad scientist creates a monster (Peter Boyle) after inadvertently using an abnormal brain to reanimate a reassembled corpse. When the creature inevitably escapes, Frederick has to contend with a German inspector (Kenneth Mars), calm a mounting mob, and find a way to make his monster more human.
Shot in black and white with countless nods and jabs at any 1930s horror classic you can imagine (most of which have since become comedies themselves), ‘Young Frankenstein’ is unrelenting in its parody, exploiting every aspect of the early genre for as many gags as Brooks can muster. Relying on silence as much as dialogue, Wilder and crew weave effortless, exaggerated expressions into their performances and create characters whose thoughts you can almost hear.
Better still, whether it be the relationship between man and monster, the mob mentality of the local townsfolk, the bumbling ironies of Frederick’s assistants, or the throwback musical score, the director and his cast hit every joke and blurb of dialogue as if it’s the last thing they have in their arsenal. In fact, the entire film exhibits a similarly fierce abandon, yet never feels unwieldy or unfocused. Interactions are witty and satirical, the monster sequences single-handedly craft the film into a dazzling farce, and there’s enough tongue-in-cheek humor to leave any comedy fan in stitches.
The only thing left to endure is Brooks’ particular style. Needless to say, if you’ve never enjoyed his setups, punchlines, and mad-hatter physical comedy (you can practically hear a drumset beat out a bah-dump-tiss after most jokes), you’ll probably cringe at ‘Young Frankenstein’ since it’s a decidedly ham-laced comedy. However, if that’s a hurdle you frequently leap without any problem, ‘Young Frankenstein’ is arguably the best Brooks film you’ll ever see. Timeless laughs, acute intelligence, and sharp writing make this one a classic that will always have a special place in the comic catacombs of my brain.
'Silent Movie' (3.5/5) - "Are you crazy? A silent movie in this day and age? Don't you know that slapstick is dead?!"
Much akin to the modern audience's lack of appreciation for black and white cinema, silent film is sadly fading more and more to relative obscurity, with brick and mortar stores not stocking older titles, and television pushing more recent works in order to get more advertising revenue. Classics with intertitles in the place of spoken word were instant relics once talkies came around, leaving some past stars who could not translate in the dust (much like The Buggles' Video Killed the Radio Star).
Leave it to Mel Brooks to make a silent film in the seventies. Instead of lampooning a genre or story, Brooks' 'Silent Movie' was an opportunity to make light of an entire form of filmmaking, to pay homage the silent stars of the past and remind audiences of a bygone era.
Director Mel Funn (Brooks), a washed up director who drank away his success, wants struggling Big Picture Studios to help make a film out of his newest screenplay, a silent movie. After convincing the studio chief (Sid Caesar) that he can bring big name stars into the production, Funn and his associates Bell (Dom DeLuise) and Eggs (the impossible to replace Marty Feldman) set a path throughout Hollywood (the film capital of greater Los Angeles!) to cast their movie. Stars Burt Reynolds, Liza Minnelli, James Caan, Anne Bancroft, the legendary Marcel Marceau, and Paul Newman all cross Funn's path, as does the greedy conglomerate Engulf and Devour, who are out to take over Big Picture Studios, and look to destroy Funn's film in the process.
Silent Movie' is a fantastic love letter to the past; a great mix of silly "dialogue" cards and slapstick comedy. The film lives by the performances of Brooks and Feldman, who steals the show at every turn with his amazingly zany faces and body movements. That isn't a slight to DeLuise's work, he just is little more than a third wheel in this script.
I've always been a fan of Hollywood on Hollywood type films, be they recreations or works of pure fiction, and 'Silent Movie' is one of the better films of the ilk, poking fun at the entire movie making process for more reasons than the outdated thematic tone. That said, it isn't one of Brooks' best films, as he is always at his best with the random inane dialogue that loses a bit of its magic when it interrupts the film to be displayed on a card (with the notable exception of Bernadette Peters hollering Ba-Ba LOO a few times). A silent (save for one line) classic that seems to fly by (even with a miniscule run time), 'Silent Movie' is a worthy addition to this collection.
'High Anxiety' (3/5) - If any director deserves a tribute film of any sort, it would be Alfred Hitchcock. The master of suspense pioneered a great change in dramatic and suspense cinema (for the better), and is unrivaled in the effectiveness of his film library.
If any director deserved to spoof the master, it would be one of the masters of comedy, Mel Brooks, and he did, with 'High Anxiety.' Not a direct parody (as other Brooks films are), 'Anxiety' took to creating an entire world that beckoned of Hitchcockian lore, with many odd references and characters that don't exactly fit together cohesively, but the film, dedicated to the master, certainly shows great admiration (unlike modern parodies which are the worst of insults to any film they spoof).
The inmates aren't running the aslyum...someone even nuttier is! Richard H. Thorndyke (Brooks) is the new administrator of the Psychoneurotic Institute for the Very, VERY Nervous, replacing the deceased/murdered previous head. Things aren't as they seem at the hospital, as the other attendants (including Cloris Leachman as Nurse Diesel, Harvey Korman as Dr. Charles Montague, Dick Van Patten as Dr. Wentworth, and Howard Morris as Professor Lilloman) have secrets and agendas around every corner. Thorndyke accidentally stumbles across a plot involving the inmates, and along with the daughter (Madeline Kahn) of one "tenant," and his driver (Ron Carey), he must overcome his own fears before he saves the day.
One of the strengths of 'High Anxiety' is that, while it has many allusions to Hitchcock's films, it stands on its own two feet. Viewers don't have to be well versed in their classics to get a laugh or have fun, though the enjoyment is sure to double to those in the know.
The cast is superb, with Leachman's Diesel seemingly reminiscent of a twisted evil matriarch, with a light hint of Nurse Ratched, while Korman is still a sniveling manipulative/manipulated fool, much like in 'Blazing Saddles.' Kahn's talents seem wasted on her bit part, but naturally, the star of the show is the leading man, as Brooks does a great job as a psycho psychotherapist.
While fun, funny, and witty, 'High Anxiety' is hardly amazing. The film meanders, and not just due to MacGuffins, sometimes straying too far from comedy in the moments to develop the plot. The suspense element is fairly weak, possibly due to the gags or the homages/references, as well. It's still a perfectly fine film, just not becoming of the master himself.
'History of the World: Part I' (4.5/5) Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition...to be a song and dance number!
I can't imagine a proper introduction to Mel Brooks' 'History of the World: Part I,' I really can't. How does one breach the topic of a film that covers the history of mankind, through a farsical lens? Possibly Brooks' most ambitious film, 'History' is wide reaching, honest, and yet, at the same time, so horribly twisted that it is probably more real than we'd like to believe.
Narrated by one of the greatest men in the history of film, Orson Welles, 'History of the World: Part I' tells the tale of mankind, through numerous historic events, from the dawn of man, a key Biblical moment, to Roman times, the Last Supper and the Spanish Inquisition, to the French Revolution, to possible events in the future. A slanted eye and ability to accept obvious mistruths is required, but for those willing to believe what they see, a great treasure is waiting.
What makes 'History of the World: Part I' different from other Brooks film is tone, in that it has a more serious sense of humor, put into context, of course. This isn't a fish out of water comedy, but a bizarro-world of sorts. What makes it funny is that it is believable, from Cesar's non-chalant half-eaten chicken throw (which has to be the best moment in the film, just for its legitimacy), to the mannerisms of the cavemen, so unaware of the workings of the world around them.
Brooks staples Dom DeLuise, Madeline Kahn, Harvey Korman, Cloris Leachman, Ron Carey, and Rudy De Luca star, while Gregory Hines does a great job with little time to rehearse, an emergency fill in. Multiple actors play numerous roles, including Brooks, who stars in every segment he's in. There is no fluff in the film, as it runs an incredibly taut hour and a half. Frankly, the film is amazing, talking about it is silly, as it's much better to experience it, and with no better way to put it, you'd have to be a eunuch to not get a rise out of the film.
'To Be or Not To Be' (3.5/5) - That is the question!
After Mel Brooks stormed the scene with the brilliant, instant classic Mostel/Wilder starred 'The Producers' (which has to be the saddest exclusion from this box set), the last theme/genre I would have expected the comedy master to traipse down the least would be that of theatrics and drama, but with 'To Be or Not To Be,' Brooks stars and produces (not directs, as Alan Johnson takes that role) a more mature take on stage plays, with a historical twist, set in Poland during the Nazi invasion at the break of World War II.
The Bronski Theatre in Warsaw is the home of Frederick (Brooks) and Anna (Anne Bancroft) Bronski's troupe, as they cover all things theatrical, from Shakespeare to clown fare. When the new play Naughty Nazis is shut down due to political pressure based on the relationship between countries, the end is just beginning for the Bronski theatre. Soon, the Nazis will be the ones calling the shots on what goes and what doesn't on stage, as Bronski has to fight to prove even Shakespeare wasn't Jewish. A treacherous Pole (Jose Ferrer) with a list of the Polish Underground Resistance group forces the Bronskis into mingling with the men occupying their homeland and home, as they fight to save the lives of those they know. The Nazi forces are rounding up the Jews, gays, and gypsies, and to quote Mr. Bronski, "Let's face it, sweetheart. Without jews, fags, or gypsies, there is no theatre!"
The amount of side plots in 'To Be or Not To Be' is monstrous, with Anna's growing desire for infidelity with a young fighter pilot (Tim Matheson) forcing odd pairings between the love triangle, as well as some peculiar situations with Nazi Col. Erhardt (Charles Durning) and his guard (Christopher Lloyd), with everyone and anyone pretending to be someone they aren't. It works quite well for comedic purposes, as the hilariously bad acting Frederick is forced to be believable or cost the lives of those he has supported over the years.
The amount of references/similarities to 'The Producers' (both the original, and the musical remake/reimagining/adaptation) in 'To Be or Not To Be' kept me entertained, as did the amazing performance of Durning (who was nominated for an Academy Award for his role), but the pacing of this tale got to me. This movie may star Brooks, but it's no Brooks film, and it shows, constantly. The cheap and dirty jokes Brooks uses so well in his works are nowhere on display here, despite many obvious opportunities. The film is far more mature than anything Brooks has helmed, and is a quite competent mix of drama and comedy. It just isn't as memorable as the other works in this collection, and may be one of the odd ducks out in this collection.
'Spaceballs' (4/5) - An Excerpt of the review by some jerk named Nate Boss
Brooks' legendary farces are the diamonds in the rough, or, in the case of 'Spaceballs,' the Dark Helmet surrounded by assholes. The Brooks takes on Robin Hood and Frankenstein are cult classics (it's best we not mention his take on Dracula...), while his rub on the Sci-Fi genre holds its own ground, with quirky humor that doesn't date itself, often breaking the rules with its self referential jabs that land like right crosses.
The Spaceballs, led by President Skroob (Mel Brooks), are a mismanaged technological giant who are running out of air, and have devised a plan to acquire 10,000 years worth of air...by stealing it from the peaceful planet of Druidia. The plan springs into action when Princess Vespa (Daphne Zuniga) ditches her own wedding, fleeing with her trusty droid Dot Matrix (voiced by Joan Rivers), quickly falling pray to the waiting Spaceballs on their gigantic mother ship, the Spaceball One. A drifter, Lone Starr (Bill Pullman), his trusty companion mog (half man, half dog, he's his own best friend) Barf (John Candy), and their flying Winnebago, the Eagle 5, are called to rescue the princess, leading them into a fight between idealistic and naive good, and jaded, short-sighted evil. Can Lone Starr outsmart and out-will the evil Dark Helmet (Rick Moranis), save the girl, and save the planet?
Brooks' previous work, 'The History of the World, Part I,' hinted in closing at an upcoming feature: "Jews in Space," and 'Spaceballs' is definitely the closest we'll ever see to that gag ever coming to fruition. The staple Brooks Jewish and Nazi jokes (including a Spaceball soldier proclaiming "Jawohl, Lord Helmet" at one point, or the Hitler mustache on the stunt double, and an entire character that plays like a more-Jewish Yoda) are more than obvious, as is the classic Brooks style.
While the film (especially the characters) is obviously most influenced by 'Star Wars,' 'Spaceballs' lampoons many other sci-fi films of the times, from 'Alien' to some ever so brief stabs at the 'Star Trek' and 'Planet of the Apes' sagas in a less than veiled manner. Subtlety was never one of Brooks' strong suits, and 'Spaceballs' is a testament to that. High brow humor can be found, while the low brow assortment is around many a corner, from "lightsabers" thrusting forward from the pelvic region, to the constant awful puns and silly bits of wordplay.
'Spaceballs' succeeds in my eyes for many reasons. It never gets old, or boring, in repeat viewings. It is one of the few comedies that I've found to get funnier with repeat viewings, inducing more laughter, rather than a blank gaze. The casting is spot on, with great comedic timing, especially a gut busting, hilarious performance by Moranis. Even the moments that pull the audience from the film, such as staring into the camera, or breaking the third wall, come off as funny. While not a perfect film, 'Spaceballs' is certainly a perfect farce of the sci-fi genre, and a must own title for any comedy collection.
'Robin Hood: Men in Tights' (4/5) - "We're men (manly men!), we're men in tights (yes!)."
Of all the Mel Brooks films to connect to in the budding years of my film obsession, 'Robin Hood: Men in Tights' may have been the perfect fit for me. Released when I was in the 5th grade, the film became a mainstay any time I was around a television, as I could find it playing on some channel every week, back when having less than one hundred channels was normal.
While the Disney animated iteration of the character had been my favorite up to that life changing moment I discovered 'Men in Tights,' in recent years, I think back to that classic and I laugh, as all I can picture are furries (you know, people who dress in ridiculous animal costumes and yiff), rather than the tale being told in such a fun and family friendly manner. Did Brooks warp my fragile little mind, or did I finally grow up, and come to appreciate live action versions of stories over the hand drawn versions inundated upon me in my youth?
It doesn't matter, really, as my favorite Robin Hood is a send off, a parody, in classic Brooks fashion. After coming home to Britain from the Crusades, Robin of Loxley (Cary Elwes in the role I can't imagine him as anything other) has found his beloved land changed, his family dead, and the ruling class a twisted version of its former self. Prince John (Richard Lewis) is taxing the land into poverty, while his enforcer, the evil Sheriff of Rottingham (Roger Rees), has a no nonsense, no survivors mentality for any who stray from the path. Forming allegiances with the common men of the land, including Ahchoo (a young Dave Chappelle), Little John (Eric Allan Kramer), Will Scarlet O'Hara (Matthew Porretta), Friar Tuck (Brooks), and family (blind) servant Blinkin (Mark Blankfield), Robin sets out to put an end to the injustice, right the wrongs, end the tyranny, restore the throne, protect the forest, introduce folk dancing, and win the heart of the fair Maid Marian (Amy Yasbeck).
Since I only became a fan of 'The Princess Bride' in my adult years, my adoration for Elwes centered on this role, and this role alone. I found it silly to want to be anything other than this character. He's cool, confident, sarcastic, a great singer, an even better archer and sword fighter, he gets the girl, saves the day, and is a fantastic mix of cockiness and hilarity. Quicker with a battle of the wits than he is a battle of blades (though he's quite fast at those, as well), this Robin Hood may be a man of the people, but he isn't the fearless leader with a heart of gold, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. He's a smarmy Generation X'er in the 12th century, much like those played out fish out of water tales ('A ________ in King Arthur's Court,' where the blank can be anything you want it to be).
Robin is not the only skewed character here. The evil sheriff is more dyslexic than he is cruel, while his sniveling leader has a moving mole much akin to Igor's hump in 'Young Frankenstein' (a less than hidden self reference). Robin's band of merry men is as inept as they get, with each character having glaring deficiencies that are only compensated due to the fact that everyone else around them are even more ridiculous. The Friar Tuck may be the most twisted of all men, though, as Brooks brings to life the once innocent man, who now makes a living as a mohel, wondering about the sexuality of Robin's merry men before offering to nip their tips.
Yasbeck, the widow of the under-appreciated John Ritter, is at the height of her beauty here, with her chastity belt adding to her sensual allure. Tracy Ullman (as Latrine, the resident witch/cook) also is at her physical best, in her limited appearance. The roll call of stars doesn't end with the main cast, as Dom DeLuise, Dick Van Patten, Patrick Stewart, and Isaac Hayes all provide laughs in cameos as random as the film itself.
As much as I love this film (and I do, I really do), it suffers a bit already due to some issues with its age. Jokes involving pump sneakers are about as lost as any joke can be, while imitation 'Home Alone' screaming is beyond cliche, Arsenio Hall-esque woof woof woofing is as forgotten as Arsenio Hall himself, and the wave (and the chop) chants in crowds just never were funny, not when the film was first released, and definitely not now.
Still, it's hard to call any film with the Men in Tights song and dance number (try telling me that scene is anything short of hilarious, I dare you) anything but brilliant. Brooks isn't at the top of his game, but he's damn close with the fantastic bridge staff fight, transition to musical midway through the film (with two song numbers packing the absurd laughs) only to get "serious" again, and his take on the "greatest treasure in all the land." Past Brooks film gags are kindly nudged in this classic parody film, back when the genre was more than just throwing together scenes with no rhyme or reason and calling it a day.
The Disc: Vital Stats
'The Mel Brooks Collection' contains nine Blu-ray discs, with eight BD50's and one BD25 ('Blazing Saddles'). 'Spaceballs,' 'Blazing Saddles,' and 'Young Frankenstein' are all recycled discs, as they are identical to their standalone versions. The other discs in this set are brand new to Blu-ray.
The set is packaged in a sturdy slide-out box, with two books inside. First, there's a 120 page booklet detailing each film, full of stories and photos (both production and behind the scenes). This book is nothing short of awesome, as it is funny, interesting, and is sturdily constructed. The disc book? Not so much. Each page is made of somewhat thin paper, with four pages holding two discs side-by-side, and another on its own page. The pages are held to the spine with some kind of magic, as if you open the book too far, you can remove pages, and closing it can put a page or two out of alignment, sticking out from the book. Let's just say this packaging made me wish the set went with slimline Blu-ray cases for each release, much like the DVD set did. I honestly wish the book was removed in favor of individual packaging.
'The Twelve Chairs' (3.5/5) - Presented with an AVC MPEG-4 1080p encode, 'The Twelve Chairs' certainly looks like the oldest film in this box set (and it is). That isn't necessarily a bad thing, as much of the age can be told by the aesthetic of the film. Sadly, the print has a fairly constant dirt and scratch presence, far more than any other titles included. There is a hefty grain (though nowhere near as hefty as some shows have, like 'Burn Notice'), that is quite thick, but it doesn't deter detail, which is actually much stronger than some of the other entries. Flashbacks have a distinct appearance, with a strong haze and ghosting effect, which are the points of said scenes, not a detracting element of the transfer. Backgrounds are blurry sometimes, while there were some very soft shots thrown in the mix. Edges are clean, while colors and skin tones are solid and natural. A solid release for an older (almost forty years old!) film.
'Blazing Saddles' (4/5) - 'Blazing Saddles' is your prototypical '70s film. It has that slightly rustic yet film-like appearance that is just dripping with nostalgia. Yet colors are quite vivid, with surprisingly little grain even on traditionally problematic hues like reds and dark blues. It is also fairly sharp, if certainly lacking by today's standards. I could detect more subtle details on the Blu-ray compared to the standard DVD transfer, especially long shots and tight close-ups, which more realistically reproduce fine textures like skin tone and fabrics. However, there are still some dirty shots throughout (usually anything involving special effects, such as matte shots and the opening credits), but it is still well above par for a film of this vintage.
'Young Frankenstein' (4/5) - The Blu-ray edition of ’Young Frankenstein’ features an excellent 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer that thoroughly outclasses and outshines its standard DVD counterpart. The black and white source has undergone a thorough remastering, resulting in a clean image, inky blacks, and bright whites. Mid-range grays look fantastic as well, giving the picture convincing depth and dimensionality. Best of all, detail is sharp and textures have been rendered with the utmost care. A handful of shots are softer than the rest, but I never got the impression that it should be attributed to anything other than the original print. Likewise, grain fluctuates from shot to shot, but it’s obviously the result of the director’s intention rather than a nefarious issue with the transfer. If I have any technical complaint, it’s that contrast isn’t as consistent as I would have liked to see.
Despite the quality of the transfer, fans should brace themselves for the increased scrutiny that a high-def presentation brings to the film -- weak make-up applications, obvious prosthetic seams, and costume mishaps may as well have giant PiP arrows pointing at them. Nitpicking aside, I was relieved to find that the image didn’t suffer from any substantial artifacting, noise, edge enhancement, or DNR. ‘Young Frankenstein’ doesn’t look better than the jaw-dropping remaster of ‘Casablanca,’ but it comes pretty close in several scenes. You won’t be disappointed.
'Silent Movie' (4/5) - Looking at the 1080p AVC MPEG-4 transfer for 'Silent Movie,' it's hard to believe the film is already thirty three years old.
Colors are natural and earthy, neither overblown or dull, with perfect skin tones that are constant and even. Detail is solid, though not all that spectacular, with the detail in surroundings coming through clearly (though never popping). Whites are clean, while black levels are natural and quite acceptable. Grain is realistic but not excessive, while there is no signs of banding, DNR, or any edge tampering. There are a few scratches here and there, but the print is otherwise quite clean, and is sparkling considering its age.
'High Anxiety' (3/5) - With an AVC MPEG-4 1080p encode at the natural 1.85:1 ratio, 'High Anxiety' looks quite decent, but won't earn any high scores from me. The opening stock footage is abysmal with soupy grain and artifacts, but the rest of the film (not counting stock footage and horrible matte paintings) is quite clean, with little noticeable grain and no apparent compression issues. There is a fair speckling of dirt and debris, and some light scratches, but they are somewhat ignorable. What isn't ignorable in this transfer is the light ringing and black levels that are more than just a hair too bright. The picture jumps between fairly sharp to not sharp at all, especially in facial features (particularly puzzling is the case of Nurse Diesel's disappearing mustache). Skin tones are natural throughout the film, though. The transfer is passable, but with the soft contrast and dull colors, it isn't pretty by any means.
'History of the World: Part I' (3.5/5) - With a 2.35:1 AVC MPEG-4 1080p transfer, 'History of the World: Part I' benefits from the jump to high definition, though not as drastically as other releases in the set.
From the start, in dark cave shots in the early man sequences, delineation issues pop up, with sparse shadow detail. The rocks in the sets have fine detail, as does the sandy ground the actors trod along. Aliasing is not an issue, even in the large blocks of Rome. Whites are clean, while colors are natural, if not slightly subdued. The picture is quite deep, to boot.
Not all is well, though, as some shots have a hazy/soft appearance along the edges, slightly reminiscent of 'The Final Countdown,' while other shots have serious haloing issues, so thick and dark that they cannot be missed. Brightness can flutter in shots, while matte paintings stand out due to their dullness compared to the rest of the picture. Soft shots are occasional, though few and far between, while dirt is kept to a minimum. A solid transfer, though far from sparkling.
'To Be or Not To Be' (2.5/5) - To look good, or not to look good, that's the question here. The 1080p AVC MPEG-4 transfer does a fine job with the material, but it seems there just isn't much room to work with on this one. Blacks are appropriate, super inky in night skies (possibly the highlight of the video), with nice definition in and out of the spotlight on stage. Skin tones are a bit too bright often, even in shots without a spotlight, and colors bleed a tad. There's some light ringing to be found, which coupled with the fact that fine detail is never on display, is a low blow. The picture is clean, sparklingly so, and artifacts aren't an issue either, but this may be one of the lower points in the set.
'Spaceballs' (2.5/5) - So, 'Spaceballs,' at last we meet on Blu-ray again for the first time for the last time. I had high hopes for you, being what I'd consider one of the best farces out there. You're much closer to a horse faced spacedog than a Druish princess!
Presented in an AVC MPEG-4 encode, 'Spaceballs' misses more often than it hits. When I saw the great three dimensional star movement in the opening crawl, I thought my fears were for naught. Then the rest of the film played.
That's no moon...that's a shitload of debris! Dirt and vertical scratches splatter the screen at a regular (and frequent) pace, Effects work is less than transparent..it's aged almost as poorly as Brooks himself! Schwartz effects are surrounded by a thick discolored outline, composite shots look awkward as all get out (more on that later), noise splotches appear from time to time around effects, the lines stars create as they pass in Hyperactive mode pass through characters, wires from Schwartz effects are obvious, and the painted panels beneath "floating" vehicles stand out like a sore thumb. This could be argued both ways, however, I'm thankful to see it, as that means I'm obviously seeing an improvement over the DVD.
Not too much of an improvement, though. Color banding in the Druidia air shield is noticeable, minor halos surround characters from time to time, and in general, shots lack that extra bit of detail. It's somewhat dull, really. In some shots in the flying Winnebago, a flat, unflattering image of the vehicle and Lone Starr sits aside a sharp, infinitely deep black space, a bit of a two toned appearance. Shots on the moon of Vega are awkward, with indescript sand dunes resembling tan blobs, and fluttering skies with color fade at each end. Clothing detail is often lacking, as is finer facial detail. This is possible post production tampering, or just a soft "blah" looking picture. One would think with Lone Starr constantly sporting a thick stubble, it would be occasionally clear, rather than a light brown/grey blur. One would think.
There are some positives to be found here. The white fur in Barf's face sticks out in a manner that neither DVD release ever showed. Dot's surfaces have a nice reflection at times, and whites are clean. Lone Starr's worn and withered jacket is the strongest looking costume element. Lastly, extreme close ups (and I do mean extreme) are sharp, as each time a tightly framed shot on a hand holding something pops up, it steals the show. Yeah, that doesn't really sound all that good, when you think about it....
'Robin Hood: Men in Tights' (3.5/5) - 'Men in Tights' has an AVC MPEG-4 1080p transfer at the 1.85:1 window that does the film great justice. Skin tones are natural, even in the opening shots that sport super bright flames in the immediate background. Grain is intact, though it occasionally fluctuates in darker shots. It does not appear scrubbed, or frozen, though some dirt and scratches can permeate shots annoyingly.
Black levels are appropriate (though not too deep), with satisfying delineation that keeps depth and detail in shadows where they belong. Edges are natural, while banding and artifacting are non-issues. Detail levels are improved, though some shots come off blurry, especially with the sometimes shaky camera bouncing murking things up. Backgrounds are always a mess, though Stray hairs pop, even at a distance, and are quite impressive (one of my favorite bits of the transfer, to be honest), while a few scenes show clear dander floating through the room. Brightness levels can fluctuate mid-scene, which is quite frustrating.
The picture isn't very deep, clothing fabric jumps between clear and muddled, and greens in grass come through a bit nuclear in brightness. Still, since I was expecting worse (from all my viewings in the past lowering my expectations), I was still pleasantly surprised here. This transfer is passable, for a film that will never look all that amazing.
'The Twelve Chairs' (2/5) - There are two English sound options for 'The Twelve Chairs;' the default lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix, or the original Dolby Digital Mono recording. Purists will go the route of the natural recording, but there truly isn't that much difference between the two tracks, other than clarity, which is a necessity, as even in lossless the film is a bit less than clear. The score starts in the center channel, but eventually spreads to every speaker in the room. Bass use is non-existant, but that's not really a gripe for a film of this age. Dialogue levels feel off, sometimes too loud, other times far too soft, especially in comparison to the score. There's a light bit of distortion to the spoken word, to boot. Some lines start out powerful and mid-sentence drop in volume dramatically, an issue that repeats itself a few times. Some crowd noise hits all speakers, but it is sparse at best. I don't mind the fact that this recording stays in the front channels far more often than not, but I do mind that it is riddled with problems.
'Blazing Saddles' (3.5/5) - Unlike the HD DVD release of 'Blazing Saddles,' which contained a Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 Surround track, the Blu-ray version is presented in standard Dolby Digital. But remember that both are encoded at the exact same bitrate of 640kbps, and the Blu-ray format doesn't require the use of Dolby Digital-Plus anyway, except for recordings that utilize more than six channels (such as a 6.1 or 7.1 mix). Audio formats aside, in all honestly the selling point of either the Blu-ray or HD DVD release is not the film's soundtrack. 'Blazing Saddles' was remixed back in 2003 along with the image restoration, and it was certainly a huge improvement over the terrible mono soundtracks that had been floating around on home video for years. Though still, there is little the Dolby Digital-Plus soundtrack included here can offer above and beyond the Dolby Digital track on the previous standard DVD release.
The biggest improvement versus the standard DVD is the soundtrack's increased dynamic range. Though still dated in sound, mid-range is surprisingly robust, and highs largely free of the tinniness you usually get with '70s-era soundtracks. Low-end remains flat, however, and the .1 LFE hardly offers much oomph. Surround use is also next to non-existent, with the rears hardly ever activated throughout the film's 93-minute runtime. On the plus side, stereo separation across the front channels is quite good, with some noticeable pan effects, especially on the many amusing songs Mel Brooks composed for the film.
'Young Frankenstein' (3.5/5) - ’Young Frankenstein’ lumbers onto Blu-ray with options for progressive fans and purists alike: a newly remixed DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track and a faithful remix of the film’s original mono. While each track is challenged by thirty-four years of age, each one manages to impress on its own terms. Both offer crisp and intelligible dialogue, reliable prioritization, and increased soundscape clarity. The lossless surround track takes things a step farther with some decent LFE support, precise (albeit sparse) detail in the rear speakers, and a balanced and multi-channel presentation of the film’s musical score. Even so, the DTS HD audio is quite front-heavy -- even for a remixed surround track -- and oftentimes sounds as if its designers wanted to be as true to the original mono as possible. While their design philosophy didn’t bother me in the slightest, I imagine there are audiophiles out there who will read “DTS HD Master Audio 5.1” and expect far more than this remix actually delivers.
Regardless of which track you choose to listen to, the results speak for themselves. ‘Young Frankenstein’ will never turn heads or wake the kids, but Fox has paid respect to the original source and given us a pair of faithful tracks that focus on the film rather than your receiver’s various bells and whistles.
'Silent Movie' (3.5/5) - 'Silent Movie' has two audio options, defaulting to a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix, with the original Mono track available in Dolby Digital. Dialogue is....non existent, really! The one line in the film has a bit of feedback behind it, though it is certainly clear and understandable. The fun and whimsical John Morris score is lively through the channels, with plenty of nice high ends that don't sound shrill even in the slightest. Bass levels are absolutely miniscule, but a light presence can be heard, barely. A passable track, that really couldn't have been any better.
'High Anxiety' (2.5/5) - Presented with a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix (with the original stereo mix available in lossy), 'High Anxiety' is a passable but not memorable by any means in the audio department. Dialogue is crisp and clear, with a constant volume level that leaves no line in the dust. The mix is incredibly front heavy, but noise mixes quite nicely, with no fighting between elements for dominance. Score bleed is somewhat light in the rears, but it also stays front and center throughout. There's no real localization or movement effects in this mix, so don't expect 'em.
'History of the World: Part I' (3/5) - With a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix (along with a pile of Mono tracks in varying languages, including English), 'History of the World: Part I' is more or less passable, nothing to get excited about.
The opening moments of score had my hopes up, but they quickly came crashing down as the sound built, with no bass to be found. Trumpets in the title sequence were robust, thankfully, not shrill. Dialogue is comprehendible for the most part, though Moses' lines sound muffled from time to time. Ambience is light, and far too low, considering how crowded many scenes are, especially in Rome. There's no rear activity to speak of, even in the most crowded of rooms or streets. There were a few moments of localization spread across the sound stage to justify calling this track a 5.1 mix. 'History of the World: Part I' is no frills, and somewhat cheap sounding, even for its age.
'To Be or Not To Be' (3/5) - "Ladies and gentlemen, in the interest of clarity and sanity, the rest of this movie will not be in Polish!"
With a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix (as well as a pile of Mono tracks and a Portuguese 5.1 dub), 'To Be or Not To Be' is one of the least impressive sounding titles in this release. While the score is nicely split throughout the speakers, the film doesn't stray from the front channels. Applause from audiences all stays in the front, which is awkward when the camera puts the audience in the middle of, well, the audience. The music blends nicely, especially on stage, with singing, song, and even footsteps on stage all maintaining clarity. There's a light bit of feedback in some dialogue, and a few pops when it gets heated, but is always understandable. Bass levels pop when the film switches to stock footage momentarily, but is otherwise devoid of rumble. There's some light movement with the plane, which moves across the room...quite...slowly. While certainly not a new film, 'To Be or Not To Be' is somewhat put to shame by the mixes on the other films in this set.
'Spaceballs' (3/5) - With a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix (in addition to a massive amount of dubs in varying audio formats), 'Spaceballs' sounds clearer than ever, but also highlights some problematic issues in the process.
The first obvious element of this sound mix is the bass as the Spaceball One takes its time passing overhead, somewhat reminding me of the aggressive bass found in '2010: The Year We Make Contact.' Nearly anytime the film focuses on the crew of the massive ship (and when Ludicrous Speed is attained), a bass rumble can be heard underneath the action. The bass stays active for ambiance at times, and in the soundtrack as well.
Surrounds get utilized sporadically, but considering the film is a comedy from over 20 years ago, I found their engagement in this mix to be quite satisfactory. Occasional ambiance or echoes pop up from time to time, and the soundtrack and score sweep across the soundstage, while the flight of the Winnebago sports some solid motion effects, as does laser fire, which also localize quite nicely.
Fidelity isn't flawless, as yells sound flat awful and garbled, while some of the higher pitched notes in the score sound tinny. Dialogue can be far too low at times when it is the dominant sound element, too loud in others, and can be overpowered and drowned out by the music found in the film even in the dialogue's loudest moments. The wonderfully gooey, slightly disgusting sounds emanating from Pizza the Hutt's cheesy carcass almost make up for these shortcomings. The beeps, the sweeps, and the creeps all come through clearly, but it's a shame the words don't get the same treatment.
'Robin Hood: Men in Tights' (3.5/5) - "Because, unlike some other Robin Hoods, I can speak with an English accent."
'Men in Tights' defaults to a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix, with Dolby Digital Stereo tracks available in English, French, and Spanish (subtitle options are limited to English SDH and Spanish). Even more surprising than the video, the audio for the film shines from time to time, when it wants to.
Dialogue is always clear, no matter the amount of activity in the score or action in any scene, never straying from the front channels. Some background voices can be heard in the rears for ambience in more crowded scenes, but it is hardly discernible or worth note. The opening and closing rap sequences lack any real bass, which is a shame. Dynamic range is a bit limited, as yells maintain volume and pitch like they were normal readings. Ambience can hit at all angles, but often feels a bit focused in front channels. Chain mail clinks and clanks any time guards are on scene, and doesn't fade (like the bassy steps of The Thing in the first 'Fantastic Four' movie). Bass levels go crazy in the Loxley Hall scene, but are otherwise minimal at best. The highlight has to be the motion, as arrows fly through the room extremely fast, distinctly hitting each speaker in the soundstage at a different pitch, and even small silly things like the moving arm in the "stealth catapult" move from speaker to speaker. The wave sequence sticks to the center and front right channels, but to be fair, it is always portrayed in the center of the screen heading to the right. A solid track, to be sure, just nothing truly special.
'The Twelve Chairs' (.5/5), 'Silent Movie' (.5/5), 'High Anxiety' (.5/5), 'History of the World: Part I' (.5/5), and 'To Be or Not To Be' (.5/5) all featured incredibly anemic supplement packages on their respective DVD releases. Each title includes trailers to themselves, and other films in this collection, but the rest of their features are exclusive to this release, and are in the HD Bonus Content section of the review.
'Blazing Saddles' (2.5/5) - Everything old is new again, and 'Blazing Saddles' on Blu-ray features a fairly good selection of extras, all originally produced for the 30th Anniversary standard DVD released back in 2003.
Let's start with the screen-specific audio commentary from Mel Brooks. As much as his brand of humor sometimes grates on my nerves when I watch his films, he is completely charming and endearing when he talks. And he certainly doesn't pull any punches regarding the film's subject matter and use of "bad words." As Brooks says, "The engine that drove 'Blazing Saddles' was hatred of the black, it was racial prejudice -- without that, it would not have had nearly the significance, the force and the impact that it did." I'm not sure I'm entirely sold on his comedic approach, but he makes an impassioned argument for his artistic aims, so this is a must-listen whether you love the film or hate it.
Next up is the 28-minute retrospective featurette "Back in the Saddle," which I enjoyed as much as the commentary. Interviewed are Brooks, co-screenwriter Andrew Bergman and many of the film's stars, including Gene Wilder, Burton Gilliam and Harvey Korman. As Bergman says, the filmmakers were hoping to portray a "hip, 1974 sensibility in a 1874 setting," which included courting great controversy. They tackle some of the trouble they stirred up both behind and in front of the camera, from the incendiary subject matter to the hiring and subsequent firing of Richard Pryor as both co-screenwriter and star, who had to be let go due to studio fears over his stand-up persona (and well-publicized drug use). A nice, pretty comprehensive retrospective.
Unfortunately, the film's other "featurette" is a far, far too short 3-minute excerpt from the Lifetime cable special "Intimate Portrait: Madeline Kahn." Brooks, Dom DeLuise and Lily Tomlin all discuss working with the actress in 'Blazing Saddles,' and it is a nice tribute. The late Kahn was always hilarious, and her life story is fascinating -- I've seen the complete "Intimate Portrait" special, and it is shame it couldn't be presented here in its complete form.
More extras include the complete 1975 TV pilot for "Black Bart," which inspired the film (and was also its original working title). It runs 23 minutes and it is presented in fairly good-looking 480i full screen video. There are also eight minutes of alternate scenes, most of which have long appeared in broadcast airings of 'Blazing Saddles.' Some sorta-funny stuff here, but most of the scenes feel like padding nonetheless.
Last but not least, the film's theatrical trailer in 2.40:1 widescreen and 480p video.
'Young Frankenstein' (2.5/5) - The Blu-ray edition of ‘Young Frankenstein’ includes all of the significant special features from the film’s previous SE DVD, and even offers fans a slew of BD exclusives for good measure (discussed at length in the next section). While the older content is presented in standard definition and the behind-the-scenes coverage tends to get a tad repetitive, the breadth of the package adds a lot of value to this release.
'Spaceballs' (3/5) - Unlike other MGM and Fox titles, 'Spaceballs' doesn't come in one of those shoddy, cheesy, good for nothing "eco-cases," a fact I find worth mentioning. Most of the features are ported over from the 2005 two disc "Special Edition" release. 'Spaceballs:' Behind the Scenes Footage did not make its way onto this disc, while Spacequotes, and 'Spaceballs:' the Trivia Game are forgone in this release. This release slightly differs from the standalone version of 'Spaceballs,' as the bonus DVD edition is not included in this box set.
'Robin Hood: Men in Tights' (1/5) - Unlike other new to Blu-ray films in this release, this film comes with an extra that was on the DVD (as well as the requisite trailers for other Brooks films and itself).
Nine films in glorious 1080p high definition. Lossless audio. Six films brand new to Blu-ray in this set. Everyone will have their favorite and least favorite (perhaps even hated) Mel Brooks films, but no one should argue about the value of this set, on a per disc basis, and on a collector's value basis. The 120 page book is a godsend, though the packaging for this release (especially the damned disc book) is condemnable at least. Mel Brooks' legacy continues on to new generations with each new format his films are released on, and this generation of home video has been given a great boon, with nine fun films (and the thankful omission of 'Dracula: Dead and Loving It') to view until the next format comes along.