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DVD REVIEWS (Week of 11/19)

by Peter Sobczynski

When it was published in 1974, E.L.Doctrow’s historical kaleidoscope “Ragtime” became an instant literary phenomenon and when it was announced that Robert Altman (then riding high from “Nashville”) would be directing the film version, it was widely assumed that the eventual film would be just as big of a sensation. Sadly, that turned out to not be the case.

Although his facility for bringing together social commentary, numerous plot threads and dozens of characters made Altman the ideal choice, he unfortunately followed up “Nashville” with the flop “Buffalo Bill and the Indians”-unfortunately, the producer of that film, the infamous Dino De Laurentis, also held the rights to “Ragtime” and immediately took it away from Altman. Then, he hired Czech director Milos Forman, who had made a hit out of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and a flop out of “Hair”, in place of Altman. Forman appalled fans of the novel when he announced that, instead of trying to incorporate all of the various storylines (which would have required a film about the length of the “Lord of the Rings” saga), he would focus on only one-the siege of a firehouse by a formerly mild-mannered pianist (Howard Rollins Jr.) whose car was destroyed by the racist fire chief in charge. When the film was finally released in 1981, it was given an indifferent ad campaign that focused solely on the brief presence of James Cagney, appearing on the big screen for the first time in 20 years, and tossed into a holiday market in which only “On Golden Pond” and a re-release of “Cinderella” proved to be successful. (Some of the other flops included “Pennies From Heaven”, “Reds” and “Neighbors”.) The film flopped so hard, in fact, that it virtually disappeared from view in subsequent years; even the relative success of the Broadway adaptation failed to revive interest in it.

Although the idea of a mega-sized adaptation of “Ragtime” remains tempting (and Altman is still available), Forman’s version is a more-than-worthy stab at the book. Although streamlined considerably, Forman and screenwriter Michael Weller still managed to get a sense of the full scope of Doctrow’s novel, aided by strong performances from a huge gallery of actors (including Brad Dourif, Mandy Patinkin, Elizabeth McGovern, Donald O’Connor, Kenneth MacMillan and Norman Mailer). And while his screen time is brief, Cagney is a knockout as the police inspector who sizes up the fire chief responsible for the hostage situation and remarks, in that inimitable voice, “People keep telling me…you’re a worthless piece of slime!” Happily, despite the bath they took on the film when it first came out, Paramount has seen fit to give the DVD a few nice extras despite the bare-bones price. There is a commentary by Forman, a short featurette on the production of the film and even a deleted scene-though it is admittedly marred by the presence of Fran Drescher. One of the great, underrated films on the 1980’s, “Ragtime” is well worth rediscovering.

Written by Michael Weller. Directed by Milos Forman. Starring James Cagney, Howard Rollins Jr., Brad Dourif, Elizabeth McGovern, Pat O’Brien, Donald O’Connor, Mandy Patinkin and Norman Mailer. 1981. 155 minutes. Rated PG. A Paramount Home Video release. $14.95


THE BEST OF MANDY MOORE (Sony Music Video. $19.98): Go ahead- laugh if you must. Of all the bubblegum popsters on the charts today, Moore is the only one who makes music that doesn’t hurt to hear once you hit voting age. The collection collects her video hits (including “Candy”, “Cry” and the excruciatingly catchy “I Wanna Be With You” and also contains a CD of her greatest hits as well. For those who prefer their video collections to be a little more arty in nature, “Peter Gabriel-Play” (WEA. $19.99) contains all of the groundbreaking clips for one of the first singers to show that a music video could be more than just a commercial.

BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER-THE COMPLETE SEVENTH SEASON (Fox Home Video. $59.98): Although the final season of the beloved TV show was somewhat uneven, it did pick up steam towards the end and came up with a finale that was actually worthy of the series. Since the success of “The Grudge” would suggest that Sarah Michelle Gellar won’t be doing a reunion show anytime soon, fans will have to be satisfied with finally having the entire series on disc. Further TV-on-DVD developments include “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: The Complete Series” (Universal Home Video. $79.98), the hideous sci-fi show that warped an entire generation with the invention of the ultra-annoying robot Twiki, and two sets comprising the entire run of “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse” (Image Entertainment. $49.95 each), perhaps the last truly great bit of Saturday-morning programming for kids and adults alike.

ELF (New Line Home Video. $29.95): Worth it just to hear Will Ferrell confront a department store Santa with the instant holiday catchphrase “You sit on a throne of lies!”

FOUL PLAY (Paramount Home Video. $14.95): A flashback to the days when Chevy Chase had a film career, this pseudo-Hitchcock romantic comedy still holds up pretty well today because of the charming chemistry between Chase and Goldie Hawn. Sadly, no bonuses at all on this release; is Chase saving everything for that Criterion edition of “Under the Rainbow”?

THE IRON GIANT: SPECIAL EDITION (Warner Home Video. $19.95): Before Brad Bird created “The Incredibles”, he made this equally wonderful 1999 animated film that was critically hailed but utterly ignored by the viewing public, mostly because of the prejudice at the time against any animated film that didn’t have the Disney seal of approval. In this Fifties-set charmer, a lonely young boy befriends a robot from outer space, unaware that the machine in question is actually a weapon. Funny, touching and gorgeous to look at, this is a gem begging to be rediscovered this holiday season. (As a bonus, it also contains the best performances to date from Jennifer Aniston, as the kid’s harried mom, and Vin Diesel, as the robot.)

LIVE AID (Warner Music Vision. $39.95): The legendary 1985 famine relief concert, featuring many of the top acts of the day performing from London’s Wembley Stadium and Philadelphia’s JFK Stadium, finally makes its long-awaited home-video debut. However, devotees will be disturbed to learn that only 10 of the approximately 18 hours of music made it onto the 4-disc set. While many of the highlights remain (including a killer U2 set and Mick Jagger and Tina Turner doing a striptease duet of “State of Shock”), fans of the Hooters and Rick Springfield will find themselves out of luck. Even more annoying is the deletion of two-thirds of Bob Dylan’s show-ending set of three tunes with Keith Richards and Ron Wood; sure, it was perhaps one of Dylan’s worst performances (a combination of too little rehearsal, too much drink on the part of Richards and Wood and an absence of sound monitors), but it was Bob Dylan-also, it was an off-hand comment muttered during the set that inspired the Farm Aid concerts. Hopefully a “Live Aid 2” set will emerge at some point to rectify this error.

THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD (MGM Home Video. $29.95): Isabella Rossellini as a double amputee with glass legs filled with beer, a Depression-era competition to find the saddest song in the world and other similarly strange sights and sounds. These are some of the things that Guy Maddin presents in his jaw-dropping film, one of the most beautifully bizarre works of cinema in recent memory.

SHORT CUTS (The Criterion Collection. $39.95): Robert Altman’s 1993 masterpiece, combining several short stories by the late Raymond Carver into a “Nashville”-like epic of emotions, was one of the greatest American film achievements of the Nineties and this two-disc set is a more-than-worthy monument to its achievements. Usually one of the more loquacious directors, Altman chose not to do a commentary for this particular film but there are so many bonus features, including the excellent documentary “Luck, Trust and Ketchup”, a second documentary on Carver, a 1983 audio interview with the author, deleted scenes and even a book including the short stories that inspired the film, that you will hardly notice its absence. This is another essential disc from Criterion, who seem intent on topping themselves with each successive disc.

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originally posted: 11/19/04 16:27:03
last updated: 11/27/04 04:07:30
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