DVD Reviews for 2/15: We're Gonna Need A Bigger Column!
By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 02/15/08 12:57:38
In which your faithful critic pays tribute to the late, great Roy Scheider and takes a look at an especially eclectic week of DVD releases that includes one of 2007's very best films (featuring longtime column crush object Mandy Moore), one of 2007's very worst films (also featuring longtime column crush object Mandy Moore) some vintage Hollywood classics and the long-awaited release of the film that introduced the world to the comedy stylings of the team of Scott Baio and Willie Aames.
As I rule, I tend not to use this column as a way of paying tribute to recently deceased members of the film community outside of a brief mention at the top of the piece–this is partly due to the fact that I don’t feel that I have much to say that has not already been said more eloquently elsewhere, partly because I have neither the time nor inclination to pull together such a piece in such a short amount of time and partly because I don’t want to write such a piece if I don’t feel strongly about their films in the first place. In the case of the late Roy Scheider, who passed away on February 10 at the age of 75, I am going to make an exception and write about a few of his most notable screen appearances for a couple of reasons. For starters, he has always been a favorite actor of mine and his laconic Everyman presence served to enliven any number of movies over the years. There is also the fact that, despite having appeared in many interesting projects over the years (including two of the most popular films ever made), he never really received his due as an actor despite his obvious talent and screen charisma. Finally, there is the simple and inescapable fact that the man once starred in one of the greatest movies ever made–one that has a permanent place in my all-time Top 10 ranking–and any time I get an opportunity to wax ecstatic on its greatness, I am going to take.
Over the years, many an actor or actress has made his or her big-screen debut in a low-budget horror film and Scheider was no exception. His first screen role was in “The Curse of the Living Corpse,” a 1964 shocker from writer-director Del Tenney, whose previous film was the immortal Grade Z classic “The Horror of Party Beach.” In the faux-Gothic horror, Scheider plays the son of Rufus Sinclair, a millionaire whose catalepsy has left him with a morbid fear of being buried alive. To avoid this, he make stipulations in his will to prevent him from accidentally being buried alive and vows that if his surviving relatives fail to obey them, he will come back from the dead and kill them in a manner that jibes with their own innate fears–fire, suffocation, drowning and the like. Inevitably, Sinclair dies and his family fails to abide by his stipulations and just as inevitably, his body disappears from his crypt and said relatives begin to die off in the predicted ways. Perhaps not surprisingly, the film as a whole isn’t very good–it comes across at times like a William Castle movie without the entertaining outlandishness–but it does have a couple of virtues that make it worth checking out. One of them, of course, is Scheider–even though it was his first film performance, he already displays traces of the commanding screen presence that he would continue to develop over the years. In addition, Tenney also does manage to conjure up a nicely creepy atmosphere and spikes it with jarring-for-the-times bits of violence and nudity. Finally, horror buffs will want to check it out for the appearance of Candace Hilligoss, the actress who made her screen debut in the 1962 cult favorite “Carnival of Souls,” went on to do this film and then never appeared on the big screen again.
From those humble beginnings, Scheider’s star began to rise and within a few years, he was making unbilled appearances in films like “Star” and “Paper Lion” before attracting a lot of attention as Jane Fonda’s nasty pimp in “Klute” and receiving an Oscar nomination for his intense work as Gene Hackman’s partner in the landmark 1971 cop drama “The French Connection.” It would be easy to write about “The French Connection” but my guess is that if you are even vaguely interested in film, you have no doubt already seen it many times by now. Instead, I would like to point you in the direction of another Scheider cop thriller from this period, the gritty 1973 drama “The Seven-Ups.” In this film, made by some of the key production personnel behind “The French Connection,” Scheider plays a member of an elite secret division of the New York City police department that specializes in pulling unorthodox stings on high-level criminals. (The title refers to the minimum length of the sentences received by their targets.) As the story unfolds, it turns out that one of their informants is involved in a plot to kidnap and ransom loan sharks by posing as cops and when a member of the squad stumbles onto the case, he is killed and the rest of the group, who are now mistakenly linked to the kidnappings, must solve the crimes in order to bring the killers to justice and clear their own names. Playing an extension of his “French Connection” character, Scheider is excellent as the tough and efficient leader of the squad and the film as a whole is a smart and neatly conceived thriller with good writing, vivid characters and a centerpiece car chase through the streets of New York that is so wild that it deserves a high ranking on the list of all-time great movie car chases.
After appearing opposite Jeannie Berlin in the odd 1975 comedy “Sheila Levine is Dead and Living In New York” (yes, there was a time when movies were allowed to have colorful titles), Scheider went on to appear in what would be the most famous film of his entire career, Steven Spielberg’s 1975 monster movie masterpiece “Jaws.” Even after more than 30-odd years, it remains one of the most shamelessly entertaining films ever made and there are plenty of reasons for that–brilliant direction from Spielberg in just his second big-screen effort, a screenplay that is chock full of adventure, humor, social satire, drama and endlessly quotable lines of dialogue and scare sequences that still pack a jolt no matter how many times you see them–but it is Scheider’s performance as the beleaguered sheriff of a small coastal town that is being menaced by a great white shark that actually holds everything together. While Robert Shaw is doing his amped-up Ahab routine and Richard Dreyfuss is supplying us with all of the technical information that we need to know about sharks, Scheider is playing the character representing those of us in the audience who don’t know anything about sharks, boats or the mysteries of the deep but who do know right from wrong and who especially know that they don’t want to be chomped into bits by a great white. He has a lot of great moments here (playing with his kid at the dinner table, pouring the enormous glass of wine, trying to find his son on the beach after the shark is spotted) but what he does best here is lend a sense of realism and believability to the proceedings–an all-too-important element because “Jaws” is one of those delicate constructs where if even one tiny element rings false, it could complete destroy the tone of the story and turn it into just another silly rubber fish story. Oh yeah, he also gets to deliver one of the most memorable lines of dialogue in film history–the moment when he (and we) finally get a good look at the beast and remarks with great understatement “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
In the wake of the success of “Jaws” and after a supporting role in 1976's “Marathon Man,” Scheider finally ascended to top-billed roles but hit a streak of questionable luck. He starred in “Sorcerer,” William Friedkin’s wildly expensive 1977 remake of “The Wages of Fear” and while he turned in a fine performance in one of the more underrated films of the decade, it proved to be a failure at the box-office (partly because it had the misfortune to come out at the same time as “Star Wars” and partly because audiences saw the title along with Friedkin’s name and assumed that the director of “The Exorcist” had given them another horror epic). He was then offered the lead role in Michael Cimino’s “The Deer Hunter” but was contractually obligated to appear in “Jaws 2,” a film that made a lot of money and pleased virtually no one, least of all Scheider. (The part in “The Deer Hunter,” of course, went to Robert De Niro.) That was followed by “Last Embrace,” a quirky Hitchcock homage from Jonathan Demme that proved to be a financial failure as well.
However, his luck finally changed when he took over the lead role in Bob Fosse’s autobiographical musical-drama “All That Jazz” after original choice Richard Dreyfuss left the project. Playing director/choreographer Joe Gideon, a man who is driven to pushing himself to the absolute limit in both his personal and professional lives and winds up paying the ultimate price for his ambitions, Scheider turned in the best performance of his entire career as a man who has spent so many years living on the edge that he simply cannot step back and take a breather even when it becomes clear to him that he will die if he doesn’t. Scheider was nominated for the Best Actor Oscar for this performance and while he probably never had a real chance of winning (he was up against Peter Sellers for his career performance in “Being There” and eventual winner Dustin Hoffman for “Kramer Vs. Kramer”) but with the passage of time, I would dare say that his performance now trumps both of them.
For the next few years, Scheider continued to star in a series of interesting films such as “Still of the Night” (Robert Benton’s underrated homage to the chilly psychodramas of Claude Chabrol), “Blue Thunder” (one of the best pure action films of the 1980's), “2010" (a pretty good film whose attempts to explain the mysteries of “2001" come across along the lines of the little boy who cut open his drum in order to find out where the noise came from) and “52 Pick-up” (a wonderfully lurid adaptation of the Elmore Leonard novel that was John Frankenheimer’s finest theatrical film of the 1980's) before downshifting his career to a pattern of starring roles in smaller movies (“The Fourth War,” “The Men’s Club”) and television projects (“Seaquest”) and smaller roles in larger movies (“The Russia House,” “Romeo is Bleeding,” “The Rainmaker” and the upcoming “Chicago 10,” in which he supplies the voice of Judge Julius Hoffman). Of these latter-day turns, the most surprising and memorable was easily his appearance in David Cronenberg’s mind-blowing take on William Burrough’s “Naked Lunch.” As the malevolent Dr. Benway, Scheider only appears in maybe two scenes in this film–one early on in which he blandly meets up with anti-hero Bill Lee (Peter Weller) and points him in the way towards the exceptionally bizarre adventures he is about to undergo and one towards the end that is best left undescribed so as to protect some of the mysteries–and he has the difficult task of somehow standing out amongst the weirdo creatures and freaky visuals. Amazingly, he pulls that trick off to such a degree that even though he only appears on the screen for a few minutes, he creates such a vivid impression during that time that you will be convinced that he actually has a larger part than he does. That is the mark of a great actor and that was Roy Scheider.
CURSE OF THE LIVING CORPSE: Written and directed by Del Tenney. Starring Roy Scheider, Candace Hilligoss, Helen Warren, Robert Milli and Margot Hartman. 1964. 84 minutes. Unrated. A Dark Sky Films release. $14.98
THE SEVEN-UPS: Written by Albert Ruben and Alexander Jacobs. Directed by Philip D’Antoni. Starring Roy Scheider, Victor Arnold, Jerry Leon, Ken Kercheval, Tony LoBianco and Richard Lynch. 1973. 103 minutes. Rated PG. A Fox Home Entertainment release. $9.98
JAWS: Written by Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Starring Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss, Lorraine Gary and Murray Hamilton. 1975. 121 minutes. Rated PG. A Universal Home Entertainment release. $14.98
ALL THAT JAZZ: Written by Robert Alan Aurthr and Bob Fosse. Directed by Bob Fosse. Starring Roy Scheider, Jessica Lange, Leland Palmer, Ann Reinking, Cliff Gorman and Ben Vereen. 1979. 123 minutes. Rated R. A Fox Home Entertainment release. $19.98
NAKED LUNCH: Written and directed by David Cronenberg. Starring Peter Weller, Judy Davis, Ian Holm, Julian Sands and Roy Scheider. 1991. 115 minutes. Rated R. A Criterion Collection release. $39.95.
NEW AND NOTABLE
THE AMATEURS (First Look Films. $28.98): In an effort to make enough money to finally gain the respect of his ex-wife and son, who have moved on to greener and better-trimmed pastures, an amiable layabout (Jeff Bridges in full Lebowski mode) hatches a plan with a bunch of his pals (including Joe Pantoliano, Ted Danson, William Fichtner, Glenne Headley, Patrick Fugit, Tim Blake Nelson, Judy Greer and Lauren Graham) to shoot a porno film in their hometown. While there are a few chuckles to be had here and there in this modern-day take on the screwball farces of the late, great Preston Sturges, the lack of any real conflict (even the new husband is a perfectly nice guy) or sexiness (the only nudity to speak of comes courtesy of Danson and Valerie Perrine) winds up working against it and while it is fun to see these actors bouncing off of each other, so to speak, it eventually wears out its welcome.
BECOMING JANE (Miramax Home Entertainment. $29.95): In a film that might have more appropriately been titled “Austen In Love,” this extremely loose biopic follows young Jane Austen (Anne Hathaway) as she goes through the various personal struggles that would eventually inspire her to write the immortal novel “Pride & Prejudice.” Alas, rather than actually explore Austen’s life in any real detail, this film is simply content to offer viewers yet another run-through of “P&P” with only a few slight variations and while it isn’t as knock-out awful as “Bride & Prejudice,” it so pales in comparison to the recent adaptations with Colin Firth and Keira Knightley that it makes the entire enterprise seem pointless. On the other hand, as half-assed cinematic attempts to cash in on Austen’s name go, it was better than the awful “The Jane Austen Book Club.”
CHARLIE CHAN COLLECTION VOLUME 4 (Fox Home Entertainment. $49.98): When Warner Oland, the actor who played Charlie Chan in a series of enormously popular films in the 1930's, passed away in 1938, Fox decided to continue the series and replaced him with Sidney Toler, a move that proved to be successful and kept the films going for years. This set collects Toler’s first four outings as everyone’s favorite ancient Chinese secret solver–“Charlie Chan in Honolulu” (1938), “Charlie Chan in Reno”( 1939), “Charlie Chan at Treasure Island” (1939) and “City in Darkness” (1939).
COMEDY CENTRAL ROAST OF FLAVOR FLAV (Paramount Home Video. $19.99): The usual gang of idiots (Katt Williams, Jimmy Kimmel, Ice-T, Patton Oswalt and others) get together to pay obscene “tribute” to the rapper/reality show staple. Watching these festivities, I couldn’t decide what was more depressing to contemplate–the fact that the guest of honor has gone from being a member of arguably the greatest rap group of all time to being a sad self-parody or the fact that I used to have the biggest crush on his former paramour, fellow celebrity train wreck Brigitte Nielsen, back in her “Red Sonja” heyday.
DEDICATION (The Weinstein Company.$19.99): Having already appeared in two of 2007's very worst films with “Because I Said So” and “License to Wed,” the usually reliable Mandy Moore decided to go for the hat trick with this unspeakably annoying indie romantic drama in which she plays a winsome illustrator who very nearly inspires a self-consciously misanthropic kiddie book author (Billy Crudup) to love again.
ECLIPSE SERIES 8–LUBITSCH MUSICALS (The Criterion Collection. $59.95): In this latest release from Criterion’s specialty division dedicated to obscurities and lesser-known films from better-known directors, the great Ernst Lubitsch, whose witty and urbane comedies (including “Trouble in Paradise” and “To Be or Not to Be”) made him a household name at a time when few directors were known outside of Hollywood, gets the spotlight with four musicals that he made during the early days of sound. The titles include 1929's “The Love Parade” (with Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald), 1930's “Monte Carlo” (with MacDonald returning opposite Jack Buchanan), 1931's “The Smiling Lieutenant” (with Chevalier, Claudette Colbert and Miriam Hopkins) and 1932's “One Hour With You” (reuniting Chevalier and MacDonald). Perfect for those who need a new dose of that world-famous “Lubitsch Touch” and for those who want a reminder of just how racy movies could get in the glory days before the advent of the Hays Code.
FAMILY TIES–THE COMPLETE THIRD SEASON (Paramount Home Video. $39.98): Among the Very Special Episodes on display in this collection of episodes from the long-running sitcom, Elyse (Meredith Baxter Birney) goes into labor and discovers that she has a gambling problem (not at the same time), Alex (Michael J Fox) is humiliated by a professor, tries to talk down a potential suicide on a hotline call and dreams that he has to convince Thomas Jefferson to write the Declaration of Independence (again, not at the same time), a couple of beloved, though never previously seen, relatives die (once again, not at the same time) and Geena Davis pops up for a couple of episodes as a totally hot and totally incompetent housekeeper.
GENERAL HOSPITAL NIGHT SHIFT–THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (Buena Vista Home Entertainment. $29.99): As someone who doesn’t exactly follow the world of soap operas to any degree–at least not since they cancelled “The O.C.” and forced poor Summer to find employment in irritating Zach Braff movies–I was all set to simply ignore the DVD release of this prime-time spin-off of the ever-popular serial that appeared last summer. That is, until I looked at the package and realized that the star was none other than Billy Dee Williams, no doubt spreading his personal brand of Colt .45-infused suavity throughout the hospital halls. As a result, I may actually have to check this out for myself.
GONE BABY GONE (Miramax Home Entertainment. $29.99): In one of the bigger movie surprises of 2007, Ben Affleck slipped into the director’s chair to helm this adaptation of the Dennis Lahane novel about a detective (Casey Affleck) on the hunt for the missing daughter of a local low-class junkie (Amy Ryan in her Oscar-nominated turn) and acquitted himself more than adequately–although there are a few hiccups here and there (especially in the weak and fairly inexplicable denouement), Affleck’s work was so strong and self-assured that you would be hard-pressed to prove that it was only his first time behind the camera.
I COULD NEVER BE YOUR WOMAN (The Weinstein Company. $29.99): Despite a cast headed by Michelle Pfeiffer and Paul Rudd and direction from the usually reliable Amy Heckerling, this comedy about a producer of a “90210"-like soap opera (Pfeiffer) falling for one of the show’s much-younger stars (Rudd) was never given a theatrical release. (The details behind that were exhaustively chronicled in last week’s “Entertainment Weekly.”) That said, I would venture to guess that any film featuring a pairing between the always-watchable Pfeiffer and the increasingly valuable scene-stealer Rudd is at least worth checking out.
IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON (Velocity/Thinkfilm. $19.99): In this fascinating documentary from David Sington, the Apollo missions to the moon are recounted through a combination of fascinating footage from the archives of NASA and interviews with the surviving members of those missions, the only human beings to set foot on a world other than our own. For anyone even vaguely interested in space travel or exploring the unknown, this film is essential.
THE JOAN CRAWFORD COLLECTION, VOLUME 2 (Warner Home Video. $49.98): The Hollywood superstar/wire hanger enthusiast gets her due once again with this second box set of classic films making their DVD debuts. This time around, the titles include 1934's “Sadie McKee” (a pre-Code rags-to-riches soap opera that is notable today for introducing the classic song “All I Do Is Dream of You” and for being the movie that Crawford’s character is watching on television during one of the memorable moments of “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”), 1940's “Strange Cargo” (the last and strangest of her nine on-screen pairings with Clark Gable in which he plays an escaped convict and she plays a saloon girl), 1941's “A Woman’s Face” (a George Cukor weepie in which she plays a facially scarred criminal who gets a second chance at happiness thanks to the miracle of plastic surgery), 1948's “Flamingo Road” (a nutty soaper in which she plays a circus dancer who becomes embroiled in all sorts of intrigue when she impulsively marries a respectable politician–yes, this was the basis for that 80's-era Morgan Fairchild soap opera) and 1953's “Torch Song” (in she plays an embittered singer who finds love at last with the blind guy who hires on as her new accompanist).
THE MARTIAN CHILD (New Line Home Entertainment. $28.98): One of the many box-office disasters to befall New Line in 2007, this one starred John Cusack in a weirdo weepie about a widowed writer who adopts a strange young boy who insists that he actually comes from Mars. I can’t tell you anything more because I haven’t seen yet–of course, the chances are excellent that you haven’t either.
NO RESERVATIONS (Warner Home Video. $29.98): In this fairly pointless remake of the popular foreign entry “Mostly Martha,” Catherine Zeta Jones tries (and largely fails) to show a softer side of her screen persona as a flinty New York chef who has no time for family or romance, only to find both dropped into her lap in the form of recently orphaned niece Abigail Breslin and life-loving fellow chef Aaron Eckhart. Essentially, this film does for “Mostly Martha” what the Olive Garden does for Italian food–it offers up a cheap and bland simulacrum aimed solely at people who are too afraid to try the real thing for themselves.
PETER’S FRIENDS (MGM Home Entertainment. $14.98): Also known as “The Big Chill 2" or “Return of the Secaucus Seven 3,” Kenneth Branagh directed this 1992 film about a group of college friends who reunite after ten years and spend a weekend contemplating how they have changed during that time. Not particularly original but the cast, including Branagh, Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and Rita Rudner (who co-wrote the screenplay) does a pretty good of rescuing the material from its overwhelming familiarity.
PRIMAL (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $26.98): In this low-budget horror item, a bunch of dopes go out into the woods and are torn apart like fresh bread by some Bigfoot-like creature. Not to be judgmental but if you trying bringing this around for your Valentine’s Day weekend celebration, you pretty much deserve everything that you are going to get.
ROMANCE & CIGARETTES (MGM Home Entertainment. $24.98): Stuck in movie limbo since 2005 as the result of a series of studio buyouts, John Turturro’s off-beat musical-comedy about an ordinary schlub (James Gandolfini) whose life blows apart when his affair with a local tart (a never-sexier Kate Winslet) is discovered by his long-suffering wife (Susan Sarandon) and three daughters (Mary-Louise Parker, Aida Turturro and Mandy Moore) was finally distributed to a handful of cities by Turturro himself and proved itself to be one of 2007's very best films–a hilarious, ribald and endlessly inventive work that is filled with great performances (Christopher Walken, Steve Buscemi and Elaine Stritch also make memorable appearances), bizarre humor and inventive musical numbers in which the actors sing along to tunes from the likes of Tom Jones, Bruce Springsteen and Janis Joplin. Seriously, you have to watch this movie and you have to watch it right now–even if you don’t like it, you will have to agree that you have never before seen anything quite like it.
SOME GIRLS (MGM Home Entertainment. $14.98): Not even the presence of Jennifer Connelly at her loveliest is quite enough to save this weird 1988 romantic comedy-drama about a college student (Patrick Dempsey) who gets dumped by his girlfriend (guess who?) and still finds himself embroiled in various misadventures involving her wacky family over the course of a long Christmas holiday.
TELL ME YOU LOVE ME–THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (HBO Home Video. $69.98): In an effort to keep subscribers from bailing in the wake of the end of “The Sopranos,” HBO introduced this nudity-packed series about three couples–a pair of engaged twentysomethings, a couple in their 30's struggling to have a child and a long-married duo with intimacy issues–trying to work out their problems with the same therapist (Jane Alexander). Not quite as fascinating or ground-breaking as the hype otherwise suggested but those in the mood for premium-cable skin without having to deal with the typical Skinemax offerings will certainly get a kick out of it.
TOUCH (MGM Home Entertainment. $14.98): Although never one to be accused of having a light touch as a filmmaker, Paul Schrader took it upon himself to write and direct this adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s whimsical dark comedy about a faith healer with genuine powers (Skeet Ulrich) who finds himself caught in the middle of a tug-of-war between a former evangelist (Christopher Walken) who wants to exploit him, a current evangelist (Tom Arnold) who wants to save him and a woman (Bridget Fonda) who kind of wants to do both. As you can probably guess, the resulting film is kind of a mess and not very successful but if you are willing to cut it some slack, it does have its share of virtues worth savoring, such as bits of prime Leonard dialogue and an excellent performance from Arnold.
WE OWN THE NIGHT (Sony Home Entertainment. $28.95): Writer-director James Gray (“Little Odessa,” “The Yards”) offers up yet another drama involving familiar tensions, corruption, crime and mobsters with this 1980's-era tale about the conflict that arises between a sleazy club promoter (Joaquin Phoenix) and his cop brother (Mark Wahlberg) when the latter begins investigating some of the former’s business associates. Though hardly groundbreaking, this is nevertheless a solid bit of entertainment buoyed by strong performances, a straightforward visual and narrative style, a killer car chase and a memorable first appearance from co-star Eva Mendes.
THE WIZ--30th ANNIVERSARY EDITION (Universal Home Entertainment. $19.98): There may have been worse movie musicals to have emerged in the 1970's (“At Long Last Love” and “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” immediately spring to mind) but this screen version of the popular African-American take on “The Wizard of Oz” may have been the most disappointing because, unlike those other examples, the basic material was strong enough that it should have made for a decent movie. Instead, the inexplicable choices of Sidney Lumet as director (a man whose strengths as a filmmaker have never leaned towards the visual panache required for this kind of film) and Diana Ross as star (did anyone really think that she would be believable as the wide-eyed and innocent Dorothy) pretty much doomed the film from the start and not even the energetic contributions from Michael Jackson (as the Scarecrow) and Nipsey Russell (as the Tin Woodsman) could save it from being one of the all-time disasters in screen musical history.
ZAPPED (MGM Home Entertainment. $14.98): If you watched Brian De Palma’s masterful screen version of “Carrie” and felt that it might have been better with more pot jokes, more dream sequences involving salami torpedoes and more Willie Aames, then you will no doubt delight in the 80's-era cable staple in which nerdy high-schooler Scott Baio acquires telekinetic powers and uses them to pop the tops of his classmates. Also featuring Heather Thomas, Heather Thomas’ body double, Felice Schachter (and whatever happened to her, by the way?), Eddie Deezen and Scatman Crothers, who did this film right after working with Stanley Kubrick on “The Shining” in a move that must have given him some pause.