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DVD Reviews for 1/4: Annual M.I.A On DVD Column
by Peter Sobczynski

No–this isn’t an article dedicated to DVDs related to the amazing British-Sri Lankan rapper whose “Kala” was arguably the best non-Bruce Springsteen album of 2007. Instead, it is this column’s annual look at some of the most notable films that have yet to receive any form of legal domestic release.

Once again, I have chose to kick off the year not by highlighting the big new DVD releases of the week (which isn’t that hard since the period immediately following Christmas is pretty fallow–the biggest title of the week is probably “Resident Evil: Extinction” and despite my obvious affection for Milla Jovovich, even I can’t work up that much enthusiasm for it) but by calling attention to ten notable properties that have mysteriously not yet been officially released in America (though a couple may have been issued in other regions–great if you own a region-free player and not-so-great if you don’t) for one reason or another. Although it might seem to the casual observer that virtually every film imaginable has been released on DVD–hell, even “Porky’s Revenge” popped up this year (though alas, not its absolutely killer soundtrack)–but there are hundreds of titles, ranging from the famous to the obscure, that remain frustratingly out of reach and the purpose of this article (besides killing some white space) it to call attention to some titles that have somehow fallen through the cracks in the hopes that someone might be inspired to get to work on them. Don’t laugh–in the past three years that I have done this special column, three titles from each list have subsequently been issued on DVD to grateful fans. As for the rest, others can be found on old VHS tapes or bootleg grey-market discs and some even pop up from time to time on cable. (Otto Preminger’s legendarily weird “Skidoo,” which I highlighted a couple of years ago, will actually be appearing on Turner Classic Movies at 1 AM (CST) on January 5 and is not to be missed.)

Before getting to the list, I shall mention a couple of ground rules that I have established which may explain why some obvious titles are not to be found here. First of all, a movie has to actually exist in order to be considered–I’d love to see such apparently lost films as “London After Midnight” or the full-length version of “Greed” but since that isn’t likely to happen in our lifetimes, I see no point in including them. I have also eschewed alternate versions or “director’s cuts” of films that already do exist in one form or another. I have also decided against titles that are either rumored to be in development (such as “The Magnificent Ambersons” or “The African Queen”) or ones for which special anniversary editions would seem to be imminent. (At one point, I had the 1958 classics “Some Came Running” and “Man of the West” on the list until I realized that this year marked their 50th anniversaries, the perfect hook for MGM and Sony, their respective studios, to hang nifty deluxe editions on.) And yet, even with all of those various restrictions, there were still a large number of titles to choose from, both personal favorites and suggestions sent in by fellow readers, and whittling them down to the ten featured below was difficult indeed. (A list of this year’s reader suggestions can be found at the end of this article.)

Anyway, without further ado–the 2008 M.I.A. list. Here’s hoping that they all get the official release that they deserve in the very near future.

THE BED-SITTING ROOM (1969.Richard Lester): If you ever speculated as to what a sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s nuclear-powered dark comedy “Dr. Strangelove” might look like, all you need to do is dig up a copy of this barbed, uncompromising and absolutely hilarious post-apocalyptic satire from Lester, who pretty much squandered all of the clout that he had built up throughout the Sixties as the director of such ground-breaking hits “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Help” and “Petulia” in one shot when it quickly came and went from theaters. (Of course, the box-office potential wasn’t exactly helped by a promotional campaign that actually referred to it as “a bomb” and indicated that it was far too intelligent for most viewers to handle.) Based on a play co-written by British comedy legend Spike Milligan (and God only knows how it was presented on stage), the film is essentially a loosely-linked series of sketches showing the 20-odd English survivors of the shortest war in history (2 minutes and 28 minutes) as they attempt to continue on with their lives amidst the rubble of London–the BBC is reduced to one man who presents the news on an individual basis, a nurse (Marty Feldman) presents a still-living woman with her death certificate, a young woman (Rita Tushingham) lives on the still-running subway with her parents while preparing to give birth to the child she has been carrying for 17 months, a old man (Ralph Richardson) slowly transforms into, yes, a bed-sitting room and a pair of officious officials (Dudley Moore and Peter Cook) roam the countryside ordering anyone they come across to keep moving along. Although there are moments of poignant drama and genuine horror (the sight of London reduced to piles of now-useless consumer items in unexpectedly eerie), this is essentially a wild comedy in the tradition of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” (which premiered a few months after the film was released) and those with a taste for Pythonesque humor will no doubt spark to its offbeat charms. Although it occasionally pops up on cable and in revival screenings, this film has mysteriously never been available on home video for reasons that currently escape me.


BUDDY BUDDY (1981. Billy Wilder):Wilder reunited with his favorite co-stars, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, for the third and final time for this dark comedy about a hit man (Matthau) who checks into a hotel in order to kill a witness in a mob trial and finds himself driven to distraction by the guy in the next room (Lemmon), a neurotic who is planning to commit suicide after losing his wife (Paula Prentiss) to the leader of a bizarre sex clinic (Klaus Kinski. . .yes, Klaus Kinski). Alas, when it was released in the winter of 1981, it bombed so badly that Wilder never again made another film (although he did flirt for a time with doing an adaptation of “Schindler’s List” before Steven Spielberg got a hold of it). This is generally regarded as one of Wilder’s weakest efforts and while it doesn’t begin to compare to the likes of “Sunset Boulevard,” “Some Like it Hot” or “The Apartment,” it is actually better and more interesting than its reputation might otherwise suggest–it served as a progenitor of such future hit-man comedies as “Grosse Pointe Blank” and “Analyze This,” the jet-black (and surprisingly coarse) sense of humor holds up surprisingly well today and the pairing of Lemmon and Matthau yields far more genuine laughs here than it did years later in such limp duets as “Out to Sea,” “The Odd Couple II” and the Grumpy Old Men” films. Come on, Warners, if we can get Wilder’s long-missing “Ace in the Hole” out on DVD, surely you can put this one out as well–maybe you could even convince noted Wilder fanatic Cameron Crowe to offer up a commentary track on the man and his illustrious career.


BUGSY MALONE (1976. Alan Parker): The premise of this particular title–a musical send-up of 1930's gangster films populated entirely by kids who sing, dance, flirt, fight and shoot each other with machine guns that fire globs of custard–may sound unendurable, especially when you learn that the songs were written and mostly sung by the inimitable Paul Williams, but this delightful debut from Alan Parker (which kicked off a career that would range from the highs of “Pink Floyd The Wall,” “Shoot the Moon” and “The Commitments” to the absolute dregs of “Mississippi Burning,” “The Road to Wellville” and “The Life of David Gale”) was anything but a drag. It may have been a gimmick movie but it was a gimmick that worked thanks to the surprisingly adult tone to some of the humor (although still suitable for the entire family), spirited performances from a cast top-lined by Scott Baio in the title role and Jodie Foster as a moll and some incredibly catchy tunes that will stick in your head for days after hearing them. Although not a hit when it was first released, it quickly gained a cult following–it was named as the 19th greatest musical of all time by Britan’s Channel 4, it inspired a popular stage version and one of the songs was used for that Coca-Cola commercial that parodied the “Grand Theft Auto” videogames–so its DVD absence is especially mystifying. (Actually, Paramount announced an American DVD release a couple of years ago but quietly pulled it in the planning stages without ever explaining what happened.)


DADDY’S GONE A-HUNTING (1969. Mark Robson): Not only can I not understand why this crackerjack thriller has yet to hit home video, I am surprised that no one has gotten the idea to do a remake of it, not that I would necessarily endorse such a thing. Carol White stars as a young woman who, as the film opens, realizes that the seemingly nice guy that she is dating (Scott Hylands) is actually pretty crazy, dumps him and when she discovers that she is pregnant, she quickly has an abortion. A few years later, she has married a normal-enough man and had a child with him when her old boyfriend returns–having learned that she got rid of his child, he has killed those involved with the abortion and now plans on murdering her child in order to even things out. Through his long career as a filmmaker (including such cult favorites“It’s Alive,” “Q–the Winged Serpent” and “The Stuff”) and as a screenwriter-for-hire (such as “Phone Booth” and “Cellular”), Larry Cohen has always demonstrated a knack for coming up with the kind of movie premises that grab you right from the start and never let you go and this effort, nicely directed by journeyman filmmaker Robson (if only Hitchcock, for whom Cohen had prepared a version of “Phone Booth,” had gotten his hands on this property) remains one of his most effective works, especially its excruciating climax.


EXPOSED (1983. James Toback): The films of Toback (including such cult favorites as“Fingers,” “Two Girls and a Guy” and “When Will I Be Loved?,” to name a few) are heady and often-brilliant stews of steamy sex, sudden violence, endlessly quotable dialogue, philosophical musings and occasionally crackpot plotting and none of them have been headier than this flawed-but fascinating espionage thriller in which Nastassja Kinski plays an ordinary Wisconsin farm girl (see what I mean about crackpot plotting) who goes to New York, instantly becomes the most famous and desired model in the world and finds herself tangled up with an internationally wanted terrorist (Harvey Keitel in a role loosely inspired by Carlos the Jackal) and a mysterious man (Rudolf Nureyev) who plans on using her access in order to kill the terrorist himself. The story may be too convoluted and ambitious for its own good (especially in the second half) but while I clearly recognize its flaws, I still have a somewhat irrational adoration for the film anyway for a number of reasons. For one, while the plot may be kind of nuts, it is certainly never boring or predictable in any way–it does keep you constantly guessing as to where it is going in virtually every scene. For another, it does have its fair share of Toback’s wonderfully florid and pugnacious dialogue. (Keitel’s monologue in which he explains the things that he does believe in is particularly memorable.) The greatest reason at all for my love of “Exposed,” and the central thesis in my belief that it needs to be on DVD right this second, is the galvanizing presence of Nastassja Kinski in the central role that is so overwhelming that you cannot take your eyes off of her for a second, especially during the love scene involving her, Nureyev and a cello bow that is, for my money, one of the most incredibly erotic sequences that I have ever seen in an American film.


FIRST FAMILY (1980. Buck Henry): You would think that a political satire written and directed by Henry and starring Bob Newhart as the beleaguered President of the United States, Madeline Kahn as his alcoholic wife, Gilda Radner as his nymphomaniacal daughter and Rip Torn, Richard Benjamin, Fred Willard and Harvey Korman as various Cabinet members would be a can’t miss proposition but this one bombed so completely with critics and audiences when it was released that it was quickly pulled from theaters and remains virtually impossible to see today. And yet, while I am fully aware of how completely off the rails a Buck Henry screenplay can go at times (bear in mind that the same man who wrote the brilliant adaptations of “Catch-22" and “To Die For” also penned such inexplicable disasters as “The Day of the Dolphin” and “Town & Country”), there is a part of me that really wants to see this again–partly because my dim memories of one long-ago viewing include what I recall to be at least one very funny moment (a bit in which we see a Cabinet meeting droning on in the foreground while Radner attacks a gardener and is wrestled down by Secret Service agents in the background), partly because there is always the possibility that, like the once-maligned “Catch-22,” the writing has improved with age and partly because of my conviction that any film with a cast like that has to be able to inspire at least a few laughs simply by having them standing around. I’m probably wrong but I am really curious to find out if I am or not.


THE GIRL ON THE BRIDGE (1999. Patrice Leconte): In this charming and utterly mesmerizing romantic fable from French filmmaker Leconte, a down-on-his-luck knife thrower (Daniel Auteuil) comes across a beautiful young woman (Vanessa Paradis) who is about to throw herself into the Seine and talks her down by offering her a job as the assistant/human target for his low-rent act. She agrees–what does she have to lose?–and as they work their act throughout the region, the two are suddenly struck with a run of good fortune. Eventually, the two, who have maintained a non-sexual relationship, eventually split up when she impulsively runs off with a newly-married man, they soon discover that their luck only works when they are together. This is a great film on virtually every level–the story is charming without succumbing to mushiness, the cinematography is exquisite and Auteuil and Paradis have great chemistry together (the scene in which they sublimate their mutual desire through a knife-throwing rehearsal rivals the aforementioned cello bow sequence from “Exposed” in its off-beat eroticism–if you doubt me, look it up on YouTube and see for yourself)–and its unavailability on DVD, especially since it is a relatively recent film, features reasonably well-known names on both sides of the camera and has been issued in Europe, is a bizarre oversight that I hope will one day be corrected. (If that does happen, maybe it will inspire someone to finally released Leconte’s equally intriguing 1991 film “The Hairdresser’s Husband” as well.)


HANDLE WITH CARE a.k.a. CITIZEN’S BAND (1977. Jonathan Demme): The first major masterwork from acclaimed filmmaker Demme was this delightful Altmanesque comedy-drama, written by Paul Brickman, who later went on to write and direct “Risky Business,” about a group of disparate people in a small Southern town who let their freak flags fly via the medium of CB radio–including a hooker who advertise on the air and works out of a mobile home, an overzealous priest, horny teens, a crochety old man and a bigamist trucker (cult icon Charles Napier) whose secret is uncovered at a most inopportune time and with surprising results–and the self-appointed guardian (Paul Le Mat) whose obsession with making sure they stay off the emergency channels drives his wife into the arms of his brother. I guess that it isn’t hard to understand why this film is still unavailable on DVD–it was a notorious box-office failure back in the day (the rumor is that Paramount at one point offered free admissions to the film in an effort to spark word-of-mouth and people still wouldn’t come to see it), there are no really famous faces in it that could spark contemporary interest (outside of Demme himself) and the conceit sounds too anachronistic for its own good–but it is still a shame because it ranks right up there with “Melvin and Howard” and “Married to the Mob” one of the most purely charming works of his entire career. Besides, while CB has obviously gone the way of the dodo and the laserdisc, the idea of people embracing a new mode of communication that allows them to express themselves fully while still remaining anonymous is still startlingly relevant today.


TROUBLE IN MIND (1985. Alan Rudolph): Last year’s M.I.A. list featured “Investigating Sex,” a 2001 film from cult director Rudolph that never received a proper theatrical release despite a cast including such names as Nick Nolte, Neve Campbell, Robin Tunney, Terrence Howard, Tuesday Weld and Julie Delpy. Happily, that film has finally appeared (under the somewhat misleading title “Intimate Affairs”–we will go into the film in depth in next week’s column) and so I figured I would take this opportunity to bring up another one of Rudolph’s many idiosyncratic efforts that have yet to appear on DVD, such as the Altmanesque “Welcome to L.A.,” the strange drama “Remember My Name,” the ecological thriller “Endangered Species,” the G. Gordon Liddy-Timothy Leary debate documentary “Return Engagement,” the romantic fantasy “Made in Heaven” and the unclassifiable “Equinox.” However, the most blatant omission from video shelves is this haunting-yet-delightful noir pastiche for which the often-divisive director received his most universally positive reviews–apparently the ownership of the film has passed through so many different sets of hands over the years that no one is really sure who actually has the rights to issue it on video at the moment. Set in Rain City (sort of a off-brand and Japanese-influenced version of Seattle), the film follows the interactions involving an ex-cop (Kris Kristofferson) who returns to town after doing a stretch in prison, a desperate young man (Keith Carradine) who turns to crime in order to provide for his family, including a wife (Lori Singer) who catches the eye of the ex-cop, a diner owner (Genevieve Bujold) who has seen it all before and a tough gangster (played by none other than Divine in his only non-drag role) who essentially rules the entire city. Simultaneously world-weary and giddily romantic and fueled by one of Mark Isham’s best scores (including a brilliant version of the title tune by Marianne Faithful), this film is like the kind of dream that you want to slip into every single night when you hit the sheets.


ZABRISKIE POINT (1970. Michaelangelo Antonioni): In the wake of the surprise success of “Blow-Up,” Antonioni was hired by MGM, then the squarest of all the movie studios, to come to America to make a film of his choosing in the hopes of capturing the youth market that was turning out in droves for the likes of “2001" and “Easy Rider.” I can’t imagine what they were expecting from him but I doubt it was anything like this free-form work that essentially announced the death of the radical youth movement that was theoretically supposed to push it to box-office glory. The story starts off simple enough–campus radical-on-the-run Mark Frechette meets up with budding young professional Daria Halprin when he impulsively buzzes her car with the airplane he has stolen–but the narrative (co-written by the then-unknown Sam Shepard) soon transforms into one hallucinatory sequence after another (including the much-discussed scene in which hundreds of hippies make love in the middle of Death Valley) before a jaw-dropping finale in which many of the trappings of the soulless contemporary culture that our heroes are trapped in are blown up real good, as they used to say on “SCTV.” Needless to say, no one–neither the studio nor its target audience–liked it at all, it quickly faded from view and is probably better known these days for being one of the selections in the popular book “The Fifty Worst Films of All Time.” Luckily, I got a chance to watch it last summer at a revival screening (just before Antonioni passed away) and while it is definitely flawed in many areas (some of the political discussions are excruciating to listen to and it quickly becomes apparent that the two leads have been cast for their exquisite looks than for their acting talents), its combination of stylish visuals, amazing set-pieces (including the aforementioned Death Valley orgy and the explosive finale) and a soundtrack featuring offerings from the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd and The Grateful Dead make it a time capsule that is well worth re-opening and hopefully the renewed interest in Antonioni’s work since his passing will spur Warner Brothers (whom I believe now own the rights) to give it a proper DVD release.




HONORABLE MENTIONS

Roots Of Heaven (1958 John Huston)
Dark of the Sun (1968 Jack Cardiff )
Last Summer (1969 Frank Perry)
No Blade Of Grass (1970 Cornell Wilde)
State Of Siege (1973 Costa-Gavras)
American Hot Wax (1978 Floyd Mutrux)
Little Darlings (1980 Ronald Maxwell)
Baby It’s You (1982 John Sayles)
Eyes On The Prize (1987 Henry Hampton)
King Lear (1971 Peter Brook)
The Westerner (1940 William Wyler)
The Anderson Tapes (1971 Sidney Lumet)
The Kremlin Letter (1970 John Huston)
The Devils (1971 Ken Russell)
Ministry of Fear (1944 Fritz Lang)
Night of the Generals (1967 Anatole Litvak)
The Deadly Affair (1966 Sidney Lumet)
Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970 Frank Perry)
The Devil’s Disciple (1959 Guy Hamilton)
The Life and Loves of a She-Devil (1986 Philip Saville)
The Cloning of Joanna May (1992 Philip Saville)
Gabriela, Cravo e Canela (1983 Bruno Bareto)
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands (1976 Bruno Bareto)
Let’s Kill Uncle (1966 William Castle)
Visit to a Small Planet (1960 Norman Taurog)
The Fixer (1968 John Frankenheimer)
The Glass Key (1942 Stuart Heisler)
The House of the Seven Gables (1940 Joe May)
I Married a Witch (1942 Rene Clair)
If I Were King (1938 Frank Lloyd)
Juarez (1939 William Dieterle)
Island of Lost Souls (1932 Erle C. Kenton)
The Mask of Dimitrios (1944 Jean Negulesco)
Pretty Maids All in a Row (1971 Roger Vadim)
Trader Horn (1931 W.S. Van Dyke)
Viva Zapata! (1952 Elia Kazan)
Willard (1971 Daniel Mann)
Max Havelaar (1976 Fons Rademakers)
Quest for Love (1971 Ralph Thomas)
Deathwatch (1980 Bernard Tavernier)
Max Headroom (TV Series)
Batman (TV Series)
The African Queen (1951 John Huston)
Animalympics (1980 Steven Lisberger)
Black Lizard (1968 Kinji Fukasaku)
Blue (1991 Derek Jarman)
The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978 Fred Schepisi)
Coonskin (1975 Ralph Bakshi)
The Devil’s Playground (1976 Fred Schepisi)
The Dion Brothers a.k.a The Gravy Train (1974 Jack Starrett)
Elvis (1978 John Carpenter)
The Gong Show Movie (1980 Chuck Barris)
The Grey Fox (1982 Phillip Borsos)
Husbands (1970 John Cassavetes)
Joe MacBeth (1955 Ken Hughes)
Johnny Cool (1963 William Asher)
Kes (1969 Ken Loach)
Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985 Hector Babenco)
The Magnificent Ambersons (1942 Orson Welles)
Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (1983 Nagisa Oshima)
Moby Dick (1930 Lloyd Bacon)
The Pit and the Pendulum (1991 Stuart Gordon)
The Plague Dogs (1982 Martin Rosen)
Something Evil (1972 Steven Spielberg)
Suburbia (1996 Richard Linklater)
Swing Shift: Director’s Cut (1984 Jonathan Demme)
Twice Upon a Time (1983 John Korty/Charles Swenson)
Urgh! A Music War (1981 Derek Burbidge)
When the Wind Blows (1986 Jimmy T. Murakami)
Wings (1927 William A. Wellman)
Laura (1979 David Hamilton)
The Island (1980 Michael Ritchie)
8 Million Ways To Die (1986 Hal Ashby)
Endangered Species (1982 Alan Rudolph)
Ffolkes (1980 Andrew V. McLaglen)
Maniac Cop 2 (1990 William Lustig)
Forbidden World (1982 Allen Holzman)


link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=2342
originally posted: 01/04/08 06:51:24
last updated: 01/04/08 07:30:43
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