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DVD Reviews for 2/4: Twisted Legends, Sassy Witches and Talkative Tchotchkes

by Peter Sobczynski

Today, the legendary “gonzo” journalist Hunter S. Thompson is pretty much a shell of his former self and is best known for inspiring both the Duke character in “Doonesbury” and any number of lousy college newspaper writers who wrongly assumed that all they needed to do to produce great writing was to string together incoherent sentences with lengthy description of all the drugs and booze they were allegedly consuming. This is a shame because when Thompson was working at his peak in the late 1960's-early 1970's, his writing had a power that can still be felt decades after their initial publication. He saw what he perceived as a world gone wrong and fought back the weirdness in kind with articles filled with outrage, sadness, humor and a facility for putting feelings into words (occasionally quite profane) that could make even the most accomplished writers turn green with jealousy. (For anyone seeking proof, I can heartily recommend his seminal collection “The Great Shark Hunt,” which features the best bits from his most fertile creative period.)

Largely overlooked when it was released in 1980 and all but forgotten today, “Where the Buffalo Roam” was a strange attempt by Hollywood to bring his work to the big screen. The film was a largely free-form, greatest hits compilation inspired by some of his best-known bits, following him from Haight-Ashbury drug trials to the Super Bowl (which he restages in a hotel room with several midgets and sofa cushions) to the 1972 presidential campaign, where he finds himself at one point interviewing Nixon in a public restroom. Tying them together is the strange relationship between Thompson, portrayed by Bill Murray, and his loyal radical attorney Karl Lazlo (Peter Boyle) as they bounce from adventure to adventure by inhaling chemicals and exhaling pure weirdness.

At the time, critics (including Thompson) hated the film for turning his work into just another post-“Animal House” slob comedy, but it hindsight, it does have its share of redeeming qualities. While too much of it is pointed at a sitcom level, it does make an effort to capture the quicksilver changes of the era, most evidently in the way that it depicts “Rolling Stone” magazine (called “Blast” here) as it developed from a quirky radical read into a slick publication that fully embodied the culture that was designed to rebel against. That said, there are a lot of funny moments in the film (I especially like the bit where he is simultaneously driving through the streets of San Francisco and typing his way out of another deadline crunch) and even the occasional thoughtful point as well. Best of all is the surprisingly effective work from Bill Murray, in one of his earliest screen roles; like Jamie Foxx in “Ray,” his work her is not just a dead-on impression but a full performance that eerily captures the different facets of the man, even when the film itself isn’t always up to that challenge.

One word of warning: although the film retains the nifty score composed by Neil Young (in his first bit of film work), the good folks at Universal Home Video apparently decided not to pony up for the rights to some of the more expensive soundtrack songs heard in the original theatrical release (including tunes from Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix) and replaced them with cheaper cuts. Granted, it was probably too much to ask for a full-on special edition, but they could have either sprung for the original songs or indicated on the package that the soundtrack had been altered.

Written by John Kaye. Directed by Art Linson. Starring Bill Murray, Peter Boyle, Bruno Kirby and Rene Auberjonois. 1980. 100 minutes. Rated R. A Universal Home Video release. $12.95


BAD GIRLS: EXTENDED EDITION (Fox Home Video. $9.98): Because I never miss a Drew Barrymore western.

THE BLUE LAGOON/RETURN TO THE BLUE LAGOON (Columbia/Tri-Star Home Video. $19.99): Just think of it as “Lost” without the polar bear but with a lightly-clad Milla Jovovich, a trade that I would willingly make any day of the week.

THE BODYGUARD: SPECIAL EDITION (Warner Home Video. $19.99): Well, twelve years after the inexplicable success of this enormously successful romantic thriller, Kevin Costner has gone from a sure-thing star to box-office poison and Whitney Houston has transformed herself from an impossibly glamorous thrush to a walking, talking car wreck, to use the terms “walking” and “talking” loosely. The movie, by the way, sucks, so I guess that some things haven’t changed after all.

BROADCAST NEWS (Fox Home Video. $14.98): Well, maybe holding off the release of this film to hitch a ride on the “Spanglish” bandwagon wasn’t such a hot idea after all. Nevertheless, this is still James L. Brooks’s finest film to date, featuring two great performances from Holly Hunter and Albert Brooks, a lot of big laughs (Brooks’s flop-sweat scene is still a classic) and observations about the ways in which the once-proud network news organizations have been steadily decimated by an emphasis of style over substance remains, depressingly, as relevant today as it was in 1987.

CHARIOTS OF FIRE: SPECIAL EDITION (Warner Home Video. $26.99): If anyone doubts the powerful effect that music can have on a feature film, just imagine how dull this inexplicable Oscar winner (which I still cannot believe triumphed over the likes of “Reds,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” or “Atlantic City”) would have been without the then-innovative Vangelis score to push it along.

CHARMED: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (Paramount Home Video. $49.99): I was going to cook up some kind of elaborate joke involving the old saying about the weather being colder than a witch’s teat and the lightly-clad witches portrayed by Shannen Doherty, Holly Marie Combs and Alyssa Milano . . . then I kind of got distracted by the cover photo.

THE GRUDGE (Columbia/Tri-Star Home Video. $29.95): All I am going to say to those of you who made this lame, decidedly unscary (unless you are paralyzed with terror at the notion of someone sneaking up behind you and saying “BOO ” for 90 minutes instead of bored annoyance) remake a smash hit is that when the next couple of years are crammed with even weaker rip-offs launched into production in its wake, you will have no one to blame but yourselves.

THE KARATE KID COLLECTION (Columbia/Tri-Star Home Video. $36.95): Do you suppose that there is any truth to the rumor that Annette Bening is sending copies of this set to every Oscar voter to usurp Hilary Swank’s chances?

THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN (Fox Home Video. $9.98): One of those incredibly cool cop movies from the 1970's that somehow managed to slip through the cracks. Walter Matthau, of all people, is surprisingly effective as a tough-as-nails policeman attempting to unravel the mystery of a bus massacre that resulted in the death of his partner. For those who had planned on picking up the other Matthau crime-movie release of the week, Don Siegel’s “Charly Varrick,” until discovering that the bastards at Universal only put it out in a pan-and-scan edition, this will serve as a more than adequate substitute.

NIGHT AND THE CITY (Criterion. $39.95): The last few months have been a boon for fans of old crime films and this lesser-known classic from Jules Dassin deserves to stand tall among them. In London, a small-time expatriate hustler (Richard Widmark, in one of his best performances) itches to become a bigger fish in the pond and brings disaster upon himself when he tries to out-hustle the syndicate by breaking into the business of boxing promotion. Criterion is also releaseing Dassin’s 1949 film “Thieves Highway,” the last film he made in America before being forced to relocate to Europe as a result of the blacklist.

THE PALM BEACH STORY (Universal Home Video. $12.95): All I will say is that if this 1942 classic from Preston Sturges doesn’t reduce you to fits of hysterical laughter, you simply have no taste for comedy.

RAY (Universal Home Video. $29.95): The ongoing coronation of Jamie Foxx continues . . .

SHE HATE ME (Columbia/Tri-Star Home Video): Spike Lee’s worst film to date (and yes, I have seen “Girl 6 and “Crooklyn”), this unholy blend of ham-fisted social satire, outrage over corporate excesses and a perception of lesbianism that even Bob Guccione might have questioned is so awful that it almost needs to be seen to be disbelieved. To remind yourselves that Lee can, in fact, direct a decent movie, this week also sees the release of a special edition of his 1988 musical “School Daze” ($19.98), a title that tends to get overlooked despite the fact that it remains one of his more inventive, if not completely successful efforts.

VANITY FAIR (Universal Home Video. $29.98): Although beautifully photographed, Mira Nair has inexplicably transformed William Makepeace Thackeray’s caustic critique of social-climbing “heroine” Becky Sharp (Reese Witherspoon) into a you-go-girl celebration of that very same behavior. The result plays less like an adaptation of the novel than an adaptation of a typical issue of the magazine of the same name.

WONDERFALLS: THE COMPLETE VIEWER COLLECTION (Fox Home Video. $39.95): Easily the best new television program of 2004, a hilarious comedy-fantasy about an overeducated underachiever (the wonderful Caroline Dhavernas) whose Brown University education is being put to use working at a Niagra Falls gift shop until she is forced out of her shell when inanimate objects and trinket begin talking and ordering her to perform mysterious tasks. Perhaps because a brief description doesn’t begin to do it justice, perhaps because it was dismissed as a clone of “Joan of Arc” (though it was actually developed and produced first) or perhaps because it was simply too smart to be broadcast on Fox . . . whatever the reason, it only lasted on the air for four weeks before disappearing. This collection, a must for fans, contains all 13 episodes, including the 9 that were never broadcast, along with commentaries, documentaries and other bonuses. Though I am not sure how much longer it could have sustained the premise if it had continued–remember what happened when the similarly quirky “Twin Peaks” went on a little too long?–the episodes collected here are pure, unadulterated genius from start to finish.

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originally posted: 02/04/05 15:19:47
last updated: 02/05/05 07:53:16
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