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DVD Reviews for 1/7. SPECIAL M.I.A. EDITION
by Peter Sobczynski

The early-January malaise that hits the film industry every year–the syndrome where the studios clear their shelves of their known dogs in the hopes that audiences will be so starved for new product that they will drop a few bucks on even the shoddiest-looking films–appears to have spread to the DVD format as well. Knowing that most consumers are probably still paying off their Christmas purchases, the pickings for the next couple of weeks are mighty slim. “How slim?”, you may ask. So slim that the big releases for this week include “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle” (which is amusing but disposable), the first complete first season of “Las Vegas” (which, in true sucker-bet fashion, claims to be “uncut and uncensored” in order to lure in horndogs with the promise of nudity that most likely doesn’t exist), “Troy” (which would have been regarded as the worst epic of the year if not for “Alexander”) and the inexplicable “Baby Geniuses 2 (featuring a fistfight between Jon Voight, at a low point in his career, and Scott Baio, at a high point in his). If any of you out there are giddy for these titles, swell, but I suspect that you have far more free time on your hands than is really healthy.

Instead of coming up with profundities about those titles, I am going to try something different . . . a list of films that aren’t yet available on DVD at a time when even the likes of “The Pirate Movie” is getting the kind of treatment once afforded only to the likes of “Grand Illusion.” Everyone has their own personal list of dream titles–the ones that they would lavish Criterion-like special editions on if they had the power–and these are mine. This is by no means a complete list of my favorite MIA titles. Even after limiting myself only to titles that have had no concrete release announcement and consciously avoiding such famously unavailable films as “Song of the South,” “El Topo,” “Hellzapoppin,” “Renaldo and Clara” and “The Star Wars Holiday Special,” I was still unable to find room on my list of ten for such classics as “A Face in the Crowd” or “American Boy” or “The Chairman” or the immortal “Megaforce” and I am certain than some of you will log onto the message board to remind me of other titles that I missed. Nevertheless, these are ten dream DVDs that I would willingly camp out overnight outside of the megastore of my choice in order to snag the first copy for my collection.

THE FABULOUS BASTARD FROM CHICAGO (?): I have never seen this film before, I have no idea who made it or if it still even exists and all that I know about it comes from the epic-length trailer that I saw for it on a DVD from the good folks at Something Weird. As far as I can tell, it appears to be a soft-core (though I suspect it may actually go harder as things progress) knock-off of “Bonnie and Clyde” and the TV version of “The Untouchables” following the rise and fall of a bed-hopping bootlegger. It is no doubt pretty awful and whatever entertainment values remain are most likely strictly camp in nature. However, is there a person out there reading this who wouldn’t honestly thrill to have a title like that amidst their collection? I think not.

ISHTAR (1987): Critically and publicly roasted when it first came out, this infamous Warren Beatty-Dustin Hoffman box-office bomb has definitely aged well to the point where an argument could be made for it as one of the great American comedies of the 1980's. While the basic storyline is a pastiche of the old Hope-Crosby “Road” movies, the more cutting humor in Elaine May’s screenplay about America’s bumbling involvement in Middle East politics hasn’t dated a bit in the ensuing years. Even those without any interest in political humor will get a kick out of the hilarious, deliberately awful songs (written by May and Paul Williams) sung by the stars (a horrendous nightclub act who can only get a booking in Morocco), a great performance by Charles Grodin as a sleazy CIA agent and a joke about vultures in the desert that is still one of the funniest jokes I have ever heard in a movie. Get May, Beatty and Hoffman to do a commentary about the film and its checkered history and I guarantee this would be one of the best discs of the year.

KING LEAR (1987): Jean-Luc Godard’s infamous, if barely-seen, riff on the famed play (not an adaptation by any stretch of the imagination) is one of his great works-gorgeous to look at, hypnotic in the way that it tries to find new ways to approach the art of cinema and intriguing in the number of famous people who found themselves involved in the project (including Norman Mailer, Burgess Meredith, Woody Allen, Julie Delpy, Leos Carax and Molly Ringwald–though not Quentin Tarantino, as some would have you believe). More important, the sound systems on most home theaters should be able to do Godard’s intricate soundtrack the justice that it was denied on the muddy videotapes that were briefly available long ago.

LAND OF THE PHARAOHS (1955): The great Howard Hawks was renowned for working in pretty much every known film genre during his long directorial career (and usually wound up making one of the definitive films of those very genres); this effort about the construction of the Great Pyramid of Khufu the Cheops was his stab at doing a wide-screen historical epic. When it was originally released, it was critically derided for its stilted dialogue (partially contributed by no less a figure than William Faulkner) and a surprisingly draggy pace from the man who gave us the breakneck likes of “His Girl Friday” and “Bringing Up Baby”. Those flaws still exist but the film has a lot of cool stuff to make it irresistible to anyone with a taste for cheesy epics–lots of weird bald guys with their tongues removed, pits of hungry alligators, a hugely entertaining performance from Joan Collins as the chief villain (she was never nastier or sexier than she was here) and the kind of finale–in which the pyramid is finally sealed for good–that is so thrilling that it would make even the worst film worth watching.

LISZTOMANIA (1975): During the 1970's, madman Ken Russell was responsible for some of the wildest, weirdest movies ever made–works so absolutely bewildering that efforts like the rock-opera “Tommy” and the LSD-influenced sci-fi extravaganza “Altered States” would wind up seeming like two of his more sedate films. One of his favorite approaches was to use the life of a famous dead personality as a springboard for him to put his strange fantasies on the screen (such as “The Music Lovers” and “Valentino”) but none were as trippy as this loose-to-promiscuous look at the life of composer Franz Liszt, concentrating on his antagonistic relationship with Richard Wagner. At first, Russell seems to be illustrating the fact that people like Liszt were the rock stars of their day (a fact underlined by casting authentic rock god Roger Daltrey in the role–on the one hand, he did previously appear in Russell’s “Tommy,” on the other hand, “Tommy” required no spoken dialogue) but anyone going into this expecting another “Amadeus” (which made a similar point a few years later) will soon find themselves wrestling with a bizarre potpourri including rocked-up versions of Liszt’s hits, Wagner as a neo-Nazi vampire who is later reincarnated as a Frankenstein monster whose electric guitar shoots bullets as it plays (at one point, we see him staging a pogrom while “playing” “Ride of the Valkyries”), Liszt saving the day in his laser-powered rocket ship and the sight of Ringo Starr playing the Pope. Easily one of the most demented films ever made and I would dearly love a DVD of it, if only so I could retire my laserdisc version (yes, I actually bought the laserdisc) and prove to people that I am not making any of what I have said up. Dream bonus: a commentary track with Russell and his attorney explaining how his biopics managed to avoid massive libel lawsuits.

LA LUNA (1979): After the one-two punch of “Last Tango in Paris” and “1900 , filmgoers all over the world waited with bated breath for the next effort from Bernardo Bertolucci, but few of them could have possibly expected what he emerged with–a wildly overscaled melodrama about a recently widowed opera singer (Jill Clayburgh) who takes her junkie son () to Italy and goes to extreme lengths to ease his tortured soul. The result was deplored by critics, ignored by audiences and pretty much brought Clayburgh’s post-“An Unmarried Woman” stardom to a crashing halt. It is overblown and occasionally quite ridiculous but what saves it from Golden Turkey status is the fact that Bertolucci, fully aware that he was long overdue for a backlash, apparently decided to go for broke and come up with the most audaciously strange film possible. The result is a mess–a grand and glorious mess that could only come from the mind of a truly great director. Even if you can’t swallow the sometimes-hysterical histrionics (this film isn’t set in the world of opera for nothing)

MERIDIAN-KISS OF THE BEAST (1990): If you have seen this Sherilyn Fenn-starrer on cable, then you know exactly why I have this on my list.

POLICE SQUAD (1982): There have been so many television shows of varying quality getting the DVD treatment in recent months (did anyone really need the complete set of “Saved By the Bell: The College Years”?)that it is surprising that this, the single funniest show in the entire history of the medium, has yet to appear. Although short-lived (exactly six episodes), this attempt by the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker trio to replicate their “Airplane ” success on the small screen was a hysterically funny deconstruction of cop shows, the semi-iconic presence of Leslie Nielsen and anything else that they could cram into 22 minutes. How funny was this show? It inspired the classic film “The Naked Gun ” and even that pales in comparison to the genius of the original. The dream disc would also include the “celebrity guest death” that was filmed by John Belushi but scrapped when he died the day after the show premiered.

QUINTET (1979): 2004 was a great year for fans of maverick director Robert Altman–it saw the release of such key films as “California Split,” “3 Women,” “Tanner ‘88 , “Secret Honor” and “Short Cuts.” Now that most of his acknowledged classics have appeared, his more offbeat works will hopefully get a chance to shine as well. One of my favorites is this decidedly weird sci-fi allegory about the denizens of a frozen wasteland (whether it is the future Earth or a parallel world is one of the many things never explained) whose denizens pass the time by playing an inscrutable board game (where the ultimate penalty is death) until a mysterious stranger (Paul Newman) arrives and inadvertently shakes things up. Absolutely impenetrable, I will admit, but it is gorgeous to look at and so damned odd that it can’t help but exude a strange hold on anyone who encounters it. Come on, Criterion, this film deserves the care you lavished on your other Altman releases.

UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD (1991): At the close of the 20th century, with a crashing satellite threatening life as we know it, a strange man (William Hurt) goes on a mysterious, globetrotting odyssey while pursued by an aimless woman (Solvieg Dommartin) whom he encounters while on his journey in Wim Wenders’s odd riff on “Around the World in 80 Days.” Best known for his so-called road movies such as “Kings of the Road” and “Paris, Texas,” this long-standing dream project was meant to be Wenders’s ultimate excursion in the genre–he literally filmed it all over the world on six different continents in over 20 cities. Unfortunately, when it was released in America, it was in a severely truncated 156-minute version (it was a little longer overseas) and not in the nearly 5-hour cut that he originally envisioned. Even in its shortened version, it is an extraordinarily beautiful and thoughtful work and it also features one of the all-time great soundtracks (including tunes from U2, R.E.M., Patti Smith, Robbie Robertson and Talking Heads for starters). Wenders has restored the film to its original length and it has played at a few retrospectives to great acclaim; supposedly, Anchor Bay was set to release this in America last year but those plans seem to have fallen through. Someone needs to pick this up because DVD, with its instant access, seems to be the perfect medium for it–you can put it on and get lost in Wenders’s beautiful dream.

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originally posted: 01/07/05 11:09:16
last updated: 01/09/05 07:16:29
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