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Armchair Cinephile

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Angels and devils of the cathode ray tube

Angels in America arrives on disc next Tuesday, so all of us who don't have HBO and couldn't afford to catch it on Broadway in the '90s can see what all the fuss over Tony Kushner's Reagan-era AIDS epic is about. The HBO version can't help but be a different experience, of course, as it is translated from stage to cinema by Mike Nichols (regrouping, evidently, after a string of so-so theatrical releases). Nichols does a wonderful job with a top-flight cast. Particularly impressive is Al Pacino as infamous attorney Roy Cohen: Pacino is more restrained and nuanced than he has been in most of his recent work. Angels is an engrossing translation of a landmark play, and cheers to HBO for taking on the project. (As Ethel Rosenberg has a part in the play, the studio has also released Heir to an Execution, a doc by the granddaughter of the executed traitor.)

Angels is surely the most serious TV release of the month. Straight comedy releases range from contemporary hits like Everybody Loves Raymond (HBO) to the first season of Benny Hill (A&E) - which looks startlingly conventional, really, given its lascivious reputation. Benny even had square musical interludes when he began his famous show, although things do get more anarchic and sexualized as the series progresses. Another blast from the past may be less familiar to today's audience: You Bet Your Life: The Best Episodes (Shout Factory) is a glimpse at Groucho Marx's long period of post-Marx Brothers popularity. Ostensibly a kind of game show emcee, Groucho is more like the host of a contemporary talk show, wisecracking at his guests' expense, drawing shy visitors out of their shells, and tormenting the polished announcer who has the unenviable job of sharing his limelight.

Benny Hill
(A&E)

Fast Company
(Blue Underground)

Alias
(Buena Vista)

Rocky & Bulwinkle & Friends
(Bulwinkle)

Significant Others
(Columbia/TriStar)

Videodrome
(Criterion Collection)

Futurama
(Fox)

Angels in America, Da Ali G Show, Everybody Loves Raymond, Heir to an Execution
(HBO)

The Best of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog
(Lions Gate)

Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Essentials
(Rhino)

You Bet Your Life: The Best Episodes
(Shout Factory)

Night Gallery
(Universal)

Speaking of talk shows, we'd be remiss if we didn't acknowledge two recent Conan O'Brian releases, particularly The Best of Triumph the Insult Comic Dog (Lions Gate). One of the funniest innovations in years on the usually formulaic late-night talk show scene, Triumph has no fear. He's far funnier even than most of the comics (Don Rickles, et al) who inspired this shtick. Watching him tear into Bon Jovi in the middle of a throng of adoring hair-band fans is one of the funniest things I've seen in months. Mockery also drives Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Essentials (Rhino), which features the inimitably odd Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.

Triumph's heaviest competition - his defeater, actually - is Sasha Baron Cohen, whose Da Ali G Show (HBO) just made its disc debut. If DVD didn't exist, Ali G would be sufficient reason for me to pay for cable; the fake cluelessness of Cohen's three creations - hip-hop numbskull Ali, Kazakhstan journalist Borat, and vapid Austrian fashion victim Brüno - brings out the unintentional hilarity in everyone from world leaders to yokels.

Futurama (Fox) lasted five seasons on the air, but the just-released Season Four was the last year it was actually being produced; after that, broadcasts showed leftover episodes from prior years. The show never matched The Simpsons, but Season Four had its moments, such as the episode in which Bender starts dating the Hal 9000-like robot that navigates their spaceship. In other cartoon news, the second volume of Rocky & Bulwinkle & Friends is out from Bulwinkle studios.

The Twilight Zone may have a checkered past, but its follow-up series, Night Gallery, is getting a straight-up release from Universal. Also hosted by Rod Serling, NG focused exclusively on fright instead of TZ's free-floating weirdness. The first season includes work directed by Spielberg and starring marquee names such as Joan Crawford and Diane Keaton.

Next Tuesday's other big TV release is the third season of Alias (Buena Vista), which will cause much consternation around my house. I have too much to do right now to get caught up in the syndrome I experienced with the first two seasons, where "I'm just going to watch this one..." led to midnight-oil-burning marathons that totally derailed my work schedule. Fans who simply can't get enough Jennifer Garner can look to Significant Others (Columbia/TriStar), which had its short-lived run before the actress' star rose.

The most exciting TV release of the month isn't even a series. David Cronenberg's wild and weird Videodrome benefits from a souped-up Criterion Collection edition full of commentaries and dissections of the film, which is so far unmatched in its chilling and perverse rumination on what TV addiction does to carbon-based life forms. Moving from boob tubes to hot rods, Cronenberg's little-seen Fast Company (Blue Underground) came out recently. It's an odd entry in his career: not a horror film but clearly close to the director's heart. The package also contains two early Cronenberg films, Stereo and Crimes of the Future. Do yourself a favor, though, and watch the Cronenbergs after you've rented any of these TV releases you want to see - chances are, after Videodrome you won't want to spend a lot of time in the presence of cathode ray tubes. •

John DeFore on DVD


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