|by Peter Sobczynski
In which your faithful scribe examines two works from a great American director, two versions of one of the strangest sci-fi films ever made, a movie where someone infamously cuts off an ear and a movie where someone infamously cuts off something else.
Unless you are a hard-core cineaste–the kind who still stubbornly clings to the belief that filmmakers should strive to achieve something than merely providing mindless eye candy for slack-jawed multiplex mopes–the name Philip Kaufman may not mean that much to you–over a career spanning more than 40 years, he has only a dozen feature films to his credit and the last of those was 2004's “Twisted,” a film so silly and by-the-numbers that many of his admirers were stunned to find his name on it. Take that film out of the equation, however, and you have a body of work as strong and reliable as anyone could hope for. His 1978 remake of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” wittily reset the legendary Cold War parable as a cautionary tale about the perils of soulless Yuppie mentalities years before people knew of such creatures. His astonishing adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff” was a miraculous high-wire act that captured the caustic tone of Wolfe’s writing while still coming off as one of the great American epics. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he has dealt with sexual matters in a thoughtful and forthright manner in such films as “The Wanderers,” “Henry & June” and the wonderful “Quills.” And like his hero in the latter, the Marquise de Sade, he transformed shit into art by taking “Rising Sun,” Michael Crichton’s canny-but-contemptible slice of right-wing paranoia and subverted it into an equally canny left-wing satire. As a writer, he penned the screenplay for one of Clint Eastwood’s best films, “The Outlaw Josey Wales” (he actually started off as the director as well until Eastwood fired him a week into filming in order to take over himself) and helped pen the storyline for a little film called “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
In a happy coincidence, two of his more intriguing films are being released this week on DVD in versions that should satisfy his fans while inspiring newcomers to check them out. The first is his very first film, 1965's “Goldstein.” Inspired to get into film while studying at the University of Chicago after meeting Anais Nin (whom he would later pay tribute to in “Henry & June”), he shot this low-budget charmer as an independent filmmaker at a time when such a thing didn’t really exist–especially not in Chicago, where film production was largely frowned upon in the days of the original Mayor Daley. (Supposedly, he was irate over an episode of “M Squad” in which a plot point revolved around a Chicago cop taking a bribe.) The film itself is fairly slight–dealing with an odd old man (Lou Gilbert) who has an odd effect on the various people that he encounters–and nowhere near as structurally or narratively complex as his later work would become. However, what it does provide viewers is a fascinating snapshot of the places and faces of mid-1960's Chicago and additional interest is derived from the presence of original Second City members Del Close and Severn Darden and noted author Nelson Algren in the cast. Although he doesn’t supply a commentary track, Kaufman does sit down for a lengthy interview in which he talks about the film and his early days as a struggling filmmaker.
Much larger in scale than “Goldstein,” though just as intimate at its core, Kaufman’s 1988 film “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” took a book (from renowned Czech author Milan Kundera) that was deemed all but unfilmable–as much for its narrative tricks as for the political and sexual material–and transformed it into one of the most intelligent and erotic films of the decade. Opening in the spring of 1968 in Prague, Czechoslovakia, the film stars Daniel Day-Lewis as Tomas, a brilliant surgeon who is also a devastatingly successful womanizer and Lena Olin as Sabina, a fuck-buddy who shares his views regarding commitment. That spring, two events occur that change Tomas’s life forever. The first comes when he meets the simple and sweet Tereza (Juliette Binoche), marries her and then tries to balance his hedonistic ways with his genuine love for her. The second comes when the tanks announcing the oncoming Soviet occupation roll into Prague and he finds himself a target because of a facetious parable that he once wrote mocking communism. It is best to discover what happens to Tomas, Tereza and Sabina for yourself, though I will add that the latter two form an odd friendship as well that culminates in one of the sexiest scenes ever put before a camera. Although perhaps not as jam-packed as it seems, this two-disc set (which comes out February 5) has a couple a decent supplements as well. The excellent commentary recorded by Kaufman, Olin, co-writer Jean-Claude Carriere and editor Walter Murch for the long out-of-print Criterion laserdisc/DVD has been ported over here and the second disc contains a documentary on the making of the film as well.
GOLDSTEIN: Written and directed by Philip Kaufman and Benjamin Manaster. Starring Lou Gilbert, Ellen Madison, Del Close, Severn Darden and Nelson Algren. 1965. 85 minutes. Unrated. A Facets Home Video release. $29.95
THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING: Written by Jean-Claude Carriere & Philip Kaufman. Directed by Philip Kaufman. Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Juliette Binoche, Lena Olin and Derek De Lindt. 1988. 172 minutes. Rated R. A Warner Home Video release. $26.98.
NEW AND NOTABLE
ALL-AMERICAN GIRL: THE COMPLETE SERIES (Shout Factory. $39.98): If you saw Margaret Cho’s concert film “I’m the One That I Want,” then you have already heard her talk about the behind-the-scenes struggles that she went through on this short-lived 1994 sitcom inspired by her stand-up act (at least the clean parts). Now you can experience all 19 episodes for yourself. Warning: one episode does featuring the acting stylings of Quentin Tarantino.
BUBBLE (Magnolia Home Entertainment. $29.98): The final phase of Steven Soderbergh’s great experiment in releasing a feature film to theaters, cable and DVD simultaneously. As I said last week in my review of the film proper, it is a strange, unsettling and oddly rewarding experiment in neo-realism that is worth watching whatever the format. The disc features commentaries by Soderbergh (with Mark Romanek) and his trio of unknown stars, a short documentary on the making of the film, a deleted scene and perhaps the creepiest trailer to hit screens since the one cut for “The Shining.”
THE CURSE OF THE PINK PANTHER (MGM Home Entertainment. $14.95): In a desperate attempt to keep the Pink Panther franchise alive after the death of Peter Sellers (which already resulted in the ghastly “Trail of the Pink Panther,” comprised entirely of outtakes and previously seen footage stitched together haphazardly), Blake Edwards introduced us to New York Police Detective Clifton Sleigh, played by Ted Wass, a bumbling cop enlisted to find the “missing” Clouseau. Perhaps not the least funny film ever made but it certainly comes closer to that ranking than any sane person would want to get in this lifetime. (To tie in with the new Steve Martin remake, MGM is re-releasing their previously issued “Pink Panther” films–“The Pink Panther” (very funny), “A Shot in the Dark” (brilliant), “The Pink Panther Strikes Again” (a few funny parts), “Revenge of the Pink Panther” (pretty dumb) and “Trail of the Pink Panther”–as well as the new-to-DVD “Inspector Clouseau” (in which Alan Arkin unsuccessfully tries to play the title role) and “Son of the Pink Panther” (in which that ball of vileness known as Roberto Benigni plays Clouseau’s heretofore unknown son.)
DIFF’RENT STROKES: THE COMPLETE SECOND SEASON (Columbia/Tri-Star Home Entertainment): Sorry, this set doesn’t contain the episode in which Arnold and Dudley get molested by bike shop owner Gordon Jump. You’ll just have to make do with the episode in which Arnold makes a new friend at the hospital and learns that her dad is a bigot, Kimberly brings home a new boyfriend and learns that he is a bigot and any number of cross-over episodes meant to boost the ratings of McLean Stevenson’s immortal “Hello Larry.”
DUNE (Universal Home Video. $27.98): Generally roasted as one of the all-time disasters when it came out in 1984, David Lynch’s adaptation of the Frank Herbert classic has aged surprisingly well–the basic story is still ludicrous, pretentious and fairly incomprehensible (as one person described it aptly, it is basically just “King of Kings” with giant worms) but the visuals are so astounding at times that they make up for the narrative flaws. This disc contains various documentaries, deleted scenes and both the theatrical version of the film and the expanded cut prepared for television over Lynch’s vehement protests–Alan Smithee is now the director of the latter while Lynch’s screenplay is credited to one Judas Booth (presumably Frank’s sleazier brother).
FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL (MGM Home Entertainment. $19.95): Not exactly my cup of tea but as ultra-whimsical British romantic comedies go, this one is pretty good, thanks mostly to the charm of Hugh Grant and Andie MacDowell as the cute couple at its center.
HILL STREET BLUES-THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (Fox Home Entertainment. $39.98): As Belker, one of the wilder cops at the center of this ground-breaking TV show, might have said: “It’s about f$^%&@* time!”
IN HER SHOES (Fox Home Entertainment. $29.98): Like nearly every Curtis Hanson film in recent memory (at least the ones not featuring Eminem), this film–featuring Cameron Diaz and Toni Collette as mismatched sisters and Shirley MacLaine as their long-lost grandmother–was a good film that was largely overlooked at the box-office thanks to an uninspiring ad campaign. Hopefully, like “L.A. Confidential” and “Wonder Boys,” it will finally find its audience on home video.
THE LEGEND OF ZORRO (Columbia/Tri-Star Home Entertainment. $29.98): The only thing better than a sequel that basically screams “Contractual Obligation!” in every scene is one made about five years after the point when anyone might have actually cared about it.
LET ME DIE A WOMAN! (Synapse Video. $24.95): No, this has nothing to do with Larry Wachowski. Instead, this is the notorious grindhouse classic from exploitation pioneer Doris Wishman that deal with some real-life transsexuals and which featured actual footage of a sex-change operation. Only for those with strong stomach and warped minds.
LIVE FREAKY, DIE FREAKY (Wellspring. $29.98): If you purchase only one stop-motion animation film revolving around time travel and Charles Manson and featuring the talents of Green Day, Rancid, Good Charlotte, Jane Weidlin and Asia Argento, let it be this one.
LUST FOR LIFE (Warner Home Entertainment. $19.95): One of the better tortured-artist biopics, this one (directed by Vincente Minnelli) features Kirk Douglas, in one of his better performances, as Vincent Van Gogh and Anthony Quinn in his Oscar-winning turn as Paul Gaugin. In addition to this title, Warners is releasing a slew of classics from their vaults this week, including “Kitty Foyle,” “Captains Courageous,” “The Good Earth,” “Johnny Belinda,” “Cimarron” and “The Champ.”
MARJOE (New Video Group. $26.95): Still queasily fascinating after all these years, this is the infamous 1972 documentary about charismatic evangelist Marjoe Gortner as he goes about his work while cheerfully revealing the fraudulent tricks behind his trade. A few years after this film came out, Gortner went to Hollywood and became a second banana in such redoubtable films as “Earthquake,” “The Food of the Gods” and the infamous “Viva Knievel”–talk about doing penance for your sins!
POSSIBLE FILMS: THE SHORT FILMS OF HAL HARTLEY 1994-2004 (Microcinema. $24.95): As the title suggests, this is a collection of six short films and assorted ephemera from one of the more intriguingly iconoclastic filmmakers to emerge from the American Independent movement of the 1990's. The pick hit here is “Opera,” a spacy 8-minute operatic riff on “Wings of Desire” with Parker Posey and Adrienne Shelley (and whatever happened to her?) as a pair of roller-skating angels who become involved in the life of another couple.
SUPERCROSS (Fox Home Entertainment. $29.98): Shabbily edited motocross footage, commercial plugs a-plenty and a performance from Sophia Bush that seems to consist entirely of reaction shots; and still, they wondered why there was a box-office slump last year.
THE WAR WITHIN (Magnolia Home Entertainment. $28.98): Although a bit forced at times and with nowhere near the impact of the Oscar-nominated “Paradise Now,” this was an occasionally interesting drama about a Pakistani terrorist who faces a crisis of conscience when his planned attack on Grand Central Station is indefinitely delayed.
link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=1703
originally posted: 02/03/06 15:29:33
last updated: 02/10/06 18:54:42