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DVD Reviews for 6/17: We're gonna need a bigger column

by Peter Sobczynski

In which your faithful scribe takes a look at a couple of avowed classics, a couple of underrated gems and one of the flat-out weirdest adaptations of a comic ever put before the cameras. And for you duller and less adventurous folk, there is some crap with Will Smith listed as well.

The late Italian filmmaker Mario Bava is best remembered by critics, fellow directors (he influenced any number of Italian directors, most notably Dario Argento, and the likes of Martin Scorsese, Joe Dante and Quentin Tarantino have also sung his praises) cult-film fanatics for the baroque and ultra-stylish horror films that he produced through the Sixties and Seventies–titles such as “Black Sunday” (a witchcraft opus generally regarded as one of the all-time greats), “Blood and Black Lace” (a gory mystery that anticipated the slasher-film genre by a decade) and “Twitch of the Death Nerve” (a jet-black 1972 gore comedy that was plundered by Sean Cunningham eight years later for a little thing called “Friday the 13th.” However, he didn’t work exclusively in the horror ghetto for the duration of his career–he also took stabs at such genres as the Viking film (“Knives of the Avenger” and “Erik the Conqueror”), the sex comedy (“Four Times That Night”), the western (“Roy Colt and Winchester Jack”), the crime drama (the great, never-released “Rabid Dogs”) and the sci-fi thriller (“Planet of the Vampires,” a 1966 film that can now been seen as a key influence on Ridley Scott’s “Alien”).

Bava was one of those filmmakers whose genius was simply not recognized in its time and so, as a result, he frequently had to take on projects that he might not normally have chosen simply to keep working. One such project came his way in 1967 when producer Dino De Laurentis approached him about doing a film version of a popular Italian comic strip called “Diabolik.” De Laurentis’s plan was to have it shoot concurrently with “Barbarella,” another comic-strip adaptation that he was planning in Europe at the same time. Bava agreed–he would be working with the largest budget of his career ($3 million dollars) and it would be a step up from his previous work-for-hire effort, the Vincent Price-Fabian vehicle “Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs”–and set off to make the film. History has not recorded De Laurentis’s reaction when he saw what his $3 million (actually, the notoriously-frugal brought it in for merely $400,000–the rumor is that De Laurentis offered Bava the chance to direct a sequel using the savings as the budget) but I suspect that it left even the famously effusive producer momentarily speechless for it is simply one of the most bizarre films ever to be put in front of a camera–a shotgun marriage between a stylish caper film and an especially ingenious James Bond adventure. It is so flamboyantly strange, sexy and silly, in fact, that it makes “Barbarella” look positively staid and normal by comparison.

Set in an undetermined time in the near-future in a generic European country, the film stars John Phillip Law (who also appeared in “Barbarella”) as Diabolik, a master thief who goes about acquiring his ill-gotten gains with a variety of elaborate tools that would turn Batman green with envy. However, don’t be fooled for a second because despite his criminal behavior, he winds up being the hero of the piece–sure, he steals millions of dollars in the blink of an eye, kills those who get in his way and blows up all of the country’s financial institutions when the authorities have the temerity to offer a reward for his capture, but it is okay because he pulls off most of his crimes in order to impress and arouse the hot-to-trot girlfriend (Marisa Mell) who enjoys rolling around with him in a bed covered with money. No, the bad guys are the police and the mob who join forces to rid themselves of a common problem by setting a trap that they know he won’t be able to resist a crack at–a 20-ton gold ingot that represents the nation’s entire treasury. It all ends with a jaw-dropping climax that needs to be seen to be disbelieved–even the legendarily daffy finale of “Twitch of the Death Nerve” pales in comparison. (However, newcomers to the film should avoid watching the trailers included on the disc, both of which prove that the art of blowing the ending of a movie in the previews in not a new phenomenon.)

All of this is absurd nonsense and the only way to go about telling such a story is to simply go for broke and find a style as over-the-top as the subject matter and that is what Bava does here. Everything–from the cars to the locales to the costumes to the Ennio Morricone score–is done in a highly stylized manner that is perfectly keeping in tone with its comic-strip source material. The result is a flashy bit of pop-art genius that still dazzles the eye nearly four decades later where its influence can be felt in such items as the Beastie Boys video “Body Movin” (which is included here as an extra, along with commentary by Adam Yauch) and Roman Coppola’s “CQ,” a film set in the mid-1960's Italian film industry chronicling the making of a film not unlike Bava’s. Admittedly, Law and Mell (who got the part when Bava fired the previously-cast Catherine Deneuve) are pretty much blanks in their central roles but they are such gorgeous blanks that you don’t really notice.

Although “Danger: Diabolik” was once featured on “Mystery Science Theater 3000" (it was the basis for the final episode of the long-running series), it is probably the best film (in terms of quality) that the ‘bots got a chance to watch during their imprisonment. A cult classic that has been hard to see in its original form for years, it makes its DVD debut in a surprisingly packed (considering its age and obscurity) edition. Besides the aforementioned trailers and music video, the disc also features a short featurette in which a number of the film’s fans explaining the reasons behind their devotion and a commentary track from John Philip Law and “Video Watchdog” founder/Bava historian Tim Lucas discussing the strange history behind the project. For a list price of only $14.95, this is one of the best bargains around for a film that deserves a place of honor on the DVD shelf of anyone who likes to watch films that are off the beaten path.

Written by Dino Maiuri,Brian Degas, Tudor Gates and Mario Bava. Directed by Mario Bava. Starring John Phillip Law, Marisa Mell, Michel Piccoli, Adolfo Celi and Terry-Thomas. 1967. 100 minutes. Rated PG-13. A Paramount Home Entertainment release. $14.95


AU HAZARD, BALTHAZAR (The Criterion Collection. $29.95): Robert Bresson, the ultra-austere creator of such films as “L’Argent” and “Pickpocket” is routinely hailed by critics and filmmakers as one of the all-time great directors. This is not a view that I share–while I can appreciate the artistry behind his work and I can intellectually approve of what he does, the simple truth is that his films, for the most part, bore me to tears and I am someone with an avowed fondness for incredibly arty foreign films. That said, I will admit that this 1966 effort, which follows the birth, life and death of a simple donkey (who is, of course, meant to represent all humans), is one of his more successful and affecting efforts. While it may still be too pretentious for most viewers (and despite what the plot description might suggest, it is not a kiddie flick), it is probably the best and most accessible introduction to Bresson and his admittedly unique body of work

CASINO: 10th ANNIVERSARY EDITION (Universal Home Video. $22.98): Largely dismissed by critics and audiences in 1995 as a pale imitation of his immortal “Goodfellas,” Martin Scorsese’s look at the rise and fall of the Mob in 1970's-era Las Vegas through the eyes of a professional gambler (Robert De Niro), a violent thug (Joe Pesci) and the dame that inevitably comes between them (Sharon Stone) is a great piece of filmmaking in its own right. While the earlier film provided a soldiers-eye view of gangster life, this is an obsessively detailed look at the nuts and bolts of the gambling industry that is never more fascinating than when it minutely illustrates how the casinos take your money and where it goes after leaving your pocket. Although not as spectacular an anniversary edition as one might have hoped (no Scorsese commentary, for example), it is still a welcome and long-overdue reissue of a film that is definitely worth rediscovering.

A DIRTY SHAME (New Line Home Entertainment. $27.95): Many have noted that the title doubles as a fairly apt description of the film itself. Although the notion of John Waters doing an NC-17 comedy about a group of sexually-obsessed weirdos (including Tracy Ullman and Johnny Knoxville) exploring their fetishes sounds like it can’t fail, it squanders a promising premise by transforming it into a limp attempt at satire that will satisfy only those who have a desire to see Selma Blair sporting absurdly large fake breasts. However, this may still be worth a rental because Waters does contribute a commentary track and his commentaries are generally more entertaining than most actual films.

HEAVEN CAN WAIT (The Criterion Collection. $29.98): No, not the Warren Beatty comedy of the same name. This is the 1943 Ernst Lubitsch classic in which the late Don Ameche (in one of his best performances) stands before Satan and narrates an account of his life in a desperate attempt to prove that he really deserves to spend eternity in Hell, not realizing that he was actually a better man than he lets on. A great comedy of manners that is a welcome addition to the too-slim collection of Lubitsch works on DVD.

HITCH (Columbia/Tri-Star Home Entertainment. $29.95): It is depressing to realize that until a few weeks ago, this limp Will Smith romantic comedy was the top-grossing film of 2005. I guess it just proves that people all over like to be reminded from time to time about just how lame white people really are on the dance floor.

JAWS : 30th ANNIVERSARY EDITION (Universal Home Video. $22.98): Not just the greatest monster movie ever made. Not just the single finest work that Steven Spielberg has given us in his long and generally fruitful career. Simply put, this is one of the greatest American films of all time–a compulsively watchable entertainment of the highest order that is as funny, scary and thrilling today as it was when it first rattled viewers in 1975. If you disagree, feel free to never read this column again.

KWIK STOP (Genius Products. $19.95): One of those small-scale indie efforts that slipped through the distribution cracks, the DVD debut of this 2001 charmer should hopefully expose it to the larger audience that it deserves. It starts off as a familiar tale of a small-town boy (writer-director Michael Gilio) and girl (Lara Philips) who meet and make vague plans to head off to the coast to begin a new life, only to take several wholly unexpected turns that will surprise even the most jaded viewers.

PRIME CUT (Paramount Home Video. $14.95): This 1972 semi-spoof of sleazy exploitation films from acclaimed director Michael Ritchie (best known for such social satires as “Smile” and “The Bad News Bears”) is one of the most strangely entertaining films of his eclectic career. Super-cool thug Lee Marvin is sent out to Kansas City to investigate the goings-on at a mob-controlled slaughterhouse, only to discover that the man in charge (Gene Hackman) is a white slaver who keeps his women penned up like pigs and has a tendency to lower his enemies into a meat grinder and sell them as hot dogs. Notable for containing the first screen appearance by Sissy Spacek and a sequence in which she and Marvin are chased through a cornfield by a thresher that is a perfectly-edited masterpiece of action and humor. Fans of Quentin Tarantino’s blend of brutality and weirdo humor will no doubt eat this film up, even though they may find themselves leaving hot dogs off the menu for a while.

THE STAR (Warner Home Video. $19.95): A fairly blatant 1952 rip-off of the classic “Sunset Blvd,” in which an Oscar-winning actress, whose career has hit the skids, desperately tries to restart her career as well as her personal life. Since the actress in question is played by Bette Davis, whose own career had already endured a similar trajectory by this point, her presence lends a strange, documentary-like feel to the proceedings that keeps the story relatively grounded even when her histrionics threaten to send it spinning into camp heaven.

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originally posted: 06/17/05 13:38:54
last updated: 06/25/05 03:23:39
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