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DVD Reviews for 4/29: Stooges, Skanks and a Genuine (?) Work of Art!

by Peter Sobczynski

Although he was dismissed for a long period of time by some critics as a one-shot wonder who made only one great film (and they even tried to take that achievement away) and wasted the rest of his career on fluky projects (many of which were so tenuously financed that they wound up being abandoned due to lack of funds), it is now clear that Orson Welles was one of the all-time great filmmakers and one whose urge to create provocative and challenging works flowered over the decades despite the innumerable obstacles placed in his path. One of the most provocative and challenging (and, not doubt as a result, one of the least-seen) was his 1972 curiosity “F for Fake,” a documentary (for lack of a better word) that is so jaw-dropping in its effortless ability to subvert viewers that even Charlie Kaufman would walk away from it with smoke curling out of his ears.

Though no summation could begin to do it justice, the film is Welles’s exploration of reality, illusion and the thin line that tries to separate the two. Initially, he focuses of two subjects who became infamous for skirting the boundaries of truth–art forger Elmyr de Hory and his biographer, a man named Clifford Irving who, you may recall, made headlines of his own for forging a biography supposedly written by the reclusive Howard Hughes. However, there is more–much more (including the suggestion that Welles may be making up good chunks of the material as well)–and the film becomes a dizzyingly audacious exercise that will force anyone who watches it to challenge their own notions of what “the truth” really means.

Although simply making this fairly obscure film available to the masses would be cause enough to rejoice, the folks at Criterion have gone the extra mile for this, their first DVD release of an Orson Welles film, with a 2-disc gem filled with extras that will satisfy the most ardent of Welles scholars. There is, for starters, a second feature-length film, “Orson Welles: One-Man Band,”: which chronicles the history of his many unfinished films and features many tantalizing clips (including his 1967 effort “The Deep,” which was eventually made in 1989 as “Dead Calm”). A 52-minute documentary and a “60 Minutes” segment delve further into the lives of de Hory and Irving and there is even the audio transcript of a 1972 press conference called by Howard Hughes himself to deny any knowledge of the so-called autobiography. Most startling of all is the epic 9-minute trailer that Welles devised to sell “F for Fake” to audiences–a short film that is closer to a surreal work of conceptual art than a mere ad and is as bold and compelling as the film that it was created to promote.

Written by Orson Welles & Oja Kodar. Directed by Orson Welles. Starring Orson Welles, Oja Kodar, Elmyr de Hory, Clifford Irving, Francois Reichenbach and Pablo Picasso(?). 1972. 88 minutes. Unrated. $39.95. A Criterion Collection release.


ALANIS MORISSETTE: VH-1 STORYTELLERS (Rhino Home Video. $14.98): Do you suppose she’ll tell the one about her and the doughy guy from “Full House”?

(New Line Home Video. $27.95): Although very few people caught this drama, inspired by actual events, during its brief theatrical run last winter, those that did were lucky enough to catch Sean Penn’s electrifying portrayal of a down-on-his-luck man whose fruitless pursuit of the American dream drove him to attempt to hijack a plane in order to pilot it into the White House. For my money, his work here is far more powerful and moving than the award-winning histrionics of his “Mystic River” performance. And since someone wrote in complaining that I have said enough nice things about Naomi Watts, I will add that she turns in equally effective work in a smaller role as Penn’s ex-wife.

BLADE: TRINITY (New Line Home Video. $29.95): Despite including such appealing oddities as Parker Posey (as Dracula’s henchwoman) and a vampire Pomeranian, this latest installment in the saga of the half-man/half-bloodsucker/all-dope is just as idiotic as the others. Surprisingly, star Wesley Snipes barely seems to appear in the film–much of the story is instead devoted to the adventures of the younger, prettier (and presumably less expensive) vampire hunters played by Ryan Reynolds and Jessica Biel.

DARKNESS (Dimension Home Video. $29.95): Now that the 14 minutes of footage that the brains at Miramax/Dimension decided to remove from this long-shelved Anna Paquin/Lena Olin horror film in a desperate attempt to snare a PG-13 rating (not that it helped at the box-office) have been restored for this DVD edition, perhaps it might actually begin to make a little more sense. Okay, probably not, but it can’t be any worse than the botch that played theatrically last winter.

LEMONY SNICKET’S A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS (Paramount Home Video. $29.95): One of the happier cinematic surprises of 2004–a film created as a marketing juggernaut along the lines of the “Harry Potter” franchise that somehow turned out to be a creepy, funny and completely entertaining wonder for audiences of all ages thanks to its irresistible combination of cheeky dark humor, elaborate sets and a wild performance from Jim Carrey that redefines the term “scenery-chewing.”

LEONARD PART 6 (Columbia/Tri-Star Home Video. $19.95): After my epic dissection of “The Pirate Movie” a few weeks ago, several people have inquired as to whether I planned on doing the same thing for this infamous 1987 Bill Cosby comedy flop (which actually bombed bigger that year for Columbia than “Ishtar”), in which he tried to parlay his TV popularity towards a witless spy spoof in which he, if memory serves, has to battle a evil genius who is hypnotizing animals to do her bidding. The answer is no–while I love giving detailed analyses of crappy 80's movies as much as the next guy (and I cannot wait for the eventual DVD premiere of “Stone Cold”), this one is so dreadful that it defies description. This isn’t just the low-water mark on Cosby’s filmography (yes, that includes “Ghost Dad” and “Jack”)–this is the low-water mark on the filmography of co-star Joe Don Baker. Sadly, the disc is bare-bones–I was hoping for a clip of the “Tonight Show” appearance, ostensibly made to plug the film that he produced and co-wrote, in which Cosby told America just how terrible he felt it was.

(Warner Home Video. $19.95): While I have never claimed to be the biggest Doris Day fan, I bow to no one in my admiration for this surprisingly dark 1955 musical biopic that featured her in a highly credible performance as torch singer Ruth Etting, whose career was both helped and harmed by the twisted affection shown her by a brutal Chicago gangster (memorably portrayed by James Cagney). For those of you who feel more affection for Day’s work, this disc also appears as part of a new box set featuring seven other films of hers (including “The Pajama Game”) making their DVD debuts.

THE PLOT AGAINST HARRY (New Video Group. $26.95): When writer-director Michael Roemer created this extra-dry, low-key comedy, in which a low-level gangster (Martin Priest) realizes that times have changed after a stint in prison and struggles mightily to go legitimate, audiences in 1969 didn’t know what to make of it and it disappeared without a trace. In 1989, thanks to a happy convergence of events, it got a second chance and art-house audiences responded happily to its sly comedic rhythms. Sixteen years after that, it finally hits DVD and it is still as fresh and hilarious today as it was back then. Trust me, if you have the wit and good taste to have read up to this point, you will love this gem of a sleeper as much as I do.

SOUP TO NUTS (Fox Home Video. $9.95): Now here is a real curiosity for fans of old-time comedy–a 1930 feature film written by the legendary Rube Goldberg and featuring the screen debut of vaudeville performers Ted Healy and His Stooges–better known as Moe Howard (billed here as “Harry Howard”), Larry Fine and Shemp Howard (as the film was made before Curly joined the group). Difficult to see for a long time, this was restored a few years ago and broadcast on AMC (back when they were worth watching) and now makes its home video debut in a version that is surprisingly good-looking, considering its age. (Note: despite what the packaging says to the contrary, the presentation is in glorious black-and-white and not the color that is indicated.) It is best seen today as a curio but it does contain some nifty sight gags, courtesy of Goldberg, and is perhaps the best film record remaining of the Stooges vaudeville act–including Larry’s immortal “elevator dance.” (Stoogemaniacs will be giddy to learn that this week also marks the release of the slightly-less-than-immortal “Snow White and the Three Stooges”–a film that features too little punching and entirely too much figure-skating from star Carol Heiss.)

WILD THINGS 3-DIAMONDS IN THE ROUGH (Columbia/Tri-Star Home Video. $24.95): I don’t know–“Wild Things” and the number 3 made for a good combination at least once before as I recall.

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originally posted: 04/29/05 13:27:49
last updated: 05/12/05 08:00:36
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