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DVD Reviews for 4/11: What, Haven't You Ever Seen A Naked Woman Riding A Clam Before?

by Peter Sobczynski

Milkshakes, escape artists, sharks and Uma on the half-shell—this week in DVD has a little something for everyone. Honest!

The films of Terry Gilliam have always been marked with dogged heroes struggling to survive and triumph against overwhelming odds in wild and improbable stories that are filled with unbelievable twists and turns and a overwhelming sense of chaos that permeates virtually every frame. As fans of Gilliam’s know all too well, this description can also be used to describe the production of one of his films. Despite being hailed as one of the boldest and most visually stylish filmmakers at work in the world today, his productions have often been beset with the kind of difficulties and disasters that would cause most people to leave the movie business altogether to do something a little less stressful–working on a bomb squad, for example. In the past, he has waged a public battle with a studio that refused to release his film despite rave reviews and awards ("Brazil), saw a long-cherished project fall apart a couple of weeks into filming thanks to a combination of bad weather, bad backs (co-star Jean Rochefort developed a hernia that prevented him from riding the horse that his character needed to be astride) and bad luck ("The Man Who Killed Don Quixote," whose dismantling was captured for the cameras in the grotesquely fascinating documentary “Lost in La Mancha”) , his fantasy epic “The Brothers Grimm” found him at loggerheads with the fearsome Harvey Weinstein and resulted in that film’s release being endlessly delayed before being dumped with an ad campaign that seemed to be the textbook definition of the word “perfunctory.” Only a couple of months ago, his latest project was threatened with being shut down for good in mid-shoot when co-star Heath Ledger died before completing all of his scenes. (Happily, this was resolved when Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law signed on to take over his remaining scenes.)

And yet, all of these tales of calamity pale before what went on during the production of his 1988 epic “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” when what seemed to be a match made in cinematic heaven—master fabulist Gilliam bringing to life the adventures of Rudolph Erich Raspe’s notorious literary teller of tall tales—turned out to be a hellish production endeavor that wound up going wildly over-schedule and over-budget before being barely released by a studio that had virtually no interest in seeing it succeed since it was put into production by executives who no longer worked there. Despite all of this, the film instantly developed a loyal cult audience, consisting mostly of Gilliam fanatics and little kids who saw and loved it on cable or videotape, and as a result, Sony has bestowed upon us “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen: 20th Anniversary Edition” and while fans might have been more than satisfied with a decent presentation of the film (the earlier edition was fine for its time but was in need of an upgrade) and while they have certainly done that here—it looks and sounds better than it has in any of its previous video incarnations—but they have gone the extra mile by including a wealth of supplementary materials that tell the whole strange story about the film came to be, a tale so bizarre and unlikely that it almost seems like one of the good Baron’s sagas.

The film opens with a city under siege from invading Turks and under the thumb of a small-minded comptroller (Jonathan Pryce) who is so dedicated to the bottom line that when he is presented with a soldier who has performed above and beyond the call of duty (no fair revealing who plays him), he is ordered to be executed on the grounds that his heroics might affect the morale of his fellow soldiers. Some of the townspeople take refuge in a run-down theater where a local troupe tries to entertain them with re-enactments of some of the taller tales of Baron Munchausen. The performance is suddenly interrupted by an old man (John Neville) who not only claims to be the real Baron Munchausen but also explains that the current siege is all his fault. In order to save the day and prove that he is who he claims to be, the Baron constructs a hot-air balloon made entire of ladies’ bloomers and sets off, along with young stowaway Sally Salt (Sarah Polley in her first big-screen role) to retrieve his former cohorts (Eric Idle, Charles McKeown, Winston Dennis and Jack Purvis) and return to save the day. This kicks off an adventure that takes them from the moon, where he has a strange encounter with the Man in the Moon, (the credits claim that he is being played by one Ray D. Tutto but who looks an awful lot like Robin Williams), to the center of the Earth, where he finds himself the instigator of a lovers spat between the fearsome Vulcan (Oliver Reed) and the lovely Venus (Uma Thurman, whose first appearance on the half-shell continues to be one of the all-time great movie entrances) and into the belly of a whale before returning to

I will admit to being a Terry Gilliam fan through and through—he is that rare visionary director at a time when unique visions are at a premium—and I even adore such generally scorned efforts as “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and the darkly offbeat drama “Tideland.” And yet, if I had to pick one of his films as his finest work, I would probably have to go with “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.” For starters, it is one of the most visually astonishing films ever made—every single scene contains wonders designed to boggle the mind and pop the eye and the hand-crafted feel behind the special effects (which were, of course, done long before the advent of CGI) serves to remind us of the illustrations that originally appeared in the Munchausen stories and gives an appropriately timeless feel to the proceedings. The performances are also wonderful, a considerable achievement when you consider how easily they could have been overwhelmed by the chaos surrounding them. Neville is absolutely perfect as Munchausen—the acclaimed Shakespearian actor always manages to find the right notes to hit for the changes the character goes through as the story progresses—Reed and Williams are both hysterical in their supporting roles, Thurman is appropriately sweet and sexy as Venus (God only knows how many puberties she jump-started with her appearance here) and Sarah Polley turns in one of the best little kid performances I can recall seeing—in many ways, her character is the most grown-up and sensible of the lot and she plays on that with a grave intelligence that belies her young years and made promises that her work in films like “The Sweet Hereafter” would later uphold. Most impressively, the film has the one thing that some of Gilliam’s other works have admittedly lacked—a genuine heart. Despite the outlandishness of the proceedings, the film is really a hymn to dreamers of all ages to keep on believing in the unreasonable even when common sense would seem to suggest that it would be easier to simply conform to the mundane muddle of everyday existence. With this masterwork, Gilliam proved himself to be a cinematic dreamer of the highest caliber and long after more rational films and filmmakers have been long forgotten in the annals of time, both “Munchausen” and Gilliam will continue to delight viewers.

Many years ago, “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” received the deluxe laserdisc treatment from Criterion and when they were unable to license it to DVD from Sony, fans of the film despaired that it would never get the special edition treatment that it so richly deserved. However, while little of the material from the Criterion disc made it over here (even the brilliant trailer is a no-show), the new supplements produced for this edition are more than worthwhile and surprisingly informative. The main bonus feature on disc one is a commentary track from Gilliam and co-writer Charles McKeown telling tales of the film’s convoluted history with so much energy and enthusiasm that you would hardly believe that they were recounting events that occurred more than two decades ago—Gilliam has always been good for a splendid commentary and this is one of his best. Disc 2 kicks off with a short series of nice-but-inessential deleted scenes and then segues into a collection of storyboards narrated by Gilliam and McKeown illustrating scenes that were cut from the film in order to save time and money (including the wild original conception for the Moon sequence). However, the real keeper of the set, besides the movie itself, is the making-of documentary “The Madness and Misadventures of Munchausen,” a warts-and-all recounting of the outrageous behind-the-scenes goings-on that is just as compelling and unbelievable as the film. If you know the story behind what happened and are afraid that the good stuff would be left out in order to not potentially offend anyone, rest assured that all the key details are recounted in jaw-dropping detail. If you don’t know the story, I wouldn’t dream of spoiling a single bit of it for you but I suspect that after watching it, you will have an even greater appreciation for the film. Happily, many of the still-living key participants have contributed new interviews to the proceedings—Gilliam and McKeown, of course, but also many of the key behind-the-scenes personnel, a few of the people involved with its admittedly complicated financing and co-stars Neville, Idle, Pryce, Williams and Polley (who still seems a bit shell-shocked by the entire experience after all these years). Most amazingly, even producer Thomas Schuhly, who gets most of the blame for how the production began spiraling out of control even before it went before the cameras. Considering the fact that he is held accountable for virtually everything that went wrong (and not without reason), it is more than a little surprising to see him pop up to answer the charges and defend himself. It is just one more small surprise and delight in a DVD filled with them.

If you have seen and loved “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen,” purchasing this disc is a no-brainer—even at twice the list price, it would still be a bargain. If you hated the movie, this would be the perfect time to check it out again and perhaps reevaluate it. If you have somehow gone through your life up until this moment without having seen it before, you owe to yourself to rush out right now and watch it as soon as you can. I promise that whatever time and effort is required for you to do this, the delight that you will receive from the film will be more than worth it. Trust me—would I lie to you?

Written by Charles McKeown & Terry Gilliam. Directed by Terry Gilliam. Starring John Neville, Eric Idle, Sarah Polley, Oliver Reed, Uma Thurman, Jonathan Pryce and Valentina Cortese. 127 minutes. Rated PG. 1988. A Sony Home Entertainment release. $19.96

NEW AND NOTABLE

THE 11th HOUR (Warner Home Video. $4.95): Leonardo DiCaprio tapped into his inner Al Gore for this documentary chronicling the horrifying ways in which mankind has run roughshod on the environment as well as things that ordinary people can do in their daily lives to try to make up for some of the damage. Alas, while the film may have its heart in the right place, this collection of talking head interviews and audience hectoring is so fundamentally dull on a cinematic level that even the most devoted greenies are likely to find it a struggle to stay awake through this one.

BETTE DAVIS CENTENARY CELEBRATION COLLECTION (Fox Home Entertainment. ($49.98): If you didn’t get your fill of Bette Davis with last week’s box set of classic films from her years at Warner Brothers (and if you consider yourself to be a movie fan, how could you?), this collection of some of the high points from her work at Fox should be right up your alley. The centerpiece is a new two-disc edition of the immortal 1950 classic "All About Eve" (about which nothing more presumably needs to be said) and the other titles include the 1952 melodrama "Phone Call from a Stranger" (in which she plays a supporting role in the story of a man, played by Davis’ then-husband Gary Merrill, who survives a plane crash and goes to visit the families of the three other passengers who didn’t make it), 1955's "The Queen" (in which she reprises the role of Elizabeth I that she portrayed in "The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex" in a story that focuses on her relationship with Sir Walter Raleigh, played here by Richard Todd), 1964's "Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte" (a quasi-sequel to the gothic hit "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" with Davis going head-to-head with Olivia de Havilland this time around) and 1965's "The Nanny" (another twisted horror film in which she plays the creepy new nanny of a 10-year-old boy who is convinced that his new caretaker is trying to kill him).

BETWEEN (Porchlight. $19.98): Poppy Montgomery, possessor of one of the best names of anyone working in television today, heads south of the border for this drama in which she plays a lawyer investigating the disappearance of her sister who stumbles upon a whole lot of weirdness when the trail takes her to Tijuana.

CLASSIC MUSICALS FROM THE DREAM FACTORY, VOLUME 3 (Warner Home Video. $69.98): The latest box set of musicals from the Warner Brothers archives making their DVD debuts include "Broadway Melody of 1936" (1936), "Born to Dance" (1936), "Broadway Melody of 1938" (1938), "Lady Be Good" (1941), "Nancy Goes to Rio" (1950), "Two Weeks with Love" (1950), "Deep in My Heart" (1954), "Hit the Deck" (1955) and, the centerpiece of the collection, a deluxe edition of the 1955 classic "Kismet."

DAY OF THE DEAD (First Look Films. $28.98): Although the 2004 remake of George Romero’s 1979 zombie classic "Dawn of the Dead" turned out to be much better than expected, lightning most assuredly did not strike twice with this abysmal in-name-only take on the 1985 cult favorite of the same name, a film that asks us to swallow the twin concepts of Mena Suvari as an Army sergeant and a zombie that won’t eat his friends because he is a vegetarian. Perhaps realizing that this disaster might not lure in viewers based on its own artistic merits, First Look has chosen to adorn it with what may well be the single most disgusting DVD cover of 2008 (unless that rumored Criterion edition of "2 Girls, 1 Cup" comes to fruition) and even that is kind of a cheat since no such thing happens in the film itself.

FOG CITY MAVERICKS (Starz/Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. $19.98): Although Los Angeles is generally considered to be the filmmaking capital of America, the nearby city of San Francisco has developed and nurtured a wide range of talents over the years and this entertaining and informative documentary features interviews with many of them, including Francis and Sofia Coppola, George Lucas, Phil Kaufman, Clint Eastwood and the Pixar gang.

FORTYSOMETHING (Acorn Media. $39.99): Before he made his bones in the States bitching out med students on a weekly basis, Hugh Laurie appeared in this funny six-episode comedic series for British television in which he played a man of the title age who finds himself in the middle of a midlife crisis that takes on forms that are both expected (he is baffled by the romantic lives of his kids and is convinced that his wife is having an affair) and anything but (he become convinced he can read his wife’s thoughts and goes to elaborate extremes to sneak into a womens-only seminar).

HOUDINI: THE MOVIE STAR (Kino International. $39.95): After becoming one of the most famous men in the world as the result of his magical illusions and escape artistry, Harry Houdini went to Hollywood to make a series of films inspired by his notoriety and this 3-disc set collects the surviving titles–the 1919 full-length serial "The Master Mystery," 1920's "Terror Island," 1922's "The Man from Beyond" and 1923's "Haldane of the Secret Service"–along with the remaining fragment of a couple of other films, newsreel accounts of some of his various escapes and even an audio recording of the man from 1914.

LIONS FOR LAMBS (MGM Home Entertainment. $29.99): In another one of those war-themed films that were largely ignored by audiences last fall, even with the considerable star power of Robert Redford (who also directed), Meryl Streep and Tom Cruise behind it, the conflict is seen through the eyes of a senator who is backing it in order to further his political career (Cruise), a reporter trying to get at the truth behind it (Streep), a college professor who is passionately against it (Redford) and a couple of young men (Michael Pena and Derek Luke) who find themselves on a snowy hill in Afghanistan fighting for their lives while the others are merely yakking about it. Although far from the best film on the subject, it is slightly ahead of the curve thanks to the strong performances (especially by Cruise and Streep in their scenes together) and the surprising narrative urgency that the usually logy Redford brought to the material as director–who would have ever thought that the maker of "The Horse Whisperer" could make a film that was over and done in 90 minutes flat.

MATLOCK: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (Paramount Home Video. $49.99): In news that will no doubt send my father into spasms of delight (though I suppose that I had better double-check his medication to ensure that they are indeed spasms of delight), the long-running courtroom series featuring Andy Griffith as a amiable Southern lawyer so homespun and folksy that he makes Atticus Finch look like a slick Manhattan shyster makes its DVD debut in this 7-disc set that includes the original pilot and a two-part episode featuring a guest appearance from William Conrad that was later spun off into its own series, a little thing called "Jake & the Fatman."

P2 (Universal Home Entertainment. $26.99): In what may be this week’s lamest release starring someone whose career never quite got the bounce that one might have expected to occur after co-starring in the Academy Award-winning hit "American Beauty"–yes, it could well be worse than the "Day of the Dead" remake–Wes Bentley turns in an extra-embarrassing performance as a creepy security guard whose obsession with corporate babe Rachel Nichols leads him to trap her in a parking garage so that she will spend Christmas with him. When she essentially says "Over my dead body," he tries to oblige with a poorly conceived and badly executed series of psycho moves that only prove that a.) he is a complete idiot without the brainpower required to discern the difference betwixt Shinola and that there other stuff and b.) that seeing "Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen" must have been a key formative event in his existence. (I know–the two aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive.) Skip this one at all costs, unless you have a taste for unintentional comedy. If you do, watch this right now because you are going to bust a gut.

PAULY SHORE’S NATURAL BORN KOMICS SKETCH COMEDY MOVIE: MIAMI (Big Vision Entertainment. $19.98): Well, you asked for it and you got it–a sketch comedy movie co-written and directed by the Larry the Cable Guy of the early 90's and featuring the participation of Vivica A. Fox, Steven Bauer, Ruben Studdard and Charlie Murphy. Wait, you didn’t ask for it? Not one bit? I’m sorry, I guess there was some mistake–wait one second and someone will be with you shortly.

PERRY MASON–50th ANNIVERSARY EDITION (Paramount Home Video. $49.99): To celebrate the golden anniversary of the debut of the classic courtroom drama (which actually occurred last year), Paramount has put together this four-disc set that brings together 12 episodes from the as-yet-unreleased seasons (including the sole episode shot in color, the lone episode in which our hero lost a case and guest appearances from the likes of such famous faces as Robert Redford, James Coburn, Burt Reynolds and Bette Davis), the 1985 TV-movie reunion "Perry Mason Returns," interviews with Raymond Burr conducted by Charlie Rose and Charles Collingwood and some of the original screen tests (including Burr reading for the role of D.A. Hamilton Burger). Alas, it doesn’t contain the long-suppressed episode in which Mason defends his old pal Godzilla on charges of unlawful destruction of property.

RESERVATION ROAD (Universal Home Entertainment. $29.99): After his son is killed in a hit-and-run, college professor Joaquin Phoenix becomes obsessed with tracking down the driver and exacting revenge, not realizing that the lawyer (Mark Ruffalo) that he has hired to help him find the culprit was actually the man behind the wheel. Despite an impressive cast (Jennifer Connelly and Mira Sorvino turn up as well), the film (once considered to be a prime bit of Oscar bait last fall until people actually began seeing it) is a meandering meditation on guilt, sin and retribution that does nothing more than rehash material that was already dealt with far more effectively in such films as "In the Bedroom" and "Mystic River."

RESURRECTING THE CHAMP (Fox Home Entertainment. $27.98): A hotshot sports reporter (Josh Hartnett) in desperate need of a story learns the hard way about the rules of newsgathering when he meets a bum (Samuel L. Jackson) who claims to be an old boxing champion fallen on hard times, becomes a media sensation by reporting the man’s story and only then discovers that there may be more (or less) to his claims than meets the eye. Although well intentioned, Rod Lurie’s melodrama on the importance of journalistic ethics is pretty much a washout featuring shabby plotting and uninspired lead performances–Hartnett is basically a lump while Jackson simply rehashes his work from the infinitely better "The Caveman’s Valentine."

SENSE AND SENSIBILITY (BBC Home Video. $34.98): Although Ang Lee did what is considered to be the definitive adaptation of the Jane Austen warhorse little more than a decade ago, that didn’t stop the producers of this British television effort from taking a stab at it. This time around, Hattie Morahan is Elinor, Charity Wakefield is Marianne and the dependably bull David Morrissey is the dependably dull Colonel Brandon.

SHARKWATER (Warner Home Video. $19.98): Those of you who can’t wait for August to indulge in the goodness that is Shark Week should check out this interesting documentary from Rob in which he tries, using often stunning undersea footage, to correct the reputation that sharks have as being mindless death merchants by showing just how important they are to the entire underwater world.

THERE WILL BE BLOOD (Paramount Home Video. $29.99): No, this is not the title of the deleted scenes section from "Sharkwater." This is, of course, Paul Thomas Anderson’s wildly acclaimed loose adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s novel "Oil" in which Daniel Day Lewis turns in a career performance in a career full of career performances as an embittered prospector who makes it big in the early days of the oil business and ruthlessly sets himself against anyone who he perceives as a threat to his wealth and power, whether they be a fire-and-brimstone preacher (Paul Dano), a man claiming to be his long-lost brother (Kevin J. O’Conner) or even his own adopted son (Dillon Freasier). One of 2007's very best films, this two-disc set may lack an obvious bounty of special features (the former loquacious Anderson seems to have forsaken commentary tracks for good) but the ones included here are pretty interesting, including deleted scenes, outtakes and a short film from the silent era covering the oil business during the period depicted here. Enjoy it with the milkshake of your choice.

WALK HARD–THE DEWEY COX STORY (Sony Home Entertainment. $29.96): A surprise flop when it appeared in theaters last Christmas, this latest effort from the Judd Apatow comedy factory (he produced it and co-wrote the screenplay with director Jake Kasdan) was a spoof of musical biopics that charted the rise, fall and comeback of rock pioneer Dewey Cox (John C. Reilly) in graphic and ridiculous fashion. Although decidedly uneven, there are some really funny bits here and perennial supporting player Reilly throws himself wholeheartedly into a rare lead part with such goofball charm that he single-handedly keeps things going even when the film threatens to fall apart. This two-disc edition offers viewers an extended version that is nearly a half-hour longer than the one that played in theaters (most of the additions are amusing but inessential but the expansion of Cox’s 70's-era nadir is welcome) and also includes additional deleted scenes, a commentary from Reilly, Apatow and Kasdan, 16 full-length song performances, a special Christmas song and commercials for the indelicately named Cox Sausage.

THE WATER HORSE (Sony Home Entertainment. $29.96): In this failed bit of family-oriented whimsy, a young Scottish boy (Alex Etel) during World War II finds and befriends a mysterious creature that turns out to be none other than the Loch Ness Monster–with the aid of his sister and the new handyman (Ben Chaplin), he tries to keep this discovery a secret from his mother (Emily Watson) and a blowhard British military commander (the dependably dull David Morrissey) whose troops have been stationed at the family home. Well-meaning but weak, you would be better advised to seek out the likes of "E.T." or "The Secret of Roan Inish," two other family films that do so much more with roughly similar premises.


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originally posted: 04/11/08 02:04:45
last updated: 04/11/08 02:10:03
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