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BLAZING SADDLES (1974). With the exception of Steven Spielberg in 1993, Steven Soderbergh in 2000, and a handful of filmmakers during Hollywood's golden age, not many directors have enjoyed as much critical and commercial success with two pictures in one calendar year as Mel Brooks in 1974. Within this 12-month span, Brooks released Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, wildly popular titles that quickly took their places among the all-time top moneymakers. Both are still cherished enough to have landed high on the AFI's recent "100 Top Comedies" list, yet truth be told, Frankenstein holds up far better, with more laughs, smoother pacing and a comedic cast second to none. Still, that's not to infer that this Western spoof (whose script committee included Richard Pryor) doesn't deliver its share of hilarity: Endlessly quotable, it's hard to forget, say, Sheriff Bart (Cleavon Little) threatening to "whip this out," the Waco Kid (Gene Wilder) querying, "Are we black?," or saloon performer Lily Von Shtupp (Madeline Kahn in a wonderful, Oscar-nominated performance) declaring that "It's twue! It's twue!" DVD extras include audio commentary by Brooks, additional scenes, a documentary, a short piece on Kahn, and Black Bart, the 1975 pilot episode of a proposed TV series spin-off starring Lou Gossett Jr.
Movie: ***1/2
Extras: ***1/2

COLD MOUNTAIN (2003). Anthony Minghella's adaptation of Charles Frazier's novel places a sweeping romance against the backdrop of the Civil War, yet this handsome epic turns out to be least compelling when it focuses on the fluttering hearts of its protagonists, a Confederate soldier and the woman he left behind. Individually, the performances by Jude Law and Nicole Kidman are fine, yet their scenes together deliver little kick. Fortunately, most of the movie keeps the pair apart, with the wounded soldier making his way back to his North Carolina hometown so they can be reunited. His trek is slowed by his encounters with various characters, and these entertaining interludes spark the picture; so, too, do the sequences back home, thanks to the arrival of a feisty pioneer woman. Renee Zellweger plays this firecracker like a person strung out on eight pots of coffee and two hours of sleep, and it's her Oscar-winning performance -- forceful, passionate, funny -- that cuts through the occasional sheen of stuffy self-importance, thus ensuring that this Mountain never deteriorates into a molehill of unrelenting melancholy. Extras in this two-disc DVD include audio commentary by Minghella and editor Walter Murch, 20 minutes of deleted scenes, two making-of specials, and a concert featuring musical and spoken-word performances by those involved with the film.
Movie: ***
Extras: ***1/2

THE LINE KING: THE AL HIRSCHFELD STORY (1996). A pure delight, this Oscar-nominated documentary centers on Al Hirschfeld, the amazing caricaturist who passed the decades drawing thousands of illustrations (most for The New York Times) of just about every celebrity of note who appeared on screen, on television, and (primarily) on stage. Hirschfeld's reputation as a lovely human being is confirmed by this comprehensive film -- only once did the artist attempt to draw a "mean" caricature, and even then, the subject (producer David Merrick) went on to purchase the image to use on his own Christmas cards! Al's habit (since 1945) of hiding his daughter Nina's name in every drawing is discussed at length, and countless celebrities, from Katharine Hepburn to Carol Channing, are on hand to praise the man. Hirschfeld passed away last year at the age of 99, and this movie serves as a great tribute, not only by displaying scores of his works but also by showing how in effect he was Forrest Gump with an IQ, a decent person who stood on the sidelines of practically every artistic renaissance this country experienced over the last three-quarters of the 20th century. DVD extras include a gallery of select Hirschfeld portraits and a sequence (filmed shortly before his death) showing the artist creating a caricature of Paul Newman in Our Town.
Movie: ***1/2
Extras: **

THE LOST SKELETON OF CADAVRA (2004). Displaying great affection for those grade-Z efforts from the 50s and 60s -- the no-budget likes of Robot Monster and Plan 9 From Outer Space -- writer-director-costar Larry Blamire elected to make his own movie that purposely emulates those beloved turkeys in all their wretchedly acted, poorly scripted, visually atrocious glory. It sounds like a marvelous idea... until you actually watch the movie. Part of the appeal of those moldy oldies was the sincerity behind their ineptitude; stripped of that defining characteristic, Cadavra is simply self-satisfied, boring and, at 90 minutes (lengthier than most of the flicks it's copying), way too long. For a better homage to the period's sci-fi outings, rent Tim Burton's Ed Wood or Joe Dante's Matinee. DVD extras include audio commentary by the cast and crew, some groovy trailers, a making-of short, the vintage cartoon Skeleton Frolic, and, best of all, Virtual Skelectables, a look at the sort of tie-in gimmicks (lunchboxes, model kits, bubble gum cards) that theoretically would have been produced had this actually been a film created a half-century ago.
Movie: *1/2
Extras: ***1/2

SAVAGES (1972). For the past year, the Criterion label has been presenting a sidebar series titled The Merchant Ivory Collection. Drawing from the pool of movies that director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant made before their international breakthrough A Room With a View, this series offers the pair's latter-day fans an opportunity to catch up with their earlier efforts, from their Indian-themed films of the 60s (Shakespeare Wallah, The Householder) through the tony literary adaptations of the 70s and 80s (The Europeans, The Bostonians). The line's latest release falls in neither camp; indeed, Savages might be the most atypical film ever concocted by the team. Working from a story idea by Ivory, scripters George Swift Trow and Michael O'Donoghue (later a key Saturday Night Live writer during its early years) have created a parable in which a tribe of jungle primitives are startled by a croquet ball that lands in their midst. They journey out of the woods and into a lavish mansion, where they quickly start dressing up like aristocrats, speaking in perfect English, and discussing etiquette, commerce and societal expectations. Boasting a cast that includes several now-familiar faces (most notably Sam Waterston), this experimental piece feels like lesser Luis Bunuel (or Derek Jarman); it's an intriguing short-film idea stretched out to feature length, worth a glance primarily as an artifact of its time. DVD extras include Ivory's 1972 documentary Adventures of a Brown Man In Search of Civilization, and interviews with Ivory and Merchant.
Movie: **1/2
Extras: **

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