The Mel Brooks Collection
[20th Century Fox] $100
You still laugh like crazy when you watch the Spanish Inquisition song-and-dance number in Mel Brooks' 1981 pastiche, History of the World: Part I. But these days, you also feel an ever-so-faint chill creeping up your back. Sure, Brooks got away with such roughhousing 25 years ago. By that time, it was what people expected from him. But if real-life religious intolerance ever again reached the extremes of 16th-century Spain, Brooks would be tossed in irons for his cheekiness.
Yes, these do seem like ruminations too heavy to bring to "The Mel Brooks Collection," the boxed set of eight movies, including History of the World. But hello, 20th Century Fox? Where's The Producers? Or Life Stinks? And if Robin Hood: Men in Tights is included, then Spaceballs, which carries almost the same ratio of funny-moronic bits per minute, should have been invited to the party, too.
Blazing Saddles (1974), the movie that began his mid-to-late-1970s hot streak, remains a coarse and graceless wonder. The Western needed no more debunking after this. To this day, it remains, oddly enough, the only Western, straight-shooting or not, that digs into the nitty-gritty of race in the American West. Young Frankenstein, the relatively exquisite and equally uproarious spin on 1930s horror movies released the same year, was by far a better-made film -- and Gene Wilder's scriptwriting has much to do with that. But your inner adolescent laughs harder at Saddles' sight gags.
As Men in Tights proves, not even Brooks could match or top Saddles or Frankenstein. Still, even when he runs a gag into the ground, Brooks remains inimitable at immediately serving up something outrageous that no one else would.
Silent Movie (1976), seen now, doesn't feel as daring as it did when it came out. Of those in the all-star cast, only Sid Caesar, Marty Feldman and Anne Bancroft seem to know how to make the silence work to their advantage. Bancroft (the longtime Mrs. Mel, who died last year) is the best thing about the 1983 remake of To Be or Not to Be, though it's not nearly as much a desecration of Ernst Lubitsch as its critics made it out to be at the time. As for High Anxiety, Brooks' 1977 homage to Hitchcock, the only two sequences that you cherish are more Brooksian than Hitchcockian: The director-star's impeccably unctuous rendition of the movie's title song and Brooks and co-star Madeline Kahn impersonating an elderly Jewish couple kvetching with each other and airport security.
And then there's The Twelve Chairs (1970), the critical and financial flop that came between The Producers and Blazing Saddles. Based on a 1920s Russian story, it stars Ron Moody as a fallen-aristocrat-turned-Soviet-drone in desperate search of his family jewels, stashed in one of 12 dining room chairs.
It boasts one of Brooks' best theme songs ("Hope for the Best, Expect the Worst") and not too many of his trademark in-your-face gags.
The Chronicles of Narnia
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
[Walt Disney Home Video] $35
Based on C.S. Lewis' inventive fantasy, Narnia involves four precocious World War II-era kids who discover a remarkable world beyond the fur coats crowding the interior of an English professor's tucked-away wardrobe.
The film works on just about every level. Chronicles has grandeur, imagination, mostly believable special effects, a war-of-the-worlds battle, heart and teary-eyed heartbreak. The two-disc DVD's extras include a lame bloopers reel but interesting featurettes on the special effects and creation of the many creatures.
Well-acted and well-made, this delicate tale of cowboys in love from Oscar-winning director Ang Lee is also groundbreaking cinema. The story inches along, and at times there seems to be more scenery than dialogue, but Oscar nominees Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Williams and, especially, Heath Ledger give strong, worthy performances. The DVD's extras are a letdown, with featurettes focusing more on voicing self-congratulatory platitudes than providing insight into the filmmaking.
[New Line Home Video] $28
You don't have to be Jewish to enjoy this offbeat charmer set in Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox community and involving a childless couple who pray for guests to arrive to share in a holiday feast. Two guests do arrive -- a pair of escaped convicts. Broadly funny in the manner of the old Yiddish theater, the picture flirts with caricatures but in an affectionate way. The only DVD extra is the theatrical trailer.
Hostel, Mrs. Henderson Presents, Breakfast on Pluto, Out of Sight (Collector's Edition)