|by Peter Sobczynski
Although the major studios are perfectly willing to lavish the DVD versions of even the most minor of their contemporary films with the kinds of elaborate bells and whistles that collectors used to pay premium prices for on laserdisc, most of them have been surprisingly reluctant to give the same treatment to their older catalogue titles. Too often, films which would seem to deserve some kind of supplemental material are being dumped on the marketplace with little or no fanfare in bare-bones editions. (You would have thought that with all of the publicity surrounding “The Aviator,” Universal’s recent release of “Hell’s Angels” would have included a documentary or historical commentary about Howard Hughes and the history behind the film.) In fact, the only one of the major studios to treat their older titles with the respect worthy of them has been Warner Brothers, who have been delighting film fans with DVDs containing generally sparkling transfers and crammed with fascinating bonus features–last year alone saw such astounding releases as “Gone With the Wind,” “Looney Tunes: Volume 2,” “Gunga Din,” “Meet Me in St. Louis” and their box sets dedicated to film noir and the works of Martin Scorsese.
Since the debut of the format in 1997, film buffs have been clamoring for the release of some of the legendary Warners gangster films from the 1930's and 1940's. Finally, the studio has responded and the result, “The Warner Brothers Gangsters Collection,” is so grand that even though it is only January, I predict that it will be a serious contender for DVD of the Year. The set collects six classic films (well five, but I digress)–“Little Caesar,” “The Public Enemy,” “The Petrified Forest,” “Angels With Dirty Faces,” “The Roaring Twenties” and “White Heat”–and loads them up with a variety of interesting supplemental materials; each one features a commentary track from a film historian speaking on each title’s importance, a short retrospective documentary and a collection of shorts, newsreels, trailers and cartoons from the time of each film’s original release to give a sense of what a night out at the movies would have seemed like back then–in addition, “The Petrified Forest” and “Angels With Dirty Faces” also include radio adaptations featuring several of the original stars. (Each title is also sold separately but if you get one, you are all but certain to be compelled to get them all.)
Going through the films themselves, they are, for the most part, an embarrassment of riches that still maintain their power even 60-70 years after their original releases. “Little Caesar” and “The Public Enemy” have still-stunning star-making performances from Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney at their core–both characters are stone-cold monsters who are nevertheless fascinating to watch just to see how far they will go. “Angels with Dirty Faces” mixes tough-guy thrills with sentimentality in a way that never tips over into mawkishness. “The Roaring Twenties” provides a fascinating glimpse of how an ordinary man can be driven to a life of crime and how it is his innate decency that winds up leading to his downfall in his end. “White Heat,” which marked Cagney’s return to the genre after more than a decade, contained a new kind of thug, one whose monstrous actions were driven more by psychosis than mere greed. Even “The Petrified Forest,” easily the weakest title of the bunch (primarily due to an inability to fully transcend its stage origins and an annoying lead performance from Leslie Howard), has a standout supporting turn from Humphrey Bogart as gangster Duke Mantee, the role that allowed him to stand out from the pack of Warners contract players and led the way to his star-making turns in “High Sierra” and “The Maltese Falcon.” Each film is filled with classic scenes, quotable dialogue and some of the greatest closing scenes ever committed to film.
A Warner Brothers Home Video release. $69.92. ($19.98 per title)
NEW AND NOTABLE
ALIEN VS. PREDATOR (Fox Home Video. $29.98): Remember that “Simpsons” Halloween episode where a nuclear missile was heading directly for Comic Book Guy, who looked up and, in his last moments, remarked, “Oh, I’ve wasted my life ”? I suspect that fanboys across the world uttered similar sentiments when they got a load of this mess, a film that should have been a can’t-miss meeting between two of the great movie monsters of recent years but wound up becoming, under the sure hand of Paul W.S. Anderson, a monstrosity that almost made “Van Helsing” look staid and respectful by comparison. If you can’t get enough of this kind of stuff, try the special edition of “Predator 2' (Fox. $19.98), which was generally dismissed in its time but which now plays as a not-too-shabby example of the unironically over-the-top action films that dominated the film world in the early 1990's.
ANATOMY OF HELL (Tartan Video. $24.95): If you still had any questions as to whether Catherine Breillat’s already-notorious cinematic battle of the sexes (featuring graphic sexual imagery, unique uses for gardening tools and one unspeakable moment that will probably put any tea drinkers off their beverage of choice for life)is as monumentally perverse as its reputation, consider the fact that no less of an authority figure on the subject than John Waters is quoted on the back of the box as saying “This is one effed-up movie ”. For anyone wanting to know what kind of person could conceive of such a film, the disc also features an amusingly pretentious interview with Breillat herself explaining what she was thinking.
THE BEASTMASTER: DIVIMAX EDITION (Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. $19.95): For the times when you have to see Marc Singer in a loincloth (and Tanya Roberts in less) and you just don’t have access to TBS.
BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING (Columbia/Tri-Star Home Video): Largely overlooked in its day, Otto Preminger’s 1965 mystery about a woman (Carol Lynley) desperately searching for the child that everyone, including police inspector Laurence Olivier, tells her never existed has grown into an enormous cult favorite, mostly because of the intense performances, Preminger’s stylish filmmaking approach and several strange and kinky plot twists that still remain surprising even after 40 years.
THE CRYING GAME: COLLECTOR’S EDITION (Lion’s Gate Home Video. $19.98): Although it was the gender-bending plot twist that earned this film its everlasting fame, it is the skillful writing and crack direction by Neil Jordan (whose work in either department has never been better) that still makes it worth watching instead of tossing it on the heap of early-1990's artifacts that were once beloved but now seem vaguely embarrassing.
DOPPLEGANGER (Tartan Video. $24.95): Fans of Asian horror films should definitely give this film, directed by cult fave Kiyoshi Kurosawa, a look before it winds up being transformed into a tepid American remake. As the title suggest, it tells the story of a mild-mannered dope who winds up coming face to face with his physically identical double. Inevitably, this is an evil twin and he begins to inspire the darker side of our hero to gradually emerge with dire consequences. This week, Tartan is also releasing “Phone” ($24.95), another film involving ghosts, spooky children and mysterious phone calls; this time, a journalist begins receiving a series of creepy and threatening phone calls that have a dire effect on those who answer them.
FIRST DAUGHTER (Fox Home Video. $27.98): You missed it in the theater and now you can miss it in the comfort of your own home. Star Katie Holmes appears on the commentary track and all I will say is that she had better not talk any smack about Mandy Moore.
HEAD IN THE CLOUDS (Columbia/Tri-Star Home Video. $24.98): Sure, the promotional material will tell you this film is all about friendship and idealism and making sacrifices for the greater good. However, when you get right down to it, this is really about the luckiest bastard on the planet (Stuart Townsend) as he gets to shack up with both Charlize Theron and Penelope Cruz. Sadly, it isn’t as good as it sounds–even the presence of an extended tickle fight between the lingere-clad Theron and Cruz doesn’t quite make this film worth watching, at least all the way through. This week also sees the release of a special edition of the overrated “Monster” (Columbia/Tri-Star Home Video. $24.95), which I still persist contains a fine performance by Theron (though hardly the miracle that some suggested) and precious little else.
LIDSVILLE: THE COMPLETE SERIES (Rhino Home Video. $39.95): In the interest of sanity, I won’t even attempt to explain or summarize this completely demented Sid and Marty Krofft kiddie show from the 1970's. Those familiar with the bizarre joys it contains will completely understand.
MEAN CREEK (Paramount Home Video. $29.99): One of the top audience-grabbers at last year’s Sundance actually turned out to be worthy of the hype. A group of young kids plan a half-hearted revenge on the school bully who has tormented them; needless to say, things don’t go according to plan and there are grave consequences for all. A smart and thoughtful film that perfectly captures the thoughtless cruelty and ever-shifting loyalties that pretty much define childhood.
METALLICA: SOME KIND OF MONSTER (Paramount Home Video. $29.99): For those of you who thought that spending 140 minutes watching the members of a once-essential metal band transform themselves into a real-life Spinal Tap was too much to bear, you will be thrilled to hear that the disc not only features a commentary track from the band but over forty deleted scenes to boot.
RENEGADE: SEASON ONE (Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. $39.98): Lorenzo Lamas, you are appreciated.
SALT AND PEPPER/ONE MORE TIME (MGM Home Video. $19.95): Truth be told, neither of these comedies, in which Sammy Davis Jr and Peter Lawford play a couple of nightclub owners who constantly find themselves in the middle of shenanigans a-plenty, are especially funny, even as kitschy time capsules of the dying days of swinging-60's London. However, auteurists may find the latter title intriguing as it marks the only film directed by Jerry Lewis in which he doesn’t appear. (Sadly, it is also perhaps the weakest and least formally interesting of all of his directorial efforts.)
SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW (Paramount Home Video. $29.99): I’m willing to accept that mass audiences weren’t able to see past the elaborate design of Kerry Conran’s retro-futuristic epic in order to discover just how massively entertaining it truly was. I’m willing to accept that they couldn’t handle the startling vision of Angelina Jolie clad in near-dominatrix gear and an eyepatch, pretty much inventing her own new fetish along the way. What I cannot accept is that this visually stunning film, created almost entirely in computers, was somehow passed over for a Oscar nomination for Visual Effects, a outrage that nearly outdoes the screwing of Paul Giamatti.
WHEN WILL I BE LOVED (MGM Home Video. $25.98): The latest work from the always-provocative filmmaker James Toback (“Fingers,” “Two Girls and a Guy” and the still-shamefully-unavailable-on-DVD “Exposed”) was one of the most intriguing, if little-seen, American films of 2004. Neve Campbell gave the performance of her career as a sexually adventurous rich girl who is far smarter and cleverer than people give her credit for and Frederic Weller and Dominic Chianese were also fascinating as the two men who realize it too late. Some viewers will no doubt be lured in by the fact that this was the film for which Campbell renounced her well-known no-nudity contract clause; if they can keep their fingers off the fast-forward button, they will be rewarded with an uncommonly smart look at the contemporary battle of the sexes.
X-THE UNHEARD MUSIC (Image Entertainment. $19.98): I saw a concert by this seminal L.A. punk group last year and it was one of the more embarrassing live performances I can remember witnessing (and bear in mind, I have seen both Billy Joel and the Grateful Dead live); they were sloppy, bored and at least a couple of members looked pretty much out of it. Thankfully, this 1987 documentary, shot over a period of several years and crammed with interviews and killer concert footage, is now available to serve as a reminder of a time when their music truly mattered-both to their fans and themselves.
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originally posted: 01/28/05 17:31:56