Two DVDs of Note

A couple of DVD releases worth looking out for in the next couple of weeks:

John Adams, the complete miniseries, June 10. Fortunately, unlike some of its other miniseries-on-DVD releases, HBO hasn’t been stingy with the special features; there’s nothing spectacular here, but there’s everything we need: a making-of feature; a feature on David McCullough, the author of the book the show is based on; and selectable pop-up facts that tell you more about the actual historical events while you’re watching. The miniseries itself is as good as its reputation, though the one thing I noticed while watching the DVD, which I wasn’t really conscious of when it was on TV, is that the director sometimes overdoes it on the hand-held camera. I know the point of using shaky camerawork in a historical story is to make it seem gritty and modern and not staid, but for the scenes in the Continental Congress, it just seems to clash with the general lack of action. That is, the purpose of a hand-held camera is to make it easier to follow the action. But if everybody’s sitting around and occasionally standing up to yell about liberty, the shaky camera just makes the scene seem static because it suggests more physical action than we’re actually seeing.

Popeye the Sailor, Volume 2, June 17. No, these cartoons were not made for TV, but that’s where most people have seen them. This second volume is two discs (the first was four discs, but Warner Brothers has cut down the size and price of most of its cartoon releases to encourage more impulse buying) and covers all the Popeye cartoons released from 1938 to 1940. This is the period during which the Fleischer studio moved from New York to a new studio in Miami, an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to set up a sort of new Hollywood in Florida. You can see their style change as the cartoons gradually get more polished animation but less of the rough-and-tumble feel of the cartoons they made in New York. So the third and last Technicolor 20-minute Popeye special, “Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp,” made in Miami, is closer to a conventional Disney-style adventure (except with a really ugly hero) than the two earlier ones, and doesn’t have the famous experimental 3-D look that the Fleischers created for their backgrounds in New York. But there are a lot of great cartoons here, like “Goonland,” where Popeye goes in search of his Pappy and finds he’s being held prisoner in a realm full of Goons. WB’s transfers are good, though they vary depending on the quality of the source material; except for the one colour cartoon, don’t expect them to look as great as the Looney Tunes on DVD, but they do look better than just about any other home video version. The special features include a bunch of commentaries, the best of which is probably Greg Ford’s enthusiastic defence of “Aladdin,” and a great, long history of the Fleischer studio.

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