|by Peter Sobczynski
After a few weeks of fairly meager pickings, the DVD/Blu-ray scene perks up considerably as a number of must-have items, including one of the best shows currently on television, the hi-def debuts of a number of all-time classics and even a legendary baseball game of note. Add in a couple of gory cult favorites, a contemplative western, a shameless plug and one of the films on the short list for the title of Worst Movie Ever made and the end result is a column with something for practically everyone.
A few weeks ago, in a move that can be read as either a momentary lapse of reason of epic proportions or a desperate attempt to evade the onslaught of a significant natal milestone by proving that I could still show that I was vaguely hip and with it in regards to what the kids are into these days, I found myself recording my very first podcast for a show entitled The Director's Club, a program in which a guest critic is invited to join the co-hosts in discussing the works of a specific filmmaker. Of course, for this particular episode, the format was changed somewhat to bring on a second guest whose opinion of the director in question was the opposite of mine and since the subject of the discussion was none other than Brian De Palma, the man behind such bloody, thrilling, darkly amusing and controversial films as "Carrie," "Blow Out" and the wildly underrated "Femme Fatale." I am not entirely sure how the show as a whole turned out--my opponent was so fiercely anti-De Palma (at least the ones that he had seen) that it was often like talking to a foul-mouthed brick wall and the taping ran so long that by the end, when said opponent, after dissing De Palma for being nothing more than an empty stylist who was only capable of ripping off Alfred Hitchcock, went on to praise the likes of Richard Franklin and Russell Mulcahy as cinematic geniuses, I was too pooped to point out the hypocrisy of celebrating the guys who made "Psycho II" and "Ricochet." over the guy who made "The Untouchables."
If the show proved anything, and I am not certain that my contributions did much in that regard, it was that De Palma and his films still have the ability to inspire passionate and occasionally downright hostile arguments decades after they made their initial debuts. Underlining this even further are the Blu-ray debuts of two of his most notorious works, the 1980 suspense thriller "Dressed to Kill" and the 1983 gangster epic "Scarface." Both of these titles have been seen, analyzed, parsed and dissected by fans, foes and critics since they first came out but to watch them today, one does not get the sense that these are museum pieces that have inevitably lost some of their punch over the years. Instead, they feel just as fresh and feisty as ever and all the buttons that De Palma gleefully pushed in his efforts to provoke viewers still elicit powerful reactions. At a time when commercial American filmmaking has grown more and more homogenized in an effort to reach the widest possible audiences without alienating or offending them in the process, it is a little staggering to discover that movies as edgy and provocative as these could have ever been allowed to flourish and a little depressing to see how toothless they would have to be if they were produced today, not that many studios would be likely to fund them in the first place.
"Dressed to Kill" stars Angie Dickinson as Kate, a frustrated Manhattan housewife with a loving science geek of a son (future filmmaker Keith Gordon), a distant oaf of a husband and a libido running on overload. After a session with her shrink, Dr. Elliott (Michael Caine), in which she makes a failed pass at the doctor who pushes her away because of professional reasons, she goes to a museum and, in an absolutely spellbinding and largely silent extended sequence, she meets a handsome stranger and engages in a flirtatious game of cat-and-mouse that ends with the two falling into a passionate embrace in the back of a cab to his place. Afterwards, she discovers a really bad piece of news and flees his apartment, only to discover that she has left her wedding ring behind. Unfortunately, when she goes back to retrieve it (Big Huge Spoiler Alert! for those of you who haven't seen the film in the last 31 years), she runs afoul of a mysterious blond with sunglasses, a long coat and an exceptionally sharp straight razor. What transpires is witnessed by Liz (Nancy Allen), a charmingly pragmatic hooker who has difficulty convincing the police (including a then-unknown Dennis Franz) of what she saw and she winds up teaming up with Kate's grieving son to track down the killer. Also on the hint is Elliott, who is concerned when it appears that the killer is a patient of his and is even more concerned to discover that it may be his razor that was used.
When the film came out in the summer of 1980, it was slammed by many people for being nothing more than a knock-off of Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho," a feeling exacerbated by an ad campaign that dubbed him the "modern master of suspense" only a couple of months after Hitchcock's death, and for being misogynistic for the way that it depicted women being terrorized in exceptionally nasty ways that seemed to be elaborate and star-filled versions of the mindless mad-slasher movies that were clogging theaters at the time. Yes, it is obviously inspired by "Psycho"--the film does open and close with shower scenes, after all--but unlike the numerous copycats and wanna-bees that have emerged in its wake, De Palma hasn't so much ripped off that classic as he has used it as a springboard for a narrative framework that allows him to explore at length some of the various obsessions that have driven him as a filmmaker over the years--voyeurism, the pleasures and perils of sexuality and technology and the notion that things aren't always what they initially seem to be being chief among them--with the end result being a film that works both as an homage and as a unique work in its own right. As for the claims of misogyny, De Palma is no more guilty of hating women than any other suspense storyteller who has discovered over the years that more tension can be generated with a seemingly helpless female character being pursued by an unknown entity than a seemingly brave and capable male. The difference is that most of those other pretenders were so shoddy and artless--to call them "misogynist" would be to inadvertently assign them a gravitas that they simply haven't earned on their own--that it was easy for most people to write them off as brain-dead trash and ignore them completely--De Palma, on the other hand, composed his suspense scenes with such a potent blend of sex, violence and visual acuity that they cut much deeper (no pun intended) than the run-of-the-mill trash and this is what bothered so many of his opponents--he allowed them to fully embrace his dark and twisted vision and it rattled them to the core.
"Dressed to Kill" proved to be a surprise hit at the box-office, despite the competition from the heavily-hyped "The Shining" and the out-of-nowhere "Friday the 13th," and De Palma used the clout that he had accumulated as a result to produce his next film, a 1981 conspiracy thriller called "Blow Out" that would reunite him with the now-famous John Travolta, whom he had given a key early role to in "Carrie." Although the film would prove to be the finest work of De Palma's career, the combination of serious-minded drama, one of the most decidedly downbeat finales to grace any film of the decade and a release date that placed it right in the middle of a summer season dominated by such lighter fare as "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "The Great Muppet Caper" and "Chu Chu & the Philly Flash" caused it to flop at the box-office and he was forced to look for a less personal and more overtly commercial prospect for his next project. Happily, just such a thing came his way in the form of "Scarface," a remake of the 1932 classic gangster saga from director Howard Hawks and screenwriter Ben Hecht, In updating the saga chronicling the swift and violent rise and fall of a fearsome Prohibition-era gangland figure (loosely inspired on the infamous Al Capone), screenwriter Oliver Stone (then best known as the Academy Award-winning writer of "Midnight Express" and the director of a couple of silly horror items of little note) set his tale in Miami during the massive cocaine-fueled crime epidemic that hit the city in the early 1980's. This time around, Tony Montana (Al Pacino), a Cuban criminal released by Fidel Castro and sent to America as part of the 1980 Mariel boat lift that he used as an excuse to empty his prisons and asylums, arrives in Miami with a ruthless desire to make it in his new country at all costs. Naturally, he drifts into crime and despite a few hiccups (such as a drug deal that goes chainsaw-torture bad), he becomes a rising star in the organization run by local crime lord Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia). However, Tony wants it all--money, power and Frank's glamorous-but-cold girlfriend (Michelle Pfeiffer in one of her first major roles)--and quickly bests Frank at his own game. Alas, greed, paranoia, jealousy and an overindulgence in his own product just as quickly overtakes him and, in one of the most jaw-dropping climaxes in all of American cinema, Tony faces down an army of rival henchmen with nothing more than his bravado, his "little friend" and so much cocaine in his bloodstream that he barely notice when the machine gun fire rips into him.
When it was released in December of 1983, it was lambasted from practically all sides--moralists recoiled at the excessive profanity, drug usage and bloodshed (De Palma waged a long battle with the MPAA after they initially gave it the commercially disastrous "X" rating), critics were aghast that anyone would dare remake such a hallowed film classic and derided Pacino's performance as being wildly over-the top (Roger Ebert was one of the very few to give it a rave review at the time) and audiences, hearing that it was long and filled with unpleasant characters, largely stayed away in droves. In subsequent years, however, it has gone on to become a cult classic and a perennial high-seller on home video and while part of that is due to the fascination that both the film and the character of Tony Montana have generated among the hip-hop community for reasons that somewhat defy logical explanation (the character is, after all, a none-too-bright sociopath who somehow gains it all and then loses it largely as the result of his own stupidity), it is also due to the fact that later audiences were better able to grasp that the excessive nature of the film, ranging from everything from the blood to the language to the running time, was a conscious choice on the part of De Palma and Stone. In researching the project, they came to realize just how insane the cocaine industry was and created a storyline that would capture the look and feel of that particular lifestyle--a quiet, sober and restrained view of this particular scene would not have worked at all. At the same time, while there is plenty of on-screen violence, De Palma also uses his staggering gifts as a visual stylist to create the illusion at key points that he is showing more brutality than is actually on display--in the infamous chainsaw sequence, we hear horrible sounds and see brief spatters of blood but, a la Hitchcock and the shower scene from "Psycho," we never see the weapon actually coming into contact with flesh. Of course, there is no such restraint when it comes to Al Pacino's performance as Tony and the film is all the better for it. Essentially, "Scarface" is operatic in its approach and as a result, it needs a similarly unrestrained actor at its center who can start off at such a high pitch and then maintain it for nearly three hours of screen time. Amazingly, Pacino pulls it off and the sight of him pulling out all the stops and then some is absolutely mesmerizing. In later years, Pacino would be criticized by many for his frequently hammy and overblown performances but this is one where that particular style meshes perfectly with the material and helps transform the film into a kind of demented masterpiece.
As mentioned before, both "Dressed to Kill" and "Scarface" are making their Blu-ray debuts and both look and sound fantastic--"Scarface" in particular is a grandly gaudy revelation that hasn't looked this good since its original theatrical release. As for bonus features, neither one is exactly teeming with the kind of fresh extras that were put together for the recent Criterion version of De Palma's "Blow Out." "Dressed to Kill" contains all of the special features put together for its DVD release a decade ago--the uncut version of the film that was released in Europe containing slightly more sex and violence, a short featurette highlighting the differences between the two versions an extensive documentary on the making of the film featuring interviews with De Palma (who famously doesn't do commentaries), Angie Dickinson and Nancy Allen, a short feature on the controversy surrounding the film on its original release and a brief appreciation of the film and De Palma by co-star Keith Gordon. As for "Scarface," it also carries over all the extras from previous editions, including a making-of documentary, deleted scenes and featurettes on the battle that De Palma waged with the MPAA and its surprising resolution, how the notoriously vulgar dialogue was sanitized for television viewings (often with hilarious results) and its impact on the world of hip-hop culture. The set also includes a set of lobby card reproductions and, best of all, a DVD of the original 1932 version of the film thrown in for good measure.
DRESSED TO KILL (MGM Home Entertainment. $24.950
SCARFACE (Universal Home Entertainment. $34.98)
NEW AND NOTABLE
BASEBALL'S GREATEST GAMES: WRIGLEY FIELD SLUGFEST MAY 17, 1979 (A&E Home Entertainment. $12.99): In conjunction with Major League Baseball, A&E has begun releasing DVD's of the original television broadcasts of some of the most indelible and legendary ball games of the last half-century or so. While individual fans will each have their own favorites, my pick would have to be this game between my beloved Chicago Cubs and the Philadelphia Phillies that, thanks to a ridiculouslu strong wind blowing out of Wrigley Field, saw the the score rise to astronomical levels (including no less than three home runs from my all-time favorite player, Dave Kingman) before being settled in extra innings. I actually remember seeing this game on television when I was but a wee lad and even though it did end (Spoiler Alert!) unhappily, I suspect that the sheer insanity of what unfolded that day is what helped to make me a fan for life despite the subsequent decades of anguish and heartbreak.
CAPTAIN AMERICA (MGM On Demand. $19.95): Back in 1990, B-movie maven Albert Pyun attempted to bring the famous Marvel Comics superhero to the big screen in an adventure that had the WWII hero thawed out in modern times in order to do battle with longtime nemesis Red Skull. Thanks to a lame script, wooden performances and a budget flirting with penury, it didn't work out so well and spent the subsequent decades languishing in bootleg video versions at conventions until the release of a new take on the character this summer inspired MGM to put it out as part of their new video-on-demand program. Not surprisingly, it wasn't very good then and has not aged well at all and indeed, the most intriguing thing about it is the notion that since the title role was essayed by Matt Salinger, it is entirely likely that his father--the late J.D. Salinger--most likely had to watch it at some point as well. Other cult-oriented titles part of the latest MGM On Demand wave include the Walter Hill-penned cop thriller "Hickey & Boggs," the biker epic "The Glory Stompers," the Jules Verne adaptation "Master of the World" and the MST3K favorite "The Incredible Melting Man."
A CINDERELLA STORY: ONCE UPON A SONG (Warner Home Video. $27.98): In this contemporary riff on a classic fairy tale whose name currently escapes me, "Pretty Little Things" star Lucy Hale stars as a sweet-but-oppressed (though always salon-perfect) lass with golden pipes who is forced to utilize her singing voice to help her evil step-sister become a pop star. Filled with forgettable songs, non-threatening boys and other such nonsense, this will probably become a slam-book favorite among less-discriminating tweens but anyone who has made it past junior high is likely to find it tough going.
CITIZEN KANE (Warner Home Video. $49.92): I am just going to assume that you have heard of this one and simply move on. Of course, if you somehow haven't, I don't know whether to encourage you to check it out post-haste or simply lay heaps of withering scorn upon you--probably a little of both.
COMMUNITY: THE COMPLETE 2nd SEASON (Sony Home Entertainment. $39.99): While it usually takes most sitcoms at least a season or two to fully hit their strides, this instant classic following a group of reluctantly close-knit students at a lackluster community college pulled it off by the halfway point of its debut season. As a result, the second season, collected here along with the usual slew of commentaries, deleted scenes and general weirdness, came on with all cylinders firing and the combination of classic sitcom byplay, in-jokes and meta-goofiness galore anchored by a stellar cast (featuring Chevy Chase in what may be the funniest performance of his entire career) makes it not only arguably the funniest show currently on television (only "Curb Your Enthusiasm," "30 Rock" and "Parks & Recreation" come close) but the combination of high quality and low ratings puts it alongside the likes of "Newsradio" and "Arrested Development" as among the funniest shows that most people inexplicably refuse to watch. Other newly available TV-related DVDs include "The Big Bang Theory: The Complete 4th Season" (Warner Home Video. $44.98), "Blue Bloods: The First Season" (Paramount Home Video. $64.99), "Camelot: The Complete First Season" (Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. $49.98), "Criminal Minds: Season 6" (Paramount Home Video. $62.99), "Fringe: The Complete 3rd Season" (Warner Home Video. $59.99), "Glee: The Complete Second Season" (Fox Home Entertainment. $59.98), "The Good Wife: The Second Season" (Paramount Home Video. $62.99), "Grey's Anatomy: The Complete Seventh Season" (Walt Disney Home Entertainment. $45.99), "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia: Season 6" (Fox Home Entertainment. $39.98), "No Ordinary Family: The Complete Series" (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $29.98), "The Office: Season Seven" (Universal Home Entertainment. $49.98), "Outsourced: The Complete Series" (Universal Home Entertainment. $39.98), "Parks & Recreation: Season Three" (Universal Home Entertainment. $39.98), "Private Practice: The Complete Fourth Season" (Walt Disney Home Entertainment. $39.99), "Rescue Me: The Complete Sixth Season" (Fox Home Entertainment. $45.95), "Sanctuary: The Complete 3rd Season" (E1 Entertainment. $59.98), "Spartacus: Gods of the Arena" (Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. $39.98), "Supernatural: The Complete 6th Season" (Warner Home Video. $59.99) and "Two and a Half Men: The Complete 8th Season" (Warner Home Video. $26.99).[br]
CONAN O'BRIEN CAN'T STOP (Magnolia Home Entertainment. $26.98): After getting the boot from NBC as the host of "The Tonight Show" in favor of reinstating Jay Leno and legally prohibited from appearing on television for several months as part of his massive severance package, Conan O'Brien went on a nationwide comedy tour and this documentary follows him around onstage and off as he goes about the very serious business of making people laugh. Although I kind of wished that the film would subvert the documentary format in the way that his show goofs on the conventions of television at its best and most surreal moments, this is still a solid and pretty funny film nevertheless, though your mileage will obviously depend on your feelings towards the subject at hand.
EVERYTHING MUST GO (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $27.98): Having made uneven attempts in the past to demonstrate his talents as a more serious actor in the likes of "Winter Passing" and "Stranger than Fiction," professional goofball Will Farrell dials it down a few notches in this adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story of an alcoholic who, after losing his job and coming home to find his wife gone and his possessions on the lawn, proceeds to hold a yard sale to sell off his things and, if he isn't careful, perhaps find the strength to begin anew. Not a great movie--certainly not in the class of the classic Carver adaptation "Short Cuts"--but it is a worthy effort and Farrell's performances is smart and genuine enough to show that there really is an actor lurking behind the frequently braying lug from all those dopey comedies.
THE EXTERMINATOR (Synapse Films. $29.95): Vietnam vet Robert Ginty just wants to be left alone but when thugs attack his best friend, he sets off to get revenge on the bad guys in the nastiest and goriest ways possible, including burnings, beatings and one memorable sequence involving a meat grinder. Yes, this is gruesome and ridiculously super-violent trash but as these things go, it is done pretty well here thanks to the surprisingly efficient direction by James Glickenhaus (who would go on to helm the equally impressive action favorites "The Soldier" and "Shakedown") and still packs a bit of a punch today, especially in the uncensored version included here. Put it this way--don't expect to find this on Roger Ebert's Netflix queue anytime soon.
HANNA (Universal Home Entertainment. $29.98): The notion of an action thriller suggesting what "The Bourne Identity" might have been like with the hero replaced by a deadly teen girl and directed by the guy best known for making the genteel likes of "Pride & Prejudice" and "Atonement" might sound like a recipe for absolute disaster but in the hands of Joe Wright and gifted young actress Saoirse Ronan, what might have been an implausible mess is transformed into a consistently exciting and surprising thriller that is helped along by nice supporting performances from Cate Blanchett and Eric Bana, deft action sequences, a nice sense of humor and a trippy Chemical Brothers score. Yes, the ending leaves the door open for a sequel but this is one of those times when such a notion feels like a promise instead of a threat.
LOVE WEDDING MARRIAGE (IFC Films. $24.95): Proving once again that Mandy Moore and matrimony don't mix, at least cinematically, this dreadful and barely-released effort (the directorial debut of Dermot Mulroney, for what that is worth) finds her playing a brilliant marriage counsellor whose finds her life and work turned upside down when her parents (James Brolin and Jane Seymour) announce that they are getting a divorce and that her own husband (Kellan Lutz) had a heretofore unmentioned previous marriage of his own. Dumb, plodding and never particularly romantic or funny--two elements that are generally required for a romantic comedy--the best thing to say about this extended "Love American Style" sketch is that it is at least slightly more watchable than the disastrous and distasteful Moore vehicle "Swinging with the Finkels."
MEEK'S CUTOFF (Oscilloscope. $29.99): Having worked together previously on the wonderful indie drama "Wendy & Lucy," director Kelly Reichardt and actress Michelle Williams reteamed for this brilliant minimalist western in which she plays a member of a small party being led across the Oregon Trail by a glib-talking guide (Bruce Greenwood) who seems to be taking them nowhere slow, either out of incompetence or malevolence. Those looking for standard-issue genre thrills will most likely be taken aback by Reichardt's refusal to indulge in such things--there are maybe two gunshots in the entire film and the deliberate pacing makes "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" seem like "Silverado" by comparison--but as cinematic depictions of the mundane reality of the Old West go, this one feels absolutely authentic through and through and the addition of another fascinating performance from Williams (arguably one of the best American actresses of any age working today at this point) makes it a must-see for more adventurous and open-minded viewers.
MST3K: MANOS--THE HANDS OF FATE (Shout! Factory. $24.97): It is likely that before 1993, only a hardy few souls had ever heard of this bizarre 1964 horror item, produced on a micro-shoestring by Texas fertilizer salesman Hal P. Warren, about a family whose vacation goes slightly awry when they inadvertently land on the doorstep of a Satanic overlord, his cut-rate harem apparently culled from a herd of astronaut wives-in-training and lovably loathsome handyman Torgo and are plunged into a never-ending (and I do mean never-ending) nightmare of monumental unpleasantness. Then the film managed to make its way to the folks at "Mystery Science Theatre 3000," the cable show favorite dedicated to goofing on half-forgotten cinematic clunkers, and the resulting episode not only became one of the highlights of the show's long and beloved run, it exposed the film to a new and incredulous audience that has since made it a serious challenger to Ed Wood's "Plan 9 from Outer Space for the title of Worst Movie Ever Made. This 2-disc celebration of one of the great oddities of cinema presents the MST3K episode, interviews with the people behind the show discussing the history of the film and the experience of trying to make fun of it and, as a bonus feature that will have people either jumping for joy or hiding under the bed in fear, the second disc features the original film in all its unexpurgated glory to be experienced riff-free, if you dare, that is. Fun Fact: "Manos," is, of course, Spanish for "hands" which means that the title is actually. . .well, you know.
STAR WARS: THE COMPLETE SAGA (Fox Home Entertainment. $139.99): I am going to assume that you are familiar with this particular entry and move on, except to note that, all additions and futzings aside, "Star Wars" and "The Empire Strikes Back" remain absolute classics of the genre, "Revenge of the Sith" is a reasonably well-made piece of entertainment and "Return of the Jedi," "The Phantom Menace" and "Attack of the Clones" pretty much continue to suck runny eggs to this day.
THOR (Paramount Home Video. $29.99): In this adaptation of the semi-beloved second-tier Marvel Comics title, the titular Norse god (Chris Helmsworth) is banished from his world for being a dick to the lowly orb known as Earth where, duly inspired by the need to regain his powers and the need to get with cutie-pie Natalie Portman, he learns humility just in time to save the planet from some damn thing or another. Of the comic-book movies that debuted during this past summer, this was not quite as good as "X-Men: First Class" but it was better and more consistent than "Captain America" or that "Green Lantern" nonsense--with all the origin nonsense out of the way, perhaps the inevitable sequel (not counting the "Avengers" mash-up) will be able to come up with a more compelling storyline to build on the goodwill this one generated among viewers simply by not sucking as much as was initially feared.
3 WOMEN (The Criterion Collection. $39.95)
THE 10th VICTIM (Blue Underground. $29.98)
40 DAYS AND 40 NIGHTS (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $14.99)
BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER (Fox Home Entertainment. $24.99)
THE CAINE MUTINY (Sony Home Entertainment. $19.98)
THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO (Walt Disney Home Entertainment. $26.50)
THE FRIGHTENERS (Universal Home Entertainment. $26.98)
HALLOWEEN II (Universal Home Entertainment. $19.98)
MY LIFE AS A DOG (The Criterion Collection. $39.95)
O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? (Walt Disney Home Entertainment. $26.50)
POLTERGEIST II: THE OTHER SIDE (MGM Home Entertainment. $19.99)
STRAW DOGS (MGM Home Entertainment. $24.99)
TRAINSPOTTING (Lionsgate Home Entertainment. $19.99)
UNITED 93 (Universal Home Entertainment. $26.98)
link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=3294
originally posted: 09/16/11 23:38:34
last updated: 09/17/11 02:38:56